Monthly Archives: December 2012

Life Of Pi: gonna need a bigger boat

LifeOfPi

If nothing else, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winner Life Of Pi is easily the most visually sumptuous slab of eye candy I’ve seen in years – if you’re looking for something colourful and vivid to rest on your eyes on during this particularly drab and rainy festive season it knocks the hairy feet and orc-infested fields and tunnels of Middle Earth into a cocked bucket of muddy rainwater. With its saturated colours, bold and imaginative flights of fancy, gorgeous water effects and extraordinarily well rendered digital animals it reminds me more than anything of Disney’s Fantasia, from 1940, which is still pretty much my yardstick of wow when it comes to sheer cinematic wonder. I didn’t even feel fleeced by watching it in 3D – this, like Scorsese’s Hugo from last year, would seem to be one of the rare films that uses the technology as a way of deepening its themes rather than just a gimmick.

Whether there’s actually anything of substance underneath all the technical brilliance is a different question, though from what I remember the film is very faithful to the book so any gripes about the underlying meaning of it all should presumably be directed towards Martel rather than Lee. Like the book, Life Of Pi falls into an unbalanced three act structure, with a framing device of a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall, who’s come on miles in terms of sophistication since the days of Shaun Of The Dead) visiting Pi (Irrfan Khan), a middle-aged Indian man, in order to hear his story of how he was the sole survivor of a shipwreck years earlier. The first act concerns itself with Pi’s childhood as the son of a zoo manager in Pondicherry, and while it’s engaging enough with its depictions of quirky episodes and anecdotes from a serious-minded boy’s youth it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on what comes next, a few musings about the relative virtues of faith and scientific rigour aside. The second, and by far the longest, act is where the film really starts, with the family’s ill-fated freighter voyage to Canada to start a new life, complete with a zoo-load of animals. A mighty storm sinks the ship (and the realisation of this on screen is simply tremendous), but the teenage Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) manages to scramble onto a lifeboat, only to find himself in the company of a fearsome Bengal tiger. Pi has no illusions as to the danger the animal represents, but eventually comes to the realisation that keeping it alive will help motivate him to keep himself alive too, and his ingenious strategies to ensure both survival and mutual accommodation form the main drama of the film. These sequences are compelling, sometimes desperate, sometimes funny, sometimes heightened and fantastical, and just wouldn’t have been possible to achieve a few years ago – the tiger, I’m guessing, is a wholly digital creation but it’s totally convincing, and importantly, it remains a wild animal throughout, with any human characteristics it displays being merely projections of Pi’s need for companionship.

The adventure eventually ends and we’re into a short and not entirely satisfying final act, in which doubt is cast on the veracity of Pi’s story. This seems to be there to highlight the power and value of the imagination but has the effect of muddying the water and devaluing the experience the boy (and us, the audience) has been through. Again, I think it’s true to the book, but it feels sour and anti-climactic, and straining for a significance that something this vibrant and myth-like doesn’t really need. Nevertheless, this is still a marvel of a film and it may have a profound emotional effect on you, particularly if you have a close relationship with any of the felines in your house.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

HobbitShort review:

Hmm…alright if you like this kind of thing.

Longer review:

Sorry, that was churlish. As a point of fact, I do happen to like this kind of thing. You may already be vaguely aware that there was a mildly successful three part adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings out a while back, and while I’m as sneeringly dismissive of wizards, goblins and dwarves as the next hipster there are times when I start to wonder whether these just might be the greatest movies ever made. Sure, there are moments when they get a bit cheesy, and some of the elven interludes remind me of shampoo commercials, and I could certainly live without Orlando Bloom using his shield as a skateboard, but the sheer massiveness and confidence and verve and downright beauty and magnificence of the locations and the sets and the models and the costumes makes any criticism of the odd bit of new age indulgence seem piffling. The fact that Peter Jackson and his cohorts managed to carve out such a thrilling and dynamic throughline from such distinctly stodgy and over-detailed source material is a minor miracle: these three films run to over eleven hours in their extended versions and there’s no noticeable sag or longeurs at all, at least not until you get to the famous multiple endings.

The last part of Lord Of The Rings came out nearly ten years ago, and at the time the feeling was in the air that after knocking that ball out of the park so decisively surely it wouldn’t take much longer than a couple of New Zealand bank holidays to bang out a matching version of Tolkien’s earlier, and much less complicated, children’s classic The Hobbit? Turns out it wasn’t nearly so easy. First there was a legal tangle-up concerning which studio held the rights to resolve, followed by a whole bunch of vagueness about how many films were going to be made, and which bits of Tolkien’s other Middle Earth writings might be considered for an adaptation, and whether Jackson was going to direct or produce (at one stage Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame was assigned as director), and who out of the Rings cast might be available to reprise their roles. Eventually, it was settled as two films, with Jackson directing…until fairly late in the game, when it mysteriously became a trilogy. All of this shuffling about didn’t really inspire much confidence.

Anyway. Now it’s here, the first part anyway, and what with the calendar getting a bit stuffed with pre-Christmas commitments I sloped off to catch an 11am screening along with a lot of other skivers and orc-fanciers. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is what it’s ended up being called, and it’s…well…alright if you like this kind of thing, but I’d struggle to make a case for it to anyone Tolkien-sceptical. The good news is that it’s very much of a piece with the earlier films in terms of how it looks, and how it feels, and how it plays. The fabulous New Zealand landscapes are present and correct, Bilbo’s house is exactly as it was ten years ago and continuity is respected to the degree of rehiring actors from the Rings trilogy to recreate roles that don’t even appear in the book of The Hobbit – say hello again to Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo. We also get Ian McKellen returning as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and, in probably the film’s best sequence, Andy Serkis gets to voice and motion-capture Gollum again. A Star Wars: Phantom Menace reboot fiasco this is not – if you loved the world of Lord Of The Rings this is absolutely a return trip. You even get to hear a few of the old music cues, like those for The Shire and the ring. Casting’s pretty sound in the new roles too, with Tim-from-The-Office aka Martin Freeman a canny everyman pick for Bilbo Baggins.

So everything’s reassuringly sumptuous, and when the story gets going Jackson and co handle everything with the surefootedness and invention that they displayed before, with advances in CGI technology meaning they can deliver spectacles like the thunder battles on the misty mountains and trolls turning to stone and our heroes fleeing from armies of goblins with aplomb. The problem, and it’s a glaringly obvious one, is that they’ve got three hours to fill and only about a hundred pages of a light and charming children’s book to fill it with. Everything takes AGES, even after a lengthy prologue setting up the motivation of the dispossessed dwarves who reluctantly recruit Bilbo on their mission to reclaim their homeland and various other interludes I don’t remember from the book (Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the nature-loving wizard Radagast is particularly trippy). They’re in Bilbo’s kitchen for ages, then they’re being hunted by orcs for ages, then chased by goblins for ages in a sequence that reminded me of disinterestedly watching someone else playing a computer game, then they’re being hunted by orcs again. For ages. Before Gandalf once again gets them out of a pickle through his wizardly wisdom.

And it doesn’t help that there are so many of them. Dwarves, that is – thirteen of them, and despite the production crew’s best efforts in differentiating them by giving them different beards and accents you don’t really find yourself bothered about working out which one is which. The only ones to really register are Richard Armitage’s glowering King Thorin and Ken Stott’s faithful retainer Balin.

So in the end I’ve got to confess that I found this film a bit of a trudge, and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to finding out how they’re going to pad out the next two installments. This is one case where I might be tempted to buy a special edition DVD, but only if it had a shorter running time rather than a longer one. Like about two hours shorter.

Seven Psychopaths: no animals were harmed

SevenPsychopaths

I was quite excited about this one. Longtime readers might remember me burbling on a while ago about how much I love writer/director Martin McDonagh’s previous film In Bruges, and I’ve got a real soft spot for self-aware Charlie Kaufman style absurdities about blocked writers like Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, so the announcement of Seven Psychopaths, in which a Hollywood screenwriter finds himself sucked into a bizarre gangster caper while struggling to get his high concept script about serial killers off the ground, had me positively salivating. As it turns out, the new film is something of a glorious mess that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the challenging job of getting the audience to invest in all these oddball characters who always seem to be behaving like they know they’re in a movie, but it’s sure as hell pretty funny, and if the plot and motivations of everyone are both sometimes a touch convoluted they’re certainly never predictable.

Colin Farrell gets the lead role as Martin, whose efforts to come up with enough sufficiently interesting disturbed individuals to justify his title Seven Psychopaths are hampered both by a burgeoning alcohol problem and his enthusiastic, if not exactly over-thoughtful, friend Billy, who has a side-line in kidnapping dogs before returning them to their owners to collect the reward. Billy’s aided in this enterprise by Hans, a dignified Christian pensioner who’s trying to raise funds for his wife’s cancer operation. Things get complicated when Billy picks up a shih tzu belonging to a local crime boss at the same time as Martin gets kicked out by his long-suffering girlfriend. Martin is forced to look after the dog, but events don’t play out anything like you’d expect, largely because both Billy and Hans seem to be living according to their own private codes, neither of which pays much regard to such basic instincts of self-preservation as fear and caution. While this is going on Martin is harvesting tales of legendary psychopaths from various quarters, and dreamlike, though often horribly bloody, reconstructions of their dark exploits frequently punctuate the main action.

Farrell’s character and a couple of token girlfriends aside, McDonagh has populated his film with a gallery of weirdos and pleasingly he’s been able to round up some of Hollywood’s most prominent portrayers of nut-jobs to play them: Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits, and even the venerable Harry Dean Stanton appears in one sequence. Sometimes the movie plays like a Tarantino tribute, with stand-offs littered with inappropriately casual banter. Sometimes it gets unexpectedly quiet and meditative, as Martin bemoans all the violence and strains to create something deeper and more meaningful. The film always seems to be commenting on itself, even forestalling potential criticisms by putting lines about how thin the roles for its women are into the mouths of its characters. It’s a symptom of this too-clever-by-half approach that Billy is given the surname Bickle and is seen at one point in front of a mirror doing the Robert de Niro “you talkin’ to me?” routine from Taxi Driver – you might enjoy getting the reference, but it doesn’t really help the film*.

Fortunately, McDonagh has enough of a gift for killer lines of dialogue and smart plot swerves that he more or less gets away with what might otherwise be a hopeless melange of self-indulgence. He’s also got some highly watchable people on screen: Farrell’s role is a bit thankless as he’s mainly there to provide some kind of yardstick of normality, but Rockwell gibbers winningly as a volatile wild card, Harrelson exudes full-on menace when he’s not pining pathetically for his lost dog and Walken is just outstanding as someone who’s decided to never compromise his hard-won poise and won’t even put his hands up when a mob is pointing guns at him. It’s also worth going to see the film just to get to hear Tom Waits croak out one of his tall tales of madness and regret. Seven Psychopaths may be often  too far up its own conceits for its own good but it’s never boring and it’s never dumb.  Great soundtrack too, particularly when Half Man Half Biscuit’s immortal Trumpton Riots kicks in.

* I saw this at an unusually lively screening, the audience of which seemed to contain not only members of a production company involved with the film, who cheered at some of the start and end credits and were mumbling appreciatively at certain points, but also a couple of over-refreshed gentlemen who at times were engaging quite loudly, Rocky Horror style, with the on-screen dialogue. I’d normally find this kind of thing intolerable, but given the self-referential nature of the film it actually felt pretty appropriate, as if the ambience of the movie had extended into the auditorium.