Well Warner Bros. really dropped a bombshell on us last week, didn’t they?
For those who don’t know, the major movie studio announced this past Thursday that they were releasing their entire 2021 slate of films straight to their streaming service HBO Max the same day as they’re scheduled to release in theaters.
This includes upcoming blockbusters like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “In The Heights,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Dune,” and “Matrix 4.”
This news came only a couple weeks after their stunning announcement to do the same with “Wonder Woman 1984,” releasing the film on HBO Max, and in theaters, on Christmas Day.
I’m not even sure I can be surprised at this point. Heck, I wouldn’t be shocked if other major studios made similar announcements within the upcoming weeks.
For movie watchers who prefer to stay at home, this is basically a dream come true.
At the cost of a little more than the price of a single ticket at the theater, you can pay for a month of HBO and watch their latest film as many times as you want in the comfort of your own home.
I suppose I should mention a slight caveat though.
With this hybrid model, each of these movies released to HBO Max will only be available on the platform for one month. Afterwards they’ll leave the platform, but continue to play theatrically.
So in the case of “Wonder Woman 1984,” I assume you’ll have until January 25 to watch it before it’ll leave the service, and afterwards your only option to see the film will be in theaters. At least until the movie eventually releases on video-on-demand and blu-ray.
Still, that’s a whole month where you can watch a new “theatrical release” at home for only $15. Not a bad deal, especially for families or for shut-ins like I’ve become for the past nine months.
But as good as this news is for movie fans, I can’t help but worry about the ever worsening outlook for theaters.
Even if they do deliver a better movie watching experience, I can’t imagine many people passing up a deal like HBO Max to watch new Warner Bros. films. Especially with the ongoing pandemic getting worse and worse by the day.
Even after a vaccine is successfully deployed, will most people even want to go to theaters after being able to watch nearly every new movie from home?
Will studios want to deal with theaters if this business model proves successful?
Heck, will theaters even be able to survive the next six months with so few people going to the movies?
I suppose only time will tell. As of now though, the future for theaters doesn’t look terribly bright.
Speaking of the death of cinema, this week I saw two movies which would have seen a wide theatrical release any other year, but instead made their way to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
The first is the story behind the screenplay “Citizen Kane,” a movie which is now considered by many to be one of the best films of all time. Plus a film about a musician who suddenly becomes deaf and is forced to cope with the aftermath.
So without any further rambling, let’s get to the week’s reviews.
First up is “Mank.”
In the 1930s, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a.k.a. Mank, nurses a broken leg at the North Verde Ranch outside of Los Angeles. While resting there, he begins work for a young Orson Welles (Tom Burke), writing the script for “Citizen Kane,” a film that will eventually be considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
While writing, Mank reminisces about his time at William Randolph Hearst’s estate where he becomes friends with rising starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and works with legendary movie moguls David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). Experiences which find their way into his upcoming screenplay.
This right here is the movie companion I wish I could have had when I first watched “Citizen Kane” over a decade ago.
For those who haven’t heard of the film, “Citizen Kane” is quite simply one of the most revered movies in cinematic history.
Whenever people compile lists of “the greatest films of all time,” it’s a movie that is inevitably added to the mix. Both for the quality of the film itself, and for its influence on cinema as a whole.
From the movie’s nonlinear storytelling, to its use of cinematography, and even the special effects. The techniques used in “Citizen Kane” weren’t necessarily invented by its filmmakers, but it is arguably the first movie to combine them all into one film.
Even today, nearly 80 years later, the movie still holds up quite well. The methods used might seem unremarkable and commonplace by today’s standards, but you have to remember this film came out about a decade after “talkies” started to become possible.
The fact that it holds up at all is a testament to the talented people behind it.
Which I suppose brings me to this film, “Mank.”
While not a complete picture about the production of “Citizen Kane,” or even a historically accurate portrayal of events, it did give me something I felt like I was sorely lacking while watching the classic 1941 film all those years ago.
Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but when it comes to 1930-40s political and cinematic history, I’m about as useless as it gets.
Sure, I know the broad strokes and some of what lead to World War II, but I barely know anyone outside major world leaders and I certainly didn’t know much about the people involved in producing the media of that period.
And this is where the inspiration of Charles Foster Kane comes from. The main character in “Citizen Kane” is based, in part, upon American media barons like William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst may have been a recognizable figure at the time of the release of “Citizen Kane” due to his political aspirations and his ownership of dozens of U.S. newspapers, but someone like me would completely miss the obvious reference decades later.
That’s what I love about this movie. It made me want to know more about this era.
While watching the film, I must have paused it at least every five minutes, just to look up someone’s name, what they were known for, and to see how they connected to each other.
It really makes for an excellent learning opportunity, even if the movie does play fast and loose with some of the facts, most noticeably Mank’s political leanings.
While Mank is writing the screenplay for what would become “Citizen Kane,” the film frequently flashes back to the 1930s.
This includes interacting with Hearst, his mistress Marion Davies, of whom Mank becomes fast friends with, plus the studio heads at MGM.
These dealings also include a subplot surrounding the 1934 California gubernatorial election between Frank Merriam, a Republican, and Upton Sinclair, a Democratic who was a member of the Socialist Party right up until this campaign.
In the movie, MGM and its executives are hellbent on keeping Sinclair from winning, causing a rift between the studio and Mank.
This is where the film likely veers the most from the truth.
Because while it is factual that MGM produced a number of pseudo-newsreel propaganda films, created to smear Sinclair and his campaign, it seems unlikely that Mank felt nearly as sympathetic to the former Socialist candidate as this movie would claim and he definitely didn’t get as involved as this story would have viewers believe.
This is an inaccuracy I can mostly forgive, since it does lead to the film having a more cohesive and satisfying narrative. Still, I do have to admit being somewhat disappointed by how dramatically this film strays from the truth.
On the positive side of things though, the performances in “Mank” are universally fantastic all around.
Gary Oldman rarely disappoints, and he certainly doesn’t here, portraying the film’s title character as eccentric and incredibly likeable despite his many debilitating flaws including a gambling addiction and chronic alcoholism.
For her part, Amanda Seyfried was effortlessly charming as Marion Davies. She truly encapsulates the persona of the jetsetting Hollywood star during its golden age.
Though Davies and Mank never have anything remotely resembling a romantic relationship, the two of them have a wonderful chemistry whenever they’re on screen together. Like two familiar cogs in the Hollywood machine, always happy to enjoy the other’s company whenever they happen to cross paths with one another.
Beyond the acting, this movie is painstakingly crafted to capture the aesthetic of this bygone Hollywood era.
No detail was too small for filmmaker David Fincher.
Everything from audio, which was purposefully degraded to sound more analog, to the picture quality, which is black and white and filled with classic film imperfections, including the old cue marks which would signal to the projectionist that a film reel was at its end.
Heck, everytime the film flashes back to the 30s, the establishing text on screen telling the audience where and when this scene is taking place is actually seemingly written on a typewriter, formatted exactly how it would be in a movie’s screenplay.
It’s all very nerdy, and it probably comes across as a little pretentious, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless.
To be clear, while I did enjoy this movie, I really don’t think I’d recommend “Mank” outside of cinephile circles.
Unless you’re really a student of 1930-40s history, this film will likely seem like a barrage of names and events that come and go in a flash. Things that this movie often doesn’t intend to explain whatsoever.
Unless you’re willing to stop frequently and do a little research on the side, like I did, it’s likely you’ll end up lost under a sea of references, with little context to make sense of everything.
Heck, even with 20 plus tabs open on my web browser, each with a different article about a person who appears in the film, I still felt a little lost at times.
Still, if you’re willing to stick with it, I think you’d be in for a fascinating experience. One that would pair beautifully with a rewatch, or even a first time watch, of the cinematic classic “Citizen Kane.”
“Mank” is rated R and is available to stream on Netflix.
The other film this week is “Sound of Metal.”
During a series of adrenaline-fueled one-night gigs, punk-metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) begins to experience intermittent hearing loss. When a specialist tells him his condition will rapidly worsen, he thinks his music career, and his life, is over.
His bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) checks the recovering heroin addict into a secluded sober house for the deaf in hopes it will prevent a relapse and help him learn to adapt to his new situation. But after being welcomed into a community that accepts him just as he is, Ruben has to choose between his equilibrium and the drive to reclaim the life he once knew.
While it might not be quite as common as I’d like, I am very fortunate to watch a number of unquestionably excellent films every year.
Most are filled with incredible performances, captivating characters, and compelling narratives that keep me entranced from beginning to end.
To be very up front, “Sound of Metal” contains all three of those elements in spades.
However, as many great movies as I’ve seen, few have ever delivered anything like the sensory sensation I experienced while watching this film.
I don’t like to throw this phrase around flippantly, so trust me when I say that this movie is truly a work of art.
It’s kind of a no-brainer when you think about the premise, but it’s the sound design that really sets this movie apart.
This film makes the audience experience hearing, or the lack thereof, in such a shockingly realistic way, I was blown away.
While I myself haven’t quite experienced the same level of hearing loss of Riz Ahmed’s character Ruben, I do have a left ear that does oddly stay clogged, except for on rare occasions.
So from my limited experience, hearing loss isn’t like a switch that suddenly turns off all noise going in your ear holes. It’s more like the sound around you is just harder to make sense of.
You can still hear people around you talking, but the voices are harder to separate in your head, and unless you’re looking at someone’s lips it’s a lot harder to make sense of what they’re saying.
This is the experience this film nails. Honestly, it’s kind of uncanny in how accurate it all feels.
The movie often alters the audio, making you suddenly hear the world just as Ruben does, muffled and utterly incomprehensible, enhancing the isolated feeling that can only come from the loss of a basic sense.
And just as true to life is Ruben’s response to his sudden condition.
Exactly like when I have a clogged ear, Ruben goes through all the usual steps of attempting to fix his ears. He tries rubbing the area around his ear, holding his nose and blowing, and popping his jaw. All to no success.
This is when the panic begins to set in. After all, losing your hearing would be devastating to anyone, but it would be an absolute nightmare as a musician on tour.
Riz Ahmed embodies this man who’s just had his life completely turned upside down to perfection.
The emotions on display here are exactly what I imagine many of us would feel placed in Ruben’s position.
There’s a raw frustration and outright anger at his circumstances. Not only is he out of a career as a drummer, but he can’t even communicate with his girlfriend without her writing everything down.
Though not quite as frequently featured in the film, Olivia Cooke does quite well in the few scenes she has, nailing the more difficult emotional moments.
Frankly though, the other main actor that stood out to me beyond Riz had to be Paul Raci, who plays Ruben’s mentor at a community for deaf people.
As far as I can tell, Paul hasn’t had many major roles in movies beyond this one, but considering Paul is the son of two deaf parents, this seems like a case of inspired casting.
Not only is the man completely fluent in American Sign Language, but he also brings a genuine sense of compassion for a musician like Ruben who just lost his hearing, as the actor himself is a musician.
All these elements combined made for a beautiful, if occasionally bittersweet, experience that placed me firmly in the shoes of the main character like few films I’ve seen before it.
If this movie doesn’t at least earn an Oscar nomination for sound mixing, I will be sorely disappointed. Heck, Riz Ahmed deserves awards consideration himself. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a better performance I’ve seen this year. He’s that good.
Bottomline, if you’re someone who appreciates well made films, “Sound of Metal” is easily one of, if not the best movies I’ve seen all year and is a must watch by any metric.
“Sound of Metal” is rated R and is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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