Film releases: December 4

Image of Nigel Andrews

Creationists may flail and fulminate, but evolution will always have the last word. Look at the evidence in Me and Orson Welles () . Human beings are now evolving to outwit digitisation. Forget the soothsayers who prophesied our screens would be taken over by “synthespians”, many re-pixellated from old actors (digi-Brando, CGI Garbo). Christian Mackay, a new-to-screen British actor and apparent former concert pianist (the biog boffins have been busy), stalks Richard Linklater’s film as the living, breathing, grandstanding reincarnation of Orson Welles.

A superpowered screen charmer, Me and Orson Welles is about a go-getting 17-year-old (Zac Efron proving he can act as well as cause hormonal meltdown) hitching a job with Welles in the bright noon of the Mercury Theatre. Four years before Citizen Kane, the self-promoting genius was revolutionising Broadway with a Julius Caesar production. Director Linklater – whose own butterfly virtuosity (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, School of Rock) has sometimes seemed Wellesian – venerates his idol through a script based on a barely-fictionalised novel. Author Robert Kaplow actually met the boy (though boy no longer) who played lute-strumming servant to Welles’s Brutus on stage, thereby inspiring Efron’s bushy-tailed pusher at the door of theatre history.

This, of course, is theatre as “theat-uh”. Everyone struts about knee-deep in dry ice. The lines ring like the cracking of great frozen rocks. And Welles makes sure his repertory troupe is a permanent revolving door, flinging out dangerous rivals. “He had a personality problem with Orson,” Efron is told of his predecessor. “Meaning?” “He had a personality.” The boy hero, undeterred, goes into battle with the film’s other boy hero. Welles was only 22 when he staged Caesar, only 26 when he made Kane.

Claire Danes, as the company’s Girl Friday, is the blonde siren refereeing their love rivalry. Other faces pop up as bygone celebs (James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Ben Chaplin as George Colouris, the show’s Mark Antony).

But really it is Orson’s show. And when, at any point where this man has entered drama history’s orbit, has it not been Orson’s show? We still regard his first movie as the best ever made. We still goggle, via report, at his stage and radio feats. Here we re-meet the man himself, thanks to the magic of what we must now name “LR”, Living Reincarnation, the process by which evolution has outpaced digitisation. Look at Mackay. Look at the handsome-pudgy features, listen
to the rolling bass voice, appraise the twinkling eye, marvel at the offhand flourishes of the titanic frame. This is Welles. Don’t let doubters spoil your fun or dent your faith in the eternal self-renewals of Darwinian theory.

The theatre, the theatre. Where would cinema be without the sibling rival it sometimes defers to, sometimes manfully out-strides? Three other films this week have theatre in their blood. The Box () is the least of them: an eccentric fantasy from Richard Kelly. Once a dead-aim Dick of US independent cinema like Richard Linklater, he followed the unforgettable Donnie Darko with the un-rememberable Southland Tales, and now gives us this adaptation, defying every form of human retention, of a Faustian tale by Richard Matheson.

A box with a magic button: press it and you cause an unknown person’s death but win $1m. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are the anguishing couple with the gift. Frank Langella is the handsomely disfigured Satan giving it. A lot of stuff about Nasa, Mars exploration and amateur theatre – Sartre’s Huis Clos and its glowing chestnut adages (“Hell is other people”) – add to the film’s richness or, depending on opinion, its overcooked confusion.

JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace () was the self-fulfilling tale of a literary man driven into exile by a scandal. The hero’s fate – a teacher disgraced by an affair with a mixed-race student – prefigured the South African author’s own departure for Australia, hounded by accusations of the novel’s racism. Dismissed from his post, David (John Malkovich) decamps to the farm of his daughter (Jessica Haines). Here, one day, three black intruders turn rural escape into nightmare confrontation, raping her, beating him.

The film stutters into life like a bad engine. Malkovich does the university scenes in a weird, drained-battery monotone. But Haines’s performance lifts him. So, eventually, does the clever breakneck slowness of Coetzee’s story. This is tragic inevitability at one mile per hour, extending into a slow, sunbaked danse macabre the drama’s heartbreak and the guilt, anguish and wrath (definitely here rhyming with Roth) surrounding political incorrectness. Early on, the theatre scenes, showcasing the student girlfriend’s extracurricular talent (or lack of), are small wild inserts, functioning as minatory flourishes of the showdown to come.

Only When I Dance () shows how theatre can transform lives. In Beadie Finzi’s documentary two Brazilian dancers, a girl and a boy, become intercontinental balletic missiles. Teenagers from the favelas, they have become stars of Rio’s top dance school. Now they perform the ultimate jetée, he flying to Switzerland for the Prix de Lausanne contest, she jetting to New York and another international dance-off.

Hearts are on sleeves (theirs) and in mouths (ours) throughout. The girl weeps harrowingly on camera as the training demands intensify: she must lose weight, practise harder, overcome an ankle strain. For the boy’s success we are as anxious as his head teacher, a plump Mater Gloriosa who mothers him across the Atlantic and into the Lausanne final round. Will he, won’t he, win? Will the judges mark a little faster – please – as they tread on this tale’s anguishing, artfully paced speed of resolution? Much the same happens in Manhattan. By the film’s end it barely matters that these youngsters are dancing, rather than singing, skiing or sky-diving: all competitions are fundamentally the same that can change the course and character of a human being’s life.

Christmas is near, which means a dozen tinselled movies arriving in reindeer-drawn sledges. But there is always – have you noticed? – at least one sled, or one package in one sled, that looks plainer than the others? Sinisterly, reproachfully plainer: as if to say, “We are the ghost of Christmas Tragicomic. We come with irony, dark humour and a memento mori or two.” The Merry Gentleman () (caustically carolling title) is directed by the former Beetlejuice/Batman star – an imp turned Satanic – Michael Keaton.

The film looks as if it cost fifty cents and was shot on a wet weekend, but with all the devotion of a cast and crew saying “Damn our careers, let’s do something for art.” Keaton plays the suicide-minded assassin haunting fugitive battered wife Kelly Macdonald, who has witnessed him one night in a post-crime crise de coeur. Characters of a potentially daft, hyperbolic doominess – add a cop (Guy Van Swearingen) undergoing a mid-life crisis – somehow step down into our world, empowered by good dialogue, itchy realism of mise-en-scène, baleful comic notes and superb acting. Keaton is good, McDonald with her spooky equanimity and still-waters profundity even better. Sartre’s Huis Clos? Forget that. This is hell, as moodily atmospheric as low-budget screen infernos get.

Planet 51 () will keep the kids quiet in the next-door screen of the multiplex. A remote orb in space contains green creatures terrified of invasion by “Humaniacs”. That means us. So an earthly astronaut lands, precipitating panic, and the digital Armageddon is wacky, medium-funny and brightly voiced (Gary Oldman, John Cleese). Good fun if you can put up with the pastel colours and plasticky textures, which show that in modern fantasy animation all that pixellates isn’t Pixar.

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