Film Review – Citizen Kane

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I appreciate Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane on two levels: the first level is that of the film critic. Film critics are required to enjoy Kane, as it is – empirically – the best film ever. That said, I also enjoyed it on a personal level, though not quite as much. The cinematography in particular took me off guard, as I had never seen such cool shots and transitions in a film from the 40s before. The opening series of shots that keep Kane’s lit window in one spot, even when showing it reflected in a pond, was incredible. The pacing of the film was also impressive for the time period. Since five different perspectives were taken, five different flashbacks were presented, and the story progressed through Kane’s life over and over again, passing through years within minutes. This framing device allowed the story to sizzle in a manner unusual to the audience of the time, while still making sense to them, since they were familiar with flashbacks.

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The cinematography and pace were the two elements that kept me entertained. That aside, the rest of the film was also good. Solid acting, great angles and framework, an intriguing story, and even a hidden sociopolitical connotation comparing Kane to the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst all serve to make the film a classic work.

Even after Kane seems to have ended, the film continues to pack in a surprising amount of meaning. A shot of Kane’s old sled burning in his furnace, appears to be the ending shot following a wide, far pan across a field of junk. The scene cuts, however, to a shot of the mansion from outside that serves two purposes: first, it harkens back to the opening scene, bookending the film; and second, it highlights the dark black smoke pours from an upper chimney. It’s the remains of the sled. Kane’s hopes and dreams have literally done up in smoke. Even after this shot, the film isn’t finished until it can show a shot panning down a chain link fence to rest at the same No Trespassing  sign that began the entire film for an entirely comprehensive bookend.

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Film Review: The Curse of the Golden Flower

I'm not sure they have enough chrysanthemums...

I’m not sure they have enough chrysanthemums…

The style of Curse of the Golden Flower benefits greatly from its connection to Chinese culture and heritage. Everything in the film is larger than life and therefore seems mythic and archetypal. Chinese culture, with its focus on one’s duty to a community rather than an individual’s duty to itself, is ready and waiting to accept the group-promoting agenda of Jung’s “collective unconscious,” which is a prerequisite for archetypes.

Flower’s archetypal leanings are apparent in many elements of its construction, not the least of which is its plot. The dynamics of a very messed-up family take center stage, with plenty of archetypal tropes – poisoning, usurping, brotherly rivals, accidental incest – common to Greek myths and Shakespeare. The story is an epic, classical tragedy with themes of universal corruption and suffering. Visually, the film is also archetypal: an ornate palace takes up most of the scenes, often with hundreds of servants seemingly trained to do nothing but stand around in incredibly straight lines, while picturesque shots of mountainous terrain take up the rest.

There's also an epic ninja battle.

There’s also an epic ninja battle.

It’s all too lush and streamlined to be realistic, and the effect is therefore that of archetypes, those elements of life too true for reality.

Even the soundtrack is archetypal, with pounding drums and hushed chanting serving to build up a rhythmic sense of inevitability. The cinematography heightens the unreal situation at times: several early fight scenes use fast-cut footage to disorient the viewer and to force a focus on individual elements of the scene such as emblems on the breastplates. A fragmented, pared-down view is just as archetypal as a vast, streamlined one.

Flower uses heightened emotions often, in keeping with its larger-than-life style, but also habitually portrays subdued, hidden emotions in all its characters, as every family member is keeping something hidden from the others. Among all the stylized visuals and drama, this element of subtlety keeps the film slightly more grounded. Even so, with all the melodrama so actively encouraged throughout Flower, it was difficult for me to take many overdramatic scenes seriously. As a result, the film didn’t have as deep an emotional impact on me as the director no doubt intended. It was still an experience, though, so the archetypal approach was still a positive, in addition to unique, technique.

The film looks so good I had to use three pictures in this review.

“Nice of you to drop in like this.”

Film review: The French Connection

His shots are like the film's: shaky.

His shots are like the film’s: shaky.

The French Connection is more about atmosphere than it is about plot or characters or the more traditional features expected in a film. The plot is a thin series of chases and stake-outs and the characters are caricatures. Even the lead Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, is just a slightly more filled-out caricature: he’s a racist but moderately effective cop dedicated to stopping a huge drug deal regardless of anything or anyone else. Instead of delving deeper into his character’s drive or the lives of the criminals involved, the film highlights Doyle’s bleak, obsessive hunt.

The cinematography focuses on the scenery and on long moments of tense tracking as either the police or the criminals keep eyes out for each other, dodge each other, and chase each other indiscriminately. More often than either the action or the plot developing conversations that compose the rest of the film, the camera just shows the scenery. Gritty concrete, foggy cobblestones, and cold, dead roads are the norm. The desolate visuals contribute to the barebones plot and Doyle’s singularly minded focus.

The film work contributes to the atmosphere. It’s shaky and hand-held, even though the film’s date, ’71, means that more stable equipment was easily available. The choice gives the film more realism: the camera moves jerkily when chasing characters and even jostles up and down with the waves while on a boat. During one foot chase scene, it cuts from a jerky shot to a smooth one, as the camera switched from being handheld and on foot to a camera that was still handheld, but was in a car.

Speaking of cars, the film’s iconic car chase was great: it fit the general theme of the film: it showed Doyle’s fixation on catching the drug smugglers; it provided realism through all the vehicles Doyle kept scraping; and it was engagingly high-stakes and fast-paced. The film, overall, was one-note, since its focus was on the feeling of obsession, which naturally pushes all other elements out of the picture. Character development as a result is a non-factor. The French Connection is therefore good at what it does, but might not fully satisfy many people by what it does.