DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Friday, 20 March 2015

Still Life

Jia Zhangke's revered masterwork of the last decade shines as one of the definitive films of this unique period in political, economic and industrial change in China. Still Life, a haunting medidative work, magnificently juxtaposes the journey of two lost souls in search of their loved ones against the background of a centuries-old rural way of life about to be drowned for all eternity by rapid progress.

Still Life (2006) dir. Jia Zhangke
Starring: Tao Zhao, Zhou Lan, Sanming Han, Lizhen Ma, Hongwei Wang

By Alan Bacchus

The Three Gorges Dam is China’s massive hydroelectric dam, a marvel of engineering built in 2006 and the largest power station in the world. As a manmade structure that tamed the great Yangtze River, it became a symbol of the might of the new Chinese economy. But because of the ensuing environmental impact and displacement of millions of rural citizens, it’s also seen as a stake for liberal activism in the country.

Ironically, out of this massive economic change and upheaval begat a number of great international films in the past few years. Yung Chang’s great documentary, Up the Zangtze, showed this change from the point of view of a tourist sailing a boat on the river. Jia Zhangke’s celebrated Venice Golden Lion winner, Still Life, is arguably the crowning artistic statement of this period of change.

Han Sanming is a coalminer arriving in the town of Fengjie, which is about to be flooded. He’s searching for his wife who left him 16 years ago with a daughter he’s never seen. Han goes from person to person asking about his wife and where she might be, with each person guiding him to the next, like connect the dots. There’s also Shen Hong, a nurse in Fengjie, who is searching for her husband, Guo Bing, who hasn’t come home in 2 years. Like Han, she wanders through the near wasteland of vacant buildings and impossibly beautiful mountainous landscapes looking for answers.

Through the compartmentalization of Han's and Shen’s scenes (Han is featured in the first third, Shen in the second, then Han again in the final third), Zhangke forms a rudimentary three act structure. But nothing at all feels familiar in Zhangke’s world. While the real-life personalities he finds and uses as actors in his film along the way lend an observational documentary-like feel, there’s a strong tone of mystical realism. At one point from Shen’s daydreaming point of view we see her imagining one of the derelict building skeletons suddenly launching into the sky like a rocket ship. Zhangke elegantly weaves these elements of spiritual fantasy into deeply emotional personal character stories.

Despite the title, Still Life seems to be constantly in motion, albeit slow and methodical at a snail’s pace. But it is motion and we can feel it. In every frame, people are constantly working like worker bee drones in unity for the greater purpose, either swinging sledgehammers to demolish the massive buildings that now look like industrial carcasses of the former Communist era, or operating large and complex machinery while making trinkets for the West.

Or perhaps it's a Maoist metaphor for the ability of the Chinese people to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Zhangke’s camera complements these themes, moving at the same pace, creeping into its subjects like a Hitchcockian voyeur, or just elegantly gliding across the often astonishing visuals.

It truly is a visual masterpiece featuring one stunning composition after another, at all times making us reconcile in our minds the achievements of man against the achievement of nature and earth.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Tall T

 In the late 1950s the prolific duo of director Budd Boetticher and  star Randolph Scott made a number of Westerns that would influence filmmakers from the French New Wave, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and more. 'The Tall T', with its minimalist aesthetic, masterfully distills the Western genre down to its core as a claustrophobic actioner of the highest order.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind is that rare case where its desire for ‘grandeur’ trickles down successfully through every aspect of production. From Selznick’s madness for control, the obscene four-hour running time, Max Steiner's memorable score, the film’s massive production elements, even down to Scarlett O’Hara’s character grand character arc, the film continually leaps over the audiences’ high expectations, which with much room to spare. Its grandeur, spectacle and pop culturally zeitgeist significance is still a marvel and remains largely untouched in the annals of cinema history.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Straw Dogs




One of Sam Peckinpah's handful or more unquestionable triumphs, a classic morality tale that furthers his career examination of violence and the specifically American perception of it. While The Wild Bunch was told using the tenets of the Western genre and the familiar themes of male camaraderie, heroism, anti-heroism and machismo, Straw Dogs has it's hero as a cowardly pacifist forced to find his latent primal urges to protect his home and family.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Legend

It takes a special kind of filmmaker at the right point in his/her career to make a film so grand and admirable a failure. No matter which version of Legend you watch - the 90-minute one with the then-'modern' Tangerine Dream score or the lengthier version with the Jerry Goldsmith score - neither one works. It’s not the score or the running time, and it’s not about what was cut out or left in. Simply put, the problem was Mr. Scott’s overindulgence with his visual palette related to character, story, tone and all the other storytelling elements.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Fat Girl

The frank and dispassionate discussions and depictions of sex of an underage teen seen through the eyes of an even younger pre-teen girl caused much discussion back in the day. The provocative effect of the exposed male and female genitalia in Fat Girl never overwhelms Catherine Breillat’s smooth and calculated character study. The graphicness of the sex is wholly necessary to the mood and a titilating piece of cinema, devious, challenging, but so rewarding.

Monday, 2 March 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This film gets me every time. The final moments, when the Chief discovers McMurphy’s been lobotomized, kills him out of pity, then completes Mac's metaphorical task of lifting the water fountain off the ground, plunging it through the window, thus releasing him into the wild to freedom, is as triumphant a climax as their ever was in cinema.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Once Upon a Time in America

It took 13 years for Sergio Leone to get this, his last film, onto the big screen. For the most part the time away served him well, as this superlative exercise in gangster cinema, dramatically heightened to the max with the same dreamy romantic sensabilities of his Spaghetti Westerns, comes close to being the final word in prohibition-era crime films.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Blow Out


By 1981, Brian De Palma was well into his ’Hitchcock period’, a string of films in the late 70s going back to 1973’s Sisters, but really starting with 1976’s Obsession, followed by Carrie that same year and then The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill (1980), which mashed together Alfred Hitchcock‘s most famous suspense set pieces with a tone of sleazy exploitation and dreamy cinematic bravura. The success of Carrie notwithstanding, Blow Out was arguably De Palma's most accomplished of these films.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Chariots of Fire

The iconic shot of the athletes wearing Wimbledon white, running through the beach, splashing water in slow motion set to the synthesized grandeur of Vangelis's score buoys most of this picture. Looking back, the story of a group of British track and field athletes and their collective journeys to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, fighting for King and Country, is as stuffy and stodgy as British period films come, and is arguably one of the least memorable Best Picture Oscar winners.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Deliverance

Perhaps the ultimate film about the male bravado, four city men, in the outback of Appalachia, out to conquer nature and canoe down the rapids of an untamed river wild, become hunted by a group of hillbilly locals. While some of the character conflict and thematic pronunciations hit the nail on the head, looking back 40 years later, Deliverance is still a riveting adventure film equalled by deep connections of man, nature, class and gender.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Streetcar Named Desire

As an exercise in research, I read some of the original reviews for A Streetcar Named Desire, both the 1951 film and the original Broadway play. Surprisingly, very little was made of Marlon Brando, then brand new to both Broadway and Hollywood. Brando's role as Stanley Kowalski, of course, is now almost universally recognized as ground zero for the dramatic shift away from the classical Hollywood studio form of acting to the immersive method style. And yet the original Variety review is surprisingly understated in their praise, writing, "Marlon Brando, at times, captures strongly the brutality of the young Pole, but occasionally he performs unevenly in a portrayal marked by frequent garbling of his dialog." And in the original New York Times stage review, Brando barely gets a mention, "…the rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic." These statements, with today's eyes, read as hilariously gross understatements.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Selfish Giant

Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, Shane Meadows' This is England and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank have, of late, carried on the tradition of the British kitchen sink genre, but as a vivid portrayal of lower class industrial squalor, Clio Barnard's picture resonates even more strongly. It's tragic and haunting, yet beautiful and tender in equal measure.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Mean Streets

One of the most valued treasures of the Scorsese canon, 'Mean Streets' birthed Scorsese's distinct cinematic vision of the world: street-wise, working class hoods with foul mouths and hair-trigger tempers seen through the lens of a dynamic camera with bursts of slo-motion and jumpy editing, set to a soundtrack of '60s vinyl and Italian crooning classics.