Film Review : Still Life (2006)

IMDB Score – 7.3

Directed By – Zhangke Jia
Starring – Tao Zhao, Zhou Lan, Sanming Han, Lizhen Ma, and Hongwei Wang

Citizens return to a flooded town to salvage what they can and say good-bye to things they lost.

It’s funny how my Netflix queues tend to come together at weird points. Two films directed by Zhangke Jia managed to find their way into future viewing by me and I didn’t even plan the damn thing. “Still Life” came in the mail yesterday and I have “A Touch of Sin” lined up for my next viewing in my Instant Queue. I’ve never seen any of his films before and did not plan this is the slightest. Weird.

Anyway, obviously I sat down to watch Still Life” first, as the mail service is longer and more expensive. Gotta get those discs out of here quick so that my monthly bill is worth it. The film ended up being a pretty interesting watch, albeit very slow, which is not a negative. The film centers around two people who never meet during the duration of the film, as they try to seek out their spouses whom they haven’t seen for years. The story told in the film is a loose one. Neither story arch comes into full focus and only briefly concludes by the end of the film. However, this is a unique film. Zhangke Jia managed to tell and show a lot more than what was most likely written down in the script. The film takes place in the area near the Three Gorges Dam that is to be demolished before eventually being flooded by the dam. Some parts have already been flooded and the rest is being taken care of as the Dam project begins to progress. We are literally seeing people having to move out of areas where they spent the majority of their lives, and they can’t take everything. They have to choose. What is important? What is to stay behind. It is this theme where the emotion comes from in the form of our two protagonists quests to find their spouses. When they find them, will they try to salvage what is left? Will they let them go to nature? Powerful stuff.

The film is gorgeous by the way. In an almost Michael Haneke style, Zhangke Jia let the camera sit a lot and just take in the silence and body language of what was being shown. There were many shots of characters standing before a lush and open landscape that was both beautiful and frightening due to its humongous scale. Images of boats traveling through huge gorges painted most of the scenes and still camera shots of town inhabitants smoking who knows what as they take a break from their labor fill in the cracks. I love this kind of film making. By leaving the camera still on a subject, and letting the scene play out, I get a more realistic feel and can enter the world easier. It also lets the powerful moments register with more weight when you’re not having a rising maelstrom of lights and music to scream to the viewer that what they are witnessing is important. Don’t pander to me film. Let me do the work occasionally.

“Still Life” is a very unique but ultimately rewarding film with subtle imagery galore and packed with symbolism. It may not be a re watchable film, but the photography and heavy message of letting go gave me a unique experience and a good reintroduction to Chinese cinema. I’ll be watching Zhangke Jia’s most recent film “A Touch of Sin” next.


Suggested Viewing – Still Walking, Poetry, Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Film Review : Life of Pi (2012)

IMDB Score – 8.1
Rotten Tomato Score – 87%
Academy Award Winner for Directing, Cinematography, Original Score, and Visual Effects

Directed By – Ang Lee
Starring – Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, and Rafe Spall

A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor: a fearsome Bengal tiger.

Sitting on my DVR for over three months, Life of Pi finally was able to breach the wall into my procrastinating face. I regret not seeing it sooner. I regret not seeing it in theaters. I regret not seeing it in 3D. It’s honestly one of the very few films that I am literally kicking myself for not seeing in the theater. I sat through “Avatar”. I paid to see “World War Z”. Yet I couldn’t get off my ass to go see this film while it was in theaters for three months. What a missed opportunity. Let’s just get this out of the way. I LOVED the film. I couldn’t have loved it more. It was perfect in my eyes. Is it one of the best movies I’ve ever seen? No, but just because a film doesn’t make your all time favorite list, doesn’t mean it isn’t a flawless film. I don’t think I can explain it other than I’ll be watching this film for many years to come. It just so happens to be a film that goes against all my favorite films. It’s like rainbow in a universe of thunderstorms. I love thunderstorms.

So let’s try to get through this piece as coherently as possible. I’m not going to lie, I’m probably going to get lost along the way, but this is how I write and the world will have to accept that. “Life of Pi” is a film about the meaning of life. There. I said it. Ang Lee, who has always made films with moral themes, constructed a film adapted from the Yann Martel novel of the same name with an idea. The idea was that he wanted to change the way you think and look at the world. Did he accomplish his goal with me? No. I’ve been pondering the meaning of life for a long time now and I think I have it figured out.

Guys. I’m not serious. Calm down.

There is actually some truth in that though. I’m not a religious person. In brief, my beliefs lay in what I like to call “agnostic ignorance”. In short, I don’t believe in a God, but I’m a 24 year old kid from New Jersey. What the hell do I know? There have been countless unexplained events throughout history that no living being on this earth can explain. Science has been able to explain about 99% of that, but that last 1% is where my doubt lays. I can’t possibly adhere to a belief that God exists or God doesn’t exists. I just have no way of knowing. I am however, entirely open to the idea of change. If something happens in my life that expresses the true meaning of life, then I’ll embrace it with open arms. Until then, I’ll be the casual observer trying to take in as much as possible…much like our protagonist, Pi.

From a small age Pi learns the wonder free thinking and choice. He studies and tries to find connections with many things such as animals, people, and religion. He practices Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Pi grows up and eventually has to move away from his country. The family, which owns a zoo, is moving to Canada and is bringing the animals with them to eventually sell to American companies. In order to transport the animals safely, the family boards a freight barge and starts out for the pacific. Disaster strikes, and Pi finds himself on a raft with a few animals, including an adult Bengal tiger. Giving away anything else would only ruin the experience so I’ll stop there.

When the movie reached this point I was being entertained but I did not know yet what I was in store for. I expected a survival story, maybe a few scenes where we see Pi trying to befriend the tiger and a harrowing rescue. What I ended up getting was much more than that. It was a soup of symbolism, astonishing camera work, visuals, and purpose. Ang Lee and his visual effect team took me into their world. Isn’t that what film is supposed to do? I have always found the great films of our generation to be time machines. They transport you from one place, this case being my bed, to an entirely new and different world. The thing is, you can’t just have great visuals. “Avatar” was a marvel to watch but substance wise it was basically Pocahontas with green people and future war helicopters. “Life of Pi” managed to transport myself into the pacific ocean with a Tiger. I was on that boat. The screenplay was crisp and the opposite of boring. There was just the right amount of space in between progressions to let the viewer take in the situation Pi has found himself in. Like great fantasy films before it, “Life of Pi” was able to show me thing I’ve never seen before while still holding my attention in the story.

The film was beautiful. Like I said, I’m kicking myself for not seeing this in the theater. The incredible night time shots mixed with dark vibrant blue and green colors were seriously some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. The tiger which was mainly CGI, looked so real that I was actually surprised when I read that only a few of the scenes had an actual tiger in it. They were mostly scenes of the tiger swimming. The ability to direct a film that takes place mostly on open sea and doing so without boring the audience is why Ang lee won his second Oscar for best director. He utilized his incredible visual effects team and a beautiful story by Yann Martel to create one of the most immersing films I’ve ever seen.

Before I finish, I want to talk about the moral themes of this films. If you haven’t seen the film and want to go into it without any knowledge of the ideals brought to light at the conclusion then please stop reading and go watch it for yourself. Otherwise…

The whole theme of God is very prominent throughout the film but it’s the message told by an adult Pi at the end that really stuck with me. As I said before, the idea of going through life trying to figure out its mysteries is what keeps me from falling into a dark depression. I hope I live to 120 years old to try to figure it all out and while that is unlikely, I hope to still get as close to true enlightenment as possible. I don’t think I’m there yet. I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t feel it in my heart. I don’t particularly think that life is meaningless either. I used to. I used to think that when we die we lay in the ground and become ash. The light just goes out. I’m starting to realize that there is more to it than that. There has to be a reason for all this discovery. I would hate to think that everything we experience is lost when our body finally decides it has had enough. It is this urge to live on that keeps me from going down dark paths. This was the overall message for me. The film lets the viewer decide what is real and what is not. If you like the story with the 600 pound tiger afloat with a man at sea for months then it is your right to believe it. If you find that story completely unrealistic and silly then you have the right to do so. Many people like to believe the former. I myself like to find a balance between the two.

Life isn’t all rainbows and happiness. Dark and cruel things happen in this world that can not possible be explained or justified through the eyes of man. You can not blame a higher power or cast that name in vain. Life happens. Ships sink. People die. It is what you do in the face of all these things that gives life its meaning. The relationships you have with people and the relationship you have with yourself is where you should find true meaning. If it is in fact true that there is no life after death and that we all just flicker out like candles during a windy night, then I would at least take solace in the fact that my life was a good story. That’s all I can ask for.

Wonderful film.


Film Review : All is Lost (2013)

IMDB Score – 7.4
Rotten Tomato Score – 94%

Directed by – J.C. Chandor
Starring – Robert Redford

After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.

This has been a fantastic fall as far as superior and unique films is concerned. I’ve been waiting to see this since I first heard about it over the summer and it really didn’t let me down. I was fortunate enough to see it with a audience that for the most part was courteous as there is barely any dialogue in the entire film and really leans of the sound editing to carry the mood. The story was simple yet very effective at keeping the tense situation realistic and engrossing. I haven’t seen Margin Call yet but I know that it received huge praise for its writing and I’d like to check it out after seeing this. J.C. Chandor crafted a beautiful script with deep meaning to go along with a great survival story. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Robert Redford carries this film. He has to. He’s the only person in it. He barely speaks but has managed to turn in a career performance and arguably the best this year. I still need to see Captain Phillips a second time so I can focus more of Tom Hank’s performance but I was just floored by Redford’s ability at his age to carry a film still. It helps that he’s playing a man who is a total badass. I learned a lot about being at sea from this film and even though the guy could have used a GPS tracker, it was a realistic visualization of what being stranded at sea can be like. I also really appreciated the ending. Some people don’t like ambiguous endings but I love trying to fill in the blanks and come up with my own theories on what happened.

All is Lost is a fantastic film and anchored (yeah, puns happen okay?) by a monumental performance by Robert Redford.