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An Early Review Of LIFE OF PI Sails In!!

Published at: Nov. 7, 2012, 12:35 p.m. CST

The Kidd here...

I've been curious to lay my eyes on Ang Lee's adaptation of LIFE OF PI if for no other reason than the visuals I've seen so far, as this film definitely looks like a sight to behold. However, is there enough substance to carry the film through from what I've been told is an incredibly difficult book to realize for the screen. 

So how does it translate?

Ace Rimmer took in the film at the AFI Film Festival and sent in his take. Have at it, Ace...

 

Hey, Kidd... Ace Rimmer here…

I just returned from the gala screening of LIFE OF PI (in 3D) at the AFI Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday with HITCHCOCK  and will continue with LINCOLN, HOLY MOTORS and the Palme d'Or winning AMOUR among others.

The screening was opened by a virtual Ang Lee, who popped out of the screen in 3D and looked pretty damn exhausted. Apparently he finished it two weeks ago and said this was the hardest film he'd ever made. Then he mentioned it was all about faith. Nuf' said.

Went into PI more curious than excited. The novel is a really solid piece of fiction, mixing intense survival story with thoughtful meditations on God and capping the whole thing off with a semi ambiguous, rug pulling twist. In fact it's the ending that I remember best from the book. It turns a memorable ride into a very clever, thought-provoking journey. If any of this sounds boring to you, look away now.

The trailers left me a little uninterested. Visually stunning of course, but the overwhelming, uplifting score and title cards declaring WHEN ALL YOU'VE EVER KNOWN IS LOST and FIND YOUR COURAGE didn't exactly peak my interest or flatter the complex source material. It seemed Ang Lee had sidestepped the unfilmable challenges of the narrative and decided to distract audiences with a smorgasbord of kaleidoscopic colors, effects and action.

Well, as it turns out, LIFE OF PI has all that and much more. In fact, I'd say this is Ang Lee's TREE OF LIFE. Something deeply meaningful he's been building towards his whole career. With a bit of Ang Lee's GRIZZLY MAN and Ang Lee's CLOUD ATLAS to boot. Still with me?

What he's done here is taken the novel's main ideas, nature, nurture and the search for God and delivered it with intensely personal panache and breathtaking visual sequences. As with those other projects, one feels the auteur's hand here as clearly as you feel it with Malick, Herzog or the Wachowski's and it is both very honest and very demanding. As with those films, some may be rubbed the wrong way here. LIFE OF PI will not be embraced by everyone. It may not be a journey all will be compelled to take again. But I urge you to take it once on the biggest, brightest screen possible.

LIFE OF PI is stunning. I don't use the term lightly either. There are things done here visually that left me gasping and my jaw wide open. More so than CLOUD ATLAS or even AVATAR. In fact, I'd argue that Ang Lee manages to fully immerse you Planet Earth style in this extraordinary world in a way James Cameron promised but failed to deliver satisfactorily with his mega-blockbuster. To see such a methodical, visual director firing on all cylinder's is an absolute joy and it would be impossible to recall more than a fraction of the exquisite, intricate details here.

Things will stick out for everyone though. For me, I have never seen the sea represented quite so magnificently as it is here. We go from terrifying, storm churning tsunami's to queasy waves, to a sun drenched, still-water paradise to astonishing, luminous, night-time underwater vistas. And much more. Throw in sharks, flying fish, a whale, zebra, hyena, meerkat and countless other creatures of all shapes and sizes, elegantly realized, and you'll wonder where Cameron can possibly go next with AVATAR 2. The ball is definitely in his court. That goes for the 3D as well. If you're a champion of the format, this is right up there. If not, you owe it to yourself to see what a brilliant craftsman is able to do with the canvas. I still found the picture too dim and look forward to experiencing the bright colors in 2D. But you can't argue with craft.

To my relief, Lee was able to inject the imagery with the deep symbolism they need to really sing. The opening act of PI shows a young Pi (the excellent Suraj Sharma) getting involved with multiple religions and butting heads with his family. Questions are raised and statements made that address some pretty big philosophical topics and it is here that the audience will either perk up or shut down. If they do let themselves be engaged however, viewers will find the spectacular journey that follows to be far more meaningful and the head spinning coda, far more satisfying. Or as so many did with TREE OF LIFE, they might find the ambiguous, explicit symbols a bafflement and the earnest delivery a bore.

In GRIZZLY MAN, Timothy Treadwell looked at wild bears and found love and meaning, while Herzog mused that all he saw was "the chaotic indifference of nature.” In LIFE OF PI, Ang Lee gives us a ferocious Bengal tiger and two possible outcomes. In it's eyes we either see the friendly, soulful proof of God's existence, or merely a confused reflection of ourselves.

There were times during LIFE OF PI that I found myself drifting out of the film and marveling at the spectacle from a distance. Lee performs an amazing balancing act with all the elements at his disposal but at times the philosophy felt a little unbalanced and the ending didn’t completely stick the landing. It's more about the journey than the destination here but it’s almost all captivating. The framing story contains what were in my opinion the films strongest and weakest performances (by Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall respectively) and sometimes feels a bit dry. Their last scene together is their best though. The relationship between Pi and the tiger is something better experienced than described here. It is the centerpiece of the film and a massive accomplishment on both a technical and emotional level.

LIFE OF PI is not a film I will watch many times over. Not because it is a failure, but like a few other survival stories, the viewing itself can feel like a bit of an endurance. In the novel, staying on a lifeboat for such a huge chunk of the story made for compelling reading but in the film, you do feel Ang Lee pulling somersaults to compensate for the one location. Beautiful somersaults.

I don't think this will have a chance at the Academy Awards, with an entirely international cast and scenes of animal on animal violence (which will definitely turn off some viewers). Some will hail it a masterpiece, others will raise eyebrows and scoff at the philosophy while admiring the visuals and astonishing animal realizations. I'll admit, the rich visuals will stay with me longer than the thoughtful story, which is saying a lot.

LIFE OF PI is a film you will want to own because you want to show it to others. You will screen it for the more open minded, opinionated of your friends to see what they think it all means, knowing that at the very least they will applaud you on your visual taste. Or you’ll show them TREE OF LIFE.

Looks pretty positive to me. We'll see if Ang Lee's latest holds up for the rest of us soon enough, with LIFE OF PI opening in theatres on November 21. 

 

-Billy Donnelly

"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"

BillyTheKidd@aintitcool.com

Follow me on Twitter.

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