Thursday, August 26, 2004

RKO 281
Review by Sombrero Grande

Sombrero Grande’s filmmaking tip of the day: mimicking a much better film during the course of your own filmic work can make your movie appear far worse by comparison. It’s like having a chef serve up a “sloppy joe” with a picture of a filet minion next to it. Take as an example, Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Another example: RKO 281.

On its own, RKO 281 is possibly--as Mil Peliculas might put it--an “extremely okay” film, but the fact that it bases its structure on none other than that of Citizen Kane, widely regarded and easily arguable as the best film ever made, does much more to hurt the film than help it. The opening of RKO 281 springs into a phony newsreel ala Citizen Kane. This time, instead of telling the life story Charles Foster Kane, it tells of Orson Welles’ arrival in Hollywood. RKO 281’s right-out-of-the-gate disappointment is that, while the idea of starting out a dramatization of the making of Citizen Kane with the same kind of opening that Citizen Kane itself had is “cute,” it completely pulled me out of the experience. Like many of the decisions made in the making of RKO 281, the newsreel was too “cute” for its own good--too fake. It amazed me that a film done over half a century earlier could do a fake newsreel so much more believably and effectively. Oh sure, RKO 281's newsreel has all the same jump cuts and overexposures of its Citizen Kane counterpart, but while the physical characteristics were remade, the awe, the energy, the sheer filmmaking joy were not. Even the shot of Hearst Castle, attempting to mimic the establishing shots of Xanadu in Citizen Kane, despite all its CGI and sophisticated special effects, couldn’t manage to bring forth one iota of the awesome size and grandeur that Welles commanded for Xanadu.

In RKO 281, there’s a shot of Liev Schreiber as Welles walking past exactly the same kind of jigsaw puzzle that Susan Alexander Kane is always putting together in Citizen Kane that reminded me of watching Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World. In that film, there’s a shot of Vince Vaughn walking through an abandoned building where he stumbles upon a mural of Jurassic Park. Instantly I went from disliking The Lost World to despising it. Why? The image of the tour jeeps and the notes from John Williams’ Jurassic Park score reminded me of the fun in the first film that wasn’t present at all in the second--reminded me that I could be spending my time watching a much better film, but instead I’m watching this crap.

So, is RKO 281 really all that bad? Well, to borrow a quote from my Matchstick Men review, it’s not a bad film...it’s just not a very good one. There are moments that are good, like when Welles is shown tearing up the soundstage floor to get the camera low enough for the shot he wants, or the climactic scene with Welles and Hearst meeting in an elevator, but they are few and far between.

Despite a cast full of sizeable names (John Malcovich, Melanie Griffith, Roy Scheider, etc.), I really wasn’t impressed with any of the performances. James Cromwell was a serviceable Hearst, but that’s about as complimentary as I can get. Liev Schreiber was never a very convincing Welles. I thought Vincent D'Onofrio in Ed Wood with Maurice LaMarche’s voice obviously dubbed over was perhaps the most unconvincing portrayal of Welles possible...until now. Even the smaller cast members didn’t seem to fit the parts, or just didn’t appear to have their hearts in it. Roger Allam played such a preposterous Walt Disney that if it were not for his mentioning of Mickey Mouse I never would have guessed it was supposed to be him. Of course I can’t totally fault the actors since much of the dialogue they spout could make any actor appear off his game. You see, the script was penned by John Logan, who’s credited with writing such “classics” as Bats, Tornado! (a made-for-TV movie made to coincide with the theatrical release of Twister) and one of El Bicho’s “favorites”: Star Trek: Nemesis.

I know I was supposed to see Welles as the protagonist in all this, but the film made this rather difficult. It portrayed him mainly as a selfish brat whom people kept calling a “genius” for reasons the film figured you’d already know so it wasn’t going to bother to try to remind you. In fact, Welles’ first meeting with Hearst actually put me on Hearst’s side. Hearst mentioned his disgust for cruelty to animals, which Welles laughs off as an eccentricity. Wait...did the film just make me identify with the “villain” and dislike the “hero” right off the bat? Ugh. It took quite a while (and a heaping of anti-Semitism on Hearst’s part) to get me back on the side of Welles.

To sum up, if you’re going to make a highly so-so film, don’t continually try to refer to shots, scenes, camera angles, pacing, dialogue, character development, etc., of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s one thing to make an “okay” film; it’s something else to make it try to resemble Citizen Kane.


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