Me & Orson Welles (A-)
U.S.; Richard Linklater, 2009, Warner/Target
In Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater takes on a highly ambitious subject that really, really appeals to me -- a portrayal of the astonishing youthful theatrical triumphs of the 22-year-old Welles, his adroit and urbane (and long-suffering) producer John Houseman, and of their ingenious, experimental 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Linklater's movie is wonderfully acted, written and directed -- a charming, exhilarating and exciting evocation of a thrilling era and some magnificent show people. At its center is one of the most extraordinary, and truly brilliant film performances of the year: the young actor Christian McKay's amazing evocation of Orson Welles at 22.
Other actors who've played Welles in the past, like Vincent D'Onofrio in Ed Wood or Angus Macfadyen in The Cradle Will Rock, have tended to get part of the persona: the resonant voice, the impish face, the huge physicality. But McKay gets it all. He looks like Welles, sounds like Welles, smiles like Welles, roars like Welles, and, whether sliding into radio's The Shadow or into Shakespeare's Brutus, even acts like Welles.
This is an utterly convincing portrayal physically. And it also, crucially, suggests Welles' inner being: the extraordinary genius and intimidating energy, his vaulting ambition and also his demonic, self-destructive qualities. We can believe that McKay's Orson is capable of this Julius Caesar and the Kane to come. And we can also believe that he's a hedonistic conniver capable of betraying his friends (like Houseman), tyrannizing his cast and crew and wounding his own career. Is an amazing job, a thrilling feat of humanity-catching. If this year's "best actor" Oscar nominations don't include McKay's Welles, they'll be a fraud -- much like the 1941 Hearst-fueled mass Oscar snubbing of Citizen Kane and (except for the script) of Welles himself.
Almost equally impressive are the film's John Houseman, played with the right blend of cogency and exasperation by Eddie Marsan; Ben Chaplin as the tormented patrician George Coulouris (Kane's Thatcher, playing Antony in the play); Leo Bill as the elfin prankster Norman Lloyd; and James Tupper, whose Joseph Cotton captures the Wellesian actor/crony's elegance and bemusement almost as perfectly as McKay catches Welles.
Zac Efron's young theater student Richard Samuels does a passably charming and likable job, not an impressive performance, like some of the others, but good enough to pass. Perhaps we shouldn't carp. It's not Efron's fault that he got a box-office dreamboat ranking for that dopey, trivial smash hit High School Musical. There are two other fictional characters here that also strike a chord: Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adle, the aspiring New Yorker short-story writer whose music shop meeting with Richard kicks off the story, and Claire Danes as the friendly "ice princess" Sonja Jones, whose sexual power over all the Caesar men triggers a climactic flare-up. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes.)
Mona Lisa (A)
U.K.; Neil Jordan, 1986, Image
George (Bob Hoskins, short, tough, superb), an explosive driver/gang member with bad taste in clothes and yearning eyes, a guy just out of the pen whose wife throws him on the street, is hired by his old boss Mortwell (Michael Caine, sly, mean, also superb) to drive around a classy hooker (Cathy Tyson, a real Mona Lisa, with no heart of gold). George has a big buddy (Robbie Coltrane, first-rate) who wants him to tell stories, like Lenny. And George falls in love, falls madly, to Nat King Cole's heart-stopping record of "Mona Lisa," in a London and Brighton cityscape that suggests the bleak, tense, milieu of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and This Gun for Hire -- but that makes Graham Greene's bitter underworlds, by comparison, look almost safe and serene.
This is one of the great neo-noirs. Neil Jordan at the peak of his dark stylish craft and soulful Irish art. It's also one of the great British crime films and one of the great British romances.
Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (A-)
Germany: Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, 1972, Facets
Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, a real one-of-a-kind cineaste, released this thoroughly bizarre, insanely stylish bio-epic about mad King Ludwig of Bavaria and his life of voluptuous abandon and super-aesthetic excess, the same year that Luchino Visconti brought out his own Ludwig, with Helmut Berger prancing and frowning as the mad king, and Trevor Howard as a dour, intense composer Richard Wagner. This one, much less expensive, fared better with critics. But both the Syberberg and the Visconti are powerful, crazy, unique works -- different from all other historical movies and from each other as well.
They share a common theme: Love, sex and art vs. politics and war, and they're both about madmen trying to create their own worlds and destroying themselves in the process. They also both have a lot of Wagner on the soundtrack, which is all to the good. The visual style of Syberberg's Ludwig is quite unique, peculiar and often jaw-dropping: each scene played out in mostly static but gorgeous tableaux against brilliantly colored, lush backdrops fashioned from projected photos of period 19th century style paintings, color photographs or paintings of Ludwig's famous palaces.
Harry Baer, of the R.W. Fassbinder troupe, plays Ludwig, and there are a lot of other Fassbinder people too -- including cinematographer Deitrich Lohmann, who later shot Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Peter Kern in multiple roles, acting like a man who badly wants to audition for the parts of both writer Franz Liebkind and director Roger Debris in Mel Brooks' The Producers.
Syberberg went on to make two other bizarre films about German history and culture with the same operatic bravura and the same stunning photo-tableaux visual style. Karl May was about the weird bestselling German author of American western novels like Old Shatterhand, and the famed Our Hitler was about the mad killer/tyrant Adolf, who unfortunately tried to create his new world by destroying the old real one -- a film which ravished critic Susan Sontag and became a special project of Francis Coppola. All three are available from Facets in Syberberg-approved editions and are all highly recommended. (In German with English subtitles.)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
U.S.; Albert Lewin, 1951, Kino, Blu-ray
Director-writer Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray) was a supreme cinema aesthete, a highly self-conscious and art-loving artist who loved to plunge us into the feverish imaginary worlds of painting, literature, music and sexual passion. And Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is, as Martin Scorsese blurbs on the cover, "a strange and wonderful dream."
Ava Gardner is Pandora, a femme fatale on the Spanish coast, who conquers everybody of the male persuasion: a stalwart racing driver, a learned and gentle archeologist/narrator, a murderous Manolete-like toreador. Within 10 minutes of the start of the movie, rich wastrel Marius Goring of the Powell-Pressburger stock company has poisoned himself for love of her, and soon the others are killing rivals, bulls and dogs, and throwing cars off cliffs, all to win her prickly heart. But Pandora can love only one man and he, for God's sake, is the Flying Dutchman (James Mason), that captain of stormy mischance and evil destiny, who is doomed to wander forever between the sea-storms, after killing Ava's lookalike, his faithful wife whom he wrongly thought faithless (Ah, Desdemona!).
Is all this plausible? Well, take a look at Ava -- Lewin thoughtfully includes two (suggested) nude scenes -- and ask yourself how much bull you'd sling to win her. It matters not. Dutch drops anchor in this Spanish pleasure spot, where we can watch the fateful beach straight down from a Vertigo-like bell tower, and we first see him painting Pandora against a di Cirico lanscape, before even seeing her. Soon the star-crossed, storm-tossed lovers are quoting Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat to each other and getting ready for the grand desire and the moving finger and final voyage to beat them all.
The first ten minutes or so of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman are pretty lugubrious, a lush but torpid pageant of the all-too-idle rich enlivened only by Goring's suicide. But then Dutch shows up on his crewless ship and kicks the whole movie into high gear. Few actors can do a grand passion and endless torment like Mason can.
Granted, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is sort of a nutty movie. But it's also -- as conceived by Lewin, designed by John Bryan and photographed by the great Jack Cardiff (the King of Technicolor) -- an uncommonly beautiful one.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Red Riding Trilogy (A)
U.K.; Julian Jarrold/James Marsh/Anand Tucker, 2009, IFC Films
Writer Tony Grisoni's three part-adaptation of David Peace's Red Riding novels is easily one of the most ambitious and best films of 2009.
This is noir times three, with the three films spanning a decade from 1974 to 1983, following a series of hideous Yorkshire murders and crimes of corruption. The trilogy begins in chaos with a series of sex murders and a young reporter's (Andrew Garfield) doomed investigation (Red Riding 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold). It continues with Red Riding 1980 (James Marsh), as the corruption deepens, a good cop (Paddy Considine) searches for truth, and the police seem even more involved. And it ends with Red Riding 1983 (Anand Tucker), where all mysteries seem solved, a strange Bunuelian cleric (Peter Mullan) comes forth and a bit of uplift finally pierces the Yorkshire brutalism and gloom.
Tony Grisoni (the writer of Terry Gilliam's sadly underrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) adapted all of these, and though the directorial style changes, the voice remains strong. This is a great film, an epic of evil and madness, and a supreme example of the high cinematic and dramatic literacy of the best British TV. For buffs, it's an absolute must-have set. (Extras: Julian Jarrold interview; "making of" documentaries; deleted scenes; TV spots; booklet with a David Thomson essay, arguing that Red Riding is "better than The Godfather" and a dialogue with novelist Peace, scenarist Grisoni, directors Jarrold, Marsh and Tucker and producer Eaton.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Harry Brown (B-)
U.K.; Daniel Barber, 2009, Sony Pictures
Harry Brown gives Michael Caine an old lion star role that's reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's old-tough-guy Walt in Gran Torino. And Caine does a great job with it, playing -- with unflappable cool, commanding presence, a touch of sadness and carefully tamped-down rage -- an elderly but still dangerous ex-military guy who becomes a freelance vigilante when confronted with the savage gang violence in his deteriorating London neighborhood.
This is Caine in his element. The star of many top British and American noirs, from The Ipcress File to Get Carter, The Italian Job, Mona Lisa, Blood and Wine, and two Sleuths, he's unerringly on-the-money, all the way to his last dark shot, though the movie, I think, starts going over the top midway through, and never quite recovers.
A shame, because up to the moment when, for me Harry Brown lost its footing -- in the overwrought and over-designed evil-smack-dealer scene that damages the movie's up-to-then canny mix of realism and heroic fantasy -- I was having a fine time. Harry Brown has the mark of Caine, and Caine still has the Maltese Falcon-ish stuff that dreams are made of.
U.S.; Tom Dey, 2010, 20th Century Fox
The long-lived comic strip about a big, sloppy Great Dane, which started way back in the '50s, finally comes to the screen, with Owen Wilson doing the voice of Marmaduke, and Gorge Lopez playing his friend Carlos the Cat.
How have we survived without these strange pets all these years? There are also not one, but two love interests for the Marmster: Jezebel the ravishing Collie (Fergie) and Mazie the big-hearted mutt (Emma Stone). Kiefer Sutherland is up to no good once again, as Bosco the villain, Sam Elliott gruff-voices the wild dog Chupadogra, Lee Pace runs around madly as Marmaduke's frazzled owner Phil, and there are lots of certifiably cute kids. William H. Macy sullies the memory of Fargo by appearing as a tyrannical veggie/pet food tycoon. (I kept hoping Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare would drop by to put him out of his misery.)
There is a surfing contest with the dogs, and a wild house-party with the dogs, and a cliff-hanging sewer blowup with the dogs, and a dancing jamboree with all the dogs whirling and twirling and shaking their booties.
Now, I could have ended all this woof-woof folderol by writing the obvious: that the movie is a dog, or that movies are going to the dogs, or that I had a dog of a time watching it, or "Who let the dogs out?" But you'll have to find those dog-jollies in other reviews. I have too much respect for the wit and intelligence of the canines I've known and sometimes loved, than to use them in a doggie put-down of a turkey like Marmaduke.
9th Company (B)
Russia; Fyodor Bondarchuk, 2005, Well 60 USA Entertainment
Unlike many critics I know, I happen to think Sergei Bondarchuk's original nine-hour War and Peace is a great movie -- not in the way original author Leo Tolstoy is great, of course. But director-writer-actor Bondarchuk simply made one of the all-time classic period war movies, besides writing the script and playing Pierre, and he gets precious little credit for his feat. Can he help it if he worked under a Communist tyranny and they handed him 100 million dollars to adapt the greatest novel ever written?
Now comes Bondarchuk's son Fyodor, also a writer-director-actor of multiple gifts, and he makes a film on the waning days of the Afghanistan-Russian War, based (distantly) on fact: a harsh, brutal essentially antiwar, pro-soldier war movie in the vein of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and it becomes the all-time biggest-grossing Russian film since Communism fell.
Bondarchuk, who, as the hard-drinking Kholkov, suggests a mix of Bruce Willis and Lee Marvin, is a good actor, good writer, good director, good at everything. After watching one crummy, overwrought, semi-coherent American action or war movie after another recently, it was a pleasure to see something this gripping, this honestly exciting, overplayed a bit but powerfully so. (In Russian, with English subtitiles.)
The Evil Dead Limited Edition (B)
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 1983, Anchor Bay/Starz
The Evil Dead, shot by Michigan State guy Raimi and other students, became the scariest movie of 1983 by following the low-budget, high-dread course laid down by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead and followed or elaborated by many others, including David Cronenberg in Shivers, and Peter Jackson in Dead Alive.
Some kids are trapped in close quarters. Some unstoppable undead zombies want to kill them. They keep coming and coming. Yaaaagh! Here, a too-confident quintet face a series of shocks, beginning with the nastiest plant attack ever. Warning: This one is really bloody, really gruesome and doesn't let up on tension or horror for a second. (Extras: Commentaries by Raimi and others, documentaries and featurettes, reunion panel, trailer.)
Rocky Road to Dublin (B)
Ireland; Peter Lennon, 1967, Icarus
An excellent documentary about the political contradictions and social dilemmas of 1967 Ireland, written, directed and narrated by Irish journalist Peter Lennon, and beautifully photographed in breezy black-and-white by the great French cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Among Coutard and Lennon's coups: a tough boycotted curling match, and an exuberant shot of grinning schoolkids in the street, running after the camera.
The movie, despite threats of censorship, ran seven weeks in Dublin and then disappeared for over 40 years, its memory kept alive by prestigious showings elsewhere in Europe, and by its fame as the last film screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, before Godard, Truffaut and other directors shut it down in sympathy with the rioting Paris students and workers. John Huston is one of the interviewees and the music is by the Irish group the Dubliners and others. A fine film; it's good to have it back. (Extras: Paul Duane's 2004 documentary The Making of Rocky Road to Dublin.)