‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ and ‘Mank” are well-made but tough films to digest

Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy / Netflix

“Hillbilly Elegy” is a tough movie to like; however, it’s not because the movie is poorly made by director Ron Howard, that the performances are weak or even that the story doesn’t add up.

Technically the movie is strong like you would expect from a filmmaker of Howard’s stature. The script by Vanessa Taylor, based on J.D. Vance’s story of his upbringing, has no glaring holes, and the cast led by Glenn Close as Memaw, Amy Adams as Beverly, Gabriel Basso as adult J.D., and Owen Asztalos as young J.D. all give fine performances. Close’s turn is likely to be worthy of an Oscar nomination.

The movie was fashioned to be an inspiring one, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale of success. Many such stories are heart-warming, but Vance’s tale isn’t. It’s gritty, sweaty, grimy, and harsh. Like I said, it’s a tough movie, depicting life how it often is for families of all stripes.

Vance’s roots were in Appalachia, but he grew up as a lower-class kid in Ohio. His mom was a fine student who finished second in her class in high school, and despite having two children by her late teens or early 20s, she found a way to finishing nursing school. She also became a drug addict.

The crux of the film is how Vance deals with his mom’s addiction issues after being taken in by his maternal grandmother in flashbacks, and how he continues to cope with her issues while studying law at Yale.

Under his “Memaw’s” roof, Vance graduates high school, enlists in the military, goes to college and law school. He’s in the process of interviewing for a key internship when he must return home— an 11-hour drive away — to help his mother, who is dealing with a breakdown and has no place to live.

Again the movie is a tough watch. You don’t have to have worked through the same issues as Vance to feel empathy for his struggles. No matter how much privilege we’ve earned or received in our lifetimes, we’ve all had our own crosses to bear, and it was excruciating to watch Vance and his family do the same in this film because it’s a reminder of our own hard times.

“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t a movie that I’ll ever watch again. It’s too effective and heartbreaking, bringing up thoughts and emotions I’d rather let rest.

(R) 1 hr. 56 min.
Grade: B+

Mank (Netflix)

Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in Mank / Netflix

“Mank” basically is a film about the writing of another film, the classic “Citizen Kane.”

If you’ve not seen “Citizen Kane,” you probably ought to before diving into “Mank.” Watching “Citizen Kane” would make certain aspects of “Mank” more clear and meaningful, particularly the shifting-sand storytelling style director David Fincher borrows from Orson Welles, who directed and claimed a co-screenwriter credit for “Citizen Kane.”

Both movies make extensive use of flashbacks to tell their tales, and Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt pay home to Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland with their choice of deep focus shot throughout the film. Technically the black-and-white film is beautiful, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a throwback to orchestration from movies of the 1930s and ’40s.

As for the story, it was a bit boozy and convoluted for my taste, but the title character Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was evidently a boozy and convoluted type of guy, based on the screenplay by Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s dad.

In 1940, Mank, who suffered a broken leg in a car accident, is holed up writing the script for radio star Welles’ Hollywood debut. Once a celebrated screenwriter, Mank is all but washed up in Hollywood, having stepped on way too many toes of way too many important people, one of those being publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

The script Mank writes is basically a one-off biography of Hearst with names being changed to protect the innocent, but even with the literary masquerade, the identities of the characters aren’t difficult for Hollywood insiders to figure out.

While everyone who reads the script agrees its a masterpiece, a parade of Hollywood heavy hitters attempt to persuade Mank to squash the script, even Hearst’s wife Marion Davies, whom Mank was sweet on at one time, despite being married.

The film is well made. Fincher is an excellent director. The acting is impeccable across the board, but since we know from the very beginning where the film is headed, it’s a bit anticlimactic.

Mank and Wells shared an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and despite John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” taking home the 1942 Oscar for Best Picture, “Citizen Kane” has for years been recognized as one of the best if not THE best movie of all time.

That doesn’t leave a ton of drama, except for a side story involving Upton Sinclair’s run for governor of California, and Hollywood’s resistance to it at Hearst’s behest. The crux of the movie lies here, but if I reveal any more, I’d be giving it all away.

“Mank” will likely get a ton of Oscar attention, but the movie is too “inside Hollywood” for me to get all that excited about.

I’ll watch “Citizen Kane” and “How Green Was My Valley” again before queuing up “Mank.”

(R) 2 hr. 11 min.
Grade: B

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Classic Corner – Love Actually (Skylight Cinema)

Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually

With “Love Actually” writer-Director Richard Curtis crafted a winning Christmas film that’s as poignant as it is charming, and as sexy as it is funny.

Unlike many Christmas-set movies, “Love Actually” isn’t for the whole family. It’s decidedly adult-themed as it looks at love as well as infatuation, attraction, friendship, and loss from a number of different angles with multiple storylines that twist, intermingle, and go their separate ways during a single Christmas season.

The ensemble cast includes Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley among others, with each offering solid to exceptional performances with Thompson and Linney shining in two of the more heartbreaking roles.

The movie deals with a number of burgeoning romantic relationships as well as the loss of a beloved wife, the wandering eye of a distracted husband, the thrill of puppy love, the anguish of unrequited love, the dependability of platonic love, as well as the tug of responsibility that familial love often brings.

Just as the love that we experience changes throughout our lifetimes, it shifts between the mini-episodes that dovetail in Curtis’ film. The movie is 17 years old now, and each time I watch it, I come away with a new favorite vignette.

The film has been criticized for being a mile wide and inches deep. That’s probably a fair assessment, but during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, I’m not sure I want to process much more.

The movie is thoughtful enough to tug at my heartstrings without being overwhelming, and funny enough to give me a few smiles along the way.

The film is showing this weekend on the big screen at Skylight Cinema in Bentonville.