The Parnassus Times

March 9, 2009

The List is Life: #77

77.

The Dame;

Christina Ricci.

Christina Ricci started out big, alongside recent Oscar winner Cher, hot young starlet of the moment Winona Ryder, and king of the underrated, Bob Hoskins, in the comedy-drama  Mermaids. Her natural cuteness lit up the screen, and so the starmaking role she took in the next years  Addams Family showed up her talent for diversity from the off. The class was so clear that in the sequel two years later her role was beefed up and she stole the show, before going on to her first major leading role in the similarly spooky  Casper some 2 years later. As the late teens hit, the type of projects she took on took a far more adult and fascinating swerve,  from the edgy  Opposite of Sex, to fascinating films and working with great filmmakers like in  The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and  Pecker, collaborations with the likes of Ang Lee, Terry Gilliam, John Waters and Woody Allen putting quite the sheen on the resume. She has also never been above mixing up her indie leanings with more mainstream fare, providing minor voice work in  Small Soldiers, starring alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s  Sleepy Hollow, the Wachowski brothers  Speed Racer, and appearances on the small screen in shows such as  Joey, Ally McBeal and  Grey’s Anatomy. However smaller, character driven movies have always been her forte, as the hugely different but always interesting likes of  Penelope, Monster and  Black Snake Moan have proven. Christina Ricci is constantly proving herself to be one of the most diverse and challenging young leading ladies around.

The Dude;

Humphrey Bogart.

After an early career on Broadway marked by an acclaimed turn in Robert E. Sherwood’s  The Petrified Forest, Bogart made his first impression on screen alongside Leslie Howard (who had to fight for Bogart to be cast) in the screen version of that same play. The role lead to him being typecast, playing gangsters in Warner Bros. B-pictures for the next few years, before in 1941, with the assistance of his good friend John Huston, his time to shine came. Firstly appearing in the Huston scripted  High Sierra, then following it up with a superstar making role playing Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon. Two years later came  Casablanca, the Best Picture Oscar and immortality, before meeting Lauren Bacall in 1944 on Howard Hawks’ Hemingway adaptation of  To Have and Have Not. The two shared a sizzling chemistry on screen that carried over into real life and saw them married the next year, before teaming up with Hawks once again to tackle Chandler’s Marlowe in  The Big Sleep. Bogart continued bringing his laconic, world weary charm to films like  Dark Passage and  Key Largo, but it was his work in Huston’s  Treasure of the Sierra Madre that probably stands to this day as his finest work, crippled physically by the desert, and mentally by the lure of gold. Superstardom achieved, peer recognition followed in the early 50s, teaming with Huston again, alongside Katharine Hepburn he landed an Oscar as the drunken, grizzled boatman in  The African Queen. He continued on strong, The Caine Mutiny, Billy Wilder’s  Sabrina, and his final turn as a down on his luck sportswriter alongside Rod Steiger in  The Harder they Fall, before, aged 57, falling inevitable victim to his trusty sidekick through the years, the cigarette, he died of lung cancer, the effortless, easy cool diminished and defeated, he weighed just 80 pounds.

The Director;

Samira Makhmalbaf.

Daughter of acclaimed Iranian auteur, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf dropped out of school at the age of 15, citing incompetent teachers and started observing her father at work, before attending a film course at private school. There she produced a short drama and documentary, before in 1998, aged just 18, her feature film debut  Sib (The Apple) was entered into official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. She followed it up 2 years later with  Takhte Siah (Blackboards) another film dealing with the treatment of youth in Iran, in a very different way to her debut. Since then she has produced two more features, dealing with topical issues in Iran for women and children, as well as a short film alongside other international filmmakers like Ken Loach, Sean Penn and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in a feature about the effects of 9/11 on people around the world. Still aged just 28, she is fast proving herself to be one of the most interesting and socially aware filmmakers around.

The Picture;

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

In 1952, Elia Kazan gave up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the names of 8 people within the film industry that alongside himself had been members of of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. Those 8 were quickly blacklisted and had their names removed from all productions of which they had been a part. In 1954, Kazan, along with writer Budd Schulberg and producer Sam Spiegel produced this 8 Oscar winning response.  The story of a man who in spite of the warnings of all around him, does what he has to do for his own peace of mind. The film landed Best Picture, and Kazan, his second Best Director Oscar, guiding an impeccable cast through Schulberg’s look at the hard bitten, hard working, down on their luck, New York dock scene. Eva Marie Saint won an Oscar for her debut screen performance, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger crowded the Best Supporting Actor category, but it was Marlon Brando, coming off the back of 3 successive Best Actor nominations who stole the show as Terry Malloy, the washed up boxer with the soft, feeling soul. It was 4th time lucky for the Omaha native who finally walked away with the big prize, to cap 5 of the best years of production that any actor ever had. Today, despite mulling over its origins, the film still stands tall as a testament to the human spirit, and as an ode to just how much hell it can be to get to heaven

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May 3, 2008

The List is Life: #78

78.

The Dame;

Meryl Streep.

Making her screen debut in 1977 at the age of 28, Meryl Streep made her mark quickly. A year into her career, making an appearance in the award winning Julia, before winning an Emmy for her role in the television mini-series Holocaust. Two years later, her reputation was established when aged 30 she won a supporting actress Oscar for her role in the Best Picture winning Kramer vs. Kramer, it was her second Best Picture appearance in as many years after her quietly pained turn in the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter and established the New Jersey native as one of the brightest sparks on the Hollywood map. Immortality was hers 3 years later with her leading turn in the emotionally harrowing, physically draining Sophie’s Choice, she won the lead actress Oscar and immediately took her place at the head of the quickly emerging generation of actresses. She went on to garner 4 more nominates in the 80s, and with Out of Africa appeared in her 3rd Best Picture winning film in 7 years. As the years have passed she has continued to gain a great deal of attention, racking up further Oscar nominations till she became the most nominated performer in history with her 13th nomination in 2002. Though often accused of being a mechanical, mannered actress, Streep is at times perfectly capable of playing loose, of being effortless and flowing as her detractors claim she is impossible of being. She rose above the turgid middle aged romance of The Bridges of Madison County, to give a heartfelt, melancholy turn, and with her role in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, gave the sort of beautifully subtle mix of comedy and drama which she had never come close to displaying before, and leaving many to wonder why she doesn’t do it more often. Whether or not Meryl Streep is one of the great actresses of all time is a matter of opinion, but that she is an incredibly gifted performer, equally capable of earning laughs, and tears, with restraint or theatrics is a plain and simple fact. Pushing 60, she shows no signs of slowing down.

The Dude;

Peter O’Toole.

Playwright Noel Coward once told Peter O’Toole that if he had been any prettier, the movie would have had to be called Florence of Arabia. Depending on a persons tastes, that may or may not be the case, but if it is, nobody could deny that the Irish born son of a bookie who abandoned boyhood dreams of journalism to enter the world of acting has ever taken the simplistic route of coasting by on his looks. After small parts in small movies and bit parts on television, graduation day came; in 1962, at the age of 30, Peter O’Toole beat out some of the biggest names in the business to land the lead role in David Lean’s majestic Lawrence of Arabia, and an icon was born. In the 46 years that have come and gone since, O’Toole has amassed 7 further Oscar nominations, yet it was that first that almost half a century later remains the role for which he is, and most likely always will, be best known for. T.E Lawrence was a larger than life character, he was special at what he did and he knew it, O’Toole plays the part with absolute conviction, never attempting to reach out for the audience’s sympathy, simply bringing the character shining to life with a God like ferocity. He has brought that same ferocity to the vast majority of his roles since, whether providing the storm to Richard Burton’s calm in Becket, taking the lead in epic literary adaptations such as Lord Jim, more intimate ones such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, the thundering fireworks of his verbal duels with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion Winter, the odd but interesting choices of films like Supergirl or Caligola, or as the elder statesman, bringing his parched, resounding tones and towering pathos to supporting roles in the likes of Troy and Ratatouille. Peter O’Toole carried a degree of grandiosity out of that desert and into anything he has been involved with since, that he has played Presidents, Popes, Kings and…film directors, will come as no surprise, the world knows what he is suited for, and it’s majesty.

The Director;

Roberto Rossellini.

Roberto Rossellini was born into a bourgeois family in Rome in 1906, his father built the first cinema in Italy, and granted his son an unlimited free pass. As such, the youngster began frequenting the theatre from an early age, falling in love with the medium he helped to define decades later. Following his fathers death, Rossellini began working as a soundmaker on numerous Italian productions, quickly learning the different aspects of the moviemaking trade before in 1937 he made his first documentary, after this he went on to work as assistant on numerous other directors productions, gaining further experience. Though his directing career began soon after, it was not until 1945 that he began to establish the reputation that endured ever since with Roma, citta Aperrta. Made in the final year of the war it ushered in the beginning of the neo-realist movement that has been the hallmark of Italian cinema ever since, it told the harrowing tale of the city of Rome under Nazi occupation and made a star of Anna Magnani. He followed it up the next year with Paisa, a larger scale chronicle of Italy during the war. He completed his legendary neo-realist trilogy in 1948 with Germanna anno Zero, leaving his native land behind, Rossellini turned his attention to Germany, and the conditions in the country in the wake of the war, told through the eyes of a young boy, the nation’s future, and its struggles to overcome the past. In 1950, Rossellini married Ingrid Bergman, and over the next 4 years they made 6 films together, most famously Stromboli, Europa ’51 and Viaggio in Italia, all character dramas dealing with wider world issues. Though as a cinematic icon it was these later years that made him most famous, it was in that first decade, during the neo-realist period of the 1940s, that Roberto Rossellini made his most defining works as a filmmaker. He took non professional actors and put a camera to them, against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent times in the continents history, perhaps as close as narrative cinema has ever, or will ever come to capturing life on screen. He continued working till the year of his death, but it was in those first ten years of his career, that Rossellini earned cinematic immortality.

The Picture;

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)

Hollywood had been turning out musicals since they knew how, ever since Al Jolson sang his way to immortality in The Jazz Singer, the movies had been brimming with song, from Top Hat to The Wizard of Oz to On the Town, from those beginnings to the genre’s decline in the mid 60s musicals garnered Best Picture Oscars on six different occasions, yet still, over half a century later, the Hollywood movie musical was perhaps never more perfectly embodied than in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Created in collaboration between Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (the two who had brought the iconic On the Town to the screen 3 years prior) the film set new standards of musical innovation, from Donald O’Connors physically awe inspiring, manic hilarity on ‘Make ’em Laugh’ to the unflinching joy of ‘Good Morning’, the dreamlike odyssey of the ‘Broadway Rhythm Ballet’ and the soaring precipitation soaked glory of the title song itself. Yet here was not a film built entirely upon its musical sequences, for Singin’ in the Rain featured fine performances from its entire cast, from Kelly’s ballsy, charming leading man, Debbie Reynolds’ sweet softness, Donald O’Connor and his electric verve and Jean Hagen’s greedy, jealous, simple and conniving starlet, and even more impressively, here was a musical social commentary at it’s heart. Telling the tale of the coming of sound to cinema, of the changing world and how all in it learned to cope, about ambition and stardom and glitz, about the ones who toil and make the magic and the ones that shine and create illusions. There were those that made more money, and those that won more awards, but only one, had Gene Kelly…singin’…and dancin’…in the rain.

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.

April 11, 2008

The List is Life: #83

83.

The Dame;

Julie Christie.

Making her debut in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar at the age of 22, Julie Christie ushered in the swinging sixties, landing a BAFTA nomination she announced herself on the national stage, before two years later reteaming with Schlesinger once more in the central role, she won an Oscar for Darling. At 24, the grandest prize in the profession in her grasp, Julie Christie played a second role that same year, and though it was the other that built her reputation, it was David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that made her an icon. Proving diversity was in her grasp she displayed her range over the next decade, refusing to settle into comfortable roles, she starred in Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, alongside her much celebrated other half in Robert Altman’s lyrical western in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and with Donald Sutherland, in Nicholas Roeg’s grim, horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now. As time went by and her relationship with Warren Beatty grew, her interest in acting seem to dim, though working relatively consistently for the next few decades she turned down numerous major roles that had been major steps for other actresses from They Shoot Horses Don’t They? to Reds, moving back to the UK in the early 80s after her split from Beatty, she began campaigning for animal rights, nuclear disarmament, and numerous other causes. Eventaully in the mid 90s she began a career renaissance, first landing the role of Gertude in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet before going onto further supporting work and Oscar nominations for her beautifully subtle work in Afterglow and Away from Her. Though she may have priorities in other arenas, Julie Christie certainly makes it count whenever she steps on screen.

The Dude;

Gary Oldman.

Not a performer given to nuanced and subtle work, Gary Oldman is an actor that came from the stage and has never forgotten it. An artist that paints in loud, broad brushstrokes he still strives for the farthest row in the theatre whenever he appears on screen and he nails it out of the park basically every single time. Though loud and brash might be his game, there really isn’t anybody better at it, when Gary Oldman is on the screen, you can rarely tear your eyes away. Those screams, those pulsating veins, those glorious tics and twitches, and the absolute brutally perfect way he delivers every single line has been in evidence from his screen debut as Sid Vicious in the romanticized biopic Sid & Nancy, to his vicious, obsessive sports thug in The Firm to his ‘graduation’ across the atlantic, where ever since the turn of the 90s he has been blazing his way through Hollywood. There was Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula, he hammed it up but was never dull in Leon, The Fifth Element, Air Force One and Lost in Space. He brought his blazing intensity to a role it fit like a glove playing Beethoven in the otherwise ordinary Immortal Beloved, and as the century turned he found himself reaching a whole new generation in as kindly a role as he had every tried his hand at, playing Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, a role that shall ensure if, for whatever bizarre reason all else fails, Gary Oldman, will never be forgotten.

The Director;

Robert Bresson.

In a 50 year career, Robert Bresson only turned out 13 feature films. A testament to his intrinsic and minutely detailed approach to his work, and to his refusal to bow to commercial restrictions, spending a great deal of his time struggling to find funding for his projects. Following early desires to take up a career in painting, Bresson found his way to photography before directing his first short film in 1934 before spending over a year in a POW camp during the second world war. This time in captivity along with his aspirations as a painter and Catholic upbringing, had a very great impact on his work. Catholicism in particular was reflected in the redemption, salvation, and exploration of human soul that permeated throughout his work. Termed the patron saint of cinema, a term that was not without merit, Bresson strove to define a new cinematic language entirely different from all other artistic mediums. Requiring numerous takes from his actors till all mannerisms and tics of the performer were stripped away and the raw naturalism that only cinema could find was all that remained. He argued for cinematography, how he sought to find it elevated above merely what was essentially the filming of a play to create a new language out of imagery and sound. Though his films were often seen as critques of French society and the wide world beyond, Robert Bresson was never less than an optimist when it came to the artistic possibilities of the cinematic medium.

The Picture;

The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Too often simplistically dismissed as Martin Scorsese turning to old Hollywood glitz and glamour to land an Oscar, The Aviator is a flawed but fascinating epic of one trailblazer of a man overcoming the numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his path only to be constantly plagued and felled by the demons within. In the central role, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes and graduates into adult roles with tremendous aplomb. Aging 20 years over the course of the film, DiCaprio begins the earnest, bright eyed boy that everybody knows, and slowly transforms into a gruff, stilted middle aged man, physically crushed by his exploits but still emerging triumphant. Howard Hughes was a groundbreaker, a 20th century pioneer, and Scorsese charts that innovation in the way that only cinema can, visually. Robert Richardson’s Oscar winning cinematography telling a visual story, entirely through images, charting the cinematic technology of the age, evolving as the years pass from the old two strip colour process to three strip saturated technicolour. Dante Ferretti’s production design compliments Richardsons work perfectly to add to the visual narrative, beginning with the giant, seemingly neverending expanse of youthful idealism and slowly closing in, trapping the titular Aviator in his own personal prison. Though the film is brighter and brimming with more glitz seen in any Scorsese picture this side of 1977’s New York, New York it is still unmistakeably his, a dark, troubled heart laying at its centre. Innovative and pioneering work, reigned in by humanity.

April 7, 2008

The List is Life: #86

86.

The Dame;

Julie Walters.

Julie Walters first came to the attention of screen audiences in 1983 when she starred alongside Michael Caine in the film adaptation of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, she landed a BAFTA win and scored an Oscar nomination with her first major film role. Always remaining true to her roots, she never really sold her soul to Hollywood, continuing to do most of her work on British TV throughout the 80s, continuing to establish herself as one of the brightest comiediennes of her generation. Her work in the 90s consisted mainly of TV movies before at the turn of the century she landed an immense career relaunching role in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott, her immense warmth, and earthly generosity, brightening up the bleak landscapes of northern England. The following year she landed the role of Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films and a level of fame she had never experienced came her way, her newfound status helped to keep her working consistently in film on projects such as Calender Girls, Wah-Wah, Becoming Jane and Mamma Mia! her newfound status as a connoisseur of bright, middle aged supporting roles ensuring she should be working on screen for a long time to come.

The Dude;

Johnny Depp.

Performing on screen since his early 20s, Johnny Depp is a performer that for the majority of his career to date refused to cash in on the pretty boy looks that made him so popular, instead choosing to work in quirkier, more unconventional roles. Films such as Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps towering above all, his performance as the titular character in frequent collaborator Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was a masterclass in naivity, in heartfelt passion, in unwavering determination, it is, quite simply, one of the better performances of recent times. In recent years he has taken a turn towards the more mainstream roles that have made him a worldwide icon, perhaps now as a parent, feeling a greater need to entertain the planet’s youth, he has still managed to turn in at least one magnificent performance, as the nothing less than legendary Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Depp has entirely realigned the common image of the pirate, rewriting a once savage, macho persona with something far more akin to a glam rock star. If for nothing else (and it would be a shame if a decade’s great work were overlooked) Depp has ensure he will be forever stamped upon cinema legend for making that inspired choice and redefining piratehood for all. Always most impressive in these quirky roles, it would be alot better for everyone if he could continue to find those parts that stretch him as a performer and allow him to make those choices, instead of allowing him to settle into the middle aged laziness that is far below his capabilities.

The Director;

Luchino Visconti.

Born into one of Northern Italy’s richest families, that Luchino Visconti went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Italian neo-realism movement is something of a surprise. When one learns that he was a supporter of the Italian communist party, that he was not entirely content with his position in life becomes far more apparent. Starting in the business in the mid 30s as assistant director to Jean Renoir before meeting Roberto Rossellini, together the two joined with Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio, the national arbitrator for cinema and the arts and from there his own career took off, making his debut in 1943 with Ossessione, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, he continued to delve in the neo-realist genre that he had helped establish, his premier work came four years later with La Terra Trema a chronicle of the difficult lives of the inhabitants of a Sicilian Fishing village. Starting with his 1954 film Senso, Visconti began to shift away from neorealism, as he drifted into the 60s, Visconti’s films began to come more personal in nature, his 1963 Burt Lancaster Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) probably his best remembered film detaling the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy from which the director himself had emerged. Visconti continued working right up until the year of his death in 1976, and though the neorealism that he is still best remembered for was long gone, he was still making a point, right until the end.

The Picture;

Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)

The puppet Pinocchio first appeared in an 1883 childrens novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, however there can be no doubt that the most iconic version of the story (as with so many of their animated adaptations) is the one that Walt Disney turned out in 1940. The story of a wooden boy, filled with more life and heart than most human filled stories. Pinocchio features a naive yet loveable lead character who in the immortal Jiminy Cricket has one of the great screen sidekicks in history. The loving family (make that father and 2 pets) that he leaves behind are as caring and memorable a group as Disney have ever come up with, and the film is populated from head to toe with supporting players each as vividly memorable as the last. Though now almost 70 years old and a Disney family classic, the film is also shot through with an incredibly dark streak, nasty supporting characters, a monstrous whale and one of the most horrific scenes ever to feature in a children’s movie that will certainly ensure you never look at a donkey the same way again. It’s a magical film, filled to the brim with what at times seems like an almost infinite darkness, but shining through it all, that little ray of hope, of good, and it never relents.

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.

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 19, 2008

The List is Life: #93

93.

The Dame;

Kristin Scott Thomas.

An actress of incredible beauty who has remained in her career as she has always been, absolutely subtle. Never one for garish over the top theatrics or doing anything out of the oridnary to call attention to herself, Kristin Scott Thomas has enjoyed a long and varied career, in romance, in drama, in comedy and she has turned in wonderfully effective work without anywhere near the showiness of many of her peers. She’s the sort of actress one could envision triumping in the golden age of the cinema alongside someone like Garbo, a quie, restrained performer who lets her face do the talking.

The Dude;

Jeffrey Wright.

One of the most incredibly diverse and completely underrated actors of his generation. Jeffrey Wright might just be one of the best actors on the planet right now, and yet for some unknown reason he has never reached the status that he quite deserved. A Tony winning star of the stage, his first major screen turn came when he played the title character in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. Though not adverse to appearing in big productions like Casino Royale and the remakes of Shaft and The Manchurian Candidate, his star still refuses to refuse to rise any further. Having said that, whatever may come in the future, his crown jewel may always be the role for which he won his Tony and reprised for HBO to Emmy winning effect, in the powerful, funny and magnetic roles of Belize, Mr. Lies and The Angel of Europe in Tony Kushner’s epic, Angels in America.

The Director;

Oliver Stone.

A name almost synonomous with controversy, Oliver Stone is a Vietnam war veteran and watching the anger and passion that seems to brim over in his movies it is not difficult to comprehend. Never one to shy away from difficult subjects, Stone has delved into troubling aspects and probed the state of the world in Salvador, Platoon and the other two entries in his ‘Vietnam trilogy’, Nixon and perhaps his crowning achievement to date, the monstrously structed and gloriously edited JFK, though many may turn up their noses at the facts on display in the picture, what cannot be denied is Stone’s artistic capabilities in bringing them so fully and powerfully to screen. His World Trade Center movie may have been a great deal tamer than most had anticipated, with the director choosing to tell a heartwarming tale of human survival and the wider effects of the days actions over damning whoever may or may not have been responsible, but with a George W. Bush biopic on the horizon, one can bet that Oliver Stone will soon be ruffling feathers once more.

The Picture;

After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

A blackly, creepy, comic look at life in the big city after dark. A haunting yet humorous look at the underbelly of society that will leave the majority of those who view it, appreciating what they have a great deal more. This is not the typical Scorsese picture, only coming his way when financing for his ambitious epic The Last Temptation of Christ fell through, the director comes onto the picture and injects it with his trademark dark, probing look at what can only be described as unordinary human beings. Taking a cast of up and comers and supporting players he crafts marvellously unsettling yet hugely entertaining picture that has more than a little heart to back up its eerie thrills.

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.

The List is Life: #96

96.

The Dame;

Sissy Spacek.

Ever since her major film breakthrough in 1973 as the naive teenager Holly in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sissy Spacek has been an interesting actress to watch. Equally comfortable playing quiet, restrained young girls as she did in the Malick picture and in her most famous role to date in Brain DePalma’s Carrie, as she is at the ever popular art of cinema biopic-ing as she displayed in her Oscar winning turn as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and as the quietly furious grieving mother in her final nominated turn to date in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. She’s an actress capable of perfectly subtle and quiet, restrained turns.

The Dude;

Tom Hanks.

Many a term has been attached to Tom Hanks over his long and storied career. Whether we refer to him as the ultimate everyman, the new Jimmy Stewart, what cannot be denied is that over the two decades since his first Oscar nomination he has proven himself to be one of the most talented and capable actors of his generation. From his pure, unadulterated childhood innocence in Big, to the weary fighting spirit of Philadelphia, American simplicity in Forrest Gump, the quiet, humble masculinity of Saving Private Ryan, or the large stretches of wordlessness that populated Castaway, in which he held the screen with his physicality and nothing but a volleyball for company, Tom Hanks has proven a versatility not found among many of his era. Truly one of the good guys.

The Director;

Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray left the University of Chicago after a year to study architecture on a scholarship under Frank Lloyd Wright where he learnt the importance of space and scope that would come in great use for a filmmaker with as beautiful an eye for visuals as he did. His socialist/communist leanings soon came between student and mentor and Ray departed for New York where he became involved in the theater until his good friend Elia Kazan hired him to work as assistant on feature debut, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. From there Ray’s star grew and grew till the mid 50s when he was doing some of the most iconic work in Hollywood, a western centred around a woman in the magnificent Johnny Guitar and the iconic Rebel Without a Cause, a title worthy of the rebel who guided it to immortality.

The Picture;

El Laberinto del Fauno (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

Guillermo Del Toro started making movies in 1993 and he has always had a taste for the fantastic, from the gothic horror of his first, Cronos, to the sci-fi thrills of his English language debut, Mimic, through the comic book rides of Blade II and Hellboy, Del Toro has always wandered in strange realms. That wandering finally came to a beautiful crescendo in 2006 as the Spaniard turned in the most acclaimed film of the year, a tale of startling fantasy and harsh reality, balancing both worlds with perfect precision and taking the audience into the imagination of a young girl, along the harsh road she travels and the difficult lessons she learns. It is a beautifully crafted dark fantasy, written, directed, performed, shot and scored with the greatest love and passion. Growing up and facing the world has never been so painful or so beautiful.

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