Ang Lee’s Imaginative Film “Life of Pi” Will Sweep You Away

Review: “Life of Pi” Directed by Ang Lee in 3-D now in Wide Release
by Larry Murray

James Cameron, move over. In the brilliant film Life of Pi, director Ang Lee has employed and perfected all the technological wonders Cameron first pioneered with Avatar. Lee is aware of Cameron’s greatest achievements and employs them as well: Life of Pi has an outstanding ship sinking sequence as the film’s freighter glides into the deep with nearly the same impact as the groundbreaking Titanic first offered.

But it is the three dimensionality that makes this film more than just another great story. Cameron and now Lee are the benchmark that others will have to meet. Sadly, in tinseltown, many imitators have used the 3-D effect fraudulently, as a gimmick to save mediocre movies. In fact the question arises whether you can be a true artist in Hollywood at all, what with a lot of the 3-D effects being applied after-the-fact. The technology allows it, but the results reek of juvenile taste and tricks.

Too often the promise of 3-D does not meet the high expectations in the advertising, and it is bringing it into question as the future of film. Even for all its wonders, the Life of Pi is still a great story on film, made stronger by the alternately subtle and sizzling use of depth. You can’t apply it retroactively like makeup without also stamping a film as a mediocre wannabe. Yet until Life of Pi, most releases in 3D, even those shot in that format, were only so-so in quality, though animation was able to render the effect more compellingly than traditional fare.

A Film from the Book

In Life of Pi, the effects themselves are in service to a wonderful story by Yann Martel based on his best selling book by the same name. The film begins during the tumultuous period of Indian history known as the Emergency in 1975.

Early on, an elderly Indian man describes the story of Pi as “a story that will make you believe in God,” and Life of Pi continuously grapples with questions of faith. In his youth, Pi tries on the three most prominent religions in India, finding elements in each that appeal to the youth, while providing the viewer with a unique perspective on issues of Indian spirituality.

Some critics have been so off-put by this element of the film that they shy away from any discussion of it, yet it is exactly at the age of Pi that most young people consider the implications of their birth religion to their own questioning mind. That Pi manages to find good in the conflicting faiths provides a peaceful resolution to this often thorny question. That it remains an element of the story through his ordeal is natural and believable.

For as much as he enjoys his life in India, which includes a supportive family life, a girlfriend and the freedom to indulge in youthful exploration, all that suddenly ends. With his family’s living conditions declining, Pi (short for Piscine Molitor) is swept away from it all when his parents decide to leave India for Canada, boarding a freighter with their family zoo which consists of dozens of animals including a tiger. Encountering a storm, everything changes as the ship sinks, his family is lost along with most of the animals. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orangutang and that tiger.

A grudging truce.

Like Hemenway’s Old Man and the Sea, the film grapples with the relationship between the big cat, explaining how it came to have the unusual name of Richard Parker, and Pi. Cast adrift on an unforgiving sea the boy and the tiger are at odds, the lad retreating to the safety of a raft he constructs, yielding the lifeboat to the ferocious tiger and other animals, until it alone is left in the vessel, ravenously hungry and defiant. The story, of course, is how they eventually share the same space, both barely surviving yet finally managing a grudging truce.

Throughout the long at-sea ordeal, the cinematography places the viewer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the two protagonists, and here the use of the 3-D effect is both subtle and mesmerizing. Many shots are from the water’s surface, looking upward at the craft, thereby giving a sense of the immensity of the ocean and the irreconcilable aloneness of the two passengers as they drift. At night luminescent sea creatures light up the dark even as the stars in the sky echo the vast space. A scene towards the end finds the two on a strange island dominated by Meerkats and mystery. They set themselves adrift again in order to flee its strange hypnotic power. The island is carnivorous.

The story ends of course, as it began, in a conversation with a now grown Pi who weaves yet another tale to explain his survival, and leaves it to us to decide which makes more sense. The glorious film takes nuanced and human storytelling to its ultimate destination, our hearts, leaving those of us who hear it with lots to think about.

Notes on the North Adams Movieplex 8

It has to be noted that the screening of Life of Pi was a private one, I was alone in the North Adams Movieplex screening room #7, and had paid just $6.50 for the privilege of seeing this great film. I was happy to find the space well managed, even if the audience was a bit sparse. There were about 50 at the previous screening, but it was not in 3-D. That happens generally only once a day.

Though earlier audiences seem to have left a trail of popcorn here and there, overall, the Movieplex was as neat and clean as the pristine images being projected on the big screen. One of the great joys of the new digital technology is the complete lack of camera motion artifacts and jiggles, and the zillion scratches and speckles that accumulate on film as it is projected over and over. Being digital, this screening was as pristine as the first time it was shown. The North Adams Movieplex has a Tuesday special, all films all day for $5.00 each, and 3-D offerings just $6.50. According to the Movieplex online site, The Life of Pi continues into next week as well. Don’t miss it.

That I was the only one in the theatre was not surprising given that it was a Tuesday evening after 9 pm when the streets of North Adams are pretty deserted to begin with. In that regard, it’s still a go-to-bed-early factory town. Damn shame, too. Tuesday night at the North Adams Movieplex is not only a bargain, it has some great films on the menu in the coming weeks. Some of the best films that have been held in reserve are coming up: The Hobbit on December 14 and Les Miserables on Christmas Day.

Met Opera Live in HD Too

Saturday afternoons in the Berkshires finds opera lovers at local theatres enjoying the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Transmissions. The North Adams Movieplex has joined the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, and the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington in making these superb programs available. The next one in the series is this Saturday, December 1 as Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is offered. Read our season overview here in Berkshire on Stage (link).

One thought on “Ang Lee’s Imaginative Film “Life of Pi” Will Sweep You Away

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