Life of Pi

ImageFirst of all, if you like to enjoy a film in its purest and unanticipated sense, just know Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a spectacular cinematic experience. Now stop reading and go see it. For the rest of you, prepare yourself for The People’s Critic to convince you that you should find a two-hour break in your day to go see this movie.

Ang Lee has been one of those directors who can shatter cultural bias and stereotype and make films that cut to the bone of virtually any genre, culture, or philosophy. A Taiwanese filmmaker, Lee disappears into his material like no other filmmaker. His personal stamp on a film is simply that he gets it right. The Ice Storm revealed his ability to poetically peel the layers off of the American suburban lifestyle and reveal some of the chaos that lies beneath the calm, picturesque surface. His adaptation of Jane Austen’s Victorian Romance Sense and Sensibility was pitch perfect. Additionally he has shown a steady hand at vividly visual genre films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. These films bare little resemblance to each other, except that they “get it right.” Furthermore, no better example for Lee’s “getting it right” can be given than his adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Life of Pi is a narrative framed by Pi as an adult(Ifran Kahn) telling his story to a writer. This frame story can be summed up by paraphrasing a quote by the writer who says he’s a Canadian who went to French-India looking for a story only to find there’s an Indian in French-Canada with a story to tell. The film then transports us back to French-India in the late 1970s where Pi(now played by Suraj Sharma) begins an epic tale of self-discovery.

Now, clearly most viewers will be eagerly awaiting the story of the guy on a boat with a tiger, but this film is much more than this. It is a religious film, but it does not preach. Instead, it takes into consideration all of the ideas, beliefs, doubts, and misconceptions that exist and simply tells a story. Do not overlook or underestimate the film’s opening act; the setup is as rewarding as the visual magnificence that is to follow. Needless to say, it is the visual effects and cinematic beauty that will doubtless be the conversation surrounding Life of Pi and deservedly so. From the moment the map of the Mariana Trench appears on the screen, hold on to your seats! No film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. What is more, Life of Pi exists right here on our own planet. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder.

Inevitably, Pi does find himself in the unique situation of living on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. However, this is all that is unique about it. Many films have explored the survivor element of what the limits of human endurance are. What allows Pi to rise above those is the spiritual depth that is created from the film’s opening act and the awe-inspiring visual effects that are second to none.

Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. The opening credits depicting animals happily living in captivity holds new meaning after experiencing the film for the first time. Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect; however, this film is more than a companion or adaptation of the novel. It has surpassed that into something much more special and distinctive. A

The Weekly DISCussion

Over the recent Thanksgiving weekend, a family member and I inevitably started discussing movies. After a thought-provoking and inspiring conversation about the alleged merits of the film Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, it occurred to both of us that The People’s Critic has vastly overlooked an opportunity to extend movie commentary to the comforts of home. Therefore, a new weekly feature has been born: The Weekly DISCussion. The Weekly DISCussion will suggest a Must See DVD of the week along with a Netflix Must Stream of the Week.

Must See DVD of the Week: FargoImage

As the holiday shopping season kicks off, remarkable deals start rolling out for all kinds of movies. One of these deals that cannot be passed up is the Coen Brothers 4 disc box set, which includes Fargo, Millers Crossing, Blood Simple, and Raising Arizona. Although all four of these are worthy of the Must See DVD of the Week, I have settled on Fargo. Fargo is a masterpiece of simplicity. Joel and Ethan Coen put a microscope on Brainerd, Minnesota, a simple town, with simple people who are disrupted by the ingeniously idiotic decisions of one car salesman. The story is good, but its the “authentic” tone of the dialogue that really puts a unique stamp on Fargo and the experience of watching it. It’s good, you betcha!

Netflix Must Stream of the Week: Drive Image

Drive is a movie that I am still astounded has not caught on in a big way. Drive follows a stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling as he makes movies by day and hires himself out as a getaway driver by night. Gosling is calm, but cold. His deliberate detachment makes him an enigma, but it is a necessary evil of his profession. Director, Nicholas Winding Refn allows the story to burn slowly but punctuates it with vivid, strong action and violence that keeps the audience on edge. The film resembles the gritty 80s films of directors like Michael Mann or Brian DePalma. Additionally, the score is reminiscent of those 80s films as well and is excellent.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

ImageWe may be edging near the saturation point of vampire-related entertainment, however, as brooding, Washington-state-based, vampire/werewolf romance films go, Breaking Dawn: Part 2 easily ranks in the top five.  Twi-Hards have been waiting over four years to finally see how the cinematic adaptation of the Stephenie Meyer series of books will end.  All things considered, the end result is actually rather exciting.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 left us staring into the (red) eyes of Bella post-pregnancy and post-transformation.  Part 2 begins at this same moment as Bella adapts to her new vampiric life-style and her new role as mother to the half-human, half-vampire child, Renesmee.  Now if you haven’t managed to suspend your disbelief at this point, leave the theater; I’m sure Lincoln is playing right next door.  Regardless, as Renesmee rapidly grows, the Cullen clan finds themselves in new territory, raising a natural newborn.  Furthermore, word spreads to the Volturi that such a unique child exists and that it might be immortal, and therefore, illegal.  This looming inevitability of a final showdown between the Cullens and Volturi drives the plot unlike any of this film’s predecessors, and as climaxes go, this one is by far the best.

In spite of this, there is certainly no shortage of excessive melodrama or corny moments of tepid dialogue.  While Stewart and Pattinson have reached an iconic status as leads Bella and Edward, they continue to fail to deliver powerful performances in these roles.  Throughout the series, both leads seem too comfortable resting on the idea that these characters do nothing but whisper, stare, and have sex.  If you buy Kristin Stewart as a caring mother in this film, I have the actual bowie knife that killed Dracula to sell you.  Taylor Lautner holds his own as Jacob, who’s scene with Bella’s father Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) steals the movie.  Nonetheless, no one goes to see this series of films to be wowed by the range of its actors.  In fact, this film introduces so many characters that none of them have much time to shine (sparkly or otherwise).  What these characters do bring is a host of new X-Men-style super powers, which are enjoyable elements to the film.  Thus, the film delivers in other ways.  Its pacing is strong as it does not dwell on any one moment in its journey to the final showdown.  Additionally, its action is crisp and deliberate; there is very little to distract from the story’s momentum.  The cast does their job, but these successes are the result of writers Melissa Rosenberg and Stephenie Meyer along with director, Bill Condon.

The vampire craze that started all of this may be starting to show some signs of declining slightly, yet this is a fairly strong send-off to an epically successful series of adolescent-aimed pop culture.  It is clearly the best of the series, which adds a significance to all five of the films.  The closing credits illustrate this as they celebrate the entire cast of the films together.  Pop culture vampires may be in their eclipse rather than beginning their new moon, but Twilight certainly lived to see the break of dawn.  B

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-

Flight

Director Robert Zemeckis has given us the latest “disaster” movie. In the case of Flight however, Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, this is less the Die Hard kind of “disaster” and more the Leaving Las Vegas type. Zemeckis is a well-known director, whose films have peppered the pop-culture lexicon for the past 35 years. He is a pioneer who took Marty McFly Back to the Future, taught Forrest to run in Forrest Gump, and broke new ground in live-action/animation film making with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. This year, Zemeckis showcases his craft with a strong character study of a disturbed pilot in Flight.

The intensity and effectiveness of Flight rests on the shoulders of its star, Denzel Washington, and it turns out Denzel Washington has some pretty strong shoulders. Washington dives head first into the character of pilot Whip Whitaker (a classic “pilot” name). Whitaker is a closeted addict, shrouded in denial. He routinely drinks to excess and uses stimulants to even out before flights. His lifestyle has cost him virtually any relationship or contact with his wife and son and has led him down the path of womanizing and heavy substance abuse as a desperate form of distraction.

Flight sets out to tell a story of moral ambiguity. Its protagonist is one who tests the ethical boundaries of the audience where at one moment we are rooting for him and the next, we are disgusted by him. This ambiguity fuels the pace and power of the film, and makes its 138 minute running time literally “fly” by. Washington is excellent, but Zemeckis is precise in his style, editing, and (yes, Pam and Eric) in his cinematography. Washington makes us see Whitaker’s struggle, but Zemeckis makes us feel it with expert use of camera movements, showing us a static sober Whitaker and a flowing, frantic intoxicated Whitaker. The crash sequence is compelling and exceeds expectations, regardless of its assumed predictability. These nuanced touches make Flight deeply engaging and provide for some harrowingly primal audience reaction.

Furthermore, Washington’s stellar performance is complemented at every turn with a pitch perfect supporting cast including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman (who is 2 for 2 with electric supporting roles this year with Flight and Argo). While the performances and the story are excellent, Flight does not accomplish all it is trying to do. A motif of religious purpose and providence feels crow barred in. Also, while excellent, the soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed in its relevance to what’s happening on the screen, which can be distracting. However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, Flight is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and director. A-

Seven Psychopaths

Director: Martin McDonagh

Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his quirky 2008 hit, In Bruges.  McDonagh is making a name for himself as his two films complement each other nicely and provide a roadmap for the type of director McDonagh aspires to be.  Like Tarantino or Hitchcock, McDonagh strives to make films about similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens.  Awareness seems to be McDonagh’s trademark.  His characters are flawed, yet keenly aware of these flaws.  His scripts are dark, yet this darkness is carefully tempered by his films’ awareness of the fact that they are films, as his characters are always interacting with the film industry in some way.  This awareness allows the viewer to enjoy his films on multiple levels, first on a narrative level and again on a satirical level that tries to provide commentary on humanity through the narrative.

In the case of Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh turns his focused lens on an unfocused, alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Colin Ferrell).  Marty is struggling to write a film called Seven Psychopaths and turns to his friends and their acquaintances for inspirations on ways to characterize his seven different psychopathic characters.   What follows is a wild series of events that lead Marty down the literal Psycho-Path to self-realization.  As his characters become fleshed out, Marty starts to see that he’s living a detached life.  His detached life is illustrated by the flaws of his screenplay.  Marty’s writing is not authentic.  He borrows from other people’s lives to write his characters, and his tragic personal life causes his women characters to be nothing but fragile stereotypes.  His relationship is in shambles, his inspiration is drying up, Marty is desperate for a motivation, and thanks to a mixed up con-gone-wrong by his dog kidnapping grifter friends, Hans and Billy (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), this motivation comes in the form of an LA underground gangster (Woody Harrelson) who is seriously upset about his kidnapped Shi-tszu.

Seven Psychopaths is a busy film and it is also McDonagh’s most brutal.  There is so much going on that its stars only have a matter of minutes to shine.  Standouts are Rockwell and Walken.  Rockwell’s Billy is a fast-talking idea man.  He’s relentless and firing on all cylinders in every scene.  Walken plays Hans, who is much more relaxed than Billy, but equally fun to watch.  Walken is doing a Walken impression here, which is basically what people have come to want from him in this phase of his career.  Regarding its brutality, from the opening scene, the film’s tone is quite clear.  While trailers might lead one to believe that the dog kidnapping plotline is central to the story, it is actually a very minor element.  The majority of the film’s 109 minutes explores exactly what happens when the “inmates take over the insane asylum.”  Desert shootouts, sadistic serial killers, and revenge killings pepper the action of the film.  Seven Psychopaths feels inspired by the independent films of the 90s.  As it unfolds, it is reminiscent of 1994s Floundering or 1995’s Living in Oblivion not in plot (or in casting James LeGros), but in its meaning.  These films blend the effects of fantasy and reality in a compelling way, creating a very enjoyable movie.  If only James LeGros could have shown up as an eighth psychopath!  B+

Towards the beginning of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, says to CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), “Even a Rhesus Monkey can direct a movie.” This type of tongue-in-cheek word play signifies a new, and deserved, confidence from the actor turned auteur. Argo is formulaic at best in terms of Chris Terrio’s screenplay, but its Affleck’s direction and the performances from his cast that raise Argo above the bar he set with his previous film, The Town.

Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of Iranian militant revolutionaries storm the US embassy in 1979. However, this film actually recounts a previously unknown and confidential story of six Americans who escaped the embassy and were given sanctuary by the Canadian ambassador. These six are in a unique and treacherous situation of being unknown escapees who, if caught, could be made examples of by irate militants without complicating the heavily observed hostage crisis at the US embassy. Their story becomes the focal point of Argo as the White House, State Department, and CIA all spitball ideas on how to rescue these six trapped Americans before they are discovered by the Iranians. Eventually they settle on a long-shot idea from Mendez, which involves posing the escapees as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a fake movie by the name of Argo. Terrio’s screenplay does a great job of building tension in all the right places, but it does so in a sort of Screenwriting-101 kind of way. In other words, it’s predictable.

Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film. Just because we laugh when we’re supposed to laugh, and we cry when we’re supposed to cry, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Instead, Argo is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core. Additionally, it is expertly cast with terrific performances from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin who steals scenes as the cantankerous Lester Siegel. Arkin and Goodman head up the fake film studio needed to validate Mendez’s plan to disguise the escaped hostages as a film crew. Here, the film adds an enjoyable layer of film-geek enthusiasm. Finally, Affleck outdoes himself as director. Argo has a deliberate and even pace, some historically iconic staging, and camera work that enhances the tone of the film. In fact, Affleck even shows some side-by-side comparisons between historical photos and some shots from his film in the closing credits. His attention to detail brings dimension and realism to the film in a time where real decisions had to be made without the luxury of our modern digital age.

Argo is the first great movie of the fall season and delivers as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. This is a very strong effort that succeeds beyond any Rhesus Monkey’s wildest expectations. A-

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the closest thing we’ve seen to a John Hughes movie since Cameron Crowe channeled him to make Almost Famous. That film felt more epic than the traditional Hughes film, in part due to Crowe’s drawing from his experiences with Rolling Stone. Author/Director Stephen Chobsky also draws from experience to create Perks, however his film has the more intimate feel of a Hughes movie (The Breakfast Club), and that makes it great.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in or around Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1990s. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the aforementioned wallflower; a high school freshman with light heart, but a heavy soul since his best friend recently committed suicide. He finds fitting in and making friends a challenge and instead chooses to lose himself in the novels of equally awkward, soul-searching literary protagonists supplied by his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). Charlie’s awakening comes as a result of being accepted by a group of like-minded upper-classmen. It is here that Charlie’s coming of age journey into adolescence finds its stride.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower seems to unfold effortlessly. We learn more about Charlie as he learns more about himself. This surrealist approach to self-discovery allows the viewer to be both surprised by and understanding of Charlie’s decisions and actions. His closest friends are Sam (Emma Watson) and Sam’s step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), and they shape the heart of this film. Sam’s confidence, charm, and beauty complement her romantic and impulsive attitude towards life, which spellbinds and captivates the sullen but passionate Charlie. Ezra Miller as Patrick deserves special notice as he steals every scene he’s in. This character is miles from his ultra-disturbing performance as Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but is even more impressive. Patrick’s story reveals him to be somewhat of a foil to Charlie as both have similar struggles of adolescence and deal with them very differently. The supporting characters all have their moments as well, allowing secondary characters to be purposeful and not artificial. The film’s best line is given to Charlie’s dad, played Dylan McDermott, in an amusing exchange about borrowing money for a date.

The success of Perks also lies in Chobsky’s handling of his own source material’s tone. He never lets us, or Charlie, get too comfortable, hinting that something more sinister is lying beneath the surface, yet he never allows the film’s youthful spirit to suffer. This balance illustrates the volatility of teenage years with that same touch John Hughes had. The film also allows music to play a major part in the characters’ lives, which was a classic Hughes trademark.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is very successful at what it sets out to be. Many recent films of this genre either feel too self-important and preachy or they go the other way and seem shallow. This film strikes out a balance and while not treading new ground, deservedly treads proudly. B+

Looper

Every fall season a movie comes along that lacks the hype and pandering for an audience. Instead, it is released and looks to succeed by word of mouth. Last year that film was the still under-appreciated Drive; this year my top contender is Looper.

Looper begins by introducing us to Joe, a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt who performs the title task as a “Looper.” Looper is a time-travel story, but roots itself firmly in a mostly-recognizable version of the near future. The only major difference is that time travel is invented soon after the present setting of the film, which allows for a somewhat confusing, but well executed, original story. Loopers are hired guns who kill for a futuristic mob that sends their hits 30 years into the past before time travel was invented. This allows for mob enemies to simply disappear in their present time and be disposed of in an earlier time when they wouldn’t be investigated. Loopers are paid well to shoot first, ask no questions, and most of all be punctual as hits will suddenly appear in a predetermined location at an exact time. Allowing a “loop” to “run” results in some very unsavory consequences. The downside to Looping is that one day, every Looper’s loop must close, which means the future version of yourself will be sent back for immediate execution. When this happens, a Looper gets a big final pay day and 30 years to enjoy it before the inevitable.

The premise for this film is imaginative and dealt with in a surprisingly cohesive way by director Rian Johnson. As with all great time-travel films, rules must be established so that the viewer may understand exactly what the limits are within these multiple dimensions. I provided a short discussion about some classic time travel theories in a previous blog post that you can read here. In short, this particular film’s view is similar to the Back to the Future variety where you can co-exist with multiple versions of yourself and events that affect the younger version will also impact the later version. Thus, when Joe finds himself face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he inadvertently allows him to run. However, Willis’ character can not simply run since he knows the consequences against Gordon-Levitt will affect him too.

The story’s arc is much more far-reaching and complex than a cat-mouse chase between alternate versions of Joe. As we learn more about Joe’s future from Bruce Willis, our sympathies are toyed with and our moral centers are jarred endlessly. Johnson’s screenplay and direction provide powerful and conflicting motivations for both characters, making the movie deeply engaging and surprisingly fresh. Additional story lines regarding a futuristic crime boss (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and farmhouse mother and her son (Emily Blunt and an Oman-esque Pierce Gagnon, respectively) all flesh out this film and give it real dimension and pragmatism, regardless of its sci-fi, time travel plot.

Looper is a tightly wound, entertaining film that has something for everyone to enjoy. There is a slight dragging feeling at the close of its second act, but this perceived lull is making way for a strong and dominant conclusion. In summary, this review only touches on the surface of what Looper accomplishes; there are multiple surprises in store for all audiences who see it, so let the word of mouth begin! A-

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