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Coming to Hollywood as a celebrated boy genius featuring a spectacular career arc in New York including his radio hoax War of the Worlds, Orson Welles is stymied on the subject for his first film. After a dinner party at Hearst Castle, during which he has a verbal altercation with William Randolph Hearst, Welles decides to do a movie about Hearst. It takes him some time to convince co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and the studio, but Welles eventually gets the script and the green light, keeping the subject very hush-hush with the press. The movie is about an aging newspaper publisher who controlled his enemies as ruthlessly as he controlled his friends; and whose mistress was destined for fame. When a rough cut is screened, Hearst gets wind of the movie's theme and begins a campaign to see that it is not only never publicly screened, but destroyed.Written by
Greg Bulmash <email@example.com>
This film takes a great deal of fictional license with the historical record. According to American Experience: The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), it was Herman J. Mankiewicz who persuaded Orson Welles to do the William Randolph Hearst story, not vice versa. Welles had no personal grudge against Hearst as Welles and Hearst never met, and Welles never visited Hearst's residence at San Simeon. RKO president George Schaefer wasn't fired when Citizen Kane (1941) opened in May 1941. Instead, he lost his job a year later due to RKO's lackluster box office receipts during his tenure. Marion Davies was neither the basis for the Susan Alexander character in Citizen Kane nor a mediocre actress who owed her career to Hearst. She was a successful comedienne in motion pictures long before she and Hearst met. Lastly, the mass hysteria created by Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast was reexamined by various scholars in the mid-2000s and determined to be a gross exaggeration by a hostile press. See more »
Both Hearst and Louella Parsons make veiled anti-Semitic threats in the movie. The claim may be made that these comments (which were reported on but, contrary to the film, did not actually appear in print) were intended as a tactic, but Hearst has not been accused of anti-Semitism. In fact, his newspapers were among the few, a couple of years later, to expose the Holocaust while it was ongoing and demand that action be taken.
The movie also claims that Walt Disney had fascist sympathies. This movie is not the first to make that claim, but it is based on very weak evidence. Disney was a conservative (although he largely became one after 1940), but hardly a fascist. See more »
You've probably read a lot of other comments, so I'll spare you the details of what "RKO 281" is about.. rather, my comments pertain to made-for-HBO films, particularly this one..
HBO's movies always strike me as a cut above the usual made for the small screen fare, but just a notch below being theatrical quality. There's a strange feeling of being manipulated, that I get from almost all their films, especially biopics like this one, "Truman", and their latest "Path To War" which they're running this month. HBO likes to take on monumental, historical characters, like Orson Welles, Harry S Truman, and LBJ, but seems to always surround them with characters who are portrayed as being slightly dumb, and made to look like fools, on purpose. It's as though HBO is telling us to look back into history and laugh at how naive and silly people were in decades past.. look at the dumb clothes they wore, the silly hairstyles, their mannerisms, while at the same time idealizing them..
In these kinds of films, cars are never dirty or dented. People never flub their words when speaking to each other. Homes and offices are always a paragon of cleanliness. Everything looks brand new. Staged. Too perfect.. Okay, perhaps realism is not what we want in our movies.. we live in homes that have dirty dishes in the sink and rumbled towels in the bathroom, and stacks of magazines on the tables.. but there ARE period films in which the "lived in" look IS quite well done.. witness Bob Raefelson's "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
While the set and art direction of "RKO 281" is stunning, everything is beautiful to look at: all the vast, wood-panelled offices of the Hollywood moguls, somehow, everything has an artificial look to it.
And then, there's Liev Schreiber's portrayal of a young Orson Wells.. Again, sometimes HBO can create a convincing lookalike - Gary Sinese as Harry S Truman was right on the money, Michael Gambon as LBJ comes sort of close, but doesn't quite ring true, but Schreiber simply doesn't look or sound anything like Orson Welles did. Welles had a booming baritone voice, an in-your-face style of projecting his words, and a simply riveting screen presence. Schreiber's lack of a jaw, and his delivery simply never convinced me that this man was Orson Welles.. This is not to take away from Schreiber's acting abilities at all.. he was simply the wrong actor for the part. And since he is the centerpiece of the film, the entire film suffers because of his weak Welles clone..
However, "RKO 281" _is_ worth watching, if just for the lush sets and atmospherics, and the far too few glimpses we get of the making of "Citizen Kane." But again, HBO made this film as a drama, not a documentary, and a drama relies on conflict.. and thus the film concentrates on the clash of personalities, not the creation of the best film ever made..
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