Life of Pi – Review

life of pi

Life of Pi (2012) 8.5stars

Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Suraj SharmaIrrfan KhanAyush TandonGautam BelurRafe SpallGérard Depardieu 

Having read the original book several years ago (in fact, to be precise, I remember listening to its unabridged audiobook version) when I learnt that a movie adaptation was going to be made, my instant (and rather predictable) reaction was “How on earth are they going to pull that off?”.  If you, like me, have read the Pulitzer Prize winning story, you’ll understanding my doubts and share my initial skepticism: it wasn’t just the way it was written, through a continuous series of sketchy flashbacks and very internal (and sometimes rather abstract) dialogues, but mainly because, for the greater part, it featured a boy and a tiger stuck on a raft in the middle of the sea.

But as you can tell from my 8 and 1/2 star rating at the top of this review, the answer is right there on the screen: they did pull it off! In fact I liked the film so much that it’s become one of my favourite of the year and possibly my best bet for the forthcoming Oscars.

Yes, of course there were a few annoying little things here and there which prevented it from being a true masterpiece, but whist these things in any other film would have caused me to hate it, in Life of Pi the good stuff is actually SO GOOD that I am willing to forgive any other possible weakness.

Let’s start from the beginning, in fact from the very-long-beginning: yes, the film does take its time to get started and even though the first 30/40 minutes are still perfectly watchable, entertaining, charming and beautifully shot, I couldn’t help feeling that it was all a bit too loose in. The film heavily relies on voice over joining a series of slightly patchy sequences, alternating each other as the several subplots unravel (including a rather redundant – at least in the movie – love story). Interestingly the character of the cook played by Gerard Depardieu, who should have been more developed, is reduced a nothing more than a little 2-dimentional caricature…

Let’s face it, Life of Pi really starts with the sinking of the ship, which happens about 40 minutes into the film. I wonder how many people in telling their friends what the film is about, will actually mention anything that happens before this sequence.

Now I must confess, after James Cameron‘s Titanic I never thought I would ever be amazed at the sight of any ship sinking in any movie. Well, I was obviously wrong!

This scene is absolutely gripping, beautifully executed and visually stunning: in fact generally speaking the film is a constant feast for the eye throughout, but it’s from the moment Pi Patel finds himself shipwrecked that the real magic begins! Yes, Magical is the only word that comes to mind in describing the film. A succession of one amazing sequence after another showcasing some of the most advanced special effect ever seen. The cinematography is a true work of wonder with its striking palette of colours, its magical painterly feel and of course the most astonishing CGI work seen since Avatar, which makes the crouching tiger in the film (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) not just a real visual wonder but a totally convincing character. So much so that I wasn’t even sure it was actually computer-generated until I saw a documentary afterwards.

The use of the 3D technology is also some of the best I’ve ever seen, in fact possibly THE best 3D of any movie I’ve seen. It’s clear that director Ang Lee and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda really understand how to use this new technology and have great fun not just at playing with it (changing the aspect ratio of the screen and throwing things at the audience), but also using that extra 3rd dimension to add something to the story: the sequence taking the audience into Pi’s diary is just one of the many beautiful examples of how 3D is used to add a feel that normal 2D wouldn’t be able to convey.

As you’re watching Pi’s adventures, his struggle to survive and his relationship with the tiger, you know you are watching an instant classic. This is one of those films which will work on different people in many different ways: kids will get something out of it, adults something different, religious people will find enlightenment, non-believers will still find quite a lot to enjoy (However be prepared if you’re taking your kid along for some fairly strong scenes involving animals eating each others). I’m sure in years to come people will still watch this movie.

The core of the film is framed by a “let-me-tell-you-a-story” type of device, in which an older Pi recounts his memories to a writer. This is probably the clunkiest part of the film and ultimately it’s what lets it down. For a start knowing that Pi has survived his odyssey works slightly against the tension the film is trying to build throughout the perilous journey: it’s  as if Cast Away had started from the end. It also spells out aloud the message of the film killing all those subtleties from the book (the worst offender is a scene towards the end where the true nature of the journey is revealed through some nasty explanatory dialogue). It’s really nothing to do with the actors playing older Pi and the writerIrrfan Khan is as always impeccable and brings a gravitas and sweetness to the part (reminiscent of his wonderful character in the stellar third season of “In Treatment”). The writer himself is a bit of a bland character, a proof of the fact that he’s a functional character and nothing more than that: he’s supposed to bring nothing to the table aside from asking the right questions, tell us the meaning of what we’ve just heard  and give a reason to older Pi to tell his story. It’s interesting to know that Toby Maguire had been cast for this part and was later replaced because he was allegedly stealing the scene.

When the twist finally comes at the end, it is delivered by an astonishing Suraj Sharma (a kid with no acting experience who would truly deserve an Oscar): it is spectacularly moving monologue that leaves the audience slightly bewildered, possibly disappointed at first but with hindsight, looking back at it, there is no denying, it is a powerful story, beautifully gratifying, meaningful and profound… and of course an incredible technical achievement.

I can’t wait for my kid to grow up a bit so that one day I could show it to him.

8.5/10

Ice Age 4 – Review

Ice Age 4 – Continental Drift (2012) 

Directed by Steve MartinoMike Thurmeier. Starring Ray RomanoAziz AnsariJoy BeharPeter DinklageAubrey GrahamQueen LatifahDenis LearyJohn LeguizamoJennifer LopezHeather MorrisSeann William Scott.

On its fourth outing the saga begins to feel a little bit tired, the formula is wearing slightly thin and as the subtlety and freshness are obviously long gone, it all begins to merge into one.

There is nothing really wrong  with Continental Drift, but for the first time I felt slightly too old for this type of fare and I almost wished I had a child with me so that I could enjoy the film a lot more than I really did.

The film starts off with the wrong foot straight away, introducing us to so many different characters that at some point I thought I was going to get lost. It’s obviously trying to pull together all the threads from the various earlier episodes, but by doing that not only it delays the actual story, but also it makes it feel clunky, chaotic, crowded and a bit confusing, and given its target audience that is inexcusable (you may argue that the target audience probably watch the previous parts almost daily on DVD and they are not lost at all…).

However once the plot gets going, it all runs quite smoothly, without too many surprises but also without anything offensive or boring.

This is old-style storytelling for kids and there is nothing wrong with that. The baddie is vicious enough, the hero is brave, the music is fitting for the adventure it’s depicting, and just in case you get bored, you can always count on the interludes with Scrat (though, I must say, even those felt slightly re-hashed from the past).

The animation has advanced a bit from the previous instalments, but it’s in the details more than the actual design and film-making. And while the 3D, as in most animated films, works rather well,in the end  it’s just as un-memorable and unimaginative as the rest of the ride.

But I shouldn’t really criticise it: I guess this is what people want from an Ice Age movie: the familiarity, the cosy feeling that comes being together with some old friends, the easy laughs (fewer out-loud ones I must say), the cute animals and at the end of the day even if you feel you’ve seen it all before, your kids will probably love it.

6/10

Piranha 3DD – Review

Piranha 3DD (2012) –

Directed by John Gulager. Starring Danielle PanabakerVing RhamesDavid HasselhoffChristopher LloydGary BuseyJean-Luc BilodeauDavid Koechner

The only achievement of this film, as far as I am concerned, it that it has managed to get the lowest score so far on my blog. Of course, I was never expecting to see a masterpiece from a movie with such title… But at least I was hoping for something just as self-consciously trashy, funny and splatter  as the deliciously camp B-movie first part (which itself was a remake) directed by Alexandre Aja in 2010.

There have been several trashy splatter/exploitive horrors in the past (mainly in the 80s and early 90s) which I still consider classics within their own genre (Re-Animator, Society, possibly even Tremors and to a degree the Evil Dead movies just to mention a few). Why couldn’t this have been one of them? All the ingredients seemed to have been there: an R rating (18 here in the UK), tits-galore right from the title, exploitive 3D, horrible little hungry monsters (piranha in this case), and a series of more or less famous stars willing to play along…

Unfortunately what I found was the most un-inventive, uninspired, un-funny, un-scary, dull piece of junk I have seen in a very long time… (Well, I guess that by itself is quite an achievement since I do watch quite a lot of movies). Yes, it’s boring too, despite being only 83 minutes long.

How can somebody like Christopher Lloyd, the man with a resume sporting such masterpieces like One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest and Back to the Future, could have accepted to have his name associated with such an insult to human intelligence is beyond me! Was your rent really so behind, Chris?

The film is badly conceived, badly filmed, really badly post-converted into 3D (possibly the worse conversion I’ve seen since a cheap stereoscopic comic I had when I was 10!). The story (if we can call it such) makes no sense (there’s a piranha in the swimming pool… well, get the f**k out it!). The characters (again… characters?!) all merge into one  and even the gore is way below anything one would have hoped for such a movie and most of the potentially gruesome stuff is happening off camera (I guess they didn’t have enough imagination to figure out how to make it on camera!)

For the first 30 minutes or so, you don’t really know how to take it. It seems a film aimed at 14 or 15 years old kids who are hoping to get a peek at some boobies for the first time in their lives… except that this film is actually rated 18…which kinda defeats that purpose. So in the beginning it all starts building up as a straight horror (a bad one of course, but still a horror). Only once David Hasselhoff shows up you actually begin to get a hint of the fact that this is all supposed to be taken for a laugh… If only it were remotely funny. The  “jokes”  (please notice the inverted commas) are so puerile and genuinely unfunny that it becomes almost embarrassing. Not only we are not laughing with it, but we are not even laughing at it… in fact we are just not laughing at all.

This is one of the few films where  not even the endless outtakes during the end credits can make you smile (And when I say ‘endless’ I do mean really endless.. What an indulgent and embarrassing moment!. There is nothing worse than seeing a whole bunch of actors and grown-up film-makers laughing at things which are not even remotely funny to us outside.

To be honest, I think the film doesn’t even deserve such a detailed review, so I’ll just stop here and urge you to give it a miss, even (and especially) if you love this genre.

3/10

Hugo 3D – Review

Hugo 3D(2011) 

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Ben KingsleyAsa ButterfieldChloë Grace MoretzChristopher LeeSacha Baron Cohen.

Accompanied by a series of glorious reviews and voted Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review Hugo has finally hit our multiplex. Obviously the expectations are pretty high!

On paper this has got all the elements to be a true masterpiece. Loveable kids, Paris in the 30s, passion for old movies, a heart-melting story, magical sets, spectacular 3d, an amazing cast… and of course Martin Scorsese himself at its helm. How can it possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately despite all these potentials, the film itself  never really took off for me and for all its good intentions, its great heart and undoubtedly its mastery in film-making, in the end Hugo 3D cannot hide the fact that it’s all over the place and actually just a bit boring.

Yes some of the camerawork is astonishing and Marty certainly knows how integrate 3D into his story, making it more than just a gimmick: right from the beginning we can see the potential as we are treated with a one-shot-wonder which pushes the 3D effects beyond anything we’ve seen before (yes, even Avatar). The camera glides, twirls and swoops across a train station, then jibs up along ladders and flies through giant clock mechanisms. But even this first burst of energy gets a bit tiresome after a while and the film runs out of steam pretty soon after that and not even all those camera swoops, chases and constant music can raise the level of excitement.

The main problem seems to be that Scorsese is so concerned about the message of preserving old films, that he forgets about how to make it an involving and exciting story, and most of all, he forgets who central character should be: the film is called Hugo after all. In fact the most inspired scenes in the movies have nothing to do with Hugo himself but rather with Ben Kingsley’s character, the French magician/film-maker Georges Méliès (yes, the one from the 1902 “Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which you can see below). The scenes around him are probably some of the most inspired… and the best. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing the behind the scenes of such iconic moments in cinema history. There’s a great sense of nostalgia for that comes with them and Scorsese’s attention to details is definitely to be praised. However none of this will probably make any difference to the average viewer who will soon wonder where all this is going and surely will get a bit bored.

It’s hard to tell who is this film aimed at. It is definitely too slow for kids, too diluted for the average person, too rhetorical and over-explicit and a bit silly for the real cinephiles.

Scorsese might have made this film for his kids (or so at least he claims), but it’s clear that he has quite got that open-mindedness about children and that innocence  and sense of wonder (that for example Spielberg has) to tell a story about them which would ring true: both Hugo and Isabel (an unusually wooden Chloë Grace Moretz) speak a language which doesn’t quite belong to them (it’s as if Scorsese himself were talking). In the end it’s clear that the director is much more interested in telling a story about the restoration of old movies, rather than a fairy tale about a kid growing up and finding a family. Funnily enough, even the message about saving old films from the past loses a little bit of credibility (and honesty) the moment in which Scorsese decides to turn Méliès’ movies into 3D.

The fault at the core of all this is that Scorsese is just trying to be too clever and cram too much in it.

In a way he is even trying to make his own “Rear window“, by giving us little stories around the train station, as seen from the eyes of Hugo, just like in Hitchcock’s masterpiece we were treated to glimpses of lives seen through the eyes of James Stewart. However while in Rear Windows those stories where a representation of our character’s state of mind (his doubts and fears about married life) and always seen his own the point of view, here much too often we lose track of Hugo himself and the lives we get too see are completely irrelevant to the central story. Most them even feel a bit misjudged too. Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as police inspector and his slapstick gags are never really as funny as they should be the romances between the various couples are as moving or even quirky as they should to be and in fact not only they seem to belong to a different film altogether but they also pull the film in too many different directions.

It’s surprising how a film so concerned about the art of storytelling could lose itself so much when trying to actually tell a simple story.

6/10

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