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Tag: Akira Kurosawa

Best Movies To Travel To

Best Movies To Travel To

It’s summer in most of Asia, which means heat, sweaty, hot, shirt sticking to you no relief in sight mold literally growing on you dampness. Rather than another boring “How To Beat the Heat” post, which never really work, how about just distracting that part of your brain always reminding you of the barometer reading with some classics from the closet? Don’t have the money to travel the world? Why not take a trip of the mind? Put down the magic mushrooms and let HESO come up with the best movies to travel to. This is what I watched as I country hopped across the globe without a plane.

Best Movies To Travel To

Best Movies To Travel To

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

JapanYôjinbô (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

As history has shown by the sheer number of remakes, as well as establishing the Dashiell Hammett man-with-no-name persona, this period drama of a wandering samurai amusing himself for the greater good has become the prototypical Japanese Western. One of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it has all the essential pieces of a classic: understated and brilliant acting by the exhausting Toshirō Mifune, leading a surprisingly decent cast of supporting actors, while being shot by the preeminent cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, yet it’s the simplicity with which Kurosawa brings and keeps all of these powerful elements together, even when they one or another seems to want to strike out and imbalance the masterful story-telling at work here. Overall a great way to feel good about setting out on the unknown road and seeing where the wind leads you. Sayonara Japan.

ChinaJing Wu Men aka Fist of Fury (Lo Wei, 1972)

Not exactly “Made In China”, but set there, specifically in the foreign settlements of Shanghai, where the Chinese martial artists the story centers around are generally a pitiful bunch, beaten and bullied by their supposed Karate-practicing Japanese betters. That is, until Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) returns to find his teacher mysteriously dead. The acting and the martial arts are as bad as the choppy-cut, off-kilter cinematography. Even Lee, acting in his second film since Fists of Fury (not to be confused with this singular tense flick…apparently only one of his fists were working at this time), is melodramatic, regularly misses cues and is generally portrayed as a fighter who is skillful yet stupid, talented yet proud and basically alienates most everyone around him until they end up dead and he finally kicks it into high gear and kicks some serious Jap ass. A must see if only for the 60s-era California surfer-boy voice-overs. Great for replacing Japanese pride for Chinese grit.

Best Movies To Travel To

Genghis Khan (Henry Levin, 1965)

MongoliaGenghis Khan (Henry Levin, 1965)

There are so many (bad) films about Genghis Khan that it was a tough choice including one on this list, yet what other movie about Mongolia (that you would want to watch) would qualify? Genghis is the end all be all Mongol and it would be pure chicanery to suggest that in one month of traveling roughshod through the country I didn’t take solace and respite in at least one film. This one beats out the recent Genghis piece done by the Kazakh Sergei simply because it stars Omar Sharif as Temujin (later Genghis Khan), James Mason, Eli Wallach as a Shah, Telly Savalas (who despite his lack of lollipop prop is oddly engaging) and white man extraordinaire Robert Morley as the Emperor of China, of course. What else need be said? Watch this and realize that this is Sharif (who also acted in Dr. Zhivago in the same year) at his peak, then go to Mongolia, get on a horse and reenact it yourself.

RussiaRusskiy Kovcheg aka Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

More than any other film on this list, Russian Ark, is both cinematographically astounding and stultifyingly dense, and is worth watching more than once, but only by those with more than a passing interest in Russian history, (which admittedly might be a rather low number), or those who love beautiful camera work. Despite Aleksandr Sokurov’s brilliant work pulling this brash work set in Saint Petersburg’s Heritage Museum off, it is the single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot by Director of Photography/Steadicam Operator Tilman Büttner that, more than being a merely extraordinary piece of work, embodies the dreamlike feel that film should be all about, all the time. Simply stunning.

Best Movies To Travel To

The Singing Revolution (James Tusty, 2007)

EstoniaThe Singing Revolution (James Tusty & Maureen Castle Tusty, 2006)

It’s okay to answer the question, “What do you know about Estonia?” with, “Not much.” Which is why you should watch the captivating documentary by American-Estonian husband and wife team James and Maureen Castle Tusty, who in 1999, and after extensive research, went to Tallinn, Estonia after less than a decade of independence from Soviet rule to interview and film an essential historical document about a country few know anything about, who successfully sang for their freedom from 1988 to 1991 when they declared themselves a sovereign nation, despite failed, though aggressive Soviet tank deployment. A great insight into the indomitable spirit of a largely undiscovered, beautiful land and its (women) people.

PolandTrzy Kolory: Bialy aka Three Colors: White (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994-1996)

In France, the Trois Couleurs trilogy, based upon the ideals of the French Revolution (Liberte, Equalite, Fraternite) is deservedly famous, but has understandably lacked popular attention in the U.S. for Polish-born director Krzysztof Kieslowski. A truly amazing black comedy- and the only one of the three actually set (mostly) in Poland- this film sees its browbeaten protagonist go from put-upon pauper to super-nouveau riche while attempting to foil organized crime syndicates all in an effort to seek justice (equality) for his wife’s initial cruelty. Wow. People should watch more French films. And go to Poland: the food is good, the women are beautiful and crime is, as they say, easy.

DenmarkAntichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

Until I did a bit of research, Lars von Trier’s intensely phlegmatic films always struck me, as did his name, as being of German extract. Europe being of local character, and Denmark being situated as it is just to north of their attention-hogging neighbors, it is not difficult to confuse the infamous director’s chaotic and harsh settings with Nazi-period experimental films. For good or ill von Trier is confrontational and controversial simply because of the subject matter he so deftly portrays. Antichrist is no different. The beauty and horror of its imagery will haunt you, and maybe even plant the seeds of discontent in seemingly successful relationships, such as mine and my ex’s. Though maybe not. Regardless, it is devastating and beautiful. Guard your groin and watch with trepidation.

Best Movies To Travel To

Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1991)

FranceDelicatessen (Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991)

Who hasn’t always wanted to live in Paris, at least for a little while, perhaps because of watching too many French New Wave films during college, perhaps to experience the “real” Patats de Liberté. Trips to the City of Light, however, often never quite deliver as much as the films of one of the most well-known directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (here paired with Marc Caro), have. Are you still sans beautiful French nymphette? Have you never experienced a proper public transportation strike? What about eaten Brie along with a great bottle of vintage Vin de Bourgogne and then French kissed Audrey Tautou? Nor more realistically have you eaten your neighbors, led a team of subterranean vegetarian revolutionaries or fallen in love with the landlord’s daughter. Obviously you have yet to live. Watch Delicatessen, and its sequels, and you just might.

USAIn America (Jim Sheridan, 2002)

In America is, simply speaking, one of those kind of beautiful cinematic renditions of why America is, in theory, so great. More than Jim Sheridan’s almost signature underhanded (yet somehow understated) sentimentality, the film succeeds in pulling our amber waves of grain for purple mountain majesties heart strings due to meticulous direction by famed Irish creator of My Left Foot Sheridan. Yet it is the even keeled acting of a surprisingly powerful ensemble cast (and atypically great child acting) that pulls the film into the well deserved characterization of “modern classic”.

The Atlantic OceanThe Perfect Storm (Wolfgang Peterson, 2000)

Best Movies To Travel To

Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)

Taking a cruise? Ferry? Trans-Atlantic Cargo Ship? Or just going deep sea fishing for the last of the big game fish? Whatever your summer plans, better see disaster film specialist Wolfgang Peterson’s take on Sebastian Junger’s account of the storm to end all storms: The Perfect Storm. Featuring a cast much more talented than the very 90s ABC Sunday Night Movie feeling effort brings forth to the big screen, this is more a showcase of what would become Peterson’s trademark digital disaster effects. Fun with friends and alcohol.

Deep Blue SeaDeep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)

Hands down Renny Harlin’s best film is The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990). No argument. Otherwise known for his sequels, he has a knack of bringing out the worst in otherwise decent actors (Bruce Willis, Samuel Jackson), while coaxing fun performances out of unexpected places (Andrew Dice Clay, LL Cool J). Despite what some would say has been a disappointing career, the Finnish-born director is persistent in working to bring his ideas to the big screen. One of the best (to drink to) is Deep Blue Sea, a story based on using DNA from “enhanced” sharks to cure Alzheimer’s Disease, a completely plausible storyline given credence by Caucasian-sounding Jackson’s command performance. Too bad the Diceman was unavailable to be the sharks’ straight man.

LostLost (J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, 2004)

Man Vs. WildMan Vs. Wild (Discovery Channel, 2006)

The last 17 episodes of the sixth season of Lost deserve to be watched back to back to back. In order to properly appreciate the confusingly profound (maybe?) final season it would be best to have already been avoiding the popular media outlets for some months. Having no idea what’s going on, nor caring, until the end, about the real world, is maybe the only attitude to take. Though one would like to make it to New York and see friends and family waving like a long lost soldier finally coming home, it’s not altogether an inexplicable thought pattern to desire for the cruise ship to crash on some heretofore yet uncharted mid-Atlantic island. Weird, isn’t it? In order to be successful to seduce stranded warrior women, hunt for tropical polar bears, negotiate peace between Good & Evil, one would do well to study Bear Grylls’ curriculum vitae of eating insects, reptiles and raw boar testicles, squeezing drinking water out of animal crap, and making rafts and signal fires out of what materials you have around. What better combination of television shows than Lost & Man Vs. Wild to keep you company on your Trans-Atlantic voyage?

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

Classic Old School Flick – High & Low

“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

— Tsunetomo Yamamoto 山本常朝, Hagakure 葉隠

Classic Old School Flick – High & Low

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

High & Low – Akira Kurosawa

By the time 1963 rolled around for Akira Kurosawa, he had already directed Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood (the Japanese MacBeth), The Hidden Fortress (known to have deeply influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars scenes on Tatooine), Yojimbo (the scenario for which Sergio Leone would later base A Fistful of Dollars aka The Man with No Name Spaghetti Western Trilogy opener) as well as 17 other films, earning himself the nickname “Tenno” (meaning emperor), before taking on his next challenge, High and Low.

Toshirō Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa’s films, almost always playing the samurai he came to epitomize to the world. In High & Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a hard-working executive of a shoe company whose son becomes the target of a kidnapping plot. The kidnappers mistakenly nab his chauffeur’s son, yet Gondo still vows to get the child back. He fronts his own money despite the possibility of a ruined business transaction and personal financial shame. In truth, Mifune’s Gondo is still very much the character he mastered in all of those bushido-era films, tough and pragmatic, austere and sentimental, a samurai warrior in businessman’s clothing. Very Musashi Miyamoto (a role he portrayed in the 1954-56 Samurai Trilogy – directed by Hiroshi Inagaki). Kurosawa said that Mifune could display in three feet of film what it took others ten. That is possibly why his career spans six decades and over 150 films. Often playing a ronin, that is to say a samurai with no retainer, what his portrayals represent is a sense of the outsider’s role in society. Yet behind the characters he played there are the very real similarities he brought to his films, experiences and actions he could call on to deliver in a film so different, at least on the surface, from his usual character. In life, as in his art, it seems he always understood the Samurai mindset that “death is always at one’s door, (so) one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

Born in Qingdao, China to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Dalian under what were likely the auspices of Imperial Japan’s attempts to Japanify “Manchukuo” via the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, he was as outsider from birth. As a non-Buddhist (he had ties to Methodism) and an actor he had little chance to marry well after returning home from working in the Japanese aerial photography unit during World War II, yet he managed to convince the parents of a respected family to do just that. It seemed he threw himself into everything he did, full force: his marriage, his mistress(es), his children, his films, roles, smoking, and what eventually became a three decade rift between arguably the greatest director / actor collaboration in film history.

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

Follow the man in the glasses…

High & Low (天国と地獄), the second to last film the pair worked on together, is arguably one of his most interesting portrayals of stratified class systems in Japan, though in reality a story that transcends race and borders. Focusing on the beginning of Japan’s economic boom in the early 60s, it is filled with stark contrasts ranging from the monochrome film stock itself to the societal hierarchies Kurosawa portrays with his brand of bare-bones cinematography, a kind of harsh tenderness set to film, letting the story unfold naturally. The film plays in two parts, juxtaposing the worlds of rich man and poor man, high and low, heaven and hell. Kurosawa exposes the grit of everyday life on the low side: the squelch of the train, the annoying voices of the passersby, the view of Gondo’s hillside mansion from our perpetrator’s shack-like window. Compare this to the relative silence of Gondo’s comfortable house, its usual peace interrupted only by the feverish though somehow inept police and the ringing of the phone: the squawk of the low intruding into the aerie of the high. Kurosawa masterfully blends his trademark elements together to create an intensity of development in which these two worlds inevitably collide. The deeper theme is the stratification of an emerging capitalist economy; there are those who rise and those who fall. Gondo is a shoeman who comes from a long line of shoemen. In old Edo, shoemen, tanners, and blacksmiths were of a cast known as Hisabetsu Buraku or Burakumin, the “Discriminated Communities”. Gondo, who came from this low class and jumped to the high ground, is an example of a new era of discrimination based not on race, creed or religion, but on money and the corporation. It takes someone like Gondo, who has more than likely lived in both worlds, to not allow mere money to determine the fate or honor of both men.

This is also emblematic of the rift between Kurosawa and Mifune which began a few years after the filming of this movie. Despite their success together they grew apart professionally and philosophically in a way which ominously mirrored their careers. Mifune continued to rise and gain international acclaim while Kurosawa, though he directed many more films, never again captured the magic of Rashōmon or Seven Samurai, largely due to Mifune’s absence as the Kamikaze presence Kurosawa’s often slow, maudlin screenplays required to achieve proper balance between arthouse introspection and hollywood extravaganza. They made up, but not before Mifune portrayed Yoshi Toranaga in the televised version of James Clavell’s Shōgun. High and Low indeed.

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