There is a lot that could go wrong with a big screen adaptation of Life of Pi the 2001 bestselling novel by Yaan Martel. Which may explain why the story of a young boy stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — juggling deep themes of religion family nature and human existence — has been developed and let go by many big names in Hollywood. For nearly a decade filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) have grappled with the project but it wasn't until Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) that the film was fully realized.
Lee's Life of Pi is an inspiring film sporting imaginative visuals and pushing the art of 3D in new directions. Even more impressive is what's underneath it all: a character-driven narrative that depicts the book's grand ideas with unexpected tenderness.
Life of Pi dreams big. Thanks to Lee's expert direction and a solid script from David Magee (Finding Neverland) the survivor tale avoids the pitfalls of such an ambitious effort never straying into hokey melodrama. The film opens with a writer (Rafe Spall) visiting an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) at his home in Canada after being told that the Indian immigrant had an amazing life story in need of capturing. "Amazing" may not be enough of a superlative. Young Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) begins his life as a regular kid in Pondicherry India growing up on his family's bustling zoo while attempting to fit in with the world around him. His major struggle is with religion — while his father resents faith and his mother is dedicated to Hinduism Pi wants a little of it all. He's Hindu he's Catholic he's Muslim he's a wanderer between all ways of thinking. When he attempts to feed the zoo's tiger only to be caught by his father and disciplined for considering the beast to be anything remotely soulful. It's clear that his upbringing in the lush environment has seeped deep into Pi's way of life.
The main character's passion for the world around him gives Lee the opportunity to direct Life of Pi with a painter's eye. Nearly every shot is exquisitely composed — from bold colors to camera movement to the layers of 3D. This holds true even when Pi's story takes a turn for the worse. Having run into financial troubles the Patel family packs up the animals and heads to Winnipeg on a French freighter. While crossing the Mariana Trench the ship encounters a catastrophic storm that floods it into oblivion (a moment of disaster that rivals the artistic destruction of Titanic). Pi and a few of the animal passengers escape on a lifeboat the glow of his past life slowly fading away into the depths of the Ocean. The set piece is gorgeous but Lee never forgets the impact the incident has on Pi's life. It's indicative of the entire film.
The brunt of the story focuses on the man vs. nature we've seen in films like 127 Hours and Cast Away but in an even more terrifying landscape and played out with an expressionistic touch. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with the Bengal tiger "Richard Parker " lowering the already minuscule chance of his survival to something unimaginable. He copes building a second raft out of wood planks and life preservers but his survival is a ticking clock. All he can do is sit fish write and pray.
Lee approaches Pi's journey of floating in the middle of the Pacific with a jungle cat like a fever dream. Like the swirling universe he imagines as the residence of his various gods the deserted ocean is a luminescent wonder filled with giant whales glowing jellies flying fish and deep caverns that unlock Pi's wild imagination.
All the while Pi tends to his tiger; their brotherly relationship is the core of Life of Pi. Sharma has heavy material to tackle for his big screen debut but even with its weak moments stands as a tremendous breakout. Over time Pi loses himself to the ocean reaching for understanding and investing more and more in his feline companion. It's a physically demanding performance too — Lee always pelting something new at his young actor and Sharma shining through even the biggest wave. The tiger is another marvel a CG creation that actually performs against Sharma. If Caeser in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a milestone Richard Parker is the next step. On top of the central duo Magee's framing device of Older Pi and the writer works miraculously well thanks to the natural skills of Khan and Spall. Exposition be damned — these two can have a casual conversation that feels as dynamic as the larger-than-life tale they're discussing.
Life of Pi arrives in theaters on November 21 and as all the makings of the perfect holiday film. On a visceral level it's simply a beautiful movie (any live-action film that evokes memories of Hokusai's "The Great Wave" is doing something right). But Lee transcends flashy blockbuster contemporaries by finding a source material where the breathtaking compliments the character's arc. Life of Pi isn't an overtly religious film even though Pi identifies with religions of all kinds. It's about the power of self the religion of humanism. There are few feats of mortal strength as impressive as survival. That's what makes Life of Pi one of the most powerful films of the year.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Constructed as an homage of sorts to the classic “opposites attract” screwball comedies of old The Ugly Truth stars Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up TV’s Grey's Anatomy) as Abby Richter an ambitious Type A news producer for the local morning talk show A.M. Sacramento. Abby’s uncompromising approach to news gathering is surpassed only by her uncompromising approach to dating; as a result she’s chronically single and her show’s ratings are in the toilet. So when her boss insists that she take on Mike Chadway the brash obnoxious host of a cable-access relationship-oriented talk show as a new correspondent Abby has little choice but to accept despite her misgivings about Mike’s unabashed chauvinism. Though ratings for A.M. Sacramento immediately spike with the addition of Mike Abby remains unconvinced as to the efficacy of his politically incorrect (read: misogynist) dating advice. Chastened by Abby’s continued skepticism Mike makes her a wager: If she applies his tools and doesn’t successfully turn around her moribund dating life he’ll quit the show. Abby agrees initiating a sexually charged battle of wits between the two strident adversaries.
WHO’S IN IT?
Facing off against Heigl is Gerard Butler the man who once roared “We are Sparta!” as the infinitely badass King Leonidas in the sword-and-sandals epic 300. Unfortunately Butler followed up the 2006 blockbuster with the weepy chick flick P.S. I Love You then the limp action fantasy Nim’s Island. And while he did manage to redeem himself as a cocky British gangster in Guy Ritchie’s comeback RocknRolla Butler takes a sad U-turn with The Ugly Truth falling to emasculating new lows in this insipid romantic comedy. Supporting castmembers include Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) John Michael Higgins (Yes Man Best in Show) Bree Turner (Just My Luck) and Eric Winter (Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay).
Butler and Heigl are both tremendously charming camera-friendly actors (no one has perfected the art of “sexily flustered” better than Heigl) and they do exhibit a fun lively chemistry at times during The Ugly Truth. Unfortunately they’re given precious little to work with and are forced to subsist on the few morsels of quality material the script provides.
Director Robert Luketic (21 Monster-in-Law Legally Blonde) has always been a strict adherent to the modern style-over-substance school of filmmaking and The Ugly Truth is suitably glossy and slick. But damned if it isn’t the most uninspired unfunny unsexy sitcom rip-off to grace theaters in recent memory. If Luketic devoted half as much time to punching up the script as he did to lovingly photographing boy toy Eric Winter he might actually have a decent movie on his hands.
Oy that’s a tough one. The closing credits would be too obvious a choice so let’s instead go with whichever scene immediately preceded the closing credits.
Heigl gets to show off her orgasm-faking skills during a scene in which she inadvertently turns on a pair of vibrating underpants (don’t ask me to explain) at a dinner with corporate execs. Interestingly enough it’s her least sexy moment in the film.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
If there’s one positive thing about Delta Farce is that is actually follows a tried and true comedy formula-- namely the fish-out-of-water scenario—with moderate success. Down on his luck after losing his job and his girlfriend on the same day Larry (of the Cable Guy variety) decides to join his neighbor Bill (Bill Engvall) and his combat-happy buddy Everett (DJ Qualls) for a relaxing weekend of playing army. But when the three unlucky guys are mistaken for Army Reservists they’re loaded onto an army plane headed for Iraq--and mistakenly ejected in a Humvee somewhere over Mexico. Don’t ask. Convinced they’re actually in the Middle East the clueless wannabe soldiers turn into Magnificent Seven meets the Three Amigos and save a rural village from a siege of bandits proving to be real heroes after all. If you need to laugh at the war on terror you might as well do it with Larry the Cable Guy. He serves up his particular brand of comedy making light of a bad situation. In fact not only does he come off somewhat sympathetically as the hapless boob with a heart of gold he also gets the hot chick at the end of the movie. Go Larry! As his accomplice fellow stand-up Bill Engvall follows his own comic routine playing a hen-pecked trailer trash denizen who views this adventure as a great way to escape his overbearing wife and snotty kids. As the third doofus DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow) plays a trigger-happy wannabe jarhead who sees this opportunity as a way to gain some street cred. And in a supporting role Danny Trejo a Robert Rodriguez regular pokes fun at his scary looks as the leader of the marauding bandits aptly named Carlos Santana. Yes the jokes are plenty. Director C.B.Harding is obviously a Larry the Cable Guy crony since his only other feature film credit is the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie. Honestly all that’s really required of him is to point and shoot with maybe a few action sequences to coordinate here and there. But while the formula works as a cohesive movie having to sit through Delta Farce’s comic stylings is the tricky part. What it really boils down to is whether you’re a fan of Larry the Cable Guy. If so you’ll (I would hope) realize you’re watching a pretty stupid comedy but will laugh in the appropriate parts. If not I would really wonder what the heck you are doing sitting in the theater.