Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life of Pi

I am a man of peculiar tastes.  I am more than willing to sit through a horrible B-movie to enjoy a single scene, but there are some talented filmmakers out there that I tend to ignore, for no particular reason.  Ang Lee is a good example of this.  I have liked --- or at least been interested by --- every film of his I have seen to date, but when he puts out a new movie, for some reason I do not make an effort to see it.  I do the same thing with Pixar movies, even though I always end up loving them.  Again, in some ways, I am very odd.  
In fact, the only reason I have seen Life of Pi is because I caught a marathon of this year's Best Picture nominees.  There are not a lot of acclaimed films that I have no desire to see, but I will admit that I wasn't looking forward to this one.  So, how wrong was I?

Life of Pi is the story of a guy telling a story to another guy, who will turn the whole thing into a book.  No...strike that.  While technically true, that is merely the framework of this tale --- and I use "tale" for a reason.  This is the impossible story of Pi ().  Pi and his family were traveling by ship to Canada (along with their collection of zoo animals) when a freak storm hit and sank the ship, because God hates Canada.  Pi survives the storm and reaches a lifeboat, but his is not the lone survivor.  A wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker (a Bengal tiger) all managed to squeeze into the lifeboat with Pi.
It helps that Pi is 2' tall
Not surprisingly, that status quo doesn't last long; the survivors are quickly reduced to Pi and Richard Parker.  Now, all that Pi needs to do is survive on a lifeboat with a hungry tiger in the middle of the ocean, until he can make it to land.  That may sound like the makings of a claustrophobic action spectacular, but the ocean is a really big place.
Judging from this, it might be a while

The acting in Life of Pi is understated.  made for a fine narrator, and his impassive descriptions only emphasized the strangeness of what he described.  does not do much as the writer who is listening to Adult Pi tell his tale, but he provides as three-dimensional of a character as you're going to get with so few lines in the script; it's not tough work, but he plays his part.  The bulk of the work is done by , as Pi in the story.  As the only true character in the film, there is a lot depending on Sharma.  He is not outstanding here, but he was likable.
To put it another way, there is an awful lot of this.
It would be easy to compare this shipwrecked character with that of Tom Hanks' in Cast Away, but this is not a character study, it is essentially a fairy tale and that does not typically lead to outstanding acting.  Still, the camera is almost always on Sharma and the film doesn't suffer for it.  The rest of the cast is barely anything more than a few cameos, culminating in "hey, is that ?"  Yes, it is.  And then he's gone.
His last words: "Depardon't do it!"

Life of Pi was directed by , and it shows, although not in a flashy way.  That's not really how Ang Lee movies work.  The cinematography is lovely, the acting is understated, the theme has a bit of psychology to it, and the pacing is...well, a little leisurely.  If you are familiar with Lee's work, all of that is to be expected.  The man is nothing, if not consistent in those regards.  I will admit that I was impressed by just how visually impressive this film was.  You might not expect much to excite your senses with a guy on a boat for 2+ hours, but Life of Pi was surprisingly dazzling.
While this isn't the first time Lee has worked extensively with CGI, I thought the animals and the myriad oddities in the script all looked fantastic.  I liked that the film didn't get over-dramatic or strive for an epic feel.  Ang Lee had a clear idea of what tone would work for this story, and he stuck with it.  A less assured director might have tried to force a more pronounced emotional struggle for the main character, but Lee stuck with the book's subtler plot and it paid off.  I also have to credit Lee for his use of 3D in the film.  It's not splashy, exploitative stuff --- the 3D is used to make the unique visuals more spectacular. 
Which is good, because 3D of floating gets old FAST

Having said all that, Life of Pi was pretty good, but I wasn't thrilled by it.  I feel the same way about a lot of Ang Lee's films, so it might just be me; I can appreciate the man's craftsmanship, but I've never really loved anything he's done.  If I had to give a reason for that, it would be the pacing.  As pretty as this movie was, it never excited me because it always felt like I had at least another hour of the movie left.  This is a well-made and polished movie, but I prefer movies with a bit more flair, even if they are more distinctly flawed.
Yes, I accused this movie of having no flair

Speaking of flaws, I noticed some buzz around this movie, concerning its ending.  I wouldn't really call it a "twist" ending, but I can understand some people feeling that it cheapened the story as a whole.
Like a plot where someone starves, but also sometimes has dozens of fish
Any time you can dismiss a movie by saying "It was all complete bullshit," you run that risk.  Personally, I liked the ending.  I thought it salvaged the entire movie.  Until that point, I was impressed by the technical aspects of the film, but did not particularly care about any of the characters.  The ending is what makes it personal, which provides all of the payoff.  For me, that was enough to make me like (but not love) this movie. 

On a side note, how strange is it that Roger Ebert can make absolutely no mention of the ending of Life of Pi in his 4-star review, but he shat a brick about the ending of The Usual Suspects?  They are, essentially, the same plot device, right?


  1. Did he go to that giant, undiscovered, green island in the movie? The book sucked too much for me to even think of watching the movie.

  2. Yes, he did. As in the book, that was the point where credulity gets strained and the "which ending do you prefer" aspect takes shape.