s skippy the bush kangaroo: We will watch no film before its time

skippy the bush kangaroo

Monday, November 30, 2009

We will watch no film before its time

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo here with a short review of the new film Me and Orson Welles.

Richard Linklater's newest flick has opened in extremely-limited release (I believe in only two theaters in Los Angeles and two in New York). And I admit, its audience would probably be limited as well. But that limited audience will love it.

It's a valentine to Film and Theater history buffs everywhere, as it follows the travails of a young acting student (played surprisingly well by Zac Efron, he of High School Musical fame) in 1930's New York, who just happens to land a part (unpaid, of course) in the history-making production of the Mercury Theater's presentation of Julius Ceasar.

The production, which set the action of Shakespeare's play in modern fascist Italy, actually happened, and actually set the Theater world on its ear. And this film depicts many of the real-life actors/producers in all their ego/passion/rag-tag glory. Of course the biggest ego, the most passion, and the raggest tag belong to none other than Orson Welles, who is the centerpiece of the story.

As I said, Mr. Efron was quite good and believable as a young man excited about being involved in the "Theatah," in something bigger than himself. But the reason to see this movie (in fact, the reason for the movie to even exist) is the marvelous British actor Christian McKay as Orson Welles.

Mr. McKay has been wowing England with his one-man show about Orson Welles ("Rosebud"), and there's good reason. McKay not only looks like a young Welles in his prime, he's managed to capture the sound, the rhythm, the bombast and the excitement of the greatest genius to ever self-destruct in American theater.

McKay's Welles is a tornado of bluster, full of genius, insight, explosive proclamations of brilliance. And nobody recognizes (and appreciates) his genius more than he himself. Women swoon at his charm, grown men cower at his rapier insults, and fellow actors (and damn good ones, too) cower in the wings hoping that McKay's Welles might actually stop orating and give them their own chance to shine on stage.

McKay is so good that I honestly found myself thinking I was watching Welles himself, even though I knew I was seeing Efron, Claire Danes (more about her later) and other contemporary actors when they were onscreen.

If anything, McKay was too good, because when Welles is not on screen (as with the last 15 mintues of the film, sorry for the ambience spoiler there), the movie falls into the ordinary.

Also of note is James Tupper as young Joseph Cotten, who some may remember fondly from Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and other great films, and who turns out to be a major playah and ladies man; I also loved Leo Bill as the wacky Norman Lloyd, who some may remember fondly as Dr. Auslander of St. Elsewhere. (Who knew young Norman Lloyd was wacky? Or that Joe Cotten was a horndog? Not me!) These two great thespians, for obvioulsy dramatic reasons, take Effron's character under their wing to initiate him in the ways of avoiding Welles' wrath as well as chasing as much Broadway skirt as possible.

Now, about Claire Danes. I actually was disappointed in her performance the most (and she even gets top billing!), which was a shame, because I know her to be a great actor. I will insist that she has previously given plenty more subtle, realistic performances than here (hell, she was more believable in Terminator 3). But for some reason (and I'm tending to blame Linklater) she "acts" as if she's trying to be in a screwball comedy. For a supposed Ice-Queen, her character winces, minces and overly gesticulates, as if she's doing what she thinks Carol Lombard or young Katherine Hepburn would do with the part, as the wise-crackin' tough-as-nails heroine in a backstage story set in 1930's Broadway.

By contrast, every other actor seems to be doing what they think an actual human being would be doing, as they go about their daily jobs; these jobs just happen to be in the business of rehearsing and mounting a major show.

There's great fun watching the various characters chase each other romantically offstage as they try to establish their time and space (and dominance/subservience) onstage. It reminded me a little of Tim Robbin's Cradle Will Rock of ten years ago, which also centered around real-life people (including Welles) and the production of another famous New York play (of the same name). But more to the point of the blood, sweat and tears of what goes on putting a show on the boards, this film reminded me of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, a backstage look at Gilbert & Sullivan and the D'Olye Carte theatrical company. I'd recommend that you check out both of those films, if you are a theater/film history buff.

Art direction, costuming, set design, all primo; though the majority of the movie was shot at England's famous Pinewood Studios, I felt like I was in Depression-era New York for the whole of the movie.

I'm a big Linklater fan; I'm on record as stating that he's one of the few who can handle a good Dick. And this film only reinforces my fondness for Linklater, for Welles, and for the world of the Theater.
posted by skippy at 3:57 PM |


Trivia: the first video I posted here was Milla's, The Alien Song (for those who listen), which was also performed by her in the movie Dazed and Confused, written and directed by Richard Linklater. :)
commented by Blogger mahakal, 7:05 AM PST  
I heard the exteriors were shot on the Isle of Mann but I could be wrong.
commented by Blogger gmoke, 6:00 PM PST  
Thanks for the review, skip. I loved Cradle Will Rock (for its politics as well as its cinematic qualities), and am a huge G&S fan (and hence fan of Topsy-Turvy), so it sounds like this film goes straight on to my Netflix list.

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