Friday, May 31, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.2: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 100/A

At this point, it’s difficult to discuss Citizen Kane and not go over the same points most people have brought up over the past seventy years: it’s considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. It’s loosely based off of the life of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t much like it. It’s the main reason that Orson Welles was both cemented as one of the all-time great directors and as a filmmaker who would struggle to get any of his projects off the ground. It’s practically untouchable, to the point where it’s often met with either blind adulation or contrarian dickishness. It’s a shame, considering how lively and vital the film still is to this day. The greatest movie ever made? It's certainly in the conversation.

Charles Foster Kane (Welles) has died, impossibly rich but alone, cut off from much of society. His last word, “Rosebud” is a mystery. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is tasked to find out just what Kane meant with his final word, and goes about interviewing those who were closest to him: his mistress and second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore); his right-hand man Bernstein (Everett Sloane); his former best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten); and his cynical butler Raymond (Paul Stewart). Each person gives a portrait of Kane- generous with his time but closed off, needy for love but with little love to give, a man who had everything and lost everything that was important.

Much has been made of the style of Kane, which mixes realistic and formalistic techniques like nearly no other film before it in a way that would influence everyone from Martin Scorsese to Francois Truffaut. The deep focus technique Welles uses is often cited as a realistic technique, as it gives the viewer a chance to direct attention to any part of the frame, and the long takes are also cited for their realism. Yet Welles (with the help of master cinematographer Gregg Toland) often uses these devices in a formalistic way. In one notable scene, Kane loses much of his fortune and negotiates with his bitter former caretaker, Thatcher (George Coulouris), and the depth of field keeps Kane, Thatcher, and Bernstein all in perfect focus, arguably showing realistic technique. But as Kane walks into the background, one should pay attention to the windows- what at first looked like a normal size window is now revealed to be huge, towering over Kane, making him seem tiny just as much of his wealth is being reduced. It’s enormously effective, expressionistic camerawork, and the fact that it’s a long take only adds to the magic of it.

“Magic” is an appropriate word. For Kane, Welles mixed plenty of diverse influences- the realism of John Ford and Jean Renoir, the formalism of the German Expressionists and Eisenstein, a love for baroque design, Shakespeare- but blends it together with some impressive trickery that makes the film seem like it was made for more than it was. Many of the sets were just simple Hollywood sets, but Thatcher’s Memorial Library and Kane’s mansion are made to seem gigantic through the use of wide shots and echoing sound design. Kane’s grounds are made foreboding with some fog and fades that make us feel like we’re getting a peek at something we shouldn’t. Thompson (ably played by Alland) is made an effective audience surrogate simply by the fact that he’s constantly either cloaked in chiaroscuro shadows or only shown from the back. Characters seem larger than life because of how low the camera (and often the ceilings) are. Transitions through time seem natural simply by the sheer force of Welles’ will- everyone recalls the whip pans in Kane’s series of breakfasts with his first wife as they gradually grow more distant. It’s both an effective, dynamic way to show just how their relationship has grown strained and, when Welles pulls back to reveal that they’ve gone from a small table close together to a long table far apart over the years, show just how psychologically removed Kane has become from someone he professed to love.

Still, the realist supporters would have some support with Welles’ use of long takes, which, in the style of Chaplin, give great support to the performers. Welles convinced RKO Radio Pictures to let him use the Mercury Theatre players for the film, and they’re uniformly marvelous: Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s aloof mother; the eternally stuffy Coulouris as Thatcher; Dorothy Comingore as Susan, a naïve girl smothered by Kane’s affection and his insistence that she continue singing even though she’s not talented; Everett Sloane as the hilariously sycophantic and loyal Bernstein, who wants nothing more than to bask in Kane’s glow; and especially the great Joseph Cotten as Leland, a man who goes from true believer to skeptic at the church of Charles Foster Kane, his closest friend, and the man with the clearest view of who Kane is- an idealist about to be corrupted, and a man who cannot love openly the way he demands to be loved openly.

Of course, much of the glory also comes from Welles’ background in radio- he’s fantastic at using sound cues as both underlines of action (think when the snowball hits Ma Kane’s boarding house) and as ways to jar the audience (that fucking terrifying cockatoo screech). He also brought with him, from The Mercury Theatre On the Air, a man who would become one of the greatest composers in film history- Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann would win the Oscar that year for another film, but it’s hard to imagine his work on The Devil and Daniel Webster is half as varied and dynamic as his work here. The music goes from foreboding and mysterious (the Expressionistic opening) to ecstatic and overwrought (NEWS! ON THE MARCH!), from joyful to lonely in childhood, from Kane’s delightful song (THERE IS A MAN!) to Susan’s opera, to the ultimately haunting strains in the film’s unforgettable final moments. The film would be a masterpiece no matter what, but it’s hard to imagine it being quite as great without Herrmann’s work, probably the composer’s best score next to Vertigo.

Still, this is Welles’ show, not only as a director, but as an actor. Kane is somewhat of a cipher at times, but a deliberate one- we purposely never know everything we could about him. He’s ingratiating, charismatic, funny, and often admirable in his ambition and idealism, but he’s also temperamental, petty, and filled with righteous (and sometimes not so righteous) fury. There’s plenty of Welles within Kane- the wunderkind status, the egomania, the charisma- but Welles notably had more love to give than Kane. As played by Welles, this is a man desperate for any kind of affection whatsoever, and a man who has a clear idea of some of his faults but still manages to make grave mistakes all the same. It’s easy to see why many might flock to him (he is Orson Welles, young, handsome, and with that gorgeous velvety voice), but it’s just as easy to see how one might easily be pushed away.

Certain people (particularly Pauline Kael) have tried to give more credit to co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz for the ingenious structure of Citizen Kane. One shouldn’t underestimate Mankiewicz’s contributions (he did get most of the inside information on Hearst), but it was Welles’ original concept, the structure of interviewing Kane’s close friends has its origins in the abandoned John Brown play Marching Song, and the thematic similarities the film shares with all of Welles’ greatest works. As with his earlier work Marching Song (not to mention his adaptations of Shakespeare plays), Welles shows a clear-headed view of public figures- they’re not just larger-than-life, but they’re often enigmatic. No matter how much we may think we know them, we’re only getting part of the picture. This is especially true of Kane, who is “loved by many…hated by as many more”, vilified as both a communist and as a fascist (Kane’s take: “I am….an American”). He is everything to everyone, and perhaps a champion of the people, but because he’s imperfect (read: has an affair), he’ll never hold public office.

There’s something in being a public figure that’s destructive to Kane, initially just a boy in a simple home. When he’s taken away from his childhood home with his beloved (but very cold) mother, any chance of a normal life goes away. He’ll forever be forced to try to be something great, and even as he gets every knick-knack, statue, or gem that he could ever want, he’ll forever be doomed to a lonely, sad life. Kane’s every action is a search for validation- from the public, from his lovers, from his friends- and any rebuke is taken very personally. In a key scene between him and Susan, he speaks of his search for his youth in his mother’s old possessions, but it’s little more than a sentimental, nostalgic yearning for a lost past. This loss of innocence will echo throughout Welles’ filmography, but few films in his filmography (and perhaps through all of history) articulate it quite this well.

Still, Kane is a moral man, at least at first. He resents Thatcher for taking him away from his mother, but also for his exploitation of the common man, and he’s willing to crusade against Thatcher and for the working man with his paper. He’s well-meaning and willing to lose millions. But are some of Kane’s tactics shady (supporting the Spanish-American War for monetary reasons, accusing a man of anarchism to gain information)? And is his devotion to the public not based out of his desire for love? Kane makes the Declaration of Principles to the public, but the clear-headed Leland has at least some sense that Kane’s idealism is untenable, and he becomes our moral voice against Kane’s megalomania. There’s a slow draining of idealism in both of the two- Kane is too busy building monuments to himself, and where Bernstein might sing the song of Charles Foster Kane with great passion, Leland knows that his friend is being changed. The look on his face of defeat and sadness after he learns of Kane’s affair (not to mention his pushing Susan into an opera career) is that of a man who’s lost complete faith in his friend.

He’s not the only one who loses faith in Kane. Welles’ expressionistic style helps showcase the sense of isolation in the film, particularly in the opening, in which the “NO TRESPASSING” sign and the mausoleum-like home of Kane show just how lonely his death was, but it’s nothing compared to his ultimate downfall as his final connection to humanity, Susan, falls away. When he and Susan first get together, he remarks that they’re both lonely, but she has little sense of how lonely a relationship with Charlie Kane is going to be. His demand that she pursue a singing career is less a push for her happiness than desire for validation for his own feelings about her. As he claps, alone, in the opera house, it’s a devastating moment of loneliness for both Susan, no doubt deeply embarrassed, and for Kane, who sees this as yet another form of rejection.

When she attempts suicide, he finally does relent, but it leads to her being smothered by a man who closes her up in a tomb of a home without really letting her know who he is. When she does leave him, it’s perhaps a huge weight off of her shoulders (even if she can’t completely escape him), but it’s final severance from humanity for him. As he tears apart her room in single-minded fury, he’s lost almost everything, all while giving almost no one an idea of who he really is. Of the many symbolic shots and images in the film, one of the most powerful is that of Kane walking next to a group of mirrors, showing the many false Kanes next to the one real one- we’ve known aspects of his personality, but he’ll always remain just out of reach.

And that speaks a great deal about who Kane is- someone unknowable. Rosebud, the sled, as it’s revealed in the greatest crane shot in cinema history, explained for a few fleeting seconds, and then taken away, is certainly an aspect of Kane- the promise of a youth lost, now just a hollow echo for a man who wound up empty and alone. It’s a piece of the puzzle, as Thompson aptly puts it (“a missing piece”), but he’s right that it’s only one piece, and that it can’t define the man completely. The final moments of the film are heartbreaking not only because it’s another aspect of the man lost forever, but because the journey for Rosebud’s meaning would have been empty even had it been successful. The man who desired love from all never had a chance.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #1: Geometria

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable. 

Loren's Grade: B+ (Loren doesn't use the same idiotic 100-point scale I do)
Max's Grade: B+/75

Max O’Connell: We’re back! Our work on the James Cameron Roundtable was some of the most fun I’ve had working on the blog, and it was really well received for both Loren and I, so we’re doing it again, and this time, it's personal!

Loren Greenblatt: It really is personal for us, we really, truly love Guillermo Del Toro.

MO: In time for his first film in five years, Pacific Rim. We decided to start with an early short of his called Geometria. (Director's Cut online no subtitles, here's the OC)

LG: It’s one of his first films, but in a sense it’s his most recent film because while the never happy with the cut, and he did a new cut for the Criterion edition of Cronos, his feature debut.

MO: It’s technically his tenth short, and he also did a lot of television work alongside Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki on the Twilight Zone-influenced Mexican TV show La Hora Marcada, but this is the earliest film of his that’s widely available on DVD.

LG: The plot of Geometria is the simplest thing ever. There’s a kid who’s really bad in school, and he doesn’t want to take the geometry test ever again, so he pulls out his copy of the Necronomicon, which, we all have a copy, right?

MO: I think I lost mine in the move back from school.

LG: Basically, according to this Necronomicon, if you draw a pentagon around you, you’ll be protected when you call demons to fulfill you wishes. As you might expect, it goes wrong. He makes two wishes: to never take the geometry test again, and to be reunited with his dead father.

LG: It’s this really charming little short that shows a lot of his influences and allows him to find his own stamp on them. He’s a big fan of horror films from the 70s, Italian Giallo films in particular. Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento especially. Argento (Suspiria) basically told the cinematographer of his films: “we’re going to light every part of the frame a completely different color, damn it,” and Del Toro follows his example to some degree.

MO: Del Toro really captures the lurid colors of Argento, but also the tactile gooeyness of Fulci. There’s something really nice about the nastiness of this thing, combined with the cheap but really charming rubber monster suits.

LG: Del Toro had his own special effects company at this point, and he was building towards his first feature length film. There's a nice detail where the mother, who doesn’t approve of her son’s interest in horror stuff over school, is watching this odd, synth, sweded version of The Exorcist that’s dubbed into Italian (like the film Geometria itself, and all voices are dubbed by Del Toro).

MO: And the demon looks kind of like Linda Blair. And there’s some Cronenberg influence with the body horror of it, which is spectacularly gooey.

LG: Del Toro’s just really well-versed in horror history. As he goes on, he's going to find his own spin on it, but for now he's doing a great job just riffing off what's already out there. It's a really strong first, or early, film.

MO: He’s even already found his color palette, to some degree, with the amber and cyan.

LG: The technique yes, but the shades are still very much in Bava and Argento's color palette, and he’ll develop it further to a more distinctive Del Toro color space, but I love the contrast between cyan blue day-glo effect and the bright pink of the mother’s fingernails.

MO: Or the goofy red glow as the demons arrive. Del Toro also uses sound really well. Aside from the dubbed voices, he introduces the mother by having a toy bat on a stick swung around her head by the son, and it’s making this squeaky bat sound that’s absolutely hilarious.

LG: There’s a lot of wonderful cartoon sound effects. I love that the demon has bubblegum that makes a perfect little pop.

MO: Now, this thing does reflect somewhat on Del Toro’s upbringing.

LG: Yes. He was into demons and monsters as a kid, and his grandmother, a really strict Catholic, had no sense of humor about it. She kept holy water around to exorcise him, put bottle caps in his shoes to mortify his flesh …that the poor guy didn’t end up more messed up is incredible. But he has a really good sense of humor, and this film kind of plays with it.

MO: It’s based on a short story by Frederic Brown called “Zero for Geometry” (or “Naturally” in other titles). In the DVD intro to the short, Del Toro introduces Brown as a master of the twist ending like O. Henry.

LG: The twist is that the kid needs to draw the pentagon to protect himself and (spoilers) he drew the pentagon wrong. (end of spoilers)

MO: Loren noted while we were watching that it was the worst-looking pentagon ever, and it ends up coming back: he drew a hexagon. And not even a good-looking hexagon. This is a shitty hexagon.

LG: It’s no wonder this kid failed Geometry class. It’s pretty great that the only thing left he has to turn to is the devil, and even that doesn’t work.

MO: Holy god, can he not draw a shape. It’s amazing to me, because I suck at math and even I managed to pull a C+ in Geometry. Whenever you make a deal with a demon, it’s probably not going to go over well. It doesn’t go well with the dead father, because he’s brought back as a horrible looking monster that eats the mother.

LG: He gets to never take the geometry test- because he gets eaten!

MO: Del Toro’s also playing with some of his key themes, like the misunderstood youth. The kid’s imaginative, but he doesn’t take things seriously, so he’s pushed aside. There’s hints of Pan’s Labyrinth there.

LG: Or the unfairness of life and the powerlessness of protecting loved ones, which turns up a lot in his films.

MO: There’s also a trickiness of demons that hints at how the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth is going to try to trick Ofelia into doing some questionable things.

LG: It’s just a really well made and charming short. I think I’d give it a B+

MO: I’d do the same, though if this were a student film and I were a teacher I’d give it a curve to an A+. He’s clearly found his voice to some degree already, and it’s the start of a great filmmaker.

LG: Everyone should have a first film this strong.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Grade: 87/A-

Steven Soderbergh been so prolific for so long that his promise of a sabbatical from filmmaking is nearly unthinkable. The director has covered so much ground over the past twenty-five years, from the War on Drugs (Traffic) to Tampa strip clubs (Magic Mike), and has even promised a Cleopatra rock musical for the stage. But the director does claim to be burned out, and his most recent theatrical release, Side Effects, suffered from a patently idiotic script and a directorial touch that didn’t know how to play it up for fun. But Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh’s made-for-TV HBO Movie and his final (for now) film, is a more fitting finale, and if it ends up being his last film for some time, he’s going out on a high note.

Teenager Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) lives a quiet life with his aunt and uncle while frequenting gay clubs and bars at night. When he meets pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) after one of the entertainer’s concerts, he starts up a friendship and sexual relationship with the older man. Soon, Liberace (or “Lee”, as he’s called) makes Scott his lover, closest confidant, and virtual son, but with the attention and lavish gifts comes sky high demands, including an imposed plastic surgery to make Scott look more like Lee. As the years pass, their relationship grows strained from Scott’s pill addiction and Lee’s sexual promiscuity.

Soderbergh is noted for his often clinical approach to filmmaker, something that can occasionally seem aloof and misaligned for a project (see: Side Effects). Here, it’s a perfect matter-of-fact counterbalance to the gorgeous production design and big performances. It’s also perfect at capturing the ins-and-outs of a business or process: the exuberance of Liberace’s lifestyle and concerts, the ups and downs of Scott and Lee’s relationship (and sexual dalliances), the often frightening processes of plastic surgery the two go through, and Scott’s drug addiction, which takes on an appropriately hazy look compared to the sharpness of the rest of the film.

There are plenty of strong supporting performances in the film, from Scott Bakula as Scott’s pragmatic friend to an almost unrecognizable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s lawyer to a hilarious Rob Lowe as a predatory doctor who exploits Lee and Scott’s weaknesses (vanity, addiction). But the film is largely a two-person show. Douglas gives one of his very best performances as Liberace, capturing the entertainer’s almost impossible flamboyance while also finding the combination of vanity, fear, and smothering love in the man. Damon is nearly as good despite being twenty years too old for the part (something that grows less bothersome as he’s stuck with disfiguring plastic surgery), playing a man stuck somewhere between overwhelming, nearly claustrophobic affection by his lover and coldness from the rest of the world.

Their relationship makes for the most emotionally affecting material Soderbergh has worked with at least since The Informant!. Soderbergh complained that most of Hollywood found the film “too gay” to fund, but in a way, it’s appropriate that the often-explicit film struggled. An early scene shows Scott at Liberace’s concert, where he and Bakula comment on how oblivious the audience is to the man’s homosexuality. The two are given a dirty look by an old woman, who represents both Liberace’s target audience and those who reject who he really is. When Scott and Lee go through a bad break-up, Scott is left with almost no resources, as his virtual marriage to Lee isn’t recognized. Soderbergh finds not only the soul within their relationship but, without overstating it too much, the political relevance of their story. Soderbergh’s finale is about how far we’ve come and, to an even greater degree, how far we have to go.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.1: Orson Welles Radio and Theatre

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Orson Welles remains one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, as well as one of its great “what-ifs”. What if more of Welles’ films had been successes? What if more of his films had been fully realized? What if he had been given final cut more often? As it is, the world must be satisfied with only 13 completed films, some of which are difficult to find, many of which have been truncated. And yet, it doesn’t matter. With Welles, we were given one of cinema’s greatest showmen, as well as one of its most important innovators and storytellers. If Welles has come too close to being a patron saint of directors, it isn’t without reason. Most of the greatest filmmakers of every generation since has taken a page from the man- Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, you name it. More than just about any director before or since, Welles has taught directors just how camera placement and editing could affect the viewer.

But before he conquered the big screen, Orson Welles was a talented ambitious wunderkind who conquered the stage. Born to a concert pianist mother and encouraged by a number of foster fathers, Welles displayed an early talent as an actor, and as a teenager staged a number of acclaimed student productions of Shakespeare shows at the Todd School for Boys. He then went on to star in a number of successful plays, from a production of Jew Suss in Ireland to playing Tybalt and Mercutio in various productions of Romeo and Juliet. He also began experimenting with writing and directing. Two notable projects: The Hearts of Age (Grade: 65/B), an early surrealist short film that, while narratively weak, showed his skill playing tricks on the audience (example: Welles, in heavy make-up as Death, walking down the stairs, only to appear at the top of the stairs again, over and over); and Marching Song, an unproduced play about revolutionary abolitionist John Brown that used interviews from people who knew him as a way to gain insight into an aspect of his character (sound familiar?).

Welles came to the attention of John Houseman, a producer who would be Welles’ main collaboration partner throughout most of the 1930s. Houseman would produce Welles’ direction of a production of Macbeth, often referred to as Voodoo Macbeth, which reset the action of Shakespeare’s play from Scotland to Haiti, using voodoo witch doctors for the witch sisters and an all black cast from the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Project in Harlem. The play was a huge success, and it showed Welles’ willingness to experiment and push boundaries. Only a few minutes of the play can still be viewed, as bits were captured for a newsreel, but even those parts of this vivid show are enough to show the truth- this kid, then only 21, has got something.

Welles would go on to direct a number of other acclaimed shows, from the successful farce Horse Eats Hat (his first collaboration with Joseph Cotten) to Cradle Will Rock, a left-wing musical that, when it was shut down for political reasons, Welles restaged in a smaller theatre with a piano rather than an orchestra, and with the cast members singing from the audience.

Welles greatest triumph on the stage, however, was Caesar, a pared-down production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that was the first production by the Welles-Houseman run Mercury Theatre. The production was set in a modern day country made up to evoke fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, with Caesar as a dictator brought down by the flawed but thoughtful Brutus (played by Welles) and the people led to brutality by the autocratic Marc Antony. One scene, the murder of the innocent poet Cinna, was staged with such expressionistic flair that the show was stopped by ten minutes of applause. Caesar shows one of the first signs of Welles’ genius not only technically, but showcased Welles’ primary thematic interests- corruption, innocent men implicated in terrible crimes (Cinna), the downfall of powerful men (Caesar, Brutus), and the clash between morality and megalomania. Richard Linklater would later dramatize the production in Me and Orson Welles. The film is unfortunately centered on a dull audience surrogate (badly played by Zac Efron), but it is worth seeing for Christian McKay’s performance as Welles and for Linklater’s recreation of Welles’ vision of Caesar.

At the same time that Welles became the theatre’s hottest director, radio started to court him. He became known across the country as the original voice of superhero The Shadow and directed a seven-part radio adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The latter show (Grade: B) is not one of Welles finest achievements on the radio, as the later episodes feel somewhat bloated and stuffed with comic overload, and the finale is largely a rehash of past episodes, but Welles and his company create a terrific sense of place, and Welles sonorous, velvety voice makes for a perfect Jean Valjean.

Welles’s early success in theatre and radio garnered him so much acclaim that CBS Radio soon invited him to broadcast a weekly series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air (which can be listened to here and here). Welles was given unprecedented creative control as the director and primary writer (alongside Houseman), and was allowed to bring the entire Mercury Theatre troupe, including Cotten, George Couloris, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, and a number of other future Citizen Kane actors. One of the great achievements of old-time radio, it showed how Welles could master storytelling in yet another medium while giving hints at his future successes in film. 18 of the 22 produced episodes still survive, with only one truly weak episode (Sherlock Holmes, C+, which suffers from Welles’ strangely sleepy Holmes).

The very first episode of the show, a production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (A), already establishes Welles’ gifts as a storyteller. There’s a wonderfully old fashioned and silly feeling to some of the musical cues (it practically goes DUN DUN DUN as Coulouris’ Harker claims to be a prisoner), and Welles’ booming voice makes for a particularly sinister and menacing Dracula. Better than almost any film version of Stoker’s novel, Welles captures the fever dream intensity of the story, particularly during the terrifying sea voyage of Dracula and Harker’s sense of isolation in the castle. The female actors (Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker and Elizabeth Fuller as Lucy Westenra) perfectly sell the sexual terror and hypnotism of their situation. It’s easy to see how kids listening in might have been frightened at the time, and it’s even better when Welles ends the broadcast with a  wonderful tongue-in-cheek play on the audience’s nerves: “What’s that over there?” (sound effect) “Nothing. Nothing at all. But always remember…there are wolves, there are vampires, such things do exist…”

Many of the episodes saw Welles working well with great literary classics, pared down to an hour but striking and vital. His Treasure Island (B+) is notable for a delightfully hammy Welles performance as Long John Silver, while his A Tale of Two Cities (A-) shows a young director with an increased skill at pacing and a skill for using sound to tell a story (the beheading at the end is particularly strong). Welles even gets a chance to reimagine his production of Caesar (A) for the radio, and while it no doubt can’t compare to the stage version, there’s still a wonderful vitality and immediacy to the production that no doubt comes from Welles’ worries over the rise of fascism in Europe.

Welles even gets a chance to experiment with shorter stories in some episodes, his production of Heart of Darkness (A) capturing the existential dread of Joseph Conrad’s novella, and an adaptation of Carl Ewald’s short story “My Little Boy” (A) standing as Welles’ first great stories of corrupted youth. The Mercury Theatre on Air is particularly strong when dealing with adventure stories, such as Edward Ellsberg’s paranoid survival thriller Hell on Ice (A-) and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (A), which features perhaps Welles’ best standalone radio performance as the furious, anguished Edmond Dantes.

But Welles’ best known and greatest achievement in the world of radio is undoubtedly his production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (A), no doubt the most famous radio show of all time. By this point, Welles’ production is legendary. Staged as a news report, apparently enough people found Welles’ tale of invaders from Mars so realistic and so frightening that it caused many to believe it was real. The extent of the panic was likely exaggerated, but it doesn’t change the effectiveness of the show.

The show begins by establishing a terrific sense of normality in the newscast- a report of the weather, some music, and a very matter of fact report of some strange activity on Mars. Welles, as astronomer Pierson, assures listeners that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but Welles’ use of a ticking clock in the background establishes a mood of dread that only amplifies as a reporter on the scene of a meteorite landing in New Jersey listens into some strange sounds coming from the crash site. There’s a gradual building of tension as Welles cuts back and forth between the mundane dance music (conducted by Bernard Herrmann) and a slow march towards terror before the Martians emerge from the site and kill everyone in sight, including the reporter mid-sentence. Welles’ gifts as a showman are at their peak here as he showcases a gradual breakdown of communication as the radio broadcasters are killed and we’re left to the sound of a HAM radio operator pleading for a connection- “Is there anyone on the air?”

The final third shows Welles’ Professor Pierson hiding away, isolated from the rest of the world, theorizing with a militia member about the end of the world. By this point, Welles has told a tale of large scale destruction (a real fear in the 1930s, given the existence of fascist dictatorships and the Soviet Union) and the breakdown of society with incredible flair. He’s managed to find the perfect balance of giving the audience enough information to paint a perfect picture while withholding enough information to keep them on the edge of their seats. There’s even a puckish display of wit as a radio announcer claims that they’re keeping up with updates because “radio has responsibility to serve the public”, which is awfully funny considering how much Welles had to know the broadcast would frighten the audience. His forced mea culpa the day afterward might have been necessary for PR reasons, but it’s still a towering artistic achievement. Is it any wonder that Hollywood snapped him up the next year?
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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Grade: 43/C

The biggest problem in adapting The Great Gatsby is that it’s borderline impossible. Almost everything that’s wonderful about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork is literary, from the gorgeous prose that’s hard to replicate on film to a deeply inward protagonist (Nick, not Gatsby) to symbols that, while deeply moving in print, might seem silly and overwrought on film. Even a truly gifted director would have trouble matching the tone of the novel, which captures what’s so appealing about the Roaring Twenties while still taking a sober, often cynical and ironic look at its excess and how it often symbolized the worst in America. Hyperactive Australian director Baz Luhrmann is more than adept to capture the former feeling, but he has trouble capturing the latter.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an alcoholic now living in a sanitarium in the years since the Jazz Age bubble burst. He tells a tale of how, as a bond salesman and former writer living in Long Island, he came into contact with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a millionaire prone to hosting lavish parties without coming into contact with any of his hundreds of guests. Gatsby, it turns out, pines for his long lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin, who is married to the unfaithful, snobbish Tom (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby strikes up a friendship with Nick and reignites his relationship with Daisy, but questions about his past and his connection to certain bootleggers start up, and soon Gatsby’s relationship leads to his downfall.

If the film has one major asset, it’s DiCaprio, whose mixture of charm, beauty, and pathetic attachment to the past is the most fully realized aspect of the story. The rest of the film’s virtues are almost completely in the margins- newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is phenomenal as Jordan Baker, Nick’s cynical love interest, while the gorgeous look of the film at least kept this audience member engaged. If nothing else, Luhrmann is skilled at capturing decadence, and the early parties are so over-the-top and audacious in their silliness (and their deliberate flaunting of period-accurate soundtrack, which prominently features Jay-Z and other rappers) that it’s difficult not to be swept up in it.

Luhrmann is less confident in the comedown. He’s too much of a melodramatist and believer in true love and excess to fully engage with the party’s end. Worse, he focuses far too much on the lovey-dovey material between Gatsby and Daisy, showing way too much of the two frolicking together and Nick stares on beatifically. Gatsby’s central romance is not a love story so much as it’s a major symbol for how Gatsby constantly reaches for things he thinks he wants, never mind how happy it’ll actually make him (the American Dream defined). In other words, it’s a purposefully shallow romance. Luhrmann makes it the emotional core, simplifying and therefore reducing the scope of the story. It doesn’t help that he drags on the romantic material in a way that makes much of the cold feet comedown seem like Cliff Notes faithfulness rather than interpretation.

But to be fair, this was an impossible project from the start. Even had Luhrmann not purposefully gone too broad painting Edgerton’s Tom as a villain, it would have been difficult to paint the old-money focused man as a complex character rather than a moustache-twirling baddie. Even had the film spent a disproportionate amount of time making the romance feel real, the wonderful Carey Mulligan would have trouble animating Daisy, a deliberate cipher who’s almost impossible to play. As for poor Maguire, he’s stuck narrating passages that, while gorgeous in the book, feel mostly like exposition in the film, and his central figure’s arc is too internal to make the subject of a film. Basically, books are not movies, no matter how much a gifted stylist like Luhrmann might try.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

Grade: 60/B-

Derek Cianfrance showed with Blue Valentine that he had a gift for capturing startling intimacy and claustrophobia. Sprawling generation-spanning histories are another matter entirely. Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, The Place Beyond the Pines, shows many of the same strengths as his earlier film, but it also amplifies his greatest weaknesses. What’s left is an often engaging film that never quite matches his earlier film’s gut-punch immediacy.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman who travels across the country in state fairs. When he learns that a former one-night stand (Eva Mendes) from Schenectady, New York has given birth to his son, he takes up armed robbery as a way to support his new family. At a key moment in his life, he comes into contact with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious, educated cop dealing with police corruption in his unit. Their choices will affect their sons, who may be doomed to repeat the sins of their fathers.

Give Cianfrance points for ambition. Where Blue Valentine made a small-scale tale of divorce feel universal, The Place Beyond the Pines tries to tell a sweeping tale of American men on both sides of the law and how families are doomed to repeat the past, almost like a naturalistic version of Heat mixed with East of Eden. Cianfrance also succeeds in getting strong performances from most of the major players, from Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime to Dane DeHaan as an introverted kid shaped by his father’s choices (Emory Cohen as a privileged burnout is a bit too distracting, though). The Place Beyond the Pines also shows that Cianfrance has a skill directing set-pieces, with a key scene between Gosling and Cooper being a particular standout.

The problem is that the film is more successful on a moment-to-moment basis than as a whole. Like Blue Valentine, the film has an ambitious structure, but where the earlier film made its non-chronological mix of the highs and lows of a relationship moving, The Place Beyond the Pines can’t quite connect the dots. The first third, which largely follows Gosling, is a rather gripping noir featuring another fine turn from the actor, who mixes the stillness of his turn in Drive with the blue collar desperation of his work in Blue Valentine. The second section is a much more familiar feeling cop drama, but it’s aided by remarkably subtle performance by Cooper as a man who’s equal parts decent and self-righteous. But these feel like completely different movies rather than parts of a greater whole, and that feeling is amplified by an audacious final third that feels too schematic and strains for profundity. Just because a film is about how the past affects the present doesn’t mean the present needs to feel predetermined.
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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lords of Salem

Grade: 67/B

There’s an early scene in The Lords of Salem that’s indicative of what much of the viewing experience will be. Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) walks around her poorly lit apartment, oblivious that there’s something menacing lurking in the next room. It’s a creepy moment, no doubt, but it’s just of hint of the terror that will likely come later. Except that most of The Lords of Salem is just that: creepy things just in the background or the foreground, toying with Heidi without actively harming her. It’s far removed from director Rob Zombie’s best film, the grueling, viscerally upsetting The Devil’s Rejects, which was set at a near-constant level of terror. The Lords of Salem sees Zombie going for a more slow-burning, atmospheric horror. He doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, but it shows one of the world’s most important horror directors growing as a filmmaker.

Heidi is one of a trio of DJs for a radio show in Salem, Massachusetts. One night a record arrives at their studio, sent from a band called The Lords of Salem. When she plays the record, she begins to have visions of witches in the 1600s slaughtering babies or being burned at the stake. The record seems to have effect only over the women of Salem, who fall into a trance when Heidi plays it on the radio. Soon, Heidi’s landlady (Judy Geeson) brings in her two friends (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallance) and begins to look after Heidi, but they may have more sinister motives. Meanwhile, local author/witch historian Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) investigates the record and the band name, which sounds all too familiar to him.

The plot isn’t much more than a bunch of hokum, but it’s wonderful, wonderful hokum from a director who knows the history of horror films rather well. Zombie includes smart throwbacks to Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Suspiria, Halloween, The Fog, The Shining, frequently playing with spatial dynamics or atmospheric tracking shots in order to build suspense. He creates such a hypnotizing and creepy atmosphere that it almost seems churlish to point out that the film isn’t particularly frightening. It builds suspense, but that suspense doesn’t lead to many real scares. Still, Zombie throws in enough memorably strange moments (including an ending that feels like Rosemary’s Baby directed by Ken Russell) to make it worthwhile, and his skill at using 70s rock songs hasn’t diminished. For those who loved his use of “Free Bird” in The Devil’s Rejects, it’s worth seeing just for his use of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. If Zombie can only mix his gift for slow-burning tension with his proved talent for visceral horror, he could make a masterpiece.

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