Life of Pi


Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

(2012) Drama (20th Century Fox) Suraj Sharma, Irffan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussein, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Tabu, Ayan Khan, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Shivakumar, James Saito, Jun Naito, Andrea Di Stefano, Elie Alouf, Shravanthi Sainath. Directed by Ang Lee

 

Things happen. Whether it is for a reason or if they just happen has been a question that we have been trying to figure out since we could put a coherent thought together. In many ways, this is what is driving our entire faith versus reason argument that we seem to be engaged in as a culture.

Piscine Molitor Patel (Sharma) was born in Pondicherry, India, where the French once held sway. He was named for a swimming pool in France where the waters were remarkably clear and his swim-crazy uncle (with a body that can only be described as cartoonish) was remarkably fond of. Unfortunately, his school mates pronounce his first name as something that young boys are prone to doing in swimming pools (think about it) and he decides to shorten it to “Pi” and paves the way for it by memorizing the numerals of Pi to many, many decimals in turn impressing both students and teachers in his school.

Nothing about Pi’s life is ordinary. His father (Hussein) owns a zoo although he really know nothing about animals. It is up to Pi’s mother (Tabu), his brother Ravi (Shivakumar) and himself to tend the animals. Even so, Pi finds time to fall in love with Anandi (Sainath), which looks like it could be going somewhere.

Unfortunately, fate has a curveball in store for Pi. The zoo is failing and his father has decided to move the whole family (including the animals) to Canada to start a new life. Pi is devastated. He has no desire to leave but this is not anything within his control. After a tearful goodbye to Anandi (which he doesn’t remember, only spending that last day with her) he and his family board a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada.

Once again, fate steps in with another game-changer. In the middle of a terrible storm, the ship sinks and everyone aboard drowns. Everyone, that is, except for Pi, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Oh, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who find themselves marooned in a lifeboat. The law of the jungle prevails and the tiger kills and eats everything except for Pi who takes refuge on a makeshift raft made up of oars and life jackets. Richard Parker guards his territory well and as the boat and raft floats aimlessly in the Pacific, the odds that Pi and Parker will survive dwindle.

This is all told through a framing mechanism in which the adult Pi (Khan) relates the story to a writer (Spall) who was urged to hear the story from Pi’s uncle who remained in India. Pi is still affected by the emotions of his ordeal (breaking into tears at one point) but is remarkably sanguine about the whole ordeal which his uncle told the writer would make him believe in God. However, let’s just say that Pi may not be the most trustworthy narrator you can find.

This is as visually inventive and breathtaking a movie as you will see this year. Everything about it rings true but there is also a kind of fairy tale-like flavor to the story and even to the visuals, turning Pondicherry into an idyllic place, and a sea into a multiple personality disorder entity, alternately calm as glass with a cloud-streaked sky reflecting in it, to full of luminous green plankton and raging with storms. The water is a metaphor for life, changing when we least expect it and never into anything convenient.

The movie is based on a book that was widely considered unfilmable and it is to Lee’s credit that he found a way to make it work. However do keep in mind that the bulk of the action takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with one human and one tiger. While it never gets boring, it can get slow.

Much about the film is fanciful and towards the end of the movie you are given a choice to make which essentially gives you the option of faith or reason. The movie heavily skews its own leanings towards one side and that might be offensive towards those who lean in the other direction. And while it is professed that Pi’s story will make you believe in God, quite frankly I don’t see it converting any atheists.

Still, it does lead you to ask some pretty deep questions as to the truth behind faith and reason. What is reality, after all, but our perception of it and what we perceive as fact and what we perceive as beyond our understanding can be tricky. The will to survive can’t be quantified or measured but it is undeniably there – yet a Bengal tiger that looks for all the world like a living, breathing animal can be completely computer generated. Is he any less real for that however? This is the kind of thing that used to give Aristotle headaches.

The good thing however is that you can give these thoughts whatever attention you believe they deserve or what you’re willing to give them. You can sit back and relax and take in the breathtaking images and let not a single stray thought invade your skull if so you choose. It’s all up to you. Now, there are those who won’t even consider seeing this without a single solitary star in the cast (Gerard Depardieu appears briefly as a ill-tempered ship’s cook but many Americans wouldn’t even consider the French Colossus in the same firmament of a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt), although several of the actors including Irffan Khan and Tabu are big stars in India. Still, that hasn’t been enough to really propel the film into stratospheric box office numbers which does give rise to the theory that Americans really don’t like movies that make them think. Ah well. Perhaps Lee should have figured out how to put a car chase in this one, or had the tiger fight the shark with machine guns and rocket launchers. And you wonder why our test scores suck.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully shot. Deeper and more thought-provoking than the average Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the emotions depicted here are pretty rough. There are also some action sequences that are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Khan doesn’t appear in any scenes with the tiger, this is the second movie in 2012 he has appeared in with a character named Richard Parker, the first being The Amazing Spider-Man.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The critics definitely love this one..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where the Wild Things Are

BENGAL TIGER LOVERS: Richard Parker, the tiger in the movie is mostly CGI – every scene in which he appears with Pi is CGI. However, real tigers were used in certain scenes early on in the film, as when the tiger was swimming for example.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Killing Them Softly

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Chimpanzee


Chimpanzee

There's nothing quite like savoring a fine meal.

(2012) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tim Allen (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

 

Watching chimpanzees in their own natural habitat is not unlike looking at our aboriginal beginnings. They live in tribal families, forage for food in an unforgiving environment, utilize tools to crack open nuts and are fiercely territorial. Sounds a lot like modern man to me.

Oscar, a baby chimp, is nurtured by his fiercely protective mom Isha. As is true with most moms, she tries to teach her son everything she can so that he can take care of himself when the time comes for him to be on his own. Unfortunately, that comes much sooner than expected.

Oscar’s tribe has rivals. Led by Scar, they have pretty much eaten themselves out of their own territory and crave the rich nut groves of their rivals. Their survival in fact depends on it as does Oscar’s tribe, who will defend their territory with their lives. It’s tough to be a chimp.

Something incredible happens however. After Isha is killed, Oscar is in dire straits. Unable to forage for himself, lacking the experience and the know-how to feed himself, he slowly begins to starve to death. However, the alpha male of his tribe, Freddy, decides to adopt the baby and raise him as his own. Some naturalists have theorized that this occurs in the wild; however, this is the first time such an occurrence has been captured on film.

The visuals are dazzling. Filmed in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest, the movie gives us a sense of both the harshness and the grandeur of the primeval location. It took four years to film this and the resulting footage is worth every moment of hardship and danger (some of which was documented on First Look pre-show featurettes that screened in a number of movie theaters nationwide in March, hinting at an extensive home video extra features cache when the movie becomes available on DVD and Blu-Ray) that the crew endured to film in the remote location.

I’ve discovered that the narration by Tim Allen is a bit polarizing. Many critics I’ve read have damned his work, saying that it demeaned the animals and was too jokey. Personally I found it entertaining; Disney has a tendency to anthropomorphize their nature documentaries, making the animals more accessible to children who in Disney wisdom need it to relate to their stories (which I think personally is demeaning to children, but that’s just me). If you’re going to create personalities for the animals, you might as well have a narrator who can make it interesting and Allen does that. Some may find it annoying however – so be warned.

Personally, I’d love to see a DisneyNature feature that is a little more nature and a little less Disney. They send teams of camera crews to get this stunning footage and then don’t trust the footage to stand on its own. While I agree narrators are generally necessary to give background information and provide some context, it isn’t necessary for them to assign human traits to the animals or infer what they’re thinking. It is possible to relay information about animals without making it sound dry; it’s just a difficult line to walk. I wish more would attempt it is all.

The footage here is amazing, some of the best that DisneyNature has come up with in their four releases to date. Sadly, there was no preview for their next film (as they have traditionally done with all their releases until now) so there’s a very real possibility this may be the last DisneyNature release for awhile – let’s hope not. I’d love to see some looks at animal life in the Australian outback, in China, or the rain forests of South America. These days most nature documentaries seem to be stuck in Africa and the Arctic, which is fine because there is plenty to see but the world is a diverse place and I’d love to see some nature documentaries set in other places as well.

Really small kids might have some difficulty with the jeopardy that Oscar is placed in and at the off-screen death of his mom. Parents should expect some hard questions to come up when they leave the theater, but certainly their kids should fall in love with the majesty of the forest that is displayed here – I know this adult did.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography, clever narration by Allen and compelling storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more background about chimp habits and behaviors.

FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here your kids shouldn’t see (and won’t want to).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening weekend box office of $10.2 million was the most ever for a nature documentary.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jane’s Journey

TRACKING SHOT LOVERS: The filmmakers used a zip line and a specially designed camera to create the smooth tracking shots of the rain forest that frame the documentary and are stunning to look at.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Raiders of the Lost Ark