The Parnassus Times

May 10, 2009

The List is Life: #73

73.

The Dame;

Michelle Pfeiffer.

Early work as a Vons check out girl and brief, boredom inducing college stints in the fields of Court Stenography and Psychology filled out the early part of Michelle Pfeiffer’s life, before, at the age of 20, she won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant, and after participating in Miss Los Angeles pageant that came after, was signed by Hollywood agent John LaRocca. The early part of her career consisted of commercials and bit parts playing nameless blondes, at one point she is reported to have tearfully exclaimed down the phone to her agent how “They’re putting me in hot pants, again!”. Personal insecurities lead her to join a cult, dealing in vegetarianism and metaphysics, they eradicated her drinking, smoking and drug habits, but took a huge amount of money in the process, control of her life was handed over to them before meeting budding actor/director Peter Horton during acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, after helping her away from her predicament and getting her life back on track, the two married in 1981, and Pfeiffer’s rise began. She worked successfully through the 80s in all manner of films, Grease 2, Scarface, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, some challenged her as an actress, some required her to stand around being pretty, something she actively loathed. It was at the tail end of the decade that after 10 years of toiling, her breakthrough finally came, first with her BAFTA winning, Oscar nominated turn in  Dangerous Liaisons, and then following it up the next year in  The Fabulous Baker Boys, BAFTA and Oscar nominations again coming her way, and a Golden Globe win her triumph. Another Oscar nomination and a host of Golden Globe attention would come her way over the next half a decade, her crowning glory in the 90s coming as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s  Batman Returns, her performance going down as as perfect an embodiment of any character in comic book history as there has been, capturing the human frailties of the character, and exuding every ounce of sexiness the role could have asked for. As 40 approached, the parts slowed down, though she still worked her charms in comedy and drama, period and contemporary, as a leading lady, as a supporting one, she displayed a great deal of range, tackling Shakespeare, working with the likes of Scorsese putting her up there as an actress as capable as any other of her generation. In the latter half of the first decade of this new century, the roles started to flow again, turns in  Hairspray, Stardust and reteaming with  Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears, to take the lead in  Cheri, putting her back on the grand stage as an actress of a certain age to watch with a great deal of interest.

The Dude;

Robin Williams.

Mork and Mindy put Robin Williams on the map as one of the funniest performers around, at the same time his stand up comedy work, including 3 HBO specials brought him to an even broader audience, as did a 1986 co-hosting stint at the Academy Awards. It was the following year in  Good Morning, Vietnam that he finally put himself on the map as a movie performer to watch, landing an Academy Award nomination, he charmed audiences worldwide with his motormouth antics, and the incredible improvisation he had put to use during his years as Mork on the small screen. Two years later Williams showed a side not seen before, in Peter Weir’s  Dead Poets Society, the glint in the eye was still there, the sense of humour still prevalent, but the entire performance was infinitely more reigned in, far more calm control kept on proceedings, and Williams was thoroughly convincing, absolutely inspiring, BAFTA, Oscar and the Globes all sent nominations his way, his attempts at proving his range successful. Over the next few years Williams star went through the roof, varied work in the intimate dramatic  Awakenings, the madcap, sweet romantic in  The Fisher King, bringing a whole new side to Peter Pan in  Hook, not to mention  Aladdin, his magical voice work as the Genie, ushering in a new era of star power in animated features. In  Mrs. Doubtfire he reached perhaps the peak of this early period, turning in a performance that blended the most riotous comedy with some of the most heartfelt, pained drama, this mixture of humour and heart has always been Williams’ calling card, perhaps what has made him most popular. An Oscar finally came his way in 1998 for  Good Will Hunting, his transition to respected dramatic thespian well established, and perhaps paved the way for him to venture deeper into dramatic territory as he did in 2002, in Insomnia and  One Hour Photo, the former zany comic revealed a side of himself never seen before, venturing to a  dark, disturbed corner of the human psyche, he captured his characters disturbed mentalities, but found the humanity in them, found the heart, and proved himself beyond question as one of the most brilliantly diverse and capable actors of his generation.

The Director;

William Wyler.

Born in 1902, in the Alsace region of France (then part of Germany) William Wyler was the son of Melanie, his mother was a distant cousin of Carl Laemmle, found of Universal Pictures, and in 1921, after making contact with his uncle, who was always on the look out for promising young Europeans to come to America and work, he set sail to New York. After working as a messenger there for Universal for two years, he made his way west with dreams of becoming a motion picture director. After a number of years of toiling with odd jobs, cleaning stages, moving sets, he beame the youngest director in Universal history when he started taking the helm of the dime a dozen Westerns that the studio was famed for in the era. As the 30s came, he began to branch out, drama, comedy, romance, even gangster work coming under his umbrella, Wyler was famed for his insistence on multiple takes, pushing his performers to the brink, and often getting career best work out of them, a point proven by the fact that he directed a record 31 performances to Oscar nominations in his career, 13 of whom went on to win, including the only wins in the careers of Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston and Barbra Streisand. Wyler’s career, which had begun in the silent era, went on strong past the fall of the Hays production code into the realms of new Hollywood, in that time he sat at the helm of 3 Academy Award Best Picture winning films, all of which he won directorial honours for, he brought  Ben-Hur to the screen, the film that stood alone for almost 30 years as the only film to win 11 Oscars, he was credited by Bette Davis as making her the box office star she became after directing her to her second Oscar in  Jezebel, and his  Mrs. Miniver was said to have awakened support for the British war effort against the Nazis in the till then uninterested United States. The man gained success in all manner of different genres, was as comfortable at the helm of the most intimate drama as he was in control of the biggest epic Hollywood had ever seen, and continued going strong for 45 years.

The Picture;

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker, who in his movies combines great visual poetry, with the most primal humanity. This was perhaps never better on display than in this film, the 1972 picture than brought him to the attention of the wider cinema going world. Partly funded by the public broadcasting company of Germany, Hessischer Rundfunk, it premiered on television in the country on the same day that it opened in cinemas, the film did not perform so well in its native country, but around the world, in Latin America, and when it was finally released in the United States, its reputation as a cult classic was quickly solidified. The production is legendary, shooting on location for 5 weeks in the Peruvian rainforest on the Amazon, shot entirely in sequence, so that the journey of the cast and crew would be directly represented on screen in line with the journey of the characters, the low budget no stunt men or elaborate effects were possible, the crew had to trek over mountians, cut their way through thick jungle terrain, and travel down often treacherous waters on rafts built by the natives. Though perhaps the toughest obstacle of all was the films leading man, Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s infamous relationship has gone down in history, and for good reason, the two clashed from the beginning, Kinski firing off a gun on set, taking off the top joint of one extras finger, continually walking off set until being threatened with an act of murder-suicide by his director. However for all the obstacles before them, what ended up on screen is pure poetry, a work of carnal beauty, a harrowing portrait of the destructive nature of obsession, shot through the lens of a man who makes it look like a documentary, and very often…seems amused by the whole thing. It is an inspired, unique piece of work, and one that shall surely continue to go down in history as testament to just how much can be achieved, with so little.

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March 22, 2009

The List is Life: #74

74.

The Dame;

Anna Friel.

Though she began acting at 13, it would be 5 years and a variety of appearances on numerous television shows before Anna Friel got her big break, hired to Channel 4’s  Brookside. Though only on the show for 2 years, it was a memorable 2 years, Friel entering into television history by partaking in the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss ever broadcast on British TV. Following her departure from the show her first work came in Stephen Poliakoff’s television movie  The Tribe, she courted controversy once again after much nudity and an infamous threesome scene proved to be what the show was most directly remembered for. Over the next decade, her most notable work came probably as Hermia in a starstudded production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, alongside such luminaries as Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart. It was only in 2007 that her next real breakthrough came, landing the role of Charlotte Charles on ABC’s  Pushing Daisies, providing the sweet, but sparky love interest at the shows heart. Her easy charm, dry wit, telling, emotive eyes and her common but not TOO common voice making her an easy to love actress with underrated abilities.

The Dude;

Martin Sheen.

In spite of his fathers disapproval of the craft, Martin Sheen, bitten by a desire to act, deliberately flunked the entrance exams to the University of Dayton, borrowed money from a Catholic priest and headed to New York City. Early success came his way when in 1965, aged 25, he was nominated for a Tony for his supporting work in Pulitzer Prize winning play  The Subject Was Roses. The following years were filled mainly with work in TV movies and TV shows, before in 1973, he was hired to star in the feature film debut of Terrence Malick. Badlands was a resounding critical success upon release, playing at the New York Film Festival where it is said to have stolen the spotlight even from Martin Scorsese’s  Mean Streets. Despite the attention the film garnered, Sheen’s real breakthrough would not come until Harvey Keitel was fired from the lead in  Apocalypse Now after just 2 weeks shooting and he was drafted into replace him. The shoot lasted for 16 months and in the midst of production Sheen suffered a heart attack, the payoff came though, when the film won the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or, was nominated for Oscars and Sheen himself recieved a BAFTA nomination for his work. Movie success finally reached, Sheen worked steadily for the next 2 decades, won an Emmy, appeared in  Gandhi, played JFK in an NBC miniseries, acted as narrator in Oliver Stone’s  JFK, however it was not until 1999 that real superstardom came his way. Cast by Aaron Sorkin to play the President of the United States in  The West Wing, the role was initially intended only intended as a minor one, planned to appear in just 4 episodes a season, however after the pilot this plan was rethought and Sheen’s commanding screen presence benefited the show greatly. Easily, naturally switching between loving family man, mighty commander, poetic muser, or witty old soul, Sheen nailed every facet of the character, creating a President anybody could love, capturing his strengths and his weaknesses, his telling physicality and his complex web of emotions, nailing Sorkin’s trademark dialogue naturally, and finally sinking his teeth deeply into a role worthy of his talents, one that proved once and for all just what he could do.

The Director;

Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Kieslowski’s artistic origins emerged with an interest in theatre, a desire to be a theatre director was quickly quashed upon discovery that no training program for such desires existed at that time, thus film became an intermediary step, applying to the Lodz Film School, an institute that counts Andrsej Wajda and Roman Polanski amongst its alumni, rejected twice he was found himself third time lucky and attended between 1964 and 1968. His interest in theatre quickly subsided as his interest turned to filmmaking, particularly documentaries portraying every day Polish life. He quickly ran into all manner of difficulties, the heavy censorship of his film  Robotnicy 1971 leading him to doubt the ability to tell literal truths under an authoritarian regime, and following this, footage from his film  Dworzec being considered for use as evidence in a criminal case, pushed him towards a belief in the greater artistic freedoms of fiction filmmaking. He worked steadily across the next decade, before international acclaim came his way for his epic display of artistic ambition, Dekalog, a television series of ten hour length episodes, each exploring one of the ten commandements through ambiguous tales set in modern day Poland, two of which were expanded into individual features and played to international audiences, Krotki film o Zabijaniu, and  Krotki film o Milosci, (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). 1991s  La Double vie de Veronique, again reached international acclaim, and worked as a perfect example of the directors reliance on telling his story visually rather than through words. However, it would be the last 3 works of his career that would bring him the widest spread fame. His  Trois Couleurs trilogy each encompassed one of the political ideals of the French Republic, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Bleu, told the hauntingly sad tale of a woman coping with life after the death of her husband and child. Blanc, a blackly comic tale of improving ones standing in life, and of gaining revenge for a great humiliation. Finally, Rouge, a visually gorgeous feast, that slowly intertwines the lives of its seemingly complete opposites of characters. Kieslowski died of a heart attack 2 years after the completion of this trilogy, aged just 54, but he had established himself as a master understander of the purest senses of cinema, as a man of grand poetic, artistic ambitions and ideas.

The Picture;

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee made his feature debut with 1986s  She’s Gotta Have It, following it up with  School Daze in ’88, he displayed his knack for telling provocative, social tales, calls to action, and the following year he took that to the next level. Do the Right Thing brings Bed-Stuy to life, gorgeously shot, using red and orange filters to bring that 100 degree day to life in sun drenched visuals. Utilizing, in controlled measure, handheld camera work to drop you right into the action, to bring it viciously to life, occasionaly throwing the framing out of alignment, the disorientating nature of the heat put into visual perspective. The editing giving the film its heartbeat, from long takes and slow cutting to brisk, breakneck cutting, rising and falling with the pace of the picture. The performances all work, all imprint themselves on the brain, from Rosie Perez’s neglected girlfriend, Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris, and Frankie Faison sitting on the sidelines, watching the world go by with the bitter comedic rantings of the unemployed, John Turturro’s lost soul, consumed by confused hatred, Danny Aiello, trying desperately to keep the peace in an unravelling world, and Ossie Davis as the wise old sage of the streets, a king in tramps clothes. The film deals in race relations with an unfiltered, uncompromised view, there is no attempt at poetic profundity, no simple, easy answers, no epic revelations handed to the audience on a plate, no monologuing. The film eschews pretension, it handles its material in simple, straightforward fashion, it doesn’t lecture, it just is, and you soak it in.

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

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 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her more  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as the  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

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 8, 2008

The List is Life: #85

85.

The Dame;

Ava Gardner.

Though so widely reknowned for her looks, over the 18 years that she was at the top of her game, Ava Gardner took huge steps as a performer. Making her name as the deadly femme fatale, alongside Burt Lancaster in The Killers, the first of a number of Hemingway adaptations in which she starred, Gardner displayed the sultry beauty she has become iconic for, over the next few years she took in incredibly varying projects, comedy, drama, musical, adventure, film-noir, romance, she worked with major directors and major performers but all the while she was called on for little else than her looks. However, in 1953, under the employ of John Ford she played the wisecracking, emotionally fragile Honey Bear Kelly in Mogambo and scored herself an Oscar nomination. Her reputation as an actress on the increase, Gardner’s star continued to rise, having reached a level of credibility where now she was able to take lead roles in her own right as opposed to simply leading lady roles as she did in George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction. Probably her finest moment as an actor came almost a decade later when she starred alongside Richard Burton in John Huston’s Tennessee William’s adaptation, The Night of the Iguana, matching Burton blow for blow at the very least, she waltzed away with the entire film landing numerous awards nominations including BAFTA and Golden Globes. Though she continued to work regularly for the next 20 years, that was her last great statement as an actress, thereafter her work was, as she put it “for the loot”. The career that had come before was never tarnished, and the status as an icon of her era remains; in an era of skinny blondes, she was unique.

The Dude;

Tony Leung.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight, the young and mischievous Tony Leung quickly transformed into a quiet, restrained child. Raised, along with his younger sister, by his mother who worked to put him through private school before financial difficulties forced him to pull out at the age of 15, he worked odd jobs before a meeting with fellow Hong Kong star Stephen Chow, influenced him to take up a career on screen. Beginning as the host of childrens television shows before in 1989 his role as a deaf mute in the Venice Film Festival winning Beiqing Chengshi (A City of Sadness) helped catapult him into the public eye, 3 years later starring alongside Chow Yun Fat he cut a blazing trail in John Woo’s Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled) soon after he established a long standing working relationship with Wong Kar-Wai, with whom he had first worked in 1991s A Fei zhang chuan (Days of Being Wild), they went on to work together on 5 more occasions, helping each other establish their status as being amongst the finest actors and directors in Chinese cinema. That quiet child of the 1970s, repressed in the wake of his patriarchal abandonment had found a new way of communicating with people, through the close hug of the camera, and those eyes that speak a thousand words.

The Director;

Leni Riefenstahl.

Born into a working class neighbourhood in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl began life as an interpretive dancer, before a knee injury during a performance called a premature end to her career; soon thereafter upon viewing a nature documantary she became fascinated by the emerging cinematic medium and its possibilities, she soon emerged in her native land as a popular actress of the silent era before being offered the chance to direct in the early 1930s, and in 1932 her debut feature Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) was released, during the filming of the movie, she read the autobiography Mein Kampf and as she told the Daily Express newspaper in 1934 “I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page” that same year she attended a rally where she heard Adolf Hitler speak for the first time, she was mesmerized by his abilities as a public speaker, he in turn had greatly admired her debut directorial effort and employed her to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) an overview of the 1933 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. Though for political reasons the film was a failure, Hitler was impressed with her work and recalled her for the Nuremberg rally the following year, her subsequent Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) stands to this day as one of the finest, most influential achievements in technique in all of cinema, documentary or otherwise. Pioneering cinematic techniques such as the use of tracking rails to achieve moving shots,  distortion of perspective via the use of telephoto lenses and aeriel photography she established herself as one of the great cinematic innovators. Two years later her chronicling of the ’36 Olympic games in Berlin (for which she had qualified to participate in cross-country skiing but withdrew to document) went on to champion the use of smash-cut editing techniques, extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, the footage went on to make the two part documentary Olympia, the first filmed document of the Olympic games. Following this she began work on Tiefland, a feature film adaptation of Hitler’s favourite opera, though filming began in 1940 it was not completed for 4 years and the editing was not finished until after the end of the war at the completion of which Riefenstahl spent 4 years in a French detention camp, the film finally saw the light of day in 1954. This artistic struggle was emblematic of the rest of her career, though she lived till the age of 101 Riefenstahl would only complete on more film, in the 70s she lied about her age,  at 72, claiming to be 52 in order to gain certification for scuba-diving and after taking up underwater photography she worked on what eventually became Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an up close look at life under the ocean, and was finally released in August of 2002 on her 100th birthday. She died a year a year later at the age of 101, a figure of artistic impression who had once served a pioneer for her entire medium.

The Picture;

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

In 2007, Sidney Lumet at the age of 83, directed Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a vicious, breakneck sickening fable with a fractured narrative and everything from performance to score amped up to monstrous levels. 50 years earlier, the Philadelphia native had  made his debut with this simple work of extreme emotional power a final triumph for minimalist cinema in an age quickly becoming dominated by widescreen and technicolour following the advent of television. Headed by Henry Fonda in as gentlemanly and dignified  a role as ever,  and Lee J. Cobb unleashing the fiery passion he was so famed for; the film stretched far beyond the restrained confines of its courthouse setting and seemingly simplistic murder case and delved deeper into the heart of humanity. Taking in the good and the bad, the patience and intolerance, love and hatred and all their many complications. Nowhere in sight is there a special effect, no over the top production design, garish costuming or blaring score, it’s 12 men sat at a table, and yet adapted by Reginald Rose from his own play, with an eager young filmmaker at the helm and legends of the game in front of the camera, it encompasses more than most can manage.

March 17, 2008

The List is Life: #94

94.

The Dame;

Nicole Kidman.

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

The Dude;

Steve Buscemi.

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

The Director;

Sam Mendes.

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

The Picture;

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

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

March 11, 2008

The List is Life: #100

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 10:50 pm

So in my seemingly infinite boredom I recently took it upon myself to create lists. I created 4 lists, top hundreds, of my favourite films, directors, actors and actresses and over the coming days, weeks, months…hopefully no more than that…I shall unveil them here for your amusement, and almost surely, disgust. So without further ado, let’s get the show on the road…

100.

The Dame;

Julie Andrews.

With the glorious voice of a Goddess, and bags upon bags of effortless charm and seemingly infinite grace, Julie Andrews has remained strong in the industry for over 40 years. With numerous legendary characters and many marvellous movies under her belt, she has certainly assured that she shall never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Dennis Quaid.
A movie star in the classical mold. Not a performer with the greatest deal of range, but the sort of sturdy and assured performer who will basically deliver again and again, and who will always provide you with his own brand of masculine charm. When he’s on top form, he’s a riot to watch, and more than capable of stealing entire movies.

The Director;

James Cameron.

A consummate entertainer, James Cameron is a filmmaker with almost limitless ambition. Whether creating his own iconic franchise with the first two Terminator films, adopting another and following Ridley Scott’s atmospheric horror masterpiece Alien, with one of the most glorious achievements in the history of action cinema with Aliens, or going epic and turning in the box office and awards juggernaut Titanic, a film with accomplishments so grand it has taken him over a decade to return to making feature films, James Cameron always seeks to excel, always seeks to push boundaries, and all talk of monstrous ego’s aside, that’s always worth admiring. One thing’s for sure, he’s certainly never boring.

The Picture;

Red River ( Howard Hawks, 1948 )

With the debut of the magnificent Montgomery Clift, the first signs of a wicked heart under the All-American hero that was John Wayne, and the legendary Walter Brennan on fabulous form, Howard Hawks turned in his first classic of the Western genre. Both epic in scope and intimate at heart, with a very telling human story at its centre, Red River is one of the fine exponents of the classical Western both saying its piece about its nation, and at the same time, never failing to entertain for the entirity of its running time.

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