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Films I Neglected To Review: Blank Space
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Complete Unknown" and two new Blu-Rays of rare classics by Orson Welles from the Criterion Collection

Complete Unkown, the third feature from Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) is a film that starts off as a potentially fascinating story, only to wind up coming across as much less than the sum of its considerable parts. In the opening scenes, we see a woman (Rachel Weisz) who seems to compulsive change her identity on a whim—during an opening montage, we see her doing everything from aiding in an emergency room to serving as a magician’s assistant in China. As the story proper begins, her name is Alice and she is supposedly studying frogs after having spent 18 months in Tanzania. One night, she attends the birthday party of Tom (Michael Shannon) as the date of one of his work colleagues but he is the only one not immediately enraptured by her stories—as it turns out, he knows her as Jenny, the girl he used to date 15 years earlier until she suddenly disappeared without a clue. After she flees the party when her stories fail to jibe with the other partygoers, Tom goes off after her and over the course of one long night, he tries to find out what caused her to leave in the first place, what it is that compels her to continue to develop and shed entire identities at the drop of a hat and whether he could possibly break free of his own humdrum existence and do what she does, even though she, for all of her supposed freedom, seems as trapped and lost as he is.

The early scenes of the film do have a certain intrigue to them—especially thanks to the bold decision by Marston and co-writer Julian Sheppard to clue us in on Alice’s shifts in persona right up front—and you could hardly ask for two better actors to spend 90 minutes in the company of than Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz. The problem is that once all the cards are on the table and Alice and Tom go off together on their own, what transpires is little more than a rehash of the “Before Sunrise” playbook that becomes less and less compelling as it goes on and seems uninterested in actually grappling with the notions of the pleasures and perils of personal self-invention that it raises in the early scenes. There is also a too-cutesy-by-half interlude that they have with an aging couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) that seems to have come from another film that was glad to be rid of it. Despite the talents of the director and his two stars, the whole thing never quite breaks through into the kind of thought-provoking drama that it clearly yearns to be and after a while, it just becomes a little tiresome after a while. Ironically, it might have been better if it had taken a page from its central character. just abandoned what wasn’t working and suddenly switched into an entirely different kind of film at some point.

Difficult to so for most of its half-century of existence, Orson Welles’s landmark 1966 film Chimes of Midnight has now received its long-awaited official American home video debut via a new blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and now that it can be seen (and heard) as it was meant to be, it can now hopefully assume its position as on of Welles’s grandest achievements. Comprised of elements taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Richard III, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the film centers on the Bard’s recurring character of Falstaff (Welles), the gluttonous former knight who now spends his days carousing around with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the rebellious son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud). Even as they go about drinking and wenching with abandon, Hal recognizes that at some point, he will most likely accept his birthright and reject Falstaff and his current lifestyle for good. Unable to see past the immediate good times, Falstaff pays this no mind but following the Battle of Shrewsbury—where Hal acquits himself nobly while Falstaff spends most of his time hiding in the bushes—and Hal’s eventual coronation, making him Henry V, he winds up suffering his greatest betrayal at the hands of the person he thought was his greatest friend and ally.

When it first came out in America in 1967, Chimes at Midnight was cooly received by critics who griped about the poor sound recording and the rapid-fire editing than Welles employed to cover up the piecemeal manner in which it was shot that found co-stars like Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford only working for a few days at time (and when they weren’t available, he resorted to using over-the-shoulder shots of stand-ins to get the necessary shots—he claims that in one scene using seven key players, none of the real actors were actually there), not to mention cheap shots about how Welles was the first actor in history too heavy to play the mountainous Falstaff. Times have certainly changed because seen today, it is easily the best of Welles’s cinematic Shakespeare adaptations and belongs right up there with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil as one of his greatest works. Now that the soundtrack has been cleaned of its clutter, one can get a much better appreciation of performances from the uniformly excellent cast (though the sight of Jeanne Moreau as one of the aforementioned wenches is a bit disconcerting) and while the quick-cut editing patterns must have seemed disconcerting back then, they turned out to be ahead of their time and give the film a vibrant and modern edge without going overboard into mere clutter. (The Battle of Shrewsbury, in which the fast cutting was utilized to mask the lack of extras, is one of the most striking battle sequences in film history and has served as a key inspiration for any number of subsequent films.) As for Welles, his Falstaff in one of the richest and most powerful performances in a career filled with them—the scene in which Hal rejects Falstaff may be the single best scene that he ever played in a film.

Although just having a decent copy on home video would have been more than enough for most viewers, Criterion has given the film the special edition treatment with a host of informative bonus features. There is a fascinating commentary track from renowned Welles scholar James Naremore that explains the tangled history of the film and how it fits in regards to Welles’s entire career. There are new interviews with actor Keith Baxter, Welles’s daughter, Beatrice Welles, who appeared in the film at the age on nine, Welles biographer Simon Callow and Welles scholar Joseph McBride. There is also an interesting archival interview with Welles from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show that he conducted while in the midst of editing the film. These extras truly enhance the film and make this Blu-Ray one of the year’s most essential titles. (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)

If that weren’t enough for Orson Welles enthusiasts, Criterion has also given a long-overdue debut to what would prove to be his last narrative feature, 1968’s The Immortal Story. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, this short (58 minutes) film features Welles as a wealthy merchant who becomes obsessed with a story he hears about a rich man who pays a poor sailor to impregnate his wife and is determined to bring it to life with the aid of a courtesan (Jeanne Moreau) with whom he shares a dark and twisted past. Essentially a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself—something that held a fascination for Welles throughout his career—the result is a lovely miniature that may not exactly resemble a Welles film in the broad strokes—it lacks the stylistic flamboyance of much of his previous work and was also the first time he worked in color to boot—but it is nevertheless a fascinating work that is still quintessentially Wellsian through and through. In addition to the film, this Blu-Ray also includes a French-language version of the film, a commentary from scholar Adrian Martin, Portrait: Orson Welles, a 1968 documentary by Francois Reichenbach and Frederic Rossif and new interviews with co-star Norman Eisley, cinematography Willy Kurant and Welles scholar Francois Thomas. (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)

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originally posted: 09/09/16 13:06:50
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