Thursday, 20 December 2012

REVIEW: Life of Pi

Dir.: Ang Lee
With: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

There was so much potential for this film to be bad. Although the novel was published in 2001 and went on to win the Booker prize in 2002, no-one dared to adapt it back then – filming a teenage boy sharing a small boat with an adult Bengal tiger seemed impossible. Now in 2012 with the use of CGI, motion capture and 3D this movie turns out to be one of the most incredible cinema spectacles of the year.

The story deviates from the novel very little – it is narrated by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to the writer (Rafe Spall), starting with Pi’s happy and spiritual childhood surrounded by zoo animals in Pondicherry, India, and going on to survive a shipwreck and drifting for 227 days through the Pacific Ocean together with Richard Parker, the tiger. The film rests on three main pillars – Suraj Sharma’s performance as the teenage Pi, Richard Parker’s tactile realism and the stunning views of the ocean. It is incredible to think that this is Suraj’s first acting job – his performance is saturated with so much feeling and spirit that it is impossible not to empathise with him to a great extent throughout all his adventures.

The story itself is no ordinary shipwreck survival like "Castaway" for example. "Life of Pi" is more of an Odyssey (even the French title of the novel is "The Odyssey of Pi"), it is a journey of self-discovery, wicked trials and a constant conversation with god. I am sure that the message of the film, that all religions and convictions have as much validity as the next, will find its critics as it did when the book came out. I, for my part, think that there is something terribly romantic about Pi’s final suggestion to the writer that he is free to choose whatever version of the story to believe in – the cruel and realistic one or the fantastical – as long as he likes it.

Fantastical is one of the key words to describe ‘Life of Pi’ with. The film is interspersed with moments of sereneness when Pi, despite the destitute conditions he finds himself in, is able to take in the power and glory of the nature around him. These scenes are usually slow and self-indulgent, with much of the scenery and marine life created digitally. And even though I knew that none of it was real, the interplay between colour and moving form was mesmerising. I actually felt my jaw drop when a blue whale leapt out of the ocean on a starry night (easily amused I am).

It is very impressive that this sort of divine and hyper-real beauty and spirituality were created by the same person who directed “Taking Woodstock”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Hulk” and “Sense and Sensibility”. The other Ang Lee film that has a similar dream-like feel is of course “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Although both these films take place out in the wild and have many difficult to film elements, there is a strong sense of directorial control over them, especially in terms of their visual richness. And yet, Ang Lee doesn’t leave the kind of stylistic stamp on his works, unlike so many other directors. Instead, I think that he is the kind of director who lets the material speak for itself, and speak for itself it does. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dir.: Peter Jackson
With: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

‘If Baggins loses, we eats it whole, precious.’

I’d always known that it was going to be pretty hard to be objective about this movie. I am a huge fan of the books and “The Lord of the Rings” movies and, like most of other fans, feel a personal connection to them. In fact “The Hobbit” was one of the first “proper” novels I ever read, aged 8. I remember being totally engrossed in Bilbo’s adventures and finding some of the chapters eye-opening (I think that the Battle of Five Armies was probably my first ever encounter with literary violence and death). Then two years later I got my hands onto “The Fellowship of the Ring” but had to leave it for a few more years because the black riders gave me nightmares! So you see, I’ve loved hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards for over 15 years.

This is also why I found it especially annoying that most journalists have been so negative about “The Hobbit” even before it came out. During the past months it's been impossible to open a newspaper without reading new articles that criticised Warner Brothers, Peter Jackson and the decision to make the film into a trilogy. It really felt like whoever wrote the articles, wanted the films to fail– is it schadenfreude, creative envy or just being spiteful, I don’t know. I also don’t understand what is wrong with having faith in someone who managed to pull off adapting an unadaptable fantasy opus into three successful and artistically meaningful films. Note that it was Peter Jackson who decided to make “The Hobbit” into three films instead of two, even though he was initially opposed by the studio. Naturally, the studio will make more money from this, but if the first film is terrible, chances are that less people would ever want to see the rest. In a way, there is more pressure on Peter Jackson to excel. And just look at the interviews with him, watch the making-of extras – does he really strike you as a devious moneymaker without any artistic integrity? The answer is, quite frankly, no – so let us just watch the movie in our own time, make up our own minds and then discuss it, instead of slagging off “The Hobbit” in blind ignorance.

Now with my rant over – what I thought about the movie.

I think it is a film made primarily for fans of the book. It is very close in spirit to Tolkien’s first novel, much lighter than LOTR and with plenty of comedy moments. Given that “An Unexpected Journey” deals with the first third of the story, Peter Jackson indulges us with some meticulous details of Tolkien’s world. The unexpected dwarf party at Bilbo’s, the encounter with dim-witted trolls and Radagast the Brown are given a surprising amount of screen time. Thus the beginning of the film is quite slow-paced and lacks the drama that maybe some people would expect. However, the novel also starts off slow and gradually grows darker and more sinister. So I would not worry about the second and third films – they have much meatier chunks of the novel to work with.

At the same time, there are clear links with the LOTR films – the prologue that tells us about the King under the Mountain and Smaug’s conquest of Erebor is majestic and harks back to the dwarfish splendour previously seen in Moria. Likewise, Middle-earth is as beautiful as ever and when you see our heroes run through its vistas accompanied by an epic soundtrack, it sends shivers down your spine. And then there is Gandalf the Grey, brilliantly played by Ian McKellen. He is younger, more sly and down-to-earth and does a lot more magic than in LOTR. So far, so good. 

The new and interesting element is of course, the unlikely band of brothers – veeery different from and much more hairy than The Fellowship of the Ring. We have 13 belching and not-so-graceful dwarves and one adventure-averse hobbit. Whereas the Fellowship consisted of quite deep, fleshed out and  diverse characters, the 13 dwarves move as one and are given very little characterisation, apart from Thorin Oakenshield, Balin and Kili (aka the missing member of the Middle-earth boyband). Thorin (a very smoldering Richard Armitage) is the tallest dwarf and leader of the company, a king in exile with all the bitterness, hurt pride and authority that comes with the status. He is full of vengeance and a great warrior and has very little patience for little Bilbo.

The hobbit is perhaps the ultimate underdog, small, unimpressive and unsure, he ends up surprising everyone and himself most of all. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast – he oscillates between ‘a-fish-out-of-water’ and ‘rise-up-to-the-challenge’ modes with much charm. And unlike his tormented nephew, Frodo, he keeps his wits about him – even in the famous ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene when he meets Gollum for the first time. Apparently, this was the first scene they shot and you can see poor Martin/Bilbo being under constant psychological attack by the unhinged Andy Serkis/Gollum. It is one of the key moments in the book and has the same level of intensity in the film.

As the adventures become more serious, the tone of the movie changes too – suddenly you realise that this is not just a fun quest with some funny dwarves and that much darker forces are at play. Azog, for example, or the Pale Orc is the stuff of nightmares and his encounter with Thorin is terrifying. Once it is over, Bilbo naively suggests that the worst is behind them, but in reality it is still to come. I guess that the next film will have Beorn, Mirkwood and perhaps Smaug (annoyingly, Smaug is never fully revealed in the prologue, so we will have to wait until next year to see and hear the Golden Wyrm) and the third will be primarily about the Town of Dale and the Battle of Five Armies.

I don’t think that “The Hobbit” is better or worse than LOTR, it is just a different story with different characters who inhabit the same world. Obviously, the sense of novelty is worn off by now and the expectations are higher. But the movie delivers in being true to the original material and re-creating the magic and grandeur of Middle-earth. As you remember, in LOTR the journey takes us south, here we travel eastwards. These new parts of Middle-earth are just as enchanting and exciting as Rohan and Fangorn Forest and I for one cannot wait to see more.

Friday, 7 December 2012

So Who Are the Hottest Aliens?

There is nothing that signifies the festive season as much as letting go of your serious face and being just a little shallow. Oh, we most definitely like shallow (just look at the ‘most shared’ links on the BBC News website – do people seem to care about serious current affairs? Nope. All they want to read about are cute-wunderkind-twin-baby swimmers and Kim Jong Un’s new status as the Sexiest Man Alive).

So, in this festive ‘anything goes’ spirit, imagine that the world actually ended this month, just as predicted, and that you were the last human being standing. Luckily, a friendly race of aliens from the Alpha Centauri system arrived on Earth in order to check for survivors. They took you along to their home planet and after a few months you began to get used to local customs and felt pretty much at home. Then you also started to realise that you simply had to procreate and pass on those precious human genes of yours. Now look around carefully – your new home planet is quite the inter-galactic melting pot and there is a wide selection of types to choose from as your potential mate.

Sadly, I cannot offer you any actual pictures of aliens to check out – blame the somewhat decelerated Space Race. Thus cinema has to step in and proffer a selection of hotties from outer space:

10. Neytiri from “Avatar”.

Yeah, yeah. She is blue and has sex via the tip of her braid. Still, she is fierce (just like they like ‘em on ANTM) and has the bone structure of Zoe Saldana. And if one human male fell for her in the movie, I am sure you would too, especially when faced with total extinction.

9. Superman from “Man of Steel”.

I know this film is only coming out next year, but judging by the trailer and Henry Cavill’s work in “The Tudors”, this new Clark Kent will be one hell of procreating material (sorry, Christopher Reeve). Plus I know someone who dated Mr Cavill and the reports are most encouraging.

8. Diva Plavalaguna from “The Fifth Element”.

If you managed to get it on with Neytiri but things did not work out, Diva could be your rebound. She is blue, just like you like it, AND she has cool tentacles that might seem a little phallic at first but also let you be more creative in your long nights of lovemaking with this inter-galactic superstar. She can belt out impossible arias, so your kids will be very talented. Diva literally has blue blood, so she must be royalty as well. Looks like you win on all fronts.

 7. Spencer Armacost from “The Astronaut’s Wife”.

Not exactly Johnny Depp’s finest performance, but we are talking pure aesthetics here. Spencer, as you know, is possessed by a tentacled alien and kills people around him. He isn’t exactly your average bad-boy but also has his charms. For example, if he starts to annoy you – simply electrocute him. If he does end up impregnating you, your children (twins most likely) would look perfectly human but might suffer from sudden glitches. 

6. Mac from “Earth Girls are Easy”.

Quick recap of this little known whacky comedy from 1988 (I watched it on TV one day and really enjoyed it). Three multicoloured furry aliens crash into Geena Davis’ pool. She is a used and abused manicurist with a heart of gold who decides to shelter the extraterrestrials. Her friend from the salon performs a full-body epilation on the trio and they turn out to be Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and, lo and behold, Jeff Goldblum (who plays Mac). The girl takes them on a tour of LA nightlife and in the end falls for Mac, who is just to die for!

5. Mary from “Total Recall” 1990.

You know what was the main reason for the lukewarm reception of this year’s remake of “Total Recall”? Mary was not as good. Shame on you if you don’t know who she is. Mary is the mammarily-gifted prostitute from the original movie with Schwarzenegger. Ok, maybe she is not the safest alien to continue your human lineage with, but you know, she definitely opens up new possibilities.

4. Spock from “Star Trek” 2009.

Again, sorry to Leonard Nimoy but Zachary Quinto’s version of the half-human, half-Vulcan Commander is just hotter. I think he just carries off the whole pointy-ears, upward-brows look better. I guess his most attractive feature is the fact that his is very reserved due to his Vulcan blood, but still waters run deep, so any adventurous lady would be curious to reveal his more passionate side. Besides, your kids with him would be very intelligent and only a quarter alien. (Remember your objective is to keep the human race going).

3. Klaatu from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, 2008.

In this rather dull movie Keanu Reeves is a welcome distraction. I can’t even remember what his character does exactly, but the fact that he is an alien and played by Keanu should be enough for any earthling. I would not be totally surprised if it was revealed at some point that Keanu Reeves the actor was an actual alien who learned to mimic human behaviour but never lost his otherworldly quality that some describe as bad acting.

2. Han Solo from “Star Wars”.

If I could wolf-whistle in writing, I would. Han…Han Solo…the most suave space smuggler who moonlights as Indiana Jones in his spare time. Oh Han. Why did you have to go with that cow Princess (or so she calls herself) Leia? I’d be much better suited and I love dogs too, so Chewbacca could always stay with us.

1. Leeloo from “The Fifth Element”.

Leeloo might not be the most eloquent of humanoids, but she is the perfect being and saved the human race many times over. Even the Ancient Egyptians had drawings of her. She has layers upon layers of genetic information stored in her cells, so your human DNA might get a little lost if you do decide to “jump her bones”. Your children though would have the highest chances of getting into good schools because a) they will be very limber and excel in sports b) linguistically gifted and be able to decipher new alphabets even under extreme pressure c) they’ll stand out with their red hair which will be quite the rarity at this time. The only downsides of having a relationship with Leeloo would be her irrational and aggressive reactions and the likelihood of her dumping you for the first taxi driver.