music friday
mank (david fincher, 2020)

the death & life of john f. donovan (xavier dolan, 2018)

This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 13 is called Northern Exposure: Xavier Dolan Week:

A type of challenge that has been in most if not all prior Seasons was the "Master of the East/West" challenge, highlighting an Eastern and Western director, respectively. This year, I figured we'd shake it up. So, I offer to you all an examination of the directing career (so far) of Canada native, Xavier Dolan. Dolan's work throughout the past decade or so has garnered a great amount of positive critical reaction, though I think its fair to say he's still not exceedingly well known. Have a look and see if his stuff is worth the hype.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Xavier Dolan.

I had never watched a Xavier Dolan movie before. Actually, I had never heard of Xavier Dolan, and as I have said before, that's one of the best things about these challenges: you are introduced to films you might otherwise have missed. He does it all ... in John F. Donovan he is director, co-writer, co-producer, and co-editor. And he brings together an impressive cast: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay (Room), Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Michael Gambon. Young Tremblay is a standout, Harington looks pretty, Gambon has one scene that may or may not be a dream. Dolan held my interest. I wanted to know what happened to the closeted actor John F. Donovan, even though the timeline allows us to know the answer in the very first scene. The Death & Life of John F. Donovan was OK ... it didn't change my life, but it wasn't a waste of time.

I admit I was astonished to find the film received a Metascore of 28/100, "generally unfavorable reviews", with only one review out of twelve being positive. Wikipedia summarized the response:

It currently holds an approval rating of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 3.55/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan finds writer-director Xavier Dolan flailing at profundity with a technically assured drama that never makes sense of its own ideas." ... IndieWire dubbed the film the "worst" of Dolan's career; they also called the screenplay "soapy" and "clumsy". The Guardian gave the film one out of five stars, deeming it a "dubious mess". NOW Magazine called the film "mediocre at best". criticized Dolan's music choices and wrote that the film has "major flaws", but praised Tremblay's performance. The Hollywood Reporter called the cast "impressive", but called the film a "half-baked, cumbersome, overlong psychodrama".

I'm here to say it wasn't all that bad. Which is damning with faint praise, but I felt like those critics were watching a different film than what I saw. The first cut was four hours long, and Jessica Chastain apparently had a sizable part which was completely cut. The fractured timeline made the film a bit choppy, but overall, I didn't feel that it was missing two hours.


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