Thursday, April 23, 2009

Citizen Kane (1941)

Everybody knows this movie. Orson Welles' masterpiece. Everybody's pick for best movie ever. Nobody's pick for what they want to rent tonight.

I was given this film many years ago back when it didn't seem strange to give someone a VCR tape for birthday. I tried watching it once but found it long, confounding, and frankly rather dull. Maybe I got a half hour into it. Finally, I gave it another try.

The movie starts with the death of Charles Kane, wealthy newspaper magnate (in olden times, newspapers used to turn a profit!) His last word (although nobody is there to hear it) is "Rosebud". The media, fascinated by what this could mean, investigate Kane's life to find out what was so important to a man that had everything. Apparently there wasn't anything else going on in 1941 worth reporting. We learn about Kane's life in retrospective.

Charles Foster Kane is supposed to be William Randolph Hearst. There are lots of connections between the story and Hearst's life, and stories how Hearst tried to stop the films release, but I'll let you read them for yourself on IMDB or Wikipedia.

So, what's all the hullabaloo about? Camera angles? Clever narrative tricks? Techniques so apparent that they actually interfere with the story? Is this a film that nobody but a film student could ever love?

Nope. I really liked it. Now, I will say that the story wasn't all that compelling. It kept my interest, and was very well written, but it's not the "main feature". So much of the story is told with how Orson filled the screen. You could have the audio off and never be unsure what the character's relationship was. Every scene was layed out artistically. It's hard to explain.

And, if you are not paying attention to what he was doing, you could miss much of it. I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed watching Citizen Kane. Now, I do own the film, but I wouldn't have purchased it for myself. In truth, the story and acting do not distinguish Kane, and that is what I respond to in cinema, but still, AMRU 4.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Red Dust (1932)

Clark Gable is the hunky proprietor of a rubber plantation in Indochina. Gene Raymond (not the Match Game guy) and Mary Astor are an educated, proper couple. He surveys the ranch while she gets plowed by our man Clark. Jean Harlow is the whore on the run, who knows what goes on.

Ah, to be Clark Gable in pre-code Hollywood.

This film has it all: racism, adultery, prostitution, more racism. Not sure where the red dust fits in. There were dust storms, maybe it was red. It looked grey to me.

Jean Harlow had the famous water barrel scene, where she bathes, presumably nude, in the plantations drinking water. According to legend, she stood up to reveal her hoo-ha's and said "This one's for the boys in the lab". That footage does not seem to exist. Here's another tid-bit I learned from IMDb: during the filming, Jean Harlow's husband commits suicide. She took a leave of absence, and when she returned her revealing outfits were gone. In five years she would be dead. That girl had a sad life.

Mary Astor had an interesting quote about actors: There are five stages in the life of an actor: "Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?" I just found that funny. 22 years after her death, we are squarely in the Who's Mary Astor zone. Personally, if I were Clarkie, I wouldn't have given her a second look. Jean Harlow was on the set, after all. Maybe I'd feel differently if I lived on a plantation in the middle of a rainy jungle usually devoid of women.

And I'm no Clark Gable. I hope he wore his rubbers.

AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

City Lights (1931)

The Tramp falls for a blind flower girl. She mistakes him for a rich man. He continues the charade to gain her favor. He tries to earn money to help her out and pay for an operation to restore her sight. But if she has the operation, what then?

This is how silent films were made. No ridiculous over acting or paper-think plots here. Made years into the age of talkies, Charlie Chaplin made the conscious decision to keep the tramp silent.

Still, I have to say, it was a little tedious to watch. It ran about an hour and a half. The sight gags were cool, but I've seen them before. Mostly by people imitating the man, but still. Maybe if I get used to the genre I'll get into it more. We'll see.

I learned that Hitler modeled his mustache after the Tramp thinking it would endear him to his people, even though he mistakenly believed Chaplin to be Jewish. That was an interesting choice, looking back. A fiery, antisemitic dictator trying to channel a silent tramp he thought was Jewish. Go figure. Hey, and the blind girl (whom Chaplin disliked) married Cary Grant for about a year. I love IMDB!

Now, where did the title come from? Yes, it was set in a city, but lights of any kind didn't play any role in the story. AFI called it the number one romantic comedy. I say it was cute. Maybe worth another viewing. AMRU 3.5.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

You Can't Take it With You (1938)

The winner of Best Picture and Best Director, this offbeat comedy is about a family that chooses to do what they want over what they should do. How they have enough money to buy food is a mystery.

The story centers around young Alice (Jean Arthur) being the rebel of the family (she actually has a "job"!) and falling in love with owners son, Tony (James Stewart). The problem is that Tony's company is trying to evict Alice and her band of nuts from the family homestead. Drew's great-uncle Lionel Barrymore plays grandpa.

Because of the sentimentality of Frank Capra's films, they were sometimes labeled "Capra-corn". Here is a great example of that. There were interesting scenes and clever dialog, but come on! I think they went a little bit over the top trying to show how eccentric they were. Characters wrestling, throwing darts, painting, doing ballet, while fireworks were being set off, all at the same time! Reminds me of my old dorm room days. And in the end, all problems are solved by singing "Polly Wolly Doodle". Maybe this makes sense during a depression. I hope I don't find out.

One thing that struck me was the ages of the characters. Young Alice was played by 38 year old Jean Arthur. Her big sister was played by 15 year old Ann Miller. And Gramps was only 22 years Jean's senior. But it worked. Lionel looked to be 100, Jean Arthur could have easily passed for 24, and Ann Miller didn't look like any teen.

Nice to watch once, but wholly unremarkable. Frank got a best picture, but not from me. AMRU 3.