Archive for November, 2012

Life of Pi

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Lifeofpi

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ang Lee’s best and worst tendencies as a filmmaker are manifested in the visual smorgasbord “Life of Pi,” a rainbow-colored adaptation of the popular 2001 novel by Yann Martel. Cutting back and forth between the awesome spectacle contained within the see-it-to-believe-it story of a man and a tiger sharing space on a lifeboat and the leaden, prosaic didacticism of the scenes in which the title character recounts his unbelievable tale to an eager writer, Lee insists on showing and telling the audience when the former is cinematically preferable to the latter. The result is a flawed but intoxicating experience brimming with luscious compositions undercut somewhat by Lee’s insistence on unwelcome over-explanation.

Martel’s Booker Prize-winner seemingly belongs to the class of literature suggestive of the catnip adjective “unfilmable.” Alternately introspective and preachy, the fantasy fable of spiritual truth-seeking may strike some as an optimistic, New Age variation on “The Old Man and the Sea,” but both works surely depend upon the will to endure, exemplified via Hemingway’s veritable epithet  “grace under pressure.” Perhaps someday a film will be made detailing the strange case of Martel’s erroneous recollection of an unflattering Updike review of Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 “Max and the Cats,” a novella in which a shipwreck survivor is stranded on a dinghy with a jaguar.

The logistics of photographing a Bengal tiger and a human being in close quarters depend on the illusion of proximity and the specialized skill sets of animal trainers and CGI artists. Lee succeeds mightily in his realization of maneater Richard Parker, and the sinewy beast takes on the substantial mantle of simultaneous symbol and flesh-and-blood feline. Newcomer Suraj Sharma plays Pi in the sections of the film dealing with the aftermath of the shipwreck, and while the actor gets the job done, one wishes that Lee had found a performer with the presence and depth of Irrfan Khan. Khan nearly manages to save the framing scenes in which the older Pi recounts his crucible, but those sections of the movie reek with the annoying sense that the viewer is not smart enough to discern the subtext.

While the scenes of Pi and Richard Parker lost and adrift rightfully receive the majority of attention over the tedious conversations of Rafe Spall’s unnamed writer and the older Pi, Lee also includes a third narrative trajectory establishing the hero’s childhood fascination with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Set in India in the former French colony Pondicherry, the exposition lays out the interfaith and mono/polytheistic framework that will contribute to the explanation accompanying the surprise ending of the story. Screenwriter David Magee also adds a love interest that does not exist in the novel, a reasonable alteration that raises the emotional stakes of Pi’s departure from India.

Like “Avatar,” a movie to which “Life of Pi” has been frequently compared, Lee’s facility with technology in the service of image-making trumps the shortcomings of the script. The director lavishes painterly detail, sometimes combining incongruous foregrounds and backgrounds in thrilling tableaux, on the stylized world inhabited for 227 days by the young man and the tiger, and his investment in the natural world and its menagerie of inhabitants approaches the same level of interest exhibited over the decades by Terrence Malick. The beauty of sky and sea, imagined in the quiet, placid calm and the roiling, tumultuous chaos, engages the senses in a way that verbal expression cannot approach.

The Sessions

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Sessions

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Award season exuberance follows “The Sessions” like an adorable puppy dog, but director Ben Lewin’s sharp exploration of one man’s quest to dispense with his virginity before his “use by date” mostly steers clear of the inevitable platitudes of affirmation that accompany so many movies in which able-bodied actors portray the disabled. John Hawkes will have to tally more votes than Daniel Day-Lewis to win an Oscar, and one of the trivial anecdotes sure to be noted in the likely event that Hawkes find himself nominated is that his “Lincoln” castmate collected his first Academy Award playing “My Left Foot” artist and poet Christy Brown.

Based on the experiences of tenacious Berkeley, California resident Mark O’Brien, a victim of childhood polio confined to an iron lung for all but an hour or so on any given day, “The Sessions” focuses on the adult O’Brien’s desire to reconcile his religious faith with his drive to experience sexual intercourse. Lewin maximizes the comic mileage inherent in the juxtaposition of erotic curiosity and Roman Catholic Church doctrine. William H. Macy, as the priest who eagerly counsels O’Brien, endorses the quest, saying, “In my heart, I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one.” O’Brien goes on to hire Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate.

In Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” O’Brien says, “My ambition as a journalist is to be able to write about anything. I know I’ll always be asked to write about disability…  but I think of an actor like Danny Glover, who doesn’t play ‘black’ men all the time. He just plays men.” Hawkes’ performance, due in no small measure to the weight of O’Brien’s own words, allows the viewer to see O’Brien not as a disabled man but as a man. Hawkes makes the tremendous effort to accomplish the physical transformation into O’Brien, but he particularly excels at embodying his subject’s biting sense of humor and clear-eyed lack of self-pity.

Along with Yu’s short film, O’Brien’s 1990 essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” shares indispensable insight into the psychological and emotional dimensions of the events dramatized by Lewin in “The Sessions.” Archived on O’Brien’s website, the brief essay describes in clear prose both the procedure O’Brien followed to arrange the sessions with Cohen Greene and the psychological barriers he surmounted to get past imagining himself as damaged and deformed. The article and documentary touch on aspects of O’Brien’s life, particularly his relationship with his parents, not explored in the dramatization.

If “The Sessions” fails on any level to meet the high standards set by O’Brien’s directness and honesty, it is in Lewin’s struggle to understand Cohen Greene’s psychologically challenging line of work. The viewer is told that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution, but the director struggles to articulate to what extent Mark transcends his position as a client. We also experience domestic tension between Cheryl and her husband Josh (Adam Arkin), and even if a great deal is deliberately left unsaid by the filmmaker, the audience is not invited to understand Cohen Greene to the same degree as O’Brien.

Flight

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Flight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Flight” is a tale of two movies. In the first, technical craftsman and special effects-focused veteran Robert Zemeckis constructs a lollapalooza of a doomed commercial airliner crisis. In the second, Denzel Washington battles the demons of alcoholism in an old-school social morality play. Altogether, the movie’s running time comes in at just under two hours and twenty minutes, a mark of its unnecessary sense of self-importance, but audience members looking for a character study could do worse than what amounts to a made-for-TV, grown-up after-school special enhanced by the presence of an A-list star and a huge production budget.

Boozehounds are attractive to actors for a variety of reasons, and potential award recognition probably ranks on the list. Nine men have won Oscars playing alcoholics from a pool of many more nominations. Tim Dirks, Emanuel Levy and others have pointed out that all five 1983 Academy Award Best Actor nominees played “drunks of one kind or another.” As a two-time Oscar winner, Washington doesn’t need any more golden hardware to remind us of his status, but his turn as Captain Whip Whitaker has a good shot at earning his sixth performance nomination.

The dependably watchable Washington is surrounded by a group of terrific supporting players, including Bruce Greenwood as a pilot union representative, Kelly Reilly as the recovering addict who moves in with Whip post-crash, and John Goodman as a funny, scene-stealing Dr. Feelgood. Unsurprisingly, Don Cheadle makes a perfect criminal defense attorney brought in to help exonerate Whip by, among other things, working to suppress a damning toxicology report. Cheadle’s Hugh Lang makes no secret of his disgust at Whip’s irresponsibility, and the actor’s handful of scenes with Washington remind viewers of their chemistry in the excellent “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

One of the most thought-provoking questions raised by John Gatins’ screenplay seriously considers whether Whip’s chemically altered state actually prevented a greater loss of life. Lang explains that pilots in ten FAA simulations of the crash failed to successfully land, but for whatever reason, Whitaker was able to avoid total catastrophe – even though several people lost their lives. “Flight” flirts not so much with the possibility of divine intervention, but rather the existential crisis that arises when Whitaker must decide whether to accept responsibility or allow someone else – a very specific, innocent someone else – to take the fall for the vodka bottles found in the aircraft’s trash.

Even though the movie will almost certainly be missing as an in-flight airline viewing option, I’ll take Zemeckis films with flesh and blood performers over soulless, uncanny valley motion capture animation any day. The last live-action movie Zemeckis made was “Cast Away,” in 2000. That film also featured a terrifying plane crash sequence. That said, “Flight” relies too often on formulaic explorations of the distance between heroism and the need for redemption. Whip’s post-crash struggles to stop drinking, even against the increasingly tense backdrop of the ongoing federal investigation and an upcoming NTSB hearing that will determine the captain’s fate, simply cannot compete with the initial rush of the movie’s thrilling depiction of every traveler’s worst nightmare.

Wreck-It Ralph

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Wreckitralph

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Providing a ray of hope for the future of videogame-as-movie and vice versa, Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” carries on the company’s once-automatic tradition of churning out art-meets-commerce product that attracts the kids but offers enough charm for the grown-ups.  So much of videogame cinema is littered with the charred remains of titles that failed to bridge the appeal of play with the narrative imagination demanded by the feature film. For every movie that embraces the logic and aesthetics of videogaming there are trash heaps of the forgettable (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), the cacophonous (“Doom”), the misguided (“Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li”), the balding (“Hitman”), the insensible (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), and the certifiable (“Super Mario Bros.”).

And let’s not talk about Uwe Boll at all.

Of course, “Wreck-It Ralph” is not directly based on an existing franchise, so to be fair, its code more closely resembles movies in which videogame culture frames the story, including “Tron,” “WarGames,” “The Last Starfighter,” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” In “Wreck-It Ralph,” the characters that populate the graphically challenged coin-operated arcade machines of the 1980s interact with the more three-dimensionally rendered avatars representing the current state of the art. A universe is carefully constructed and presented with no small debt to the basic premise of “Toy Story.” In fact, Pixar’s influence on “Wreck-It Ralph” is so strong, one can imagine some executives wringing hands that the movie wasn’t released under that banner.

John C. Reilly lends his voice to the title character, a Donkey Kong-like heavy in the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” Tired of being the bad guy in the Sisyphean world of re-starts and endless lives, Ralph attends a therapy group for other heels who must cope with the knowledge that medals for heroism lie forever out of reach. When Ralph decides he can take no more, he abandons his game. This grave breach, referred to by videogame cabinet inhabitants as “going turbo,” threatens “Fix-It Felix Jr.” with permanent “out of order” status. Even worse, if a character dies outside of the game to which he or she belongs, there are no more second and third chances.

Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the rights and clearances team for “Wreck-It Ralph” surely wrote another chapter in the book covering cross-platform, competing company synergy. Cameo appearances from vintage pixel stars like Pac-Man, the Tapper bartender, Q*Bert, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser/King Koopa, and Zangief provide the nerdy recognition factor for older filmgoers, but the moviemakers keep the primary focus on the quartet that includes Ralph, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Felix (Jack McBrayer), and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). A villain also emerges in Alan Tudyk’s King Candy, whose close resemblance to Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter will endear some and infuriate others.

Silverman’s sassy, hyperactive smartmouth lives in a racing game called Sugar Rush, and her status as a “glitch,” conforms to another of Disney’s most cherished traditions: the picked-on outsider whose initially undesirable differences will be affirmed as assets en route to the lesson that everyone has value. Like many of her corporate kin, Vanellope can be anyone she wants to be and do anything she sets out to accomplish, no matter the “disability” hidden in her programming. While the outcomes for Vanellope and Ralph can be guessed by the viewer long before the retro-styled Buckner & Garcia song plays over the end credits, director Rich Moore makes the journey entertaining for gamers and non-gamers alike.

By the way, for everyone keeping track of high scores, the greatest videogame movie of all time remains “The King of Kong.”