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.

April 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her moreĀ  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as theĀ  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

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 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.

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