July 20, 2009

Justify My Netflix: RKO 281

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

RKO 281

Today's movie: RKO 281, 1999 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it concerns a subject I find fascinating -- based on the popular documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon, it tells the story of the massive complications behind the making of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, considered by many (including myself) to be one of the greatest movies of all time, and why it is that Welles' "boy genius" career never fully recovered after it. Because it was made for HBO, and HBO's original movies have a good reputation as far as I'm concerned, with the cable channel most of the time using even the minor ones as an excuse to turn in extra-high-quality scripts, hire a series of A-list actors to play small but memorable roles, and a series of B-actors to take on what are sometimes their first big starring parts.

The reality: Exactly as good as I was expecting, no more and no less. In fact, this is how I feel about most HBO original projects in general -- that they're higher in quality than average but still nothing spectacular, and that if you go into them with your standards not too terribly high, you will generally have a good experience. And man, it's hard to go wrong with the inherently dramatic story behind Citizen Kane; because for those who don't know, the whole reason that movie came about in the first place was because of the almost supernaturally successful career Welles had early in life, with nearly every project he touched in his twenties (on Broadway, in radio, in publishing) becoming the kind of controversial yet overwhelmingly huge commercial success that is only seen today with auteurs like, say, JJ Abrams. When Welles finally signed his first Hollywood contract in the late 1930s, then, it was seen by many as Moses arriving at the artistic Holy Land; and Welles wanted to take advantage of that, turning in not just some cheesy adaptation of his then-red-hot radio production of War of the Worlds, but rather something startlingly original that would be just as much of a controversial box-office smash as everything else he had already done (and this from the man who pulled off the first-ever all-black Broadway production of Shakespeare, a mere fifty years after the end of literal slavery in this country). So what he ended up doing, then, was only lightly fictionalizing the utterly complicated life of someone a lot of people were already obsessed with at the time, eccentric publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (think Rupert Murdoch but even more powerful, more wealthy, and more evil), taking the public bits that were known about the man's life and then weaving a heartbreaking psychological profile of a spiritually broken titan between them; and in fact Welles got his guesses about Hearst's inner demons so on the nose, Hearst decided to spend the rest of his life and the entire might of his empire to essentially ruin Welles' career (and did a pretty good job of it, in fact), basically crushing Welles' artistic vigor so badly that he would never produce another major hit again for the entire rest of his own life, turning instead into an obese alcoholic who spent half a century coasting on his youthful successes.

And like I said, this adaptation by original writers Cramer and Lennon plus award-winning screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Star Trek: Nemesis and more) manages to take all this info and turn in a fine movie, as long as you keep your expectations at a reasonable level; and also like I said, this being an HBO production, it uses the draw of some bigger stars in key small roles (like James Cromwell as the soft-spoken Hearst, for example) to then let a series of smaller stars really shine (such as the great job Liev Schreiber does as Welles, relying not on makeup or a Rich-Little-style impression to sink into the role, but rather an uncanny capturing of Welles' melodious, poetic tone of voice, and his habit of always talking in a cultured, intellectual style). And although the visual look of the movie is more workmanlike at most points than spectacular (as befitting its smaller budget, this essentially being a television movie by a cable channel), director Benjamin Ross does do a number of smart things with the resources he had available, and even cleverly includes loads of tiny homages to the original Citizen Kane only delivered here in different contexts. As mentioned, it's certainly nothing to write home about, but definitely does a good job at what it aims to be, and is a two-hour commitment I heartily recommend to anyone interested in Welles, Kane, or film history in general.

Strangest piece of trivia: This entire production was originally slated to be a full theatrical film, with Ridley Scott set to direct an all-star cast that included Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; but after the original financiers balked at the $40 million pricetag, thus losing every single star that had formerly been attached, the entire thing was reimagined as the small-scale HBO production it became.

Worth your time? Yes, as long as you keep your expectations modest

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:38 PM, July 20, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |