Stirring the Ashes

Recently I stumbled upon a trailer for a soon-to-be-released Redux version of Wong Kar Wai’s heart-rending period romance cum magical martial arts epic Ashes of Time. It reminded me of my first viewing; it was in my late teens and I was overwhelmed and deeply shaken by the beauty of the film but could feel I was missing some of the core experiences needed to fully appreciate it. I’m looking forward to trying it again, the original next weekend and then maybe the Redux when it’s released in October.

Wong Kar Wai is an auteur known for weaving the quiet, emotional lives of his characters in and out and through each other, and for his control of atmosphere, narration and setting to create a realistic, intimate experience bordering on voyeurism. My favorite film of his is his first full length, Days of Being Wild, but the most acclaimed and influential are probably Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love, and Happy Together. Ashes of Time is unique in that it is his only period piece (until the future-set 2046), and his only film to employ any special effects, although they are all of a decidedly analog Mexican magical realist bent. Despite their prevalence in the trailers, the “action” takes a far-backseat to the character’s stories of regret, memory, and love lost. I suggest reading some of the IMDB comments for perspective.

This movie was a ridiculously long time in the making, so much so that Kar Wai took a break from it to write and direct Chunking Express, to “get his head straight”. From what I have read and remember it shows. It may not be very cohesive or on first viewing coherent, especially with the weaving, non-linear vignettes, but those who are willing to put forth a little effort will be doubly and doubly again rewarded by Kar Wai’s heartfelt and human ruminations on the connections that bind lovers together and their slowly twisting, constricting movements on the paths of memory as, with time, they move farther and farther apart.


Gold age, Silver age, Grime age

Here in Oakland, Dean has created some interesting new subsections that don’t exist at our Bloomfield store. He’s separated out 70′s Drama, 70′s Comedy, 70′s Thriller and 70′s Sci-Fi.

I’ve been slowly going through them, re-discovering the flavor of the last age that actors, writing and direction were king. The 1970s were a unique time in auteur movie making, producing a quantity of intelligent, full bodied cinema that stands against the hygenicised pop-hits of the eighties and 90s. The storylines meander more than we’re used to today, down paths more dangerous, more rewarding. The film stock’s gritty quality creates a natural, immediate atmosphere that connects you to the action in a way that digital post-production, with all it’s polish and perfection, fails miserably. And in the pre-blockbuster age the actor is always paramount. Characters are developed, nuanced and real, their interactions pulsing with charisma and connection that used to be the mark of Hollywood greats. In many ways it’s a much purer cinema than what is produced today.

My friend Ted joked that the new sections might as well be called “Best of”. Come down and see for yourself.


Foreign movies are better?

Right now I’m watching the amazing five part Yakuza Papers series by Fukasaku Kinji (1 2 3 4 5). I’ve been impressed with the way the actors inhabit their characters, so believable, every action adding to the overall realism of Fukasaku’s gritty gangster world. It seems most foreign movies have excellent performances, and I think this is mainly due to the worthwhile movies being separated from the chaff when studios decide what to export, but I wonder if it also has to do with a culture barrier. Can we, as Americans, not pick up on the little things that ring untrue in a French or Japanese actor’s performance? Can we not hear poorly delivered dialog because we don’t understand the natural rhythms of most foreign languages? I suppose it evens out with the enjoyable nuance we miss in poor subtitles and overdub, and the humor we don’t catch because it relies on cultural norms with which we’re not familiar.

Either way, I’m pretty sure Yakuza Papers is awesome.

Director Spotlight: Kitano “Beat” Takeshi

Better known as a comedian and game show host in his native Japan, actor and director Kitano Takeshi’s films have gained a substantial international art house and gangster aficionado following. He has cultivated a style unique among his contemporary directors, oscillating between playful, childlike innocence and explosive scenes of realistic violence. The result is an offbeat, life affirming atmosphere heavy with pathos, usually driven by the laconic performance of Kitano himself. The downbeat counterpart to the Miike Takashi’s gratuitous magical realist yakuza pictures, Kitano’s films offer a slower experience heavy with tension, and rich with emotions often lost in his contemporaries’ gunbattle epics. These are some of my favorites:

Violent Cop (1989): Kitano’s stripped to basics directorial debut. Stillness, misanthropy, and an odd naiveté explode periodically from Kitano’s detective Azuma. His personality bruises the people around him, police and criminal, like a blunt weapon. The world he occupies is a real-life Tokyo, complete with consequences and repercussions, far removed from the fantastic cinematic realms of Die Hard or John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Essential.

Sonatine (1993): Available as the second disk on Zatoichi (2006). A mid level yakuza boss travels to Okinawa to settle a dispute, but it soon becomes apparent that he has been sent there to die. The yakuza retreat to an abandoned beach house, passing the hours as pleasantly as they can under the unspoken knowledge of their inevitable deaths. The film is saturated with Kitano’s bittersweet atheistic nihilism, more powerful than in his other films as evidenced by his suicide attempt immediately after its release.

Brother (2000): His first release for American audiences. Kitano is an exiled yakuza who casually transforms his brother’s small time Los Angeles gang into an organized crime powerhouse. The translated-to-English dialog can seem stilted, its delivery cumbersome, but the oddness fades as the story gains momentum. Omar Epps’ friendship to Kitano’s “big brother” figure drives the second half of the film, lending a poignant weight to the unavoidable conclusion.

Also recommended: Fireworks, Kikujiro, Boiling Point, Zatoichi.


The First Time I Saw Red

Many people I know witnessed a lot of firsts while watching movies as children; most of these filmic first encounters had to do with sex. I know tons of people who could remember what movie introduced them to the image of people doing it (the original Blue Lagoon starring Brooke Shields seemed to be a popular one) and for those of you who watched nature documentaries when young, you got David Attenborough imparting to you the whole concept of “animal instinct,” minus the human players. In any case, while you may be able to credit some fine cinematic feature with giving you your first glimpse of ‘The Deed,’ it’s doubtful that you would, or could, recall in which film you first saw the color red.

I realize that the full spectrum of colors are probably experienced by a kid long before they are plopped down in front of a TV screen or hauled off to the movies (maybe the kids are hauling the parents here), but I would personally like to romanticize the origins of this color from my own childhood, because no memory of red stands out more strongly than from when I first watched Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge). I recently watched this movie again and decided that everything I have seen of that color since has stemmed from that brilliant balloon’s redness. The blood that drenched Carrie from above, the dress of kidnapped Princess Buttercup, the flashing of the Stone in The Secret of NIMH… all these shades of red are the descendants of Le ballon rouge. Perhaps this is a rather frivolous claim, as all reds are related, what with belonging to the same wavelength and all, but it’s my way of respecting one of the standout movies of my childhood. Try to deny me that, and I’ll be seeing yet another shade of red. -a brick

Bridget Fonda has a huge crush on Jet Li

Working at Dreaming Ant has its ups and downs when it comes to watching movies. Ups: watch whatever movie, without having to worry about wasting money, whenever, for as long or as many times as you want. Pretty good ups. Downs: BURNOUT. I watch a lot of movies. Too many sometimes. To give you an idea, when business was slow I’ve found myself half or fully watching four movies a day, more or less. You can imagine that although I love them, movies are no longer on the top of my list for every day post work activities, and neither is internet or computing. I think it’s called screen fatigue.

Anyways, now at work I don’t really face the screen a lot. I rarely watch a movie a day, if that. But I do a lot of listening to movies. More than anything else I listen to commentaries.

When you rent a movie you only have a couple days with it. I don’t think many people have the desire to watch the same movie two days in a row. I certainly don’t, and that’s why until now I didn’t listen to commentaries, ever. But let me let you in on a secret – COMMENTARIES ARE AWESOME. They tend to be closer to a book on tape than a movie. Half the time you have a director and an actor or two getting drunk, letting the anecdotes and jokes at each other’s expense flow in direct proportion to the beer for an hour or two (Big Trouble in Little China), and the other half they’re a director, writer or actor narrating their experience during filming, getting the film made, technical explanation (of creature effects in John Carpenter‘s The Thing), and their philosophy about the film and movie making in general (all of Sidney Lumet’s exceptional commentaries). In a way listening to them talk, and what they choose to talk about, is a mini autobiography of people you’ve known until now only as characters, voices and styles. The director of Shoot ‘Em Up is a Tarantino-level jackass (although the movie is great). Val Kilmer thinks he’s funnier than he really is (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Vin Diesel is well spoken with a natural air of education. He’s a sci-fi nerd. Bridget Fonda, although she tries to cover it up, has a huge crush on Jet Li. He’s so handsome, and powerful, and professional, and quiet… and good looking, and fast, and he can kick things. And he’s good looking, and small and handsome (Kiss of the Dragon). Sometimes the creative forces behind a film are exposed as only mildly talented, but the film itself grows and solidifies out of a million milquetoast decisions into something unique, even great. Most of the time after you’ve heard the commentary, movies are better.

My advice for commentaries is don’t watch them right after the movie. Wait a day or two, and then while you’re writing emails or folding clothes or working in Photoshop or stuck inside for whatever reason, turn on the commentary track (usually under Special Features and sometimes accessible by flipping through the sound options with your remote), turn your back to the television, and listen. -rw

Lush Lola

From its stunning title sequence to its final melancholic twinkle, Lola never relents in simultaneously tantalizing and agitating your senses. Fassbinder magnetizes all the polarities of his style, infusing Lola with his every last artistic tendency. Filming each scene with a different emotional lens, he obscures any consistent tone for the sake of full dramaturgical expression. Lola saturates the screen with a lush, silken color palette and sun-kissed lighting schemes to fashion a delightfully playful aesthetic. Maintaining a small narrative focus, Fassbinder achieves magnificent scope of emotions as Lola navigates the politics of sex, love, family values, post-war identity, urban redevelopment, class struggle, and capitalism. The film plays like a rollicking performance piece, even though it’s run through with the director’s infamously anti-theatrical choreography and neo-Brechtian curiosity. Lola’s passionate cabaret routines drape the melodrama in elegiac undertones, revealing desperation beneath rosy cheeks. Warm, jazzy transitions convey an emotional flourish, punctuating scenes with a rush of blood to the head. Although he’s kept a keen eye trained on distance (both spatial and social), Fassbinder never so thoroughly examined the distance between our hearts and heads as he does with this film.

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring Barbara Sukowa & Armin Mueller-Stahl
West Germany, 1981

–review by andrew mckeon

Fishing with Bresson: Catch and Release Tragedy

    Jacques Tati may have stretched the limits of comedy, but the silly putty he was reshaping already lent itself to visual storytelling (read: Playtime can wait). Besides, drama is a far trickier conjuring act. Ever since movies became talkies, it’s proved more than a mouthful for most filmmakers. So just leave it to a French painter to illustrate exquisite dramatis without cramming it all into words.
Director Robert Bresson opens up his slender narratives to observe the quiet spaces between story and symbol. Tight-lipped and tender, he draws back the curtains and peers far beyond the stage to fashion succinct dramatic form using nothing more than a few non-actors and some intuition. Just as Tati immersed his alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, in combustible situations to tickle your funny bone, Bresson immerses his protagonists in a kind of soft brutality to pluck at your heartstrings with a paintbrush.
    Mouchette tugs you along the path of adolescence, following its titular character from first to last obstacle on a crash course through misery. The meat of this coming-of-age story, its moments of vulnerability, unfold in a beautiful poesis of close-ups and tracking shots. Such a deliberate approach imbues the film with its plodding pace, orienting all perspectives around the alienation of a little troubled girl (whose name means “little fly”) as she navigates some colossal metaphors like breast-feeding, bumper cars, choir practice, rabbit-hunting, etc.
Trudging onward in a pair of hand-me-down clogs, Mouchette is deflowered, one step at a time, by the cruelty of others until her innocence is beyond plundered. She becomes destined to a life of misanthropy, and it shows. Mouchette slings mud at the popular girls for making fun of the way she sings, puncturing their perfumed sense of superiority with each clump. Alas, she’s left in the dust when they retreat on the backseat of their boyfriends’ mopeds.
Bresson bookends the film with similar means of escape, sandwiching his heroine’s quiet tumult between twin notions of death and rebirth. In the middle, he crafts an exquisite portrait of a young girl for whom there is no shelter from the storm. Tempestuous cyclones churn forth a parallel of Mouchette’s stormy social climate, externalizing her inert torment via overt symbolism. Lost on the way home from school, she’s trapped by the rainstorm. Night falls as the sky keeps pouring and things just couldn’t get any worse for Mouchette. Yet there remains a glimmer of hope amidst the heavens’ deluge.
Springing from the depths of the forest, the local poacher/lothario, Arsene, arrives just in time to save her from the wicked weather, but this is no knight in shining armor. He sees tender prey, as well as an alibi for his moonlit misdeeds. Escorting the teenage damsel to a nearby shelter, Arsene baits the same hook that snagged the game warden’s girlfriend. He umbrellas the girl with his rugged charm.
It’s no surprise when Mouchette begins warming up to his presence by the fireside. Arsene retrieves her clog from the mire and offers a few swigs of brandy-wine, but, most importantly, he talks with her. Assuming he’s accidentally murdered Mathieu (the game warden), he uncorks a whole lifetime of guilt in one seizing fit of despair. A quick dissolve on his rough exterior quickly reveals the inner damsel in distress. Mouchette can see that Arsene seeks shelter from another storm.
Following his lead on a wild goose chase, she tries to help him cover his tracks and pledges to uphold his flimsy alibi. Once he collapses in anguish, she tends to him as if he were her bedridden mother. Roles reversed, their energies magnetize into a moment of shared hurt. What follows is hard to define.
Bresson articulates the complexities of rape with an eye for all the situational subtleties of sexual transgression. Framing everything within one discreet fireplace shot, he captures the ferocious violation of a little girl, as well as an eerie sense of release. Yet, by no means is this rape scene lined with silver. It’s lit with emotion. Not the kind written on actors’ faces, but the kind that lingers onscreen, hanging in the air to whisper enigma.
With a soft focus on the flames in the background, Bresson shapes the scene’s mixed feelings into a palpable symbol of friction. Withholding any judgment on what is unfolding, the film jumps to a familiar image: the little girl huddled in the forest like tender prey.
Arsene follows her scent, voicing her name like a duck call, but to no avail. Camouflaged amongst the foliage, Mouchette deceives her savior/captor and steals away home, only to be met with hostile reproach. Unfortunately, the child’s family takes little notice of her absence, and even less notice of a young psyche baptized by rape.
Clairvoyant but feeble, Mouchette’s mother cannot parent beyond the edge of her deathbed. She tries stabilizing her daughter’s turbulent conscience with cautionary tales about beguiling day-laborers and pre-marital sex. But, soon thereafter, she perishes and her little girl’s world shrinks tenfold.
Mouchette is devastated, but still ticklish to further tragedy. More scornful than mournful, her father ignores his broken daughter while the townspeople and “caring” neighbors shower her with confections, summer dresses, and brutal condemnations.  Everything shatters to bits when the game warden appears before her, alive and well. Having followed Arsene’s trail like a wounded bloodhound, Mathieu can smell his nemesis’ charms all over Mouchette.  He inquires and she promptly sticks up for Arsene, confirming his whereabouts with a striking proclamation. Mouchette claims her rapist as her lover.
Vindicated, yet still vulnerable, she keeps trudging onward, seeking shelter from the storm. When Mouchette ultimately finds it in the reflections of a lake, she’s reborn.

Jacques Tati vs. Modernity

For his first color feature, Tati focused on the streamlining of French home life. Mon Oncle (1958) pokes fun at how modernity is, contrary to its promises, a terrible encroachment upon a family’s wellbeing.

More shapely and character-driven than anything Tati had written, the story follows a young schoolboy, Gerard Arpel, trapped in a prison of his parents’ homemaking. This fully automated household proves an inescapable fortress of solitude, air-tight enough to suffocate his rambunctious instincts.

Enter Monsieur Hulot, the hapless uncle with a heart of gold, and the boy is saved. Hulot’s pre-modern presence turns the family’s lifeless modern abode into a lively calamity of man vs. machine.

Like one of the stray dogs that open the film, Hulot follows his instincts with a nose for amusement. He delights in the magic of the everyday. Sharing this delight with his sheltered nephew, Hulot points out the comedic potential of the outside world. He partakes in pranks on unsuspecting pedestrians, performs sidewalk pantomime, and just pals around with Gerard on equal footing.

Throughout Mon Oncle, Tati explores the qualities of color film, playing with light to subtly juxtapose the modern and pre-modern worlds. The very same light that illuminates Hulot’s old-world neighborhood bounces off of the sleek and shiny edges of the Arpel home. Its reflection reveals everything that Gerard is missing in life: nesting birds, music, merriment, etc.

Electricity courses through the Arpel home, producing artificial light and powering all of the parents’ modern artifices. But, it also binds all of the appliances together like a string of firecrackers. So, when the dinner party guests arrive, Tati lets the dominoes fall down the line.

Madame and Monsieur Arpel set the scene by flaunting their modernism to the stuffy guests, showing off all of the gadgetry that “simplifies” their home life. When they ask Hulot to retrieve some refreshments from the robotic kitchen, everything goes haywire. The coordinated sight-gags ensue, as does a running joke on the fish-out-of-water metaphor. On the front lawn stands a giant center-piece, a spitting-fish fountain; its malfunctioning becomes a symbol of nature regurgitating technology.

Tati aligns the viewer with Gerard as he watches his uncle unwittingly dismantle the whole dinner party. Hiding on the periphery, Gerard roots for Hulot to ruin things and then laughs at his painstaking efforts to remedy them without anyone else noticing.

This sort of privileged perspective involves the viewer in the situation, making them complicit in the comedy. Orchestrating his comedy from both sides of the camera, Tati builds up a unique understanding of life as a comical arrangement of the unpredictable.

A reprisal of the stray dogs delivers Mon Oncle’s final punch line. Following Hulot’s awkward stride, the mutts trot into Monsieur Arpel’s factory to wreak havoc on all of its modern machinations and automaton workers. Man’s best friend at his side, Hulot proves that all he needs is an audience in this battle of man vs. modernity.

to be continued…



Jacques Tati – maker of funny

On the heels of Keaton and Chaplin in the1930s, the sound era changed the nature of comedy forever. Yet, whilst comedians were getting louder and louder, Jacques Tati managed to preserve the silent spirit of pantomime and make it sound even funnier.

Tati began by tailoring the stage antics of his mime routines to suit the camera lens. He perfected his repertoire on both sides of the camera, home-growing a reputation as an up-and-coming actor/director in his native France. By the 1950s, Tati was redefining the parameters of comedic performance and choreography with a manifestation of himself custom-made for the silver screen: Monsieur Hulot.

The always bewildered, yet never beleaguered Hulot forays into the frightening modern world armed with nothing but a pipe, a cane, and a heart of gold. His first adventure, M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), quickly became a high watermark of physical comedy. A French beach resort functions not merely as the film’s backdrop, but as a composite character foil. All of the tourists, attractions, and resort staff comprise a sort of obstacle course for the unassuming protagonist.

The director paints such a vivid picture of this social setting that, by the time Hulot arrives at the beach, one can easily spot him as a fish-out-of-water. Plot becomes an afterthought in this wandering narrative. As he navigates amusing disasters on the beach, in the hotel restaurant, and at the tennis courts, Hulot single-handedly threads together a story without any plotted direction.

Each hilarious situation pushes its own arc, yet all of them revolve around Hulot’s slapstick survival tale. Winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the film not only captivated Tati’s French audience, but also opened doors for his own forays into the frightening modern world of filmmaking.

To Be Continued in next installment…


- andrew