The Parnassus Times

April 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her more  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as the  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

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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 2, 2008

The List is Life: #90

90.

The Dame;

Sally Field.

One of the most expressive of actresses, Sally Field is a performer capable of breaking hearts with the slightest twitch of her brow. Working steadily and successfully for almost 40 years in the business, Field began at the age of 20 playing Gidget, the role immortalised by Sandra Dee on the big screen in a short lived television series. If this, and her first major screen appearance in Smokey and the Bandit did little to establish her credibility as a performer, the 2 oscars she won for Places in the Heart and Norma Rae certainly established her as one of the greats of her generation, leads in smaller projects and fine supporting turns in bigger projects followed, before at the age of 60 she returned to the small screen once more, winning acclaim and awards for her role as the matriarch in Brothers and Sisters. She’s a highly accomplished actress on stage and screen, whose career doesn’t look like it’s going to be slowing down any time soon.

The Dude;

Kevin Spacey.

Rising to fame in the late 80s and early 90s with supporting turns among fine ensembles in films like Working Girl, Henry & June and Glengarry Glen Ross, Kevin Spacey’s star began to rise when he played the monstrous Buddy Ackerman in Swimming wth Sharks before catapulting through the roof one year later when he turned out the double header of Se7en in which he stole that films final act and frankly, the entire film itself from its fine cast, before going on to turn in an Oscar winning and frankly iconic turn in The Usual Suspects. He continued on with fine supporting work in films of differing quality from A Time to Kill to L.A Confidential, and voiced the villain in Pixar’s second animated feature A Bug’s Life before going onto secure immortality and winning the lead actor Oscar for the Best Picture winning American Beauty. In the 9 years since, Spacey’s film work has been rare, perhaps realising he could never really top his achievement in that arena he has turned his attention to the theatre, where since 2003 he has been working as the creative director at the Old Vic, one of the London’s oldest playhouses. The majority of his time has since been spent doing all he can to recapture the glory in the medium that first made his name.

The Director;

Paul Greengrass.

Paul Greengrass first established himself as a filmmaker to watch at the ae of 47 when he directed the award winning drama Bloody Sunday, the film depicted the harrowing events of Londonderry in January 1972 and was most notable for the documentary style in which is was shot. Greengrass quickly took the opportunity that his nefound fame afforded him and crossed the Atlantic where he directed the Bourne Supremacy and the Bourne Ultimatum, building upon the success of Doug Liman’s fluid, slow burning original with fast paced, breakneck and claustrophobic action that established both he and his unique style on the Hollywood radar. His harrowing United 93 also displayed his ability to continue to perform in that humble, human arena that had helped established his name to begin with. Though he now approaches the age of 53, Greengrass remains a director to watch on the Hollywood horizon whether at the helm of blistering action pictures or small scale human ones.

The Picture;

Bringing up Baby ( Howard Hawks, 1938 )

Though not the first of the great screwball comedies of the last 1930s, Bringing up Baby may well be the finest of its type. The now immortal Katharine Hepburn was, at the time, considered box office poison. Her anti-Hollywood attitude working in complete contrast to all industry conventions, dressed in pantsuits, wearing no make-up, an intellectual who refused most interviews with the press her single Best Actress Oscar was not going to save her from being one of the most unpopular stars of the era. Yet her effortlessly natural comedic turn here is one for the ages and alongside Cary Grant she forms one of the great cinematic pairings, the two of them sparking off one another from first shot till last, delivering laugh after laugh whether together or apart. Howard Hawks, whose most famous film to date was the gangster picture Scarface, turns his hand to comedy for the first time since his early forray into the genre in 1934’s Twentieth Century and this time surpasses that attempt in almost all respects, proving himself to be one of the most diverse and widely capable directors in the history of the movies.

March 16, 2008

The List is Life: #95

95.

The Dame;

Lily Tomlin.

Since her career took off during the 1960s, Lily Tomlin is an actress who has found great success on television, film,  and with her famed one woman shows on stage. Her most famous  cinematic collaborator is unquestionably Robert Altman with whom she made four films, including earning her one and only Oscar nomination to date in his Nashville, and was one of the standouts in his swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. She is a wonderously electric comedic performer, yet at the same time so perfectly adept at finding small, beautiful moments of humanity whenever she ventures into dramatic territory.

The Dude;

Steve Carell.

Though unquestionably loud, the majority of times that he appears on screen, Steve Carell is at the same time, incredibly subtle in the small moments. Small glances, shrugs, and gestures that add layers of depth and humanity to the laugh out loud moments of riotous comedy. His performance in Little Miss Sunshine works in complete contrast to almost everything that he has done in that, though full of humour, it is entirely deadpan and laying beneath everything is a heartbroken melancholy. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that even with his worldwide fame, Steve Carell probably doesn’t get enough credit as an actor.

The Director;

Stanley Donen.

The director of iconic films brimming with iconic moments, the sailors of his debut, On the Town, letting loose in New York, New York, Cary Grant’s last great screen hurrah, alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore unleashed upon cinema audiences in Bewitched, those Seven Brides for those Seven Brothers and of course, Gene Kelly in the rain, dancing his way to immortality. Donen’s forte was generally in the musical arena, yet when the songs were nowhere to be found, the fun certainly never dreid up. His films were always fun, always a breeze to watch; he was not a director who ever let himself get to attached to one type, he simply told stories, and entertained millions.

The Picture;

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

The searing work of a master, Naked is an unrelenting rant, a dark and bitter portrait of lower class England in the 1990s. Revolving around Johnny, played with dark, bitter humour and a weary knowingness by David Thewlis, this film is all about him; we journey through this world with him and are constantly subjected to his rants. Whether or not you appreciate the film may depend entirely upon how you feel about him, this is not an easy film to stomach and it is absolutely certain that repeat viewings will do wonders for one’s appreciation of it. This is a dark, dark world of morally greay human beings, and yet Mike Leigh makes it endlessly fascinating by managing to probe through the wordiness to find the humanity in each and every one of the sublime cast.

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