Wow, what a busy month! Despite widespread theater closures and release date delays, awards season and the holiday movie season are both definitely in full swing. I’m presenting some mini reviews of some of the new movies that have been released on streaming services this month so far, including potential awards contenders “Mank” and “Sound of Metal,” and family entertainment like “Godmothered,” “Wolfwalkers,” and “The Prom.” Look for more reviews coming soon, and have a great holiday weekend!
As a huge fan of old Hollywood—particularly through the 1930s, which is the time frame director David Fincher’s “Mank” takes place during—I was very much looking forward to this film. But “Mank” left me feeling oddly cold. The film opens in 1940, where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) holes up in Victorville, California with a secretary named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) to write the script for Orson Welles’ new project for RKO. But “Mank” is not so much about the making of that movie—which would become the classic “Citizen Kane”—and more about using it as a framework to examine the life and career of Mankiewicz from 1930 up through that point. Fincher (the screenplay was actually written by his late father Jack Fincher in the late 1990s) employs a scattered flashback narrative not unlike the structure of “Citizen Kane,” as similarities between real events and the events in Mankiewicz’s screenplay prompt him to reflect on his past, particularly his relationship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her partner, the powerful publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and his politics, including work with MGM on a smear campaign against California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (I won’t tell you who plays him in a quick cameo in case you don’t already know, because it’s pretty fun). “Mank” has divided many cinephiles who challenge its narrative that follows critic Pauline Kael’s widely debunked assertion that Welles didn’t actually write “Citizen Kane,” among other historical falsehoods. But “Mank” isn’t a documentary, and that stuff doesn’t actually bother me that much; as Fincher has stated, the story to him was less about staking a claim against Welles and more about examining the journey of a character who initially didn’t care about getting credit for his work, who in the end decides he does want credit. My problem with “Mank” is that it feels so empty. For all the part that politics plays in the story, the film doesn’t make any grand political statements. For all of the relationships Mankiewicz had that are depicted in the film—with his estranged wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), with Davies, with his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), with producer Irving G. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), with Rita and with Welles (Tom Burke)—and all of the self-reflection he undergoes, the film feels emotionally hollow. There are scenes that are individually delightful, however, particularly in the first hour of the film—I’m thinking about Mank marching through the Paramount lot with studio heads, the Hollywood sign looming just behind them, or a scene in which Mank and Marion take a walk through the grounds of Hearst Castle where they discuss their beliefs. “Mank” is a wonderful technical achievement, with touches like mono sound and Erik Messerschmidt’s black and white cinematography truly making the film feel like it was made in the time period it takes place in. And all of the name drops, cameos, settings, and references are a movie fan’s dream—but if I had a hard time connecting to “Mank,” I can’t imagine that the casual viewer would enjoy or understand the film, rendering it inaccessible to large chunks of audiences. As far as the performances go, Seyfried is the clear standout, bringing to life the gifted comedienne’s wit and sense of humor—something that was misunderstood Marion Davies for decades due to comparisons with her “Citizen Kane” counterpart, Susan Alexander. Oldman delivers a fine performance, but he is wildly miscast as the lead, who was a solid 20 years younger than Oldman at the time “Mank” takes place. And while the film portrays the relationship between Mank and Marion as that of an older man charmed by a younger woman, in reality Marion was born in the same year as him. Maybe “Mank” will stand up better for me on a second viewing. Maybe, like “Citizen Kane,” it isn’t the sort of film that will please everybody. Or maybe it’s just another film where the pedigree of its filmmakers far outshines the actual material. Runtime: 131 minutes. Rated R.
“GODMOTHERED” (Disney Plus)
Magical being is a fish-out-of-water after traveling to modern day Earth to make a difference. This premise is familiar, but when done right, it never fails to entertain—think “Elf,” or Disney’s “Enchanted.” “Godmothered” is another Disney entry that follows in this same vain, but while it tries to be as self-aware about the happily ever after trope as “Enchanted” was, the result is more of a mixed bag. Directed by Sharon Maguire, “Godmothered” opens in a place called the Motherland, where fairy godmothers train to grant wishes. But nobody makes wishes anymore, and the school is going to be shut down. Eager godmother in training Eleanor (Jillian Bell) finds a letter from a 10-year-old girl named Mackenzie that was never answered, so she travels to her home in Boston, hoping that by helping Mackenzie, she will prove that godmothers are still needed. But when she arrives, she realizes that the letter was actually an old one that was overlooked, and Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) is now a single mother with two young daughters and a stressful producing job. So Eleanor sets out to try to help both her and her daughters (Mia and Jane, played by Jillian Shea Spaeder and Willa Skye) gain confidence and find love. “Godmothered” starts off pretty strong. The Motherland, which is led by the strict Moira (Jane Curtin) and also features Eleanor’s much older roommate Agnes (played by the hilarious June Squibb) is a fun concept. Bell is sweet and funny throughout the film and convincingly portrays a character who is out of her depth, and Fisher is a good foil to her. But the shenanigans wear thin after a while, and after the initial setup, the story isn’t very focuses. Are we saving the Motherland, trying to get Mackenzie to fall in love with her coworker Hugh Prince (Santiago Cabrera) or succeed at her job, or help Jane get over her singing anxiety in time for her school’s Christmas pageant? “Godmothered” is tonally inconsistent, unsure whether to focus on more adult problems and never really committing to the magic, and the feminist message during the climax feels shallow and like it comes out of nowhere. “Godmothered” is by no means a bad movie—it’s entertaining enough if you’re looking for a light comedy set over the holidays. But it never does enough to stand out from its far superior counterparts. Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated PG.
“WOLFWALKERS” (Apple TV+)
To watch “Wolfwalkers” is to experience magic. The film, which is directed by Cartoon Saloon co-founder Tomm Moore and Ross Steward and utilizes a combination of 2D animation styles, is set in 1650 Kilkenny, Ireland. Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her hunter father Bill (Sean Bean) have been ordered by Lord Cromwell (Simon McBurney) to clear the nearby woods of wolves so they can be turned into farmland. It is while disobeying her father’s orders to stay put and venturing out into the woods that Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a young girl who calls herself a wolfwalker—her soul can leave her body and take the form of a wolf. The man versus nature narrative “Wolfwalkers” employs is a familiar one, but its execution is exquisite. The story is steeped in culture and magic but never fails to feel relevant. The characters are richly drawn and given voice by some great, emotional performances from their voice actors. We get to see the parallel daughter/parent relationships as illustrated by Robyn and Bill and Mebh and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), while Mebh and Robyn form a sisterly bond united by their mutual desire for freedom. The lush background paintings are beautiful to behold, and the sketchy, wood-like quality to the animation itself further enhances the mystical narrative. “Wolfwalkers” is a creative feat, and the best animated movie to come out this year. Runtime: 103 minutes. Rated PG.
“SOUND OF METAL” (Amazon Prime Video)
The soundscape of Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is a masterpiece in and of itself. The film opens with Ruben (Riz Ahmed), one half of a metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), banging away on the drums, the barrage of noise practically exploding in the viewer’s ears. But the film ends in complete silence. Soon after the opening scenes, Ruben begins experiencing hearing loss, the conversations and noises surrounding him becoming muted, until eventually they can’t be heard at all. He wants to try to get implants to fix his hearing, but they’re too expensive, so Lou—further concerned about what this incident will do to Ruben because he is a recovering drug addict—takes him to a community for recovering deaf addicts run by Joe (played by the incredible Paul Raci). “Sound of Metal” is primarily about what happens when a person is faced with a change that completely alters the course of their life. Ruben undergoes several stages in the process of coming to terms with his deafness, from denial to refusal to participate in the community to desperation to do whatever it takes to get his old life back, before finally reaching a stage of acceptance. Occasionally the script feels like it either rushes the character development or runs into more predictable, melodramatic territory, but the emotional resonance of the story far outweighs any of the film’s minor flaws. The aforementioned soundscape helps immerse the viewer in an environment populated by the deaf, but so do the performances, especially Ahmed’s. We overall don’t know a lot about Ruben, but we get a feel for his character immediately because of the energy Ahmed brings to him in a career-best performance. He makes Ruben someone who it’s easy to emphasize with even if we don’t agree with all of his choices. It’s impossible to imagine undergoing such a major life change when you’ve never been through anything akin to hearing loss, but Ruben and “Sound of Metal” find beauty and hope within it. Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated R.
“THE PROM” (Netflix)
In a world without the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have gotten to see the popular Broadway musical “The Prom” before its film adaptation reached my television screen. But of course we’re not living in that world, and my initial impressions of “The Prom” aren’t great. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the story is set in Edgewater, Indiana, where a high school prom is canceled after a student named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) announces that she wants to take a girl to the prom as her date. The incident goes viral and is discovered by down-their-luck Broadway actors Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), Barry Glickman (James Corden), Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), who decide they need to take part in a cause to seem appear more selfless. Ultimately, “The Prom” has a very necessary message of love and acceptance. Its music numbers, particularly its finale, are infectious and joyous. Pellman is a smash in her first film role opposite so many Hollywood icons. But the final product as a whole feels rather flat and occasionally irritating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this story has a happy ending; we need more LGBTQ+ stories that end in joy rather than sadness. But everyone’s conflicts feel like they get resolved a little too quickly and neatly. The sets and costumes are glitzy to the point where they just look cheap. And I’m frankly confused by so many of the characters and their relationships with each other throughout the film, outside of Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa (played by the great Ariana DeBose), who struggles with her fear of coming out to her mother (Kerry Washington), the head of the PTA who’s spearheading the campaign to prevent Emma from bringing a girl as her date. Streep’s Dee Dee strikes up a romance with Keegan-Michael Key’s Principal Hawkins that I don’t really understand, as for most of the film he appears more just as a besotted fan. I don’t know if Corden’s Barry Glickman is actually offensive, but it feels offensive; his portrayal of Barry—a gay man—comes off as very stereotypical, and there’s a lot of him in this movie. Overall, “The Prom” does just enough to scratch the itch for musical theatre fans, but just enough isn’t really good enough. I still hope to get to see “The Prom” performed on stage someday. Maybe by the time Broadway reopens this movie will be a distant memory. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.