The Parnassus Times

April 30, 2008

The List is Life: #79

79.

The Dame;

Marcia Gay Harden.

Marcia Gay Harden landed her first major film role in 1990 as the leading lady in the Coen bros. throwback gangster picture, Miller’s Crossing, yet it would not be until another decade passed that her career would be able to really take off. Working through the latter half of the 90s in supporting roles on feature films of varying sizes, it was in 2000 when she appeared alongside such lumanaries as Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner in Clint Eastwood’s box office hit, Space Cowboys and then went on to star alongside Ed Harris in the biopic, Pollock, the film recieved a fair deal of acclaim, but the cherry on top came when Harden walked away with the Academy Award in early 2001. Since then, knowing what she was best suited to, Harden has continued to work steadily in prjects of various sizes and differing types, taking supporting roles in films such as Mona Lisa Smile, Mystic River, American Dreamz, The Dead Girl, Into the Wild, and The Mist. She continues to almost always be among the standouts in the cast, if not stealing movies altogether, though the films are often of differeing qualities, her presence is almost always an assurance of at least some quality.

The Duke;

John Wayne.

The Iowan born son of a pharmacist, few would have predicted that the boy named Marion Morrison would ever have emerged as the towering symbol of masculinity in the 20th century. Yet since his first major role in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the man that came to be known as John Wayne blazed a trail as one of the most iconic stars in the history of the Hollywood horizon, across the next 40 years. Though appearing in projects as varying as The Quiet Man, The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Green Berets, it was of course in the old west that the legend of The Duke was forged. Standing for a brand of rugged, towering heroism, from Stagecoach in 1939 to his final melancholy appearance as a legendary dying gunslinger in 1976’s The Shootist, Wayne stood tall against all comers, never backing down an inch. Yet perhaps his most interesting, daring work came in films like Red River and The Searchers, films in which that heroism was mixed with something far darker, Wayne was never afraid to delve into the dark side, never afraid to display the cracks in his myth. He was a symbol of the kind of man that became eclipsed in the movies at the tail end of the 60s, by the emerging new wave of filmmakers, yet even as Midnight Cowboy (as potent a symbol of the changing face of masculinity as there ever was) walked away with the 1969 Oscar for Best Picture, it was The Duke that landed the Best Actor prize that night, for his turn in True Grit. Even as his era disappeared, John Wayne stood tall.

The Director;

Michael Winterbottom.

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most unique and varied directors of his generation, he made his debut in 1995 with the vivid, bleak Butterfly Kiss and quickly established his kinetic visual sense, and naturalistic style. Though the film failed to reach a wide audience, his follow up, Go Now, made in the same year, reached a much wider audience, including a cinematic release (albeit 3 years later) in the United States. Following that initial breakthrough he has continued to prove himself as one of the most diverse filmmakers working today, from his 1996, Kate Winslet starring adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, to his filmed on location, powerful journalistic drama, Welcome to Sarajevo, his 2002 double header with the dramatic-comic chronicling of the Manchester music scene in the early 80s, 24 Hour Party People, and brutally real refugee smuggling drama In This World, the artistic-pornography of Nine Songs, avant-garde comedic stylings of A Cock and Bull Story or the much talked about tale of perseverance, love and humanity, A Mighty Heart. Michael Winterbottom has been all over the world, in all genres, from the perfectly normal to the entirely surreal, he is one of a kind, an ambitious artist, and one who shows no signs of watering down or selling out, no matter how much acclaim and attention he may recieve.

The Picture;

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

In the 1940s, Film noir dominated the Hollywood scene, hard bitten detectives, skulking in the shadows, dark and shady businessmen causing nothing but trouble and women all around, you were never quite sure you could trust. As the television rose to prominence, Hollywod was forced to step up, to become far more grand and epic than it had even been before, and thus those small scale pictures faded away. Yet in 1974, up and coming producer Robert Evans, emerging new-wave writer Robert Towne, and director Roman Polanski, the master chronicler of twisted cinematic horror, combined, and along with the fast rising star Jack Nicholson, put together a neo-noir tale that not only resurrected the genre, but took it to a level that it had never been before. Prior to his first icon-making Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson is on restrained form, caressing every line of Towne’s perfectly crafted screenplay, that now famous grin is nowhere to be seen, as the knowing glint in his eye and the sardonic delivery draw us in and attach us to his quiet charisma, taking us into that dark world in which he delves. Polanski’s control over the whole thing shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has seen the great man at his best, but this was in an arena he had never entered in to. He holds a very calm, still and simple view on everything that goes on, allowing that story to unfold naturally, leaving the work to his cast and that screenplay, and what a screenplay it is. Composed with delicate nuance, Robert Towne’s words do very little by themselves, but as the big picture begins to come together, the little moments, the seemingly throwaway lines, the tiny details one may consider unimportant all begin to make perfect sense. From head to toe, Chinatown is a perfectly put together piece of work, a towering beacon of its genre, one of the greatest of its era.

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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 moreĀ  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 theĀ  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.

January 27, 2008

“Whatcha Got Ain’t Nothin’ New”. Joel & Ethan Coen’s – No Country For Old Men

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No Country For Old Men (Coens, US, 2007)

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is not a novel that rears its brutal head amongst the upper echelons of the Pulitzer Prize winning authors work. Not here will one find quite the literary majesty of Blood Meridian, or the poetic beauty of his Border trilogy. No Country For Old Men is, as far as can be said of such a writer, a far more pulpy effort. When reading, one cannot help but feel that the author’s main objective was to produce a tale that would be easily converted to the screen. So it should come as no surprise that just two years after the novels publication, No Country For Old Men has been brought to life on cinema screens by the unquestionable genius of Joel and Ethan Coen.

To begin, the Coens seemed to have realised something that so few filmmakers who adapt books seem to, and that is that cinema is a medium of images. This is an art form not constructed upon language or on sound, but upon the visual, upon what is seen on the screen. A medium where the perfected art of editing can create more tension than any combination of musical instruments could combine to do in the sort of terrifying score that instructs its audience to be afraid. Here are a couple of filmmakers content to show you and let you see for yourself, just how terrified you are going to be.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (collaborator on every Coens film going back to 1991’s Palme D’Or winning Barton Fink) photographs this stark and horrifying terrain with the bleak and terrifying stillness it requires, each frame set up to perfection, each shot telling its own story.

The Coens have adapted their screenplay as should be done, the pondering voiceovers that fill out and dominate the novel have been largely done away with. The screenplay is filled with silence, plenty is going on upon the screen but not a great deal is being said. This is one of the finer adapted screenplays of recent times, and others should take note; it stays true to it’s source novel while at the same time understanding and grasping the benefits of its own medium.

Having done away with any semblance of a score, the Coens use of sound in the film is perhaps the most notable of any motion picture in a good while. The sound IS the score, and how effective it is; the blowing of the wind, the shot of a gun, a flowing river, a speeding car, a ringing telephone, or the approaching sound of a killers footsteps. Each noise is amplified, again, no score is going to help the viewer along, it’s the sounds of the world that soundtrack this film and it is all the more unique for it.

Moving forward again, one cannot complete a review of this gem of a movie without a nod to it’s award winning ensemble cast. Josh Brolin is the closest thing our story has to a hero, yet a hero he is not. His Llewelyn Moss is basically a down on his luck loser with a heart of…well…not quite gold. Brolin inhabits his character with a simple yet strong, naive yet knowledgeable air. Our boy might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he knows how to get by. Lord knows where this man his risen from, but let’s hope he stays.

Kelly McDonald’s ever loyal, ever loving and ever adorable trailer trash wife is the human soul of this movie; she is the audience surrogate, looking in on this world of depravity with no comprehension of its workings. Her final scene is as heartbreaking a piece of work as you are likely to see all year; she sits comfortably and without fuss on the sidelines throughout the entire film and when the time comes for her to step up to the plate, she does so…and smacks it out of the park.

Woody Harrelson turns in fine supporting work as the bounty hunter with the knowing smirk, the only one who seems to know what is going on and the one who thinks he can comfortably control it, it’s yet another sign of the Cheers graduate’s ever rising status as an incredibly capable supporting player and hopefully shall lead to bigger and brighter things in the future.

Tommy Lee Jones is our heart, he’s our conscience, he whose melancholy, world weary tones bring us in, and take us out of this world. His disillusioned, lost and confused lawman is as perfect a performance as ever he has given. The Oscar winner is by all accounts a McCarthy nut and it shows on screen here as you feel every twitch, every stare, every word rise up from deep within him, with nothing but truth pervading throughout.

Yet looming large over this world of shady dealings, good women, troubled men and those just trying to do right, a dark cloud hangs. A towering statue of evil, decked out in black with a bad haircut and a can of compressed air. Javier Bardem has been nominated for an Academy Award, he has been robbed of an Academy Award and finally it seems that at long last his time has come, this is the one that will make him, and you simply can’t stop what’s coming. The fearsome Anton Chigurh is at first glance nothing more than a retread of the Terminator, yet you see it on his face from time to time, humanity shining through. Here is that rarest of things, a subtle waltz through human insanity. Oscar is calling, and Anton is coming.

All in all, none but the foolish could deny that the brothers Coen have risen back to the level they belong. Having spent the last 6 years toiling in mediocrity, they stand back up and put on display for all the world, a perfect demonstration of just why they are among the finest filmmakers to have ever stepped foot in the game. They are craftsmen of the highest order, and while that style drips from every frame of their work, the humanity is never missing, your heart never fails to race, never fails to break. Here we have a commentary on the state of a nation like no little man in a suit could ever give, here we have pitch black humour, edge of the seat thrills, philosophizing and visual poetry. Here in lies a profoundly American story, one that manages that rare feat of improving upon its source material, what more could a person ask for?

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