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From the DVD Shelf: RKO 281 (1999)

Included in the spectacular 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane (click here for my review, in case you missed it!) is HBO’s 1999 mini-series chronicling the troubled production of Citizen Kane, called RKO 281.  (RKO 281 was the film’s production code — RKO being the name of the studio.)  I think it’s very cool that this film was included in the Kane set, and I was particularly excited because I’ve been wanting to re-watch this HBO film for years.

The film boasts a strong cast.  Liev Schreiber stars as Orson Welles.  I was surprised that Mr. Schreiber eschewed any of the grand Wellesian mannerisms that I’ve seen so many actors playing Welles use (such as Angus Macfadyen in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rockclick here for my review — or Christian McKay in Me and Orson Wellesclick here for my review).  Liev plays the role very straight — his Orson seems like a normal human being (albeit one who is at times brilliant and at times intensely frustrating, and often both).  As the film progressed, I found myself quite taken with this interpretation.  Mr. Schreiber focuses our attention on Mr. Welles’ struggles to live up to his wunderkind reputation, and he shows us Welles’ incredible stubbornness and his extraordinary command of his skills as an actor.  He also doesn’t hesitate to show the ease with which his interpretation of Welles will use manipulation of all sorts to get what he wants.

John Malkovich plays Orson’s on-and-off buddy Herman Mankiewicz, who worked with Welles on creating the story for Kane and who wrote several drafts of the screenplay (and who would latter struggle with Mr. Welles over who should get the credit for that screenplay).  Mr. Malkovich is great fun in the role, and he has terrific chemistry with Liev Schreiber’s Welles.  The two men are like oil and water, which is what makes their scenes together so much fun.  (It feels to me like there’s been a lot of playing with reality to cast Welles and Mankiewicz as such close friends, but their relationship works in the film so I can’t really complain.)  James Cromwell plays William Randolph Hearst — this was perfect casting.  For the first half of the film Mr. Cromwell doesn’t have much to do other than glower and say nasty things about Welles, but when the focus shifts towards Hearst in the film’s second half, he really gets to dig his teeth into the material.  There are some great scenes in which Hearst results to some ferociously nasty tactics in order to block the release of of Citizen Kane, and Mr. Cromwell is terrific in those scenes in … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Citizen Kane (1941)

The 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane topped my Best DVDs of 2011 list, even though back in January I was still in the process of making my way through the expansive three-disc set.  Over the last few months I’ve had a great time watching the film, listening to all the commentary tracks, and making my way through all the special features (including the 1995 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and HBO’s 1999 film about Kane’s troubled production, RKO 281). Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the best movie ever made, and while it’s not my personal favorite film of all time, it’s a film that I really, really love.  More than seventy years after it was made, Citizen Kane remains a magnificent film, and the blu-ray set is phenomenal.

I feel a bit under-qualified to write about Citizen Kane. The film has been the subject of so much scrutiny and attention over the past seventy years, and film scholars far more knowledgeable than I have written voluminous tomes about the movie.  The two commentary tracks on the blu-ray set, by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, are both two-hour-long scholarly dissections of Kane above anything I could hope to write.

I first saw Citizen Kane in a film architecture class I took while at college.  The course was a history of set-design in film, but it was also a history of the movies themselves.  Each week the professor screened several films on the big-screen (using a projector in one of the lecture halls).  I encountered quite a few major films for the first time through that class (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin, and many more), and Citizen Kane was among them.  I was smitten with Kane immediately.  I’m sure it helped that my first viewing was on such a large screen, where I could really soak in Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s marvelously innovative cinematography.  I have seen the film many times since then, and I never fail to be impressed and engrossed.  This new blu-ray edition is absolutely gorgeous.  The film is dazzlingly pristine, yet not scrubbed so clean that it loses its character.  (Don’t judge the image quality by the opening few minutes — that newsreel footage is SUPPOSED to look crummy!)

I’m a sci-fi nut and I love big visual effects films, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite aspects of Citizen Kane is the extraordinary depth and variety of visual effects trickery used by Mr. Welles to create the look of the film.  Citizen Kane is a visual effects movie, make no mistake!  In just the opening shot alone (the slow … [continued]

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The Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011!

Click here for my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2011: part one, part two, and part three, and here for my list of the Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2011: part one, and part two.

Now let’s dig into my list of the Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011!

10.  The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Series One As a huge fan of Arrested Development, this six-episode IFC series that reunited Will Arnett (Gob Bluth) and David Cross (Tobias Funke) was something of a disappointment.  More agonizingly awkward than actually funny, it’s on this list because that fact that this weird, short little series exists at all on DVD is one of the reasons that I love this format!  I had missed this series when it aired on IFC, so I was so pleased that it was released on DVD.  The show isn’t without merit, but it’s nowhere near the genius of the late, great (and now possible resurrected!) Arrested Development.

9.  Marvel’s super-hero movie blu-rays: Thor, Captain America: The First Adventure, and X-Men: First Class I praised these three Marvel super-hero movies in my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2011, and I was equally taken by their blu-ray releases.  Not only do all three films look absolutely gorgeous on blu-ray, but all three are accompanied by some fairly in-depth featurettes exploring all aspects of the films’ production.  None of these are super-elaborate special editions, and I do wish that, for all of these films, the featurettes had been edited together into one longer, comprehensive making-of documentary.  But these are very, very solid releases, with a lot for fans of these films to dig into.  Extra props for the wonderful “Marvel One-Shot” shorts included on the Thor and Captain America discs, that further connect the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers.

8.  Louie: Season 1 I’d been reading about this show for a while, and having now finally watched the season one set I can say that this show deserves all the praise it’s been getting, and more.  In it’s structure, the show resembles Seinfeld: clips of Louie C. K. performing stand-up are intercut with vignettes of his life.  But in other respects the show is the exact opposite of Seinfeld.  Whereas on Seinfeld all of the story-lines would wind up beautifully dovetailing by the end, on Louie the individual scenes on the show often have little or nothing to do with one another.  We’ll watch a seven-minute sequence of Louie and his buddies playing poker, and then after some more stand-up we’ll shift to an entirely different scene … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Cradle Will Rock (1999)

Last week I wrote about the disappointingly mediocre Me and Orson Welles, and I commented that the film covered familiar ground as Cradle Will Rock, the 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins.  After writing that blog post, I realized that it had been years since I’d last seen Cradle Will Rock, and I was in the mood to give it another viewing.

Set in 1937, Cradle Will Rock focuses on the tumultuous production of the musical written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), directed by Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the depression-era Work Progress Administration that helped bring theatre to millions of people nation-wide.  The play Cradle Will Rock depicted the struggles of working-class union members, and as such was seen as extremely controversial by some.  But the sprawling story of Tim Robbins’ film covers far more than just the production of that one play.  It also tells the story of the artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)’s creation of an enormous mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) that was destroyed when Mr. Rockefeller disapproved of the left-leaning imagery of the mural.  We also see an elderly ventriloquist’s struggles in the face of the demise of vaudeville, the House Un-American Activities Commission’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project, and more.  Through all these stories, Cradle Will Rock tells the stories of artists struggling in the face of economic depression, and the collision between art and politics.

Mr. Robbins has assembled an incredible, enormous ensemble for his film.  Each one of these characters could be the headliner in a film focusing solely on them.  (If I have any criticism about Cradle Will Rock, it’s that it might have been nice to have spent some more time with some of these characters, had the film had a narrower focus.  But they’re each so good, and their characters’ stories so interesting, that I can’t really complain.)

When the film opens, we meet Olive (Emily Watson), a beautiful young singer who has been forced to sleep in movie theatres because she is broke and homeless.  She eventually finds work as a stagehand in Orson Welles’ production of Cradle Will Rock. Mr. Welles is portrayed by Angus Macfadyen.  It’s a much broader, comical portrayal that that of Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and watching these two films in such short succession I found that I preferred Mr. McKay’s portrayal.  But that’s no knock against Mr. Macfadyen, who is still one of the best things about Cradle Will Rock. He is a hoot as Orson, loud and vivacious and argumentative and brilliant.  It’s a really fun performance to watch.  He bounces beautifully … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Me and Orson Welles (2009)

In Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) somehow finds himself cast in a small role in Orson Welles (Christian McKay)’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre.  As the brash, brilliant, egocentric Welles struggles to realize his vision for the production, Richard enters a master class in theatre and life as he struggles to hold his own in the production while also finding himself attracted to Mr. Welles’ pretty, driven young assistant Sonja (Claire Danes).

Whenever Me and Orson Welles focuses on Mr. Welles, and his efforts to mount his production called Caesar, the film soars.  Christian McKay is wonderful as Welles.  He commands the screen whenever he is on it, just as the real Orson Welles did.  As Welles, Mr. McKay is dynamic, funny, and outrageous — an oversized personality, bursting at the seams with brilliance and ego.  There’s an element of caricature in the performance, but it never falls over into silly parody.  Mr. McKay shows us the beating, human heart of the man — his failings, and his burning desire to succeed in his endeavors despite all the obstacles in his way.  It’s an incredible performance, and I hope that Mr. McKay goes on to have a long, successful career.

I was fascinated by the film’s glimpses into Welles’ production: the way he turned constraints into creative devices (choosing to set the film in modern day because he didn’t have money for costumes), and I thrilled to the glimpses we were given into the staging of certain scenes and Mr. Welles and his actors’ debates as to how to bring certain moments from the play to life (such as the death or the poet Cinna).  He ensemble of actors in the film who portray Welles’ ensemble at the Mercury Theatre are very strong (James Tupper, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill, and more) and could each almost be the lead of their own film.

Unfortunately, where the film falls flat is in the story of the main character, Richard, played by Zac Efron.  While I’m certainly not a fan of Mr. Efron’s (I’ve never seen High School Musical or any of his work), I not a hater, either.  I was eager to see what this young actor/musician could do in this serious role.  Sadly, he’s just terrible.  Mr. Efron plays his scenes with an arrogant smirk that caused me to have an immediate, visceral dislike for his character.  Throughout the film, it’s impossible to tell when Richard is being genuine or when he’s just spinning lies to get the girl or to get a job.  (When Richard first meets Orson Welles, he clearly lies through his … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews The Cat’s Meow (2001)

It’s funny — although I acknowledge that Peter Bogdanovich is a significant, influential director, I must admit with some embarrassment that I’ve seen very few of his films.  Many of his ground-breaking films from the ’70s remain, as-yet-unseen, on my lengthy “to-watch” list: The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon, etc.  I actually know Mr. Bogdanovich more as a knowledgeable film historian (his audio commentary on the DVD of Citizen Kane, for example, is magnificent and enlightening) than I do as a director.

But I’m a big fan of a film that he made in 2001, The Cat’s Meow.  The film is based on Hollywood whispers (“the whisper told most often”) about the events of a fateful boat cruise hosted by legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1924 that (might have) resulted in the untimely death of director Thomas Ince.

As the film tells the tale, W.R. Hearst invited an assemblage of show-biz folks (and a few gossip-writers) to join him on a yacht cruise in celebration of Mr. Innes’ birthday.  One of the guests was Charlie Chaplin (played by comedian Eddie Izzard), who may or may not have been involved at the time with Hearst’s very young starlet wife, Marion Davies (played by Kirsten Dunst).  (Of course, Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies was most famously depicted — not in a positive light — in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which resulted in Hearst’s attempts to block that film’s release.)  Though the weekend was supposed to be a fun getaway, it seems that almost every guest on Hearst’s yacht arrived with their own agenda.  The fun of the film is in watching these powerful Hollywood personalities bounce off one another, as each guests’s true ambitions bubble just below the surface.

There’s a lot of humor to be found in the film, although it shouldn’t be mistaken for a farce.  The Cat’s Meow is actually a pretty sad story — this boat cruise did not have a happy ending for many of its guests.

Mr. Bogdanovich assembled an interesting mix of actors for the film.  I really enjoyed Eddie Izzard’s performance as Chaplin.  He doesn’t really look like Chaplin, but still, the casting is inspired.  Izzard really nails the charisma of Chaplin, without falling into mimicry.  It seems to me that Kirsten Dunst isn’t that well thought of as a serious actress, but I thought she was terrific here as Davies.  Unlike Mr. Izzard, she really does look the part — and she brought a surprising amount of soul to the performance.  (You’ll have a lot more empathy for Marion Davies when watching The Cat’s Meow than when watching Citizen Kane!)  Edward Herrmann (whom my … [continued]

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Guest Blogger Ethan Katz Discusses Citizen Kane!

Below is a contribution from guest blogger Ethan Katz to our continuing series in which I asked several of my close friends and colleagues to name their Favorite Movie of All Time.


When I first saw Citizen Kane, I was only seven or eight years old, and I knew little more about the film than the fact that critics had repeatedly dubbed it “the greatest movie ever made,” and that it took its inspiration from the real life story of famed newspaper publisher and political figure William Randolph Hearst. For these reasons, I looked forward to the showing, but I soon found that much of the film’s brilliance and most of its references were lost on me. Yet twenty-some years and several more critical showings later, I have become deeply attached to the film and find that it continues to offer new insights, visually, cinematographically, historically, and even philosophically.

At the most basic level, Citizen Kane is a deeply American story, and in a sense a deeply tragic one. The parents, particularly the mother, of Charles Foster Kane, a talented and precocious young boy, decide that their inheritance of a gold mine offering tremendous wealth should cause them to send the boy to be raised by a Mr. Walter Thatcher, whose top hat and posh British accent immediately tell us that he is the very embodiment of East Coast elitism. After becoming master of his own wealth at age 25, Kane decides to enter the newspaper business. He soon builds the greatest newspaper empire on earth. During that time, however, he also evolves from a muckraking idealist into a publicity hound with boundless ambition. A love affair with Susan Alexander, a hapless “singer” (the mocking quotation marks are the film’s) destroys Kane’s first marriage and his political ambitions. Alexander, who becomes his second wife, leaves him when she grows weary of his self-centeredness and the utter isolation of their enormous and lavish castle, “Xanedu.” There, Kane dies, an isolated, sad man, imprisoned by his own wealth and his personal failings.

Part of what makes Citizen Kane such a powerful film is that it chooses to portray a famous man’s life not through a conventional narrative of his greatest deeds but through the eyes of those who knew him up close: his business associates, longtime friends, ex-lover, and others. Moreover, though made in 1941, it does so in what we now call “fractured time,” moving repeatedly between various phases of Kane’s life and personal relationships. Orson Welles, creator and star of the film, seems highly self-conscious of the cinematic and story-telling revolution that such methodology portends. In fact, at its outset, the film shows a quick, incomplete newsreel on … [continued]

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OK, here we are with my final “Best-of” list, the Top 10 DVDs of 2008!  To be included on this list, the DVD in question had to contain a high-quality TV show, movie, or special and also a great presentation on DVD, with lots of cool special features.  Behold my list:

10.  Mystery Science Theatre 3000:  20th Anniversary Edition — I adore this show, and this 20th anniversary celebration of its existence just rocked.  On this set, the gang haves fun with four great/terrible films: First Spaceship on Venus (1960), Laserblast (1978), Werewolf (1996) and Future War (1997).  Even better is the inclusion of an in-depth 3-part documentary on the making of the show, from its creation through to its end.  The icing on the cake was the neat tin case that included fun stuff like a little model of Crowe T. Robot, which now sits proudly on my desk.

9.  John, Paul, Tom & Ringo: The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder — This DVD contains three lengthy, rare interviews that Tom Synder conducted with Paul McCartney (in 1979), Ringo Starr (in 1981), and John Lennon (in 1975).  The Lennon interview is the last televised interview that John gave before his death.  Snyder is an engaging interviewer, and these lengthy conversations with 3 of the 4 Beatles are a real find.

8.  The Office: The Complete Fourth Season and 30 Rock: The Complete Second Season — Complete season sets of these two NBC shows at the top of their game were released in ’08, I can’t tell you how many hours of enjoyment I got out of these DVDs.  In the fourth season of The Office, Ryan the temp is promoted, moves to New York City, and falls to pieces; Andy begins dating Angela; Stanley finally loses it with Michael (“did I stutter?”), Michael is deposed in Jan’s case against Dunder Mifflin; the gang creates an ad to run on local television and participates in Michael’s “fun run” towards a cure for rabies; Toby finally leaves for Costa Rica; and of course Michael and Jan invite Jim and Pam over for a dinner party.  Over on 30 Rock, Jack launches a new reality series called  MILF Island; Tracy and Jenna feud over Liz’s attentions; Liz adopts a hippie writer (played by Carrie Fisher) as her mentor; Devon Banks (Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett) feuds with Jack over the top spot at GE; Jerry Seinfeld discovers Jack’s plan to digitally insert him into all of NBC’s new fall shows; Jack falls in love with a Democratic Congresswoman from Vermont (Edie Falco); and while Liz Lemon faces a pregnancy scare, Jack takes a job working in the Bush Administration along … [continued]

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“He was Some Kind of a Man” — An Orson Welles Double Feature

I first saw Citizen Kane in college, during a fantastic class called Film Architecture (one of the best classes I had in college).  I’ve seen it several times since then, and while I wouldn’t list Kane as my favorite film of all time, I certainly understand why many consider it to be the greatest film ever made.  It is a magnificent piece of work, and seeing Kane instantly made me an enormous fan of Orson Welles.  Last month I had the great pleasure to watch two Welles films on DVD, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Touch of Evil — Made in 1958, Touch of Evil was written and directed by Welles, and he has a major role as police Captain Hank Quinlan.  In the opening moments of the film, a man places a bomb in a car driving across the Mexican border into the United States.  When the bomb goes off on the U.S. side of the border, high-ranking Mexican narcotics official Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (played by, believe it or not, Charlton Heston) and his young American wife (Janet Leigh) quickly get swept up in the investigation and a tangled web of dirty cops, drug dealers, and a lot of other nastiness.

Visually and technically, the film is a masterpiece.  The dynamic camerawork is astonishingly inventive for a film made 50 years ago.  The movie opens with one of the most famous shots in film history, a long tracking shot (3 minutes and 33 seconds) that starts with a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car and then follows the car’s slow drive down streets and across the border, paralleling Heston & Leigh’s walk across the border.  The camera constantly pulls in and out to follow both the car and the couple, making sure the viewer can follow exactly where they are in relation to one another, and charting their progress through a Mexican border-town and across the border.  The soundwork here is also magnificent, as we hear an interwoven stream of sound with the levels shifting from moment to moment, allowing us to catch snippets of music from the street, the car’s radio, and Heston and Leigh’s conversation as well as their interactions with various others such as a border guard they pass.  

Although that opening shot is the most famous, there is an even longer, more impressive uninterrupted sequence in the middle of the film, in which Welles is interrogating a young Mexican suspect.  Over the course of this shot we witness a lengthy interrogation, with characters moving around the house and coming in and out of various rooms.  The drama is so good that you might not realize the stunning camera work, … [continued]