Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.
Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?
Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?
Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.
The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees. NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Sean Penn, Milk
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Chiewetel Ejiofor, Redbelt
Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché
Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky
DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian
Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy
Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder
DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married
Rachel Getting Married
DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long
DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road
Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader
DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In
BEST DOCUMENTARY QUAGMIRE
Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow.
Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog
Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’
The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown.
For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.
It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.”
Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth.
Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers.
The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary.
For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.
Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.
Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset. For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.
Film Review: The Wrestler
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
If you look back at the last four years of leading actors you may notice a trend of performances that early on managed to secure a sweep of all major acting awards, often times despite the overall merit of the film. Jamie Foxx in Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, each won for their portrayals in decent but hardly perfect biopics. Last year Daniel Day Lewis turned in a masterful performance that towered high above the rest and was destined for glory at all major award ceremonies. While 2008 has a number of strong contenders a clear victor has already proved that this pre-award season Oscar hype trend is sure to be continued.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was labeled, rather prematurely one might add, as the comeback role of the once great Mickey Rourke. To be fair to Rourke the actor’s most surprising “back in the spotlight” role came in 2005 as grizzled Marv in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. While not heralded as award caliber, Rourke turned in one hell of a scene stealing supporting performance in the highly stylized comic book film. What The Wrestler really captures is a deeply personal character study from an actor, who like the tragic, beat up wrestler he portrays, has had his share of highs and lows. To say that this is a career role is an understatement, in many ways it was the role Rourke was destined to play.
What’s striking about The Wrestler is that at its core its nothing more than an underdog sports film in the tradition of its boxing brethren Rocky or Cinderella Man, to name a few. It’s predictable–following the timeless formula of the tragic figure’s return to glory–but its clear that Aronofsky and Rourke understand this but don’t care. The film manages to be fresh thanks to Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and the fact that the film inhabits a world most people don’t really know anything about.
In interviews with Aronofsky the director has expressed that early on in his career he envisioned a film entitled The Wrestler, since the world of professional wrestling had never been covered seriously in film. It’s in this film’s fascinating content that The Wrestler is more than simply a vehicle for a great performance (for example the aforementioned Ray or Last King of Scotland) but rather one of the better films this year.
While Rourke’s The Ram once inhabited the mega stardom world of professional wrestling in the 1980s–as seen through the character’s aging fans, personalized action figure, early Nintendo game character–The Wrestler is more concerned about what eventually happens to the once great players in an industry that has since lost its way.
Professional wrestling has always been staged and because of this falls in the realm of entertainment rather than sport. While arguably as popular in the 80s and early 90s as other professional sports, ever since the mass realization of its choreographed nature–as seen in its name change from World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment–wrestling has since become more niche and as a result more gritty. Ram’s glory days of the flashing spotlights, colored spandex, and roaring battles at Madison Square Garden have long been replaced with elementary school gyms, hardcore wrestling moves involving glass, staple guns, and self-induced wounds, not too mention a body that has seen better days.
Besides The Wrestler’s goofy subject matter (and the film is quite funny at times) The Ram is no different than any other once famous athlete who’s been forgotten and tossed aside. But unlike the forefather’s of say basketball or football who are embraced with hall of fame inductions, endorsement agreements, and an overall carefree retired existence, The Ram feels the sting of failure and loneliness.
It’s fitting that he finds comfort in his weekly lap dance with an aging stripper (played equally well by Marisa Tomei, an actress who here also turns in a career high supporting performance) both are professional entertainers in an industry with no respect and both are stuck in aging, occupation hindering bodies. A separate movie called The Stripper could also be made and would be equally as tragic and engaging as The Wrestler provided the right star and filmmaker were on board.
Aronofsky tackles this film and the world of wrestling much like a documentarian might. The supporting cast is made up of primarily real-life wrestlers, each of whom play off Rourke as if he were their equal. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place early on with the behind the crowd pre-match pow-wows in which the performers discuss their upcoming moves and end games much like musicians discuss their setlists. We as the viewer are being sucked into a world most of us never think about and this is the beauty of The Wrestler. We realize wrestling is fake, but beyond that we are clueless to the time and thought that goes into each performance, not to mention the toll the profession takes on its players both physically and mentally. In a field like wrestling, stripping or any other questionable career in entertainment it’s easy to forget the people behind the characters.
Rourke has his share of tender, teary-eyed moments, most memorably in scenes alongside his estranged daughter whom he attempts to reconnect with. Still it’s his ability to flawlessly transform into The Ram that will no doubt seal the deal for Rourke come award season. His beat up, steroid fueled body (Rourke’s prior foray into the brutal world of professional boxing not to mention questionable plastic surgery procedures no doubt helped his physical transformation), his second nature facial twitches, his lonely mumbling, and his charming interactions with fellow wrestlers, deli counter customers and young fans all enable this successful portrayal.
According to early reports from The Hollywood Reporter Nicolas Cage was originally in line to star in The Wrestler. After watching Rourke come out of his hibernation with this performance it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this role, in fact the casting choices truly defined this film.
Rourke’s toughest competitor this year will be the mighty Sean Penn whose mesmerizing turn as Harvey Milk was also a career defining performance. Still the sacrifices endured for taking on The Ram make this role all the more juicy.
The Wrestler is a rare success of a film, one that features an untouchable performance while also providing a compelling look into a world foreign to most viewers. If the criterion for a truly great film is being able to transport viewers away from their comfort zone into the unfamiliar and ultimately change the way we perceive the unsung world being portrayed, The Wrestler is a masterpiece. If great acting is shedding all common real life presumptions and misconceptions by completely absorbing the character, Mickey Rourke is this year’s acting champ.
DVD Review 2-Disc Special Edition of Baraka
Few films are able to truly show our world for what it is better than Ron Fricke’s Baraka. From its mesmerizing beauty to its often-troubling complexities, Baraka is a universal masterpiece of filmmaking. To this end the film is essential viewing for any and everyone even remotely interested in the bigger picture
To appreciate Baraka one must appreciate the complexities of the world we inhabit. One must be able to be in total awe of its splendors while being equally as disgusted in its horrors. The film is a testament to how beautiful and how horrific this planet and those who inhabit can be and furthermore how despite our many differences people share the same common thread of being human.
The word ‘Baraka’ has various meanings and is a staple in a handful of global languages. Ron Fricke has often spoken of its Arabic and ancient Sufi roots, roughly translated to “the thread that weaves life together.” The daily grind of life–both at a natural pure level and man-made–is the film’s focus. The globetrotting editing, the fast time-lapse photography and the film’s depictions of humans as tiny parts of a vastly bigger whole offer viewers a glimpse at how immense but also how united this planet is. When it’s all said and done life is what ties this world together.
Shot over the course of 14 months at 152 locations of 24 countries, on six major continents, Baraka is also a traveler’s dream project–a hypnotic trek of the planet and its many cultures told simply through the marriage of motion pictures and music. From a cinematographer’s standpoint Baraka may be one of the finest photographed films ever made, revolutionizing preexisting large format motion picture technologies (the film was shot in the 65mm Todd AO format then transferred to 70mm print stock, resulting in extreme widescreen shots originally used for epic films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s).
Baraka was released in 1992 and has since then fallen into the depths of cult film status–unfortunate considering the film’s timelessness and international appeal for viewers. Its relevance today is marked by its recent re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray hi-def format, a technological feat that makes the film even more impressive than its past home video incarnations. For the first time ever the film was scanned at 8K resolution, a revolutionary digital transfer process designed solely for Baraka, which may end up becoming the standard for future hi-definition film releases. The scan, which supposedly took three weeks to complete (a post scan detailed digital restoration would take even more time), presents Baraka in the way the filmmakers intended–with an all-encompassing widescreen presentation and with just the right amount of color and image rejuvenation.
As for the hi-def format of the film (which, sadly this writer has not yet been able to experience) if ever there was a reason to invest in Blu-Ray–clearly the future of home video entertainment–Baraka is it. Supposedly the level of detail and vibrant color saturation makes the eye candy images of the Planet Earth hi-def series look like child’s play. But enough with the technology focused DVD marketing.
Much like watching a sunset Baraka has the ability to put the viewer in a trance the minute the film begins. It is also a film that resonates long after its initial viewing with those who have seen it rarely experiencing the film only once.
Opening with sweeping shots of the planet’s highest points at the Himalaya mountain ranges the film is then taken down to earth as we glimpse into the daily routine of the rare Japanese snow monkeys living in the moment. The camera closes in on the sole creature enjoying the nearby natural hot spring, simply being; living in a Zen like state. From the epic ceiling of the planet to the simplest of its inhabitants, before the film’s title shot in front of a perfect lunar eclipse, one gets the notion that Baraka is going to be a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.
It should be noted that the film’s editing is as impressive as the photography with Fricke and team sporadically transporting the viewer all around the globe from frame to frame. Baraka does not feature any dialogue nor is it rooted with a traditional storyline. Besides the beautifully scored music the only natural sounds heard are those of certain tribal songs and the ambient sounds of nature. What’s striking about Baraka is despite the film’s non-traditional structure and flow a central narrative somehow emerges.
One moment we’re viewing a primitive aboriginal tribe perform a funeral ritual, ten minutes later we’re taken to modern day Tokyo, a bustling, densely populated metropolis world’s apart from the aforementioned primordial setting. Later as the camera surveys some of the planets most visually breathtaking sites–Western U.S. rock formations, Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu waterfalls, the mount Bromo volcano range in Indonesia–the viewer is then transported to mankind’s uglier side.
The slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endless garbage dumps in Calcutta, India serve as reminders of the chaos that somehow balances out the harmony. From flourishing life in a remote Kenyan tribe where villagers dress in vibrant garments to the bleak realities of Cambodia’s killing fields, Baraka doesn’t shy from highlighting our planet’s lightest and darkest moments.
Baraka carries a spiritual message as well and could be perceived as a bit preachy at times. Still, nitpicking aside, it’s hard to deny the film’s central messages. Being one with nature seen through the Tibetan monks in prayer, the hypnotizing dance of the Dervishes, or the elderly Japanese peering out at a seamlessly perfect rock garden is key to understanding the film. Throughout Baraka there are plenty of moments showing the planet’s chaos–from the densely populated streets of pedestrians and toy like cars, to the shots inside endless factories and sweatshops–and also its grandeur. Watching the film it’s easy to get blown away by just how immense life and this is very much its intention.
Film has always been a universal medium still there are very few films that should be essential viewing for all. Baraka without a doubt fits the criteria as a must see film. Its scope reaches for beyond simple nature documentaries (while similar in terms of photographical achievement Baraka is far more important and ambitious than BBC’s epic Planet Earth miniseries) and somehow manages to be more impressive than its sister films, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy–comprised of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi–of which Ron Fricke first made his presence known as cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi.
The recent DVD release of Baraka should have received more attention and praise than has been bestowed (apart from its notoriety among cineastes alike, Baraka’s foray into the Blu-Ray market should spark the interest of any and all people in the retail industry interested in selling this new technology) but alas its release was overlooked. Besides its crystal clear picture (which one would assume is even more stunning in hi-def), lush color saturation and digital soundtrack remixing (an entire essay could be written in praise of composer Michael Stern’s score for the film in conjunction with Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance and the Gladiator soundtrack), the two-disc special edition of the film features a fascinating behind the scenes making-of documentary. Chronicling the film’s extensive shooting schedule (which followed the lunar full moon cycle so as to ensure night shots were well lit) the mini-featurette provides fascinating insights into how Fricke and his crew selected and attained rights to film at the various sights. Interesting tidbits regarding the homemade camera equipment and time lapse system are also worth noting.
For those who have seen the film now is as good a time as ever for its revisit. For those who have yet to experience Baraka the film exceeds any and all written praise for its power lies in its ability to suck the viewer in.
It might be wishful thinking to hope that the new DVD release might also prompt the film’s return to theaters (a transfer to IMAX, a medium that Fricke worked with for his second feature film Chronos, would also be welcomed) but if ever there was a film to be seen on the big screen this is it.
It should also be noted that Fricke has supposedly been filming an unofficial sequel to Baraka called Samsara, which, according to a press release from the filmmakers at http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/samsara-press.aspx, will be released sometime in 2009. The film will continue Baraka’s tradition of spiritual undertones this time focusing its attention on the cycles of life on the planet. According to reports the filming has taken Fricke and his team to over 20 different countries and the film has been shot in a new 70mm HD format that subsequently “will be the ultimate showpiece for both the HD format and high-resolution digital projection, as well as standard film projection.”
Baraka is not a conventional Hollywood film and will not be the first film to jump off the shelf at your local video store still its an important piece of art transcends all prior conceptions of what films should be. The film has the almost mystical ability to draw you in unlike any movie-going experience before and after its release. While some may find its unconventional format distracting, it’s safe to say that those who experience it gain a new outlook on life and a newfound intrigue towards this planet’s cultural diversity.
One of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline.
A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?
Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film.
As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.
Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.
Much of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play.
The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot.
Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux.
Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.
“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison.
Daunting may be the most appropriate word to describe Jonathan Demme’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married. The film is a painfully honest look at the modern marriage, the struggles with addiction–in regards to substance abuse and the addiction to resentment–the pitfalls of life in suburbia, and above all the binds of family. It is also one of the finest films of the year.