The Parnassus Times

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.

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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 1, 2008

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

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, US, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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