With the Academy Awards adding a strong diversity component for Best Picture Oscar qualification from 2024 onwards (films are obligated to include a racial “inclusion” standard in front of and behind the camera to qualify), it would be hard to imagine a film such as Mank, starring an all-white cast, making the shortlist in the future. That’s why it’s imperative that the film wins the categories it deserves to bag this year.

This feeling comes from my gut reaction immediately after watching this David Fincher-helmed film, chronicling short segments of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life.

If the name Mankiewicz sounds familiar, you may have heard of his younger brother Joseph: the director of All About Eve, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra — the brother he introduced to the industry.

The film, shot entirely in black-and-white, is hardly more than what its logline ought to have been: Herman J. Mankiewicz, recuperating from an accident that left him bound to his bed, writes Citizen Kane for Orson Welles in sixty days.

Played by Gary Oldman, Herman was secluded in a house away from Hollywood by Welles. Under duress, he had able assistance: a dedicated wife whom he seldom phoned (‘Poor Sara’ as he calls her, played by Tuppence Middleton); a German housekeeper Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and his secretary Rita (Lily Collins), who drafted the screenplay from shorthand notes.

Written by the director’s father, Jack Fincher, who died in 2003, Mank is purposely directed to be a homage to the golden age of cinema: super-imposed title scrolls with optical imbalance (note the curvature of text in the opening titles), heavy contrasts of light and shade, surreal super-imposed montages, long takes, brilliant, brilliant exposition and that oft-forgotten way of delivering lines of dialogue that made films from the ’50s so unique.

Fincher, of course, tones down the overplay, keeping his actors natural, but the drawl and the mannerism is all there.

Also on display: the sheer, ego-driven politics of the industry. Herman was a loose cannon whose tongue went off the railroad when he saw political or megalomaniac power plays in the industry. In that day and age, it wasn’t a novel practice, but Herman wouldn’t care. Maybe it was his days as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, or his career as a drama critic for The New York Times and The New Yorker that bolstered his devil-may-care attitude. Who knows! One of the few he empathised with was silent film actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, dazzling).

The people he pissed off primarily included Louis B. Mayer, the head honcho of MGM; Irving Thalberg — the young genius of the film industry who shaped MGM into a giant, and on whom Oscars named the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award; and William Randolph Hearst, a businessman, newspaper publisher and politician whose Hearst Communications today owns the San Francisco Chronicle, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and has partial financial stakes in A&E Networks and ESPN.

Herman didn’t get along with authoritarian figures in the industry, including his Oscar-winning partner Orson Welles. Citizen Kane, their only film together, is considered one of the best films in cinema, often topping lists for its newfangled vision of screenwriting, editing, direction and technical achievements; their shared win is the only Oscar award the film bagged from its nine nominations.

Such are the politics of the industry, and such is the angle Fincher frames his narrative on.

Some might call a film celebrating (and in this case, also lambasting) Hollywood a purposely manufactured project for the Oscar season, and to some superficial extent it is. But don’t let that notion get the better of you. Mank has the stamp of a proverbial classic. Be forewarned, however: brush up your Hollywood history to fully enjoy the film’s historic significance, otherwise you would be missing out on a lot.

Streaming now on Netflix, Mank is rated R for mature themes. The film is uniformly excellent

Brush up your Hollywood history to fully enjoy Mank’s historic significance. Meanwhile, The Call is a nerve-racking supernatural thriller that would probably give the best of the best of the genre a run for its money

The Call

With an atmosphere so thick that you can cut it with a knife, director Lee Chung-hyun’s The Call is a nerve-racking supernatural thriller that would probably give the best of the best of the genre a run for its money.

That is, if you can forgive the cheesy, last minute add-on in its end credits.

Lee Chung-hyun, who also screenwrites the film, could have done without the cliched extravagance, and since I haven’t seen the original The Caller (2011) — a British-Puerto Rican production that The Call adapts from — I can’t really testify if the “call” (apologies for the pun) to add the last bit was Lee Chung-hyun’s dedication to the source material or his own indulgent undoing.

Still, this is a tense thriller with a Twilight Zone-ish tilt that takes a small while to pick up its pace.

Set in the present, Kim Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye), a young woman visiting her ailing mother (Kim Sung-ryung) at their rundown rural home, finds an old cordless phone that supernaturally connects a call to 1999. On the other end of the line is Oh Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), another young girl who is often physically abused by her adopted mother, a local shaman (Lee El). Oh Young-sook lives in that very house and uses the very phone that Kim Seo-yeon uses.

The two bond but, unknown to Kim Seo-yeon (but not to the people who have seen the trailer), there is a reason why Oh Young-sook’s adopted mother keeps her under lock and key; the girl from the past is on the brink of becoming a serial killer.

On a strange whim one day, Oh Young-sook decides to help out Kim Seo-yeon by preventing the accident that would have killed the latter’s father — and so begins a mesmerising, time-bending story where the actions of the past dictate the state of the present.

The actresses are marvelous and Lee Chung-hyun, whose filmography I’ve yet to see, has a strong grip on the story, most of which is set within the confines of the house. There are surprising revelations right until the film’s climax.

Now if you could only let go of the last minute or so of the film, it would have been a classic.

Streaming now on Netflix, The Call is rated 16+. It is tense and brilliantly acted and directed

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 13th, 2020


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