The Parnassus Times

March 9, 2009

The List is Life: #77

77.

The Dame;

Christina Ricci.

Christina Ricci started out big, alongside recent Oscar winner Cher, hot young starlet of the moment Winona Ryder, and king of the underrated, Bob Hoskins, in the comedy-drama  Mermaids. Her natural cuteness lit up the screen, and so the starmaking role she took in the next years  Addams Family showed up her talent for diversity from the off. The class was so clear that in the sequel two years later her role was beefed up and she stole the show, before going on to her first major leading role in the similarly spooky  Casper some 2 years later. As the late teens hit, the type of projects she took on took a far more adult and fascinating swerve,  from the edgy  Opposite of Sex, to fascinating films and working with great filmmakers like in  The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and  Pecker, collaborations with the likes of Ang Lee, Terry Gilliam, John Waters and Woody Allen putting quite the sheen on the resume. She has also never been above mixing up her indie leanings with more mainstream fare, providing minor voice work in  Small Soldiers, starring alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s  Sleepy Hollow, the Wachowski brothers  Speed Racer, and appearances on the small screen in shows such as  Joey, Ally McBeal and  Grey’s Anatomy. However smaller, character driven movies have always been her forte, as the hugely different but always interesting likes of  Penelope, Monster and  Black Snake Moan have proven. Christina Ricci is constantly proving herself to be one of the most diverse and challenging young leading ladies around.

The Dude;

Humphrey Bogart.

After an early career on Broadway marked by an acclaimed turn in Robert E. Sherwood’s  The Petrified Forest, Bogart made his first impression on screen alongside Leslie Howard (who had to fight for Bogart to be cast) in the screen version of that same play. The role lead to him being typecast, playing gangsters in Warner Bros. B-pictures for the next few years, before in 1941, with the assistance of his good friend John Huston, his time to shine came. Firstly appearing in the Huston scripted  High Sierra, then following it up with a superstar making role playing Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon. Two years later came  Casablanca, the Best Picture Oscar and immortality, before meeting Lauren Bacall in 1944 on Howard Hawks’ Hemingway adaptation of  To Have and Have Not. The two shared a sizzling chemistry on screen that carried over into real life and saw them married the next year, before teaming up with Hawks once again to tackle Chandler’s Marlowe in  The Big Sleep. Bogart continued bringing his laconic, world weary charm to films like  Dark Passage and  Key Largo, but it was his work in Huston’s  Treasure of the Sierra Madre that probably stands to this day as his finest work, crippled physically by the desert, and mentally by the lure of gold. Superstardom achieved, peer recognition followed in the early 50s, teaming with Huston again, alongside Katharine Hepburn he landed an Oscar as the drunken, grizzled boatman in  The African Queen. He continued on strong, The Caine Mutiny, Billy Wilder’s  Sabrina, and his final turn as a down on his luck sportswriter alongside Rod Steiger in  The Harder they Fall, before, aged 57, falling inevitable victim to his trusty sidekick through the years, the cigarette, he died of lung cancer, the effortless, easy cool diminished and defeated, he weighed just 80 pounds.

The Director;

Samira Makhmalbaf.

Daughter of acclaimed Iranian auteur, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf dropped out of school at the age of 15, citing incompetent teachers and started observing her father at work, before attending a film course at private school. There she produced a short drama and documentary, before in 1998, aged just 18, her feature film debut  Sib (The Apple) was entered into official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. She followed it up 2 years later with  Takhte Siah (Blackboards) another film dealing with the treatment of youth in Iran, in a very different way to her debut. Since then she has produced two more features, dealing with topical issues in Iran for women and children, as well as a short film alongside other international filmmakers like Ken Loach, Sean Penn and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in a feature about the effects of 9/11 on people around the world. Still aged just 28, she is fast proving herself to be one of the most interesting and socially aware filmmakers around.

The Picture;

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

In 1952, Elia Kazan gave up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the names of 8 people within the film industry that alongside himself had been members of of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. Those 8 were quickly blacklisted and had their names removed from all productions of which they had been a part. In 1954, Kazan, along with writer Budd Schulberg and producer Sam Spiegel produced this 8 Oscar winning response.  The story of a man who in spite of the warnings of all around him, does what he has to do for his own peace of mind. The film landed Best Picture, and Kazan, his second Best Director Oscar, guiding an impeccable cast through Schulberg’s look at the hard bitten, hard working, down on their luck, New York dock scene. Eva Marie Saint won an Oscar for her debut screen performance, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger crowded the Best Supporting Actor category, but it was Marlon Brando, coming off the back of 3 successive Best Actor nominations who stole the show as Terry Malloy, the washed up boxer with the soft, feeling soul. It was 4th time lucky for the Omaha native who finally walked away with the big prize, to cap 5 of the best years of production that any actor ever had. Today, despite mulling over its origins, the film still stands tall as a testament to the human spirit, and as an ode to just how much hell it can be to get to heaven

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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.

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 16, 2008

The List is Life: #95

95.

The Dame;

Lily Tomlin.

Since her career took off during the 1960s, Lily Tomlin is an actress who has found great success on television, film,  and with her famed one woman shows on stage. Her most famous  cinematic collaborator is unquestionably Robert Altman with whom she made four films, including earning her one and only Oscar nomination to date in his Nashville, and was one of the standouts in his swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. She is a wonderously electric comedic performer, yet at the same time so perfectly adept at finding small, beautiful moments of humanity whenever she ventures into dramatic territory.

The Dude;

Steve Carell.

Though unquestionably loud, the majority of times that he appears on screen, Steve Carell is at the same time, incredibly subtle in the small moments. Small glances, shrugs, and gestures that add layers of depth and humanity to the laugh out loud moments of riotous comedy. His performance in Little Miss Sunshine works in complete contrast to almost everything that he has done in that, though full of humour, it is entirely deadpan and laying beneath everything is a heartbroken melancholy. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that even with his worldwide fame, Steve Carell probably doesn’t get enough credit as an actor.

The Director;

Stanley Donen.

The director of iconic films brimming with iconic moments, the sailors of his debut, On the Town, letting loose in New York, New York, Cary Grant’s last great screen hurrah, alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore unleashed upon cinema audiences in Bewitched, those Seven Brides for those Seven Brothers and of course, Gene Kelly in the rain, dancing his way to immortality. Donen’s forte was generally in the musical arena, yet when the songs were nowhere to be found, the fun certainly never dreid up. His films were always fun, always a breeze to watch; he was not a director who ever let himself get to attached to one type, he simply told stories, and entertained millions.

The Picture;

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

The searing work of a master, Naked is an unrelenting rant, a dark and bitter portrait of lower class England in the 1990s. Revolving around Johnny, played with dark, bitter humour and a weary knowingness by David Thewlis, this film is all about him; we journey through this world with him and are constantly subjected to his rants. Whether or not you appreciate the film may depend entirely upon how you feel about him, this is not an easy film to stomach and it is absolutely certain that repeat viewings will do wonders for one’s appreciation of it. This is a dark, dark world of morally greay human beings, and yet Mike Leigh makes it endlessly fascinating by managing to probe through the wordiness to find the humanity in each and every one of the sublime cast.

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.

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.

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