Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

Alternate Title:  Tarantino Unleashed

One sentence synopsis:  A former slave and a German dentist team up to bring down criminal slavocrats in the Antebellum South.

Things Havoc liked:  I can take or leave most of Quentin Tarantino's films. Pulp Fiction aside, his movies are always elaborate affairs that try to ride the line between a glorious spectacle and a colossal train-wreck, not always with success. And as Tarantino has grown older, his tendency to push his films to the limit of what a movie structure will support has only become stronger, with results such as 2009's Inglorious Basterds, a painfully uneven film that alternated scenes of incredible tension and skill with scenes torn directly from the giggling 13-year-old parts of Tarantino's brain. Yet it can't be denied that somewhere beneath the winking homages, self-indulgent dialogue and immature artifice, Tarantino is an extremely skilled director and writer, who seems to visualize movies in a way that many have tried to imitate (I'm looking at you, David Mamet), but never have successfully replicated. And so we come to Django Unchained.

Good directors tend to attract good actors to work for them, and Tarantino is no exception. Django Unchained employs the services of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Don Johnson, alongside Tarantino regulars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, all portraying various larger-than-life characters with appropriately weird manners of speech and motivations, inhabiting a stylized version of the late 1850s South. Waltz, in particular, is absolutely superb (as he was in Inglorious Basterds), playing a German Dentist-turned-Bounty Hunter comprised of equal parts Doc Holiday and John Brown. Despite the absurdity of his character's existence, he is never anything but straight with the material, indulging neither in histrionics nor even in outright rudeness as he cheerfully guns down criminals and scum of various sort. It is he who inducts vengeful slave Django (Foxx) into the business of bounty hunting, a role which Foxx seems to have decided to play via channeling his character from Collateral. Given the outright insanity going on around these two however, this is not a terrible choice, and Foxx manages to hold the movie down with a simple glassy-eyed stare and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, eschewing the comic lunacy that Brad Pitt brought to his starring role in Basterds.

The antagonists are equally good. DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a sadistic monster of a plantation owner cloaked in all the charm of southern gentility, who not only engages in slavery on a grand and horrific scale, but promotes a barbaric form of slave-gladiating called Mandingo, in which strong slaves beat one another to death for the pleasure (and wagers) of their owners. DiCaprio's performance is nothing terribly nuanced, but he manages to evoke the slimy bastard aspects of the character without ever turning completely into a Bond villain, grounding the character in something we could actually picture existing in the antebellum South. But far more interesting is Jackson, known normally for over-the-top screaming tirades and badass one liners, who here plays Stephen, a suspicious, elderly slave who serves as DiCaprio's Head House Slave and chief confidante. I have seen Samuel L. Jackson do strange things in movies (usually Tarantino ones), but I've never seen anything like this character before, an ingratiating, submissive Uncle Tom-style pastiche who moreso even than Candie himself, seems hellbent on ensuring that the plantation system persists in all ways despite the efforts of Foxx and Waltz to subvert it. A superb sequence halfway through the film reveals the extent to which Stephen has internalized the slave system, to the point where even the borderline sociopathic Candie is entirely reliant on Stephen to help maintain order within his house.  Indeed, it is Stephen, in many ways, who serves as the primary antagonist of the film.

Tarantino's intent with Django Unchained was to make a spaghetti western about slavery, and in all the hullaballoo around the latter part of that statement, the former part, I fear, has been forgotten. As usual, when Tarantino wants to pay homage to an older genre of filmmaking, he is nigh-flawless. The soundtrack features songs by (among others) Ennio Morricone himself, as well as a number of contemporary pieces to punctuate more tongue-in-cheek moments. The cinematography is straight out of a 60s Eastwood western, with spontaneous super-zooms and mid-scene title crawls. This isn't to say that the film is bereft of more modern elements however, as Tarantino never misses an opportunity to poke fun at the absurdity of everything, be it either with a single line ("You chose to wear that?") or an entire scene (Lynch mobs and their masks). And all along, Tarantino maintains a wonderful rhythm, never skimping on blood and gore when appropriate, yet perfectly capable of drawing great tension out of a scene that consists of nothing but polite dialogue.

Things Havoc disliked:  And then, just like that, it all falls apart.

I had a vague premonition that this might happen. All through the first two hours of this enormous film, I could practically see Tarantino forcing himself to behave, to focus, to restrain his usual obsession with extreme spectacle and ludicrous ultra violence. You could almost feel the tension in between the shots, as Tarantino gritted his teeth and restrained his impulses, letting out only the occasional, sudden explosion of violence. It was an admirable effort, one greater than that evidenced in Tarantino's two previous films, but sadly the leopard cannot change its spots, and Tarantino's restraint could only hold for so long. And when that restraint fails... oh brother, this becomes an entirely different film.

In the space of thirty seconds, what had once been an entertaining, semi-farcical, semi-realistic deconstruction of Gone-With-the-Wind, Merry Plantation hagiographies of the Old South was transformed before my eyes into an orgiastic bloodfest of proportions that made the machine gunning of Hitler in Inglorious Basterds look subtle. Literally shedding large chunks of the main cast, the movie morphed into a crude revenge flick, hateful and contemptuous of all of its characters, setting, and large sections of the audience watching it. It was as though Tarantino, having held out for so long, simply could not control himself any longer, and hurled every violent impulse that crossed his mind onto the screen, whether his movie had earned these things or not.  It's not as if I'm against movie violence, nor as though the movie had previously been PG-rated, but the sudden downshift the movie takes into full on insanity is so thunderously at odds with everything it had previously done that the result is to torpedo the entire film. The last 30 minutes or so play out as an escalating series of violent catastrophes, wherein the movie robs itself of all pretenses of wit or interest by the simple means of eliminating the characters that previously interested us, and mutilating the character of those that it doesn't eliminate. By the end of the film, characters are killing other characters simply because they are white, or because Tarantino thought it would be funny (or perhaps both), entirely discarding everything that it had spent the last two hours laboriously establishing.

Final thoughts:   Spike Lee, in explaining why he did not intend to go see this film, described it as disrespectful to his ancestors, and demeaning to the tragedy of slavery. I tend not to take seriously the opinions of those who would criticize movies they haven't seen, but in this case, I actually see his point. The Washington Times, meanwhile, lambasted this film as hateful, racist twaddle that treats all white people, irrespective of guilt, as devils to be purged from existence. As before, I tend not to take seriously the opinions of authors who go on to complain about liberals being deluded adherents to an anti-white agenda, yet in this particular case, I can once more see the point. For much of its length, the movie successfully rode the line between offensive and insightful.  Yet having watched it suffer the cinematic equivalent of an apoplectic fit in the middle of a scene and vomit all over its own shoes, I cannot judge it in the context that I was prepared to even ten minutes before that fateful moment.  Despite this, it remains true that the first 80% of the film is something of a return to form for Tarantino, reminiscent of his better work of years past. What, ultimately, you make of this odd combination will have to be up to you, as even now, a full day later, I have difficulty determining if I liked the movie or not.

"I couldn't resist," says a character in this film at the very moment of catastrophe, as though Tarantino knew, on some level, what had happened, and was offering us his explanation. But while that explanation may well be the truth, we the viewers are still left standing dazed in the aftermath of Tarantino's explosive derailment, peering through the wreckage to try and discern what it was we were enjoying so much just a few short minutes before.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Alternate Title:  Once More Unto the Text

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins undertakes an adventure with Gandalf and thirteen exiled Dwarves to try and reclaim the kingdom of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  I was really worried about this one.

The Lord of the Rings films of 2001-2003 were a turning point in my appreciation of cinema. Not only were the movies themselves spectacular adaptations of a notoriously unfilmable book series, they were spectacular adaptations of the holy bible of fantasy literature itself, movies that stunned me with how carefully they brought the lovingly-crafted world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life. Though there were some lingering issues that could be brought up concerning the films, particularly the last one, they were seminal works of fantasy film, and everything produced in that genre since then has borne their stamp. Yet good as the Lord of the Rings movies were, my reaction to the news that a new trilogy was being prepared for the Hobbit brought up uncomfortable comparisons in my mind (and others') to the last time a noted filmmaker with a brilliant trilogy of films decided to make a new trilogy of prequels. And given Peter Jackson's directorial resume since the Lord of the Rings (the mediocre Lovely Bones and the even more mediocre King Kong), I had a bad feeling that we were about to get the equivalent of Lord of the Rings: Episode 1.

Well thank God, that's not what happened.

The Hobbit is a grand return to form for Jackson and his band of New Zealand fantasy-makers, a reunion tour by a band that was simply too good at what they did to break up permanently, picking up where the Lord of the Rings left off (figuratively-speaking) without so much as a missed step. From an opening sequence every bit as good as the famous one from Fellowship of the Ring, to another thematic, epic score by Howard Shore, there is no mistaking this film for anything but another professional, reverent venture into Middle Earth. More important than the crew and style however, is the overall feel of the film, which manages to wring pathos and epic stakes from a story that in all honesty is not terribly well supplied with either. The Hobbit, a children's tale written twenty years before the Lord of the Rings, was much more of a lighthearted romp than its sequel, but while Jackson never does away with the comedic elements that served the original book so well (particularly in the first third), the movie is quite conscious of the fact that we as an audience, unlike Tolkien, know exactly where this story is eventually going, and the epic feel of the Lord of the Rings is never far from the surface of the film.

The cast for the hobbit is cobbled together from roughly equal parts returning LOTR veterans and newly-cast actors, a mixture which on the whole does the movie great credit. The best of the new actors are (fittingly) the two leads, Martin Freeman, playing a younger Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage, playing the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Freeman in particular, I have to admit, surprised the hell out of me. The original Lord of the Rings movies were not badly acted by any stretch of the imagination, but the epic scope of the films was such that individual acting performances were not precisely the point (not that this stopped Sean Astin or Vigo Mortenson from doing phenomenal jobs). The Hobbit, by contrast, for all the Sturm und Drang of its epic battle sequences, is a more human-scale (hobbit-scale) tale, and Freeman delivers a wonderful interpretation of Bilbo to anchor it. His Bilbo Baggins is perhaps the most grounded character of any Lord of the Rings related movie ever, a calm, rational hobbit of little pretense and deep reserves of good sense. A complete contrast to both Frodo and Sam, Freeman's Bilbo is never hysterical, never absurd, never reduced to food-jokes or outright farce, but a reasonable little hobbit in a world so much larger than himself. Yet lest this sound boring, his unfailingly non-theatrical response to the terrors and wonders he is put through actually makes the character much more relatable than I expected him to be. When over the course of the film he must make decisions of tremendous import, draw lines in the sand, or stand in defense of friends against forces overwhelmingly greater than himself, we sense the fires that burn within him, all without ever needing them dragged out in some elaborate exposition dump. Moreso than any version of the story I've ever seen, including the original book, this movie showed me what it was that Gandalf the Wizard saw in Bilbo the Hobbit to volunteer him on the Quest of Erebor.

But if Bilbo was excellent, Thorin is damn near as good. The film draws very heavily from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, as well as other aspects of the wider lore (the joke about the nameless Blue Wizards was a beautiful shout out to aficionados), and one of the primary beneficiaries is the character of Thorin Oakenshield. We get a full investigation of his backstory, from the fall of Erebor to the Battle of Moria, and are shown his character in all its glory, good points and bad. Better still, the filmmakers decided here to deviate from Tolkien by substituting in Azog, Orc-King of Moria, as Thorin's personal nemesis, grounding the story in much more of a character-centric theme than the rather generic adventure-quest of the original book. It is, perhaps, presumption to amend the work of the Grandmaster of Fantasy, but if anyone can do it and succeed, it is clearly Peter Jackson, and the end result is to pin the film's narrative to the twin poles of two characters we get to know, and like, very well. It's hard to go wrong in such cases.

Things Havoc disliked:  I could nerd out here, of course, about the fact that Glamdring and Orcrist should both properly glow the way Sting does, about how the Necromancer was supposed to have been established in Dol Guldur long before the book started, and other minor gripes the sort of which I would notice and most would not. But rather than display nerd cred, perhaps it's best we discuss battle fatigue instead.

Battle Fatigue is a term that I encountered some time ago (it might have been of Peter Jackson's invention, now that I think about it) for the dazed, apathetic reaction that overcomes an audience when they have been given an overload of action sequences one after the next, despite the fact that the images they are seeing would appear to be epic and interesting. The Star Wars Prequels were perhaps the ur-example of Battle Fatigue, where all the efforts of ten thousand computer animators laboring for the better part of a decade left me staggeringly underwhelmed (not that those films didn't have other flaws...). Nothing in the Hobbit is nearly that bad, mind you, but by the midpoint of the film, having already seen something like seven separate action/spectacle sequences, I have to confess that it all began to run together. The warg riders' chase sequence, though inventive enough (I shall not spoil what one of the participants is riding in), went on far too long and wound up actually becoming boring, while a segment in the mountains with Storm Giants battling in the midst of a hurricane actually managed, despite the subject matter, to be completely forgettable, coming as it did on the heels of several other "epic" sequences within twenty minutes. Though the film does manage to recover itself by the end (mostly by slowing the pacing down), I was reminded while watching these sequences of the Fellowship of the Ring, a three-hour movie with only two real action sequences, yet both of which I can remember vividly, shot for shot, some decade later. I do not expect the same will be true of any of the Hobbit's scenes.

Additionally, the Hobbit as a source material is a different beast than the Lord of the Rings, being less than a quarter as long and written at a time when Tolkien's universe was not yet fleshed out. As I mentioned above, the filmmakers made the wise decision to pad the movie's material with appendices and other bits of the legendarium, but what I did not mention was how shoehorned some of these sequences are. A scene in Rivendell with the White Council transparently exists as a sort of nerd-fanservice, wherein characters appear because nerds like them, and not because there is anything particularly meaningful for them to do. Galadriel has become a caricature of herself as the "all-knowing, wise elf-spirit" (which, I grant, is something that afflicted her in the last two LOTR movies too), while Saruman's brief cameo makes him appear like the stupid father in a teenagers-save-the-world movie, nitpicking insignificant matters as a way of appearing like the designated 'future bad guy'. Maybe there was foreshadowing being done, I don't know, but at some point, Saruman was considered a respected, wise Councillor. This depiction makes him out to be Principal Vernon from the Breakfast Club, whose sole concern in the world is that nobody ever be allowed to take any action for any reason. I get that Saruman probably has ulterior motives for this obsession, but he's supposed to be addressing Istari Angels and Elf-Lords, not sheepish underlings terrified of displeasing him. Surely one of the multi-millenia-old Immortal Kings listening to this harangue would get an inkling of the notion that Saruman might be the wrong guy to come to with such concerns.

Final thoughts:   Advance buzz on the Hobbit was not good when I went to see it, and at time of writing, remains decidedly mixed, yet despite the criticisms I leveled above, I must confess my disappointment in those who have been spilling so much virtual ink comparing it unfavorably with the original trilogy. No, the Hobbit is probably not as good as the other Lord of the Rings movies, though I will mention that both Return of the King and Two Towers had glaring holes in them corrected only by the release of the director's cuts. Still, it is true that by the lofty standard of yesteryear, the Hobbit falls short, and it is also true that those movies are the natural point of comparison for it. Yet those who end the discussion there, I believe, miss the point. The Lord of the Rings changed filmmaking in a fundamental sense, to the point where every movie with an even slightly fantastical structure made since then, from Avatar to 300 to Pan's Labyrinth, Harry Potter, and even Twilight, has borne the stamp of the Lord of the Rings. To expect the same filmmaker to return once more to the same well that he drew his original masterpiece from and come up with something as radically different from all its fellows as he did the first time, is simply to delude oneself. Filmmakers have spent ten years attempting to replicate the Lord of the Rings, some of them successfully. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Hobbit does not astonish us as its predecessor did?

Ultimately, you can look at this film in two ways. You can say it represents the weakest of Peter Jackson's Tolkien-derived movies to date. Or you can reflect on the fact that after four epic films, the worst thing you can say about the weakest of Peter Jackson's movies is that it isn't as good as the other three.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Best at what he Does

One sentence synopsis:  An alcoholic airline pilot tries to deal with the aftermath of a plane crash in which he saved hundreds of lives.

Things Havoc liked:  Captain Whitaker wakes up in a hotel room with a stewardess, after a blackout night of alcohol and drugs. He deals with his ex-wife over the phone, angrily, and then drinks gin and snorts cocaine to wake himself up. He makes his way to the airport, and boards a plane, wherein he drinks vodka out of sight of anyone else, and hides the empty bottles in the trash. His Blood Alcohol level is three times the legal limit for drunk driving, and the personnel on the plane know that something is drastically wrong with him. And yet nobody says anything whatsoever, because Captain Whitaker is the pilot of the airplane. And in half an hour, he will unquestionably save the lives of almost everyone on board.

So begins Flight, a movie by Robert Zemeckis, one of the great directors of the last thirty years, whose credits include Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forest Gump, and right away, Zemeckis has forked us on the prongs of a contradiction. Captain Whitaker, played by the incomparable Denzel Washington, is a drunk, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and yet despite everything, a genuine hero, whose daring, skill, and coolness in an emergency saves the lives of 96 people on board his plane. These two facts are incontrovertible, apparent to everyone in the film and out of it, and yet the movie is not about whether or not Whitaker is these things. The movie is about how we, how everyone else, and most importantly, how Whitaker himself can square them together.

If Training Day (or Glory) taught us anything, it's that Denzel Washington is at his best when playing roles outside his previous straight-laced image, and sure enough, Washington is excellent in this role. Whitaker is a fascinating person, a raging alcoholic whose capacity to hold himself together enough to function (with the occasional assistance of drugs) is beyond anything we normally see in film. Most movie alcoholics act like pastiches of Irish drunks, or sobbing gutter-trash seeking for redemption they don't believe they deserve. Whitaker is a functioning alcoholic, an excellent pilot, capable of, despite a raging hangover, extemporaneously speaking to the press without being discovered as drunk. We see him undergo the crash, the aftermath, see the wolves beginning to circle as a toxicology report finds evidence of his drinking, and lawyers debate what should be done with a man who was clearly drunk on duty, but without whom not one soul would have survived the crash. As it proceeds, and the drinking begins to take hold of Whitaker, Washington's performance becomes increasingly hard to watch, even 'cringeworthy' (in the words of a viewing companion), yet it never loses our attention, nor becomes less effective. It may not be Washington's best performance, but it's definitely in the discussion.

Zemekis is a world-class director, and for his return to live action, he has assembled an excellent supporting cast. John Goodman plays a drug dealer that seems to be taken straight out of a 70s film, whose small time on screen is absolutely riveting, while Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle play lawyers of various types, more or less acquainted with the truth about Whitaker, and whose agendas force them into covering for him even if they would prefer not to. Yet the movie is not really about a procedural coverup, nor about the relationships between these men and Whitaker. To an extent, it is about Nicole, a Heroin addict played by Sherlock Holmes' Kelly Reilly, whom Whitaker meets in the hospital and has a relationship with afterwards. And yet ultimately it isn't about Nicole either, but about Whitaker, who he is, what he is, and how we, the audience, are supposed to take him.

Things Havoc disliked:  All of which would be fine if the movie didn't raise some serious questions about what's going on here.

The film is very, very clear that the crash was caused by mechanical failure. The specific part that led to the aircraft's failure is highlighted in a public hearing by the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. The aircraft's black box shows Captain Whitaker as being in control and command for the entire crash landing process, including performing an incredible stunt to stabilize the plane, inverting it into a roll and then locating a place to put it down. Cheadle's character informs Whitaker at one point that ten veteran pilots were placed in simulators of the accident, and all ten crashed and killed everyone aboard. None of the facts surrounding the crash appear to be in question.

So given that, what in the hell are we doing here?

Yes, Whitaker is a drunk and a drug abuser. These facts are not in question. Yes, it is illegal to fly an airplane under the influence of alcohol. This is also not in question. But the investigation into the crash quickly seems to turn into a witch hunt to "get" Whitaker, despite literal mountains of evidence that his drinking had nothing whatsoever to do with the crash, and that his presence in the cockpit directly led to the survival of the passengers of the plane. Given the heroic nimbus that immediately encircled Captain Sullenberger three years ago when he managed to ditch his broken airliner in the Hudson River, I admit that I don't see what in the hell would prompt the NTSB or anyone else to conduct the inquisition that they do into Whitaker's drinking. Granted, Whitaker is an out-of-control drunk who should not be flying, but we get no sense throughout the film of why the head prosecutor wishes to go after him, no idea of what her agenda actually is in attacking a genuine hero, nor in what backlashes she may face for doing so. With no evidence that Whitaker's drinking had anything to do with anything, and plausible explanations for what caused the crash in-hand, we are forced to assume motivations that don't exist for the government's pursuit of Whitaker. He clearly saved lives. He clearly did not cause the plane to crash. Why threaten him with manslaughter charges?

Final thoughts:   I suppose the answer to my question above is 'drama', which is fair enough I guess, and the question of why Whitaker is going through all this is secondary when you stop and think about it. Flight is a picture that knows what it is about, and tells us its story without feeling the need to up the stakes above what they already are, letting us make our own conclusions up about the main character and what should be done with him. It is admittedly very hard to watch at times, to the point where it may well enter into that nebulous category of movies that are good, but that I don't want to see any more of (Bad Lieutenant, Sophie's Choice, Leaving Las Vegas). But if you can't separate the quality of a movie from how nasty its subject matter is, then honestly, you've no business watching movies at all.

Final Score:  7/10

Life of Pi

Alternate Title:  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Script

One sentence synopsis:  An Indian boy must survive a shipwreck in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.

Things Havoc liked:  There are Ang Lee movies I like (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain) and Ang Lee movies I hate (Hulk, oh god, Hulk), but there are no Ang Lee movies that I find boring or uninteresting to look at. Ang Lee is a stylistic filmmaker who produces visually stunning work, even when the result is a plodding mess, and whose visual style is so distinctive that other directors get accused of "Ang Leeing" things when they go too far into visual artifice. Lest I sound negative, the primary consequence of Lee's obsession with the perfect image is that every movie he makes is stunningly distinctive, burnt into your mind by virtue of the repeated use of distinctive imagery, the focus of which is unlike that of any other director's movies. Unlike some of his contemporaries (Terrence Malick, for instance), Lee doesn't use visual images to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say, nor even to say anything in particular, permitting the images to stand on their own, under assumption that a perfect shot is its own justification. In Life of Pi, we get two such repeated images, a boat, raft, or swimmer, suspended in water of perfect mirror-clarity, and the alien glow of bio-luminescent plankton agitated by other creatures, aquatic or otherwise. What from any other director would be artifice, is from Lee a simple appreciation of the camera's ability to show us magnificent things.

Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name (unread by me), is a slow, deliberate film, meandering carefully from one sequence to the next with little care as to what one thing has to do with another in favor of showing, much like Cloud Atlas of a few weeks ago, a range of human experience. The central thread is the life of the main character, Pi Patel, a boy named for the french word for swimming pool (long story), who, even before the shipwreck that gets the 'plot' moving has already mediated on the nature of God and spirituality, converted to three religions, and memorized the famous number that serves as his other namesake to about the ten thousandth digit. Played at various ages by different actors, the character's primary portrayer is Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job with a movie that requires him to spend the better part of two hours acting by himself against green screens and CGI animals added in post-production. One has only to look at the Star Wars prequels to know how well that strategy usually turns out, but Sharma's performance is orders of magnitude better than anything found in those disasters. His Pi is resourceful and clever, deeply reflective, at times overwhelmed by his ordeal and at other times confident and collected in the face of it. He turns what could be a artsy version of Castaway into something far more special.

Indeed, this movie surprised me primarily because of what it is not. It is not a story about survival against the odds, not really. Pi is stuck in a situation wherein he might be expected to die, but his lifeboat is well equipped with food, water, survival equipment, and even instructions on their use, and the movie does not linger on the usual torments of being lost and adrift, preferring to concentrate on the spiritual experience of the character. Yet it is also not a Terrence-Malick-like whimsical mediation on the transitory nature of life. Though the film is narrated (and with a framing story), it does not consist of people reciting poetry over shots of clouds. Instead, apart from a few well-done visual explorations of the world beneath the ocean, the movie stays reasonably grounded in what the protagonist does, and why he does it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, there are also other things the movie is not, and one of them is 'focused'. The entire first third of the film is essentially irrelevant to everything in the last two, dealing as it does with Pi's childhood, his introductions to spirituality, his relationship with his father, mother, uncle, girlfriend, and the rest of his life in the family zoo in Pondicherry, India. Not that I object to biographical material, but nothing that Pi goes through with the exception of his brief interactions with the tiger, have any impact on anything that happens in the remainder of the film. It would be one thing if this was merely a framework to understand the character's actions later in the film, but not even the spirituality of the main character is really entered into throughout the remainder of the film, leading me to assume that this stuff was added either to pad out the length, satisfy fans of the book, or both.

There's also some concepts that just clash with one another. The movie starts out rigorously non-fantastical, preferring instead to see the beauty of ordinary things iterated throughout space and time. But midway through the film, the castaways land at a floating island made of what appears to be living Mangrove trees and covered in Meerkats, which as it turns out is a single, living, carnivorous organism. This concept is so strange and so at odds with the realistic feel that the movie has overall been maintaining until this point that it knocks us out of the flow of the story. Moreover, the whole escapade seems to have nothing to do with anything else.  Pi visits the island, sees what lies upon it, discovers its secret, and then leaves. Neither anything before nor anything after this point is enhanced by his visit. He discovers no truths and learns no lessons here, it is simply a even which happens and is over.  So what exactly was the point?

Final thoughts:   That's really the issue I have with Life of Pi in general. The movie is well shot, well acted, and manages despite the 3D to avoid looking like a grainy newsreel (not that the 3D adds anything, but what do you want?). The story is reasonably engaging, and strange enough to keep our interest. But if there's an overall thread running through everything, then I missed it completely. None of the movie's eclectic notions of spirituality, religion, cross-species empathy, or survival seem to actually have anything to do with any other thing, as though the movie was assembled at random from whatever Ang Lee thought would make for a compelling image. As a result, while the film is well made, there's just no greater substance to it but a series of pretty pictures, laden at times with pretenses of meaning, but nothing to back it up. Cloud Atlas this ain't.

Final Score:  7/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...