MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Me and Orson Welles Red Cliff, The Road, and Ninja Assassi

Me and Orson Welles, Red Cliff, The Road, and Ninja Assassin

Me and Orson Welles (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Richard Linklater, 2009

In Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, a director whose films I usually like, takes on a highly ambitious subject that 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 — and does them all really proud. Hail Caesar! Hail Orson! Hail Houseman! Hail Mercury players, past and present, real and recreated! And of course, Hail Richard — Linklater, that is.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 (catching the rhythms, delivery, style and timbre, if not quite as deep a basso profundo), smiles like Welles, roars like Welles, and, whether sliding into radio’s The Shadow or into Shakespeare’s Brutus, noblest Roman of them all, 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 films’ John Houseman, played with the right blend of cogency and exasperation by Eddie Marsan, the obsessed driving teacher of Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky. And 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 theatre student Richard Samuels, the witness to all this (after Welles picks him to play Brutus’ Lucius on the street before the Mercury) is 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.

Linklater, whose own triumphs range from Slacker to Before Sunrise to School of Rock, is a sometimes wonderful filmmaker, a comic humanist who’s obviously fallen in love with his terrific subject: young Welles and the world around him. Linklater tries, mostly successfully, to give us the creative ferment of American society, drama, and media in 1937, fueled by the Depression and the gathering war clouds in Europe, in a welter of pop politics both radical and reactionary, of burgeoning social change and cultural upheaval.

At its edges, is the movie‘s witness, young Richard. And, at its center is the young Orson, the amazing prodigy who conquered American radio and the stage in his early twenties and then headed West to Hollywood and Citizen Kane. That’s in the future here, but not too far in the future; at one point we seem to see Welles struck and mulling over visions of Kane (or something to top Caesar) in his mind.

But meanwhile, there’s Caesar, with the young Richard as our observer — watching as Welles keeps the company in a constant state of creative excitement and panic: dropping and adding scenes at will, conducting multiple love affairs, racing by hired ambulance to his radio Shadow gigs, nurse-maiding and fathering and seducing his cast, and giving Caesar the contemporary resonance — with a fascist takeover– that he and Houseman (who has to straighten out all his messes) are sure will create an explosive success.

What follows is one of the best backstage dramas ever, a valentine to the theatre like Marcel Carne’s and Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise, and a lovely distillation of a wondrous time. (Not the least of Me and Orson Welles‘s pleasures is the superb period old record score, heavy on Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and other ’30s jazz greats.)

I loved Me and Orson Welles and I hope it attains at least a modest success too, a warm connection to the audience (especially the movie buff audience) that it richly deserves. Sadly, when I went to the L. A. opening night screening at Landmark, the crowd was tiny, a fraction of the packed houses elsewhere for the gloomy and mediocre New Moon and the exciting but ridiculous 2012. Me and Orson Welles has it all over either of those bloated hits, topping them in everything but nonstop world destruction and neck-biting. Like McKay’s Welles, it puts on a great show with a seemingly modest budget. It shows us again what we love about the theatres, media, pop and high culture, and, finally, the movies. It also shows us, through McKay’s alchemy, the spitting image of a giant of them all.


Red Cliff (Three and a Half Stars)
China/Hong Kong/Japan; John Woo, 2008

Huge armies facing each other across immense battlefields, thousands of warriors in gorgeous robes, ships aflame, arenas of war drenched in carnage and blood, hails of arrows, swords slashing in sunlight, ballets of death and martial arts exploding across vast frescos and panoramas of ancient beauty and ceremony… That’s what we get in John Woo’s latest film, his partly triumphant return to Asian moviemaking, Red Cliff. But are we getting all we should? This Asian battle film super spectacle from action master Woo — a mammoth, visually breathtaking period epic based on China’s legendary 208 Battle of the Three Kingdoms (as recorded by historians like Chen Shou and numerous fictions and dramas since), and starring Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Japan‘s Takeshi Kaneshiro — goes by too fast.

I mean that literally. There‘s just not enough movie here. We’re being cheated of something: richer character depiction perhaps, more seductive period detail, or even the proper modulation between battle scenes and human story.

The story seems rich enough: As Red Cliff’s’ vast tableaux of war unfold, we watch the brutal Han Dynasty general/prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) bully the weakling Han emperor Xian (Wang Ning) into letting Cao send his huge armies against the more sensible Chinese war lords Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang), whom the wily and ambitious Cao sees as potential threats. Cao seems to have the overwhelming edge. But two war heroes enter the fray: the solemn, charismatic Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and the deadly Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro). And the battles keep rising until the final near-apocalyptic combat between the forces of tyranny and the supposedly rebel war lords.

Much of what we see here is amazing. But, personally, I was disappointed — not by Woo and company, but by the strategy of their stateside distributors. Red Cliff may be the most expensive, elaborate historical adventure China (along with production partner Japan) has ever made. But the version now playing in our western theaters is only a fraction perhaps of what we should be seeing: a two-part, five hour movie which ahs been reduced for the West to two and a half hours.

Such are the vagaries of distribution. The current Red Cliff may seem to be all we need. But it isn‘t the experience Woo at first intended or that other, luckier audiences are getting. This Red Cliff is a fraction of the original work, just as were the initial imported versions of great foreign language period classics like Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese Seven Samurai, Luchino Visconti’s Italian The Leopard, or Sergei Bondarchuk’ Russian War and Peace — not to mention more intimate, non-battle masterpieces like Ingmar Bergman‘s Swedish Fanny and Alexander.

I may seem to be overstating the case, especially since the cut versions of both War and Peace and Fanny and Alexander won the best foreign language Oscars for 1968 and 1983. But few informed critics would argue these days that the shorter versions of all the films above, and many others, are better — any more than they would defend Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg for chopping up Von Stroheim‘s Greed.

Luckily, these days, cut footage from films deemed too long, isn’t routinely destroyed, as were the deleted scenes from Greed and from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. The two part Red Cliff played to huge audiences in Asia and the excised footage is available for a director‘s cut, which I hope we see soon, not just on DVD, but in the large theatres, which are its natural home.

By the way, this reaction to the stripped down Red Cliff isn’t a knee-jerk director’s-cut-dogmatic response on my part. I thought the movie looked too rushed and not rich enough on my first viewing, when I hadn’t yet read about the cuts. I’ll be happy to review it again when the right Red Cliff is reassembled, and we can see Woo’s battles and intrigues and bloody frescoes in their full glorious spread.


The Road (Three Stars)
U.S.; John Hillcoat, 2009

Here’s another adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and if not as good as the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, it’s even bleaker and more violent. An undescribed apocalypse has struck America and an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering together across the gray, devastated landscapes, toward the ocean. Along the way, they encounter lone warriors, cannibalism, deadly archers, brutal marauders and almost everything your worst nightmares about social decay and failure might contain.

This is really no country for old men, though one dying old chap manages to show up, poignantly played by a grizzled Robert Duvall. The other gloomy denizens of this awful blighted new world, are enacted very well by Molly Parker (the absent mother, in flashback), Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron and others. In every case, as new victim-wanderers appear, things keep getting worse and worse.

Director John Hillcoat, who made those two other bleak adventure films The Proposition and Ghosts of the Civil Dead, is relentless in his depiction of social collapse. And he clearly has a good source. I haven’t read McCarthy’s novel, but it doesn’t look as if any compromises were made, except perhaps near the ending. And, if The Road isn’t exactly the kind of jolly youthful sex romp in gorgeous surroundings, the studios keep giving us, it’s true to its own dark vision. Apocalypse may be a frantic roller coaster ride in the smash hit 2012. But here it’s the dark, lowering cloud outside your window.


Ninja Assassin (One Star)
U.S.; James McTeigue, 2009

Ninja assassin Raizo (Rain) battles the murderous denizens of the city of night; meanwhile “Kung Fu” style flashbacks show us how he got to be the man he is today. Naomie Harris is the love interest Mika. Randall Duk Kim, of the American Players’ Theater, that art stage repertory troupe in Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate Taliesin, oddly shows up as the venerable tattoo master.

There is some high-grade, high priced talent involved here — including Kim, director McTeigue (of V for Vendetta, a movie I‘m now glad I missed), cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers. But they’re all wasting their time and ours. The results are awful. Pace, drama, comedy, neo-noir aspirations, martial arts, logic, street cred, sense: everything is sacrificed to fancy action. And you get more and better in Red Cliff. Hell, you probably get more and better action in The Princess and the Frog.

– Michael Wilmington
November 26, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon