Life of Pi

June 10, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment, Home Video

“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” I know it’s been used a lot before, but I just like that quote. And for Piscine Patel, the protagonist of “Life of Pi”, it couldn’t be more true.

Except for Piscine, religion is all around him his whole life, by his own choosing. We’re introduced to him as an adult played by Irrfan Khan who has been visited by a novelist who wants to hear his life story because he’s heard it will “make me believe in God”. He’s going to write about Piscine’s life, and wants to get the details. Piscine, or Pi, begins with childhood. We learn that his name came from a swimming pool in France called Piscine Moliter. Unfortunately for Piscine, however, the name sounds exactly like the act of urinating. So Piscine is ridiculed so much that he shortens his name to Pi; at school, he demonstrates his name by writing it on a blackboard with all the numbers he can think of, which goes on and on and on.

As he grows up, he disappoints his father by following 3 different religions. He is born and raised Hindu; but he becomes fascinated with Jesus Christ and decides to also be a Christian. To round things out, he takes up being a Muslim as well. His father believes he has spread his beliefs too thin, and by believing in everything, he doesn’t actually believe in anything because he does not choose a path.

A path chooses him, though. His father owns a zoo, and after a few life lessons about animals are taught to Pi, they find out that they must leave their home in India and move to Canada. They board a Japanese freighter and after a vicious storm, the ship sinks. Pi is the only human survivor; he is accompanied on a raft by an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (which has an amusing backstory to go along with it.)

Pi is now on the opposite end of what he grew up in. He is basically the zoo animal now. The hyena taunts him, the zebra, and the orangutan, eventually killing them. All Pi can do is watch in horror, because he cannot attack the hyena himself. Then, Richard Parker leaps out from under the tarp in the boat and attacks and kills the hyena. With it being just the tiger and Pi, the two have to grow to tolerate each other’s presence. Due to, least of all, a language barrier, this doesn’t appear to be an easy task.

But Pi is able to feed the tiger, and write about his experiences day by day in a journal. He survives by eating biscuits provided by the survival kit on the boat, along with cans of water.

Things actually seem to be going in Pi’s favor, until another storm hits. This shipwrecks Pi and the tiger onto a mysterious island that seems to eat any inhabitants except the abundance of meerkats that permeate the whole island. There are little pools of water that Pi finds he can drink from. But at night, the island takes on a different kind of form. It’s almost like a giant venus fly trap. The island itself is in the shape of a person. And it seems to be cannibalistic. Pi finds a human tooth in a blooming flower.

Pi is eventually rescued when he finds the Mexican shoreline. He must tell his story to the company that owned the ship that sank. They of course do not believe Pi’s fantastical story about the island or the animals. Richard Parker disappeared after they found land, not that the tiger was going to tell a more convincing story. Pi then tells another story, one that is starkly different from the one we’ve just seen. He tells them that the cook on the ship, a sailor, and Pi’s mother were all in the boat. But the cook went mad and killed the sailor and his mother, and then Pi killed the cook. He tells the story convincingly, almost to the point where we as an audience are wondering if what we saw was just a cute allegory of a much darker, more horrific story of survival.

And that is exactly where the movie’s theme lies. In the religions that Pi learns about, they’re full of stories. Stories that Pi believes. And in these stories, he finds faith in God. Not God as in the Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu God, but God in all things. When his faith is tested, God shows himself through the experiences that Pi speaks of. Not a religious God, but a spiritual one.

Ang Lee’s direction is superb, and the palette of colors is amazing to watch. Of course, these colors mean something an Ang Lee just loves using metaphors for everything. The pace of the film is very strong, and the moments during the storms are intense and amazing. Though the animals are clearly CGI, there is a believability in them enough to forgive the fact that they’re not really there.

The two storms represent two very different things that happen to Pi. The first storm, God taketh away. In the second storm, however, God spares his life. He has a much less chance of survival in the dinghy; and yet he survives again. And so does Richard Parker. Why? And is it really sparing his life, when God has taken so much away from him already? In either case, Pi believes that God has shown him that his life was worth saving, and that he was chosen to go on living.

At the end, Pi asks the author which story he prefers. The author answers, “The one with the tiger.” Perhaps we all would like to believe that one, especially since that’s the one we viewed. Maybe we don’t want to see the horrors of reality. We’d rather see talking snakes and giant arcs saving animals than see reconstructed stories of what might have really happened to the people that wound up writing those stories.

But the point of “Life of Pi” isn’t about which story you believe. It’s about whether the story changes your life. And that’s what makes this such a powerful experience, and one that will last very long in my mind.

My rating: :-)

The Hunger Games

April 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh, those dystopian futures. We can’t seem to escape them in arts and entertainment. The future is always bleak, and it’s always violent. This has been visited many times in film, including the screen adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Blade Runner”, and “Children of Men”. This time, it’s not adults killing each other, though, it’s kids. This plot is almost identical to the film (also a book) “Battle Royale”, but with a few changes. This, too, is based on a popular novel series, by Suzanne Collins. Its protagonist is a girl, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is known as a Tribute, when she “volunteers” for her sister who was selected in her District to partake in the annual Hunger Games, a tournament in which 24 Tributes (participants) compete in a battle to the death, and one sole survivor wins. That’s what I call March Madness.

The Districts are all controlled by the Capital, a place where the wealthy inhabitants look like a cross between a Star Trek convention and a Culture Club reunion. This Capital’s fascination with seeing adolescents fight to the death isn’t really explored in the film–except that I suppose it represents the harsh coldness of the ever oppressive government. This is what they’re willing to subject the people to. Oh, and it’s sort of “punishment” because at some point, one District decided to rebel against the Capital. So they control the Districts, which are all ravaged and starving, and they give these Hunger Games out as entertainment (they’re broadcast to all the Districts). They also have their own version of SportsCenter with two hosts, played amusingly and joyfully by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who comment on the games while they go on, and Caesar (Tucci), interviews each participant before the Games.

Before the Games begin, there is a series of trainings by mentors, and Katniss is given Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner in District 12 and a drunk (but he serves more as just comic relief than anything else). He helps her along the way, and the boy from the same district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). During the interview process, Peeta reveals to Caesar on air that he has had a crush on Katniss, seemingly to spark a new interest in the two of them as they’re hyped as “star crossed lovers”.

The two of them initially don’t get along, but as Katniss recalls in a flashback, Peeta had tried to give her a loaf of bread in the rain. Instead of handing it to her, though, he merely threw it on the ground. She also mistrusts Peeta after his revelation of the crush he has because she thinks he’s only done it to gain favor by the audience. Haymitch is on Peeta’s side, however, and tells her to go along with it because it will help her chances as well.

Throughout the Games, Katniss survives by skills she had learned in her own homeland, including bow and hunting skills. She scores high during the training and is hunted by an alliance of other Districts. She escapes them with the help of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who forms an alliance with her. Meanwhile, she has to remain faithful to Peeta as rules begin to change, and her own feelings for him do as well.

The performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are what make this film so captivating. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and some elements that seem to set up for a bigger pay off and don’t–but the genuine chemistry between these two cannot be denied and take you from beginning to end cheering for each of them in your own way.

There are a few logical problems I had with the structure of the Games themselves: everyone at the start is right in a circle. Normally, in a game where you fight to the death to win, wouldn’t everyone just clamor at the center, grab the biggest weapon, and kill everyone they could? That sort of happens, but some people just escape into the woods, leaving themselves to the elements. It seems like if this were an option, it would be a keener idea to drop them off at random points and let them find each other. Besides, according to the Gamemakers rules, they can change just about everything in the Games’ little universe. Everything from starting forest fires to creating mean little dog-like animals seems to be at a finger’s length. So why not just randomly put them in different parts of the forest? I also didn’t see much audience participation. It’s said that they could help the Tributes by sending aid. But the only person who does that is Haymitch, for his own District. And then I thought, if he’s doing that, where are the other mentors for the other Tributes? One of them dies by eating poisonous berries. Wouldn’t their mentor have told them about things like that to watch out for? There are some other contrivances but I’d have to give away some of the secrets of the plot and I don’t want to do that.

The main reason is, for all the nitpicking I could do, I still found myself enjoying it, even though the biggest flaw with it was in its inherent theme that it seemed to be completely ambiguous on whether this dystopian future is good or not. Sure it’s violent and it’s sad to see some of the Tributes die–but on the other hand, sometimes you’re rooting for some for them to die. If you’re trying to make a statement against humankind’s violence, that pretty much betrays your message. If you’re trying to say that this is the way mankind is, then why give us any humanity to side with at all? In the end, you do of course side with Katniss and Peeta. And you certainly have no choice but to be against the cocky Tributes from other Districts who are out to get our heroes. But in a world where the Capital is the ultimate villain, it just seemed like the film merely poked fun at the outrageous way the “infotainment” motif is exploited at the expense of the human lives.

This coming from the director of films like “Pleasantville”, Gary Ross, is somewhat curious to me. In the past he’s had no problem making statements about politics (“Dave”) and the human condition (“Big”) in amusing, heartwarming ways. With “Pleasantville”, even harshly critical ways. But here in “The Hunger Games”, he, like the Capital, just lets these kids go out and slaughter each other without saying much about it. While the ride is enjoyable, it leaves you a bit hollow afterwards. And for something with a premise that has this much gravity, that’s a bit of a disappointment.

My rating: :-)

Watchmen

March 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

This film has been in the works for over two decades. As early as 1988 there was a draft penned by Sam Hamm (who co-wrote the first “Batman” film in 1989) for a film adaptation of “Watchmen”. For years it was passed around studios, laid around on people’s desks, rewritten by different people, and different directors taking passes on it. The one filmmaker that passed on it that struck me the most was Terry Gilliam, who said, “I’ll make it if I can make it 10 hours long”. Funny line, but I think he meant it.

After seeing this film, I know exactly what he means. He was kidding in a serious way. And here’s the long and short of it: “Watchmen” is unfilmable. Now, does that mean this was a bad film? Does it mean it wasn’t as “stunning” as some critics have called it? Not visually adaptable? Well, no. That’s not what I mean. Visually, the movie is extraordinary. The costumes are spot on; Dr. Manhattan is a true vision. The fight scenes are well choreographed.

But a movie isn’t just a bunch of visual shots. I would love to convince Zack Snyder of this, because he seems to think it’s more important to make a music video than a movie. And it made me wonder…so did they pick the wrong director? What went wrong?

Well, let me take a step back. When you think about what Terry Gilliam said–”You’d need 10 hours to tell this story”–he’s right. But wrong. You can’t do that. People would literally get bored. Why? Because they’re watching this, not reading it. A book, even a graphic one, can be enjoyed on a completely different level than a film. A film must have a spine, a theme, a plot, a point. “Watchmen” the book wanders through many plots, many themes, many points. “Watchmen” the film simply meanders and becomes muddled halfway through, because in trying to find itself, it gets lost in so many ideas that the book is allowed to breathe life into.

And that is what I mean by it being unfilmable. I think this was probably the best representation of the book there can possibly be, and yet I feel somewhat unfulfilled saying that the movie was, at best, a disappointment. Was it that I expected too much? No. I don’t even care that they changed parts of the ending to make it easier to understand. That’s natural. That happens with adaptations. And maybe not only Terry Gilliam was right, but the author himself, Alan Moore, said it perfectly: this was meant to be a comic book. Not a movie.

So, as an adaptation, this movie is actually as successful as it could be. But it’s still a failure as a film. Have I confused you yet? Well, try watching the movie without having already reading the book and see how far you get before you start wondering what you’re watching at all. And unless you’re David Lynch, movies aren’t supposed to be that confusing.

We have characters set up from the get go, with the murder of a famed superhero known previously as “The Minute Men” and now “The Watchmen”. He’s known as The Comedian, and his character is probably the heart of the film’s (and a lot of the book’s) theme. The Comedian is sadistic, sarcastic, cynical, hateful, and cold hearted. He, though, is a conundrum. His name is light hearted, and fun. It’s playful. He is a facade. He’s a joke. Behind the mask of a hero, he’s a villain. The film plays with this a lot, and sometimes beats you over the head with that, too.

Then you have Rorschach, who sees through it, and not only sees through The Comedian, but all of humanity. “The whores and the politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ And I’ll whisper, ‘No’.” He embodies humanity’s paranoia, while The Comedian embodies humanity’s hypocrisy and self loathing. Night Owl represents humanity’s simplicity and a root of normalcy (and blandness); while Dr. Manhattan takes on a whole other perspective: humanity’s struggle with itself and needing a deity to feel second to. Yet Dr. Manhattan questions everything in life as well, and also prefers solitude. But he judges, as well, even if he doesn’t want to.

And so you have all of this at play, and this is where the film gets into trouble. The book takes many paths, and that’s great for a book; but a film doesn’t get that luxury. You have to choose a plot and stick to it. There’s the murder plot of The Comedian; there’s the Doomsday Clock plot; and then there’s the subplots of the old “Minute Men” and the parallels of what was old and what’s new, and older generations fading and newer generations throwing away the past. The film, instead of trying to tie down a plot line, goes in every single direction the book does. And that’s admirable–but it’s a failure. It was set up as a failure. There was no way that approach was ever going to work.

It’s a shame because there are some wonderful moments in the film. The opening credit sequence with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was spectacular. Every scene with Dr. Manhattan was a treat for the mind. Rorschach’s journal entries are thoughtful and well narrated. But while the film tries to throw too much on one plate, it ultimately shatters, leaving audiences baffled more than enlightened.

I think it’s obvious I don’t give this a passing grade–but for some reason, I’m also not going to say I don’t recommend seeing it. I do recommend reading the book first and foremost. If you’re confused by the film, reading the book I think will make you appreciate what you saw more. There are some great things that Snyder does. But while he has wonderful source material to work with, he can only do so much with a 163 minute time limit. I won’t let him off completely, though; there were some things he could have done differently. And there is a sex scene that didn’t need to be in there at all.
So yes, this could have been done at 10 hours. But it would have been just as much a failure because this was never about strength of plot, but about ideas and themes and characters. “Watchmen” will never work as a film, because it’s not meant to. But this was probably the best representation you could get.

Maybe it just should have been left in production hell. But, it’s not a total waste of time. And the soundtrack’s pretty good, too.

My rating: :???: