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His moment: McKay as the titular character in Me and Orson Welles.

A Boy’s Own Adventure

By Shawn Stone

Me and Orson Welles

Directed by Richard Linklater

This is one of those “what if?” stories, in which fiction is blended with fact to make a “better” tale. I usually hate “what if” stories. I didn’t hate this one.

In Me and Orson Welles, the situation is this: What if an aspiring teenage actor happened to be there on Broadway at the dawn of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1937, cast in Welles’ fame-making production of Julius Caesar? Clearly, such a green kid doesn’t belong in this situation. The secret of the film’s success is that its creators understand this.

The teenager is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, of High School Musical mega fame), who we first meet dozing in his suburban high-school English class, and then idly wandering the streets and museums of Manhattan. Restless, bored and eager for experience, the kid happens on a theater company waiting on the sidewalk for the arrival of their director. He banters with the actors, matching wisecracks with enough bravado to earn their respect. And then Orson Welles arrives, imperious and jocular. The kid manages to charm his way into a bit part by singing a breakfast cereal jingle.

Most of Efron’s vast tweener fan base likely have no idea who Orson Welles is. It’s like that scene in Zombieland, when Woody Harrelson is aghast that Abigail Breslin doesn’t know who Bill Murray is.

“That’s like not knowing who Gandhi is,” he exclaims.

“Who’s Gandhi?” she replies.

Here, actor Christian McKay brings to the role a level of authority, humor, passion and infectious exuberance that would charm the most ignorant viewer into accepting that “Orson Welles” is a man of great importance. Those familiar with Welles won’t be disappointed, either. McKay, who should have snagged an Oscar nom for this performance, is majestic as the boy genius of radio and theater.

The kid is enchanted with everything: the company, the old theater itself, Welles’ radical reworking of Shakespeare, and Welles. The company offers comradeship and the promise of sex; Welles represents the lure of glamour and fame. Director Richard Linklater doesn’t idealize or sentimentalize the milieu; instead, he shows us how easy it is for a kid like Richard to do both.

Romance rears its pretty face in the person of company secretary Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). She’s set her cap on meeting Hollywood producers; the kid is undeterred. In an amusing moment, he offers her adventure, romance and wealth—all at the movies, which is all he can afford. There’s no suspense here, and that’s all to the good. Their one-week friendship will end as it is supposed to end.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the story takes place over the course of just one week. Linklater, who knows a thing or two about using the passage of time to enhance drama, uses this to great advantage. Every small crisis is magnified.

That the kid’s magnificent adventure ends as quickly as it began is no letdown. But Me and Orson Welles ends on a note of melancholy that’s as fully earned as it is a surprise.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

From Paris With Love

Directed by Pierre Morel

I just typed From Russia With Love, and luckily caught my gaffe before sending this to my editor. An easy mistake, when the actual title, From Paris With Love, is so obviously a paean to the Bond flicks. In this action-packed thriller, John Travolta plays Charlie Wax, a CIA operative who is the yin to the yang of his Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 subway-stealing baddie. Hurtling through Chinese restaurants and dingy fabric shops, both hands wielding heavy-duty firepower, Wax is a one man wrecking crew. As bodies of Asian baddies hurtle down from a spiral staircase, Wax’s new partner, the decidedly lower level agent Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) asks just how many of them there are, to which Wax glibly jibes “A billion.”

So, no, From Paris With Love is not exactly subtle, and yes, it is downright old fashioned in its refusal to try to paint its ethnic bad guys with any smidgeon of nobility. Strangely, and perhaps because we’re into cold, brutal February, I didn’t mind. There was something atavistically refreshing about seeing two agents work their way through dangerous situations, ostensibly to stop a major drug cartel from passing off its lethal product into wider distribution. It was a kick to watch the duo get hoodwinked by a beauteous brunette (another Bondian nod), and have to think fast to get back on track before she assassinates an American ambassador.

The movie belongs completely to Travolta, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he filmed this after his son’s tragic death, in which case the bombing around as a badass motherfucker might have been a cathartic release. In a much less splashy role, Rhys Meyers is appealing as the agent who wants to prove his mettle, then spends the remainder of the movie almost bewailing what he wished for. The scenes in which Reece has to follow Wax from one dangerous encounter to another, all the while holding on to a vase full of cocaine, are comic and understated. Stunningly filmed and edited, From Paris to Love is the ultimate jolt to the winter doldrums—that is, if you’ve already seen all the Oscar-nominated films of last year. Or am I just saying that to preserve some sort of critic cred?

—Laura Leon

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