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Chuck Workman
Orson Welles.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles looks at the remarkable genius of Orson Welles on the eve of his centenary - the enigma of his career as a Hollywood star, a Hollywood director (for some a Hollywood failure), and a crucially important independent filmmaker.

Rated PG-13

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 91 min.
Price: $34.98
Release Date: 5/26/2015

• “A Conversation with Director Chuck Workman”
• Previews and Trailer
• Booklet


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles [Blu-Ray] (2015)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 24, 2015)

On the occasion of Orson Welles’ 100th birthday, we get an examination of his career via the 2015 documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles. This follows a traditional documentary path, as it mixes movie chips, archival elements and interviews.

In the latter category, we get modern notes from actor/biographer Simon Callow, Christopher Welles Feder, classmate Joanne Hill Styles, stage/film director Julie Taymor, George Eastman House curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, filmmakers Sir Peter Brook, Paul Mazursky, Buck Henry, Costa-Gavras and Peter Bogdanovich, writer/film scholar James Naremore, critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Elvis Mitchell, friend/filmmaker Henry Jaglom, biographer Joseph McBride, sound designer Walter Murch, filmmaker/teacher Eric Sherman, Welles’ companion (1965-1985) Oja Kodar, chef Wolfgang Puck, Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drossler, film restorer Michael Dawson, producer Frank Marshall, and actors Norman Lloyd and Richard Benjamin.

Welles himself pops up via archival pieces, and similar elements produce comments from Gate Theatre co-founder Michael MacLiammoir, actors William Alland, Suzanne Cloutier, Jeanne Moreau, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, Anthony Perkins and Ruth Ford, Pioneer Radio producer Norman Corwin, RKO executive Reggie Armour, directors Richard Linklater, William Friedkin, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Wise, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, longtime Welles associate Richard Wilson, producer Pandro S. Berman, daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith, and writer/friend Peter Viertel.

Magician starts with Welles’ childhood and early life as it takes us through his beginnings in dramatic arts. From there we learn of his time on radio as well as his move to films, with an emphasis on 1941’s Citizen Kane. After this we follow his post-Kane ups and downs as well as some personal areas.

Magician sticks with a tried and true documentary/biography format, and that seems good and bad. On the positive side, the film manages to give us an efficient overview, and it doesn’t attempt to get too clever-clever. The program goes through Welles’ life/career in a logical manner and touches on a mix of appropriate topics.

Unfortunately, this approach feels a bit stiff and uninspired. While I prefer the traditional documentary style to something self-consciously “creative”, I still think Magician could’ve found a way to enliven the proceedings. The program feels a little lifeless as it checks off boxes and takes us through the usual topics.

This means it gives us a rudimentary biography and that’s about it. Do I know more about Welles now that I’ve seen Magician? Sure, and there’s much about the movie to enjoy. We get a reasonable overview of Welles’ life and a good array of archival elements help enliven the proceedings.

Still, I can’t help but think the documentary fails to make Welles seem nearly as interesting as it should. By most accounts, Welles was a compelling, larger than life figure, but I don’t think Magician conveys that well. We get occasional hints of these traits but mostly, the movie simply goes from one topic to another without much that brings drama to the tale.

Again, none of this makes Magician a bad documentary – it just ends up as an average one. It does enough to educate and entertain us to a moderate degree but it lacks the verve and depth to become something special.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus D+

Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Given the nature of the production, the picture quality seemed pretty positive.

I didn’t factor the archival material not shot explicitly for Magician into my grade. Those elements demonstrated a mix of flaws, but it didn’t seem fair to criticize the disc for problems that seem inevitable with that kind of stuff.

As for the new shots, they presented solid sharpness. The new elements consistently looked crisp and detailed, and they betrayed few signs of softness. Those bits portrayed no problems with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes remained absent. Outside of the archival materials, print flaws failed to mar the presentation.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s palette tended toward natural tones. The hues came across with positive clarity and definition, so they were more than adequate within their subdued goals. Blacks also seemed deep and firm, while the occasional low-light shots appeared well defined and clean. Overall, this was a solid image.

Given the film’s focus, I expected little from the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Magician and I found it to provide a mildly involving effort. Of course, dialogue remained the focus, as the majority of the film’s information came from interviews or other conversational bits. Music showed good stereo spread and broadened to the rears a little as well, but this was mostly a centered track without much ambition.

Audio quality seemed fine. Speech was consistently crisp and concise, with no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music and effects remained background elements to a substantial degree, but they seemed well-reproduced and clear. Ultimately, the audio of Magician suited the film.

In terms of extras, we find A Conversation with Director Chuck Workman. This goes for eight minutes, 59 seconds and provides Workman’s notes about various aspects of Welles’ life and his attempts to bring this material to the screen. Workman delivers a few decent thoughts, but “Conversation” usually feels like an ad for Magician.

The disc opens with ads for Deli Man, Timbuktu, Jamaica Inn and In the Name of My Daughter. We also find the trailer for Magician as well as an eight-page booklet. The latter includes photos and credits.

With 2015’s Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles gives us a perfunctory look at its subject. The documentary manages to provide a workable overview but it never becomes as involving as it should. The Blu-ray offers good picture and audio but it skimps on supplements. Magician remains moderately interesting but uninspired.

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