Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Life of Pi"

 4 / 5 

Life of Pi is a glorious visual wonder, a movie that finds ways to astonish the most jaded viewer, a movie that shines and shimmers, that gleefully, gloriously smashes through the boundaries of what has ever before been possible.  It's a technical masterpiece that finds sure, solid footing whenever it finds its main characters at sea for a rousing adventure.

Yet, like novel on which it's based, Life of Pi is somewhat less assured and alternately too vague and too pointed when it tries to pull its various threads together.  This is a story that is very clearly about something significant -- indeed, the most significant things there are: God, suffering, heroism, determination, faith.

The story is simple: A zookeeper's young son, who inexplicably became infatuated with religion while growing up in India, is the sole human survivor of a shipwreck somewhere in the Pacific.  He finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and over the course of many months, they struggle to survive.

Director Ang Lee, who truly deserves the moniker "visionary" after this, and screenwriter David Magee have made the uncomfortable decision to frame the story as a flashback -- a device novelist Yann Martel also used, though much more hesitantly.  The problem with these storytelling bookends in Life of Pi is similar to the trouble director Clint Eastwood ran into when he transformed The Bridges of Madison County from an irritatingly sappy book into a magnificently moving love story: The scenes with modern characters remarking on events in the past come across as talky and stilted.

If the novel Life of Pi seemed unfilmable, it wasn't for lack of remarkable visual imagery found in the story.  Literary and sometimes maddeningly verbose as it is, the novel created an extraordinary series of mental images; the question was whether they could be brought to the screen in a convincing way.

Under the sure hand of Lee and more than 1,400 visual effects artists and technicians, the answer is a startling, satisfying "Yes."  Even in some of its most mundane, land-locked scenes, Life of Pi finds something visually remarkable in virtually every shot.  This is a movie so stuffed with visual splendor that it would pop off the screen without the need for 3-D glasses.

And yet, it is of course in 3-D, and if the dimensionality doesn't quite seem as vital to the audience as it reportedly did to the director, what it does impart beautifully is a sense of being there on that little boat with the boy and his tiger.  Lee even experiments at odd and unexpected times with aspect ratios, switching at one point to widescreen and at another, not long later, to a square 1.33:1 screen, as if to remind the audience that, after all, they are watching a movie.

It is quite a movie indeed, anchored by two notably strong performances, one by Suraj Sharma as Pi and another by a team of visual effects artists who created the tiger, incongrously named Richard Parker.  Sharma is riveting; he has to carry the bulk of the film without another human actor -- an almost impossible task for the most accomplished actor, even more astounding for a novice, but he creates an indelible character in Pi, a boy who struggles simply to stay alive.

Learning that Richard Parker, on the other hand, mostly didn't exist at all is virtually beyond comprehension.  The tiger feels so real, so vital, so genuine as both an animal and as a character that Life of Pi has to be some sort of minor (possibly major) miracle in the annals of filmmaking.

It's a moviegoer's pleasure to spend time in a small boat with these two, watching them struggle to learn each other, encouraging them to stay alive.  Every scene offers something new and engaging, but few more vividly than one in which Pi wonders what Richard Parker is thinking -- and together, they go on a visual tour of the unknowable depths of the sea and of the mind, recalling an earlier Hindu story about the vastness of the universe.

These are the moments in which Life of Pi truly offers something new in moviemaking.  It is a bold experiment, led by a director as sure of his command of actors as he is of technology.  The story is ultimately about less than it might like to be -- or at the very least struggles to bring together the two fundamentally different stories of religious discovery and of survival at sea.  That is a limitation the book itself had, too, and in their desire to simply prove the book could be filmed, it's a relatively small flaw that it hasn't been overcome in the translation from printed word to silver screen.

Here's the bottom line: Life of Pi is like no movie you've ever seen, and its very existence may be the kind of small affirmation of a higher power that would please Pi Patel himself.

Viewed Nov. 24, 2012 -- Cinerama Dome


Friday, November 23, 2012


 3 / 5 

Denzel Washington soars in Flight, which also boasts a horrifyingly intense, 15-minute sequence that depicts the last few minutes of a passenger jet.  On the strength of those two elements alone, it's worth your while -- but its last act brings it crashing to the ground, and much like that airliner itself, it's barely saved by Washington's extraordinary efforts.

About 20 years ago, director Peter Weir made Fearless, a fascinating, hypnotic, sometimes downright bizarre and frequently impenetrable film about the aftermath of a plane crash.  Though both movies boast some of the most white-knuckle airplane moments ever set to film, in all other regards, Flight is the anti-Fearless.  It's got nary a subtle or ambiguous moment.

Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis, a director who has of late been more preoccupied with animation and digital motion-capture films, but whose previous movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away provided world views that were hardly nuanced.  Flight is a bit more mature, but only a little, because it takes an extraordinarily complicated sequence and distills it to its simplest level: Flight is about a bad man who did a good thing, and now that good thing -- namely, piloting a doomed jet plane to relative safety -- could redeem his lost soul, if only he'd let it.

The movie mostly works, but like that airplane's faulty equipment, the screenplay makes everyone involved have to work that much harder to bring it all under control.  For instance, there's this setup, straight out of a Syd Field screenwriting manual: The airplane is plummeting on its back over Atlanta, and just happens to pass directly over the apartment building in which a pretty heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) lives.  Hours later, Reilly is in the hospital, heroic pilot Whip Whitaker is in the hospital and they meet-kinda-cute in the stairwell, where they're each sneaking a cigarette.  Out of nowhere, they're joined by a cancer patient who exists solely for the purpose of reminding them that they should Make Every Day Count.

It's this kind of pat simplicity that undermines the intensity and seriousness of the story at its core.  Later in the movie, as it heads into its Syd Field-approved Third Act, Flight relies on a deus ex machina plot contrivance so unbelievable it's hard to forgive.  Washington's character is a hardcore substance abuser, and much of the plot turns on whether anyone will discover just how drunk and high he was when he took to the skies that fateful morning.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal just what this out-of-the-blue plot machination is, but this is where a screenplay that has already taken the easy way out really cheats.  And it's where it became readily apparent that as much as Flight wants us to think it's about real people in real situations, it's just a screenplay contrived to fit a neatly prescribed formula.

(The movie also boasts one of the most shameless uses of thematic music imaginable: When Washington's drug dealer, played by jocular John Goodman, arrives on screen, his appearance is accompanied by The Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil.  Get it?  Get it?)

Here's the problematic part: Much of Flight is really, really good.  It's clear that everyone involved wanted to make a serious movie that looked genuinely at a real issue.  The acting is exquisite, including Kelly Reilly as the beautiful heroin addict with whom Capt. Whitaker falls in love; Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as investigators on Whitaker's side; and Tamara Tunie as a professional, caring flight attendant.

It has a stunning accident sequence that ranks among the best scenes of its kind ever put to film.  It's believable, it's riveting, it will make you think twice about getting on a plane.

Besides being impeccably crafted, it has that central performance by Washington that avoids any of the actor's customary haughtiness or technical hesitancy.  I've often found Washington to be an actor who unintentionally reminds the audience that he's Acting.  Not here.  He's natural, he's honest, he's stunning.

He carries that commanding presence through to his final two scenes, which showcase exactly what's wrong (and right) with Flight.  One of them is a monologue whose contents are impressively pedestrian.  The speech double-underlines every point the film has been trying to make, just so we don't forget the Capital-M Moral.  But, man, try taking your eyes off of Washington.  It's just not possible.

He alone elevates Flight just to the level that it's worth seeing; if only it had been able to match his lofty altitude.

Viewed Nov. 23, 2012 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


Friday, November 16, 2012

"Silver Linings Playbook"

 4.5 / 5 

Here we are, trapped in our own little dramas, the lives that happen in our heads, casting the people around us into particular roles: The husband is loving, the wife faithful, the parents dutiful, the girl down the street a bit of a tramp.

They must not break character.  The lives we've crafted depend on it.  So, have some pity for Pat Solitano: The curtain came up one afternoon and the actors weren't quite in their proper places, and for the last eight months he's been in a psychiatric hospital, reeling from the shock.

The way Bradley Cooper plays him in Silver Linings Playbook, Pat's a fundamentally good guy who got sucker-punched by the surprise.  It could happen to any of us, and one of the many beautiful aspects of this astonishingly good, low-key film from director David O. Russell is the way it hints at the idea that, actually, it does -- Pat just happened to let his surprise get the best of him.

Now, he's been collected by his equally astonished mother (Jacki Weaver) and deposited back in his childhood home.  His father, Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) is completely unaware of just how close to the tree this apple fell, and they all desperately want Pat to get better.

The girl who has been branded a tramp is Tiffany, played with tremulous confidence by Jennifer Lawrence as a young woman with her own convoluted, heartbreaking story.

This is where Silver Linings Playbook could have gotten it all wrong, turned into a cringe-worthy story about two "crazy" people who fall in love.  That's not at all what happens in the script Russell wrote from a novel by Matthew Quick.

In the movie, Pat knows he suffers from bipolar depression and really wants to understand how to deal with it.  Tiffany is coping with monumental, soul-smothering grief.  They fall into each other's lives naturally and hesitantly, and the movie isn't afraid to let us see just how broken these people are -- and then, smartly, to shed not a little bit of doubt on the wholeness of everyone else.  Pat's brother and best friend are hardly living emotionally healthy lives; his father has settled into unemployment with so much reckless abandon that even Pat worries about him.

No one is exactly well and happy, they're just figuring out the best way through -- only Pat maintains a deluded optimism that comes partly from genuinely comprehending how catastrophically awful his life became.  He wants to fix himself.  It leads to a stunning scene in front of a movie theater that does something truly rare in a movie: It gives us an honest moment in which two people, before our eyes, fall in love.

There's a glowing warmth to Silver Linings Playbook and the odd, loopy course it charts for its characters.  It begins in a psychiatric hospital, ends at a dance concert, and along the way it stays true to its honest core.  Huge credit goes to the actors, especially the three leads: Bradley Cooper, who finds an emotional center to Pat that makes him feel real and vital; Jennifer Lawrence, who never once delves into pathos yet conveys anguish and pain; and Robert de Niro, who for the first time in what seems like decades delivers a performance that is warm, magnanimous and winning without caricature.

Silver Linings Playbook in many ways resembles the big-hearted, laugh-tinged dramas of James L. Brooks, and deserves comparison with those movies.  It doesn't try too hard to say too much, only to remind us that we all live in our own heads, we all have our own worst selves, but alongside them are the best ones, too.  Quietly, graciously, slyly, Silver Linings Playbook takes its place among the very best movies of the year.

Viewed at ArcLight Hollywood -- Nov. 16, 2012


Sunday, November 11, 2012


 4.5 / 5 

While movie studio executives wring their hands and wrack their collective brains about "rebooting" long-lived franchises, here is Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie in a series that has worn out its welcome more than once -- and it has as much freshness, vibrancy and excitement as if it were the very first.

All you need to know about James Bond you learn in the first shot.  Dispensing with the traditional animation of looking down a gun barrel, Skyfall begins with a fuzzy silhouette and two notes of music: the two notes of music, two notes that exude the brash confidence that winks at the audience and says, "You're here for a James Bond movie -- just relax and enjoy it."

The filmmakers know what they're doing.  So does Daniel Craig, an actor who has been both immensely self-assured as Bond (Casino Royale) and also a little unsteady (Quantum of Solace) but who has finally assumed the role with such an easy confidence it's almost as if Connery, Moore and Brosnan never existed.

But, of course, they did, and Skyfall has some fun with that.  There is a history here, even if it has recently been rewritten, and ingrained into Skyfall is an understanding that Bond comes with some baggage.  Nowhere is that more acutely felt than in the world-weary lines etched into the face of M (Judi Dench), who is responsible for who James Bond is -- and, it's hinted, at least, maybe how he became that way.

In the prologue of Skyfall, M makes the first (or last, perhaps?) of many decisions that lead her to face a political inquiry about the role of MI6 and, indeed, of espionage in general.  It lands Bond himself in deep water, literally and figuratively, as well -- until it becomes clear that what's at stake is the very existence of the secret-intelligence division and Bond's entire livelihood.  That's something he'll defend to his last breath.

So, the stakes in Skyfall are awfully high, and not in the "I'm-going-to-take-over-the-world-bwa-ha-ha!" way of Blofeld or Goldfinger, but in the more stark and painful reality of living in a world where nothing seems truly safe.  Skyfall grounds its James Bond in settings that sometimes look uncomfortably close to real life, and when Bond receives his briefing from an impossibly young Q (played to perfection by Ben Winshaw), there's a weapon hand-off that is equally alarming and jokey in its simplicity.

Weapons won't be much of a match for the villain in Skyfall, who certainly knows his way around a gun but is also keenly aware that a mouse click will create even more chaos.  He's Raoul Silva, embodied by Javier Bardem in a performance so good that the camera knows better than to move an inch when he first appears on screen.  He's riveting.

Silva and Bond have a connection, though just who and what it would be a shame to even hint at.  But their fates are intertwined, so much so that in order to face him, Bond and M have to return to Bond's own childhood home.  Yes, James Bond had a past, and it's a great testament to the massive appeal of Skyfall that this "mythology" seems neither contrived nor wearying; it may be a little shocking, actually, to discover that after 50 years of watching him on screen, James Bond has secrets we've never even considered.

In Skyfall, Bond journeys to Shanghai, Macau and Turkey, but his heart, it's clear, belongs in England itself.  The action is surprisingly tense and impeccably directed by Sam Mendes, a director you might not think would have an eye for action -- but who has created action scenes that are almost shockingly well constructed.  Among its other accomplishments, Skyfall is a marvel of cinematography and editing.

Everything works superbly, even a sometimes hard-to-decipher climax that takes place in inky twilight leading into harsh night.  Visually, the climax underscores what so many of the characters make a point of saying: These are people who live in the shadows, and you never can quite be sure of who anyone is.

Except James Bond, of course.  Good old James Bond, whose very heart must look like the Union Jack.  In the 50 years since he first appeared, the world has become more unsafe and unsavory, but as Skyfall expertly reminds us, it's always going to feel just a tiny bit safer knowing that no matter what else might happen ... James Bond will return.

Viewed Nov. 11, 2012 -- Cinerama Dome

Monday, November 5, 2012


 2.5 / 5 

Remember the old saying, allegedly originated by Otto von Bismarck, that laws are like sausages -- you don't want to watch them being made.

Cinematically, that turns out to be true, as well.  Unfortunately for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a good hour and a half of the movie is devoted to the intricate political machinations that went through obtaining the votes needed in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banished slavery.

So, for those who felt the very best parts of the Star Wars movies were the debates in the Senate chamber, here's the historical epic you've been waiting for.  It's a movie called Lincoln, but for much of its running time, Abraham Lincoln isn't on screen -- and when he is, he's too frequently set dressing, as if the script isn't quite sure what to do with him.

Stoic and somber to a fault, Lincoln presents the 16th President as a near Godlike figure, though one with a decidedly human side.  He's a family man without much of a family: wife Mary is still wracked with grief over the death of her middle son; her youngest runs around the White House interrupting Cabinet meetings with glee; and oldest child Robert feels compelled to enlist in the Civil War.  That leaves Lincoln, the man, with a potentially fascinating set of home-life conflicts that are mostly relegated to the background in this long, stolid film.

At its core is a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that mesmerizes in its certainty.  His Lincoln is always in command, and Day-Lewis hints at the complexities underneath, at the yearning to understand the hearts of the men fighting what was, essentially, his war -- the only issue that mattered during his campaigning.  Popular culture has painted Lincoln as a preternaturally wise man, almost Biblical; here, he is allowed to be more human. Barely.

In a film that desperately needs more high points, the highest is a small scene between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, a bit miscast but effective).  She claims he has made it impossible for her to grieve the loss of her son; he says he is weary because it is the only thing she has done -- before offering her a painful truth: that his own grief is so strong, so overpowering, that were he to give into it, nothing would remain.  Not long later, another scene between them gets to the heart of their relationship with three words: "They don't understand," the President tells the First Lady when she wonders what people think of their difficult relationship.

Here in these scenes we glimpse what Lincoln could have been.  We might have been given movie that enlightened our understanding of Abraham Lincoln by helping us see how he lived between the speeches and the campaigning.  It has those scenes, but they are too few and lumped toward the end. Only in them does Lincoln finally lurch to vivid life, momentarily.

Whether you can enjoy the rest of the film can in large part be answered by how you did on your Civil War history tests -- whether you know who the players are.  Let's start, for instance with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and William Seward (David Strathairn); are these names you remember from high-school history?  Do you know what role they played?  Why they were important?  Would it give you a little thrill to see them on screen?

Civil War scholars will have a lot of fun at Lincoln.  The rest of us, less so.  It takes a scorecard and an immeasurably large amount of patience to slog through the first 90 minutes of Lincoln.

We live in a nation perhaps more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and Lincoln had an opportunity to show us what the cost of that divisiveness is -- and to provide us insight into the kind of person who can heal it.  We leave Lincoln, though, knowing about as much as we did coming in.  Abraham Lincoln helped end slavery.  The how is perhaps the easy part, though Tony Kushner's script makes it feel difficult.  The why remains a mystery, other than a sad truth: Politics is about expediency now and it was just as much then.  A movie about the end of slavery and the man who stood up for those without a voice should have been more than just a movie about legislative sausage-making.

Viewed Oct. 29, 2012