The Parnassus Times

April 30, 2008

The List is Life: #79

79.

The Dame;

Marcia Gay Harden.

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

The Duke;

John Wayne.

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

The Director;

Michael Winterbottom.

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

The Picture;

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

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

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April 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.

March 13, 2008

The List is Life: #98

98.

The Dame;

Paulette Goddard.

 Despite appearing in many fine films throughout the 30s and 40s not least as one of an all star cast in George Cukor’s The Women, Paulette Goddards career is most widely remembered for her place alongside Charles Chaplin in his masterful pictures Modern Times  and The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s Tramp was, and is, an iconic film character, and Paulette Goodard was the finest of all his leading ladies.

The Dude;

Harrison Ford.

One of the all time great movie stars. With more charm than a hundred cocky pretenders that have come in his wake, Harrison Ford emerged from humble beginnings in carpentry to become one of the cinemas great icons. Whether as the charismatic rogues in superstar franchises Star Wars  and Indiana Jones, working alongside cinematic maestros in films like Blade Runner, Witness  and Frantic or putting that effortless charm to perfect use as the driving force between riotously entertaining pictures like The Fugitive, Harrison Ford has remained a star throughout. 31 years after his initial breakthrough the man is still going strong and preparing to don that most legendary of fedoras one more time.

The Director;

George Lucas.

Though with each passing year since he first ventured into that galaxy, far far away George Lucas has become more a cinematic mogul than a filmmaker, the influence that he has had on the film business is absolutely unquestionable. From his earliest travels into the realms of Sci-Fi with THX-1138  through his nostalgic, teen movie gem American Graffiti  and into that immortal galaxy of filmic legend Lucas has proven himself a trail blazer and innovator in the medium. The influence of Star Wars  on the way major movies were made is unparalleled and the work that his THX sound company and Industrial Light & Magic visual effects company is beyond comparison. George Lucas has branched beyond his far off galaxy to have a mighty influence on the world of cinema.

The Picture;

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

The greatest slasher film ever made. Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece is a perfect exercise in the creation of fearful atmospheres and a masterclass in the use of wide open spaces to rack up unbearable tension. Accompanied by one of the creepiest scores in cinematic history, Argento uses vivid colours, darkness, empty space, and the elements in addition to the giallo genre’s trademark gore to present the viewer with the sort of terrifying experience that is not easily forgotten.

January 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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