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 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.

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 17, 2008

The List is Life: #94

94.

The Dame;

Nicole Kidman.

Despite being one of the biggest movie stars in business for over a decade and having being best known at one point more for making up one half of the ultimate Hollywood power couple rather than for her movie roles, Nicole Kidman stepped up to the plate at the turn of the century and proved once and for all that she could turn out magnificent work on screen on a regular basis. Prior to her double hit in 2001 with the creepy horror The Others and her Oscar nominated turn in the musical Moulin Rouge! Kidman’s only real performance of note had come under the direction of Gus van Sant in 1995s To Die For, post 2001 she enjoyed a few years of marvellous success in which she took risks entirely foreign to stars of her status, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Dogville, and Birth all proved her capabilities as an actress on smaller and more serious scales. Though since 2004, success has generally eluded her, her participation in movies such as Fur and Margot at the Wedding prove she is still willing to take those risks, and that can never be a bad thing.

The Dude;

Steve Buscemi.

Perhaps the ultimate king of indie cinema. After taking bit parts in the Coen bros. Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, Steve Buscemi rocketed to fame as Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs. Since then he has enjoyed a wonderfully varied career as an actor, taking part in the tiniest indie films yet still keeping his profile alive in big budget pictures such as Armageddon, Monster’s Inc. and The Island. Buscemi has also enjoyed success behind the camera, directing small indie films, perhaps most notably 2007’s Interview, as well episodes of HBO shows, Oz and The Sopranos, the latter of which he had a tremendous part on during the shows fifth season. Buscemi is that rare kind of performer who has managed to remain a famous name in major movies without ever selling out his crediblity.

The Director;

Sam Mendes.

Coming from the world of theatre, few could have judged Sam Mendes if he had kept to the style that he knew, as many have done before him. Yet in his three feature films to date, Mendes has displayed a magnificent eye for gloriously cinematic visuals, mixing that visual flair with beautifully human stories he has quickly emerged as one of the more exciting directors in American cinema. Having picked up the Academy Award for direction with his debut film and having that very same film win Best Picture cannot have been an easy act to follow, but so far Mendes has remained varied and interesting and it would not be a surprise to see him surpass that marvellous debut at least once in the future.

The Picture;

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

John Ford and John Wayne began collaborating in 1939 with Stagecoach, yet their most famous cinematic pairing came 17 years later with their landmark work in The Searchers. Wayne had played outlaws and men of immensely tough spirit yet never before had he gone to the lengths that he had done in this film, his Ethan Edwards was a racist, obsessive, borderline psychopath and these themes radiated throughout the movie. It was not the first film to explore these themes but certainly one of the first to probe them to the extent that it was done here. Fords attempts to delve into the plight of the Native American and the abuse they were subjected to was many a year ahead of its time to the point of being nothing but a modest commercial success upon initial release, yet as the years have gone by, its status has grown and the way it examines the formation of a nation holds up as well and as powerfully today as it has ever done.

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