Thursday, February 28, 2013

Life of Pi Proves a Thought-Provoking and Majestic Cinematic Experience

In addition to an emotional wallop, Life of Pi offers a feast for the eyes
that really takes advantage of 3D effects.
One of the biggest moments of Sunday’s Oscar telecast was Ben Affleck’s vindicating win for Best Picture, particularly in lieu of the fact that he wasn’t even eligible in the director category despite raking in nearly every other director award this season.  
It’s likely that Affleck would’ve won for directing if he’d been nominated, but, since he wasn’t, Ang Lee netted his second Academy Award for Life of Pi. Regardless of Affleck’s nomination status, I believe the right guy walked away with the Best Director Oscar Sunday night.
Simply put, I thought Life of Pi, which has actually become a surprising smash hit with worldwide grosses exceeding $580 million thus far, was the best movie of 2012 (more on that in a minute). However, even for those who were cold on the film’s framing device or its late breaking twist, it would be hard to deny the directorial achievement.
Yann Martel’s award-winning novel was always going to be a tough story to translate into film, and that proved true over its decade-long development, as a varying number of directors, including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, continuously failed to crack the nut. Finally, Lee took hold of the story, bringing unparalleled visual scope (aided by ace Oscar-winning VFX work*) and instilling a great deal of heart to the undertaking.
*The VFX work here by Rhythm & Hues Studio is truly remarkable, and their Oscar win this week must’ve been bitter sweet, as they recently claimed bankruptcy. HitFix’s Drew McWeeny posted a very interesting op-ed concerning the future of the VFX industry that’s worth a look for those interested.  Long story short, VFX companies have become the lifeblood of modern filmmaking and yet they are struggling to stay out of the red due to the greedy studios in Hollywood.
The central narrative is actually a story within a story. The framing device involves a writer (Rafe Spall) who visits Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), a man who has embraced all religious outlooks since youth and somehow manages to practice all of them. The writer has come to hear Pi’s story, as he has been told it is one that will make him believe in God.

Among four Oscar wins, Life of Pi netted a much deserved
trophy for cinematography.

Patel dives into a tale about growing up in India on a zoo that his father owned and operated. In an effort to escape the turbulent political atmosphere in India, Pi’s father ultimately decides to sell off the animals and move the family to Montreal, so he contracts a Japanese ship to transport his family and the animals to Canada. A disaster occurs, and the boat sinks, but the young Pi (Suraj Sharma) manages his way into a lifeboat, ultimately turning up on the shores of Mexico 227 days later.
Spoiler Alert
Those are the definite facts.  Everything else in the movie is eventually left up to interpretation. From there, Pi tells a fantastical story about being stuck on a lifeboat with a friendly orangutan, a dastardly hyena, an injured zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi watches on in horror as the hyena kills both the zebra and orangutan before then being killed by the tiger. Somehow, Pi manages to coexist (and even bond) with Richard Parker. Eventually, the duo spends time on an intimidating carnivorous island before drifting to Mexico where Richard Parker takes off, never to be seen again.
When found, Pi is placed in a hospital where two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Travel visit him to discuss what happened at sea. After they brush off his initial story as too farfetched to be believed, he tells them another more disturbing version of the events. In this second story, Pi says he was not joined by animals in the life boat, but rather three other human survivors – his mother, the ship’s loathsome cook and an injured sailor. Worried about limited supplies, the cook kills the sailor and later eats the man. Eventually, the cook also kills Pi’s mother, causing Pi to enact revenge and murder the cook.**
**Despite casting Gérard Depardieu as the cook, Lee does not show this variation of the story. Instead, he wisely keeps the camera on Sharma as he tells the story, making it an even more powerful and devastating version of events. Sharma is great throughout the film, but the newcomer is particularly revelatory in this scene.
The writer points out the striking similarities between the tales, noting that the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is the sailor, the hyena is the cook, and Richard Parker is Pi. Pi asks the writer which story he prefers, and the writer responds by saying he prefers the story with Richard Parker, to which Pi responds “and so it goes with God.”
The story can be interpreted in many ways. The easy conclusion is that Pi, unable to face the horror of what really happened, created a fictionalized account to retain his sanity. If that is the truth, it’s still a powerful story about how this very religious man managed to deal with horror of witnessing cannibalism and the harsh reality of being a murderer. However, it’s also possible that it all did happen and Pi was just angrily telling the Japanese officials the story they wanted to hear, or, in his words, “a story they already know.”
Real or not, Richard Parker is a marvel of VFX artistry.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which story is true. The greater question is which story do you prefer – the depressing one that makes logical sense or the miraculous one that requires suspension of disbelief? In the choice between hopeless certainty and uplifting ambiguity, the writer chooses the latter (as do the Japanese officials), and so Pi’s story becomes a tale that convinces man to believe in the unbelievable. In other words, it gives reason to “go with God.”
All of this is far more eloquently and elaborately explored in a fantastic piece by Ben Kendrick over at Screen Rant. I highly recommend checking out the article, which did wonders to illuminate the film for me. Upon exiting the theater, I knew I had seen something great, but after reading Kendrick’s words, it clarified it all for me, proving I’d seen something extraordinary.
Life of Pi is a beautiful film that works on quite a number of levels. It provides boundary-pushing visual splendors, while inviting self reflection and spirited dialogue in its macro exploration of the value of faith. However, on the micro level, it also gives us a tremendously emotional story, made all the more potent by excellent performances from Khan and Sharma, soulful direction by Lee and otherworldly VFX work that turns Richard Parker into a living, breathing character. A+

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Anderson and Tarantino Embrace Their Quirks to Great Effect with Moonrise Kingdom and Django Unchained

Wes Anderson (left) and Quentin Tarantino (right) are two of Hollywood's
half-dozen or so auteurs under 50.
It’s odd to say because of how vastly different their output is, but it occurred to me recently that Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have had eerily similar career archs.
If you count the Kill Bill saga as one film, both writer/directors have made seven full-length features that have defined them as modern day auteurs with idiosyncratic approaches that countless filmmakers have unsuccessfully tried to emulate.
Both emerged with ’90s indies and gained increasing acceptance through their first three films before backlash hit in the middle of their oeuvres. Many critics and fans took issue with the likes of Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Death Proof, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, basically inferring they were derivative “style over substance” trifles, while decrying each man for growing stagnant in their all-consuming quirks.
Interestingly, both Anderson and Tarantino reclaimed critical adoration by releasing films in 2009 and 2012 that were, in many ways, the most Andersony and Tarintinoesque movies of their careers. Somehow two filmmakers that were criticized for working within defined wheelhouses were able to rewrite the narratives around their careers by going even further down their own stylistic rabbit holes.
Let’s start with Anderson. For a long time, he has been criticized for his meticulously detailed almost dollhouse-like mis-en-scene, twee sensibilities, use of slow motion, and deadpan dialogue, as well as a supposedly increasing inertness and lack of emotionality. I’ve always thought these were odd criticisms – I never could grasp why people so detested the idea of a filmmaker creating his own visual identity, and always thought that Anderson did a wonderful job of crafting wonderfully emotive and cathartic moments strikingly set against artifice. 

Moonrise Kingdom features slow-mo walking. Duh.
 Nevertheless, the complaints existed, and many people had begun to tune Anderson out as a significant purveyor of American cinema. Then, somehow, the man got back into the good graces of many and landed his second Oscar nomination for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film brimming with deadpan quirk and featuring costumes and set design so detailed that the they are almost otherworldly (and, in fact, they are literally slavishly rendered doll clothing and dollhouses).
Anderson has followed that success with Moonrise Kingdom, a film that garnered him another Oscar nomination and that many have called the best of his career, despite the fact that it contains all of the same Anderson eccentricities and ups the twee to even higher levels.
 Although I prefer several other Anderson titles, I found Moonrise Kingdom to be a great little film, choke full of richly thematic undertones involving first love, destiny, abandonment, and the need to be, if not understood, than accepted. The film focuses on two 12-year-olds – Sam (Jared Gillman), a resourceful orphan Khaki scout, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), the mostly ignored black sheep child of two checked out lawyer parents – who decide to run away together after courting via a series of letters.
Anderson nails the uncertainly, exhilaration and sensitivity of navigating love for the first time. Sam and Suzy know what their supposed to do and awkwardly go through the romantic motions, but what really forges their bond is a refreshing and needed dose of head-on openness.
Importantly, Gillman and Hayward are inherently interesting and natural performers, and the absurdity that these kids decide to run away together on an island is part of the charm. So too is the contrasting lack of purpose present in all the adult characters (Edward Norton as a scout leader, Bruce Willis as a local sheriff, and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents), although, other than Willis, I’d say they are largely wasted.

The chemistry between Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx is
the heart of Django Unchained.
Tarantino has operated on a larger scope than Anderson, making larger, more popular movies, while having already landed an Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction. However, backlash for his incessant concentration on ironic violence, endless bouts of verbal dexterity, use of fake brands, and employment of eye-popping angles and zooms, as well as his penchant for fawning riffs on genre movies seemed to reach a boiling point with the release of Death Proof.
And yet he reemerged in a big way three years ago when Inglorious Basterds – an alternate take on WWII that plays up the revenge-tinged violence and indulges Tarantino’s love for stylistic embellishment and long, immersive dialogue scenes – dominated at the box-office and grabbed eighth Oscar nominations (including best director and screenplay). 
This year he’s repeated the trick with Django Unchained, another genre exercise revenge story mash up. This time, the director combines spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation in an examination of slavery. Although that seems a dicey prospect, the film has become Tarantino’s highest grossing film and nabbed five Oscar nominations to boot (including another writing nod for him).
The entire film is conceived with a wink and a nudge, even more so than Inglorious Basterds, which felt more realistic in a way, despite the fact that it was rewriting known history while this story is at least probable. The film is often comedic in the way it’s shot, scripted and acted, and although it contains tracks from Ennio Morricone the legendary composer of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, most of the soundtrack is composed of funkified originals and classic pop tunes. 

The film focuses on Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter who buys a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him locate and take out several marks. In return Schultz offers Django his freedom and agrees to help him save his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candie Land, a plantation lorded over by the maniacal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and run by treacherous house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Waltz steals the picture outright with a role that was likely written in direct response to his head-turning turn in Basterds. I imagine Quentin so loved Waltz’s take that he was inspired to convert the archetype into a good guy and get back in the sandbox with him. Schultz is the same type of pragmatic and dangerous charmer as Hans Landa, except he’s layered with a level of humanity and compassion that none of the hardened Americans in the piece seem to possess.
DiCaprio and Jackson also are afforded larger-than-life characters and they more than make their mark in transformative roles, despite being absent for the first two-thirds of the film. DiCaprio shows a different, more flamboyant side of his range, while Jackson manages to keep Waltz at bay for the title of greatest Tarantino collaborator based on the sheer diversity of their collaborations alone. 
By design, Foxx is given less to work with, as Django is rejiggered version of the badass of few words made famous by western luminaries like Clint Eastwood. He’s solid and projects the right amount of attitude, but it’s hard to deny that the life begins seeping out of the film once Schultz is out of the picture and Django takes center stage. A lot of that has to do with the minimal amount of investment put into his relationship with Broomhilda. She barely registers as more than a plot device, and the heart of the film is the bromance between Schultz and Django (Foxx’s delivery of expertly set up “Auf Wiedersehen” is a sweet coda to the relationship).
I greatly enjoyed the tone and pulpy aspects of Django but I felt it didn’t have half the momentum or development of Inglorious Basterds, and so it plays like a lesser version of a similar movie. That said, there’s so much to like here that it hardly matters it fails to reach such lofty heights.
Overall, I’m glad to see both Anderson and Tarantino back on top. I never understood the backlash against them, because I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want these men to make films that weren’t personal and drenched in their own eccentricities. While I admire filmmakers like Ron Howard who are almost invisible in their ability to craft diverse, four-quadrant movies with minimal overlapping distinctiveness, I don’t think we should be forcing specialists like Anderson and Tarantino to stifle their artistic identifies. To me, it’d be like forcing Picasso or Salvador Dahli to paint classical art – an utter waste of individuality and talent.
Fortunately, that’s not the case with these two great filmmakers. Moonrise Kingdom A-, Django Unchained B+

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lincoln Shines Courtesy of a Tight Script and Towering Lead Performance

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski offers up really great
interior work, especially with the natural lighting.
I’ve been seeing movies at a fervent pace the last few weeks in an attempt to catch up on all these Oscar nominees. As a result you can expect quite a few reviews this week in the lead up to the 85th Academy Awards. First up: Lincoln.

Lincoln has emerged as a major player in this year’s Oscar race, with a pack-leading 12 nominations. Sometimes, the lead dog ends up with a few nominations it really didn't deserve, and it would be easy to assume an Oscar-baiting film like this would do just that, but that’s not really the case here. There’s a broad spectrum of craft excellence on display in Lincoln, and all 12 nominations are immensely defendable. In fact, a strong case could be made that the film should have been nominated in the Makeup and Hairstyling category as well.

The film also has netted quite a profit, especially considering it’s a talky, two-and-a-half hour period piece. At $176 million and counting, it has nearly tripled its production budget to become the biggest domestic grosser of this year’s nine nominated films.

Director Steven Spielberg put in over a decade of work developing Lincoln, and, given the end result, it was time well spent. Many biopics falter in trying to give a general survey of the central figure’s life, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely limit the narrative reach to the early months of 1865, focusing almost exclusively on the private and public hardships Lincoln faced in pushing the 13th Amendment though the House of Representatives.

Other than a few quick war scenes, most of the action takes place in the White House and House of Representatives. Given this, the film could have very easily fallen into History Channel ennui, but, amazingly, Lincoln is often a riveting motion picture experience. It’s easy to imagine some people will find the film boring, but for fans of character development, dialogue, and scene construction, this is a real treat.

Much of the credit for this is owed to Tony Kushner’s ace script, which keeps things brisk and exciting, and offers an intriguing amount of shading to Lincoln, a man of great conscience whose standing as a folksy teller of parables ingratiates him to the public while also causing his chief detractors to underestimate his immense political guile.

Great character actors David Strathairn, Tim Blake
Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader add
expert support as vital member's of Lincoln's team.
All of these traits and more are expertly communicated in Daniel Day Lewis’s undeniably magnetic performance. When his casting was first announced, it was easy to guess a titan like Day Lewis would ride this to a record breaking third Best Actor Oscar, and the seeming inevitability of that almost soured me to the movie prematurely. However, even the most resistant viewers would be hard-pressed to deny the depth of the performance, which is not so much a portrayal as it is an inhabitance.

Day Lewis is joined by a large cast of recognizable character actors, headed up by Oscar nominees Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. The role of “cantankerous old guy who doesn't suffer fools easily” fits Jones like a glove, but this is an especially plugged-in take on his patented archetype with some lovely undercurrents of resentment and contained compassion thrown in. Meanwhile, although Field’s Mary Todd doesn't always work for me, she totally kills it in a mid-movie tete-a-tete with Jones, while also keeping the character’s inherent hysterics admirably restrained.

Speaking of restrained, one of the most refreshing aspects of the film is how reeled in Spielberg and frequent composer John Williams are in this enterprise. Both are icons in their fields that have, at times, become victims of their stylistic leanings, but they take a low key approach here the beautifully serves the material.

Although it didn't get under my skin like my favorite films tend to do, I admire the hell out of Lincoln and am in awe of the central performance. Oh, and I learned a whole lot to boot, which is cool. Overall, the film is nearly perfect for what it is, and I expect it will hold up quite well and endure as one of the best films of 2012. A

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Brave Is Lower-Tier Pixar, But That's Really Not Such a Bad Thing

The animation in this film ranks up there with the best Pixar has done.

As of late, Pixar’s taken a decent amount of slack from fans that believe they’ve lost the golden touch or sold out or maybe a combination of the two.

It’s an understandable fan reaction. For so long, it felt like the studio produced a stone cold classic each time out, and so greatness became something of an expectation. As a result, anything less than spectacular has gotten an automatic dismissal.

That was certainly the case with the original Cars, a creatively imagined and animated (if at times confounding) take on Doc Hollywood that had the misfortune of being merely good and perhaps too commercially kid approved. The fact that such a massive hit (with a plethora of continual merchandising appeal) probably afforded the company the ability to go on an incredibly ambitious, risk-taking run of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, is certainly overlooked by the naysayers.

Since that run, the studio has further alienated fans by green lighting a long line of sequels. So far we’ve seen Toy Story 3 (a total slam-dunk) and Cars 2 (better than many movies you’ll see in a given year, but still their worst film by a long shot), but on the docket is the upcoming Monsters University, Planes (which is actually a DisneyToon Studios joint, but as a continuation of the Cars franchise, most will look at it as Pixar), and the recently announced Finding Nemo 2.

Many fans of Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo fear the studio is sullying two classics in a greedy attempt to make money. Although I’m sure finances played a major part here, it’s hard for me to forget how expertly they turned Toy Story into a thematically rich trilogy. It’s not impossible to imagine them doing something similar with these two franchises, especially with the talent involved, so I'm withholding judgement.

No this isn't from Brave. It's concept art for the studio's
canceled film Newt.
However, even taking into account Toy Story 3’s excellence and assuming solid second outings for the Monsters and Nemo franchises, it’s no surprise a case of sequelitis is setting in amongst fans. The beautiful thing about Pixar was always their ability to keep churning out excitingly original masterpieces and now the studio is in the midst of a four-film stretch that contains three sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Monsters University).*

*This stretch wouldn’t feel as sequel heavy if the studio hadn't canceled Newt, which revolved around the only two remaining blue-footed newts being forced together to perpetuate the species despite hating one another. Apparently, it was pulled due to similarities to Rio, which is a shame, because the premise sounded fun and the concept art was amazing (click here to see about a dozen of images).

The other film in that run is, of course, Brave, the movie I actually intend to review in this piece. Brave marks Pixar’s first fairy tale and its first film with a female protagonist, but, like Cars, it has come under fire for being a lesser Pixar entry. And it’s hard to argue that point. Once again, we’re dealing with a film that has great visuals and a good theme, but still comes across a bit lacking.

Look at the detail in that face. It's insane.
The problems with Brave are fairly obvious. It’s too preoccupied with being cute, especially in the buffoonish characterization of most of the cast. And, outside of a solid set up, the story’s pretty slight. I really appreciated the complicated mother-daughter issues in the piece, but it’s all resolved in such shockingly swift and precursory fashion. One could easily see this being Pixar’s female driven counterpoint to Finding Nemo, but it’s just a way more modest endeavor that often feels like nothing more than a grab bag of familiar trappings from other Disney movies –the need to marry off an unwilling princess in Aladdin, the “parent knows best or does he/she?” setup from Little Mermaid, the whole turning into a bear trope from Brother Bear, and so forth and so on.**

** I’m not sure if the film suffered at all due to the directorial issues that occurred during production. This was meant to be the first female-directed Pixar film, but, at some point, writer/director Brenda Chapman left the project and Pixar staffer Mark Andrews finished the job. The film feels tonally of one piece, but I would be very interested to learn more about what happened with that and how it may have affected the film.

Nevertheless, there is a boatload of things to like about the movie. For starters, it’s stunningly beautiful. The animators really embraced the challenge of creating a foggy, woodland environment, and the studio continues to impress with their artistry and attention to detail.

On top of that, Patrick Doyle’s Celtic-flavored score is top notch, and the songs are uniformly excellent. In fact, I’m still somewhat shocked neither “Learn Me Right” or “Touch the Sky” received an Oscar nomination (especially “Learn Me Right,” which would have enabled Mumford and Sons to perform on the telecast).

Meanwhile, although I wasn’t a big fan of most of the peripheral characterizations, I thought Merida’s family was pitched just right. Aided by excellent voice work by Kelly Macdonald, Merida is a worthy addition to Disney’s tradition of strong-willed princesses, and both her parents felt like living, breathing characters. And despite most of the comedy falling flat for me, I did enjoy the triplets, and appreciated the decision to keep them almost entirely silent throughout the course of the movie.

This is teaser art from the upcoming Inside the Mind
director Pete Docter's follow-up to Monsters Inc. and Up.
So, overall, I would say it’s far from top-tier Pixar, but a good effort nonetheless. I’m not sure demanding fans are  happy with that, but it’s not all gloom and sequels on the horizon. Pixar's upcoming slate also features a slew of original and interesting looking films focusing on dinosaurs, a little girl's mind, and Dia de los Muertos (click here to get a sneak peek at each one). 

I'd stake money another Pixar masterpiece is on the way, but until that time, I'm content to enjoy any Pixar output that comes my way. B