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Column Thu Nov 22 2012

Life of Pi, Hitchcock, Red Dawn & Rise of the Guardians

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Life of Pi

The art of telling a story orally is a dying one, but those who can do it well (Ira Glass, David Sedaris, the late Spaulding Gray, and the list goes on...but not that far) are some of my personal heroes simply because they keep the tradition alive. I don't know if the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is fashioned in a similar sense, but the film version from director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) is a celebration of passing an oral history from one person to another. It's also a transformative visual display, the likes of which I haven't seen in many years, combining the realistic and the surreal to the point where looking at the image of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger often resembles a painting featuring colors that appear invented for just the movie. Life of Pi also happens to be one of the finest works done in 3-D that I have ever viewed.

The setup is important. The story being told here is actually actively being relayed from Pi Patel (played as an adult by the great Indian actor Iffran Khan) to a writer played by Rafe Spall, who I believe is something of a stand-in for the author. He is telling his remarkable account of his youth leading up to the horrific events that left him stranded in the middle of the ocean with a hungry Bengal tiger. Young Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) is a boy ahead of his time. He's curious about religion, so he studies many of them, eventually adapting a hybrid version of spirituality and a belief that the temple of God lies in one's self and not in any one faith or organized group. He and his family live in and maintain a zoo, and when they decide to relocate nations, dad decides to bring the animals with them.

Life of Pi is a PG-rated affair, but there's plenty here to scare the more sensitive little ones, starting with a horrific storm that capsizes the ship on which the family is traveling, leaving Pi stranded on a boat with a few wounded animals. The shipwreck sequence is harrowing and one of the scariest things I've ever seen. As you likely already know and for reasons you can probably guess, the lifeboat's population is reduced to boy and tiger, although in all honesty, the boy spends most of his time on an adjacent, connected raft he built from salvaged scraps of the ship. What's wonderful is the way Pi "trains" the tiger to not want to eat him -- not an easy task. It's both an exercise in patience, and some of the most seamless special effects you'll likely see this year. Using a mixture of real and CG animals, the interaction between Pi and the tiger (named Richard Parker) is hard to fathom. Although Pi and Richard Parker don't exactly become cuddle buddies, they do come to something of an understanding about Pi not being the tiger's dinner.

Some people I know who have read the book have told me that the sequence where Pi and Richard Parker land on an island swarming with meerkats is brutally dull, but in the movie, it's a fairly brief vignette with a mystifying and spooky closing moment. Near the end of the film, an alternative version of the events on the ocean is given that some are bothered by because they think it's unnecessary over-explanation, but I think younger viewers may get the most out of these discussions, and it might be the easier way to convey the message of faith that seems central to Life of Pi. It's certainly not pandering, and as much as I found the metaphor option unnecessary, it didn't ruin the rest of the movie for me. It's there for younger audience members and dummies (sometimes dummies make it into movies; it's a fact).

Life of Pi is simply too beautiful a film and too captivating a story to dismiss because of a questionable ending. And while I'm never in favor of turning off your brain in order to enjoy a movie, it does sometimes help if you don't overthink certain offerings. This is a film that made me believe in the impossible, and yes, maybe even a little in God's magic powers. And I'll say this again, if you don't see this in 3-D, you aren't really experiencing it; it's critical and necessary.

To read my exclusive interview with Life of Pi director Ang Lee, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Hitchcock

Unless I'm watching a documentary, I don't require 100 percent factual accuracy to enjoy a movie "based on a true story." For example, Ben Affleck readily admits that almost none of the elements that make the final airport scene in Argo so great are even close to how things went down in real life. But the way he handles that sequence is damn-near cinematically perfect. Now we have Hitchcock, the telling of Alfred Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) and wife/creative partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) making arguably his most famous film, Psycho. I'm sure I believe that Hitchcock had an imaginary figure of serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) advising him on the tone of the film, but I have no trouble believing that the unique, mom-centric nature of Gein's crimes informed Hitchcock tremendously.

Hitchcock is a blast, even if it's 100 percent fiction, which it most certainly is not. The most frustrating thing about it is that Hopkins and Mirren have never worked together before, because clearly their admiration for each other and natural chemistry would have made them a perfect on-screen pairing for decades leading up to now. As much as I'd hate to limit the film's power to simply showing us the value of the woman behind the man, the best moments are when Reville's influence and nearly always correct evaluation of Hitchcock's projects, scripts, editing, etc. are clearly illustrated. It's almost difficult to imagine a time when Hitchcock would have ever had trouble getting a film made, but the material in Psycho was simply too shocking for even his most loyal creative partners. The best he could get is a distribution deal with Paramount, with him kicking in all money for production.

The true joy in Hitchcock is watching the actors re-create the prep work and production of Psycho. Scarlett Johansson is quite good as shower victim Janet Leigh, who is portrayed as a sensible woman who put being a wife and mother ahead of all else. But she also knew the honor of being a leading lady in a Hitchcock movie, despite his reputation for fixating on his blonde leading ladies such as Kim Novak and Gracy Kelly. It's clear that Reville loves the idea of murdering the leading lady 30 minutes into the film for more than just the shock value. Also surprisingly good is Jessica Biel play actress Vera Miles, a former object of Hitchcock's weird obsession who has fallen out of favor with the director but is still under contract with him for one more film. I may be in the minority on this, but I think James D'Arcy's take on Anthony Perkins -- shown here struggling to find the right voice for Norman Bates -- is fascinating and fairly dead-on.

Far less interesting is the material involving Reville and fellow writer (of Strangers on a Train, among others) Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who is attempting to make his own movies using Reville as a co-writer. There's more than a hint of potential romance between the two, but when Reville catches Cook with another woman, she might sympathize with her husband's infatuations a little bit more than before. For better or worse, her life outside of her work with Hitchcock (at least in this film) isn't nearly as interesting as when they are working or fighting or remembering how good they are as a team, personally and professionally.

Hitchcock was directed by Sacha Gervasi, who weirdly enough last gave us the fantastic documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. And that's all I can say about that because there's virtually nothing in common between the two films beyond their entertainment value. That being said, both films expose the tricky, often abrasive elements that fuel a creative partnership. As much as Hitchcock may have disrespected her as a wife, he always gave Reville absolute credit in their working relationship. Toss into the mix some nice supporting performance by Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg, and you have yourself a fun little movie with modest ambitions and a few flaws that gives film buffs a peak behind the curtain and lesser film history lovers something that hopefully will spark an interest in checking about other works by Alfred Hitchcock. There are worse things, trust me. Hitchcock opens Friday at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Hitchcock star Helen Mirren, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Red Dawn

I was never one who held the original 1984 Red Dawn from director John Milius in the highest regard. However, thanks to Ronald Reagan's paranoia (justified or not) regarding the Soviet Union, the arms race, and a series of dreams I used to have in my teens about dying in a nuclear firestorm, the film pushed a few buttons in my fragile psyche and made a lasting impression. The problem with the long-delayed remake isn't that an invasion by South Korea seems far less possible or likely than one from Russia. The deeper issues have to do with an audience caring about these new characters, most of whom seem intent on making one stupid choice after another.

The film opens with a brief overview of life in a small town in Washington state. Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) is his high school football team's quarterback. His brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth) has just returned from several years with the Marines in the Middle East. The morning after a big game, the brothers wake at their father's house to the almost-inconceivable sight of hundreds of paratroopers falling from the sky and into their neighborhood and others just like it. A small group of their young friends manage to escape and find refuge in the Eckert cabin in the woods. Among the frightened bunch are Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki (who doubles as a potential love interest for Hemsworth), and Connor Cruise. The group does not include Erica (Isabel Lucas), Matt's girlfriend -- a situation that comes back to haunt the group more than once.

Here's what works in Red Dawn -- and it should come as no surprise since the director is stunt coordinator extraordinaire Dan Bradley, directing his first feature -- the action sequences are phenomenally choreographed to the point where some fairly complicated staging never get confusing. There's one particular sequence where the Wolverines (the football team's name, now a noted resistance group) must break into the enemy's headquarters to steal a communications device. There are several teams split up throughout the building, but once the fighting and shooting starts, Bradley does a great job keeping things straight and intense.

I'm pretty sure the South Koreans' initial reign of power is only over the Pacific Northwest (including Northern California), which doesn't seem quite as menacing as the original film. I was especially fond of actor Will Yun Lee, who plays the badass in command, Captain Lo, who has something of an old-fashioned strutting villain here who is not above killing a few POWs to get the Wolverines to come out of hiding, a move that only makes them stronger.

One of the film's more energizing developments comes when the Wolverines cross paths with three retired soldiers (including Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Col. Andy Tanner), who have come out of hiding and retirement to assist the Wolverines however they can. Morgan adds a much-needed sense of maturity to the cast and the story. I'm effectively done with film or TV storylines that involve an immature character willing to sacrifice dozens or hundreds of people just to save a loved one. In the middle of one exceedingly complicated and important mission, Matt spots his girlfriend and leaves his post to go chase her down and free her from her chains (literally). I'm not saying young people don't do dumb things, but I'm fairly certain Matt knows the stakes and would never do what he does in this movie.

In watching Red Dawn, the thing that jumps to the forefront of your mind is how charismatic Hemsworth truly is. If this film had come out when it was supposed to, it would have been after Cabin in the Woods and well before Thor, but Hemsworth's presence and command of the scene around him are blazingly clear. What you don't realize until fairly deep into the proceedings is that the film is actually Matt's story; he's an immature, impulsive kid who learns the consequences of his actions and how to be a leader of people from his brother. Matt has the most learning to do and a personality in most need of altering, and Peck does a terrific job getting us to want Matt to become a better man.

Occasionally, director Bradley feels like he's painting by the numbers, in terms of mimicking the original work, and it's those moments when the production strays from the source material that I tended to like the best. If all you care about are the moments of action, you're in for an undeniable treat. If you have loftier goals, such as character development or relevance, you may need to look elsewhere. And right now, there are plenty of other places to look for substance in the cinema. Still, there's a little something here for everybody. The problem is there may not be enough of any one thing to necessarily make Red Dawn worth your while.

To read my exclusive interview with Red Dawn star Josh Peck, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Rise of the Guardians

A great idea that turns into a decidedly average film -- it happens all the time -- but the animated work Rise of the Guardians really left me wondering how a film touting the power of believing in the fantastical could be so uninspired and fall back on age-old, kid-movie devices. How can a film that asks me to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny (sorry, Jewish kids, you're not the demo for this film, apparently), the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, Jack Frost and the Boogeyman not believe its audience to be a little smarter and perhaps even a little darker -- which is ironic since the bad guy in this film (also called Pitch Black) is attempting to make the world a better place for the nightmares he instills in children.

Guardians' "hero" is the newly anointed Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who (as we see in the opening scene) was apparently birthed after his human self drowned in an icy lake. But he is brought back as an ice-and snow-wielding scamp who is invisible to humans, but can cause all sorts of trouble and fun with his powers. An early scene has him propelling a young child on a sled through traffic. What joy! But Jack is a sad young man because no one really believes in him or can see him, so all of his good-time powers go unappreciated. But when Pitch Black (Jude Law) rears his ugly head in the world (it seems he does this every so often), the Man in the Moon designates that there must be one more heroic member of the Guardians added to the roster to help save the children of the planet from having nightmares every time they sleep.

It seems that the Guardians' main objective is to keep imagination alive, at least for kids. But their motivations are somewhat selfish because as long as kids believe in them, they stay powerful. It's a cyclical relationship. If Pitch can destroy Christmas, Easter and keep the Tooth Fairy from delivering cash money, children's belief in the Guardians will fade. Sure, I dig the way the Guardians are rendered -- Santa (Alec Baldwin) sporting a heavy Russian accent and two broadswords; an Autralian Bunny (High Jackman) with his boomerangs and Crocodile Dundee attitude; or Tooth (Isla Fisher) just looking hot and commanding an army of "baby teeth" fairies to do her bidding. Oddly, the Sandman (whose job is to give kids good dreams) doesn't speak; maybe with a high-profile cast like this, the studio couldn't afford another actor.

My issues with Rise of the Guardians have to do with pandering. Despite all of these great characters, the filmmakers (led by first-time director and veteran storyboard artist Peter Ramsey) choose to devote much of the film to a human character, Jamie (Dakota Goyo), who at one point in the story is the only child in the world who still believes in any of these imaginary characters.

Hate to turn on my own kind, but the humans in this movie are rather flat. Obviously, they're necessary, but they're treated as something of an afterthought in this story. If as much time and energy had been spent on developing Jamie as the creators did on Santa's souped-up sled, I might have been more invested in the dreamscapes of children. That being said, Pitch Black is one of the coolest animated villains I've seen in quite some time, and the way he conjures nightmare creatures to battle the Guardians is fairly creative.

I'll never discourage filmmakers from doing their most to inspire creativity and imagination, but by stating their goals of doing so so blatantly and repeatedly, I felt like I spent much of Rise of the Guardians dodging the hammer that was trying to hit me on the head over and over again. I should emphasize, the movie looks gorgeous, the character designs (outside of the humans) are inspired, and even the idea of a superhero group made up of these types of characters is wonderful... on paper.

The noble effort is all up there on the screen, but something about the final product left me decidedly uninspired. And in a year with a solid number of worthy animated works, Guardians doesn't even approach that level.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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