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.

April 15, 2008

The List is Life: #81

81.

The Dame;

Carmen Maura.

Born into a family of conservative lawyers, the great-neice of Antonio Maura a five time prime minister of Spain, Carmen Maura began as was expected of her, studying philosophy and literature in Paris before marrying a lawyer and giving birth to her two children. She began life in show business as a cabaret singer before in 1970 (the same year as her divorce) making her movie debut and quickly establishing herself as a capable dramatic actress, but most noted for her work in comedy. In 1978 she collaborated with emerging director Pedro Almodovar on what would be the first of 7 films they would make in the next decade, culminating in 1988 with Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios for which she won her first Goya award. Soon after her partnership with Almodovar seemed to deteriorate, yet she continued to work regularly through the 90s, winning the Goya again, in 1991 and then a record breaking third for her role in 2001’s La Comunidad, before she reteamed with Almodovar for the first time in 18 years for 2006’s Volver. The film was a global success, and launched her right back into to spotlight of World cinema, and for her role, she won her 4th Goya, establishing herself beyond all doubt as a legend of European cinema.

The Dude;

Robert Duvall.

The son of a Navy Admiral, Robert Duvall moved around a lot as a young man from Maryland to Missouri, before graduating college in Illinois, following a year’s service in the army he studied acting in New York under Sanford Meisner. His screen debut came as the iconic Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, his work through the rest of the 60s consisted mainly of TV work before in the final years of the decade landing small supporting roles in films like Bullitt, True Grit and MASH. In 1972 at the age of 41 his breakthrough finally came as he landed the role of Tom Hagen in The Godfather, he landed his first Oscar nomination and went on to reprise the role in the sequel two years later. Further work in the fine ensemble of Network followed, before he landed the role he is most famous for, as Lnt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now he gave the picture it’s most famous lines and most famous sequences and was in turn nominated for his second Oscar. He went onto finally win the award 4 years later as a troubled country singer trying to put his life back together in Tender Mercies. Though he has worked consistently since, there were two great roles left for Duvall, in 1997 he made his directorial debut, with The Apostle, he also starred in the film as a preacher trying to escape a troubled past. However it was some 8 years earlier, in the television mini series Lonesome Dove, adapted from the novel by Larry McMurtry that he played what he claims was his favourite role, winning a Golden Globe and landing an Emmy nomination, he turned in some of the finest work of his career. Duvall has always been at his best playing flawed characters, men with darkness in their past, but men who at heart are good, always striving to atone. He took longer than many to get to the top, but when he got there he made it count.

The Director;

Vittorio De Sica.

Born into poverty in 1902, Vittorio De Sica began working as a theatre actor in the early 20s before in 1933 establishing his own theatre company where he produced mostly comedies, working at times with future neorealist peers like Luchino Visconti. He began acting on screen in his 20s and continued to do so regularly until the end of his life, his career behind the camera did not begin until 1940, and he quickly established himself as a leading figure of the neorealist movement. Turning out works such as Sciuscia, a chronicling of the lives of young impoverished shoeshine children near Rome. 1952’s Umberto D told the heartbreaking tale of a retired civil servant on a seemingly endless downward spiral and 1960’s La Ciociara, the film which won Sophia Loren her Oscar, detailing a young mother fleeing with her daughter from the bombing attacks on Rome in the Second World War. However De Sica is most widely remembered for the film that to this day stands as the cornerstone of Neorealist cinema, Ladri di Biciclette. A man just trying to find work, just trying to feed his family, and the hardships that life throws in his way, and the way in which he copes with them; the film is an immense tragedy that blazes the struggle of life in that era upon the brains of all who view it. 60 years down the line, it remains as powerful as ever, De Sica worked with non professional actors, and yet drew the absolute most out of them, capturing perfect heartbreaking naturalism on screen every time.

The Picture;

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Billy Wilder may be best remembered for the laugh out loud, riotous comedy of 1959’s Some Like it Hot, but it was the following years Best Picture winning The Apartment that proved his abilities to perfectly blend the tragic, the romantic and the funny sides of life. Jack Lemmon turns in one of his finest screen performances, twitchy, nervy, retiring, a walkover who’s willing to do whatever he has to do to get ahead; he pulls the audience on side in the opening moments and keeps them clutched there all the way through his struggles. There is fine supporting work from Jack Kruschen and Fred MacMurray, however it is Shirley Maclaine that waltzes away with the show. Aged just 26, Maclaine’s Fran Kubelik appears both steely strong, and adorably sweet; able to stand up to any man, but tender and breakable underneath. The character is a complex web of emotions, and through Maclaine it all flows naturally as a river. Off screen, Billy Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L Diamond are on the form of their lives, mixing the comedic and the dramatic, they meld their characters together to a tell a story that without being remotely cheesy, manages to be one of the most beautifully romantic ever made.

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 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.

March 1, 2008

“I Am the Third Revelation”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s – There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, US, 2007)

If you were trying to comprehend a monster, trying to boil it all down to it’s core, you could say that Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature film is at heart about the struggle between capitalism and religion, wealth and faith. Yet here is a story of greed, of the corrupting influence of power; a film about the lengths that men will go to in order to succeed and just what that will cost them. There Will Be Blood is a grand epic in the tradition of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Welles’ Citizen Kane, Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre you’ll find hints of George Stevens’ Giant, a dash of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, slivers of Once Upon a Time in the West. The style of the film calls to mind the majestic ambition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, take all of these films into account and you may begin to understand just what you are in store for with this one.

The opening scene is a grandiose statement of ambition. Introduced into our world with a near deafening drone from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s incredibly unique and ambitious score we are faced with the shadowed spectre of Daniel Plainview, a pickaxe in hand, hammering away at the rockface, feiry sparks spitting away on impact. Faced with with such brooding images one cannot help but ponder the idea of a man at the gates of hell, hammering at the entrance in search of his destiny. This scene and the few that follow are punctuated by almost complete silence, hardly a word of dialogue spoken, these are men of the Earth, workers, labourers. They are men of action, not of words; watching them at action is all one need do to understand their world.

A baby baptised with a drop of the blood of the Earth in these early moments sets the tone for the new world that emerges throughout. Oil seeping from the ground brings the fortune that is sought after and as it makes its finder wealthy so speeches and monologuing comes into play.

Now dressed in the fine attire his discovery affords him, Plainview makes pleas to smalltown folk, urging them to accept him and his company. No longer the simple man, hammering at the Earth, now a man of words, a man of complications. A monstrously powerful entity begging to be let in with promises of hope and prosperity, and this is how the film continues on, father and son, side by side, preying on the weak, the seemingly helpless.

Living such a life is as difficult as it sounds and the pain, anguish and fury of an existence of ambition, solitude and determination is etched across the face of this monstrous man. Robert Elswit’s cinematography takes in both these searing close up’s of its stars face plunging in to the shrouded darkness of his tormented soul as well as those grand landscapes of the Western frontier, encompassing the sun parched blaze of his unstoppable desire. The use of shadow throughout the film, draped around and across Plainview from scene to scene, tells its audience a story through visuals for which dialogue is simply not necessary.

Jack Fisk, veteran production designer of similarly beautiful pictures as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Straight Story and The New World brings his gloriously intricate work to the fore once more. The vast majority of the films running time allows Fisk to wander in the same realm in which he has made his name, sparse, minimal locations, set in isolation against a backdrop of monumentally grand landscapes.

Then comes that unquestionably bizarre final act; the grand landscape remains in a more reduced form, the sparse heart at its centre is one single, solitary man. A man driven into complete isolation in the heart of his grandiose kingdom. There Will Be Blood is based upon Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil! Sinclair was a lifelong, socialist and as one watches this film, the capitalist hatred at its stories heart shines forth, loud and clear. Fisk designs this world with intricate detail, filling each corner with great nothings, a cold world, densely populated, but empty; surrounding the untouchable, detached man at its heart.

The film is edited with a great deal of care, not showy or over the top, not calling attention to itself. In an age of films with a cut every 2 seconds here is a piece of work that switches back and forth as is required; many scenes shot almost entirely in one take, many others cutting back and forth between those grand vistas and the close-ups of the actors faces. It is a film that makes each cut matter, helping to create a film that is, in turn, both epic and intimate.

Mark Bridges costume design work is another mighty fine achievement that adds a great deal to the films visual narrative. The world worn rags of the films opening scenes, covered in the dirt of the Earth, work in perfect contrast to the perfectly authentic high class attire that all too quickly replaces it.

To go back once more to that wholly unique score, in deciding not to hire one of the plethora of great film composers, but rather the guitarist of Radiohead, the British alternative rock band (a tag that hardly does their avant-garde experimentalist nature justice) Anderson immediately signalled a very strange intent. When one hears just what Jonny Greenwood has done, it all seems to make a great deal of sense.

Thinking back to previous films in a similar mold to this one, it is tough to precisely nail down the type of score that would befit such a piece of work, however electronic synth wails and tribal drums would more than likely come somewhere near the bottom of the list. While there are deep droning epic horns factoring in to lend ominous gravitas, this is a score that can generally be described as little else but bizarre.

The theme plays in the background throughout many of the films key moments and it lends proceedings a nightmarish, hellish tone; working almost as a character in itself, it is a standout piece of work that gives troubling insights into the characters mindsets. That it is somewhat strange is without question, and many will, and have, found it alienating and out of place, but if you can embrace it as the rich work of leftfield innovation that it is, then it can be incredibly rewarding and symphonically improve the viewing experience.

Keeping in line with basically everything else in his film, Anderson’s screenplay is nothing short of inspired. While the novel from which it takes its inspiration is a socialist parable revolving around the son of the oil man and his sympathies with the workers. Paul Thomas Anderson has taken little more than that novels opening act and turned it into one of the most searing pieces of social commentary ever put on film. Taking us 100 years into the past the 37 year old has shone a very bright and very damning light upon the way of the world, as it is today. Honing in on obsession, greed, that neverending quest for power, on isolation and faith, on Gods, old and new; Anderson has created a deep and thoughtful work that lingers in the brain long after its conclusion and provides its audience with almost unending routes for thought.

As a director his work is no less astounding; the film is almost impossible to describe. It shares that unique artistic vision that only the very greatest directors in the mediums history have achieved. While it’s themes and nature is inherently classical, epic and grandiose, it is directed with creative flourishes that put in the realms of innovative artistry with such names as Kubrick, Leone and Malick. It is unlike practically all that has come before it and along with the previous film in its directors canon, the similarly unique Punch-Drunk Love, it tempts the viewer with the possibility of a genuinly new cinematic voice.

Finally, on to the cast, and though the headlines have been dominated by one man, there are numerous fine supporting turns populating this movie.

Dillon Freasier as the young H.W Plainview gives a very fine, subtle and mature performance. As a worldly child who has seen and learnt more than anybody of his age would normally be expected to, the young boy in his screen debut gives a very knowing turn. Little looks and subtle glances convey his internal confusion and hesistance to follow what he’s been taught, a great deal of anger boils beneath the surface and the child actor captures that internal angst without ever resorting to over the top theatrics.

Kevin J. O’Connor plays the mysterious long lost brother in the films second act. Perhaps to date best known for his role as Beni, the annoying, whiny sidekick in The Mummy; O’Connor here reigns his turn in, playing a quiet man who never gives too much away, always wary, always careful of each word he says, working his way, with innocent simplicity, closer and closer into the nearly impossible realm that is Plainview’s inner circle, into a position of trust.

Paul Dano, as the twin Sunday brothers Eli and Paul, gives performances of complete contrast. His Paul is simple, intelligent, knowing, and of the world. He doesn’t say a great deal and refuses to be outsmarted when engaging Plainview and his assistant (the sadly underused Ciaran Hinds) in a probing war of words. His hunched shoulders and soft spoken nature exude a shyness, his eyes display nothing but confidence; Paul Sunday is an enigma at the heart of this film, and a fascinating character; so simple yet so complex.

In the much larger role of Eli, Dano is let loose of the restraints that shackle his twin brother. Here is a young man so utterly convinced of every word he says that it is difficult to tell if he is genuinely assured of his words, utterly insane or perhaps simply the worlds greatest liar. Dano plays the part with a quiet, cocky intensity that from time to time lets rip in fiery bursts of passion that put on display for all to see the entrancing charisma of so many of his ilk. His snide air of righteousness helps establish himself as a genuine opposition to the dark monster at the films heart, a monster he encircles and plays throughout the films running time.

Then there is the monster itself. Daniel Plainview towers over this world like an all conquering superpower. He is a monstrously ferocious man and, as is to be expected when you cast Daniel Day-Lewis in your lead role, he is fully embodied and filled with ferocious life. Day-Lewis’ turn has not been without its critics, many condemning it to be nothing more than a phoning-in of his similarly towering turn as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. The Butcher was a simple and straightforward man, he was a relic of an ancient world, single minded in what he wanted and entirely old school in the way he went about achieving it. He gave no quarter, he showed no mercy; he was a charismatic monster of a man who could make even his enemies fall in love with him, could charm anybody and who all cowered before. Day-Lewis in turn played him with broad, giant brushstrokes, larger than life, utterly unflinching in his infallibility.

Plainview is almost the exact opposite, here is nothing more than the most modern and thoughtful of men. Daniel Plainview is not a tyrant defending his kingdom, he is a conqueror with an unquenchable desire for more. He is not a brute, not a butcher, he is a businessman, an unreadable, slithering snake. The sort of person that is willing to do whatever he has to do to get what he wants, including kneeling before his enemy. He will cast off the weak, discard those he cannot trust, he shares with the Butcher only the absolute single minded nature with which he pursues his ultimate goal.

Day-Lewis turns in what is arguably his finest turn to date, certainly his most complex. This is a performance of nuance, made up of the slightest gestures, of small glances, played from the eyes; eyes that give a small window into that beast. Plainview is never totally knowable, while he thirsts for absolute power, while he detests and does away with weakness, he gives hints, small glimpses of true feeling beneath the monstrousity. His son, his brother, a photograph he comes across from childhood, a forced confession of sin, all reveal depths of humanity inside, all threaten to crack the shell of the tyrant in his journey towards a neverending roof.

In those early scenes of human simplicity the two-time Oscar winner displays his primal human spirit, as he goes forth in search of further conquests he displays a well spoken, even at times caring and inspiring man, a man capable of sweet talking whoever need be sweet talked if it will help him achieve his aims. Then comes that final scene and monstrously bizarre is a term that only partly does it justice. Plainview comes flying off the wheels and Day-Lewis fills his lungs with absolute hatred, spitting venom from his mouth with a smile, from icy cool to hotter than hell he displays rage and disdain like rarely before seen. Vengeance is his aim and vengeance is his goal, reason seems to have gone out the window, all is abandoned save the unstoppable desire to destroy his enemy. Here is a brief and blazing portrait of the absolute madness behind the insane quest to conquer all, and Day-Lewis and Anderson, innovative as ever, play it with the absurdly pitch black comedy that it deserves.

This is a masterpiece of a motion picture, almost without fault, and endlessly ponderous. Repeat viewings will be incredibly rewarding and topics of conversation will be multiple and broad. Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a film both classical and modern, an era defining epic that shall without question be remembered as the work of a genius in the years and decades to come; shining at the heart, Daniel Day-Lewis is the beacon of fire, the searing soul of this work of absolute majesty.

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