Sunday, December 2, 2012

Best Visual Effects, yes, but who is Pi?

Movie Review: Life of Pi (3D)

Director: Ang Lee

Reviewed: 2 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Ang Lee is a tremendous directorial talent, and both "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" made my short list for the top ten films of the last decade, so a new film from him is an event. Despite the occasional misfire (I'm looking at you, "Hulk"), Lee directs with a visual style that includes a love of manners and grace, motion and place, a strong color palette, and he always seems to elicit strong performances from fine actors like Heath Ledger, Emma Thompson, and others.  He has won the Academy Award for Best Director, and I will always watch his films.  His most recent film "Life of Pi" is more of a technological wonder than a living, breathing film, but I admire the work that Lee does here to render the world of the young Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy who grew up in a zoo and survives a sinking freighter ship (a terrifying storm) that wipes out everything and everyone he knows.  Pi finds himself cast away on a life boat alongside a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  More, I will not say.  Lee fully employs the 3D effects in an almost painterly fashion, using them not to throw things at the audience or make us duck.  Instead, Lee places the life boat swimming as if in a seaof stars, making it appear that Pi is floating in the sky more than the ocean.  Whales dance with translucent colors, and fish fly.  Lee changes perspective at moments, taking us inside a tiger's eyes and then inside of a fish's eyes, swirling through the ocean with its colors and lights.  At one moment a painting literally comes alive with images spiraling and turning every direction.  To frame the story, the journey of survival becomes a tale told by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a young man interested in both faith and being a writer, a set-up that I was not totally convinced was needed.

"Life of Pi" is engineered best for the 3D experience, and there are more than five jaw-dropping sequences that seem assured to win this film an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  The tiger itself is a triumph of digital creation, and there are sequences that are on par with "2001" and "Tree of Life" for their majesty and beauty.  Lee lovingly captures the underwater world and the world of the stars, forging a cinematic magical realism with colors and images rarely ever depicted on film.  Those sequences are what I will remember from this film.

Despite being engaged in the story and the technological marvel of it (Lee paints so much in CGI that nothing really stands out and seems inauthentic; he's blended things so well that there are no lines), I left "Life of Pi" feeling both a distance and a coldness.  I like the fact that despite some difficult, violent imagery (ship sinking, animals being animals), the film is suitable for all ages.  The lead performance by Suraj Sharma is fine, though the narration started to grate on me a bit.  I wonder if this film needed the outside narration or the framing device at all.  Probably yes, because it brings the audience into Pi's mind, and besides the tiger, there is really no other reason for him to talk at all.  He doesn't have a device like Wilson the volleyball.

However, what if Ang Lee had allowed himself to tell the story more by using imagery instead of words?  What if he allowed sequences to go on without narration for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes?  He could have pushed the limits of what an American audience would see in terms of purely visual filmmaking.  Lee wisely drops the framing device midway through the film in order to not interrupt the focus as the survival story builds in its intensity.  However, I would argue that the framing device doesn't add an emotional clarity to the story, and the ending does not really work.  In general, I think "Life of Pi" is an interesting story, but the framing devices and the ending (of both the book and the movie) failed to bring me resolution.  The story seems at times to be trying to tell us that it is about telling people good-bye.  It also examines what a person is capable of doing under extreme stress.  Is the film an advocate of faith or belief in religion because it is simply the better story?  Is there something about this Job-like struggle that is unique to Pi or his tri-religious philosophy?  Are the stories that we tell ourselves the lifelines which can keep us alive?

I'm just not sure.  I'm not sure the storytelling always matches the visual flair and wonder.  I'm not sure that the film's examination of religion and faith reaches any sort of depth.  But I'm sure of this.  You should see "Life of Pi" on the big screen with 3D.  I agree with fellow critics that this film is a great example of the power of 3D filmmaking if put in the right hands.  Ang Lee's hands are the right hands.

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