The Parnassus Times

April 7, 2008

The List is Life: #86

86.

The Dame;

Julie Walters.

Julie Walters first came to the attention of screen audiences in 1983 when she starred alongside Michael Caine in the film adaptation of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, she landed a BAFTA win and scored an Oscar nomination with her first major film role. Always remaining true to her roots, she never really sold her soul to Hollywood, continuing to do most of her work on British TV throughout the 80s, continuing to establish herself as one of the brightest comiediennes of her generation. Her work in the 90s consisted mainly of TV movies before at the turn of the century she landed an immense career relaunching role in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott, her immense warmth, and earthly generosity, brightening up the bleak landscapes of northern England. The following year she landed the role of Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films and a level of fame she had never experienced came her way, her newfound status helped to keep her working consistently in film on projects such as Calender Girls, Wah-Wah, Becoming Jane and Mamma Mia! her newfound status as a connoisseur of bright, middle aged supporting roles ensuring she should be working on screen for a long time to come.

The Dude;

Johnny Depp.

Performing on screen since his early 20s, Johnny Depp is a performer that for the majority of his career to date refused to cash in on the pretty boy looks that made him so popular, instead choosing to work in quirkier, more unconventional roles. Films such as Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps towering above all, his performance as the titular character in frequent collaborator Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was a masterclass in naivity, in heartfelt passion, in unwavering determination, it is, quite simply, one of the better performances of recent times. In recent years he has taken a turn towards the more mainstream roles that have made him a worldwide icon, perhaps now as a parent, feeling a greater need to entertain the planet’s youth, he has still managed to turn in at least one magnificent performance, as the nothing less than legendary Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Depp has entirely realigned the common image of the pirate, rewriting a once savage, macho persona with something far more akin to a glam rock star. If for nothing else (and it would be a shame if a decade’s great work were overlooked) Depp has ensure he will be forever stamped upon cinema legend for making that inspired choice and redefining piratehood for all. Always most impressive in these quirky roles, it would be alot better for everyone if he could continue to find those parts that stretch him as a performer and allow him to make those choices, instead of allowing him to settle into the middle aged laziness that is far below his capabilities.

The Director;

Luchino Visconti.

Born into one of Northern Italy’s richest families, that Luchino Visconti went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Italian neo-realism movement is something of a surprise. When one learns that he was a supporter of the Italian communist party, that he was not entirely content with his position in life becomes far more apparent. Starting in the business in the mid 30s as assistant director to Jean Renoir before meeting Roberto Rossellini, together the two joined with Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio, the national arbitrator for cinema and the arts and from there his own career took off, making his debut in 1943 with Ossessione, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, he continued to delve in the neo-realist genre that he had helped establish, his premier work came four years later with La Terra Trema a chronicle of the difficult lives of the inhabitants of a Sicilian Fishing village. Starting with his 1954 film Senso, Visconti began to shift away from neorealism, as he drifted into the 60s, Visconti’s films began to come more personal in nature, his 1963 Burt Lancaster Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) probably his best remembered film detaling the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy from which the director himself had emerged. Visconti continued working right up until the year of his death in 1976, and though the neorealism that he is still best remembered for was long gone, he was still making a point, right until the end.

The Picture;

Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)

The puppet Pinocchio first appeared in an 1883 childrens novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, however there can be no doubt that the most iconic version of the story (as with so many of their animated adaptations) is the one that Walt Disney turned out in 1940. The story of a wooden boy, filled with more life and heart than most human filled stories. Pinocchio features a naive yet loveable lead character who in the immortal Jiminy Cricket has one of the great screen sidekicks in history. The loving family (make that father and 2 pets) that he leaves behind are as caring and memorable a group as Disney have ever come up with, and the film is populated from head to toe with supporting players each as vividly memorable as the last. Though now almost 70 years old and a Disney family classic, the film is also shot through with an incredibly dark streak, nasty supporting characters, a monstrous whale and one of the most horrific scenes ever to feature in a children’s movie that will certainly ensure you never look at a donkey the same way again. It’s a magical film, filled to the brim with what at times seems like an almost infinite darkness, but shining through it all, that little ray of hope, of good, and it never relents.

April 6, 2008

The List is Life: #87

87.

The Dame;

Madhuri Dixit.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, it has the highest annual output of motion pictures of an industry around the globe (1200 in 2002, 877 in 2003) and the highest numbers in annual ticket sales. As such, its stars, many of whom turn out numerous productions every year, are iconic in status. Their popularity is so great, that many of the major names not only appear on film, they also perform songs from their films in concert. Madhuri Dixit is no different, acting on screen since 1984, a trained and highly accomplished dancer who first dreamed of being a micro-biologist before finding her calling. Though widely recognized for those abilities as a dancer and indeed as a singer, Dixit has a subtlety and control as an actress not widely found in Indian cinema, her heartbreakingly painful (and deservedly award winning) supporting turn in the 2002 production of Devdas, completely stole the show from the films two megastar leads. Following this success she retreated from the silver screen, finding her way to Denver, Colorado where she quietly enjoyed married life and the raising of her family. She did not return to the screen for 5 years till 2007’s Aaja Nachle, a film that while generally not well recieved, garnered much acclaim for its leading lady, and the proclomation of the New York Times that “she’s still got it”.

The Dude;

Bill Murray.

Among the dryest of the dry, Bill Murray somehow managed to establish himself as one of the funniest performers in American cinema. After graduating from the small screen, where he made his name on Saturday Night Live, Murray quickly established himself as a promising up and coming funny man in films like Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie and Ghostbusters. Soon thereafter he attempted to build a reputation as a dramatic lead with a starring role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which he co-wrote, the film was a failure and hurt by its resception Murray walked away from the limelight, leaving movies behind to study Philosophy and History at the Sorbonne in Paris, nothing but a cameo appearance in The Little Shop of Horrors for 4 years, until he returned to doing what does best, comedy, over the next few years turning out Scrooged, Ghostbusters II, What About Bob, and coming to a head with the widely acclaimed Groundhog Day in 1993. Following his reestablishment as a star he retreated largely to supporting roles for the next decade before in 2003 taking the starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, earning an Oscar nomination, numerous awards and critical acclaim in a film that while shot through with the comedic touch you cannot help but find in Bill Murray movies, was largely dramatic in tone, helping him to find that dramatic leading status he had sought some 20 year earlier, he followed this with further leading turns in quirky dramadies The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers further establishing himself in his new niche as a leading force in indie cinema.

The Director;

Carol Reed.

Carol Reed was one of six illegitimate children of the stage actor, drama teacher, and the impresario founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As such, when as a teenager he sought to follow his father into acting, nobody could blame him, yet as time went by, it was as a director that Reed quickly established himself. In 1932 he began working at Ealing Studios, and the transition from stage to screen began, he made his directorial debut 3 years later with the adventure film Midshipman Easy. As the second world war began, Reed contributed to the war effort through doing what he knew best, his 1945 Ango-American documentary, The True Glory covering everything from the Normandy landings to the taking of Berlin, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and quickly established Reed was a name worth watching. A few years later he turned the crown jewel of his career, the iconic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, perfectly pitched between darkness and humour, the magnetic and mysterous presence of Orson Welles looming in the long shadows as around his aura Reed crafts a perfectly shot, gloriously scored and wonderfully written piece of work that still towers over most films made in its era, or ever since. Over the next few decades he continued working steadily, mainly on adaptations, his finest moment coming when in 1952, he became the first British director to be knighted, before in 1968 he struck big, bringing to the screen Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Oliver! was a movie musical that while never lacking a lightness in touch, was never afraid to stray into the dark and savage places at it’s stories heart, with now famous turns from Jack Wild and Ron Moody, it was really the directors nephew, Oliver Reed, whose monstrous Bill Sikes stole the show. The film brought Reed his first Oscar as Best Director after 3 nominations and established his legacy beyond all doubt.

The Picture;

Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)

With 2002’s Gerry, Gus Van Sant abandoned bigger budget studio pictures to return to the lower free form style of directing pioneered by the likes of Bela Tarr, he delved into experimental cinema in a way no major director had ever done before after achieving the sort of mainstream success that he had achieved with films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting. Following Gerry and 2003’s Palme D’Or winning Elephant, Van Sant turned in Last Days, the final part of what he has termed his ‘Death trilogy’ the physical isolation of Gerry, social isolation of Elephant came to a head with the mental isolation of Blake. Loosely based on the final days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Last Days chronicles the downfall of a man losing the will to live, that simply through stylistic directorial choices makes the audience feel something similar. As our lead character sees nothing but mundanity all around him, through the sterile, static, hushed way in which Van Sant brings each barren, desolate shot to the screen we are left with some sort of understanding of just what is going through his mind. Last Days is not an easy film to watch, indeed it can be an incredibly harsh viewing experience, but the sheer artistry at its heart cannot be denied. With Elephant, Van Sant was accused of not giving answers or offering any sort of explanations as to the actions of his high school slayers, here he is not posing questions, he simply crafts a dark portrait.

April 5, 2008

The List is Life: #88

88.

The Dame;

Joan Crawford.

Perhaps most readily remembered for her feud with Bette Davis which came to a head in 1962 with her being blown off the screen in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and maybe forever tainted by the damning portrait painted by a bitter daughter in Mommie Dearest, the career that Joan Crawford enjoyed for over 30 years beginning at the dawn of the sound era seems to have been generally forgotten. She was an Academy Award winning actress with numerous acclaimed films under her belt, she worked with major directors and major performers. In Mildred Pierce she gave one of the more iconic performances of the golden era, and a decade later in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, she took the lead as the westen was turned on its head, with strong women in the central roles. One of the greatest of the greatest age, she has insured that she’ll never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Paul Schneider.

Entering into the acting profession at the age of 24 (making him a late comer by todays standards) in the films of David Gordon Green, George Washington and more notably as the lead alongside Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, Paul Schneider has in a just a few short years established himself as one of the more accomplished supporting actors in the movies today. In 2005 he took a side role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and with his quirky small town simplicity, literally stole the show from the leads. Then in 2007 he had what could be termed a breakthrough year, with polar opposite roles. Firstly appearing as the villainous Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a supporting role that he filled with both sinful sleaze and unabashed charm in equal degree, and an almost entirely opposite turn as a quiet, loving brother trying his best to cope with an awkward situation in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a wonderfully subtle, assured and diverse actor whose career is certainly heading for great heights.

The Director;

Sydney Pollack.

I would venture to say that Sydney Pollack’s finest accomplishments have come in front of the camera rather than behind it. Always taking small roles in movies, he has on more than one occasion, ended up being the finest member of the cast, perhaps most notably in his tiny role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However none of these on screen accomplishments can take away from the fact that Pollack is an Academy Award winning director and producer. It was his Robert Redford-Meryl Streep epic Out of Africa that brought him this acclaim, but from where I am sitting his finest work comes in smaller, more character driven movies, where the performers, not the wondrous grandeur take centre stage. As the tagline to his 1969 Jane Fonda vehicle  They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? declared, “People are the ultimate spectacle” and rarely is that more in evidence than in Sydney Pollack’s films.

The Picture;

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Though most widely remembered for the grandiosity of the final sequence, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is at heart one of his most intimate and human films. Driven at full force by a wonderful performance from Richard Dreyfuss, who won the Oscar for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, but should probably have picked up the award for this film. It is a performance both comic and dramatic, filled with the wondrous curiousity of an overgrown child yet at the same time shot through with a certain darkness in its examination of a mans obsession and subsequent neglect of his family. It is that performance around which this film is built; there are brief moments of alien spectacle propping it up throughout, making sure that we remember that we are truly not alone in this one, all mysterious, all beautiful to behold but ambiguous in intent, and it all builds to a wondrous crescendo, that magnificently glorious finale in which all is revealed, truly epic spectacle, human curiousity and those 5 beautiful notes.

April 3, 2008

The List is Life: #89

89.

The Dame;

Deborah Kerr.

First rising to fame in the films of Powell & Pressburger, Deborah Kerr carried herself very well as the shining light at the heart of the secluded nunnery in Black Narcissus  and as the numerous golden visions of womanhood throughout the life of the great man himself in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Following her breakthrough into American cinema she began crafting her reputation in period pieces like Quo Vadis, Prisoner of Zenda  and Julius Caesar  before immortality came knocking as she rolled on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity. In all she amassed 6 nominations in 12 years,  from her first in 1949 alongside Spencer Tracy in George Cukor’s Edward, my Son  to the final time in 1960 for Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners, her career continued on for about a decade more before she retreated from the spotlight in 1969, at the age of 48, in disillusionment at the changing face of the industry she loved so much. She returned briefly in the 80s to make a handful of appearances, but her legacy was already built, forever young on the screen, dignity and grace her trademarks, Deborah Kerr was, and remains, a model of cinematic class.

The Dude;

Robert Mitchum.

A model of machismo for 50 years on the screen, Robert Mitchum blazed his trail playing monstrously masculine symbols of uncompromising power. There was never another like him in his era and though many came after that attempted to recapture that dark fire, none quite succeeded to the extent of the man himself. Mitchum outlasted basically all of his peers and continued to work regularly through the 70s, 80s and into the 90s, working right until death in the sort of way that only he could. He only ever garnered one Oscar nomination in his whole life all the way back in 1945 but his one of a kind nature, his calm and collected yet utterly menacing nature, his laidback air that never gave up an inch of control ensures that his reputation will remain. With classics under his belt across 6 decades, Robert Mitchum is about as legendary an icon as ever the medium is likely to see.

The Director;

Alan Resnais.

Born in 1922, Alan Resnais first made his mark on the movies in 1955 with Night and Fog, a short documentary unlike all that had came before. Yearning for a realism he did not feel was attainable with gruesome archive footage, Resnais chose instead to shoot the empty concentration camps, grim and desolate, contrasting them with the horrific events that took place there; posing questions of guilt, of responsibility. Four years later, Resnais is responsible for predating Godard and Truffaut in the beginning of the French New Wave, his Hiroshima mon Amour, a love story dealing with a nurses memories of her time during the second world war, proving to be revolutionary in editing form. It’s use of splicing short flashback scenes into scenes lending itself to that cinematic purity that is visual storytelling. He continued to experiment with form in 1961’s L’année dernière à Marienbad  in which he blurred the lines of truth and left audiences with much to ponder, leaving the exact relationhip of events almost entirely open to question. Where as Hiroshima mon Amour‘s primary tool was editing technique, this film was much more to do with image, shot in a dreamlike manner that has influenced filmmakers, and inspired everything from commericals to music videos. Resnais may not have achieved the fame of many of his peers, but his level of artistry and a sustained career of quality, put him among the foremost filmmakers in history.

The Picture;

 

Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz, 1943)

Since the movies began, there have been love stories. Some with happy endings, some with sad, set in every realm of existence from the long gone past to the far off future, human love stories, animal love stories, alien love stories, some blossoming and innocent, others matured and jaded, yet standing at the pinnacle of all, almost without equal, is this one. Set at the height of the second world war, in the midst of conflict, its routes of thought and discussion are almost too varying and ponderous to mention, yet all politics aside, it is the absolute love of one man for one woman and the triumph of goodness in the human spirit over all else, that towers above everything else. Bogart is the world weary American, overseas and just trying to make his own way, Bergman the lady, torn from her love without even the possibility of an explanation, hurting inside and torn between duty to the heart and obligation to the brain, Claude Rains turns in the kind of showstealing yet humble supporting performances that only the greatest of players could achieve, Peter Lorre makes a brief appearance, doing what only Peter Lorre can, and throughout, from top to bottom, the film is filled with small characters making the absolute most of the time that is given to them, written fully and performed completely. Then there is that ending, when most films settle for the walk into the sunset or the tragic parting of death, Casablanca  is unique, it’s not about what the heart wants, it’s about what the world needs. Nobody can turn their back on the bigger picture, and despite our deepest desires, sometimes letting go is the best thing a person can do.

March 20, 2008

The List is Life: #91

91.

The Dame;

Parker Posey.

One of the finest comedians of her generation, Parker Posey is an actress who though not lacking in roles in major films such as Superman Returns (in which she was criminally underused) and Blade: Trinity (which simply wasn’t worth the effort) is at her best in small indie comedies, primarily those helmed by Christopher Guest in which she manages to shine, time and again. Rarely does she manage to land roles that are worthy of her pretty immense talent, but when watching her at her best in those Guest mockumentaries, one can only shake their head in disbelief at how she has not managed to reach a level of success that she unquestionably deserves.

The Dude;

Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

When Joseph Gordon-Levitt got his start on 3rd Rock From the Sun, few could have predicted what lay ahead for the youngster, yet in 1999s 10 Things I Hate About You when he starred in a cast full of bright young talents he displayed enouch charm and charisma to prove himsef as a more than capable leading man and few years down the line in 2004’s dark indie drama Mysterious Skin he stepped up to the plate and proved his creentials with a dark brooding yet sensitive and soulful turn, following it up with a commanding and powerfully confident turn in Rian Johnson’s high school noir, Brick, and then again in The Lookout in which he again took the central role at the head of an impressive cast and lead the way with tremendous conviction. At the age of just 27 the youngster is showing a great deal of integrity in the type of projects he continues to choose and seems to constantly be progressing as an actor. Probably the brightest young American actor there is.

The Director;

Kim Ki-Duk.

In the early 90s, Kim Ki-Duk studied fine arts in Paris, and when one looks at the sheer beauty with which he composes each frame, that is not something that comes as a huge surprise. After completing those studies he first got started in the film industry as a screenwriter, winning numerous awards before going onto make his directorial debut in 1996. Since then he has directed well over 10 films and that artistic beauty has remained throughout, he is also a man very much in love with the visual element of storytelling. His films are very often lacking in much dialogue, allowing the story to unfold visually, to see rather than be told, and it is that keen understanding of the core cinematic language that makes him one of the most captivating director working today.

The Picture;

The Fisher King  (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Terry Gilliam is known for his bizarre journies into strange cinematic worlds, well known for his troublesome picturs that often alienate all but the very smallest cult of fans, he is a man who has always had grand aspirations yet not always managed to scale the heights of cinematic success the same way that he scales the walls of imagination. Yet in 1991 following the grand oddity that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he turned in a film, that by his standards at least, would be considered normal. The Fisher King is a film set very much in the real world, yet featuring a dreamer with the most vivid sense of imagination, a film which more than likely draws from the directors own life as a cinematic artist. It is a film about redemption and awakenings, about the power of dreams and with a subplot that surely ranks amongst the very greatest cinematic love stories. A bizarre love letter to dreams and possibilities.

March 19, 2008

The List is Life: #93

93.

The Dame;

Kristin Scott Thomas.

An actress of incredible beauty who has remained in her career as she has always been, absolutely subtle. Never one for garish over the top theatrics or doing anything out of the oridnary to call attention to herself, Kristin Scott Thomas has enjoyed a long and varied career, in romance, in drama, in comedy and she has turned in wonderfully effective work without anywhere near the showiness of many of her peers. She’s the sort of actress one could envision triumping in the golden age of the cinema alongside someone like Garbo, a quie, restrained performer who lets her face do the talking.

The Dude;

Jeffrey Wright.

One of the most incredibly diverse and completely underrated actors of his generation. Jeffrey Wright might just be one of the best actors on the planet right now, and yet for some unknown reason he has never reached the status that he quite deserved. A Tony winning star of the stage, his first major screen turn came when he played the title character in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. Though not adverse to appearing in big productions like Casino Royale and the remakes of Shaft and The Manchurian Candidate, his star still refuses to refuse to rise any further. Having said that, whatever may come in the future, his crown jewel may always be the role for which he won his Tony and reprised for HBO to Emmy winning effect, in the powerful, funny and magnetic roles of Belize, Mr. Lies and The Angel of Europe in Tony Kushner’s epic, Angels in America.

The Director;

Oliver Stone.

A name almost synonomous with controversy, Oliver Stone is a Vietnam war veteran and watching the anger and passion that seems to brim over in his movies it is not difficult to comprehend. Never one to shy away from difficult subjects, Stone has delved into troubling aspects and probed the state of the world in Salvador, Platoon and the other two entries in his ‘Vietnam trilogy’, Nixon and perhaps his crowning achievement to date, the monstrously structed and gloriously edited JFK, though many may turn up their noses at the facts on display in the picture, what cannot be denied is Stone’s artistic capabilities in bringing them so fully and powerfully to screen. His World Trade Center movie may have been a great deal tamer than most had anticipated, with the director choosing to tell a heartwarming tale of human survival and the wider effects of the days actions over damning whoever may or may not have been responsible, but with a George W. Bush biopic on the horizon, one can bet that Oliver Stone will soon be ruffling feathers once more.

The Picture;

After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

A blackly, creepy, comic look at life in the big city after dark. A haunting yet humorous look at the underbelly of society that will leave the majority of those who view it, appreciating what they have a great deal more. This is not the typical Scorsese picture, only coming his way when financing for his ambitious epic The Last Temptation of Christ fell through, the director comes onto the picture and injects it with his trademark dark, probing look at what can only be described as unordinary human beings. Taking a cast of up and comers and supporting players he crafts marvellously unsettling yet hugely entertaining picture that has more than a little heart to back up its eerie thrills.

March 12, 2008

The List is Life: #99

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99.

The Dame;

Lauren Bacall.

Making her screen debut alongside a Hollywood legend at the age of just 19 can’t have been easy, but were you to see the smouldering confidence with which Lauren Bacall carries herself through To Have and Have Not, alongside her soon to be husband, Humphrey Bogart, and you’d think she was a seasoned pro. For over 60 years she has continued to turn in highly confident and mature work, time and time again. Her legendary status cannot be denied, and her beauty has probably lead to her being tremendously overlooked as an actress.

The Dude;

Sean Connery.

An absolute pro. His marvellous physique made him the perfect super spy in his prime yet as the decades have gone by, Sean Connery has displayed a natural and effortless screen charisma that only the true legends of the game could claim to possess. That he numbers among their rank, cannot be denied.

The Director;

Victor Fleming.

Victor Fleming began his directing career making fairly low key silent films. He finished it in the 1940s, making star vehicles with Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc. Yet in the end his career has been eternally defined (and rightfully so) by the year 1939, in which he snatched up the reigns and took control of the troubled productions of two all time classics, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Two bonafide iconic films, from entirely different ends of the spectrum, both steereed to the screen by the same man in the same year. Not bad a for a fella who started life in the business as a stuntman.

The Picture;

The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967)

Based (albeit loosely) on the book by Rudyard Kipling and as the last Disney film overseen by the great man himself, The Jungle Book could have coasted on the reputation that such claims would have afforded it. Yet the studio managed, even in the wake of its creators passing to rise up and turn out one of their most beloved classics. Catchy songs from start to finish keep all entertained, characters that are both zany and bold ensure that this is an experience the viewer shall never forget and laying at the heart of this animal kingdom is an entirely human story about a child growing up and accepting his destiny. The darker nature of Kipling’s story may have been replaced by something altogether more family-friendly, but the deep humanity at heart remains throughout.

February 16, 2008

“I’ve Been A Nobody All My Life”. Andrew Dominik’s – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, US, 2007)

New Zealand native Andrew Dominik’s first and to date, only feature film, Chopper was made seven years ago it has taken almost one whole decade for him to bring his second film to the screen and when one sees it, it is not the greatest of surprises to see why. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is two hours and forty minutes long, it is a western in which a gun is hardly fired, no stand off’s at dawn, nothing in particular to link it to the golden era of American Westerns of the 40s and 50s .

It is a very long, slow moving film heading in a direction that we are made aware of from the very start. The slow burn ebb that is this films pace carries us on this journey towards this inevitable collision course with the mournful spirit of a funeral procession.

The film is not without its faults. The narrative voiceover, while beautifully poetic in the films prologue and epilogue is entirely superfluous, most of the time pointing out information that either serves no great purpose to the picture overall or in some places provides us with nothing more than a description of what is happening on screen. Here is that issue that so many filmmakers come upon in adaptations of literar works. To have such an appreciation for their source materials language that they feel the need to shoehorn as much of it in as is possible to the detriment of their own artistic achievement within their own medium.

One could make the argument that such films who give in to such straightforward page to screen adaptations with lumps of voiceover brimming throughout are serving as little more than promotional material for the story from which they are adapted. No film can include all that is in a book and hence through their complete lack of vision such filmmakers irrevocably surrender themselves up as being artists of a lesser medium.

Yet I digress, this is a beautiful film with a magnificent artistic vision. Andrew Dominik has crafted a melancholy, ponderous film in line with the works of Terrence Malick. The sort of film scarcely seen in American cinema since the death of auteur cinema in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980.

Perhaps the foremost artist in contributing to this poetic atmosphere is cinematographer Roger Deakins, veteran of such beautifully scoped pictures as The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun and The Village. Deakins work on this film may not be quite the visual storyteller that his work on No Country For Old Men was but its majestic nature is like few films that have come before it. Almost every shot throughout the film could have adorned the wall of an art gallery.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave who composed the score, bring the same sparse, stripped down and eery compositions to this film as they brought to their similarly lyrical Western, The Proposition. The beautifully detailed costumes and production design help lend the film the romantic tones it strives for.

The cast is on magnificent form throughout. The continually underrated Sam Rockwell turns in another mighty fine supporting turn as Charley Ford, the good hearted, good natured, simple brother of the eponymous assassin. Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider all turn in differing degrees of fine work as the members of the James gang, all turning on one another, a self combusting unit of low lives.

Zooey Deschanel and Mary Louise Parker, two mighy fine actresses are restricted to little more than cameos yet, being the quality performers they are, both make the absolute most of their slight material. Parker as Jesse James’ wife, Zee is the conscience of her husband, the down to earth, homemaking wife who has little more than a gaze of mistrust for all the men in her husbands life, and her final scene by her husbands side is a mournful piece of work completely out of left field. Entirely putting in the shade other actresses this year that have grieved for dead husbands with all the creative ingenuity of a hack. Parker’s pitiful, restrained wails are of a woman who has long expected this moment to come, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work; as is Zooey Deschanel in her brief appearance as Robert Ford’s wife lights up the screen with her glances and gestures, the probing delivery of her dialogue, she reads the ‘coward’ and finally draws the truth out of him.

Yet when all is said and done this is the story of two men and they both carry it off with aplomb. Some have been critical of Brad Pitt’s casting, hoping that a ‘real’ actor could have had the chance to sink his teeth into the part, yet there are two very important and perfect reasons for his casting.

Firstly, this IS a very distinct sort of film – long, slow, with none of the stand offs and shoot outs one has come to expect from a Western; with a ten word title that is just as uncompromising as it’s tone. It was Pitt himself who had it stipulated in his contract that the title of the film could not be changed and one can only assume that where it not for the participation of a star of this magnitude, the film that reached the screen would have had to take a great deal more in the way artistic liberties to reach audiences.

Secondly this is essentially a portrait of societies obsession with celebrity, with a man attempting to bring down a superstar so that he may become one himself; who better to cast in such a part than one of the biggest movie star’s on the planet?

All this aside, Pitt plays the part beautifully. This is unquestionably the finest work of his career. He makes no apologies for the man he is playing, his Jesse James is utterly insane and he begins unfurling from the very start. A tortured, haunted man, coming apart at the seams, it’s pretty disturbing to watch and never at any point does he stray over the top.

Yet at heart this is Robert Ford’s story and Casey Affleck emerges out of obscurity with what is turning out to be one hell of a year, after his wonderfully hard edged, soft centred turn in Gone Baby, Gone he gives here the type of whiny, snivelling, shady performance that I would feel most comfortable comparing to something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The low, whiny, voice that emerges from a half opened mouth, the hunched shoulders, this is a physical performance as much as anything else. Affleck presents Robert Ford to us as an incredibly thoughtful, confused, obsessive young man with no idea of his direction in the universe. A man willing to do anything to make a name for himself when the object of his lifelong obsession turns out to be nothing like he expected.

Andrew Dominik should be applauded for his efforts, the unneccessary overuse of the narration and a few subplots that could have been considered expendable aside, this is a beautiful work of artistry, another fine addition to the modern western, a melancholy stroll through obsession and misguided perceptions of the world. One can only hope that the director will not take 7 more years to get another film made, and that when it comes he can maintain the haunting vision of this one.

February 10, 2008

I Want To Rule and Never, Ever Explain Myself.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 3:26 pm

 

 

How many times has the tale been told? A shy introverted boy, a social outsider, the upper class son of a poet-laureate, half Jewish/half Irish, growing up in the tough streets of Greenwich, England. A figure of fun whose alienation from those around him leads to the hasty mastering of the local accent, local mannerisms. The first signs of convincing performance that would later help him to delve deeper than any before him had ever dared to go in the development of characters more wholly embodied than the medium had ever seen in its hundred year history.

 

“I came from the educated middle class but I identified with the working classes. Those were the people I looked up to. The lads whose fathers worked on the docks or in shipping yards or were shopkeepers. I knew that I wasn’t part of that world, but I was intrigued by it. They had a different way of communicating. People who delight in conversation are often using that as a means to not say what is on their minds. When I became interested in theater, the work I admired was being done by working-class writers. It was often about the inarticulate. I later saw that same thing in Robert DeNiro’s early work – it was the most sublime struggle of a man trying to express himself. There was such poetry in that for me”.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis was born rightwise to the world of cinema. Grandson of Sir Michael Balcon, one of the founding fathers of British cinema who could have denied the young mans right to enter the realms of celluloid? Yet growing up in the age of Olivier’s Gielgud’s, Redgrave’s and Jacobi’s, young English actors of the era were expected to ply their trade upon the stage, delving into the world of Shakespeare, a million miles from the world he dreamed of.

 

“I saw Taxi Driver five or six times in the first week, and I was astonished by its sheer visceral beauty. I just kept going back – I didn’t know America, but that was a glimpse of what America might be, and I realized that, contrary to expectation, I wanted to tell American stories.”

 

Over those formative years he played the title role in a stage production of Dracula, and took on the part of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a role he later came to detest, a character who he came to sum up as a “wanker”.

 

“Where I come from, it was a heresy to say you wanted to be in movies, leave alone American movies. We were all encouraged to believe that the classics of the theater were the fiery hoops through which you’d have to pass if you were going to have any self-esteem as a performer. It never occurred to me that that was the case. One of the great privileges of having grown up in a middle-class literary English household, but having gone to school in the front lines in Southeast London, was that I became half-street-urchin and half-good-boy at home. I knew that dichotomy was possible. England is obsessed with where you came from, and they are determined to keep you in that place, be it in a drawing room or in the gutter. The great tradition of liberalism in England is essentially a sponge that absorbs all possibility of change”.

 

It was around this time that his screen career began to take off; controversy was there from the start as he played one half of a gay, bi-racial couple in Stephen Frears small, gritty British flick, My Beautiful Launderette. That same year he performed at the other end of the spectrum, playing the snooty, upper class Cecil Vyse in Merchant-Ivory’s major production of E.M Forster’s A Room with a View. The former embodied the world he yearned to be a part of, the latter, the world he was a part of and sought to escape.

 

[on Five Easy Pieces] “Jack Nicholson is sublime in that film, just sublime. It’s the most stultifying portrait of middle-class life. You want to flee from that world and head anywhere less civilized. Which is, of course, the appeal of the West: It’s not tamed yet”.

 

“Why would I want to play middle-aged middle-class Englishmen”?

 

 It was two years later, in 1987 that the first signs began to emerge of the man we know today. On the set of Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Day-Lewis learned to speak Czech, and refused to break character for the entirety of the eight month shoot.

 

“It’s really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and – one hopes – to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you’ve gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn’t be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there”.

 

Then in 1989 came the breakthrough, playing Hamlet on stage at the National Theatre he collapsed on stage in the middle of the characters confrontation with the ghost of his father. Sobbing uncontrollably he walked from the stage and refused to return, some labeled it exhaustion, other more outlandish theories spoke of him having seen the ghost of his father. Whichever version of events one chooses to believe, the point we reach in the end is undeniably the same, here is a man who gives nothing less than 100% to every part he plays. Not since that night has Daniel Day-Lewis appeared on stage, and it is highly unlikely that he ever will again.

 

“For a few years at school I tried to play the roles they wanted me to play, but it became less and less interesting to ponce around the place. Even now, when I sometimes think of doing a play, I think of rehearsal rooms and people hugging and everyone talking over cups of coffee because they are nervous. It’s both very touching and it makes me a little nauseous and claustrophobic. Too much talk. I don’t rehearse at all in film if I can help it. In talking a character through, you define it. And if you define it, you kill it dead”.

 

Yet thanks to accomplishments that year Day-Lewis was put in a position where by he would never again have to return to the medium from which he had fled. Playing the part of Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot landed the 32 year old an Oscar. The pinnacle of screen acting had been reached, he had conquered the mountain and would never have to venture to realms of disinterest again. Day-Lewis’ process has gained him a great deal of notoriety. Refusing to leave his wheelchair on the set of My Left Foot, determined to experience all aspects of Christy Brown’s life, he broke two ribs from sitting hunched in the wheelchair for so many weeks.

 

For The Last of the Mohicans he underwent weight training, lived off the land his character inhabited, learned to track and skin animals, built a canoe, and perfected the use of the rifle he carried with him at all times.

 

The next year he re-teamed with Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father, losing a substantial amount of weight, spending time in a prison cell and insisting that crew members throw water at, and verbally abuse him.

 

For 1997’s The Boxer he trained for 2 years with former professional boxing champion, Barry McGuigan.

 

After a three year absence from the craft Day-Lewis returned with a monstrous performance in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, his preparation included working as an apprentice butcher, listening to Eminem each day on set to enter into his characters angry, self righteous frame of mind and refusing to wear warm clothing during cold weather due to his complete dedication to authenticity, an act that lead to him being diagnosed with pneumonia and having to seek medical treatment.

 

In 2004, during the filming of his wife’s film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Day-Lewis lived separately from his family for the duration of the shoot in order to capture his characters isolation.

 

“The intention is always the same. To try to discover life in its entirety, or at least create for yourself the illusion that you have, which might give you some chance of convincing other people of it. It’s the same thing each time, but it requires totally different work in the process of achieving that. You are set on a path that’s strewn with obstacles, but getting over them is the joy of the work. So it’s impossible to think in terms of difficulty: it all seems utterly impossible, but the pleasure is in trying to forge ahead anyway”.

 

Day-Lewis has oft been criticized for his process, for taking things further than many believe they need to be taken. Yet acting at its heart is nothing more than the embodiment of a character and the only difference between Day-Lewis and his critics is the extent of that embodiment.

 

“I like to learn about things. It was just a great time trying to conceive of the impossibility of that thing. I didn’t know anything about mining at the turn of the century in America. My boarding school in Kent didn’t exactly teach that”.

 

Here is a man who commits entirely to his character for the entirety of his shoot. A man who does away with his natural self and literally morphs into another. Some actors begin performing at “action” and finish at “cut”, Day-Lewis is no different, only he refuses to break the illusion between takes. He is not so much an actor of movie roles as a creator of characters. A man who transforms into others so fully in order that he may fully comprehend who he is, and by extension allow his audience to understand the world in which he is existing.

 

“It’s not that I want to pull the shutters down. It’s just that people have such a misconception about what it is I do. They think the character comes from staying in the wheelchair or being locked in the jail or whatever extravagant thing they choose to focus their fantasies on. Somehow, it always seems to have a self-flagellatory aspect to it. But that’s just the superficial stuff. Most of the movies that I do are leading me toward a life that is utterly mysterious to me. My chief goal is to find a way to make that life meaningful to other people”.

 

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