The Parnassus Times

April 9, 2008

The List is Life: #84

84.

The Dame;

Emmanuelle Beart.

Emmanuelle Beart came to the worlds attention in 1986 when she played the title role in Claude Berri’s sequel to his own Jean de Florette, Manon de Sources. Aged just 23, the French film industry bestowed upon her the Cesar award for Best Supporting Actress, with what was her third nomination. Though going on to pick up 5 more Cesar nominations, for Jacques Rivette’s grand 4 hour marvel La Belle Noiseusse and perhaps most notably to western audiences opposite Michel Serrault in the intimate Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud. The following year she made up part of the ensemble in her only journey to date into English language films, opposite Tom Cruise in Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible and a few years later, made up part of a mighty gallic ensemble as one of Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes. Though mightily established as a more than accomplished actress, Beart’s finest achievement may well be when in 2003, aged 40, she appeared nude on the cover of Elle magazine, the issue is to date, the biggest selling in the magazine’s history. Proof, if any were needed, that the great queens of the cinema, tower over all else when it comes to glamour, charm, grace and popularity.

The Dude;

Ray Winstone.

Landing the lead role in Alan Clarke’s Scum at the age of 20, Ray Winstone could have risen to stardom at a very young age, yet marred by constroversy, Scum’s planned broadcast on the BBC was withdrawn and the television story was entirely refilmed for the cinema and finally released 2 years later in 1979, but the road that Ray Winstone’s career would travel down was set. Throughout the 80s his career never really got off the small screen, his most notable role probably as Will Scarlet in the television production, Robin of Sherwood. Into the 90s and his career still seemed forged by TV work before in 1997 he landed the lead as the dark, troubled, vicious father in Gary Oldman’s semi-autobiographical domestic drama Nil by Mouth, landing a BAFTA nomination and British Independent Film award, the boy from Hackney’s star began to rise, and two years later as he again took the dark father role in another british actor-turned-director drama Tim Roth’s The War Zone. Further British Independent and European Film Award nominations further established himself as one of the most powerful talents in the nation. It would be 4 more years before his star would rise further though, first taking on the lead role in another British TV production of Henry VIII and then going onto star as part of a glittering ensemble as the subtly venemous Teague in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, over the next few years, further show stealing roles in King Arthur and The Proposition followed, a lead in his own big budget movie soon followed in the (albeit motion captured) epic Beowulf. Though perhaps most impressively of all are a pair of supporting roles in 2006 alongsie Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed and in the summer of 2008 alongside in Harrison Ford as Steven Spielberg brings Indiana Jones back to the screen. Now 50, Ray Winstone has established himself as major film actor, the premier British hard man on screen, and most impressively of all, in an age of Brits abandoning home for Hollywood as soon as the chance presents itself, he’s one who never forgets where he came from.

The Director;

Wong Kar-Wai.

One of the most visually unique and highly stylized film directors in the whole history of the business, it would be no surprise to anyone to learn that Wong Kar-Wai is a graphic design graduate. He began working in film in his late 20s as a screenwriter turning out about 10 screenplays over the next 5 years befoire in 1988 turning to direction with Wong gok ka Moon (As Tears Go By) a virtual reworking of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets starring Andy Lau and longtime collaborator Maggie Cheung. Already putting on display the vivid color palette he would become known for and landing what is to date, his only box office hit. 3 years later A Fei Zheng Chuan (Days of Being Wild) set his style in stone, a beautifully wonderous mood piece filled with luscious visuals and music. In the decade and a half since he has gone on to establish himself as one of the most respected filmmakers in the world and with 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, stepped into the west, directing his first English language film. The six films he turned out between these two, including the Palme D’Or winning Chun Gwong Cha Sit (Happy Together) are the hallmarks of one of the great auteurs in modern cinema, with his two closest stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung helping to blaze that trail, he is a filmmaker that shall surely continue to unleash his unique blend of hypnotic cinema upon adoring arthouse audiences worldwide, ensuring that one of the great visual artists of the era, won’t soon be forgotten.

The Picture;

Mononoke-Hime (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Hayao Miyazaki is a filmmaker that from the beginning of his career, has shown a great deal of love and respect for the natural world, never was that passionate feeling more on display than in his 1997 fantasy-adventure, Mononoke-Hime (Princess Mononoke). Epic in scope, grand in ambition, it is a film that deals with the struggles of humanity, the struggles of the natural world, of animals far grander than humans can comprehend and of the mighty Gods that loom over all. At the heart of all this monumental majesty there lies humble humanity, this is the story of a young man in search for a cure for a deadly disease, and how on that journey he stumbles upon a war between man and nature, though the films conclusion does end up a little preachy, the wondrous imagination of the ride that comes before, makes it all worth it. Filled with vivid characters, glorious set pieces, large scale action, small scale action and plain and beautiful magic, it is the sort of film that feeds the sense of awe of the very young but more than delves into the sort of old school, mythic storytelling that can more than entertain people of all ages. Unquestionably one of the finest achievements in all of animated cinema, this is a film that also ranks up with the greatest of fantasy-adventure movies ever made.

April 5, 2008

The List is Life: #88

88.

The Dame;

Joan Crawford.

Perhaps most readily remembered for her feud with Bette Davis which came to a head in 1962 with her being blown off the screen in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and maybe forever tainted by the damning portrait painted by a bitter daughter in Mommie Dearest, the career that Joan Crawford enjoyed for over 30 years beginning at the dawn of the sound era seems to have been generally forgotten. She was an Academy Award winning actress with numerous acclaimed films under her belt, she worked with major directors and major performers. In Mildred Pierce she gave one of the more iconic performances of the golden era, and a decade later in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, she took the lead as the westen was turned on its head, with strong women in the central roles. One of the greatest of the greatest age, she has insured that she’ll never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Paul Schneider.

Entering into the acting profession at the age of 24 (making him a late comer by todays standards) in the films of David Gordon Green, George Washington and more notably as the lead alongside Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, Paul Schneider has in a just a few short years established himself as one of the more accomplished supporting actors in the movies today. In 2005 he took a side role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and with his quirky small town simplicity, literally stole the show from the leads. Then in 2007 he had what could be termed a breakthrough year, with polar opposite roles. Firstly appearing as the villainous Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a supporting role that he filled with both sinful sleaze and unabashed charm in equal degree, and an almost entirely opposite turn as a quiet, loving brother trying his best to cope with an awkward situation in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a wonderfully subtle, assured and diverse actor whose career is certainly heading for great heights.

The Director;

Sydney Pollack.

I would venture to say that Sydney Pollack’s finest accomplishments have come in front of the camera rather than behind it. Always taking small roles in movies, he has on more than one occasion, ended up being the finest member of the cast, perhaps most notably in his tiny role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However none of these on screen accomplishments can take away from the fact that Pollack is an Academy Award winning director and producer. It was his Robert Redford-Meryl Streep epic Out of Africa that brought him this acclaim, but from where I am sitting his finest work comes in smaller, more character driven movies, where the performers, not the wondrous grandeur take centre stage. As the tagline to his 1969 Jane Fonda vehicle¬† They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? declared, “People are the ultimate spectacle” and rarely is that more in evidence than in Sydney Pollack’s films.

The Picture;

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Though most widely remembered for the grandiosity of the final sequence, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is at heart one of his most intimate and human films. Driven at full force by a wonderful performance from Richard Dreyfuss, who won the Oscar for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, but should probably have picked up the award for this film. It is a performance both comic and dramatic, filled with the wondrous curiousity of an overgrown child yet at the same time shot through with a certain darkness in its examination of a mans obsession and subsequent neglect of his family. It is that performance around which this film is built; there are brief moments of alien spectacle propping it up throughout, making sure that we remember that we are truly not alone in this one, all mysterious, all beautiful to behold but ambiguous in intent, and it all builds to a wondrous crescendo, that magnificently glorious finale in which all is revealed, truly epic spectacle, human curiousity and those 5 beautiful notes.

February 16, 2008

“I’ve Been A Nobody All My Life”. Andrew Dominik’s – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, US, 2007)

New Zealand native Andrew Dominik’s first and to date, only feature film, Chopper was made seven years ago it has taken almost one whole decade for him to bring his second film to the screen and when one sees it, it is not the greatest of surprises to see why. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is two hours and forty minutes long, it is a western in which a gun is hardly fired, no stand off’s at dawn, nothing in particular to link it to the golden era of American Westerns of the 40s and 50s .

It is a very long, slow moving film heading in a direction that we are made aware of from the very start. The slow burn ebb that is this films pace carries us on this journey towards this inevitable collision course with the mournful spirit of a funeral procession.

The film is not without its faults. The narrative voiceover, while beautifully poetic in the films prologue and epilogue is entirely superfluous, most of the time pointing out information that either serves no great purpose to the picture overall or in some places provides us with nothing more than a description of what is happening on screen. Here is that issue that so many filmmakers come upon in adaptations of literar works. To have such an appreciation for their source materials language that they feel the need to shoehorn as much of it in as is possible to the detriment of their own artistic achievement within their own medium.

One could make the argument that such films who give in to such straightforward page to screen adaptations with lumps of voiceover brimming throughout are serving as little more than promotional material for the story from which they are adapted. No film can include all that is in a book and hence through their complete lack of vision such filmmakers irrevocably surrender themselves up as being artists of a lesser medium.

Yet I digress, this is a beautiful film with a magnificent artistic vision. Andrew Dominik has crafted a melancholy, ponderous film in line with the works of Terrence Malick. The sort of film scarcely seen in American cinema since the death of auteur cinema in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980.

Perhaps the foremost artist in contributing to this poetic atmosphere is cinematographer Roger Deakins, veteran of such beautifully scoped pictures as The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun and The Village. Deakins work on this film may not be quite the visual storyteller that his work on No Country For Old Men was but its majestic nature is like few films that have come before it. Almost every shot throughout the film could have adorned the wall of an art gallery.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave who composed the score, bring the same sparse, stripped down and eery compositions to this film as they brought to their similarly lyrical Western, The Proposition. The beautifully detailed costumes and production design help lend the film the romantic tones it strives for.

The cast is on magnificent form throughout. The continually underrated Sam Rockwell turns in another mighty fine supporting turn as Charley Ford, the good hearted, good natured, simple brother of the eponymous assassin. Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider all turn in differing degrees of fine work as the members of the James gang, all turning on one another, a self combusting unit of low lives.

Zooey Deschanel and Mary Louise Parker, two mighy fine actresses are restricted to little more than cameos yet, being the quality performers they are, both make the absolute most of their slight material. Parker as Jesse James’ wife, Zee is the conscience of her husband, the down to earth, homemaking wife who has little more than a gaze of mistrust for all the men in her husbands life, and her final scene by her husbands side is a mournful piece of work completely out of left field. Entirely putting in the shade other actresses this year that have grieved for dead husbands with all the creative ingenuity of a hack. Parker’s pitiful, restrained wails are of a woman who has long expected this moment to come, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work; as is Zooey Deschanel in her brief appearance as Robert Ford’s wife lights up the screen with her glances and gestures, the probing delivery of her dialogue, she reads the ‘coward’ and finally draws the truth out of him.

Yet when all is said and done this is the story of two men and they both carry it off with aplomb. Some have been critical of Brad Pitt’s casting, hoping that a ‘real’ actor could have had the chance to sink his teeth into the part, yet there are two very important and perfect reasons for his casting.

Firstly, this IS a very distinct sort of film – long, slow, with none of the stand offs and shoot outs one has come to expect from a Western; with a ten word title that is just as uncompromising as it’s tone. It was Pitt himself who had it stipulated in his contract that the title of the film could not be changed and one can only assume that where it not for the participation of a star of this magnitude, the film that reached the screen would have had to take a great deal more in the way artistic liberties to reach audiences.

Secondly this is essentially a portrait of societies obsession with celebrity, with a man attempting to bring down a superstar so that he may become one himself; who better to cast in such a part than one of the biggest movie star’s on the planet?

All this aside, Pitt plays the part beautifully. This is unquestionably the finest work of his career. He makes no apologies for the man he is playing, his Jesse James is utterly insane and he begins unfurling from the very start. A tortured, haunted man, coming apart at the seams, it’s pretty disturbing to watch and never at any point does he stray over the top.

Yet at heart this is Robert Ford’s story and Casey Affleck emerges out of obscurity with what is turning out to be one hell of a year, after his wonderfully hard edged, soft centred turn in Gone Baby, Gone he gives here the type of whiny, snivelling, shady performance that I would feel most comfortable comparing to something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The low, whiny, voice that emerges from a half opened mouth, the hunched shoulders, this is a physical performance as much as anything else. Affleck presents Robert Ford to us as an incredibly thoughtful, confused, obsessive young man with no idea of his direction in the universe. A man willing to do anything to make a name for himself when the object of his lifelong obsession turns out to be nothing like he expected.

Andrew Dominik should be applauded for his efforts, the unneccessary overuse of the narration and a few subplots that could have been considered expendable aside, this is a beautiful work of artistry, another fine addition to the modern western, a melancholy stroll through obsession and misguided perceptions of the world. One can only hope that the director will not take 7 more years to get another film made, and that when it comes he can maintain the haunting vision of this one.

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