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 16, 2008

The List is Life: #96

96.

The Dame;

Sissy Spacek.

Ever since her major film breakthrough in 1973 as the naive teenager Holly in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sissy Spacek has been an interesting actress to watch. Equally comfortable playing quiet, restrained young girls as she did in the Malick picture and in her most famous role to date in Brain DePalma’s Carrie, as she is at the ever popular art of cinema biopic-ing as she displayed in her Oscar winning turn as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and as the quietly furious grieving mother in her final nominated turn to date in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. She’s an actress capable of perfectly subtle and quiet, restrained turns.

The Dude;

Tom Hanks.

Many a term has been attached to Tom Hanks over his long and storied career. Whether we refer to him as the ultimate everyman, the new Jimmy Stewart, what cannot be denied is that over the two decades since his first Oscar nomination he has proven himself to be one of the most talented and capable actors of his generation. From his pure, unadulterated childhood innocence in Big, to the weary fighting spirit of Philadelphia, American simplicity in Forrest Gump, the quiet, humble masculinity of Saving Private Ryan, or the large stretches of wordlessness that populated Castaway, in which he held the screen with his physicality and nothing but a volleyball for company, Tom Hanks has proven a versatility not found among many of his era. Truly one of the good guys.

The Director;

Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray left the University of Chicago after a year to study architecture on a scholarship under Frank Lloyd Wright where he learnt the importance of space and scope that would come in great use for a filmmaker with as beautiful an eye for visuals as he did. His socialist/communist leanings soon came between student and mentor and Ray departed for New York where he became involved in the theater until his good friend Elia Kazan hired him to work as assistant on feature debut, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. From there Ray’s star grew and grew till the mid 50s when he was doing some of the most iconic work in Hollywood, a western centred around a woman in the magnificent Johnny Guitar and the iconic Rebel Without a Cause, a title worthy of the rebel who guided it to immortality.

The Picture;

El Laberinto del Fauno (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

Guillermo Del Toro started making movies in 1993 and he has always had a taste for the fantastic, from the gothic horror of his first, Cronos, to the sci-fi thrills of his English language debut, Mimic, through the comic book rides of Blade II and Hellboy, Del Toro has always wandered in strange realms. That wandering finally came to a beautiful crescendo in 2006 as the Spaniard turned in the most acclaimed film of the year, a tale of startling fantasy and harsh reality, balancing both worlds with perfect precision and taking the audience into the imagination of a young girl, along the harsh road she travels and the difficult lessons she learns. It is a beautifully crafted dark fantasy, written, directed, performed, shot and scored with the greatest love and passion. Growing up and facing the world has never been so painful or so beautiful.

March 1, 2008

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

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, US, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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