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🎥 ESJ's Movie Project: Citizen Kane, A Christmas Story and more

I'm pretty sure I reviewed six movies since my last email. And I don't live in Florida, so I won't ne
🎥 ESJ's Movie Project: Citizen Kane, A Christmas Story and more
By Eric Johnson • Issue #17 • View online
I’m pretty sure I reviewed six movies since my last email. And I don’t live in Florida, so I won’t need a recount.

WILDLIFE (2018) is a rare exception to the rule that stories should take you to an unexpected place. From very early on, it becomes clear that Wildlife cannot end happily, and each beat that follows is like a punch to the gut that you saw coming but did nothing to block. Carey Mulligan steals the picture as Jean, whose blissful-suburban-wife mask quickly crumbles in the absence of her prideful alcoholic husband Jerry, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Their son Joe serves as audience surrogate, watching powerlessly as Jean turns to another man and the family he thought he had falls apart. The script and direction are competent and careful, usually finding a melancholy medium between the tension of the film’s relationships and the emotional walls that Joe constructs around himself. At the end of it all, the story feels a bit empty — but, I suspect, maybe it has to.
I really hope CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018) convinces more people in Hollywood to give Melissa McCarthy more dramatic roles, because damn. She is SO good in this movie that I’ll be encouraging everyone to go see it. Playing the real life author-turned-forger Lee Israel, McCarthy expertly finds the balance between Israel’s bitterness and likability, making it easy to sympathize with her while also understanding how her successful writing career went down the tubes. Richard E. Grant is delightful as her accomplice/foil/fellow alcoholic Jack Hock, but make no mistake, this is McCarthy’s movie. As a fan of a good caper, I loved the way most of Israel’s tactics are only shown, not explained to death; a less confident script would have her monologue her way through the process.
It’s a shame that CHINATOWN (1974) is such a well-made movie, given that the director is a generally awful person. But dam! (Sorry.) Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are at the top of their acting game, Robert Towne’s screenplay keeps you guessing even if you know what’s going to happen and the direction of aforementioned awful person Roman Polanski is just superb, discovering shadiness in some of LA’s brightest corners. The murder at the center of the story and its aftermath are carefully seeded from the beginning, and the famously cynical ending is the kind that few modern movies would dare to emulate. In all, this is a hard movie to forget.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) has several quotable lines and some truly great scenes, but — for me, at least — it falls just short of being a great movie. Narrated by Jean Shepherd and loosely based on his life in 1940s Indiana, it tells charming vignettes about his parents, school, the neighborhood bully and his nine-year-old self’s favorite radio show, Little Orphan Annie. I found myself laughing the most at Shepherd’s droll adult commentary on “Ralphie’s” hyper vision of the world, and at the eccentricities of his father (“It’s a major award!”). But the mall Santa scene is famous for a reason here; it’s all the terror and hilarity of being a kid, distilled into a minute. “Ho … Ho … Ho!”
CITIZEN KANE (1941) is rightfully regarded as one of the most groundbreaking films ever made, one whose example films today are still trying to learn from. But I think it’s also reasonable today to recognize that declaring a 77-year-old movie “perfect,” or pretending that later films didn’t also change the game, is folly. Orson Welles turns in a compelling performance as Kane, and for first-time viewers, the central mystery of “what does ‘Rosebud’ mean?” works. But on repeat viewings, the more interesting aspects of Citizen Kane are found in its craft, rather than its acting or plot. Telling the story out of order, framing the picture to convey multiple perspectives and aging characters with makeup — all are things we take for granted today, but their interplay here help shape this movie into something special. And, as has already been widely remarked on, it is downright eerie to notice how relevant the movie feels in 2018, from Kane’s disdain for the truth as a newspaper publisher to the corrupting emptiness of extreme wealth. Even though Orson Welles was lampooning William Randolph Hearst, it lends credence to a saying I usually hate: “History repeats itself.”
I remember laughing my ass off when I first saw CITY LIGHTS (1931), my introduction to Charlie Chaplin and one of his most beloved films. It still makes me laugh, but on this repeat viewing it was easier to see the strings - literally, in the case of the boxing scene. Unlike a modern movie that most everyone will see from start to finish, Chaplin had to write for 1930s audiences who might arrive in the middle of the film. That means that some gags (like the millionaire who only remembers The Tramp when he’s drunk) get re-used over the runtime, with diminishing returns. But those slow patches are my only quibble with City Lights, which delivers an abundance of other visual gags, loosely connected by the Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl. I especially love the scene at the millionaire’s fancy party, where the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle; the final punchline to that bit makes me cackle like a madman every time.
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Eric Johnson

I'm reviewing every movie I watch, and watching every movie I own. Settle in, this is going to take a while.

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