Film review – Me and Orson Welles (2008)

29 July 2010
Me and Orson Welles: Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)

It is New York in 1937 and a naive yet cocksure 17-year-old aspiring actor named Richard Samuels has just talked himself into a small role in a Broadway play. However, it is not just any play but a gritty modern version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by the great enfant terrible Orson Welles. A year later Welles would do his notorious radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and four years later Welles would make Citizen Kane, a film still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Me and Orson Welles is essentially a coming-of-age story with Samuels learning about life, love and friendship while enduring the trial-by-fire of working on a Broadway play. High School musical star Zac Efron plays Samuels perfectly, suggesting that Efron may indeed have a solid acting career ahead of him beyond his current tween idol status. He gives Samuels a very likeable blend of confidence, charm and vulnerability. The excellent supporting cast includes Claire Danes as Sonja Jones, the theatre company’s production assistant who is driven primarily by personal ambition despite developing feelings for Samuels. James Tupper is also a lot of fun as Joseph Cotten, an unashamed ladies man and favourite actor of Welles (Cotten would later appear opposite Welles in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Carol Reed’s The Third Man).

Me and Orson Welles: Orson Welles (Christian McKay)

Orson Welles (Christian McKay)

However, the performance of most note belongs to the relatively unknown actor Christian McKay who portrays Welles. Vincent D’Onofrio did a more than decent job portraying Welles in Ed Wood but McKay is astonishingly good.  His performance is more than simply mimicry as he completely inhabits Welles, expressing both Welles’s seductive charm and his cruel vindictiveness. McKay presents Welles as a charlatan, a conman and a genius. Welles was such a force to be reckoned with and in the film he is so charming that people often forget the ruthless way he could strategically dismiss, undermine, belittle or ignore people close to him. Welles’s almost duel personality is something that he himself is aware of, explaining that the reason he acts is because it is a “miraculous reprieve from being myself”.

Director Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, The School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused) has arguably achieved a career best with Me and Orson Welles. It certainly contains none of the slightly contrived philosophising that sometimes creeps into his other films and is instead a celebration of the optimism of youth with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It also functions as a glorious tribute to the power of theatre, capturing the chaos, fear, adrenalin and passion that goes into putting on a show. There is a great sense of that classic “the show must go on” mentality that makes theatre so magical but it is also an indictment of how ruthless and compromised the entertainment industry can be. With its wonderful period details, strong performances and fascinating characters, Me and Orson Welles is an incredibly enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

3 June 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop: Bansky

Banksy

It seems fitting that a documentary about street art is as mischievous and subversive as the movement it is documenting. Billed as a “Banksy Film” Exit Through the Gift Shop features the acclaimed and enigmatic street artist known as Banksy  (we just have to believe it is him as his face is concealed and voice distorted) telling us about the failed attempt made by a French-born Los Angeles resident named Thierry Guetta to document the street art movement. Described as “the biggest counter culture movement since punk”, street art took off in the late 1990s when a common element began to be found among the variety of artists who were illegally and covertly creating and displaying their art on private property in cities all over the world.

Banksy, whose work now sells for thousands of dollars and is displayed in art galleries, is a leading figure in this movement and was one of Thierry’s subjects. Thierry, who obsessively filmed everything, supposedly took most of the footage we see in Exit Through the Gift Shop. However, as the film evolves into a sly critique of the crass commercialisation of art, the events depicted in the film increasingly become questionable to the extent that we are left wondering if Thierry is even a real person or simply an invention of Banksy’s. On the other hand, what happens to Thierry is so unbelievable that it may all be true.

BANKSY_RAT STENCIL 2002_smallIn his 1973 film about art fraud F for Fake, Orson Welles lets the audience know that for the last part of the film they have been duped by what they saw. Exit Through the Gift Shop never lets the audience know how much is fabricated and in fact it is of course possible that everything in it is for real. It just seems so very, very unlikely. Thierry is such a larger than life and borderline ridiculous person/character and yet the extraordinary amount of footage shown in the film of artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey applying their craft had to come from somewhere and it seems gonzo enough to be produced by somebody like Thierry.

Exit Through the Gift Shop successfully expresses the energy behind street art and gives it a context that makes the film an excellent introduction to what is often naively dismissed as vandalism. The film certainly captures the movement’s strong ties to pop art with its use of repetition and artifice to deconstruct corporate and pop culture imagery. Whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a legitimate documentary, elaborate prank or something in between, it does functions as a clever examination of the commercialisation of art – we’re just not too sure how much of this examination is satire and how much is an exposé. Exit Through the Gift Shop is an exhilarating and bewildering experience but like the transient art form that it is expressing, that’s sort of the point.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Edge of Darkness (2010)

3 February 2010

Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson)

Edge of Darkness is a heavily Americanised remake of an acclaimed 1985 BBC television miniseries, with one of the film’s producers (Michael Wearing) and its director (Martin Campbell) respectively being the producer and director of the original series. The basic premise has remained: a young woman is brutally gunned down in what appears to have been a revenge kill that was meant for her policeman father. The policeman (Thomas Craven in the film and played by Mel Gibson) is not convinced he was the target and upon investigation discovers his daughter’s involvement in an anti-nuclear organisation accused of terrorism. The dense, murky and frankly bleak six-part English political thriller has been condensed and simplified for this film version but with Casino Royale’s director Campbell at the helm the film starts off as a largely decent adaptation for the big screen. Campbell often shoots scenes from unusual locations to suggest concealment and therefore increase the film’s paranoia plus the extra dollops of action and violence do help to move the story along at a brisk pace.

For the most part Mel Gibson does a terrific job at portraying Craven. He methodically goes about his investigation with the cold detachment of man who is bottling in his emotions and still partially in a state of shock. After directing such hysterical portrayals of martyrdom in films such as Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Gibson is clearly suited to playing a character like Craven whose desire for justice and revenge stops him from caring about the variety of ways he puts his life at risk. We don’t really need him to tell us that he is “a guy with nothing to lose who doesn’t give a shit” but his cold and ruthless delivery of the line is still effectively chilling. It is only later in the film that Gibson starts to go over the top, relying a bit too heavily on his trademark crazy-darting-wide-eyed expression (think Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet and The Lethal Weapon films) to indicate that he is becoming unhinged.

Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) and Craven

Unfortunately something goes horribly wrong towards the end of Edge of Darkness. The film never reached the same dramatic heights as the original television series but for its first two acts it functions well as a taut and engaging action/thriller. However, for the third act it loses all credibility and suspense by derailing into a messy and pulpy mash-up of Dr. No and Death Wish. If you’ve ever seen Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons you will understand the incredible disappointment and frustration at how the closing scenes (shot by another director and spliced in against the wishes of Welles) undermine the rest of the film. However, in the case of The Magnificent Ambersons such an ending reduced a film that could have been a masterpiece to a film that just falls short of being a masterpiece. In the case of the 2010 film version Edge of Darkness, its misguided third act is enough to reduce it from a film worth seeing to a film worth avoiding.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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DVD review – Comic Book: The Movie (2004), Region 4, Force Entertainment

13 September 2005

Film adaptations of comic books are at the peak of their popularity since 1989’s Batman revived the genre. Films as diverse as Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Sin City and American Splendor are achieving critical acclaim and packed houses. A documentary on this cultural phenomenon would have been welcomed, which is why it is so unfortunate that Comic Book: The Movie, directed and starring Mark Hamill (Star Wars’s Luke Skywalker), is an embarrassingly amateurish 2004 mockumentary. 

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