Saturday, September 24, 2011

Citizen Kane (1941)

       If nothing else, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a special film. It has the distinction of being called the "greatest film of all time" as well as being Welles's first film. It also had a lot of controversy behind it, since the titular Kane was based off of William Randolph Hearst, a popular newspaper mogul as the time. But I'm not going to talk about historical information and references; I'm only looking at Citizen Kane as what it is: a movie. And as far as movies go, this one is unlike any other.

       For a film from 1941, it sure as hell doesn't seem like one. If I didn't know better, this film was made in the later half of the 20th century -- except it wasn't. Orson Welles truly was ahead of his time with this motion picture, and he crafted some of the best scenes and dialogue I've ever seen in any film. For the time, this movie must have blown people away. While it may not blow people away today, it can still have a powerful effect. When the film started and the title came up, I told myself this movie would be really cool (and it would also be fitting) if there were no opening credits after the title -- and there weren't. For 1941, that would be almost unheard of. Hell, until the end of the 20th century that was uncommon. The long takes, the different angles, the long zooms: all the things that make Citizen Kane an innovative and unique picture on a technical level.

       The story of Citizen Kane concerns the life of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), which is shown in a series of flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, we see a news serial that pretty much summarizes his life; it's interesting to see the rest of the film show the details that the serial misses out on. When not showing flashbacks, a reporter (William Alland) tries to find the meaning behind Kane's last word: Rosebud. Throughout the film, the reporter reads entries by Kane's guardian (George Coulouris), speaks to his best friend (Joesph Cotten), his loyal associate (Everett Sloane), his second wife (Dorothy Comingore), and his butler (Paul Stewart). These characters are very interesting in their own ways and are quite like-able. It's Orson Welles as Kane, however, who steals the show. Welles pulled off something so subtle yet so clever I'm fooled at how he did it: his character at the beginning has no mustache, but once he dons one, I'm almost certain that this isn't Welles. In fact, when I'd seen pictures of the movie before watching it, and even during the news reel scene in the film, I didn't believe that Welles played Kane. He's nearly unrecognizable in the role; that's an accomplishment almost no actor can do. Almost half the time, I expected him to shout "I'm Charles Foster Kane!" as an excuse for whatever actions he may do; that's proof to how enjoyable it is to watch Welles be Kane.

       Welles's direction is simply phenomenal (like his starring role); he directs this movie like it's nobody's business. No matter what people say about this movie, there's no denying that Welles knew how to keep people's attention on the screen and to admire all that was going on. One thing that, oddly enough, enhances the film is its aspect ratio. Unlike most films these days, Citizen Kane was released in a time where widescreen didn't really exist; all films were shot with the Academy Ratio (1.37:1), the equivalent of a 4X3 television screen size. I usually don't like watching films in this ratio (it can make a movie feel less cinematic in my opinion), but I do respect films enough to see them in their intended and original ratio. Welles made this ratio work amazingly in Citizen Kane, to the point where I couldn't imagine seeing this film in any other ratio. The "full screen" feel of the film makes it seem as though it demands your attention and that it really is something grand.

       The themes of power and greed are ever present in Citizen Kane. Kane is born into a poor family that, without knowing, lives underneath a gold mine. He is (legally) taken by a guardian to be educated and inherits his fortune at age 25. Kane starts off wanting to run The Inquirer and give people the real news. He wanted to do it for the working men and women of the United States and didn't want them reading things he thought were false. Over time, we see him turn more into a power hungry individual who believes that the people will believe anything he says. This egotism reaches its peak when he decides to run for governor of New York (one of the best moments in the film), but due to scandal, doesn't become elected, despite having plenty of supporters (as well as detractors). Over time, we see Kane go from lonely but happy to lonely and distraught. By the film's end, it seems as though Kane never really wanted all the fame and fortune that came to him. As he himself says at one point "...if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

       When it comes to movies and film making and acting and story telling and technical innovation, I'm not sure if one can do much better than Citizen Kane. Its influence is massive, and its social status has only kept growing in stature. It's topped nearly all the major film polls and its impact can be felt to this day. It was ahead of its time and feels ever so modern in today's film making world. It has rightfully gained praise and status as a masterpiece and classic film. It's a film that will always be enjoyable to watch and will forever stand the test of time

But is it the greatest film of all time? You be the judge.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Psycho (1960)

       Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: Is it a thriller? A mystery film? A drama? Or a horror film? Depending on when and how you see it, it could be either one or all four. Psycho tells the classic story of a woman, a man, his mother, and $40,000 in cash. It manages to keep a suspenseful atmosphere, right from the opening credits to the final shot.

       Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman who was supposed to leave a sum of $40,000 in cash at the bank, but instead decides to take the money and run. On her way out of town, she acts more and more suspicious the more she interacts with strangers, which include a police officer and a car salesman. Due to heavy rain, she decides to stay at the nearest rest area: the Bates Motel. It is here were she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who runs the motel and also takes care of his ill mother (the Bates live in a mansion that resides above the motel). From this point on, revealing anymore of the story would be a crime. Even though the film has been around for years and plenty of people know what happens after Norman and Marion meet, the most disrespectful thing I could do in a review is reveal everything that happens. I will say this: the infamous shower scene is only the beginning of the twists and turns this movie has in store.

       Hitchcock does some things in Psycho that I still haven't seen done in any other movie. His decision to not show all the details to certain events frees him from the dreadful issue of continuity errors; it's something that is better shown than explained. Hitchcock also uses very good camera techniques to show use interesting perspectives of scenes (this comes in handy for most of the film). The black and white is also an interesting artistic choice, but I don't know what kind of effect it it supposed to have. That being said, were the film in color, it wouldn't have the same effect. I can't put my finger on it, but something about the black and white cinematography really works for this film.

       There isn't much I can say about Psycho technically, but there is much that can be said about its story and characters. All the actors do a fantastic job; Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane) is subtle in her paranoia and charm, John Gavin (as Crane's married boyfriend) is calm but determined, Vera Miles (as Crane's sister Lila) is caring and genuinely worried, and Martin Balsam (as Detective Milton Arbogast) is really sleuthing. However, it is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates who steals the show and stays with you once the film has ended. His performance is so nervy and believable, that he's just too convincing. It's no surprise he's one of cinema's most famous characters. It's also very hard to talk about Norman Bates without revealing everything that happens in the movie, and as far as this review is concerned, I'm not going to do that.

       One of the highlights of the film (as is the highlight of many Hitchcock pictures) is Bernard Herrmann's score. It truly defines the mood and atmosphere of the film: the paranoia, the suspense, the insanity. While some musical themes may be repeated throughout, the music never gets tiring and always keeps you on the edge. It's a score that can be enjoyed out side of the film and can still bring chills to the spine.

       Psycho's influence has been immense. It has been classified as the first slasher film, and arguably, it is. It's also been called one of the most shocking films of all time, and unarguably, it is. It's been called one of the Hitchcock's defining films and one of the greatest films of all time. Even if it becomes less shocking with later viewings, it is nevertheless always entertaining and a fascinating study into the mind and motives of a psychopath. Psycho is a film that must be seen by anyone with an appreciation for film. It should also be seen by anyone with a right mind. It's an unforgettable masterpiece by the Master of Suspense.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vertigo (1958)

       Released in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released to mixed reviews but has, in the years passed, garnered universal praise by both fans and critics alike, calling it one of Hitchcock's defining works. For the first hour, I admired and enjoyed the beautiful cinematography and great acting, but was a little less than thrilled by the very little action happening. Then, something happened, then things start to happen, and then, it happened. By the time the Paramount logo returned to end the film, Vertigo had done it's job and affected me in a way I could not have seen coming; at that time, I understood why so many critics and people consider Vertigo to be one of the greatest films of all time.

       James Stewart stars as John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police detective who quits the force due to his acrophobia (fear of heights) and self-blame for having let his partner die while on a chase. He gets a call from an old acquaintance that wants him to shadow his wife (Kim Novak), because he fears something may be wrong with her. Scottie decides to follow her and eventually falls in love with her. However, this evolves into an obsession that neither he nor the audience would have anticipated. Talking anymore about the film's plot will not only spoil what is easily one of the greatest mysteries in all of cinema, but it would take too long to explain. The plot of Vertigo is so much more complex than what it appears to be on the surface, so much so, that you might find yourself still thinking about it long after film's end.

       The score written by Bernard Herrmann and conducted by Muir Mathieson adds to the film's haunting atmosphere and themes, to the point that just listening to the score on its own will bring chills to the skin. James Stewart is phenomenal in the role of Scottie; he is all too convincing as a man who is slowly losing his sense of reality. The rest of the cast is excellent too, especially Novak, who is all too hypnotic in this film. Vertigo was shot in VistaVision, which truly captures the aforementioned beautiful looks that are a part of the San Francisco Bay area (including the Golden Gate Bridge from below).

       Vertigo is a film that starts off slow, but rewards your patience at its end. It's a film that takes a different route than what is usually seen in a Hitchcock thriller. It's a film that feels like an art house movie that was made for a mainstream audience. It's a film that tricks you into thinking one thing, then knocks you stone cold. It's a film that has so much too offer that one could not possibly see it only once. It's a film that will haunt you once the screen has gone black and has left you with it's shocking conclusion. It's a film that refuses to let go once you've decided to hold on. It's a film that has more than deserved the praise it has garnered in the past 50 years since its release. It's a film that I will never forget.

Rushmore (1998)

       Wes Anderson's sophomore effort Rushmore is a film that truly defies categorization. It knows what it is but leaves us to figure it out. It's funny, original, old-fashioned, and honest all at the same time and at different times, as well. It's a film that exists in its own reality where things are quite similar to how they are in the real world. It's a film that doesn't force you to like its protagonist and where you are allowed to simply observe a character instead of trying to sympathize with a character. It's a film that uses its soundtrack very, very wisely. It's a film, that, quite simply, isn't like anything you'll ever see.

       Rushmore tells the tale of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who attends Rushmore Academy and excels at extracurricular's but not academics. He makes friendships with a 1st grade teacher (Olivia Williams) and a self-made millionaire (Bill Murray). Describing the rest of the plot from here on out seems pointless and a bad idea. The reason being is because Rushmore doesn't feature a standard plot or narrative. The film goes from one issue to the next, changes its mind (mirroring the changing nature of the characters), and does what it thinks is best. This works for the film strongly, since it's always nice to see a film with a changing narrative and this style suits the nature of the story. If you were to watch the trailer for Rushmore, it would give you pretty much the information I've provided, since that's all it really can provide; to say more would be to spoil a story that a trailer could simply not summarize.

       Anderson's use of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is expressive and put to better use than most films where humour is present throughout. It's beautifully shot with normal colors (nothing crazy) and with a sense of realism; the look and feel of an indie film. As is Anderson's forte, he takes advantage of the many angles and corners that the widescreen display provides to him. Many scenes fill up every space of the screen to an advantageous degree, allowing Anderson to add things in the background if he chooses. Of course, there is the occasional there-is-only-one-person-on-the-screen-doing-nothing scenes, but even these lone shots of characters look fantastic in the long widescreen. For whatever reason, all the shots in Rushmore look well orchestrated and done even if it is merely a shot of a kite in the sky.

       The film's dialogue is fantastic and all the actors in the film do a wonderful job, but as it is, the standouts are Schwartzman and Murray. Schwartzman embodies the role of Max completely to the point that I don't see the actor but the character. The same goes for Murray. When these two are on the screen, I see an arrogant and ambitious youngster who is friends with a self-loathing millionaire. It's no wonder that Murray won an award for his role and it's amazing that after years of seeing Schwartzman in other projects, I still can't recognize him when he plays Max. Mason Gamble is excellent as Max's best friend Dirk Calloway and Brian Cox as Mr. Guggrnheim is hilariously wonderful.

       The film's soundtrack is outstanding, featuring such memorable tracks as The Creation's "Making Time" and even an excerpt of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" (the film uses a live version of the song). Even the Faces "Ooh La La" is included in the final scene, and its inclusion feels more justified than most songs that end films. Anderson did a tremendous job concocting an authentic story that pays tribute to the cinema of the past as well as the pain and determination of the adolescent in all of us. Rushmore never denies that it's not a mainstream film and, much like it's protagonist, would think it self superior to anything Hollywood usually cooks up.