Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fantasy Life of Pi?

     Director Ang Lee certainly has a varied filmography.  Some of his best known films include a costume drama (Sense and Sensibility), an artsy kung-fu flick (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a dysfunctional community drama (The Ice Storm), and a gay romance/western (Brokeback Mountain).  In fact, it seems as if no two Ang Lee films bear much resemblance to each other.  His newest effort, Life of Pi, bears little resemblance to any other film that I have ever seen.
     Pi is a visual feast.  Set at sea, chronicling the lone survivors of a ship wreck (a teen-aged boy and a tiger) as they float for weeks aboard a small escape boat, the seascapes and natural wonders put upon screen for the viewer to behold are truly awe inspiring.  It is completely understanding that this film is currently considered the front runner in this year's Best Cinematography race.  Lenser Claudio Miranda certainly produces the best work that I have seen yet this year.
     The use of 3D technology is innovative and impressive:  creatively planned and expertly rendered.  It immediately joins Avatar and Hugo in the small pantheon of films that have most artistically and effectively utilized this medium.  The film also employs some of the most seamless and believable integration of CG images and live action that I have ever seen.  Richard Parker never looks like anything other than a real tiger, one that hasn't even been superimposed.  Pi is also widely considered the favorite film to win Visual Effects.  Again, I can't argue with its worthiness.  The most impressive thing about Pi's Visual Effects (although not at all surprising with Lee helming the picture) is that they are always used in service to the story, never the other way around.
      The sound elements are also implemented masterfully.  There were such a wide variety of sound effects necessary to this story.  Like the visual elements, the aural ones are expertly handled without being oppressive or overbearing.  No less worthy of praise is editor Tim Squyres, who had an ungodly (although there is nothing ungodly about Life of Pi, more on that shortly) task bringing the various pieces of this movie together, and performs his duties in a way that is almost miraculous.
     The Academy (and other various other Awards bodies) almost never take the actors seriously in big budget special effect laden films no matter how good they are.  The list of snubs is embarrassing in hindsight:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy in Inception, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Ben Kingsley in Hugo, Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark, hell, Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or any Middle Earth productions for that matter.  Occasionally a Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight sneaks in, but not often.  When we look back at the films of 2012 (which I'm gonna try and get to this year by March or April), I feel certain that one Suraj Sharma's performance in Life of Pi will be remembered as one of the most underrated.
     Not only did this young Indian native have to carry ninety percent of this film on his back (Irrfan Khan is also quite impressive in the other ten), but he had to do most of it interacting with a non-human acting partner who wasn't really with him most of the time.  He pulls it off brilliantly, investing so much humanity into Pi, and so much raw emotion into his relationship with Richard Parker that my chest literally tightens up just a little thinking back on it now.  As an interesting side note, Sharma's fluctuation in weight is real.  He put on weight before filming, and then wasted away with Pi over the course of filming.  This is definitely one of the best performances that I have seen this year.
     As much as I have raved about the technical elements and young Mr. Sharma's performance, the most impressive thing about Life of Pi is the STORY.  This is one of the best and most original tales put to film in a long time, and one of the richest in subtext.  Screenwriter David Magee is being shortchanged this year as films like Argo (which I have seen, and it did have a great script) and Lincoln (which I have not seen) are eating up all the early critics awards for Adapted Screenplay.  I have not read the book (although now I REALLY want to, but I can well imagine what sort of a challenge he faced in translating it to the screen.  The twist ending is handled in such a brilliant manner that I immediately wanted to watch the film a second time because I knew that it would be a completely different movie that would mean completely different things to me.  I'm still waiting.
     Of course, with this film, I think I would immediately want a third viewing to really focus on pondering the film's thematic development.  Pi gives you a lot to chew on.  It IS a film about spirituality.  Pi is a practitioner of three faiths: Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam, and believes them all.  He seems to see the divine most clearly, though, in every little piece of the world around him.  This is a film that is about how a man chooses to view his own personal world, and how that relates to faith.  It is about meaning, what things mean to us both personally and communally and how we pull strength from this.  I try not to throw in spoilers (at least not ones that aren't slightly obfuscated) so I'll stop there, and expand on these ideas at another time.
     This has turned into a really long review, but Life of Pi is a movie that offers so much.  It intensely engages the viewer on levels visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, and yes, spiritual.  Ang Lee has added yet another masterpiece to his eclectic body of work, one that I feel sure will stand up to multiple interpretations.  It occurs to me that it is also a film that manages to say much about topics that passions run high with, yet I see little to nothing within the movie that anyone could find offensive or objectionable.  It should even be acceptable viewing for any but the youngest of children.  By this point it should go without saying that I recommend this picture most highly.  It's easily one of the year's best.  5 of 5*
Related Posts:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing and Visual Effects), The Screenplays, October Oscar Buzz and Predictions:  PictureDirectorI Think You "Argo"ing to Love It


  1. A beautiful film unlike any other, I just wish that the story was better and didn’t end the exact way it did. Nice review.

    1. Okay, everybody, alert. I don't refrain from spoilers in the comments section the way that I do in my articles and I'M ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY THE WHOLE FILM HERE!!!!!!
      Thank you again for responding Dan, but I have to disagree with you about the story line and the big reveal. Maybe you have read the book and have a different perspective than I do. Not knowing the way that the story was going to end, I was a little confused as I left the theater. Like Pi, I had difficulty letting go of the first version of the story, the one that he told himself to comfort himself and give himself purpose.
      Hours and days later, as I had time to ponder the film, and came to accept that Richard Parker and Pi were two different personas of the same young man for most of the film, it changed everything about the story for me. I began to see how Pi was afraid of himself and had to placate the beast that had awoken inside of him just to stay alive.
      I still haven't figured out what purpose all the elements of the story served and the beautiful part is that I'm sure parts of it WON'T make sense without a second viewing. I'm just saying, I think that the ending added multiple layers of meaning to everything that came before it in a way that I rarely see accomplished on film...and I watch a LOT of movies.

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