Friday, September 12, 2008

Penultimate TIFF

Me and Orson Welles

With a few drinks in me, I powerwalked from the subway to the theatre a city block away. Released some of the beer back into the wild, and found a seat in the balcony with minutes to spare.

The plot goes thusly: A teenager, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), in 1937 New York talks his way into a small roll in Orson Welles' (Christian McKay) production Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre a week before curtain. He quickly learns his part and spends the next week rehearsing, falling in love with Orson's assistant (Claire Danes), and trying to survive the larger-than-life genius of Welles.

On it's own, and with Zac Efron, this hardly sounded like an appealing film for my limited selection. Except for one thing - it was directed by Richard Linklater.

I didn't realize he had nothing to do with the writing of it though. In fact, I didn't realize that until the credits rolled. Linklater's loved for films like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life, and A Scanner Darkly. They're movies that thrive on the conversations, and in the case of the the latter two, the rotoscoped visuals that add to the conversations.

So doing a film set during the rise of Welles' career, in 1937 New York seems like a good fit for him. Lush visuals, rapid-fire conversation, and a simple story that relies on the actors and their words. And fit it did.

Linklater tries a few interesting shots here and there, but for the most part the direction is safe and serves its purpose of putting the story on the screen. Although I do like the effective use of props and tight scenes to create 1930's New York -- it seems appropriately low-budget for a movie about a low-budget theatrical production. Where his talents really come through is in the direction of the actors.

By the end of the film I'd decided that Christian McKay needs to be in a TON of movies now, because he carries this film as Welles. The man knows Orson, having done a one-man theatrical show as Welles before being grabbed for this movie. His delivery, look, and speech are dead-on. He plays Orson Welles playing the character of Orson Welles (a bombastic individual who was seldom not "on") perfectly, with brief, subtle moments where the real man comes through - in the eyes, a genuine smile, or a rage. Eventually you come to distrust every word he says, realizing he's always playing a role. I do hope he's not a one-trick pony though, and his ample skills at playing Welles can be transferred to other parts.

Claire Danes is Claire Danes. She's a strong, independent woman who aggressively goes for what she wants - be it men or career. Zac Efron is very much the teen idol trying to broaden his horizons beyond Disney musicals. He tries admirably here, but still has a lot of work to do. Efron feels like someone acting. He seldom overacts (one or two scenes near the end), but he doesn't fully embody Richard, and it leaves you somewhat detached from the film. It's a step in the right direction though, with the right cast and crew to lead him to better things.

The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to good as Mercury players trying to put on their first show.

The romantic subplots are kept brief and in the background. They serve mainly to advance and resolve conflict. The focus stays squarely on Richard and Orson.

There's nothing heavy here, no life-changing message that will stick with you well after the lights have come on. It's a week in the life of one of the greatest dramatic personalities of the 20th century, and the effect he has on those around him. The movie achieves its goal nicely. Definitely a worthwhile way to spend a couple hours.


My last movie comes Saturday at midnight. I'm expecting big things from Chocolate. What kind of things? Well, a minimal plot used to service the idea of a Muay Thai martial arts fest from the creator of Ong Bak. It'll be a rowdy crowd and a hell of a way to end this fest.

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