About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Citizen Kane


Formerly at Epinions.com and written in 2009. I think I got this one right the first time.

 

I have seen this 1941 Orson Welles directorial debut several times, and have intended on reviewing it a few times too. I have never gone through with it until now. This, much-celebrated, much-analysed film is often declared the ‘Greatest Film of All-Time’ (though not really a success until its 1956 re-release), so what could I, celebrator of “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Goonies” possibly bring to the table? (especially so, when you consider that just about every critic attempting a review of the film starts their review in similar trepidation to mine) What new insight could I possibly bring? Could a “Goonies” fan possibly even bring any insight at all?

 

But then it came to me. A bolt of lightning. A giant spark of profound inspiration, the likes of which the world has never seen. Well, an idea anyway. This is me we’re talking about, I laugh when someone spells ‘boobies’ on a calculator. Tee-hee...I said boobies. Anyway, back to the review (Going well, isn’t it?). Yes, I’m probably going to rehash a lot of what (most) people have already said in praise of this remarkable, timeless film (deal with it, naysayers. I’m no sheep, the hype is true!), but think about this; In all the reviews you have read of “Citizen Kane”, how many of them have focused on its entertainment value? And how much time is devoted to the performances in the film? These are things I find crucial in appreciating a film, so maybe, just maybe this review won’t be such a waste of time (and much effort, I hope you all appreciate!) after all. And hey, I may be a “Goonies” fan, but I’m also a lover of more serious-minded fare as “The Misfits”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “Sweet Smell of Success”, and “Revenge of the Nerds”. What?...What did I say? (You didn’t think I was going to remove my funny bone entirely for this review did you?).

 

Although full of flashbacks and told in non-sequential order, the plot is somewhat straightforward (and based, in semi-veiled fashion, on William Randolph Hearst); the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper tycoon and aspiring politician, named Charles Foster Kane (writer-director-star-future ‘fatty’ Orson Welles). Born poor, but his mother (Agnes Moorehead, one of the finest character actors in cinematic history) inherited great wealth. His happy, if modest childhood is interrupted as he is sent off to banker Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), a most humourless, unfeeling man. No more would he be happily playing in the snow. Soon he will have taken over Mr. Thatcher’s newspaper and builds a powerful media empire of his own, eventually attempting to move into politics. But at what cost? Broken relationships (romantic, professional, and other), political scandal, and an out-of-control ego become the great man’s undoing. Meanwhile, a newsman (William Alland) is assigned the task of finding out the meaning of Kane’s dying word; ‘Rosebud’ (In real-life, the term was said to be Hearst’s euphemism for lover Marion Davies’...erm...special place). Joseph Cotten (one of the all-time great, underappreciated talents) plays Jedediah Leland, Kane’s trusted friend and colleague at the paper. Dorothy Comingore is the shrill (and I do mean shrill!), wannabe opera singer Kane romances and tries to turn into a star. Everett Sloane is Kane’s decent, loyal employee Mr. Bernstein. Ruth Warwick turns up as Kane’s long-suffering wife.

 

Before I indeed do get into my discussion of “Citizen Kane” as ‘entertainment’, I feel the need to reiterate what many have already said about the film’s cultural and historical significance, something that can  never be praised enough, nor overlooked. All the naysayers who call this film ‘overrated’ and ‘boring’ really need to get their heads read. You really have to remember that Welles made this, his debut film at the age of 25 (as director, co-writer, and lead actor in a role that spanned decades!), and it was made in 1941 (it’s 2009 now as I write this, and the film still holds up just as well). Also, it is a film about a controversial subject, a thinly veiled portrait of a still living Hearst, who did everything in his power (still quite mighty at that time) at the time to make sure that the film had a rocky release. This was easily one of the most ambitious and controversial cinematic undertakings of the period, if not all-time. I mean, would anyone have the balls to do a scathing biopic on Rupert Murdoch? I doubt it.

 

Is “Citizen Kane” the most entertaining film I have ever seen? No, and that’s why it’s my #6 Favourite film of All-Time, instead of #1(which for me, is “The Misfits”). But there is no doubt that it has entertainment value greater than is often credited to it, and when coupled with its’ technical marvels...in fact, I would argue that there is much entertainment value in films that are technical masterpieces- Cinematography, themes, direction, editing, etc., all of these things can indeed provide entertainment value just as easily as a guy improbably outrunning a fireball in slow-mo with a shaky-cam. In fact, it’s a lot more enjoyable than shaky-cam riddled action scenes.

 

For me the most important factor in the film’s entertainment value, as is often the case for me, is in performance and character. “Citizen Kane” is, after all, a very early, and very brilliant example of a character study (hence, when I say ‘character’ is important, I’m also saying ‘story’ or ‘narrative’, as in a character study, the characters are the story, they drive the narrative).

 

Orson Welles. What can one say about his brave, star-making, thoroughly gripping debut film performance as the very complex Charles Foster Kane? “Citizen Kane” is probably the first film I think of when hearing the term ‘character study’, and not only do Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz create one of the most memorable characters in cinematic history, but Welles delivers an unforgettable performance of great power, enormous physicality (though cinematography helps, more on that later), and amazing assurance. I  feel sorry for those who find Kane unlikeable and unsympathetic, because they obviously suffer from narcolepsy and missed every other facet of his character. He may have ended up a cold, ruthless, domineering man, but he was also once an innocent child. And Kane’s quest to make a name for himself, whilst it led to his ultimate downfall as he lost sight of everything else important in life, is surely the same hope and aspirations we all have. And let’s not forget the fact that Kane was somewhat based on a real-life figure, there’s always a gossipy fascination in that sort of thing. I was gripped, fascinated, and ultimately moved by this character, and yes, entertained too.

 

But Welles is just one of the fine actors (all Mercury Theatre colleagues of his) in this wonderfully acted film (even Dorothy Comingore, the film’s one weak link, seems better on repeated viewings. Her character is a caricature, and she plays it as such). It is criminal to me that none of the actors, particularly Welles, earned an Oscar nod let alone a win, for their extraordinary work here. But anyone who knows their cinema history, knows why that never happened. <cough> Hearst <cough>.  If Welles as Kane is the film’s fire and passion and soul, then Everett Sloane and particularly Joseph Cotten are the film’s heart and humanity, and in Cotten’s case, charm. Like Welles, we see these men in old age too, with Cotten showing of a sly charm (and slight inebriation), and Sloane seemingly a sad and lonely man in old age, which is rather touching. Coulouris provides much of the film’s humour, generally at his character’s expense. Agnes Moorehead, meanwhile, is a part of my favourite scene in the film; It’s the scene where Kane’s parents are signing his life away, sending him off with Coulouris.

 

The reason I love the aforementioned scene is due to another entertaining aspect of the film, the cinematography by Deep Focus innovator Gregg Toland. Whilst the technique had been used before and would be after (Toland used it in the excellent “Best Years of Our Lives”), never was it more effectively put to use than here. It is a technique whereby the foreground and background would both be in focus, thus Welles could get Toland to direct us to wherever it was he wanted us to look on the screen at any given time, through  composition and camera movement. So in the above scene I mentioned, we first see Kane’s parents, and then our focus shifts to an oblivious young Kane playing in the snow with his beloved sled. You hardly realise until the scene ends that both Kane and his parents, foreground and background, were in focus at the same time.

 

Whenever one talks about great cinematographers, Toland surely must sit at the very top of the mountain, for he had a keen understanding of how composition and focus could enhance the enjoyment of a motion picture, and Welles was very lucky to have the man on his film. The extraordinary shot with Welles as Kane standing in front of a broken mirror with all the reflections of him is another highlight of the film attributed to the camerawork.

 

And then there is ‘Rosebud’. Some of the naysayers of this film mock the revelation of ‘Rosebud’, thinking it trivial. In fact, these are the same people who find the whole film dated and unappealing I find these assertions gobsmacking. ‘Rosebud’ is everything. Without revealing the specifics, I can
safely say ‘Rosebud’ is what Kane lost in pursuit of wealth, power, and stature. The film works without the ‘Rosebud’ reveal I am sure, but with it, we have the extra cherry on top.

 

So hopefully this review has, in addition to calling out a few of the clueless detractors out there, given some insight into this masterwork’s technical achievements, but also its merits as entertainment, an oft-neglected aspect of the film.

 

One final thought; As amazing as it is that Welles should create such a brilliant directorial debut (at age 25, I must reiterate!), it is equally as heartbreaking that the only direction he had left after this was down, though several of his subsequent films are still fascinating. Oh well, one masterpiece is still one masterpiece, and that’s more than most filmmakers get in their entire careers!

 

Rating: A+

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Liberal Arts


Josh Radnor stars as a Liberal Arts graduate in his 30s who goes back to his old college to attend the retirement dinner of his favourite professor, played by Richard Jenkins. While there he strikes up a relationship with supposedly intelligent 19 year-old student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who is into classical music and ‘improv theatre’. Even after Radnor goes back home, they continue a pen pal (in 2012?) relationship, despite wise Jenkins warning him that such an endeavour is a no-go zone. Allison Janney plays an embittered professor of Romantic Literature, whose class Radnor used to love, John Magaro plays a deeply troubled and lonely student Radnor tries to keep alive, Zac Efron plays a laidback student who is always hanging around for some reason, and Elizabeth Reaser...well, she’s just plain lovely (and plays a NY bookstore owner).

 

Josh Radnor is immensely likeable on “How I Met Your Mother” (a perfectly fine show I don’t get to watch much simply because there’s always something better on), but this 2012 effort from the director/writer/star (his second directorial effort) is supremely underwhelming, borderline pointless. It tries to create a supposed controversial and interesting romance where no such controversy  or interest really exists, beyond the charismatic appeal of Elizabeth Olsen. If Radnor were a college professor and Olsen his student, then that relationship might be frowned upon, but even then, it’s also old-hat. It’s been happening for a very, very long time. And since that isn’t what’s going on here, all we have is a 16 year age gap between two consenting adults. Where’s the story in that? Is it something I would do? Likely not (where would the shared frame of cultural references be? That’s a big deal to me), but that doesn’t make it controversial or interesting. Given Radnor looks younger than he is (and looks younger than the character), and Olsen is clearly younger than her character, it would make the whole thing more palatable if there were any controversy to it, but since there isn’t, it just makes it even less awkward. She’s 19, and virgin or not, she’s still a damn adult (though what she is and isn’t permitted to do may depend on where you live). Neither clever, shocking, nor interesting, this is much ado about nothing but with an air of pretence about it that I found off-putting as well. Also off-putting? Who the fuck named Elizabeth would then willingly shorten their name to ‘Zibby’? A moron, that’s who.

 

As appealing and talented as Olsen is (Easily the most talented person in her family. Yes, she’s an Olsen sister, just not a twin), her character doesn’t remotely convince. She’s your typical drunken college twat and she loves to read dopey “Twilight”-esque novels for no decent reason given, and yet...has a supposedly cultured, worldly aspect to her. No way can it be both. It’s not like someone who can enjoy a good blockbuster as well as foreign language cinema, or someone who can enjoy classical music and hippity hop. It’s asking us to believe that someone can love fine dining, but also enjoy watching someone poop themselves. I refuse to believe that anyone who likes “Twilight” novels could ever possibly be a lover of classical music as well. If you like the “Twilight” novels, you’re unlikely to enjoy any music not released in the last 15 minutes. And she says the books are at least better than TV? No fucking way. In fact, I hate anti-TV snobs. They’re the true idiots, even some reality TV is fine by me, and I’m no troglodyte. This seemed more like Radnor’s “Ruby Sparks” fantasy. I might be wrong on this, but this film absolutely, unquestionably fails to convince me of the possibility, through no fault of Olsen’s. She’s gonna be a star one day, I believe, but it won’t be from this turkey. The Olsen character’s more typical, college drunk qualities would be more palatable if Radnor were just looking for a quickie, but this is supposed to be a very real relationship and a PG-rated movie anyway. I just don’t see what he could see in her, especially if you take out Olsen’s appeal (The appeal comes from the actress, not the character who is a tool).

 

I think the film would’ve been much better if the Olsen character were a year or two out of college, so that she would be more credibly mature and cultured. Actually, one look at the lovely Elizabeth Reaser, and you know she’d make a much better partner for Radnor than ‘ol Zibzy Wibzy (Ironic that Reaser actually is an alum of the “Twilight” films- See, it’s a cultural affront in two separate mediums!). ***** SPOILER WARNING ***** And yet, when the end comes and he chooses Reaser over Ziggy Wiggy Zub Zub, I felt the film became completely pointless. Some have suggested the film is about Radnor’s eventual acceptance that he needs to grow up and have an adult relationship, but for fuck’s sake, did it have to take 90 minutes for him to realise this? It’s obvious from the start, and instead we’re left spending about 90 minutes with the wrong girl, and leave the right girl an underdeveloped character so that even though she’s clearly the right girl, we don’t care much because we haven’t gotten to know her. How is that supposed to satisfy anyone? That’s like making a crap movie when you’ve got a perfectly good script you’re choosing not to make because the crap movie can be done in totally wicked cool 3D. The film should’ve started with Radnor and Zibby Wibby Doo Da  having a fling for five minutes, before Radnor realises she’s hot but not right for him, and then he meets Reaser and we follow their ups and downs. To do the reverse is just fucking stupid. ***** END SPOILER ***** Oh, and by the way, Mr. Radnor: No one writes hand-written letters anymore. Not even Gen-Xers like yourself (I’m supposedly Gen-Y by the way, born in 1980, but I share much more in common with Gen X). I used to work for Australia Post a few years ago, and even then letters (not even just handwritten ones) were on a rapid decline.

 

Zac Efron makes an appearance here, and frankly I wish he wouldn’t. His character didn’t seem organic, his performance wasn’t convincing, and watching Efron drinking was frankly uncomfortable if you know anything about the guy’s recent troubles. The character is likely meant to be funny, but Efron doesn’t know what funny is, and isn’t really an actor, either. At one point Radnor tells him ‘I’m not even sure you’re real’, and that’s the damn problem. The character doesn’t belong.

 

There were two or three minor things I did like about this film in addition to Olsen’s appeal. Richard Jenkins is an overrated actor, but he’s absolutely perfectly cast here. He also gives one of the all-time worst retirement speeches ever, and that’s a compliment. It’s brilliantly bad. I also thought that Allison Janney provided the only other comedic value as a literary Mrs. Robinson. She’s genuinely funny and has a great line about Byron. She’s also the only one speaking any (seriously embittered) truths in this fanciful piffle that uncomfortably blends would-be insight and wishful thinking. The subplot involving a disturbed young student played by John Magaro is probably an irrelevant sidetrack, but is interesting and sad.

 

I was bitterly disappointed, given all the good word I had heard about it, and if the scene where Radnor calculates their age difference throughout various age points in their life is supposed to be witty...It ain’t. In fact, it just makes Radnor look bad at maths, since he can’t work out a 16 year age difference in his head. I’m sure it’s Woody Allen’s favourite film of all-time, though, and Mr. Radnor is clearly a fan of Mr. Allen on evidence here.

 

There’s not much going on here, and most of it fails to ring true. Nicely performed for the most part, but uninteresting, and I’m not sure there’s a complete movie plot here. No, I just didn’t get this one, despite being only two years younger than the main character myself. It was a pointless, aimless waste of two hours and Elizabeth Olsen.

 

Rating: C-

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: The Front


Set during the HUAC witch-hunts of the 50s, Michael Murphy plays a TV writer who is blacklisted on suspicion of communist ties. In order to get around this so he can earn a living, he gets bookie/cashier Woody Allen (!) to front for him. It proves to be such a successful scam that Allen (whose character is completely apolitical and borderline illiterate) ends up being a ‘front’ for other blacklisted writers too. But then the FBI starts poking around, and the already nervous Allen starts to sweat. Zero Mostel (in pretty much his final feature film role) plays comedian/actor ‘Hecky’ Brown, who also struggles with being blacklisted. Andrea Marcovicci plays a left-leaning script editor whom Allen strikes up a relationship with, making Allen feel a tad guilty about his deception.

 

Probably the best film of Woody Allen’s career...and he only acts in this one. This 1976 film from director Martin Ritt (Excellent films like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, “Hud” and “Edge of the City”) and writer Walter Bernstein (“Paris Blues”, “The Train”) is probably the best film on the subject of Hollywood blacklisting, though I failed to see any humour in it. I don’t think I even laughed once. Thankfully it works very well on the dramatic front, even if the basic plot seems like a dry run for “Hollywood Ending” (Instead of going blind as in that film, Woody is pretending to be a screenwriter. But the way it plays out is much the same). But then, I actually liked that film, and this one is even better than that.

 

Being a film about the blacklist, made by people who were actually blacklisted (something we find out after the film is over), definitely adds something to it, but Ritt and Bernstein don’t forget to make it entertaining. I normally find films on this subject to be a bit dry and dull, but anyone who isn’t completely moved by the performance given by Zero Mostel (who at one point sports the fattest red tie I’ve ever seen), needs to check their pulse immediately. Perfectly cast as a third-rate Jackie Gleason of sorts, the man truly deserved an Oscar nomination here (Bernstein’s screenplay earned a nomination), as he is truly heartbreaking and absolutely unforgettable. As for Woody, he’s hardly stretching himself (despite the writer character sounding more like Woody), but he has simply never been better on screen in my view. He’s certainly not as nauseatingly mannered as he can be in his own films. Co-star Andrea Marcovicci is OK, but it’s easy to see why she went the way of Kitty Winn, Karen Black, and Susan Anspach, and not Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, or Faye Dunaway. Pretty good role for character actor Michael Murphy, too, who generally got (and still gets to this day) much smaller, insignificant roles.

 

Although this is pretty fascinating and moving stuff, I’m not sure it finds the right way to end. Having said that, I don’t have a good alternative, either, but it just didn’t sit perfectly with me. It seemed too flippant and unrealistic. It’s probably a little overrated by some, but it has also seemingly been neglected by just about everyone else, despite Woody Allen being in it. It’s quite a strong and important film (about a frankly silly and embarrassing moment in American history), and absolutely, positively not a comedy, despite the presence of Woody Allen and Zero Mostel (Even Ritt himself didn’t consider it a comedy). Worth seeking out if you can track it down, Zero Mostel will truly break your heart.

 

Rating: B