Sunday, December 9, 2012

Life of Pi

Life of Pi, Ang Lee's tackle of the deemed unfilmable best-selling novel by Yann Martel, opens with an invitation-- an opening title sequence that's bouncy and energetic.  Set in a zoo, the one in which our young hero-- an inquisitive imp-- the audience meets the animals set about for an enchanting adventure.  Lee, the modern cinema's great shape-shifter, has long been known to channel his specific filmmaking artistry into a wide foray of genres and milieus-- from the Austenian world of Sense and Sensibility to the very American and widely different worlds of 70s era sexual culture in The Ice Storm and '60s old world of frontierism in Brokeback Mountain-- in Life of Pi, he charts and sets his visual canvas more so than ever before.  Delving in to land of CG and 3-D with an aplomb that's at once awe-inspiring, but discerningly graceful.  Life of Pi cements his gift as a marvelous showman and filmmaker, even though he's perhaps one of the few A-list auteurs without a imprinteur quite his own.  Think of Avatar by way of Cast Away with a nugget of We Bought a Zoo marked with the awards magnitude of Slumdog Mullionaire, and that's the high concept pitch behind Life of Pi, a film that's far more penetrable than can be perhaps described on terms of scope, beauty and visual mastery.  It's perhaps a shame, that despite whatever good there is on display (and there's tons), that either by conviction or other pressures, that the film, scripted by Finding Neverland's David Magee, is framed in ways that are firstly too obvious for a film of such visual depth, and secondly too maudlin for what its scope deserves.  The heart of the film, its center, however, is something of cinema beauty, and a savory experience for the mind and heart.

Pi, or by his full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, is met first as an adult (and played by Slumdog Millionaire vet Irrfan Khan) as he's chronicling his larger than life story to a tony writer (Rafe Spall.)  Told at the beginning, Pi's tale is the one that will make the non-believer a devout follower, and such words are markings of a patchy start.  So is shaky framework of Life of Pi, a story of mythic and spiritual proportions, one that once it finally gets going may well have the power and dignity to make the harshest cynic succumb to the wonder of it all...  It's a shame and a pity that the structure was used at all.  There's hardly a need for a stuffy interloper to play story advocate for a film of such ripe and beautiful imagery.  And there's hardly need for a film that has plenty to speak for itself to frame itself in such a tiring way that seemingly lack confidence.

There's a few rich moments that orientate the direction of Pi, surely.  Such as the amusing anecdotal response of the childhood hell given by his unusual name, and his directive to nip it in the bud.  There's a even niftier bit as the questioning and embracing young boy (played by Ayush Tandon in tween years), a born and bred Hindi, embraces all the religions that enter his path.  But this is a slow trek to the quintessential money shot of the piece.  As Pi grows, and is replaced by newcomer actor Suraj Sharma, his family embarks on a quest outside India by ship, along with the zoo he grew up with.  A massive and striking storm is looming, and the ever adventurer in Pi, seeks it and as the ship is capsizing is forced into a lifeboat and left stranded at sea.  He's got a few animal visitors as well-- an injured zebra, riled up hyena, orangutan, and and lastly a massively imposing Bengal tiger, amusingly named Richard Parker.  There's a backstory between Richard Parker and Pi, as a childhood trauma is recalled.

The bulk of Life of Pi is the shipwrecked majesty of Pi and Richard Parker at sea.  A fable, adventures story, survivalist tale, that as absurd as it sounds, plays beautifully with an elegant gracefulness.  The greatest stretches are the nearly wordless images of visual majesty at sea, played with a taut tension and visual splendor that invites one to question how'd they do that only til it subsides by the nearly effortless and beatific wonder of it all.  Inexplicably linked and dependent on one another for survival, there's a seemingly transcendent merging of souls between Pi and Richard Parker that permeates, enriches and engulfs the best stretches of Life of Pi.  Throwing logic away and marveling at the translucent visual poetry of Ang Lee's work successfully navigates a non-narrative of spirituality and one's place in the universe.  The shots themselves seem compressed from tiny works of grand artistry.

It's a harder thing to swallow as the screenplay insists the vacuous violins must come out towards the end.  Prompting a senseless need to either wrap things up, or connect the younger Pi with the older Forrest Gump version telling his tale.  There's a soaring lack of dignity and a nearly blatant disrespect for the beauty that is the heart of Life of Pi, one such that nearly belittles the gentle and dangerous tale.

Life of Pi, I suppose, is the latest and most potent example of art versus commerce.  At least that I've seen in recent movie houses.  The bulk is a hard to sell piece of art, equipped with pricy and wondrous effects, luminous cinematography (courtesy of Claudio Miranda, of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button fame) and nearly austere storytelling.  It's wrapped in Hollywood cellophane that nearly tries to make it an indistinguishable as possible.  That's a pity and a shame for the true merits of the work.  B

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