The Parnassus Times

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.

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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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