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Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

(2014) *** 1/2 Pg-13
91 min. Cohen Media Group. Director: Chuck Workman. Cast: Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich.

/content/films/4798/1.jpgLike any set of die-hard fanatics, Orson Welles enthusiasts just can't get enough new material about the ultimate maverick filmmaker. So 2015, marking the Welles centenary, has been and continues to be a feast for Welles nuts. In addition to festival retrospectives worldwide and on cable television, academic panels and theatrical revivals, and new books on the master, 2015 promises the release of a version of Welles' last film project, The Other Side of the Wind, completed by some of his colleagues. Meantime, documentaries about Welles have proliferated enough to be their own subgenre (two new ones premiered at Cannes in 2015: Orson Welles: Shadows & Light and This Is Orson Welles), and Chuck Workman give us more reason to celebrate with Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

An Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Workman may be best known for creating fabulous montages, spanning movie history, for the annual Oscars telecasts. This qualifies him extraordinarily well to create a documentary overview of a filmmaker's career, and in this respect, Magician does a fine job. As an entry-level exposure to Welles, Magician covers the bases of why the man is considered so important and what made him "magical" as a talent. Workman's assemblage of enticing Wellesian imagery guarantees that large numbers of people will seek out Welles films they've never seen before or return eagerly to the ones they have. Magician divides Welles' "astonishing life and work" into five sections: "1915 to 1941: The Boy Wonder," "1942 to 1949: The Outsider," "1949 to 1957: The Gypsy," "1958 to 1966: The Road Back" and "1966 to 1985: The Master."

Unsurprisingly, the first section is the lengthiest, not only because it covers the longest period, but also because it's the period Welles for which Welles remains best known: the time of the earthshaking War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Citizen Kane, commonly referred to as the greatest American film of all time. It's also the section of Workman's film most likely to appeal to die-hard fans, as it includes the most interesting new interviews and the rarest archival materials. Here, a schoolmate describes him, with ironic fondness, as having "absolutely no empathetic skills."

As his own editor, Workman effectively employs a style of interweaving new and archival interviews (including the words of the man himself) with film and radio clips, family and publicity photos, newspaper clippings, documents (Welles' birth certificate, theatrical handbills and programs, etc.), correspondence (Hoover's declassified FBI files, both fan letters and hate mail for War of the Worlds), Welles' script notes and memos, and cultural ephemera showing Welles' influence (clips from Day for Night, Radio Days, Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, Get Shorty, and RKO 281, as well as one of many Peanuts strips to make a "Rosebud" gag).

Interview subjects include Welles' eldest daughter Christopher Welles Feder and youngest daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith (the latter in an archival interview), his lover and collaborator Oja Kodar, Welles colleagues (Norman Lloyd, William Alland, Peter Bogdanovich, Henry Jaglom, Buck Henry, Richard Benjamin, Paul Mazursky, Frank Marshall, and Sir Peter Brook), the authors of some of the best-respected Welles books (Simon Callow, Joseph McBride, James Naremore, and Jonathan Rosenbaum), Welles admirers (directors Julie Taymor and Costa-Gavras, film critic Elvis Mitchell) and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. Through the "magic" of archival footage, Workman also includes comments from John Houseman, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Wise, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and Richard Linklater (director of Me and Orson Welles, which also earns a clip).

Is Magician exhaustive? No. Is it comprehensive? Hardly. At 94 minutes, Workman's film will leave Welles fanatics salivating for more or perhaps even shrugging, given that Magician has, when it comes down to it, little new to say or offer. And yet, in a forgettable Hollywood culture of reboots and remakes and recasting, Workman has done a service in making a broadly accessible history of Welles that stands a chance of drawing younger generations of film buffs, like moths, to "the master"'s flame. In that way, and in teasing The Other Side of the Wind, Magician functions as a sort of preview of coming attractions lying in wait for new and old Welles fans to discover. As Welles famously—and accurately—predicted, “God, how they'll love me when I'm dead.”

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 5/26/2015

Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media, in association with entertainmentOne, brings Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles home on Blu-ray in a humble but satisfying special edition. The feature has been transferred with care from Workman's source, even though the film doesn't always feature the best available elements, for whatever reason (for example, the fuzzy-looking clips from Welles' The Trial don't take advantage of the 1080p resolution seen in StudioCanal's European Blu-ray release). Mostly, the wildly varying images here look sharp, or as sharp as they can be expected to look given their low-res origins, while the new footage produced by Workman looks warm and crisply detailed. The video footage of Welles latter-day TV interviews does look like what it is, ghosting included, but the image quality has definitely been maximized in most such cases.

Audio comes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. Inexplicably, this Blu-ray disc defaults to lossy audio. I'm not sure why anyone would prefer to listen to the lossy track or, indeed, why Cohen bothered to include it, but then again, there's not much substantial difference between the two tracks given that we're mostly just listening to talking heads with a bit of music here and there, and most of the film clips have audio that doesn't benefit much, if at all, from the lossless boost. Presumably, the audio separation most comes in handy when it comes to the music, though I didn't consciously notice surround activity while enjoying the film. Bottom line: the audio presentation is just as good as the video presentation, save the frustrating choice of defaulting to the lossy track.

I was hoping for "Extended Interviews" or "Deleted Scenes" from this 94-minute overview of Welles' life and work, but presumably Workman had no interest in people second-guessing his editing, or rights clearances were too costly. At any rate, we instead get a couple of welcome but relatively fluffy extras: a "Theatrical Trailer" (2:06, HD) and "A Conversation with Chuck Workman" (8:59, HD), which finds the director interviewed by Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University. They discuss Welles as an artist and a man (of many women, apparently), his legacy, and what Workman chose to bring out in his documentary.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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