#353: Life of Pi (2012)

piWith its’ poetic realism and sickly, spiritual subtext, Yann Martel’s international bestselling novel Life of Pi was once declared unfilmable. Until now. Directed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Ang Lee, even if the plot stinks; this beautiful adventure movie is an absolute must-see.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma stars as Piscine Molitor Patel, aka Pi; a well-educated, wistful teenager growing up on the grounds of his family’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. The curious son of liberal parentage, Pi is fascinated by the religions of the world, studying them in detail but undecided, what is the correct path for him. Finding the answer and his soul mate, his father declares that the family are broke and must relocate to Canada. Boarding a cargo ship with his family and the anaesthetised exotic animals resting in the hull underneath, their journey across the Pacific is disrupted by the perfect storm; sending the vessel plunging to the seabed. The only human survivor, orphaned Pi is left stranded aboard a lifeboat with a hysterical hyena, wounded zebra, benevolent orangutan and a Bengalese Tiger called Richard Parker.

You don’t have to be an ethologist to see that Pi’s predicament would cause an infinite number of problems. Once the animals clash, our hero is left as the carnivorous Richard Parker’s final prey. But through his resourcefulness and spirituality, Pi manages to survive the fatal claws of his feline shipmate and, over a period of 227 days, the pair end up forming a remarkable relationship, built on companionship, fear and the mutual hope that they will one day be rescued.

Words cannot describe how stunning this movie is to look at. With the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a committed special effects team, the Oscar-Winning filmmaker behind Brokeback Mountain and the ill-fated comic-book hero Hulk has directed the first ever 3-D Art film. A bottomless box of visual delights, colours have never been so vivid, landscapes so luscious or 3D so fantastic. Instead of distancing us from the action on-screen, causing light-loss and nausea, the once-dreaded stereoscopic glasses deepen our engagement with Pi & Parker’s ordeal. An extraordinary quest where they encounter millions of flying fish skittering past them, phosphorescent jellyfish glowing underneath, a breaching whale gliding across the starry skyline and an island inhabited by 60,000 Meerkats.

In his debut role, Sharma is fantastic as Pi, able to balance religious fervour, comical flourish and irrepressible charm, even if his supporting catty cast member was almost entirely a digital creation, blended into the live action seamlessly. It’s incredibly refreshing to see the ironically named Richard Parker never anthropomorphized. He doesn’t talk, nor even exist in the real world, yet his presence in Pi’s is what saves him, and ultimately the film, from excessive “is there a god?” ruminations.

Adapted by screenplay writer David Magee (Finding Neverland), the cinematic spectacle does it’s best to cloak what is ostensibly a very corny plot, but elements of the baggy original novel still creep in. In typical Forest Gump style, most of the story unravels through recollection, with a present day Pi (played by Irrfan Khan), living in Montreal and narrating the tale to a curious Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). It’s a telling-over-showing narrative compromise lifted directly from Martel’s novel. A thorny branch that jolts the audience back into the mundane world we are all used to, and away from the wonderful realm where we’d rather be.

Whilst my atheism was left unscathed, the rapturous aestheticism rekindled my passion for big blockbuser cinema. Life of Pi is a much-needed bit of heart-warming magic during this frosty festive season.


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#267: Undertow (2009)

An audience award winner at 2010’s Sundance Film festival, Undertow (Contracorriente, in Spanish) is the feature length directorial debut from Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León. Lusciously shot in Peru’s Cabo Blanco fishing village, it’s a magic realism love triangle fable, tugging a little too hard on your heartstrings.

It’s the story of Miguel (played by Cristian Mercado), a young fisherman living with his heavily pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). The picture-perfect couple, Miguel leads a second life as the lover to the village’s token, openly gay man, painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona). With the families newest arrival soon approaching, plus a fatal sea accident with ghostly consequences, Miguel goes through turmoil; losing grip on reality as he attempts to live two conflicting lives.

Far from being just another Brokeback Mountain, gay cash-in film, what is most thought-provoking in this sensitive romance drama is the stories’ incongruity to the setting. Although Peru is presented as a small paradise, homosexuality is still regarded as taboo; making Miguel’s struggle with polyamory and piety all the more sympathetic.

Some overtly poetic imagery and excessive use of underwater shooting aside, Undertow lives comfortably in it’s 100 minute running time. The naturalistic, affecting performances from it’s three main players make for a powerful, sea-breezily paced movie.

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PS – If anyone feels  like taking me on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Cabo Blancho I’ll willingly accept. I’m free from the 3rd of always.

#250: Brotherhood (Broderskab) (2009)

How do you find sympathy for two neo-nazis struggling with their conflicting homosexual desires? It’s a paradox that Copenhagen based filmmaker Nicolo Donato wrestles with in his feature length debut Brotherhood (Broderskab, in Danish). A troubling film which mixes melodrama and soft-core porn to confuse audiences’ perceptions on these polemical characters.

After being thrown out of the army following an accusation that he was caught flirting with fellow officers, Lars (Thure Lindhardt) is left without identity or purpose in life. Initially hesitant, he is recruited into the Danish nationalist group by the the rotund, persuasive board leader Michael, aka Fatty (Nicolas Bro).

Welcomed into the fold, Lars becomes a roommate to one of the core members, Jimmy (David Dencik). Living in decrepit beach shack owned by the fraternity boss, the pair eventually fall in love. A secret they struggle to keep behind closed doors as they join their group on nighttime attacks on gays and refugees.

Inspired by a documentary about a fetishistic German neo-nazi culture, Donato and co-writer Rasmus Birch’s Brotherhood hinges on the exploits of love in a social war-zone. It’s a theme that has been tackled many times before, none more-so similar than Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Like Gyllenhaal and Ledger, central performers Lindhardt and Dencik’s portrayal of raw sexual urges and desire is magnificent. However, unlike that superior film, Donato picks such an atrocious context to hang this tender, venturing to irksome love story, that it’s extremely difficult to have any compassion for the soul-mates’ plight. A riff on Romeo and Juliet‘s misunderstood love, Brotherhood‘s closing moments are expectedly tragic and overblown.

Narrative problems aside, Brotherhood is a technical delight. Laust Trier-Mørk’s handheld cinematography has that claustrophobic throwback quality akin to Denmark’s Dogme 95 movement; filming the night of passion scenes objectively, but never cheapening or exploiting the marvellously bold performers. Jesper Mechlenburg’s muzak soundtrack is equally omnipresent, without ever being so overtly emotive as the treacly story line.

Embracing the same brazen attitude that many Danish artists have brimming from their fingertips, Donato’s hands-on approach to direction and difficult subject matters shows a great deal of promise. But Brotherhood relies too heavily on audiences to be emotionally engaged with unlikeable characters, an issue that, at its best, can only make for an impassive viewing experience.

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