The Parnassus Times

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 15, 2008

The List is Life: #81

81.

The Dame;

Carmen Maura.

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

The Dude;

Robert Duvall.

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

The Director;

Vittorio De Sica.

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

The Picture;

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

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

April 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.

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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