David’s Watch Diary: December 2020, Part 1

Thoughts on The Mandalorian, Mank, Wolfwalkers, Sound of Metal, and more.

The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)

Last Thursday, the H.M.S. Disney delivered a 56-gun broadside on the rest of the industry, announcing dozens of upcoming projects under their Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar banners. It was numbing. The logos and sizzle reels just kept coming and coming, a stunning display of corporate dominance unlike anything I’d ever seen before. But with the dust now settled and anticipation (and concern) rising for many of those titles — for every “Christian Bale is in Thor 4!“, there’s a “We’re still doing Indy 5, huh?” — one thing is unequivocally clear: The Mandalorian is the center of the Star Wars universe for the foreseeable future.

And why not? The sequel trilogy ended as an incoherent fiasco; new projects from Game of Thrones’s Benioff & Weiss and The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson had been announced and then forgotten (a real shame, in the latter case). But in the meantime, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni were quietly creating magic. By bringing Star Wars back to its roots, they also captured the spirit of old-school television: A silent hero in a new adventure every week, plus their greatest gift of all… Baby Yoda. This past week’s announcement of spinoffs Ahsoka and Rangers of New Republic heralded Mando’s place as the purest Star Wars thing to come along since the Knights of the Old Republic video games, beloved by both casual fans and deep lore heads who rejoice at Filoni’s Herculean efforts to unite the universe’s many disparate threads. Whether you know anything about Darksabers and lothcats or are just enjoying the ride and puppet cuteness, The Mandalorian does it all, and in a brisk 35-ish minutes a week.

Season 1 was great. Season 2 has been even better. What more is there to say? The storytelling fires on all cylinders as Din Djarin hopscotches from one backwater planet to the next trying to reunite Grogu(!!) with his force-wielding kind. The action has been rocking every single week, with thrillingly efficient direction from Favreau, Robert Rodriguez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Carl Weathers, and more. And then there’s the Ahsoka of it all, showcased in the Filoni-helmed “The Jedi,” an exhilarating installment where Rosario Dawson proved that sometimes fan casting really can work. It’s just great, great television, primarily because The Mandalorian knows exactly what it is and what it is not. Will the new series following in its wake live up to expectations? Can Mandalorian even live up to its own in Season 3? I don’t know, and right now, I don’t care.

Mank (Netflix)

David Fincher’s Mank is no Manksterpiece masterpiece, but it is an artisinally crafted curio, and for a subset of cineastes there might be more value in that. So fair warning: If you haven’t watched Citizen Kane in years or aren’t generally up on the lore, a lot of this film will just bounce off you. Its “cinnamon roll” structure (as the screenwriter, played by Gary Oldman with alacrity, describes his own work) is meant to reward repeat viewings — assuming casual viewers can get through it once.

For the uninitiated, film scholars have discussed and debated for decades not just the many layered meanings of Kane (a film ranked in perpetuity among the greatest ever made), but the story behind its making. The legendary critic Pauline Kael, despite a lack of evidence on the subject, wrote an equally legendary essay 30 years after the film’s release arguing that its success did not rest predominately with director/star Orson Welles, but his co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. In the pre-internet era, this was a scalding Hot Take, and spawned an army of Welles enthusiasts ready to defend the auteur, and Auteur Theory in general.

Kael’s speculation provides the impetus for Mank, written decades ago by Jack Fincher at his son’s behest, though I was surprised to find how relatively little focus Kane has in the film’s overall narrative. Instead, it takes broader aim at the “golden age” of the Hollywood studio system, with its hungry executives jockeying for financial and political power, through the jaundiced eyes of one contrarian screenwriter. Upton Sinclair (played briefly by Bill Nye???) casts a longer shadow than Welles, who is almost an afterthought — a means to an end as the Finchers illuminate how Mank’s socialist politics influence his relationships, his career, and manifest within his greatest creation as he convalesces on a dry ranch outside San Bernardino. In Kane-ian fashion, this “present-day” story is interwoven with flashbacks tracking the writer’s growing cynicism, where shotgun-blast expository dialogue presents W.R. Hearst (Charles Dance) L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Welles (Tom Burke) as men to be appeased, then defied, in turn.

Oldman, though in acerbically excellent form, is distractingly too-old. A better fit is Amanda Seyfried, uncanny as Marion Davies — Hearst’s young lover, Mank’s muse, and the unwitting inspiration for one of the most savagely-written female characters ever put on screen. Yet even she can’t fully pull focus from Fincher’s loving (i.e. indulgent) Old Hollywood flourishes. With cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and sound designer Ren Klyce, Fincher captures the gauzy look and feel of 1930s cinema, right down to the cigarette burns in the corner so the nonexistent projectionist knows when to change reels. It was all a bit cute for me. I admire the level of craft, but I can’t help but think Mank isn’t nearly as interesting without it, which makes the project ring almost as hollow as a magnate’s heart.

Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+)

Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon have done it again. The director of Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea is finally back with his third feature (co-directed by Ross Stewart), and it’s as gobsmackingly gorgeous as his previous work. I’ve described Moore in the past as “the Irish Miyazaki,” and that’s still very much on the mark in Wolfwalkers, which once again brings Celtic folklore to stunning, hand-drawn life — so personal, in fact, that you can still see the lines of the original sketches underneath the painted characters.

This time, the action is set in the studio’s native Kilkenny. It is 1650, and the town has recently been taken by force by Oliver Cromwell, the “Lord Protector” (Simon McBurney), as part of his crusade to bring Ireland at large to heel. That includes taming the wilds, where the kind-hearted Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) spends his days setting traps for the wolves that terrorize the local famers. His loving daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsy) has dreams of following in his footsteps, until a chance encounter with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a “Wolfwalker” whose spirit takes the form of a russet-colored canine when she sleeps, sets Cromwell’s desire for strong-armed Puritanical order against the “pagan” forces of Mebh’s native land. It isn’t long before Robyn realizes she’s a Wolfwalker, too, and must try to convince her father to defy Cromwell — at great risk to him, the girls, and Mebh’s mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy).

The richness of the storytelling, with its themes of courage and love in the face of authoritarianism (and those who would enable it out of fear) is only matched by the film’s visual delights. The colors — seemingly a hundred different shades of green — and subtle lighting effects are marvelous, and the geometric symbolism only grows in power as the film progresses. Most of all, the artists’ passion leaps off the screen. Wolfwalkers is a film to let envelop you, buoyed by spirited voice performances and Bruno Coulais’s sprightly, percussive score. For Moore and Cartoon Saloon, it is a showcase for masters at work.

Sound of Metal (Amazon)

This is a seriously impressive feature debut from Darius Marder. And despite the title and image above, Sound of Metal is not an assault on the senses (a la Whiplash), but an introspective story about their absence. Anchored by a scorching, career-best performance from Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) and some extraordinary sound design, it encapsulates loss — of hearing, of purpose — with thoughtfulness and empathy. I can imagine my own despair if I found myself going irreversibly deaf. And my life isn’t nearly as precarious as Ruben’s, a recovering drug addict touring in a noise-rock double act with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cook); when the drummer realizes his hearing is degenerating, he fears he’s facing the end of not just their creative partnership, but the only thing giving his life meaning. It’s devastating, and Ahmed’s raw incandescence brings all of the heartache and anger to the surface as we see him struggle to hold it together.

That is only the the beginning of his story, however; Marder’s script (from a story from Derek Cianfrance, whom Marder previously collaborated with on The Place Beyond the Pines) soon changes gears as Ruben checks into a sober center for the deaf and learns to cope with what his sponsor Joe (Paul Raci, fantastic) insists is not a disability to fix. The coping is hard, though. Ruben is desperate to get back to music, and to Lou, and he secretly plans to collect enough money to get cochlear implants. Even as he outwardly matures at the center, discovering a gift for bonding with the kids at the adjacent school, he inwardly struggles with the delusion that he can one day go back to normal. These themes are handled with a melancholy maturity despite the screenplay’s general shagginess; the cast and sensitive direction make up for the wobbly plotting and feints toward melodrama.

The other star is sound designer Nicolas Becker, whose work on the film’s soundscapes is, again, extraordinary. He and Marder subtly shift perspectives from scene to scene, or even from moment to moment. They spent a full year researching and experimenting with audio effects, with Becker, drawing from his own brush with deafness earlier in life, even building his own microphones to capture the experience of the deaf community with maximum authenticity. It’s staggering (and award-worthy) work that makes the film worth watching all on its own; factor in Ahmed’s live-wire turn and the story’s emotional punch, and Sound of Metal is undoubtedly one of the best of the year.

Quick hits:

  • I mentioned How To with John Wilson last month as one of the year’s most fascinating series, and that was before the astonishing finale, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto.” I really shouldn’t spoil it for you, so suffice to say if you have HBO and a spare 30 minutes, please enjoy a remarkable — and inevitable — episode of television.
  • We did finally start watching Star Wars: Rebels a couple of months ago, and we’re now partway through Season 3. It’s definitely on the kiddy side, but the Season 2 finale was outstanding, and Chopper rules generally. At least we can now pick up on all those Mandalorian easter eggs!

Looking ahead to… Hilda, the best kids’ series on Netflix, finally drops Season 2 (12/14)… my beloved The Expanse returns to Amazon for a barn-burning fifth season (12/18)… Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman have earned Oscar buzz for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (12/18, Netflix)… Mads Mikkelsen stars in the Danish film Another Round, about a group of teachers who take day drinking to the limit (12/18, VOD)… George Clooney does post-apocalyptic in The Midnight Sky (12/23, Netflix)… and a quartet of highly-anticipated Christmas releases: Pixar’s Soul (Disney+), Wonder Woman 1984 (HBO Max), historical drama One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime), and Tom Hanks goes west in Paul Greengrass’s News of the World (in theaters). Whew!

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