Citizen Kane: My Review

Posted: July 9, 2011 in AFI 100, Movies

  Citizen Kane (1941)

Dir. Orson Wells

Starring  Orson Wells, Joesph Cotten & Dorothy Comingore

Ranked #1 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

On my final day of the 100 movies in 100 days experiment, I decided ahead of time that I would end it with AFI’s number one movie on the list.  While Pulp Fiction had such a profound effect on me as both a writer and filmmaker, Citizen Kane gave me the appreciation for film as a whole.

Charles Foster Kane was born into poverty, child to Mrs. Kane and her boarding house business.  Upon his death, Kane utters the word Rosebud and that launches Jerry Thompson, a reporter, into trying to find out the story of Charles Foster Kane.  He interviews friends, colleagues and associates in an attempt to find out about the man and the last words he spoke.  Thompson finds out about a man who was born poor, gained money from land his mother bought that had gold, purchased a small newspaper and rose in both the political and media arenas.  We then find out about his fall from grace with stories of his affairs and isolation in his large home called Xanadu.  Eventually, Thompson learns of the origin of Rosebud and it all starts to make sense.

Citizen Kane is by and far one of the few films that can be agreed upon by a majority of critics and film institutes world wide as one of the greatest films ever made.  Any person familiar with film and with an appreciation of it should have it in their top ten.

The success of this film comes from the story of Citizen Kane and the technical aspects that were quite revolutionary at the time and still are nearly seventy years after it’s release.  The biggest technical aspect was the cinematography of the film.  Orson Wells used various forms of filmmaking and combined them all into one.  It was the ability to deep focus that put this film over the top.  Keeping everything from the furthest point to the closest thing in near perfect focus was achieved with various tools.  DP Gregg Toland experimented with different lenses and lighting to create massive depth and sharp focus.  They also used an optical printer on top of the other reels of film to keep background in focus with the close-ups of characters in a lot of scenes.  They would also reshoot some scenes with backgrounds lit and then darkened on top of foreground lit and darkened.

The story telling technique was another important aspect of this film.  Using flashbacks as the primary way of telling the story, screenplay writer Herman Mankiewicz created a non-linear narrative with various associates of Kane’s telling the story instead of the single storyteller.  Mankiewicz does this with multiple characters to create a cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator in literature.  Each narrator gives us a different aspect of Kane’s life with each story overlapping.  While it was used in film before, it was never this effective.

Of course, the story of the making of Citizen Kane is as intriguing as the film itself.  An obvious biographical story of William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul of those times who controlled print, radio and film, Hearst was enraged when he learned of this film being made.  He did everything in his power to make sure this film was never made, threatening theaters, studios and reviewers to never talk of the film nor give it positive reviews.  If you purchase the DVD of this film, you will be treated to the film ‘ The Battle Over Citizen Kane ‘ which is the equivalent of Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now.

While I always put this film as number one on my list, as it is on so many others’ lists, many think it is a perfect movie, I can assure you that it is not perfect.  Its success comes from the story, acting and technical merit.  Orson Wells wrote, directed and performed in a movie that will be watched, reviewed, dissected and loved for its balls to make and its amazing storytelling.

5/5

James

  Ben-Hur (1959)

Dir. William Wyler

Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet & Stephen Boyd

Ranked #100 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

 

As we near the finish of my 100 movies in 100 days, I decided to watch the last movie on the list today and the first movie on the list to finish it tomorrow.  Today I watch one of Hollywood’s biggest biblical epics and winner of 11 Academy Awards, Ben Hur.

Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish Prince living in the glorious city of Judea.  He lives the good life and is a good man, kind to all including his slaves.  Things start to change when the Roman Empire steps up its military presence in the city.  Tensions run high when Massala, an old friend of Ben-Hur’s, comes to the city.  After an accident where some tile falls, causing the Roman governor to fall from his horse, Ben-Hur is sentenced without trial to hard labor rowing in a galley war ship for Quintus Arrius.  After the ship is damaged, Ben-Hur rescues him from death and after time, is adopted by Quintus.  He goes back to Judea as a skilled chariot racer and crosses paths with Massala, also an accomplished chariot racer.  He races him to avenge his imprisonment as well as that of his mother and sister.  Eventually he gains his revenge but swears away his Roman citizenship, blaming them for his family’s ills.  It is at this point that he witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the new Judea governor, Pilate.

Let’s talk about what I loved about this movie, what stuck with me when I watched this for the first time this morning.  This movie is shot beautifully in 65mm Super Wide Screen at the aspect ratio of 2.76:1.  This is one of the widest shot films in history and it is seen in all of its glory.  Nothing is out of focus and everything has a deep richness and color to it.  No movie since has accomplished this scope and none ever will.  Of course this aspect and wide shot is used stunningly in the greatest scene in this film and possibly all others after it.  The chariot scene alone is worth sitting three and a half hours through this film.

This is, of course, a big downfall for me.  I don’t attribute this to my waning attention span crippled by TV and Internet, but rather to the pace and lack of a truly compelling story.  While the story is not a complete and utter failure, it has numerous pitfalls and pacing issues to say the least.  The acting is also quite forgettable, with the exception of Charlton Heston as the title character, Ben-Hur.  While he is at times slightly over the top, his performance is on par with his portrayal of Moses.

While I’m talking about story, I also felt that the Christ story was completely out of place.  While the official title for the film is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

While epic in time and in scope, this is far from being a true Hollywood epic.  While I fell in love with the cinematography and the scope of the film, the set design and the costumes I could not find much else to make me excited to see this film again.  Maybe I should give it a couple more years before watching it again.

3.5/5

James

  Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Dir.  Michael Curtiz

Starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie & Walter Huston

Ranked #98 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

There are legends and then there are true legends.  George M. Cohan is just one of those people who was more than a singer and dancer.  He was so much more and today I watch a film dedicated to his life called Yankee Doodle Dandy.

George M. Cohan was born to Vaudeville actors and according to him, born on the fourth of July.  After a performance where he stars as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the same president to the White House summons him.  While there, he starts reflecting on his life.  We see his rise to fame with his family on the Vaudeville Circuit, his fall from grace and how he pulled himself back to the stage and success with hit song and plays after song and play.  After leaving the White House, he joins a military parade singing Over There, one of his hit songs.

It’s interesting watching James Cagney perform song and dance when he was known better as the King of Gangster Films like Angels with Dirty Faces, Public Enemy No. 1 and The Doorway to Hell.  Cagney was in fact a product of Vaudeville, so playing George Cohan seemed to be a relatively easy transition for him.

For everything that George Cohan was known for, it’s probably his patriotic numbers that most people will associate and remember him for.  This plays quite an important role in Cagney taking the role of Cohan.  In the forties, several congressmen and lawyers were headhunting in Hollywood, looking for anyone that they could label as a Communist and blacklist them.  Cagney’s name was brought up quite often in those circles and was a target for the government.  He always insisted he was a liberal and a supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Of course, this film is all about success and patriotism, and those themes run through out the entire film.  Success comes from Cagney in this role and the fact that he sings and dances entirely himself through this whole film.  He doesn’t dance like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire nor does he sing like the musical stars of those days, but he’s such a great actor that he fools everyone.  He does it with such bravado that you buy that he’s done this for years and years.  Of course Cagney does have roots in Vaudeville but nowhere near what Cohan did.

I wouldn’t call this a musical nor would I call it a docudrama.  I think it’s a fine mix of both, where the musical interludes exist to move the story forward and do not steal from the overall experience.

5/5

James

  Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Dir. Peter Jackson

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortenson and Christopher Lee

Ranked #50 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

Today, I take a very long walk into the realm of Middle Earth for my 100 movies in 100 days.  Today I stand along elves, hobbits and man in Peter Jackson’s epic film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Sauron was a dark lord, using a ring to gain power to defeat all of the races on Middle Earth.  In a battle on Mt. Doom, Prince Isildur defeats him and the ring is separated from Sauron’s hand.  Because Sauron’s life force is imbedded in the ring, it must be destroyed in Mt. Doom.  Islidur does not, possessed by the evil power in the ring and it goes missing for several thousand years.  Eventually it goes into the possession of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit.  It is found by Gandalf, a wizard who knows it must be destroyed because Sauron is looking for it.  Eventually, it is entrusted into the hands of Frodo, Samwise, Pippin and Merian.  They are tasked with taking the ring to Mordor and Mt. Doom to destroy it once and for all.  They take Aragorn and Boromir, both who are race of man, Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.  Along the way, an Orc army who detains them from furthering in their adventure confronts them.

When I first saw this movie, I was excited.  I read those books and those books were my first big reads when I was a child.  There is no way one could go into this movie and not come out going “wow!”

However, taking the time needed to swallow it all in and having watched it again today, I have a lot of issues with this film.  Not nitpicking problems that I’m sure many Tolkien nerd have had issues with in temrs of being faithful to the original material.  The problems I had are as a filmmaker and as a student of film.

The biggest one is that this movie is far, and I mean far too long.  The pacing, which is incredible seeing that Peter Jackson as the director had so much to put into it, is bad.  There is a large amount of action and battles, but not enough to keep this thing moving at a brisk pace so that you go “wow, that was three hours?”  Sadly it feels far longer than that.

How would you shorten it?  I’m not entirely sure how to make it shorter and what’s even more depressing is that there is an extended cut of this film adding an additional 35 minutes to it.  Why oh Why Peter Jackson?  Why would we need more slowly paced additional material for a film that feels far more than adequate in the material department?

My other larger gripe exists in the action scenes.  While some are amazing and epic in scale and special effect looks, some are just disappointing.  The scene with the battle with the troll in the mines is awesome and the creature, completely digital is still by far the best computer generated monster I have ever seen.  The action and choreography are above awesome and at times, I felt myself getting lost in that battle.

Then of course there are action scenes that don’t work.  The large battle at the end of the movie is scattershot and discombobulated.  It’s seems like it was choreographed by a 12 year old with action figures in his bedroom all alone.

Want another example of action not working?  The battle with Gandalf and the Balrog is awesome.  The effects are there and look as real as a flaming monster gets.  Then we get to the scene with Gandalf and Saruman fighting.  You have two of the most powerful wizards standing toe to toe preparing for an epic fight and all you have is a lot of staff pointing and old men flying through the air and into walls.  I would seriously doubt and have trouble believing that this is all Peter Jackson could handle.

I’m sure that a many of the Rings fans will give me crap for this review, but from my viewpoint, this movie was good but not amazing.  In fact, all three movies were fun to have seen, but in no certain terms would I ever list them as epic.  There are fatal flaws in these films both on the source material translation and some of the overly hyped special effects.  Overall, I enjoy and like the movies but like I said, they are in no way epic and in no way belong on a list like this.

3.5/5

James

Toy Story: My Review

Posted: July 5, 2011 in AFI 100, Movies

  Toy Story (1995)

Dir. John Lasseter

Starring Tim Allen, Tom Hanks & Don Rickles

Ranked #99 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

There are so few production companies and studios that have the track record that the studio that made my film for today.  From the minds of some of the most talented animators in the world and the house of the mouse, I get to watch Pixar’s first and one if their best, Toy Story.

Andy and his mom and sister are getting ready to move.  That’s the boring part of the movie.  The best part is the secret world that inhabits Andy’s room.  It’s a world where all your toys are alive.  Woody is the favorite toy, a pull string cowboy doll that leads the other toys that consist of a dinosaur, army men, Boo Peep, a pig and a slinky dog.  They are all nervous not because of the impending move but because it’s Andy’s birthday and the toys are worried they’ll be replaced.  Woody and the gang’s worst fears come true when Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger toy is brought into the fold.  Soon, Buzz and Woody come to blows and Buzz becomes trapped in the room of Sid, the local kid that loves blowing up toys.  It’s up to Woody to save the day, rescue Buzz and wrangle all the other toys for the move.

Pixar must have some kind of magic water that they distribute to their workers or they just know what works and go with it.  I mean lets face it, it’s hard to make a movie that appeals to both adults as well as children and Pixar has that formula.  We see it in almost all of their films, including their first, Toy Story.

What works with Toy Story far outnumbers what doesn’t.  It’s an adventure story that kids only dream of going on and one that adults only remember as fond memories.  Toy Story brings back that time when I sometimes wondered if my toys were alive when I was at school or sleeping.  It has a story of jealousy and friendship, of finding the best in people and sometimes just letting go of your worries.

The voice work is spot on with Tim Allen as Buzz and Tom Hanks as Woody.  Of course the supporting cast of Jim Varney, Don Rickles, Annie Potts and John Ratzenberger of Cliff Claven fame who appears in all of their films help just round out the other toys voices.

I will say that after seeing Toy Story 3 and comparing it to Toy Story, it is amazing how far Pixar has gone with improving their animation.  Toy Story was revolutionary for it’s time.  It was the first full feature computer animated movie.  It created a need for family fun that was sorely lacking and created numerous knockoffs and impersonators.

While this is not my favorite Pixar movie, some of the musical numbers make me lose interest pretty fast; this is one of my top 3 of all time.  It’s amazing how far they have come in making movies and telling complete stories.  I always look forward to their next films every time they come out, with the exception of Cars.

4.5/5

James

  A Night at the Opera (1935)

Dir. Sam Wood

Starring Kitty Carlisle, Alan Jones, Groucho Marx, Chico Marx & Harpo Marx

Ranked #85 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

 

A great number of vaudeville acts were able to jump from stage to screen with great success.  Acts like Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy were massive successes but none were ever able to achieve the following of The Marx Brothers.   Today my film is their first with MGM entitled A Night at the Opera.

The Marx Brothers team together to put two opera singers in a big show in New York and help them fall in love while showcasing their madcap antics to the grief of an opera program director and a woman trying to break into high society.

Rather than spend too much time going over the plot and story of this film, I’d rather wax poetic about these three brothers and the years of entertainment they have given me over the years.

The Marx Brothers are still, even after all these years, one of my favorite comedy teams to grace the silver screen.  Honing their talents on the stage of Vaudeville, they took years and years of perfecting their craft before even going on the silver screen.  Paramount took the chance of putting their antics on film for mass audiences to enjoy the slapstick humor mixed with verbal stabs that would be their calling card.  It was at this time that they would put out classics like Coconuts, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup.  Duck Soup would be their biggest movie with critics but bombed at the box office.  This would eventually lead to their dismissal from Paramount.

Numbers at the box office was not their only reason for Paramount for getting rid of Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Groucho.  While on set, they were virtually uncontrollable and refused to film unless their ideas were put in scripts.  Directors would literally walk off set because of the difficulty the brothers displayed, but it was their intervention and refusal to put out a bad product that made their Paramount movies a success with the fans rather than in box office receipts.

MGM took the chance to give the brothers one last shot at movie star status.  However, instead of 90 minutes of the brothers running mad around the set and ad-libbing dialog like crazy, they gave them strict scripts to follow.  Their first was A Night at the Opera, and while it was successful at the box office, it was a failure in the eyes of the fans.

A Night at the Opera is fun, but only in parts.  Instead of being the main focal point, allowing the brothers to do what they do best with verbal jabs and pratfall humor, they played second fiddle to plot and story.  A majority of the plots in their MGM movies involved some kind of love story where the brothers, through humor helped the two lovers of the story find each other.  A Night at the Opera is no different.

One plus is that we get to see the musical side of Chico and Harpo during their MGM years and in my movie I watched today.  Harpo was an acclaimed and classically trained harp and piano player while Chico was also an accomplished piano player in his own right.  They kept interest in these down times of the movie by playing these beautiful musical pieces with comical panache.

I know from just reading this that one can formulate my distaste for this film and a majority of their MGM films and I will be truthful.  I do enjoy their Paramount films and their much later United Artists releases, but there are enough of the good parts to make me like A Night of the Opera.  While I would choose to watch the early stuff more than anything else, if they are on TV or I need a good laugh, I will pop in just about anything with Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.

4/5

James

  The Last Picture Show (1971)

Dir. Peter Bogdanovich

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd

Ranked #95 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time

 

Welcome to the world where parental figures are the furthest thing from being actual parents and everyone from the young to the old are kids in some way.  My 100 movies in 100 days bring me to a dirt town on the border of Texas in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

Sonny is the star football player in the small border town of Anarene in Texas.  He has a pretty boring life, lives in a boarding home and dates a rather plain and dumpy girl named Charlene.  He’s a friend with Duane who dates the prettiest and wealthiest girl in town named Jacy.  Her life isn’t all that grand either, her parents never talk nor seem in love and her mother is having an affair with an employee of her husbands.  When Sonny dumps Charlene, he starts an affair with the gym teacher’s wife Ruth.  Jacy seems irritated with life in general and falls for a boy at a naked pool party, but is rejected by him when he finds out she’s a virgin.  She sets out to lose her virginity, using Duane to lose it and dumps him afterwards.  Turns out that after she does, the boy she dumped Duane for has eloped with another girl.  This rejection sends Jacy down a dark path and eventually ends up with Sonny, who’s always had a thing for Jacy.  In the end, the patriarch of the town, Sam dies and leaves the place where everyone in town escapes, the movie theater to the counter girl, the diner to the waitress and the pool hall to Sonny.  His death signals a change in the lives of those living in town.

This town has to be the most boring town in the entire world because it seems that everyone sleeps with just about everyone, all to the soundtrack of Hank Williams playing in the background.  This town is restless, back dropped in the beginning of the Korean War, as are the youngsters that populate the town.  They are itching to start life, as are the adults, who thought that marriage would assure them ascension into the pearly gates.

Bogdanovich makes a film that flows and feels completely aimless and to tell you the truth, that is exactly the point here.  In this small dust bowl town in Texas, dreams and goals have little use and the morals that the townfolks have are mostly for show than anything else.

A lot of the charm comes form the storytelling that is peppered by a cast of veteran actors and virtual unknowns.  The tiptop of these actors comes in the form of Jeff Bridges, who brings the acting chops that he would display for decades to come in roles like The Big Lebowski and Crazy Heart.  Timothy Bottoms is excellent as the quiet and reserved Sonny.  By far Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy is fantastic as she uses sex not as pleasure but her means for getting out of the small town.  While sex is on the minds of all the people living there, the only warmth that comes from sexual liaisons is Cloris Leachman’s character of Ruth, who is married to a suspect gay husband and pines for the touch of Sonny.

A good movie that has excellent storytelling and character development, the fact that this was shot in black and white, very different for when it was filmed is what puts it over the top.

4/5

James