A Swell Welles Period Piece

(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2009)

To be a young actor in the hustling bustling Big Apple of the 30’s, cast by sheer chance as a player in an Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater production is a dream many aspiring thespians have no doubt had, but is it believable that it would be a dream shared by “it” boy Zac Efron? Sadly no, he’s a blank slate of an actor who makes for a weak protagonist, but this period piece by cult director Richard Linklater is royally saved by Christian McKay’s pitch perfect performance as the genius wunderkind Welles. It’s a role he was seemingly born to play thanks to his uncanny likeness and delivery honed from over half a decade on stage in the one man show “Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles”.

As a wide eyed high school student, Efron is overjoyed to be cast in the small but crucial role of Lucious in Welles’ controversial 1937 production of “Julius Caesar”. It was controversial because Welles staged Shakespeare’s play as contemporary commentary outfitting his performers in modern dress – specifically uniforms that resembled those of the Nazi party. Efron is paired with a production assistant played by Claire Danes as a rehearsal partner and immediately falls for her. He also falls for the world of the theater; a world that Welles rules with a mighty swagger.

McKay’s Welles highjacks the film from Efron and breathes life into the predictable proceedings with every entrance. His powerful presence not only makes us forget Efron is in the room, it helps us forget he’s in the movie. When McKay isn’t on screen the film suffers from the lack of chemistry between Danes and Efron and the simplistic nature of their relationship. It’s funny (or more accurately damaging) that the excellent casting of McKay would be offset by the misguided miscasting of Efron. Luckily other members of the cast fare much better – James Tupper as a the wise witty Joseph Cotton, Eddie Marsan as the exasperated John Houseman, and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris who has an effective scene dealing with stage fright right before going on as Marc Antony.

Linklater has one of the most intriquing and diverse filmographies of any working director out there. Since his brilliant breakthrough SLACKER (1991) his work has gone from indie (BEFORE SUNRISE) to mainstream (THE SCHOOL OF ROCK) and back again (BEFORE SUNSET) with mostly successful results. His previous period piece effort, THE NEWTON BOYS, was one of his only major stumbles so it’s wonderful to report ME AND ORSON WELLES is absolutely a superior and more assured work in the same arena. The brisk pacing and solid structure show off Linklater’s strengths as do the astute recreations of the original stage show – at times I wished the film would throw out the backstage bickering and just give us the play “Julius Caesar” in full.

Although my reaction to Efron and the presentation of the love triangle arc is decidedly mixed, this is still a worthwhile movie largely because of McKay. His Welles definitely deserves an Oscar nomination and that’s quite a compliment considering that this is his first film. A best-case scenario would be that HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL fans that follow Efron will see it and they’ll walk away under the spell of McKay. I know that’s just wishful thinking, but it sure would be nice for all those teenyboppers to actually get a whiff of what real acting is all about.

Post note: Christian McKay appeared previously on this blog in a post entitled “A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes (May 5th, 2008). He would definitely rank much higher if I did the list today.

More later…

Without A Hitch – 10 Definitive Directors’ Cameos In Their Own Movies

As film geeks throughout the blogosphere well know, an appearance by a director in their own film is a tradition established by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch (or “Cock” as Teri Garr once claimed she called him to Francois Truffaut) had brief but notable appearances in 37 of his 52 films. Obviously excluding those who act in sizable roles in their own films (Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Orson Welles, etc.) these are my favorites of the film maker folks that followed in Hitch’s footsteps:

1. Martin Scorsese in TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Scorsese has had brief bit cameos in a lot of his movies but it’s this appearance credited as “Passenger watching silhouette” that makes the biggest impression. As a nervous gun totting cuckolded husband, Scorsese tells his cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) to pull over and stay parked with the meter running outside the building where his wife is with another man. He talks about his revenge fantasy involving his 44 Magnum in the only scene in the movie in which we are creeped out by somebody other than the title character.

What puts this at the top of the list is that Scorsese actually shows some acting chops and a persuasive presence. His later performances in other’s movies, particularly Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS and Robert Redford’s QUIZ SHOW, confirm TAXI DRIVER‘s hinted at prowess. Incidentally Scorsese can also be seen in a daylight street scene shot earlier in the film.

2. John Huston in THE TREASURE OF SIERRE MADRE (1948) Another American master who appeared in many movies, his own and others’, Huston stole a short but sweet scene from star Humphrey Bogart in this undeniable classic. Bogart’s down on his luck character Fred C. Dobbs makes the mistake of trying to bum money 3 times from Huston as an “American in Tampico in white suit”. Huston reluctantly complies but warns: “But from now on, you have to make your way through life without my assistance.” Luckily this was nothing but a movie line – Bogart and Huston assisted each other on a couple more classics afterwards (KEY LARGO and THE AFRICAN QUEEN).

3. Roman Polanski in CHINATOWN (1974) Perhaps it’s been all the op ed pieces on Polanski lately (Sometimes that have the same screen capture I have here) that helped to inspire this list but whatever the case this is a colossally classic cameo. In less than a minute of screen time, as a thug that Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes dismisses as a “midget”, Polanski convinces us that he actually slices Nicholson’s nose with a switchblade. It’s a moment that’s impossible to forget:

Still not convinced that it’s a classic cameo? Then check out this 12 inch articulated custom figure!

I mean come on! How many cameos have action figures representin’? Well, come to think of it, there is this guy:

4. George Lucas in STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) This is movie director as extra. For a member of a crowd scene in the last STAR WARS series entry (or the third if you’re into the revisionist re-jiggling thing), Lucas got himself decked out in alien garb and gave himself a name: Baron Papanoida. There’s an oddly lengthy bio at IMDb. And yes, there’s an action figure too.

5. Richard Linklater in SLACKER (1994)

Linklater’s role as “Should Have Stayed at Bus Station” sets into motion the stream of self consciousness exercise that he geared the movie to be:

It’s quite a loose likable persona that Linklater affects – one that kicks off his film career and also appears in animated form in WAKING LIFE (2001) – a sort of sequel (or at least spiritual follow-up) to SLACKER.

6. Hal Ashby in HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

Film babble blog favorite Ashby also does the “movie director as extra” thing as a hippy freak at a carnival in his counter culture cult classic. Of course, he was just dressed as usual and it’s not really a cameo; more of a brief shot that captures the director as a random passerby watching a mechanical toy train with Harold (Bud Cort) and Maude (Ruth Gordon). Ashby also shows up doing the extra thing again in a newsroom in BEING THERE (1980) – something I noticed just recently after missing it for years on many repeated viewings.

7. Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

So he’s the “Director of TV Crew” who barks orders at the soldiers as they run through his shot – is it an exaggeration of Coppola’s ego or the real thing? You decide:

8. David Lynch in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) Lynch has done a number of walk on parts in his films but here he gives himself an actual character: FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole who Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Machlachlan) reports to. Lynch’s Gordon appeared on the TV series a few blink and miss them times and his bit for the prequel/origin story/whatever movie is pretty meager. So what gets him on this list? I guess it’s that a normal office scenario is skewed by the likes of David Bowie and flashes of a white faced pointy nosed circus wack job or whatever dancing around and this time Lynch himself is in the midst of it. Welcome to my nightmare, indeed:

9. Oliver Stone in WALL STREET (1987)

Yet another director that has taken bit or extra roles in multiple movies, Stone does a split screen sound bite appearance as a broker on the phone in one of the film’s many frenetic montages. No word whether he’ll reprise the role for the sequel.

10. Sam Raimi in THE EVIL DEAD TRILOGY (1981-1992) As documented by AMC Filmsite, Sam Raimi appeared:

1981: as a Hitchhiking Fisherman and the Voice of the Evil Force
1987: as a Medieval Soldier; and
1993: as a Knight in Sweatshirt and Sneakers, who assured Ash (Bruce Campbell): “You can count on my steel”

Peter Jackson pulled the same stunt by appearing in all 3 LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

Anybody else? I know this list is just a drop in the ocean so bring on your own favorites! You know where to put ’em.

More later…

Stomaching The Provocative Doc FOOD INC.

FOOD INC. (Dir. Robert Kenner, 2008)

I was sad to miss this film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this year so I’m glad to see it get distribution and play in my area. As an examination in three parts of American agricultural food production, it’s an eye opening and insightful look into the disturbing conditions under which animals are bred by factories while genetically engineered produce is the grocery store norm. Much of this material is familiar; Richard Linklater’s FAST FOOD NATION (2006), a comedy drama featuring Greg Kinnear and based on Eric Schlosser’s best selling 2000 book, covered the dark side of the fast food industry with a number of the same bullet points made. Schlosser produces and co-narrates FOOD INC. with author and activist Michael Pollan and they give us a much fuller picture than FAST FOOD NATION with the direct concise expert breakdown this subject requires.

Despite many disgusting shots with nauseating descriptions of inhuman practices, this film isn’t about grossing you out. Many folks will avoid it with that fear, but FOOD INC. is overwhelmingly concerned with the politics behind our food choices. Schlosser states: “When you go through the supermarket there is a illusion of diversity. So much of our industrial food turns out to be rearrangements of corn.” That’s just one of many valuable lessons to be found as we see hidden camera footage that was shot by actual employees at the world’s largest slaughterhouse and see cows being fed corn while standing in their own manure at the biggest cattle yards in the country.

Again, a lot of folks want to be the dark about where their food comes from so an audience may be hard to come by for this fierce film. Sure ignorance may be bliss, but an education on the politics of the food we eat that should not be ignored. It’s not an anti-meat movie either – the end credits are filled, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH-style, with suggestions for better healthy eating and “become a vegetarian” isn’t one of the tips so rest assured carnivores! Maybe the question isn’t of an audience, but the ‘right’ audience for this film – a special showing at the Colony Theater last weekend raised over $2,250 for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle which will bring wholesome food and essential kitchen equipment to needy families in the area. As it continues its theatrical run with other fundraisers and events planned to promote it, it’s sure to build the right audience. And that audience probably won’t be buying a large, buttered popcorn to go with it.

More later…

WALTZ WITH BASHIR: The Film Babble Blog Review

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Dir. Ari Folman, 2008)

“I hope that when they grow up, these babies will watch this film and will see it just as an ancient video game that has nothing to do with reality.” Ari Folman used that line in more than one Awards acceptance speech this season but didn’t get a chance to use it at the Oscars as his film lost to DEPARTURES last Sunday. Still, it’s quite an achievement for his film to be the first animated film to receive a nomination for an Academy Award or a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Utilizing flash animation with old school drawings and 3D technologies, not the rotoscoping that formed recent works such as Richard Linklaters A SCANNER DARKLY and Brett Morgans CHICAGO 10, Folman tells the complex nightmarish story of his experience as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. Later, as a stoical Isreali film maker, he consults with former army friends about reoccurring visions of a massacre he faced while having intense difficulty remembering what really went down. Half documentary; half surreal drama, it was often tough sitting through as the animation is often stiff and the pace is glacial but the textures and imagery linger in an astoundingly affecting manner.

Honestly, I was not as moved as I would’ve liked while viewing a late night screening after a long day with the bleak battered terrain stretching endlessly and the sickly looking characters’ detachment battling my compassion. However, the next morning after a night of processing these elements, so dry and unpleasant at first, now have force and urgency that requires deeper inspection. There are many dead bodies and much blood on display and it’s hard to separate from likewise videogame aesthetics, like Folman wishes they could be forever restricted to, yet a preserving passion encloses it all. As fluidity challenged as it is, WALTZ WITH BASHIR has a penetrating soul to it even if I would be hard pressed to call it entertainment. What I would call it is one of the most challenging cartoons that you’re ever likely to meet.

More later…

Revisiting RESERVOIR DOGS On The Big Screen – Thanks Again Cool Classics @ The Colony!

As a film geek/blogger it’s probably not surprising that one of my favorite pastimes is to see old movies, whether for the first time or hundredth, on the big screen. A 35 MM print, new or old, of a particular cult or could be cult movie really is most certainly my cup of tea. As I’ve blogged before, The Colony Theater in North Raleigh has been showing a regular round of what they call “Cool Classics”. Last Saturday night was right for a midnight show of arguably Quentin Tarantino’s best flick. Since my girlfriend and I have attended such previous pop culture staples as ERASERHEAD, PURPLE RAIN and most recently enjoyed re-seeing CITY OF LOST CHILDREN we were game to revisit:

RESERVOIR DOGS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992)

It was hugely fitting that the night before this late show, The Museum Of Art in Raleigh screened THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. Why you ask? Because Mr. Too Cool For Film School Tarantino lovingly lifted the use of colors as code names from that classic 70’s heist film – i.e. Mr. Blond, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue etc. Of course he snarkily threw in Mr. Pink just so Steve Buscemi could have something to hilariously complain about: “Yeah, Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy. Tell you what, let me be Mr. Purple.” He lifted lots more from other films here too but whether you consider it a rip-off or a homage, RESERVOIR DOGS, 17 years later, is still colossal cinema and one of the most daring breakthrough debuts of a director ever.

This was before independent films were the rage and award nominee regulars. Many notable auteurs had offered up dark crafty fare before but while filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh made cool indie films, Tarantino made indie films ultra cool. With RESERVOIR DOGS and its overwhelmingly influential follow-up PULP FICTION, the former video store clerk created a world of wise guys in suits with thin black ties, vintage cars with blood splashed interiors, 50’s styled diners, f-bombs and n-words dropped in nearly every line, endless pop culture reference riffing, and soundtracks full of 70’s funk/pop deep cuts. The opening credits slow motion shuffle to George Bakers Little Green bag alone defines Tarantinos savvy assured style.

Most of the action in RESERVOIR DOGS (nobody really knows what the title means – Tarantino himself wont say) deals with a never seen heist gone wrong and takes place in a mostly empty warehouse. It has been said that for budgetary reasons most directors first films are essentially ‘filmed plays’. That said, seeing this film on the big screen for the first time enhanced the spare staging scenarios for me to an edgier level than I expected. The iconic shot, used on many posters and the go-to promotional picture, of Harvey Keitel with gun pointed at an on the floor Steve Buscemi is 10 times more effective here than on any TV viewing when it pulls back to reveal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) coolly watching them in an over the shoulder viewpoint. Likewise the shot from the P.O.V. of the cop (Kirk Baltz) tied up in Mr. Blonde’s car trunk – I mean it’s obvious to say but it’s so nice to see this film like this how it was truly meant to be seen.

One flaw of many film folks’ first films is that the actors all talk like the writer/director (see Richard Linklater’s SLACKER). This is actually something that works well in Tarantino’s favor here despite all odds. I can practically hear Tarantino coaching Buscemi, Keitel, producer turned actor Lawrence Tierney,Tim Roth et al. through all of their lines but somehow that’s actually a plus in these punchy proceedings. Tarantino wisely kills off his own character (Mr. Brown) after his opening Like A Virgin breakdown speech presumably because he was aware his acting wasnt up to the caliber of his co-stars – too bad he didnt make the same decision in future films (especially PULP FICTION and DEATH PROOF).

In the low budget framing but the high formula re-thinking that defines Tarantino’s cut and paste career, RESERVOIR DOGS deserves future wave after wave of big screen audiences. Even if you own a special edition DVD or Blu-ray, consider seeing it on the big screen if a print comes to your area. Every detail from Steven Wright’s voice-over on the radio (“K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies” to be exact) to the sadly late Chris Penn’s scene steals as Nice Guy Eddie just screams for larger projection. One great moment – in a pivotal scene, Madsen spoke just as somebody in the audience made a distracting noise by dropping their drink. Keitel responded “excuse me?” as if he didn’t hear because of the offending interruption. Madsen had to repeat himself louder. Many at the Colony theater late show laughed – a communal sensation that can’t be recreated at home. Maybe that’s a disclaimer that should be on this film as well, especially the brutal cop’s ear slicing sequence: “These are trained professionals – don’t try this at home.”

Post note: I realize after re-reading this that I was addressing folks who’ve already seen this movie. If you haven’t seen it – by all means, screw waiting for a big screen opportunity, just rent the damn thing and complete the indie initiation of your film education – why doncha?

More later…

300 Blows So Turn To Some New Release DVD Relief

So I made it out to see the #1 movie in the US of A earlier tonight. I knew going in that it wasn’t really my genre (so keep that in mind – obviously I’m in the minority as the box office indicates) but I gave it a whirl. Now I’ll take a stab at a review :

300 (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2006)

“This isn’t going to be over quickly and you will not enjoy it.”
– Theron (Dominic West)

My sentiments exactly. The Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is told in tortuously tedious terms here. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300 is relentlessly stylised beyond any level of actual human connection. Much of the time it resembles a vacous video game or a glib expensive TV or historically themed magazine ad with it’s artificial gold or silver-hued grainy surface. A passionless sex scene early in the film is shot just like a Calvin Klein Obsession commercial. King Leonidas (a mightily melodramatic Gerald Butler) leads the obsessively dedicated but small army of 300 Spartans, who with their red capes and bare chiseled chests march through the hills looking like the scariest Chippendales review ever.

In this gallant Kamikaze mission they take on waves of thousands of attacking Persians in stop/start MATRIX-ish methods like frozen in mid-air assault positions and slo-mo floating droplets of blood all done as CGI composition on top of blue-screen backgrounds. None of it feels or looks real, and I know that’s precisely the point but I never felt anything for any of the characters and none of the countless deaths – many by spear – pierced through my bored indifference. With none of the soul of the best action war epics 300 dies just as dreary a death as the heroes it depicts.

Now some more new Release DVD reviews. Enjoy!

TIDELAND (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2006) Only film fans who haven’t been paying attention would be unaware of Terry Gilliam’s near complete ostracisation from the world of commercial film. The ex-Monty Python member is notorious for ferociously fighting major studio heads, plentiful production problems, and wildly going over budget leaving numerous projects stalled in development hell and making him ineligible to direct movies he would be perfect for – like one or two of the HARRY POTTER movies for example. If one were to put on the DVD for TIDELAND having not read anything about it (and with little to no promotion that’s very possible) they may be surprised to see Gilliam at the beginning of the film giving a disclaimer/introduction. In a shadowy grainy black and white headshot that’s almost as scary an image as anything in TIDELAND Gilliam states :

“Many of you are not going to like this film. Many of you luckily are going to love it. And then there are many of you who won’t know what to think when the film finishes but hopefully you will be thinking.”

He goes on to explain that the film is seen through the eyes of an innocent child and that while viewing it one should forget what they know as a cynical adult. Easier said than done but once TIDELAND gets going it casts a long lasting spell as potent as one’s most fantastical child-hood day dream (or nightmare). The child in question in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2000 novel is Jeliza-Rose (10 year old Jodelle Ferland) who has a SHINING-like habit of talking to her index finger alternately wearing 5 different doll-heads who each have bitchy personalities and voices of their own only heard by her. When her junkie mother Queen Gunhilda (a typically crazy Jennifer Tilly) dies early on from a heroin overdose, Jeliza -Rose’s father Noah (Jeff Bridges doing what appears to be a Kris Kristofferson impression to ward off comparisons with Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski) buses them out to the middle of nowhere (actually Saskatchewan) to hide out in his long deceased Mother’s abandoned farmhouse. Then things start to get weird.

Before long Jeliza-Rose meets her neighbors – the one-eyed witchy Dell (Janet McTeer) and the epileptic Dickens (Brendan Fletcher)who excitedely plots destruction by way of dynamite derailing a passing passenger train that he thinks is a monster shark. Noah also dies of an overdose, from a fix prepared by his dutiful daughter no less and Dell performs taxidermy on his corpse so it can still join them at a place at the dinner table come mealtimes – “he looks like a burrito” Jeliza-Rose exclaims. It’s all seen in tilted camera angles and wide panoramic shots that enhance the orange wheat field landscape. The stark reality that originally grounds the film continually threatens to escape into Jeliza-Rose’s Alice In Wonderland-influenced dementia. The scenes between Fletcher and Ferland come close to having inappropriate sexual overtones but remembering Gilliam’s warning and sensing the true tone should eliminate any uncomfortable tension.

TIDELAND appears to be the worst reviewed movie Gilliam has ever made. It has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com (the site that tailies up the major critic’s ratings) and the words “ugly”, “pointless”, “murky” and especially “unwatchable” come up in just about every review. Well I’m going against the tide here – this is a moving and darkly beautiful masterpiece. Ferland wonderfully carries the movie with even her doll’s head’s (and one squirrel) voices playing the right heartbreaking notes and every scene is perversely perfect in it’s construction. So as Giliam predicted I am luckily among the few who loved it.

HALF NELSON (Dir. Ryan Fleck, 2006) A young African American female student named Drey (Shareeka Epps) at an inner-city high school walks in on her white 20-something-year old teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) smoking crack in the girl’s locker room. They form an unlikely friendship and get worrisome windows into each other’s troubled lives. Epps is growing up too fast in a world of dealers and street crime while Gosling (Oscar nominated though everyone knew he wouldn’t win) is in a state of stunted growth muddling his conviction for teaching Civil rights history and coaching the girl’s soccer team.

More tension arrives in the form of Anthony Mackie as the impeccably smooth Frank – a pusher and family friend of Drey’s that Dunne warns Drey to stay away from. A stilted confrontation between the 2 men occurs but the level of conflict is low and surprisingly speech-free. Purposely gritty and well acted HALF NELSON works as an exercise in realism with no sappy wrap-ups or enforced morals. Well acted with a sober intensity throughout makes one feel that they’ve spent an hour and 40-something minutes with some real people and that’s very rare these days.

(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2006)
It would be easy to label this a brother or sister film to THANK YOU FOR SMOKING as a dramatized indictment of big corrupt corporations and their consequences on everyday people but FAST FOOD NATION contains none of that film’s semi-successful sense of satire, cynicism or exaggerated allegory. Taking Eric Schlosser’s best selling muckraking non-fiction book and throwing out all but the title and it’s central issues, Linklater gives us several tangled narratives – unfortunately none compelling enough to really have impact. In one thread that is dropped half-way through a Mickey’s (a fictional McDonald’s type chain) exec. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) investigates claims that manure may be in the beef. In another, Mexican immigrants (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancn) work at an incredibly unsavory meat proccessing plant and have their lives compromised at every turn. Then there’s also Amber (Ashley Johnson) – a teenage employee of a Mickey’s that is developing activist ideals while her co-workers plot a possible robbery of their own establishment. Not to forget the pointed cameo by Bruce Willis or the pointless cameo by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke.

The strong cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Patricia Arquette, and Avril Lavigne!) and Linklater’s mastery of dialogue driven scenes is what this movie has got going for it but the overall unpleasantness and lack of new insight into this material makes it unappetizing in a different way than it set out to be. Seeing the factory killing floor in action in any context is disturbing and eye-opening, here though it doesn’t have the intended effect of enhancing all the loose threads. FAST FOOD NATION has its civil conscience in the right place, sad that it’s cinematic heart isn’t.

Correction : In a post earlier this year I listed INDIANA JONES 4 as a movie to look forward to in 2007. It’s reported release date is actually May 22nd, 2008. Also I was told by a loyal film babble reader that the last time Harrison Ford portrayed Indiana Jones was not in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) but here.

More later…