Life of Pi

The dangerous thing about movies emphasizing eye-popping visuals is that if there’s even the slightest sense that the rest of the film is not in proper balance, the whole thing risks getting labeled shallow. So it was with last year’s (brilliant) The Tree of Life, and so now I imagine it will be with Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi.

Based on a book by Yann Martel with a rabid cult following, Life of Pi follows in flashback the trying, Job-like experience of its title character — Piscine for long, “Pi” for short — who floats on a lifeboat after the shipping boat his family is riding from India to Canada sinks during a storm.

As his family owned a zoo in Pondicherry and had their animals with them on the ship, a number of other beasts also manage their way onto the lifeboat, including a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger so named owing to a clerical screw-up.

It isn’t long before the natural order of the animal kingdom serves to whittle the number of animals down to just Richard Parker and Pi, who fashions a separate float out of life preservers to stay clear of the tiger.

The story of their co-existence is played in both Martel’s novel and Lee’s film as a case study. As a young boy, Pi develops strong affinities for multiple religions, and refuses to “choose” one over the others just because everyone who believes in any one religion by implication believes the rest of them to be false. Pi’s struggles to stake a claim on the lifeboat and still allow Richard Parker to remain, well, a tiger are meant as a parable for how clashing cultures can learn to co-exist without abandoning their basic natures.

That is until the movie’s blunt third act (potential spoiler alert) posits an alternate storyline that Pi tells investigators upon his rescue 227 days after the ship’s sinking. Dissatisfied with Pi’s fantastic tale of inter-species adventure, they beg him to give them a story they can believe in. He tells them roughly the same story, only swapping out all the animals with humans from the ship. They accept and log the second story. “So it goes with God,” Pi says in the film’s modern-day wraparound, implying that religion is to many a matter of adapting what works best.

But the choice the film gives us — between the story with animals and the story without — isn’t really a choice at all. We’re only shown the one featuring CGI pyrotechnics on copious display, and who could possibly resist all the Fantasia-worthy grandeur? The movie frequently rivals Avatar for adult-oriented 3-D spectacle.

I wish I could say still waters in this case run deep, but at least there’s a lot of phantasmagoria to look at inches below the surface.

Silver Linings Playbook

Here’s what I wrote yesterday in connection with my Q&A with Matthew Quick, the author behind the book that became this movie:

Silver Linings Playbook is sort of a lateral pass for director David O. Russell. Much like his last movie The Fighter, Playbook is a blue-collar romantic dramedy with sport movie trimmings and a fixation on the inexhaustible number of ways family members can drive you straight up the wall.

“Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano Jr., a man fresh from his eight-month stint in a mental institution and still constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Though his tenure at the institution was the result of a plea bargain (he beat a man within an inch of his life after catching his wife with him in the shower), Pat’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder is very real, though it seems less triggered by chemical imbalances in his neurological system and more triggered by the sound of Stevie Wonder singing ‘My Cherie Amour.’

“Pat is convinced that if he follows a set of self-improvement guidelines, he will win back his estranged wife’s love, despite the restraining order she has taken out against him and his family and friends’ insistence that she will never take him back. His attempts to contact her through first-degree connections result in police calls, so he decides to take up the offer of tertiary acquaintance, the similarly troubled Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence, likely cruising toward another Oscar nomination with this performance).

“Meanwhile, Pat’s family try to keep him from disrupting the delicate equilibrium his father (Robert De Niro) maintains. They’re a Philadelphia Eagles house, and Pat’s dad has a clear but unacknowledged obsessive compulsive approach to his fandom. Pat’s presence is required, but Tiffany seems to be requiring more and more of Pat’s time.

What I’d add to that synopsis is that the movie might work best among those who think the only way to properly express emotions is through hysteria. The script insists love is the sweetest form of insanity. And given free rein to comparison shop, David O. Russell makes off with the whole cuckoo’s nest dessert cart. It’s raw, it’s immediate, but it’s no more credible as a romantic tale for it.

Rise of the Guardians

What’s better (i.e. more profitable) than centering a kids’ cartoon around a holiday? How about centering one around every holiday?

While Rise of the Guardians doesn’t quite go to that extreme, there’s no doubt a veneer of crass commercialism about its attempt to elevate Jack Frost to the salable level of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

You see, the “Guardians” of the title are a league of extraordinary childhood heroes — also including the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy — who not only perpetuate childhood wonder, but also apparently do battle with the darker forces in the world, most recently Pitch Black, nom de plume for the Boogeyman.

Into this eternal struggle steps Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine, who perpetually sounds 14 years old), an impish force of nature who is beloved by kids, but not known by name like Santa is, and so he works his magic in isolation, invisible to the rest of the world. Until the moon (positioned as the creator of everything charmed in the world) promotes Jack to the ranks of the other Guardians.

Just in time, too, as Pitch Black is in the midst of making a big power play for every Earth kids’ soul.

On balance, Rise of the Guardians isn’t a lost cause. The crystalline imagery (especially every time Sandman releases his golden granules that spin into golden slumbers) frequently earns the tag “eye candy,” but at a conceptual level, it’s not much of a step forward for the animation house that so recently, with How to Train Your Dragon, had seemingly found a way to beat Pixar at its own game.


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