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Review: Life of Pi

Water is the key element in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, employed by the director to flaunt a grand aesthetic and express grand existential themes.

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Life of Pi
Photo: Fox 2000

Water is the key element in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, employed by the director to flaunt a grand aesthetic and express grand existential themes. Gloriously rendered, the film best engages the 3D format when stepping into liquid, whether observing a swimmer from below or surging through an astonishing nighttime typhoon. In visualizing this spiritual survival story, which novelist Yann Martel cooked up to great acclaim in 2001, Lee often depicts the lost-at-sea protagonist, Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), as a mere minnow in an unforgiving eternity of water, the lifeboat he shares with a Bengal tiger a vessel of insignificance. Following the awesome foundering of an animal-filled freighter, whose submerged decks and flooding hull are scanned as if from the bow of a rollercoaster, Lee’s camera (entrusted to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button DP Claudio Miranda) hangs back to see Pi suspended underwater, watching helplessly as the massive ship, which also held his family, sinks before him. The frightening enormity of the image is later matched by the cool serenity of calm waters, which, through Lee’s lens, meet the sky to create a seamless, dreamlike canvas, where Pi’s dinghy floats like it’s stranded in picturesque oblivion. There’s a glut of big ideas beneath Life of Pi’s surface, namely one’s relationship with God, but its strongest impression, communicated in pure terms with cutting-edge means, involves the humbling vastness of life, a universal notion that, here, transcends questions of belief.

Played with poise and poignancy by Irrfan Khan, Pi is first introduced as a middle-aged man, who, naturally, tells his epic story to an eager listener. In an odd twist of adaptation, his audience is Martel himself (Rafe Spall), arriving at Pi’s door at the urging of one of the survivor’s relatives, and whose inquiries prompt the film’s inevitable flashbacks. So begins a first act that is by turns handsome, fanciful, curious, and agonizing, charting the seeds of young Pi’s spiritual growth in 1977 Pondicherry, India while shoddily leapfrogging to and from that horrid framing device (Khan provides excessive, if eloquent, narration).

After a cute bit about the origins of his name helps to establish his personality traits (like his comfort around water and his abilities with mathematics and people-pleasing), Pi is seen diving into an obsession with religion, taking an all-inclusive approach by embracing Christianity, Islam, and his family’s Hinduism. At his home, which sits amid a stunning zoo his father (Adil Hussain) founded as a business, Pi makes declarations like wanting to be baptized, his family’s reactions half-supporting and half-deriding his newfound pastime. “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing,” says Pi’s father, offering warm wisdom but practically begging the movie to prove him wrong. Though delectably shot in a manner that feels both native and otherworldly, like it’s set in an Oz as envisioned by Mira Nair, the film’s long opening is remarkably twee and unambitious, playing like a family flick that might be called My First Deity Tour. Its critters and colors wow the eyes, but its theological groundwork, which features three actors playing Pi as he grows into his faith(s), is far more flat than solid.

And then the rains come. Pi may not receive the ritualistic baptism he desires, but he and the film get a doozy of a cleansing during Lee’s virtuosically staged shipwreck, the unmistakable turning point for Life of Pi’s merit and watchability. Like Noah robbed of his ark, Pi becomes the sole survivor of the inclement incident at sea, which cuts short his family’s plans to move the entire zoo to Canada. He’s eventually left in his small boat with a few four-legged stowaways: an injured zebra, an orangutan, a nasty hyena, and the tiger, Richard Parker, whose offbeat name hardly reflects the seriousness of his ferocity. Before long, after the hyena gets hungry and then becomes a meal itself, only Pi and Richard remain, forced to maintain a king-of-the-mountain-style duel over who dominates their small, shared home (Pi fashions his own floating sidecar with the lifeboat’s generous wealth of supplies, but continuously climbs back aboard, striving to establish an alpha-creature stance).

The second act shifts the film from a lazy and comfy litany of introductions to a riveting fantasia of pure cinema, wherein Lee paints an oft-wordless picture of nature’s harshness and grace, the perfect arena for Pi to have a Christ-like coming of age. In visual terms, what Lee simply does with marine life is staggering, pinning Pi and Richard in the path of a massive, migrating school of fish, and lighting up the evening sea with scads of bioluminescent jellyfish, whose peace is interrupted by the surface leap of a colossal blue whale. There’s also a kaleidoscopic, Kubrickian dream sequence, with fauna and cosmos morphing into maternal visions. So far, no other 2012 film has so strongly outweighed its shortcomings with breathtaking spectacle, and as for Richard himself, the tiger may just be the most convincing CG animal ever animated for movie screens.

Martel’s book has famously resonated with those at their own existential crossroads, as Richard can serve as a stand-in for any malady one must live with. This facet of the story comes across beautifully on screen, a manifestation of a young man’s larger struggle to fight his own demons, and peacefully maintain his place in a treacherous, surrounding world where sharks roam. He’s ultimately stripped of all belongings, and his and Richard’s enchanted respite, a vine-laden, meerkat-filled island, proves a fatal temptation, as crutches in the race of life can so often be. With inherently spiritual components, Pi’s journey strikes a humanistic chord, and just as Pi doesn’t answer to a single god, it invites folks of all types to walk away with it as their own parable.

It isn’t until act three that things become especially religious, as the elder Pi recounts an alternate story his younger self told investigators concerned with the sunken ship. The possible revelations of the new tale may not be shocking, but they do introduce some hefty questions about preceding events and the nature of religious fables, only to be hastily explained away so the film can rush to the credits. Such is a prime example of something that surely registered better in the book, its thin treatment confirming that writer David Magee was more ready to script action than squeeze in smart chatter about God. The result is an extraordinary quest of survival hampered by condescendingly tacked-on bookends. The film’s own saving grace is its feast of magnificent imagery, which, in Lee’s hands, rights wrongs by being something close to holy.

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Shravanthi Sainath, Ayush Tandon, Vibish Sivakumar Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Magee Distributor: Fox 2000 Pictures Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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