The Parnassus Times

May 3, 2008

The List is Life: #78

78.

The Dame;

Meryl Streep.

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

The Dude;

Peter O’Toole.

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

The Director;

Roberto Rossellini.

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

The Picture;

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

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

March 16, 2008

The List is Life: #95

95.

The Dame;

Lily Tomlin.

Since her career took off during the 1960s, Lily Tomlin is an actress who has found great success on television, film,  and with her famed one woman shows on stage. Her most famous  cinematic collaborator is unquestionably Robert Altman with whom she made four films, including earning her one and only Oscar nomination to date in his Nashville, and was one of the standouts in his swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. She is a wonderously electric comedic performer, yet at the same time so perfectly adept at finding small, beautiful moments of humanity whenever she ventures into dramatic territory.

The Dude;

Steve Carell.

Though unquestionably loud, the majority of times that he appears on screen, Steve Carell is at the same time, incredibly subtle in the small moments. Small glances, shrugs, and gestures that add layers of depth and humanity to the laugh out loud moments of riotous comedy. His performance in Little Miss Sunshine works in complete contrast to almost everything that he has done in that, though full of humour, it is entirely deadpan and laying beneath everything is a heartbroken melancholy. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that even with his worldwide fame, Steve Carell probably doesn’t get enough credit as an actor.

The Director;

Stanley Donen.

The director of iconic films brimming with iconic moments, the sailors of his debut, On the Town, letting loose in New York, New York, Cary Grant’s last great screen hurrah, alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore unleashed upon cinema audiences in Bewitched, those Seven Brides for those Seven Brothers and of course, Gene Kelly in the rain, dancing his way to immortality. Donen’s forte was generally in the musical arena, yet when the songs were nowhere to be found, the fun certainly never dreid up. His films were always fun, always a breeze to watch; he was not a director who ever let himself get to attached to one type, he simply told stories, and entertained millions.

The Picture;

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

The searing work of a master, Naked is an unrelenting rant, a dark and bitter portrait of lower class England in the 1990s. Revolving around Johnny, played with dark, bitter humour and a weary knowingness by David Thewlis, this film is all about him; we journey through this world with him and are constantly subjected to his rants. Whether or not you appreciate the film may depend entirely upon how you feel about him, this is not an easy film to stomach and it is absolutely certain that repeat viewings will do wonders for one’s appreciation of it. This is a dark, dark world of morally greay human beings, and yet Mike Leigh makes it endlessly fascinating by managing to probe through the wordiness to find the humanity in each and every one of the sublime cast.

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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