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.

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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.

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