Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

When you look into the eyes of a tiger all you see is your own emotions reflected back at you.”

Pi Patel’s father makes this statement in order that his son knows not to romanticize nature and imbue animals with human feelings. It’s a good lesson to teach a child growing up in a zoo in India, and a lesson which turns out to be more important than his father could possibly know. Not only will the tiger in question go on to play a prominent role in Pi’s life, but his young son will soon come face to face with nature at its most merciless and cruel.

Based on the beloved book by Yann Martel, Ang Lee’s big screen adaptation of Life of Pi translates the book’s sweeping adventure to the screen as a steady stream of stunning imagery. That Lee doesn’t sacrifice the book's searching philosophical spirit despite the grand scope of this undertaking makes this film more impressive still. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the director of The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility didn’t misplace this tale's heart amid the spectacle. Yet it is unusual to see what is essentially a big-budget adventure story which screams “Expensive” in every frame that somehow retains the peaceful soul of a Zen parable. 

Compared to the flashy schmaltz-fest that was last year's War Horse this is practically Au Hasard Balthazar.

The plot of Life of Pi is easily outlined. After a colorful prologue which shows Pi (full name: Piscine Molitor Patel) coming of age as a bright, curious child in India his father decides their zoo is no longer profitable and that the animals are to be sold. Pi, now a teen played by Suraj Sharma, sets sail with his family for Canada on an ocean liner with many of the zoo’s animals along for the ride. When disaster strikes and the ship goes down (a thrilling, jaw-dropping sequence) Pi’s lifeboat ends up as a mini-Noah’s ark complete with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and a full grown Royal Bengal tiger. 

Life of Pi gets away with being both a spiritual film and a Hollywood blockbuster because the imagery is are so consistently, gobsmackingly astonishing. The effects work is on par with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as some of the best I've ever seen. There are too many moments of breathtaking visual poetry to list, but highlights include a moment where the lifeboat is surrounded by a school of bioluminescent sea life, to the frightening run in with a cascade of flying fish that batters the lifeboat like enemy fire in a war movie.

The survival at sea material which makes up the bulk of the movie is uncommonly absorbing, largely because the premise is such an instantly fascinating one. Lee wisely doesn’t let the story's hints of magic realism detract from the reality of the situation. At no point do Pi and the Tiger become fast friends or develop a mutual understanding. Quite the contrary, it is made perfectly clear that the tiger is willing to eat Pi the first moment it’s convenient, maybe sooner. The screenplay doesn't skimp on supplying nuts and bolts answers to the question, “How exactly does one survive on a lifeboat with a full grown, ill-tempered Royal Bengal Tiger for months on end?”

While I was awed by its imagery and absorbed by its story, I confess my emotions remained curiously unstirred by the whole journey. At some point, the allegorical nature of Life of Pi upstaged the story for me. Symbolism is a great way to engage my brain, but an ineffective path to my heart. The best of films stir the soul first and the mind second. A good comparison would be to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which had many levels of meaning, all of which I couldn’t have cared less about on first viewing. I was too enthralled by the unfolding story to care about its larger themes and messages. Only after it was over did I appreciate the brilliant construction of del Toro's fable. This isn't the case with Pi which hammers on its allegorical meaning a bit loudly at times.

Even if doesn’t rank with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain as one of Lee’s best, it is still a minor miracle that a version of Life of Pi this good got made. Even if the journey is a little rough at times - the movie keeps the book's awkward, frustrating ending, for one thing - it is still a movie that should be seen for its gorgeous visuals, its spiritual pondering, and its skillfully told and wildly original tale of survival. It should be seen if for no other reason than there is nothing else out there quite like Life of Pi.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Review: Frances Ha

During the Q & A following Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha a woman asked Greta Gerwig how she developed her unique acting style. Gerwig responded, 

"I don't mean to sound like that Johnny Cash line--'I play guitar like this because I don't know any other way. I don't know other ways to act."

Watching modern rom-coms it starts to feel like a lot of actresses give roughly interchangeable performance. This is never the case with Gerwig, who gives off her own unique vibe, a touch of screwball but too grounded to be quirky, with an element of strange unclassifiable energy that keeps you wondering what she will do next. After a string of strong performances, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is finally has the perfect vehicle to channel that energy. I covered it's New York Film Festival premiere for The Film Experience: 

Frances Ha is the type movie experience I’m hoping for every time I plunk down my ticket money. It knows exactly what it wants to do and how it wants to do it and as a result it grabs you by the sleeve and pulls you right in. It is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date and the big breakout due for Greta Gerwig for some time now...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NYFF - Barbara

My dispatches from the 50th New York Film Festival continue with Germany's submission to this years Oscar race for Best Foreign Film: Barbara.

 I will gladly watch a film that leans on the brakes a little too hard over one that is pumps up the melodrama out of fear our attention will drift. Barbara doesn’t contain a single bad scene, or a moment when the director’s control of the material is less than assured. It is simply that Petzold keeps the drama on such a low simmer that at times you feel yourself silently urging him to crank it up a notch...
Nina Hoss as Barbara

Monday, September 24, 2012

Off and Running

I've begun the task of updating my Oscar pages to represent the standing of the race now that the Toronto Film Festival gave us a clear idea how a lot of these big contenders measure up.

First up BEST PICTURE and BEST ACTOR which, after being wide open all year long, has quickly become crowded with contenders, including the first lock of the year in any acting category.

I will continue updating as I attend the New York Film Festival where I can offer first hand accounts of such 800 pound gorillas as Ang Lee's Life of Pi and Zemekis's Flight among others.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

NYFF 2012 - Hyde Park on Hudson

My New York Film Festival coverage kicks off today with Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson. Check back in the next three weeks for all the big name premieres including Flight Robert Zemekis's first live action film since Cast Away, Nicole Kidman and Zac Effron in Lee Daniels lurid potboiler The Paperboy and the world premiere of Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

But first the course of history is altered by hotdogs and presidential handjobs in Hyde Park on Hudson:

Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson is a perfect example of that particular type of high-end, finely crafted period piece that hits theaters every autumn on its way to an Oscar nomination for Costume Design. These titles exist to provide awards voters with two hours of comfort food nostalgia wrapped in a thin packaging of historical significance. In recent years this subgenre has provided us with films like Finding Neverland, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and My Week With Marilyn. This year it’s Hyde Park on the Hudson, a film on the low end of this particular style. To call it a dud would be too harsh - kinder to say that it’s a missed opportunity...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Repeat Viewings Required

I think it was Robert Altman who said something to the effect that it made him sad that when people told him they watched on if his films they meant they watched it only once.

On this episode of Burning Questions I get into the idea that for some movies it can be the third or fourth viewing before that film really comes alive. That's how was for me with In Bruges or Eastern Promises. The Coen Brothers are the masters of the repeat viewing movie.

CLICK HERE to join in the discussion of what makes a repeat viewing movie and which titles came alive for you after the second time through.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Francine

If I’m going to write about Francine I need to start by admitting that I’m not what one would call an animal person.
I certainly like animals. I appreciate their beauty and marvel at their grace... but from a respectful distance, preferably involving a high fence or some sort of indestructible leash. In close contact animals and I tend to put each other on edge, and from there it is a tension filled waiting game until claws make an appearance. As a result of this I was easily pulled into Brian M Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's Francine much the same way my debilitating fear of heights kept me riveted to Man on Wire. At one point during the film the lead character grabs a kitten in each hand and rubs them over her face like a healing talisman. I found the directness of this moment incredibly moving even though I would no sooner attempt it than I would try to hug the guy on the subway carrying on a heated disagreement with Jesus...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chaplin on Broadway

My review of the just opened Chaplin: The Musical is up at The Film Experience. If the idea of the show intrigues you, hurry up. It might be closed by the time you're done reading this post.

I could have really hauled off and slammed this show. It would have been justified. Apart from the standout lead performance, Chaplin: The Musical is by-the-numbers too an maddening degree. Utterly forgettable. Yet I picked up on a trace of genuine love for the little tramp. A core of good intentions that made me want to, if not give it a pass, than refrain from beating the stuffing out of it.

Read for yourself.