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.


Klaus Kinski and Kim Novak: Their Moving Makes You Pause

At first glance, what could these two actors possibly have in common, beyond their blond hair, blue eyes and choice of profession? Not too damn much, and I’m not really going to try and argue that there is anything more. What I believe they share are simple moments of brilliant acting, so similar that I thought I would write about them and see if anyone else agrees, or has experienced similar moments in other films.

I might not have discovered the first moment but for Werner Herzog in his film My Best Fiend, a documentary of Kinski and Herzog’s often volatile (and consistently amusing) partnership. Herzog, while explaining what originally convinced him to work with Kinski, describes a moment in an early anti-war film called Kinder, Mütter und ein General (Children, Mothers and a General) that struck Herzog as brilliant. Kinski, playing a young lieutenant, is asleep at a table. Another officer is across from him. In the morning, the officer taps Kinski’s arm to wake him, and so Kinski does. It is this moment of waking that struck Herzog – the way Kinski executes this simple, seemingly undramatic moment. Perhaps if Herzog hadn’t stressed this instance it would have gone unnoticed, maybe it is Herzog himself that makes Kinski’s awakening appear outstanding.

Regardless, I too found myself impressed with Kinski, and so (many movies later) when watching Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo, I found myself arrested by another simple motion that took place in a scene with James Stewart and Kim Novak. Novak’s character (thought to be possessed by a ghost) had just experienced a manic episode, and as Stewart tries to get her to remember what happened, she leans against a great redwood, her eyes closed and head shaking. Facing away from him, she says, “…somewhere in the light,” then turns to him, “promise me something.” That moment when she turns to him, she goes from having her eyes closed – suffering far away – to staring directly into his eyes with a desperate plea. The quick movement of her head transporting her character between emotional states, I could be blowing this way out of proportion, but I found her timing and precision was incredible and it immediately brought Klaus Kinski to mind.

I simply want to show respect where it is due, and be reminded how great acting is built on smaller moments such as these. If anyone else has been struck by moments like these, feel free to share, I love hearing about the little details… a-hem, er, you know what I mean.

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