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Looking for Orson Welles before 'Citizen Kane'

Published January 13. 2010 05:00PM

The title "Me and Orson Welles" contains certain assumptions.

One, you need to know who Orson Welles is.

Two, you need to care.

If you don't need to make those two assumptions, "Me and Orson Welles" will be an amusing and thought-provoking find for you.

Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, "Me and Orson Welles" tells the story of a high school student who stumbles into a small role in New York City's Mercury Theatre pivotal production, its first, of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," directed by Welles.

This was Welles before Welles was the famous movie director and actor. This was Welles before he and his merry band of theatrical pranksters's 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds," so true-to-life as to set off a near-panic among New York and New Jersey listeners.

"Me and Orson Welles" is a slice of backstage theatrical life before Welles directed what is regarded by many as the greatest film ever made, "Citizen Kane" (1941), which fictionalized the alleged carryings-on of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and actress Marion Davis.

"Me and Orson Wells" provides a backstage view of the tyrannical, brilliant and, true to his theater troupe's name, mercurial, Welles, played by British actor Christian McKay with uncanny, spot-on precision of movement, impishly charming face, and by turns, booming, cajoling and buttery-smooth voice.

Zac Efron ("High School Musical 1, 2, 3," "Hairspray") does quite well as Richard, the aspiring student actor. Claire Danes ("Shopgirl," "Stage Beauty") pulls you in as Sonja, the saucy actors' company manager.

Director Richard Linklater ("Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "SubUrbia," "The School of Rock," "Before Sunset," "Fast Food Nation," "A Scanner Darkly") tries to faithfully recreate the era. While he's no Orson Welles, Linklater does a commendable job based on the debut screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr.

Welles was well-known for gargantuan tastes, personal extravagances and excesses in life and movie budgets. His "Othello" spanned countries and years. Studios took control of out-of-control productions. Yet other movies were left unfinished or never begun.

Linklater captures the untamed creativity evident early on, which in Welles, sewed its own seeds of destruction. The artist-director-creator can never achieve completeness when he's his own worst critic.

Movie buffs should especially enjoy "Me and Orson Welles." Shakespeare devotees will find the film fascinating for its updating and deconstructing of one of the Bard's classics.

In this aspect, the movie is a distant cousin of Al Pacino's documentary, "Looking for Richard" (1996), which is about the actor's attempt to stage Shakespeare's "Richard III."

Here, it's all about "Looking for Orson."

"Me and Orson Welles": MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) for sexual references and smoking; Genre: Drama; 1 hour 54 minutes; Distributed by Freestyle Releasing.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "Me and Orson Welles" was filmed in London, Pinewood Studios, Isle of Man, England, and New York City.

Box Office, Jan. 8: "Avatar" again proved out of this world, No. 1 four weeks in a row, with $48.5 million and $429 million after four weeks.

"Sherlock Holmes" held at No. 2 for three weeks, $16.6 million, $165.1 million, three weeks. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" was again No. 3, $16.3 million, $178.1 million, three weeks.

4. "Daybreakers," $15 million, opening; 5. "It's Complicated," $11 million, $76.3 million, three weeks; 6. "Leap Year," $9.1 million, opening poorly for Amy Adams; 7. "The Blind Side," $7.7 million, $219.1 million, eight weeks; 8. "Up in the Air," $7.1 million, $54.7 million, six weeks; 9. "Youth in Revolt," $7 million, bombed for Michael Cera; 10. "The Princess and the Frog," $4.7 million, $92.6 million, seven weeks. "Me and Orson Welles" took in only $36,600, but was only on 35 screens, with a $1-million gross after seven weeks.

Unreel: Jan. 15:

"The Book of Eli" stars Denzel Washington, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, in yet another drama about post-apocalyptic United States about a man (Washington), who has a book with secrets to save mankind.

"The Spy Next Door" stars Jackie Chan, George Lopez and Amber Valletta in a comedy, directed by Brian Levant ("Are We There Yet"), about a former CIA spy Bob Ho (Chan) on his toughest assignment yet: watching his girlfriend's three children.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

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