Me and Orson Welles SXSW 2009 Reviews

10 August 2009

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles had been screened at SXSW 2009 in March 2009 as mystery screening, ie people showed up without knowing which movie they are going to see until it started. Considering that Austin is Richard Linklater’s hometown many people suspected that it’s going to be M&OW though.

There have been a bunch of reviews (mostly private) coming out of this screening which you can find below.

Austin Film Society, Chale Nafus, March 2009 (original article not longer available on their website):


ME AND ORSON WELLES is an absolutely delightful exploration of the theater, genius, creativity, youthful infatuation, and unbounded ego which leads to greatness. Director Richard Linklater uses his mature and steady directorial touch to bring the best of performances from Christian McKay (as an almost eerily lookalike/soundalike/actalike Orson), Zac Efron (whom I will now pay attention to) as the starry-eyed 17-year-old who gets the break of his life, Claire Danes (whom I have always admired since “My So-Called Life”) as Sonja, just as single-minded and driven as Orson, and a wonderful cast of major and minor characters, all of whom fit into the 1937 theatrical world. The recreation of the Mercury Theater, New York streets, and low-end apartments is wonderfully achieved. My friend Cassandra, with decades of theater experiece, said she had never seen a better presentation of the theatrical milieu. Holly and Vincent Palmo’s screenplay is full of delights and flows through an effortless structure of emotional highs and lows. The young Orson Welles has finally been memorialized in the best way — by a film worthy of his own talents. He might very well have been proud to have made ME AND ORSON WELLES himself.

Pajiba, Brian Prisco, 17 March 2009:

Our Whole Future Is Ahead of Us

Today was my turn to be woken from a fitful slumber by Dustin (he’s a cuddler). Dustin, Frylock and myself rolled over to the Paramount for the “Super Secret Screening.” Dan Carlson already scooped the world on what the movie was: Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles. Which in hindsight makes perfect fucking sense. Rumor had it that Dan “The Santorum Gurgle” Fogler was due to play Welles in an upcoming biopic, which caused me to twitch in abject horror with the potential High School Musical/Balls of Fury combo platter. Fortunately, a quick IMDB search quelled my fears, and we were only due to be subjected to a day with that plastic fairy Zac Efron.

Linklater was present for the screening (as were the Carlson twins: Sarah and Daniel, arch nemesii to The Hardy Boys and Chang and Eng) and it was fun. He said, “We premiered this at TIFF and I’m not really supposed to screen this until it comes out in October, but I’ll be damned if I don’t bring this to Austin.” And my heart grows three sizes larger. Me and Orson Welles was pretty fucking outstanding. It was a truly character driven pace that was just absolutely charming. The actor who plays Welles, Christian McKay (pronounced Mick-KAI so you sound edcumacated), will snatch up one of the Academy Award nominations this year guaranteed. He’s so good that when he’s not on screen, you sort of spend the time waiting for him to show up. Perennial hategarners Zac Efron and Claire Danes round out the cast of mostly also-rans, but here they’re goddamn decent. I’ve been cutting old Twinkletoes a break since his kinda-okay turn in Hairspray, which is thankfully the only flick I’ve ever seen him in. He’s a little runover by the rest of the cast, particularly McKay, who fucking owns the film as well he should, but that kind of works for the character. And my heart will always go on for Claire Danes, but she mostly played — to borrow a phrase from today’s champion Sarah Carlson — a solipsistic whore. All right, she was talking about the curly-haired writer that everybody else fucking hates but me, but goddammit that’s a good phrase and I will cram it in wherever I can fucking fit it. That’s what she said. Quoteth Seth Frylock.

Pajiba, Dustin Rowles, 12 August 2009:

Nobody Taught Us How to Deal with this Scenario at Hipster School

The Zac Efron Dilemma

Several of us got a chance to see Me and Orson Welles this last year at SXSW. The festival smartly scheduled it as a “mystery screening,” and nobody knew what we were seeing until we were standing in line to see it. There were quite a few gasps of horror when we realized it was a movie starring Zac Efron, but then when we heard it was also directed by Richard Linklater, well, we were confused. We didn’t know what to think. No one had given us a pre-formatted opinion for a movie directed by an indie legend and starring a Disney sex robot. A few people in line had seizures. Then someone said that Claire Danes was in it, and we were like: Yay! “My So-Called Life.” Stardust. But wait a second: Brokedown Palace and Terminator 3. Oh Noes! How will our brains ever process this?

And then we remembered the hipster way! When all else fails, always opt for cynical detachment. We can forgive ourselves for admitting that Richard Linklater had a misstep, but think of all the people who will laugh at us if we admit to enjoying a Zac Efron movie. Unless! Unless we enjoyed it ironically! Yeah! That’s it.

Oh, fuck it all.

Turns out, when we actually sat down to see the movie, that Me and Orson Welles, was pretty goddamn fantastic. Not perfect, but really solid. It was enchanting. And exuberant. And a lot of fun. Also: Zac Efron was pretty good, although the guy who plays Orson Welles, Christian McKay, will blow your mind. He is the bee’s meow, people. For real.

AICN, Annette Kellerman, 18 March 2009:

Annette Kellerman hangs with ME & ORSON WELLES… really!!!

Hello again! It’s Annette Kellerman here with another short review from the South by Southwest Film Festival. Yesterday I managed to drag myself out of bed following the magnificent late-night screening of Drag Me To Hell in order to attend the early-ish “Super Secret Screening” at the Paramount Theater. I had heard a few rumors as to what we might be viewing and was very pleased to find out we were indeed getting to see an early screening of Richard Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES.


The film follows young Richard Samuels, a high school student who has aspirations to make it as an actor in 1937 New York City. On one fateful day while playing hooky from school, Richard happens upon the newly minted Mercury Theater as its cast and crew are celebrating the erection of the establishment’s new sign on the front of the building. As luck would have it, this theater troupe are the denizens of Orson Welles, brought together for the notorious actor/director’s latest Broadway effort- a reenvisioned version of the classic Julius Caesar in modern dress. With some ingenuity and a bit of exaggeration, young Richard catches the eye of the formidable Welles and is cast on the spot as Lucius. Throughout the rest of the film, the audience is taken on Richard’s journey as he makes his stage debut and experiences first-hand the great talent and sometimes not very noble actions of the legendary Orson Welles.

I really liked the film. The whole aesthetic of late 30’s NYC is perfectly captured in every scene. While director Richard Linklater adequately demonstrated he could do a period piece with The Newton Boys, that film unfortunately failed to fully connect with its audience. In Me and Orson Welles, Linklater again completely nails the look and feel of this beautiful era, but moreover, the perfectly captured time period serves as the beautiful canvas on which the director tells his compelling story.

Christian McKay as Orson Welles is almost scary good as the infamous impresario. He somehow manages to embody Welles without seeming like he’s doing an impression. His performance conveys the erratic delight Welles found in his work, but also the seriousness in which he approached all of his projects.

Claire Danes as the theater manager Sonja Jones delivers some of her best work I’ve seen in a long time. She is luminescent and charming as the gal who shows young Richard the ropes in more ways than one. Though her character will clearly do whatever it takes to further her career in the entertainment industry, Danes manages to imbue some heart in a role that may have otherwise just been relegated to the heartless bitch category.

As the rookie Richard, Zack Efron really surprised me. Though you’d have to live under a rock to not be familiar with the heartthrob, I haven’t been in his demographic for quite a while and haven’t really seen much of his work. In this film, he gives a thoughtful, understated performance that really captures the character’s naivety without making him seem like a total doofus. While he still gets to display some of the musical talents that landed him on the map in the first place, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Efron’s more serious side, and admit that I don’t have to be a 13 year old to see this kid’s potential anymore.

I think Me and Orson Welles will be released in October, so most of you will have the opportunity to check it out then. It is a really beautiful period piece with a unique story told in the context of the early success of one of the great auteurs., Scott Von Doviak, 16 March 2009:

SXSW Review: “Me and Orson Welles”

The SXSW Super Special Screening this morning turned out to be Me and Orson Welles, the latest film from Richard Linklater, a director so long associated with Austin and SXSW that the screening shouldn’t have been much of a surprise at all. (And apparently it wasn’t a surprise to many in the audience, so I assume Twitter was all a-tweet with the news.) Suprise or not, it was definitely a treat.

Zac Efron – yes, the High School Musical kid – stars as Richard Samuels, a high school student circa 1937 with dreams far beyond his class musical. He knows he’s an artist at heart, he’s just not sure whether he’s an actor, writer, musician or what. He does have a crucial knack for bullshitting that will serve him well, as we learn when he happens upon members of the Mercury Theater announcing their latest production to a throng of New York pedestrians. Richard manages to charm Mercury honcho Orson Welles with his bravado, insisting he can play the ukelele and sing like an angel. While he’s not quite clear how these skills will come in handy for the modern-dress production of Julius Caesar Welles is masterminding, he does get the tiny part of Lucius in the show.

What follows is a lightly comedic mix of coming-of-age story and classic backstage intrigue. Richard gets quite an education in how theater really works, not only from Mercury mainstays Joseph Cotton, Norman Lloyd and John Houseman, but from Welles’ assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), who briefly indulges Richard’s romantic interest before revealing the full measure of her ambition. Efron is perfectly bland as the callow youngster, which is appropriate for the role; it doesn’t matter much that he’s not terribly exciting to watch, as his primary co-star picks up more than his share of the slack.

Me and Orson Welles may technically be more about the former than the latter, but there’s no question that the movie belongs to relative newcomer Christian McKay as Welles. I’m not one to start trying to generate Oscar buzz in March, but I’m dead certain you’ll be hearing his name in connection with the O-word when the film opens later this year. It’s a dead-on impression, but much more than that; McKay nails Welles on pretty much every level you can imagine – his charm, theatricality, humor and megalomania all weave in and out of one another in a seamless portrait of the artist as a young man.

Linklater’s last attempt at a period piece was his disappointing take on The Newton Boys, but he’s on much firmer ground this time around. There’s a hint of Woody Allen in his nostalgic Radio Days mode here (even the elegant white-on-black opening credits seem like a wink toward Allen), although Linklater’s own experience in the film business surely informs the behind-the-scenes tensions and backstage farce, as well as the camaraderie that develops as showtime approaches. Me and Orson Welles probably isn’t destined to be considered a major Linklater work, but it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the festival so far.

Magnet Magazine, Mitch Myers, 18 March 2009:

SXSW Report: “Me And Orson Welles”

Me And Orson Welles isn’t being released until the fall, but when the Texas film community gets together for SXSW, anything can happen. Hence, the secret surprise screening of Richard Linklater’s new film was no secret and certainly no surprise. He based his Welles flick on Bob Kaplow’s novel of the same name, and the “period drama” takes place during one week in New York City, circa 1937, well before the great Welles made his immortal mark in film and radio. The plot revolves around a brash teenager (Zac Efron) who’s given a role in Welles’ Broadway production of Julius Caesar and gets into a bizarre love triangle with the director (Christian McKay) and his lovely production assistant (Claire Danes). This mainstream homage feels just a little like My Favorite Year, and although the show-within-the-movie shtick has been done before, it’s clear that Linklater has matured well beyond slackers and stoners, and there’s no turning back for him as a filmmaker. Maybe next time Linklater will make his own epic a la Citizen Kane, but this is not it.

The Wrap, Eric Kohn, 18 March 2009:

It’s No Secret: Linklater Channels ‘Welles’

No SXSW Film Festival can do without Richard Linklater. The Austin-based filmmaker routinely appears at the fest each year, whether or not he has a movie in it. This time, the program technically contained no Linklater movie, but he managed to slip one in, anyway.

A Monday 11 a.m. “secret screening” at Austin’s Paramount theater turned out to be Linklater’s latest feature, “Me and Orson Welles.” Much like the impromptu showing of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, by the time of the Paramount event the secret was no more — Twitter updates and other fast-paced means of communication took care of that. “Does anyone not know what you’re doing here?” joked SXSW producer Janet Pierson as she introduced the film.

A smoothly directed account of Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar”, the movie focuses on an ambitious teenager (“High School Musical’s” Zac Efron) who lands a bit part in the show. Conventional by Linklater’s standards, the film is a thoroughly entertaining production that doesn’t over-stylize the period-piece elements. As Welles, Christian McKay dominates the screen, nailing the unique blend of pomposity and creative inspiration associated with the character’s fascinating mythology. At the screening, Linklater described the movie as an exploration of “the blessing and curse of those compelling to put on a show.”

Although it doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that Welles was only in his early twenties at the time, the movie offers plenty of insight into the incessant creative energies that he constantly brought to his projects.

Linklater plans to open the movie later this year, and noted before the screening that he was violating a cardinal rule by showing the movie at SXSW, since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and has since landed a distribution deal.

“There was no way we were going to keep this out of Janet Pierson’s first SXSW,” said Linklater, referring to Pierson’s inaugural year as the head of the festival. (Pierson, the wife of veteran indie producer John Pierson, said that Linklater was responsible for her decision to move to Austin years ago.)

Yesterday, Linklater appeared at the Austin Convention Center with director Todd Haynes, whose cult hit “Superstar” screened at the festival as another top secret entry (the movie, which uses Barbie dolls to explore bulimia, contains copyrighted music and can’t officially show anywhere). Linklater recalled meeting Haynes at the Independent Feature Project’s Independent Film Week in 1988, before either hit it big.

“The good thing is you have a body of work that people can refer to,” Linklater said, in reference to both of their careers. “The bad thing is you have a body of work.”

Hollywood Elsewhere – Arthouse Cowboy, Moises Chiullan, 27 April 2009:

Efron Can Open Orson Welles

For me, Obsessed is not the story of the weekend. Now that 17 Again has solidified the idea that Zac Efron can open and sustain something that doesn’t have High School Musical or another brand stamped on it, it’s time to talk about Me and Orson Welles.

Many are quick to disdain anything that Efron is associated with, but don’t let his Disney channel affiliation and wild success turn you off of him here. Even though I’ve not invested any time in the High School Musical movies, I thoroughly enjoyed him in Hairspray and now this.

Instead of playing some super popular jock as would be convenient typecasting, he is a daydreaming artiste-in-the-making. He’s alternately naive and arrogant, showing a range and vulnerability he’s not had the opportunity to as of yet. Given the plot of the piece, where Welles gives Efron’s Richard his break into showbusiness, it’s ironic that the “kid” is Welles’ ticket into theaters at this point.

After seeing Welles in March at South by Southwest, I’m amazed it hasn’t found distribution yet (last anyone heard). This movie must not go direct to VOD or DVD, it demands a theatrical presentation.

It’s in the same vein as other films where a real-life figure is involved in “putting on a show.” It’s definitely as good and in my mind better than Shakespeare in Love if we’re comparing apples to apples. Christian McKay’s performance as Welles is so good that many reviewers at Toronto last year allowed it to overshadow a very solid coming-of-age period piece.

That isn’t to say that McKay’s Welles isn’t worthy of effusive praise, as it’s much more than an impersonation. What McKay has produced is a charming, comprehensive channeling of Orson, rich with texture and completely authentic. It’s so well done that the superstitious part of me wonders if the cursed luck that daunted much of Welles’ later life has somehow infringed on the future of this film.

As in their real-life counterparts’ collaborations, I find it unfortunate that James Tupper’s performance as Joseph Cotten has been mostly overlooked for that of McKay. Eddie Marsan also does a sturdy job as John Houseman, a stark contrast in type to his Scott in Happy Go Lucky last year.

It would be inaccurate and hyperbolic to call it the greatest film of the year, but it certainly deserves mention as one of the best movies I saw at SXSW and one of my favorites of 2009 thus far. I go see it twice, buy it, and recommend it to friends.

I happened to bring a friend along back in March, knowing what this “Secret Screening” was in advance. He’s a generation or two older, loves the films of Stanley Kubrick and almost compulsively collects books and movies. He first decided I was worth talking to when our introductory conversation turned to Lawrence of Arabia and 2.35:1 aspect ratios. He loves the smell of books upon books lining the shelves of his den at home and is generally bored by the majority of wide releases each year. After the movie was over, he expressed gratitude for my pressing him to be there at 11am on a Monday. He added something to the effect of, “I didn’t feel like a second of my life was wasted watching that. That’s rare these days.”

Me and Orson Welles is a fully satisfying film of its species and breeding that especially deserves to be seen by aspiring creatives: the naive, the jaded, and all in between. We need movies every once in a while that celebrate the craft and history of the stage. There is truly nothing like live, electric theatre.

I ascribe to the idea that there are certain staple stories that need to be (and are) done every so often. They are not as often done well or hungrily enough, but this one hits it on the nose. Not everyone will walk in to Welles and walk out revived by the spirit of creativity, but I sure did. Revived and well-fed, I was spoiled for the rest of the festival.

Triple Threat, Rich Oxenham, 18 March 2009:

Richard Linklater: Me and Orson Welles

1937, and a young Orson Welles is directing the theatre production of Julius Caesar. Linklater always understands characters and insists on naturalistic performances. Christian McKay is a revelation as Welles and Zac Efron, away from his High School Musical noose, gives a mature performance. The production should also be commended for convincingly portraying 30’s America.

Spotlight on SXSW, Robert Saucedo, 30 March 2009:

Me and Orson Welles

In a super secret surprise screening, Austin native Richard Linklater unveiled his latest film, “Me and Orson Welles,” a romantic comedy/biopic about a young actor’s budding friendship with future megastar Orson Welles and the woman who drives them apart. Zac Efron and Claire Danes both give admirable performances but the real star of the movie is newcomer Christian McKay who gives a pitch perfect performance as Orson Welles. The movie is a charming glimpse into the passion behind performance and an interesting perspective of a young Welles who would soon grow into the legendary filmmaker still remembered. Director Linklater does an excellent job of enveloping audiences into the past and creating a fully realized world.

The film won’t open in theaters until this fall, so fans of cinema will just have to be patient until they get a chance to watch this highly recommended movie.

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