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Prestige movie roundup - ‘Mank,’ ‘Lovers Rock,’ ‘Ammonite’

by TYLER WILSON/Coeur Voice contributor
| December 19, 2020 1:00 AM

The Oscar contenders head straight to your living room this holiday season. This weekend, the acclaimed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his final film role) hits Netflix.

The streamer hopes to dominate the season with several high profile releases, including the previously released “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (pretty good), “Hillbilly Elegy” (pretty bad) and David Fincher’s “Mank.”

“Mank,” which stars Gary Oldman as “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, is the flashiest of the set, as Fincher (director of “The Social Network,” “Zodiac,” “Gone Girl”) recreates Old Hollywood with crisp, expansive black-and-white cinematography, stylish production design and costuming, and a script (written by Fincher’s late father, Jack) flooded with breezy, rat-a-tat dialogue.

As gorgeous as it looks, those expecting a traditional biopic or even some insight into the making of “Citizen Kane” will instead discover a movie about a talented-but-drunken writer pushing against the political machinations of studio filmmaking and socialist paranoia.

Oldman, reliably excellent, shares his best scenes with Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies. Their spark, as well as the conflicts that arise from her relationship with publisher William Randolph Hearst (the obvious inspiration for Kane), drives the narrative.

“Mank” isn’t trying to be “Citizen Kane” or even necessarily explain its inspiration, despite some attempts by Fincher to connect the two films stylistically. The use of flashback, for instance, jumbles the narrative in “Mank” for no compelling reason.

Still, if you love Old Hollywood, there’s plenty to enjoy in the film, except for maybe the truth about the origins of “Citizen Kane.” Nevertheless, Fincher’s commanding direction and the film’s immersion into the time period makes “Mank” a winning effort.

While it will likely compete for Emmys instead of Oscars,” Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology powers on over at Amazon Prime. The fifth and final film in the series about the immigrant community in Britain during the 60s, 70s and 80s, debuts this weekend. Each installment has been extraordinary.

I wrote about the first film, “Mangrove,” late last month. Unlike that two-hour film, the subsequent entries run much shorter, around 70 minutes each. Despite the limited time, each story comes packed with rich character moments and a thematic through lines that connect the otherwise standalone films.

“Lovers Rock,” about an 80s-era house party in West London, takes the most out-of-the-box approach. The film lingers on the dance floor for extended stretches as partygoers lose themselves to the music. In the midst of all the dancing and (sometimes off-key) singing, we also witness the spark of a new romance. Though “Lovers Rock” serves as the “lightest” in the “Small Axe” series, the film still finds specific and visually dynamic ways to spotlight racism, sexism and toxic masculinity, all while attendees jam out to “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Another installment, “Red, White and Blue” follows a young London police officer facing racism within his department while also contending with his father’s disdain for law enforcement. “Star Wars” alum John Boyega gives his best performance to date in the emotive drama.

Another strong performance by Sheyi Cole anchors the drama “Alex Wheatle,” a condensed biopic of sorts about the acclaimed YA writer. Any one of these films could be considered “Best of the Year” material. Taken together, McQueen’s “Small Axe” series is groundbreaking and essential.

Another prestige title you can rent on various VOD platforms is “Ammonite,” which stars Kate Winslet as 1800s-era paleontologist Mary Anning and the relationship she develops with a grieving younger woman (Saoirse Ronan). Winslet and Ronan, with multiple Oscar nominations between them, add life to a somewhat undercooked narrative by writer/director Francis Lee. The rainy coastal backdrop provides some nice atmosphere as well. Outside the performances, don’t expect “Ammonite” to make much of an impression in the awards chatter.

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Tyler Wilson has been writing about movies for Inland Northwest publications since 2000. He co-hosts “Old Millennials Remember Movies,” available everywhere you find podcasts. He can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.