Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hey, that was better than I expected: Me and Orson Welles and Daybreakers

So, after Monday's pairing of high-profile disappointments, it's only fair to point out a couple of movies from last weekend that exceeded expectations. That makes them pretty good, because I do tend to think good things about both Richard Linklater and the Spierig brothers - granted, the latter only made one movie before this, but I recall Undead entertaining the heck out of me at an early Boston Fantastic Film Festival. They had style to spare in that one, but Daybreakers hints that there may be some brains to go with. There's ideas to go with the action here.

Richard Linklater, meanwhile, is I guy I run extremely hot and cold on. I think The Newton Boys is the only film of his that I've seen that I didn't really love or really hate. It's why, despite loving Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and School of Rock, I'm very hesitant to pick up Dazed and Confused, no matter how much everyone else liked it. I remember Waking Life and Tape all too well. I've only got a copy of A Scanner Darkly because HD-DVDs got really, really cheap.

So, anyway, good movies. Go see them, especially Welles, which apparently leaves the Capitol in Arlington on Friday.

Me and Orson Welles

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2010 at the Arlington Capitol #5 (second-run)

At times, it's a bit hard to grasp that Orson Welles was a sex symbol, once upon a time. Forget the way he ballooned to a size that matched his ego and personality later in life; he did the same in the film widely considered his masterpiece, so that the image that most moviegoers (who likely haven't seen much of him beyond stills of Citizen Kane) have of the man is bloated and arrogant. Though fictional, Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles is a reminder that once, only half of that description is true.

But this isn't really Welles's story. As the title implies, we follow Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high-school student with a love for theater and music which is being slowly strangled at school. One day, he goes into the city and walks by the Mercury Theater, where Welles (Christian McKay) is mounting a production of Julius Caesar with himself as Brutus. Richard bluffs his way into the man's good graces, landing the minor role of Lucius. There he meets a number of other ambitious actors - established names like George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), fellow rookie Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and the beautiful Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). In many ways it's a dream come true, but Richard will soon discover that the theater is aptly named - Welles is nothing if not mercurial.

Even without someone who is both a perfectionist and extremely unreliable at the helm, putting on a play, like being in a band or playing high-level sports or making a movie, is the sort of activity that we outsiders likely have a difficult time fully grasping. It's a bunch of people with vast reservoirs of self-confidence, strong personalities, and individual visions trying to work together, and more often than not managing it because they share the same enthusiasm as well. Me and Orson Welles does a great job of showing the crazy energy that goes into mounting a production. There's conflicts of personality and practical matters of how things are handled. Linklater and company do a really fantastic job of showing just how the whole process works; it's one of the best examples I can remember of showing the collaboration between director, actors, and technicians without trying to over-romanticize the process or give one piece more credit than they may be due; when we see bits of the production in the end, we're impressed with what the film's Welles and his company managed and see how everything fits together.

That's in large part because Christian McKay makes us see Orson Welles for the force of nature that he was. Genius and charisma are tricky things to portray - they're extraordinary traits that are either there or not; an actor who can tap into his or her own experiences of sorrow and joy may not have access to a memory of being brilliant or magnetic. Somehow, McKay finds a way to make it perfectly clear just how frustrating someone like Welles, who is both aware of his genius and willing to leverage it, can be. And yet, we're also drawn to him as the people in his orbit must have been - even after we see what a less-than-wonderful human being he can be, we still want a piece.

McKay's performance is the forceful, memorable one, but Efron makes a nice complement. It's clear, early on, that Richard shares a certain cockiness and brashness with his mentor, but there's a streak of innocence to him that stops just short of having unreasonable illusions. It's what makes us think that he can, eventually, succeed and still be likable; Efron does a nice job of showing Richard as both self-assured and willing to learn. Similarly, Claire Danes manages to take a character who, going from her lines and role in the story, could come across as simply mercenary, and make her very human and positive.

The production is top-notch, with Linklater working from a script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (itself based upon Robert Kaplow's novel). It strikes a nice balance between being chatty and fast-paced, and the filmmakers have a nifty eye for detail. What's particularly impressive is how they can work those details in there without becoming burdened by irony: A story that includes Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, references to The Magnificent Ambersons and David O. Selznick could get very cutesy or try too hard to impress the classic movie-lovers that will be its main audience, but this film manages to avoid it. Even scenes about kids in their late teens and early twenties talking about the music of the 1930s the same way their kids and grandkids would talk about rock & roll manage to avoid inappropriate laughter.

Richard Linklater can be a hit-and-miss director, only very rarely finding mediocrity. Me and Orson Welles is one of his hits, recalling its era's backstage comedy while still always managing to have a little bit of something that stings in reserve.

Also at HBS


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2010 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I, as a rule, hate vampires. Ask anybody who knows me, they've heard me rant on how ridiculous the concept is and how ludicrously it's been perverted in order to sex it up. I've had to back off that a bit a bit lately, though - getting movies as good as Let the Right One In and Thirst in back-to-back years certainly shows you that there's some life in the undead yet. Daybreakers isn't in the same stratum as those movies, but they make a case from the opening scene that they've got an interesting take on the subject.

It's roughly "now + ten years" (2019), and most of the world's population has become vampires, I Am Legend-style. For the most part, they're not feral - although going too long without uninfected blood mutates them from reasonable people with fangs and red eyes to bat-like "subsiders", and drinking infected blood accelerates the process - but they've got trouble: The vampire far outnumbers the human population, which creates a real supply-and-demand problem. Vampire hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is working on a synthetic blood supply, but an encounter with fugitive humans Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan) and Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe), puts him on the trail of a possible cure. His employer Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) isn't so sure of that, though, and sends soldiers after Dalton - including his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman).

Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig - who previously made the low-budget but highly entertaining Undead - are credited as writing, directing, and supervising the visual effects, and to say that they've got an eye for detail is to understate things just a bit. Much attention is paid to how a world primarily inhabited by vampires would function, from vanity mirrors that are actually a combination camera and viewscreen to news reports that mention that vampire animals combusting in the sun are now the leading cause of forest fires. There are times when I'd almost argue that people are too well adapted to being vampires, although at the speed things can change in the twenty-first century, it seems less a stretch than it might have a generation ago. The ability of people to adapt to a new world order is one of the themes that the Spierigs are playing with here, and it's perhaps telling that while the glowing yellow eyes, fangs, et al are initially jarring, we're soon taking vampires as Earth's dominant species for granted.

That's just one idea that the Spierigs have tapped into. The really nifty thing that they have done is to use the tropes of horror with the attitude of science fiction. They don't need to explain the biomechanics vampirism in any particular detail - although their take on it does make the immediate emotional sense, like all good horror- but they do work hard on extrapolating it. The result is a world that is a funhouse mirror of our own, and able to comment on everything from peak oil to vegetarianism to minority-bashing to corporate greed without the analogy seeming trite or forced. It's a new world, but we've got all our same problems, and some, like the willingness to dehumanize and disenfranchise anybody who is different, are bigger than ever.

This isn't a solemn, reflective movie, however. Discussions about ethics are almost always directly related to the action, and there's plenty of that. There are some bits that we've seen before - the beams of light penetrating a vampire's blacked-out car almost has to be a call-out to Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, although with a high-tech twist and a clever turn. Still, they're well-mounted and a bit exciting, and impressive in how, it the middle of a fire-fight, the filmmakers will remember that they're not just making an action movie with vampires, but a horror movie, and throw something disturbing beyond the gross-out level in. Though some of the effects are a little iffy - some of they mayhem looks a bit low-budget and the digital work in the opening bit is a slight knock on something that could be a nifty short film on its own - others are very good, and used well (quality stakes to the heart).

The cast is also pretty good. Certainly, the main cast can be relatively subdued - Hawke and Dorman have Serious Brother Drama to attend to, while Karvan's Audrey can sometimes be a generic Woman In Charge (irony: in the abstract, it's kind of refreshing that any forced romantic subplot is either missing or excised, but with a character frequently quoting "Burning Love", I might have liked that as an end credits song). Some of the members of the supporting cast see the chance to cut loose and take it, though - Sam Neill seems to be having a great time as the amoral corporate honcho, playing the villain without covering the part in ham. Dafoe seems a little less concerned about that as Elvis, attacking this guy who's not as smart as the folks around him but certainly not intimidated by that with gusto.

Dafoe seems to be having just as much fun as the audience. There are some missed opportunities in Daybreakers, but they're the type that indicate that the filmmakers have created a world that merits a little more exploration; it's the rare movie where TV/comic book/licensed novel spinoff seem like things that might be worth seeking out. Most vampire mythologies are secretive and predictable; this one's got surprises.

Also at HBS

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