I’ve been away. To be fair, movies have been away (for the most part), too. So perhaps I was taking advantage of the situation. I’m not going to movie theaters. In fact, this may be the longest continuous stretch of me not going to theaters…ever. Since I could walk, at least. Not going to theaters meant not seeing new movies meant not having content to review on the site, and thus…I had time to step away.
I’ve still been working, and writing, like mad. Writing a master’s thesis doesn’t sound all that bad until you realize that you have that and five or six other things on your plate. Then six months go by and you find you’ve only written about 50 pages. And no movie reviews…
I haven’t posted since covering the Fantasia Film Festival in August, and with the year winding down I hope to come up for air and post at least a handful of year-in-review pieces. If there is anything worth reviewing, that is. I don’t even know if I remember how to do this. Subject, predicate…I think I still know a few adjectives. As long as I maintain a more professional voice than my Letterboxd, I think it will be OK. All right, let’s give it a go. Let’s start with a few movies available on streaming now.
Tate Taylor’s Ava cropped up on demand midway through the year, prominently showcasing a thumbnail with Jessica Chastain holding a gun in profile. In a world where theaters were a no-go and quarantine streaming options dried up quickly, an action movie starring an A-lister looked like a fairly strong prospect. That said, I didn’t bite on the VOD price tag.
Now, as with most things these days, the film has materialized on Netflix. And, woof, did I miss a bullet when I chose not to buy Ava as a rental.
Ava has a shocking cast. The character reveals are more exciting than the action sequences, as they make the film a continual guessing game of “how did this trainwreck happen?” Suddenly, Chastain turns a corner into a hospital room and sitting there is Geena Davis. John Malkovich shows up to a boy’s christening and Colin Farrell turns around. Common pops in for a (non-)romantic B-plot. It would make a good drinking game to drink every time you wondered what these people saw in this script.
The film is the story of a “cold-hearted” assassin with an emotional past whose theatrics on jobs—namely, a necessity to get her targets to admit (or even remember) what they did to get a hit put on their head—has put her life on the line. Along the way are thinly-drawn narrative threads–the life she left behind, the specter of a father figure, and a will-she-won’t-she fall of the wagon addiction subplot. It is as boilerplate and contrived as it sounds.
Taylor is not a filmmaker I particularly care for, but he has directed competent films. Ava does not appear to want to be held in such high esteem. The editing is wild, rendering action sequences erratic or otherwise poorly staged. Focus pulling is surprisingly all over the map–fairly standard shot-reverse shot scenes occasionally leave pertinent areas of the frame in soft focus. And most importantly, the action of the film is not propped up in any way by a narrative that would provide stakes, or suspense, or excitement. Chastain and Davis make the best out of what they’re given, but they aren’t even given an inch.
Leave it to Tom Hanks to co-write what is destined to become a beloved dad movie. In Greyhound, Hanks plays a newly-minted ship commander in WWII whose naval destroyer is part of a convoy moving out of air support. Subsequent U-Boat attacks will test his mettle and his strategy as the waters become a chess game over naval lives.
The film is a lot of technical measurements being loudly relayed over radio, where any minor delay or miscalculation could cost lives. It is a deceptively simple method of raising stakes and establishing tension. Most everything in frame remains static, with an assistant listening over the radio for the radar tech and then aping that information to Hanks’ character. I know nothing about naval technology—radar, reading bearings, etc.—but it all sounded believable enough in the moment. While this static tension is the only significant string Greyhound has to play on, the rhythm achieved through it is admirable (see what I did there?).
I find the most fascinating aspect of David Fincher’s Mank to be the meta-textual reflection of its own existence. Mank is a film about the writing of Citizen Kane by Herman J. Manciewicz (Gary Oldman), affectionately known as Mank. Moreover, it is a film about taking one of the prime pieces of evidence for American auteurism and fighting to give some of that authorship credit to a less extravagant but by no means less compelling figure. It is an argument mimed in part from Pauline Kael’s essay on Kane, an argument that has been painted as dubious from various sources since the essay’s publication.
All the same, the truth of the matter is not as important to Mank as the romanticism of the craft is. The film is written by David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, whose script for the film reportedly was in development purgatory since the 1990s. This connection adds a personal dimension to the film that is hard to ignore, and it gives an extra sentimental layer that I enjoyed.
What I enjoyed less is the narrative structure of the film. The movie has a flashback structure that carries a vague yet not wholly satisfactory resemblance to Kane. Where Kane jumbles its narrative in a way that mirrors the inconstancy and unreliability of memory, Mank has a structure that produces a flurry of figures and references and incident. It is all impeccably written, from a dialogue standpoint. Oldman’s Mank is a bottomless well of clever repartee. But not all of these flashbacks cohere in a pleasant way. By the end of the film, they begin to resemble a collage of semi-related ideas from which it is difficult to produce a meaningful whole.
The movie is shot in gorgeous black and white, the brand of classical Hollywood B&W that lulls you into a sumptuous sense of comfort. I cannot deny being swept up in the film’s atmosphere. However, I failed to be swept up in the old Hollywood charm enough to forgive the meandering and occasionally indulgent narrative.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)