The Parnassus Times

March 22, 2009

The List is Life: #74

74.

The Dame;

Anna Friel.

Though she began acting at 13, it would be 5 years and a variety of appearances on numerous television shows before Anna Friel got her big break, hired to Channel 4’s  Brookside. Though only on the show for 2 years, it was a memorable 2 years, Friel entering into television history by partaking in the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss ever broadcast on British TV. Following her departure from the show her first work came in Stephen Poliakoff’s television movie  The Tribe, she courted controversy once again after much nudity and an infamous threesome scene proved to be what the show was most directly remembered for. Over the next decade, her most notable work came probably as Hermia in a starstudded production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, alongside such luminaries as Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart. It was only in 2007 that her next real breakthrough came, landing the role of Charlotte Charles on ABC’s  Pushing Daisies, providing the sweet, but sparky love interest at the shows heart. Her easy charm, dry wit, telling, emotive eyes and her common but not TOO common voice making her an easy to love actress with underrated abilities.

The Dude;

Martin Sheen.

In spite of his fathers disapproval of the craft, Martin Sheen, bitten by a desire to act, deliberately flunked the entrance exams to the University of Dayton, borrowed money from a Catholic priest and headed to New York City. Early success came his way when in 1965, aged 25, he was nominated for a Tony for his supporting work in Pulitzer Prize winning play  The Subject Was Roses. The following years were filled mainly with work in TV movies and TV shows, before in 1973, he was hired to star in the feature film debut of Terrence Malick. Badlands was a resounding critical success upon release, playing at the New York Film Festival where it is said to have stolen the spotlight even from Martin Scorsese’s  Mean Streets. Despite the attention the film garnered, Sheen’s real breakthrough would not come until Harvey Keitel was fired from the lead in  Apocalypse Now after just 2 weeks shooting and he was drafted into replace him. The shoot lasted for 16 months and in the midst of production Sheen suffered a heart attack, the payoff came though, when the film won the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or, was nominated for Oscars and Sheen himself recieved a BAFTA nomination for his work. Movie success finally reached, Sheen worked steadily for the next 2 decades, won an Emmy, appeared in  Gandhi, played JFK in an NBC miniseries, acted as narrator in Oliver Stone’s  JFK, however it was not until 1999 that real superstardom came his way. Cast by Aaron Sorkin to play the President of the United States in  The West Wing, the role was initially intended only intended as a minor one, planned to appear in just 4 episodes a season, however after the pilot this plan was rethought and Sheen’s commanding screen presence benefited the show greatly. Easily, naturally switching between loving family man, mighty commander, poetic muser, or witty old soul, Sheen nailed every facet of the character, creating a President anybody could love, capturing his strengths and his weaknesses, his telling physicality and his complex web of emotions, nailing Sorkin’s trademark dialogue naturally, and finally sinking his teeth deeply into a role worthy of his talents, one that proved once and for all just what he could do.

The Director;

Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Kieslowski’s artistic origins emerged with an interest in theatre, a desire to be a theatre director was quickly quashed upon discovery that no training program for such desires existed at that time, thus film became an intermediary step, applying to the Lodz Film School, an institute that counts Andrsej Wajda and Roman Polanski amongst its alumni, rejected twice he was found himself third time lucky and attended between 1964 and 1968. His interest in theatre quickly subsided as his interest turned to filmmaking, particularly documentaries portraying every day Polish life. He quickly ran into all manner of difficulties, the heavy censorship of his film  Robotnicy 1971 leading him to doubt the ability to tell literal truths under an authoritarian regime, and following this, footage from his film  Dworzec being considered for use as evidence in a criminal case, pushed him towards a belief in the greater artistic freedoms of fiction filmmaking. He worked steadily across the next decade, before international acclaim came his way for his epic display of artistic ambition, Dekalog, a television series of ten hour length episodes, each exploring one of the ten commandements through ambiguous tales set in modern day Poland, two of which were expanded into individual features and played to international audiences, Krotki film o Zabijaniu, and  Krotki film o Milosci, (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). 1991s  La Double vie de Veronique, again reached international acclaim, and worked as a perfect example of the directors reliance on telling his story visually rather than through words. However, it would be the last 3 works of his career that would bring him the widest spread fame. His  Trois Couleurs trilogy each encompassed one of the political ideals of the French Republic, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Bleu, told the hauntingly sad tale of a woman coping with life after the death of her husband and child. Blanc, a blackly comic tale of improving ones standing in life, and of gaining revenge for a great humiliation. Finally, Rouge, a visually gorgeous feast, that slowly intertwines the lives of its seemingly complete opposites of characters. Kieslowski died of a heart attack 2 years after the completion of this trilogy, aged just 54, but he had established himself as a master understander of the purest senses of cinema, as a man of grand poetic, artistic ambitions and ideas.

The Picture;

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee made his feature debut with 1986s  She’s Gotta Have It, following it up with  School Daze in ’88, he displayed his knack for telling provocative, social tales, calls to action, and the following year he took that to the next level. Do the Right Thing brings Bed-Stuy to life, gorgeously shot, using red and orange filters to bring that 100 degree day to life in sun drenched visuals. Utilizing, in controlled measure, handheld camera work to drop you right into the action, to bring it viciously to life, occasionaly throwing the framing out of alignment, the disorientating nature of the heat put into visual perspective. The editing giving the film its heartbeat, from long takes and slow cutting to brisk, breakneck cutting, rising and falling with the pace of the picture. The performances all work, all imprint themselves on the brain, from Rosie Perez’s neglected girlfriend, Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris, and Frankie Faison sitting on the sidelines, watching the world go by with the bitter comedic rantings of the unemployed, John Turturro’s lost soul, consumed by confused hatred, Danny Aiello, trying desperately to keep the peace in an unravelling world, and Ossie Davis as the wise old sage of the streets, a king in tramps clothes. The film deals in race relations with an unfiltered, uncompromised view, there is no attempt at poetic profundity, no simple, easy answers, no epic revelations handed to the audience on a plate, no monologuing. The film eschews pretension, it handles its material in simple, straightforward fashion, it doesn’t lecture, it just is, and you soak it in.

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April 13, 2008

The List is Life: #82

82.

The Dame;

Anjelica Huston.

Anjelica Huston is Hollywood royalty, so it may seem strange to some that she never really broke into movies until her mid 30s when she was cast in her father’s Prizzi’s Honour, and subsequently won an Oscar for the role. It was not a debut, she had been working in the business since her first appearance (doubling as Deborah Kerr’s hands in the spoof version of Casino Royale) in 1967, but it was her first major role, and when she won that award that so many strive for, for so long, one wonders why she had not begun sooner. Since then, Huston has established herself as one of the great supporting actresses of her generation, equally adept at comedy and drama, in the widest variety of roles playing everything from ghastly witches to nuns. The only shared trait in her work seems to be that of strength, an attribute of the Huston family going back to the time of her grandfather Walter, a pioneering actor of the sound era, a strength that has not flinched one bit as the Huston families legacy has been carried forward in the hands of a woman. Having, since the turn of the century, become almost a muse of director Wes Anderson, playing small but important, revered and iconified roles in his films, she has proven beyond all doubt her status as a legend of the game, one that has continued to build her families legacy onwards and upwards and one who shall be remembered for years to come as one of the best of her era, entirely worthy of her name.

The Dude;

Heath Ledger.

Gone so suddenly and so early, more than certainly on the cusp of the A-list status he had been approaching for so long, it has become popular to speak of Heath Ledger in grand terms. What can certainly be said, was that in 2005 he gave what is almost unquestionably one of the finest screen performances in history. In Brokeback Mountain he worked in complete contrast to Jake Gyllenhaal’s wild angst, and in doing so painted a perfectly captured study of repression. Entirely internalised, his performance was a physical one, sealed lips, through which hardly a word escapes and when it does, is difficult to decipher, hunched shoulders, hanging head, barely able to make eye contact, a curled fist, a microcosm of his character. His work is one for the screen, the sort of performance that would be useless on the stage. Though in his short career prior to this he never showed anything like the abilities he did in earning that solitary Oscar nomination, there was wonderful promise from the very start. In his screen debut in the high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, his performance mixed the macho and mean with the tender and the caring, his eyes saying as much as his words, in Terry Gilliam’s flawed Brothers Grimm, he displayed the internalisation he perfected in Brokeback Mountain. While Matt Damon mugged and overemoted his way through the movie, Ledger’s performance was again a physical one, told more through movement, through the face, than via words. This restraint was displayed through most of his work, in the Australian drugs drama Candy, he starred alongside side Abbie Cornish, and again, contrasted her theatrics, with nuance, and quiet, internal pain; just as he had done 5 years earlier as the emotionally tormented son in Monster’s Ball, a performance that could easily have given in to hysterics, but in the hands of a quickly learning, quickly maturing actor, was held back and made far more interesting. He seemed wise beyond his years on the screen, learning quickly and turning early promise into something more potent, it is a very great shame, that he will never have the chance to show again, just what he was really capable of.

The Director;

Cecil B. DeMille.

Along with D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille was one of the great American trailblazers in the cinematic arena. While both his peers were certainly knew a thing or two about spectacle, during the first few decades of the industries existence, there was nobody anywhere in the world that milked the awe, wonder and possibilities out of the medium in the same way that DeMille did. In the beginning when shackled by silence and black and white images, there was still no denying his epic intentions, his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, 1927’s King of Kings, and into the sound era with his Claudette Colbert starring version of Cleopatra. DeMille understood that there was nothing in the world capable of achieving cinema’s grandiosity and as technicolour set in he took it a step further, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth and that final, mightiest of swan songs, his second version of The Ten Commandments. He died in 1959 of heart failure, it was during that preceding decade that cinema had come under fire from the popularization of the television, the little box that diluted the power of the silver screen, and flew in the face of all that had men like DeMille had established. That his departing and it’s rise came in the same 10 year span can easily be seen as a turning of the tide, but cinema has endured, and every epic that has come since has owed a debt to him in one way or another.

The Picture;

The General (Buster Keaton, 1927)

Buster Keaton began directing films in 1917 at the age of 22, it wasn’t until some 5 years later with Our Hospitality that he really came to the fore as a filmmaker. He enjoyed a successful run for the next few years, turning out films like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, before in 1927, after 10 years as a director, he created The General. An adaptation of Congressman William Pittenger’s memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase; the film was a box office failure upon initial release, but over time has gained its deserved status as a classic. It is at once both riotously funny and sweetly romantic, Keaton may not have had the ability to touch the human heart with quite the intensity of Chaplin, but he was a master technician and innovator of his craft. Looking back at The General, some 80 years after it’s release, some of the magic on display is bewildering to behold; coming one after the other, Keaton strings together setpieces that not only make you laugh but have you with jaw agape, wondering just how he did it. This film was made some 50 odd years before computer effects came into play, Keaton did everything himself, and it left his crown jewel with not only laughs, not only heart, but awe inducing spectacle.

April 6, 2008

The List is Life: #87

87.

The Dame;

Madhuri Dixit.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, it has the highest annual output of motion pictures of an industry around the globe (1200 in 2002, 877 in 2003) and the highest numbers in annual ticket sales. As such, its stars, many of whom turn out numerous productions every year, are iconic in status. Their popularity is so great, that many of the major names not only appear on film, they also perform songs from their films in concert. Madhuri Dixit is no different, acting on screen since 1984, a trained and highly accomplished dancer who first dreamed of being a micro-biologist before finding her calling. Though widely recognized for those abilities as a dancer and indeed as a singer, Dixit has a subtlety and control as an actress not widely found in Indian cinema, her heartbreakingly painful (and deservedly award winning) supporting turn in the 2002 production of Devdas, completely stole the show from the films two megastar leads. Following this success she retreated from the silver screen, finding her way to Denver, Colorado where she quietly enjoyed married life and the raising of her family. She did not return to the screen for 5 years till 2007’s Aaja Nachle, a film that while generally not well recieved, garnered much acclaim for its leading lady, and the proclomation of the New York Times that “she’s still got it”.

The Dude;

Bill Murray.

Among the dryest of the dry, Bill Murray somehow managed to establish himself as one of the funniest performers in American cinema. After graduating from the small screen, where he made his name on Saturday Night Live, Murray quickly established himself as a promising up and coming funny man in films like Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie and Ghostbusters. Soon thereafter he attempted to build a reputation as a dramatic lead with a starring role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which he co-wrote, the film was a failure and hurt by its resception Murray walked away from the limelight, leaving movies behind to study Philosophy and History at the Sorbonne in Paris, nothing but a cameo appearance in The Little Shop of Horrors for 4 years, until he returned to doing what does best, comedy, over the next few years turning out Scrooged, Ghostbusters II, What About Bob, and coming to a head with the widely acclaimed Groundhog Day in 1993. Following his reestablishment as a star he retreated largely to supporting roles for the next decade before in 2003 taking the starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, earning an Oscar nomination, numerous awards and critical acclaim in a film that while shot through with the comedic touch you cannot help but find in Bill Murray movies, was largely dramatic in tone, helping him to find that dramatic leading status he had sought some 20 year earlier, he followed this with further leading turns in quirky dramadies The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers further establishing himself in his new niche as a leading force in indie cinema.

The Director;

Carol Reed.

Carol Reed was one of six illegitimate children of the stage actor, drama teacher, and the impresario founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As such, when as a teenager he sought to follow his father into acting, nobody could blame him, yet as time went by, it was as a director that Reed quickly established himself. In 1932 he began working at Ealing Studios, and the transition from stage to screen began, he made his directorial debut 3 years later with the adventure film Midshipman Easy. As the second world war began, Reed contributed to the war effort through doing what he knew best, his 1945 Ango-American documentary, The True Glory covering everything from the Normandy landings to the taking of Berlin, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and quickly established Reed was a name worth watching. A few years later he turned the crown jewel of his career, the iconic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, perfectly pitched between darkness and humour, the magnetic and mysterous presence of Orson Welles looming in the long shadows as around his aura Reed crafts a perfectly shot, gloriously scored and wonderfully written piece of work that still towers over most films made in its era, or ever since. Over the next few decades he continued working steadily, mainly on adaptations, his finest moment coming when in 1952, he became the first British director to be knighted, before in 1968 he struck big, bringing to the screen Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Oliver! was a movie musical that while never lacking a lightness in touch, was never afraid to stray into the dark and savage places at it’s stories heart, with now famous turns from Jack Wild and Ron Moody, it was really the directors nephew, Oliver Reed, whose monstrous Bill Sikes stole the show. The film brought Reed his first Oscar as Best Director after 3 nominations and established his legacy beyond all doubt.

The Picture;

Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)

With 2002’s Gerry, Gus Van Sant abandoned bigger budget studio pictures to return to the lower free form style of directing pioneered by the likes of Bela Tarr, he delved into experimental cinema in a way no major director had ever done before after achieving the sort of mainstream success that he had achieved with films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting. Following Gerry and 2003’s Palme D’Or winning Elephant, Van Sant turned in Last Days, the final part of what he has termed his ‘Death trilogy’ the physical isolation of Gerry, social isolation of Elephant came to a head with the mental isolation of Blake. Loosely based on the final days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Last Days chronicles the downfall of a man losing the will to live, that simply through stylistic directorial choices makes the audience feel something similar. As our lead character sees nothing but mundanity all around him, through the sterile, static, hushed way in which Van Sant brings each barren, desolate shot to the screen we are left with some sort of understanding of just what is going through his mind. Last Days is not an easy film to watch, indeed it can be an incredibly harsh viewing experience, but the sheer artistry at its heart cannot be denied. With Elephant, Van Sant was accused of not giving answers or offering any sort of explanations as to the actions of his high school slayers, here he is not posing questions, he simply crafts a dark portrait.

March 20, 2008

The List is Life: #91

91.

The Dame;

Parker Posey.

One of the finest comedians of her generation, Parker Posey is an actress who though not lacking in roles in major films such as Superman Returns (in which she was criminally underused) and Blade: Trinity (which simply wasn’t worth the effort) is at her best in small indie comedies, primarily those helmed by Christopher Guest in which she manages to shine, time and again. Rarely does she manage to land roles that are worthy of her pretty immense talent, but when watching her at her best in those Guest mockumentaries, one can only shake their head in disbelief at how she has not managed to reach a level of success that she unquestionably deserves.

The Dude;

Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

When Joseph Gordon-Levitt got his start on 3rd Rock From the Sun, few could have predicted what lay ahead for the youngster, yet in 1999s 10 Things I Hate About You when he starred in a cast full of bright young talents he displayed enouch charm and charisma to prove himsef as a more than capable leading man and few years down the line in 2004’s dark indie drama Mysterious Skin he stepped up to the plate and proved his creentials with a dark brooding yet sensitive and soulful turn, following it up with a commanding and powerfully confident turn in Rian Johnson’s high school noir, Brick, and then again in The Lookout in which he again took the central role at the head of an impressive cast and lead the way with tremendous conviction. At the age of just 27 the youngster is showing a great deal of integrity in the type of projects he continues to choose and seems to constantly be progressing as an actor. Probably the brightest young American actor there is.

The Director;

Kim Ki-Duk.

In the early 90s, Kim Ki-Duk studied fine arts in Paris, and when one looks at the sheer beauty with which he composes each frame, that is not something that comes as a huge surprise. After completing those studies he first got started in the film industry as a screenwriter, winning numerous awards before going onto make his directorial debut in 1996. Since then he has directed well over 10 films and that artistic beauty has remained throughout, he is also a man very much in love with the visual element of storytelling. His films are very often lacking in much dialogue, allowing the story to unfold visually, to see rather than be told, and it is that keen understanding of the core cinematic language that makes him one of the most captivating director working today.

The Picture;

The Fisher King  (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Terry Gilliam is known for his bizarre journies into strange cinematic worlds, well known for his troublesome picturs that often alienate all but the very smallest cult of fans, he is a man who has always had grand aspirations yet not always managed to scale the heights of cinematic success the same way that he scales the walls of imagination. Yet in 1991 following the grand oddity that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he turned in a film, that by his standards at least, would be considered normal. The Fisher King is a film set very much in the real world, yet featuring a dreamer with the most vivid sense of imagination, a film which more than likely draws from the directors own life as a cinematic artist. It is a film about redemption and awakenings, about the power of dreams and with a subplot that surely ranks amongst the very greatest cinematic love stories. A bizarre love letter to dreams and possibilities.

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