Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater - 2009

- All posts may contain spoilers -


I have to start by declaring that I know very little of Orson Welles. Yes I have heard War of the Worlds, seen Citizen Kane and The Third Man, but I know very little about much else he has been involved in his – what I have been told is a – great career. In all honesty, when growing up, I was only aware of him as voicing the character of Unicron in Transformers: The Movie from 1986. Obviously, although I know very little about him this does not mean I do not recognise that his name carries a great deal of weight; just his name seems to demand attention. I feel that this sense of presence and of the importance of charisma is captured perfectly throughout Me and Orson Welles.

Director: Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly and School of Rock)
Cast: Zak Efron (High School Musicals), Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet and My So Called Life). Christian McKay, who I have not seen in anything before. As I explained above I do not know much about Welles, so I cannot say he was portrayed ‘accurately’, but I was certainly convinced that the man on screen was Orson Welles. These along with many other brilliant performances.


The film oozes ‘greatness’, not only in its captivating performances, slick direction and high production value, but in its themes and its characterisation of the film’s big personalities. There is no gritty realism here, no awkward silences; everything about this film is fabricated and based on spectacle, but I mean this in the most complimentary and positive way. It is about the importance of showmanship, of passion, of art, of commanding attention and then delivering something excellent – just as Welles does in the radio-drama scene. The film shows how this can only be executed if you believe in yourself and what you are doing; it is a truly artistic gift. This level of ‘greatness’ invariably surrounds Welles and Richard in both characters and the actors that play them. Due to the emphasis on ‘the show’ of the whole film it is easy to see that the actors playing these characters are so important to its meaning. McKay has huge boots to fill due to the mythology that comes along with playing Welles and it really is testament to his acting that he conveyed both his own greatness, along with Welles’ dramatic and imposing aura. Obviously there is credit due here to both the scripting and the direction and therefore I believe that Richard Linklater has (consciously or not) put himself in the category he is showing us onscreen: those who strive to be great at what they do. Or maybe they don’t have to strive for this at all, maybe it is just the way they are. This brings us nicely to Richard, who is very rarely seen to be practising, rehearsing or doing anything to prepare himself. He is, as Welles calls him: “A God created actor”. Although there is an element of doubt around whether Welles really meant this as he was saying it, I believe that he did, and I will come to that a little later. Richard as a character isn’t the only level at work here as it is pivotally important that he is played by the meteoric rising star that is Zak Efron. Again I know very little about this individual - I haven’t seen the High School Musicals et al - but I am conscious of the myth being created around him.

Passing the mantle and a disregard for recognised tradition.

It is this ‘Zak Efron Factor’ that embodies the point that the film was making. It is ironic that a film largely based around an individual with such an epic myth built around him shows absolutely no regard for tradition or conformity. This – as far as I understand – seems to be a lot about the way Welles was: rebelling against the Hollywood system in his own way. Well this message is hammered home in this film through Welles’ absolute disregard for Shakespeare’s original text or the established theatre productions that he is in competition with. In a similar way to how Welles may have carried this view in his life, it is again testament to McKay’s acting that the Welles of this film passes this message to the young Richard (and by extension to the Efron’s of the new century). Welles sees himself in Richard, this much is clear and although it is implied that Richard was dismissed because Welles cannot be questioned, contested or upstaged in any way, I believe that Welles was freeing Richard; he knows that Richard must find his own path in order to truly be great, just as he did. He cannot rise to fame under the wing of the great Orson Welles, as this will then be all he will ever be: Welles’ understudy. The film shows a number of characters that can contest Welles, namely his manager who constantly argues with him (played by Eddie Marsan, who I am mainly familiar with from him playing a brilliant, but tragic driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky). These characters are not dismissed the way Richard is. I guess a talking point must be whether Welles keeps these around because he know their arguments ere rhetoric whereas Richard’s passion was real and did this threaten Welles’ dominance of the centre ground. Or alternatively as I hypothesise did Welles not see the same potential in the others and therefore does not see it fit to set them free. The freedom of Richard and his generation is displayed at the end with the bird flying free; this is accompanied by Greta (his generational peer and fellow artist) declaring that “it is all ours”, when referring to the world. This continues the rhetoric of the importance of youth freeing itself; that you don’t follow the path set out by those before you, you create your own, albeit based loosely on their direction. Take their influence then make something new, i.e. Welles' interpretation of Caesar. Richard almost falls too far into this trap; idolising Welles, dressing like him, or even literally dressing in his robe and staying in his bed. This is until he realises that he has the self belief and presence of mind to make and follow his own path, he subsequently loses the Welles inspired suit attire in favour of his own trainers and colourful-coat look. The film openly displays ‘that to be great you must attain it for yourself’ is Welles’ belief. A key example would be when he tells Richard (and us) that he lost his mother and father at a young age. In balance then by then end of the film, Richard has taken the positive influence from Welles yet found himself as well.

In Summary

Fanboy, elitist knowledge of Welles is not important for the enjoyment of this film. It embodies what I have been led to believe is something that Welles stood for: that you create your own greatness by believing in it and in yourself. You do not blindly follow the dictation from previous generations, you seize the light yourself and in doing so you can make your impact on the world. This message is passed to the future generations through the character of Richard and is further articulated through the inspired casting of Zak Efron who embodies youth in popular culture as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century. You must define your own path but you cannot make that path unless you absolutely demand, with all the self belief you can muster that it be laid out in front of you.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Aliens in the Attic: Gamers aren't the delinquents that Hollywood would often have you believe


This was a Saturday morning trip with my three year old son to the pound-a-film kids screening. I am a massive NO TALKING in the cinema kind of fascist but one of the things I love the most about going to these kids screenings is that the setting is right to jabber away all the way through, answering my son’s plentiful and plenty-amusing questions. I went in with low expectations, thinking that it would be based too strongly at the eightish plus year old demographic for my kid to like it and too annoying American kid-like for me. I was wrong on both accounts.

Director / writer / cast – anything to note

Director has nothing to note. One of the writers on the other hand: Mark Burton, has some interesting credits to his name, including Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Ware-rabbit and Madagascar, two films that my son loves. In addition, he has writing credits on British comedy shows such as Room 101 and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. This may help to explain why there were some moments in the film where I literally laughed out loud and why the film had a quick, concise – family film – flow to it.

Gut instinct / immediate impressions.

As is outlined above, I went into this film with low expectations, but it wasn’t only that the expectations were low, they were specific. I thought that the young characters would be intolerable and incredibly set-in-stone stereotypes. On the surface, this may still appear so, but there are certain things that led me to believe that this was not quite the case; I shall outline the two main reasons I think this. The first is that when the second family arrived, they seemed as though they were certain to be held up against the protagonist’s family as the more flawed and less of an idealised nuclear family. Along with this I expected these children to be portrayed as spoilt, stupid, mean or just pointless. In the first scene they are in the older one is a little arrogant and the two younger twins are shown as soulless creatures completely consumed by their Nintendo DSs. I thought ‘oh here we go, typical Hollywood: broken family equals rubbish dad and therefore horrible children, and obviously they are delinquents as they are playing videogames’. These initial impressions don’t last long as the older boy proves to be just as useful, kind and caring as the protagonist (part of the ‘perfect’ suburban family) and it’s not like he goes through the entire film as a spoilt brat and changes his ways at the end; he is pretty consistently just an ‘ok’ if not a little mischievous kind of kid. Further to this and in complete contradiction to what I thought the film was going to say about videogames rotting the minds of the youth, the two twins’ knowledge and ability with computer games practically saves the world as they are able to use the aliens’ mind control device like a typical videogame console controller, leading to one of the highlights of the film: A fight between the family’s Nan and the older sister’s boyfriend. One controlled by one of the aliens and one controlled by the two boys. The fight captures a Hong-Kong action sequence feel and is much more impressive than the poor attempts at hand to hand combat that often appear in some big budget Hollywood blockbusters. The fight even gave a self-conscious nod to the greatest fighting game franchise of all time, as the Nan replicated the dragon-punch uppercut special move of Street Fighter’s Ryu and Ken. This progressive use of videogame references mirrors what is spells out throughout and is a common trope of children’s films: The adults just won’t get it; “they’re wired differently” says one of the boys.

Viewing this film in the context of a day out with my son probably made me appreciate this approach even more. Though it did contain many of the expected American-family film genre elements, there was enough here that left numerous points/characters for children to identify with and didn’t cast down any of the younger characters as having less importance, nor did it preach about the need for a perfect nuclear family. Finally it had a certain charm as it really seemed to be made with its target market of children/young people in mind and close to heart rather than trying – and failing – to cater to everyone.

In Summary

More going on that I thought there was going to be, it fast and fluent in its children/family film execution but at the end of the day if you don’t have a child or you aren’t a child between 3 and 13 then there really is no good reason to see this.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 game diary of sorts - pre-game expectations

As it is now, not only the highest selling game on record, but the highest selling entertainment product, it is clear that Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 - the sixth game in the Call of Duty Franchise - is of great cultural significance.

I feel then, an obligation to track my experience and impressions of the game as I experience it now in the game’s early existence. Rather than any kind of generic review, of which there will already be hundreds if not thousands; I would like to make a game diary drawing on what I have learnt in the field of film studies. Although this is sure to generate a narrative heavy approach, the importance of the gameplay cannot be understated. My particular focus will be on where the two meet; that is where the gameplay enhances the way the story is told (or the world is experienced would be a more appropriate description).

Having played the original Modern warfare, I am aware of the game’s intentions to stay as close to realism as possible. This does not simply refer to the photorealistic graphics but more importantly to the immersion brought about by the gameplay, the physics that are present and the narrative tools implemented to suspend the viewer/player’s disbelief in a way that has them enchanted by the gameworld. The first Modern Warfare had a very linear story, which to describe as original would be far-fetched to say the least. Where it excelled was its techniques in telling the story. For those who played it think of the way you experienced the Nuke scene. This could have been shown as a beautiful full motion video cut-scene; it would have looked fantastic and exhilarating. But the choice to have you still playing the game, dragging your body to the opening of the helicopter having been blown out the sky, seeing from your first person point of view the devastation caused - being free to look at where you want - then dropping dead. That was new, immersive storytelling that cannot be experienced in other mediums.

I have to say of my pre-game expectations that I already have an impression – generated by media and fan community coverage - of a controversial mission involving the massacre of Russian civilians. The first time you turn on the game there is a disclaimer warning of one mission that players could find very offensive and consequently gives you an option to completely remove this mission from the story. Yeah I’d love to have less content for my money thank you and miss out on the videogame event and media spectacle of the year (apart form maybe GTA’s full frontal male nudity). Clearly I am not convinced that Infinity Ward are concerned for my psychological well being, but I understand that they need to cover their backs from their own (legal) massacre. Not knowing the full details and not having experienced this apparent controversy yet, this is all I will mention for now, I just thought it necessary to point out that the spectacle of this event has already been heightened.

The bad side to having played (and loved) the first instalment of Modern Warfare is the same problem faced by any sequel: when a franchise is so groundbreaking in its first installment it is natural to expect more than ‘more of the same’ from the sequel. Think of how Terminator 2 raised its game after Terminator for instance, in comparison to the disappointment of the Matrix sequels after we experienced its initial genius. In their own right very good (ok satisfactory at best) films, but following something so groundbreaking, they were – frankly speaking – a disappointment.

These are my initial impressions and new posts will go up either per mission or per every few missions.