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

Flight – Review

Flight (2012) – 

Director: Robert Zemeckis. Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly ReillyNadine VelazquezBrian GeraghtyBruce GreenwoodJohn GoodmanDon CheadleJames Badge Dale.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

After a long 12 years hiatus during which he only directed animated features (The Polar ExpressBeowulfA Christmas Carol) director Robert Zemeckis is finally back to live action film-making. I say finally because I must confess I have always had a bit of a soft spot for his films:  Back to the Future has of course been on the top of the list of my favourite films since 1985, I have also fond memories of a both Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I cry every time Tom Hanks looses his ball in Cast Away,  and despite its many flaws, I still think Contact is a marvel when it comes to camera moves… and then of course the multi-Oscar winner Forrest Gump, a film many people adore (and from which I’ll distant myself, because I seem to be the only one who has some serious issues with it). So basically, I came into this with a certain trepidation, having only seen the trailer once on the internet and thus expecting a slightly different film than the one I actually got.

Flight opens with a gritty, dirty, squalid and pretty-realistic sequence featuring our Denzel Washington definitely not looking at his best, surrounded by all sorts of alcoholic beverages and a naked lady wandering about a soulless hotel room near an airport. Once the first few lines of dialogue start, they include straight away some f**k and s**t . It’s as if Zemeckis is almost trying to prove right from the start to his audience that he’s really left the kids stuff and 3D animated wizardry of his last few years behind and this is a now a serious film for grown-ups.

After this new signature intro we move on to what this film is going to be remembered for and possibly one of the most harrowing, nail-biting flight-disaster sequence since… well, probably Zemeckis’ own Cast Away! I’m not saying that we haven’t seen this sort of things before, of course (Final destination, Alive, Fearless, just to mention a few) but the prolonged nature of this flight-disaster sequence makes it somehow even more powerful and harrowing than I was expecting. Whatever other issues I have with the rest of the film,  this is a first class sequence. Zemeckis has always known how to stage action set pieces and keep his audience glued to the screen and crank up the tension to almost palpable levels and in the end this sequence becomes certainly no less memorable than the one where a DeLorean is speeding through 88Mph to get to the clock tower in time for the lightning to strike (hope you’re with me with this parallel… and if you’re not, what on Earth are you doing on a site called MovieGeekBlog?!).

However very little after that, Flight slowly (in fact quite slowly as the film clocks at around 138 minutes) becomes something quite different and actually turns into a rather conventional film about a drinking addiction and predictably starts to go through all the motions and the classic steps of the genre: lots of drinking, denial, hitting rock-bottom, relapse and of course redemption (this last part incidentally is the one I have more problems with). Don’t take me wrong, there’s nothing here that it’s bad, but I do wonder if it hadn’t been for Denzel Washington’s exceptional performance whether this film would even be considered for the forthcoming award season. Indeed Washington hasn’t really been this good since his Oscar-winning performance in Training day  (In fact I would argue this is a much more difficult part to pull off).

John Gatins’ script is a mixed bag: on one hand it manages to craft a whole series of interesting and carefully calibrated moral ambiguities (this is really the winning part of the film: do you treat Denzel as a hero for saving many lives, even though he was drunk while doing so?). On the other hand, the film is also peppered with some shameless (even rather effective) melodrama. Unfortunately the story moves almost in fits, as it starts and stops and constantly loses its momentum as various characters come in and out sometimes quite randomly (including an interesting but very redundant sequence with an almost unrecognisable James Badge Dale playing a hospital patient dying of cancer). The film shifts even into parody and almost slapstick with the admittedly very funny John Goodman, but he’s only there for a couple of out-of-place sequences and once he’s gone the film goes back to its original pace.

Finally, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood all give the movie some great support power despite some of them being terribly underwritten (particularly so in the case of Kelly Reilly).

The soundtrack is made of a fairly restrained score by the director’s favourite Alan Silvestri and a whole series of older classic songs, something which worked perfectly on Forrest Gump. But while on that one it made perfect sense to have such a top-of-the-pop for the decades, here it felt to me just like an excuse to sell its soundtrack CDs and it’s all quite random.

Eventually, the climax feels a bit overblown and its resolution all too clean and feels quite inevitable. The film also has an extra coda (something to do with Denzel’s son) which I could have definitely done without, and where the old Zemeckis sentimentality from again Forrest Gump seems to resurface.

But it’s hard to dismiss this film altogether: it’s got the heart in the right place, it’s well made, perfectly acted and, for most of it, it’s well handled.

Ironically the film really seems to fly when with the crashing of the plane, but where it should actually be uplifting and soar, it can’t quite take off.

6.5

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