Archive for April, 2013

The Impossible (2012)

Starring- Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

Director- Juan Antonio Bayona

PG-13- intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgw394ZKsis

The Impossible is another film about which the question of how good it is isn’t particularly interesting to me. Point A to Point B — what it wants to do vs. how well it executes that goal — it’s decent. Not stellar. But decent.

But as far as my thought processes go, The Impossible has morphed into something a lot more all-encompassing than a single film standing on its own and doing its own thing, which I realize simultaneously does it no favors and is in some small way flawed thinking on my own part to begin with. The questions it’s got me asking go way beyond it — way beyond its own intent, even. How balanced is our approach to these stories? Should that imbalance affect everyone equally until the playing field is leveled? Heck — why do we make movies like this anyway?

In 2004, a tsunami struck coastal nations along the Indian ocean. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters on record, killing over 230,000 people.

Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their three children are tourists in Thailand when the tsunami arrives. The family is separated in the chaos, with at least one member — Maria — suffering grievous injuries.

The Impossible is the true story of their survival during and after the catastrophe, separated from one another and stranded in a nation with which they are unfamiliar, where they don’t speak the language, and where they are but five among thousands of displaced and injured people.

I think films like these often end up being one of two things: sentimental weepies, and nihilistic misery-fests. I dislike both routes for varying reasons — the first because it somewhat cynically uses compassion as a tool rather than an end and twists the whole thing around to being emotional spectacle where the sadness is part of the entertainment; and the second because it’s cruel and difficult and often without reason.

And while The Impossible definitely has some “sentimental weepy” in it, I’ve retroactively come to appreciate it a bit more for the ways in which it deviates from the norm and keeps itself from wholesale taking either of the two approaches.

It dodges the former simply by being as unflinching as it is. Most such inspirational, sad-uplifting dramas soften the blows throughout the film, smoothing over the distressing bits so that the audience is only perturbed enough that the happy ending will be more of a rush.

The Impossible, though… It’s a brutal, brutal film, and I mean that in a very complimentary sense. And in fact, I have absolutely no idea on this Earth how it sneaked away with a PG-13 rating. Sneaked away might not even be the right phrase; The Impossible caught the MPAA with its pants down.

We see raw, open wounds, thick, dark blood streaming from them. We see bodies in varying states of disarray strewn everywhere. When the characters’ bodies finally reject all the debris and seawater they swallowed during the initial surge, we see every miserable second of it. Infection sets in; when Maria’s health is at its worst, she’s a husk of a human being, pale and sickly with red eyes and dark blotches where her veins ought to be.

The Impossible does not want for honesty when it comes to the aftermath of natural disasters. It doesn’t smooth it over or sanitize it or find some way to glorify it as action-packed spectacle. This film was one of the toughest sits I experienced all year.

And the other temptation these films face is the more nihilistic option, the one where the disaster brings out everyone’s inner hardcore survivalist and pits them all against each other, ultimately bring all but a few to ruin and finding little if any hope in the situation.

The refreshing thing about The Impossible is not only that it doesn’t do this but that it is backed up by reality in that decision. Contrary to what other such films assert, human beings, in the wake of disasters, have a tendency to band together and help one another. And in The Impossible, that’s almost exclusively what we see — injured and bleeding, Maria and one of her sons risk the second wave that for all they know is coming to rescue a small child entangled in debris. A father searching for his family gives up a cell phone with a dying battery to another man so that he can let his own relatives know he’s okay. Random strangers find and tend to those still alive in the wreckage, giving what little they have to the cause of keeping them alive. If there’s any sense in which The Impossible begins to make a case for its existence, this is it.

Beyond these factors, I must also admit that The Impossible sets itself apart from most of such fare simply by its sheer technical prowess. It’s the type of film that in one scene after another has you asking, “How on Earth did they do that?”

In theory, it can’t all be real; they didn’t just flood a village and have all the actors try to swim through it. But the things in the frame that are real keep you constantly wondering where the CGI begins and ends. It’s a seamless mixture of practical and special effects, and the fact that you can’t tell which one is being used at which juncture is a testament to the craftsmanship behind this thing.

Of course, it has its problems. And the main one is the fact that it tends to feel more like a dramatic reenactment on one of the History Channel’s many natural disaster shows. Technically, it’s far superior, obviously. But the writing doesn’t always match that. Some scenes — particularly the ones that precede the disaster — have an unscripted feel. The dialogue tends to amount to: “Wow, kids! Look at that big ocean! Wow, how pretty! It certainly is nice to be on vacation with my family!”

And, of course, like such TV shows, the movie knows it’s a disaster movie right from the beginning, and it’s constantly foreshadowing this with long, ominous shots of the ocean. I have the same problem with most horror movies — breaking the normalcy of the characters’ lives is most effective if there’s normalcy to break, and the audience needs to feel that as much as understand it intellectually.

But like I said early on — the bigger question for me is what place The Impossible and films like it occupy in the human creative experience and whether or not they ought to be occupying it.

It’s never a question of whether I’m opposed to such stories being told. I’m not; let there be no mistake. There’s nothing, really, in all of the world about which I think we should not tell stories, but we need to approach certain things very cautiously, with questions of “why” and “how.”

I think there’s a tendency, sometimes, to commit significant parts of our history to film simply because they are significant parts of our history. That’s not necessarily objectionable, but when it comes to our greatest tragedies — which this particular event undoubtedly was — there needs to be an almost impossible amount of measurement to it.

I think that art is a great way for people to deal with tragedies like this, and an even better way to figure out what it all means for us as the collective human race. I think, for some of the reasons outlined above, that it would be unfair to characterize The Impossible as mere emotional spectacle; it’s not without compassion, and it doesn’t shy away from the worst of it. But it has some of that structure within it, and it doesn’t entirely resist it. At the end, it tries to pull off some uplift and rejoicing, and it’s earned that right, but there’s a sense that it’s a bit tepid, going for the big happy ending while also realizing that many of the people involved in this tragedy didn’t get one and being unsure what to do with the fact.

In that sense, maybe it’s more representative of the average person’s feelings toward events like this than I’m giving it credit. But, for me, The Impossible feels like it has little to say about this tragedy and like it’s not necessarily trying to stare it in the face and work through it either. In some small way, I think it’s trying to give people comfort; it’s trying to find an uplifting story in this mess. But it does so in a way that feels desperate, reaching, finding a story that would bring hope mainly to those who lost a lot but not quite everything.

And as much as I tried with every inch of me not to cave into the impulse to criticize The Impossible on this level, I feel like I have to, because it’s related — the film’s choices in the, um, racial department tie into this.

I don’t think it’s being mean. I don’t think it’s catering to white America by cynically thinking, “They won’t relate to brown people going through this.” I think, in fact, that this is a true story that really happened and that there were people of all races who experienced it. All of them deserve to have their stories told.

Of course, this raises its own set of questions. If someone wanted to make the movie that told those people’s stories, would it get made? The way Hollywood works right now, probably not. And the next question emerges from that — is it wrong to tell these stories simply because the other people who experienced these events don’t have the same voice yet? My answer to that is no, because I don’t see that improving the situation. And yet, my discomfort persists. I can’t blame The Impossible for this. These events happened, and the people involved have an absolute right to tell their story if so desired.

What I do fault The Impossible for is the fact that the suffering shown here doesn’t seem to affect the natives at all. Everyone in this is a white tourist — the bodies we see lying around, the people we see fighting to survive during the tsunami, the people we see being wheeled into the hospital, etc. The only natives we see are a resort employee at the beginning, a family that helps the protagonists later on and staff members of the hospital.

I understand that the story is about this particular family. That part I’m fine with. What I don’t understand is why it’s the carnage, rather than the story itself, that ends up getting whitewashed.

And this brings me back to the point I was attempting to make. I don’t think this is a cynical thing where some lazy and uncaring executive decided that American audiences won’t care if they see a racial minority suffer or die. On the contrary —  I think it was a concern that they’d care too much. That the ultimate hope they were attempting to find in this story would be undone if some of the greater tragedy was brought to the surface. Part of the hope in the story is the possibility that this family, reunited, will return home, move on with their lives, and find healing. It would rapidly undo that to focus on some of the others — people who lost literally everything, family and possessions, in the tsunami, people who in many cases lived in poverty before and may permanently do so now. These are the people who have to continue living in the wreckage, continue dealing with the entirety of the aftermath — the displaced, the wounded, the lonely. They have to clean it up, to genuinely start anew.

I think the film knows this, and it’s part of why it gets so tepid. It’s possible, in the closing scene, that the moments the characters share imply the struggle that they’re leaving behind. It implies that they are the lucky ones, that others will continue to dwell in far worse suffering. If that is the case, though, I still might argue that it’s conveyed poorly, partially because it stays so personal and doesn’t take on broader implications and partially because it mostly steered clear of the local devastation, of the longer-lasting impacts. It doesn’t have much to say about this. And my speculation may be entirely off-base here, but it also appears to be avoiding having to face some of it, to try to make sense of it.

I don’t believe The Impossible is a bad film, and lest any of the above paragraphs convey my opinion falsely, I don’t believe it is anything near an immoral one either. But I also wonder whether it grasps the scope of the tragedy well enough to truly make it worth watching it dramatized. Its emphasis on human kindness and togetherness, as well as its refusal to flinch away from some of the worst of such tragedies’ effects on the mind, body, and spirit, sets it well above other films of its type. But while it might not aspire to be the definitive film about this event, it inadvertently assumes that position, and I’m not sure it holds up under the burden.

 

-Matt T.

Les Miserables (2012)

Starring- Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone

Director- Tom Hooper

PG-13- suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmvHzCLP6ug

You never really want to dislike a movie, but Les Miserables more than most. It clearly wants to be a good movie, even a great one, and it takes risks and chances and steps to pull it off. On top of that, it’s a thing of such emotional fragility that it seems like it’ll collapse in sobbing misery if subjected even to the slightest criticism, so to dislike it outright makes you feel like a bad person.

But when something doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for me, and Les Miserables just didn’t work for me.

I should preface this by saying that Les Miserables is one of those classic stories with which I personally have extremely limited familiarity. Most people know it through the play, and I’m not much of a theatre person, so it’s somewhat beyond my realm of expertise. As for the book, well, that one’s my fault entirely. Sorry.

The point is that some of my issues with this film may well be fundamental parts of the source material that it couldn’t easily excise. At the same time, a problem with the story is a problem with the story — at least, insofar as I personally find it to be a problem.

Based on the famous Victor Hugo novel — but far more on the arguably more famous musical into which it was adapted — Les Miserables begins in revolutionary France with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as a prisoner, the result of stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew. He’s released after serving his time — though is still under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) — and resolves, following an act of kindness from a local priest, to become an honest man.

Breaking parole, he disappears, creates a new identity, and soon becomes the beloved mayor of a nearby town — a role that’s shattered when Javert moves in.

Valjean is forced back on the run, but having made a promise to a former employee (Anne Hathaway), he must maintain the appearance of honesty in order to care for her young daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) — even as the fires of revolution begin to blaze anew.

There are a lot of great things about Les Miserables. They tend to manifest more as moments that work quite well rather than consistent threads that run throughout. This movie has a number of distinctly memorable scenes that are still sticking with me even now.

I don’t get to see many movies in theaters; this one, like many others, I had to catch on DVD. My favorite scene in the film is actually the one they use as the background for the DVD menu. I threw the disc in, turned on the TV, and was immediately greeted with the following sight: a silent funeral procession, moving through the convincingly rendered streets of revolutionary France. The only sound is a drumbeat. Then, a single voice:

Can you hear the people sing,

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.

   More voices join in — an entire chorus of them, still singing softly. Then, the music kicks in, and it gets louder, and there are more voices. The crowd swarms the procession, leaping atop the carriages, and pretty soon, everyone’s shouting, and the music is filling the room, and flags are waving everywhere. I think I watched this three or four times before I said, “Oh, right, the movie,” and actually started the thing.

Nothing else in it really comes close to that, which is disappointing — especially for me, because despite the lukewarm critical reviews, that moment had me one hundred percent ready to love this thing. The movie’s got a couple more decent scenes — the opening is appropriately huge in scale and filmed for every ounce of its visual spectacle, for instance — but most of it hangs more or less around mediocrity.

And there are a few things that do go well on the whole, consistently throughout the film. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, for instance, are absolutely hilarious. It turns out that if you take old jokes and tell them in song, they suddenly become side-splitters again. The mixture of Cohen’s timing and Jack-Sparrow-esque presence with musical theatre is superb. The period setting is convincing, and whatever CGI is used to fill in the edges is pretty seamless; I couldn’t tell where it began or ended. And, of course, the music is great, and so’s the singing — mostly. There’s been some debate on the subject, but I’m completely in favor of having had the actors perform it live. It allows them to work with the rhythm and flow of the music while keeping the emotion consistent and weaving it in and out of the lyrics and notes. It leads to some vocal imperfections, sure, but I don’t mind — in fact, musically, I tend to prefer a little roughness in my singing; it lends it humanity and vulnerability.

However.

I’m not sure if this comes from the play or not. Again, I’m not a theatre guy. But my experience with theatre has been that, usually, there’s some singing, and then they’ll at least talk for a little bit. With this movie, nearly everything is sung aside from a throwaway line here and there. And I do mean everything. There are multiple scenes where characters are merely introducing themselves to each other, and they’re singing this. It leads to some forced rhymes and some less interesting musicianship. A lot of the lyrical poetry drains out, and the music gets somewhat obligatory, going every which way seemingly without reason. The big numbers — the famous songs — are all pretty much spot-on, but the little interludes rapidly wear thin. And maybe it does come from the play — fine. But for those reasons, I wouldn’t have liked it much there either. There’s great music here, and lots of it, but there’s so much more average music that the two drown one another out and fade the more memorable moments from the mind by the time the movie’s over.

I also need to talk about the acting.

On one level, I think the acting in this movie is really spectacular (particularly vocally, as far as a few cast members are concerned). I also think it’s simultaneously very ineffective.

I say that because, on one hand, it takes a ton of talent to pull off the kinds of things the actors in this film accomplish. On the other hand, there is a difference between signing a sad song and hyperventilating in sobbing hysterics while slobbering all over the camera, and the latter happens way more in this movie.

I think those things really illustrate my central problem overall with Les Miserables — it’s simply too much. Every emotion is a huge emotion; every problem is a huge problem; all love is true love; every song is a big song. The movie, well meaning though it is, turns into an emotional and auditory battering ram directly to the forehead that slams you repeatedly for two-and-a-half hours until, finally, it ends. It’s exhausting; I was spent after maybe only an hour because I’d completely run out of emotion to give this movie, though it still had plenty more happiness and sadness and tragedy and triumph to ask of me. Every emotion is handled in so many of the same broad strokes that the entire movie starts to blend together at a certain point; you start thinking, “Okay, seen it.”

It becomes something of an assault, so desperate for the audience to love it that it practically reaches out of the screen, clawing at you and begging for affection. It’s such a well-meaning thing that you give it to it, at first, but after two hours of that, you begin to wonder why it’s making you do all the work. Much of the film feels transparently manipulative — and again, I don’t know how much of that is taken from the book and/or play. But surely the deaths could feel less obligatory? Less like a cliché at a certain point? Maybe said deaths could meaningfully affect the plot and characters? Maybe one of those deaths could seem like something other than an easy fix for interpersonal drama?

It seems like a silly thing to say about a movie called Les Miserables, but there’s far too much misery for misery’s sake in this story.

At the same time, its heart is more or less in the right place, and its obsession with misery is moderated well enough by its fixation on goodness and hope. Acts of kindness and mercy ripple throughout the plot, sometimes in the long rather than short term, and they set up some of its most positive developments. It’s all just a little much, is all.

On the whole, if you like the play, I have a feeling you’re reading this review and thinking, “Okay, and the problem is…?” And that’s fine. Honestly, as long as people are finding meaning in the artistic process, it doesn’t much matter to me what you like. Les Miserables is, in its own way, quite a show; it’s just a question of how much show you’ve got into. It has its moments of invention and clear good intentions. It’s big, bombastic, and epic — it’s just a little more of all three of those things than I’m able to stomach.

 

-Matt T.

Life of Pi (2012)

Starring- Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Balur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Ayaan Khan, Mohd. Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Sivakumar, Rafe Spall

Director- Ang Lee

PG- emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZEZ35Fhvuc

This much is certain: Life of Pi is a singular experience.

This — this — is why I can almost never properly answer such questions as, “Did you like it?” or, worse still, “Is it any good?” This is why I must always respond with a number of qualifications about various aspects of the film; my feelings about anything are rarely black and white.

If you were to ask me, right now — “Is Life of Pi the best film of the year?” — I’m not certain how I’d answer that. Yes, no, maybe, never, of course — in some ways, yes, in other ways, no.

Life of Pi is beauty. It is tragedy. It is horror. It is relief. It is loneliness. It is love. It is nature. It is grace. It is, well…life.

It’s wondrous. And flawed. As is anything.

I think I’ve decided, at the very least, that of the films I’ve seen so far this year, from conception to execution, Lincoln is probably the least flawed of 2012’s output, whatever that means. Indeed, even something like The Avengers is probably less flawed, at least in execution, than Life of Pi. And other films as well.

But sometimes, films reveal themselves to you long after they’re done — days later, even — in a way that’s so simple it’s amazing you were ever conflicted about them, and yet so subtle that it seems only natural.

And about five days after seeing Life of Pi, I realized that the fact that I was still thinking about it at all meant that, my handful of frustrations aside, what I had seen was something special.

It’s more flawed than other films, too. But it’s also far more interesting on every level. And its flaws emerge in such a way that they somehow make it even more interesting, even more human. Life of Pi could just as easily be re-titled Life of Humanity; the experience of it is so universal and so well captured. Its rough edges only serve to emphasize its humanness.

As the film opens, an unnamed man referred to only as The Writer (Rafe Spall) is visiting another man, named Pi (Irrfan Khan), in search of inspiration, after being told that Pi has a story that will make one believe in God.

“I will tell my story, and you will decide what you believe,” Pi says.

As a young man — played then by Suraj Sharma — Pi lived in India with his family, the owners of a zoo. When life in India becomes more complicated, the family decides to move to Canada, selling the animals once there in order to start a new life.

Along the way, the ship encounters a violent storm and is wrecked. In the resulting chaos, Pi finds himself stranded at sea, alone aboard a single lifeboat.

Well, not quite alone. A somewhat unwelcome visitor stows away on the vessel — a Bengal tiger affectionately dubbed Richard Parker, due to a somewhat amusing clerical error.

Since Pi can’t very well wrestle the beast overboard, the two must learn to live together — particularly given that there probably isn’t a less manageable tiger than one that’s starving.

As a young child, Pi is fascinated by religion and seems to look upon all of them with the same amount of awe and wonderment. He’s raised Hindu, but he becomes fascinated with the figure of Jesus Christ after an encounter with a friendly monk in the mountains. Islam, too, captivates him. He sees no conflict and instead practices all three, sometimes simultaneously.

Some have seen fit to interpret the film as suggesting an equality and universalism between these three religions, and all others, while others have called the vagueness of Pi’s religious habits a problem with the film. This, to me, misses what seems to be the point of the film, and the fact that these very traits are what make Pi the perfect vessel for it.

As I said previously, Life of Pi is an apt title for the film, and is, in fact, possibly an understatement. This is a film about the human spiritual journey. That Pi is some sort of universalist makes him the perfect character to represent humanity’s journey forward in its search for purpose, meaning, and enlightenment. There’s a universality to the film — a broadness that remains as such without becoming so general that the film loses its focus. It’s not a film for Christians or Hindus or Muslims; it’s a film for all of them. It is a film for those of other religions as well. Even atheists, in Pi’s progress toward self-actualization, can find themselves in his story, I think.

It is a coming-of-age story in the traditional sense, a journey to adulthood that seems to pass through all the stages and possibilities of life as it goes. The ocean seems to encapsulate the whole of existence. There is darkness in it; there is also light. There is danger, but there is also kindness and freedom. There is ugliness and violence, and it is mitigated by transcendent beauty. There is loss and brokenness, but there with it is hope and growth. There is sin and tragedy; forgiveness and triumph wait on its heels.

While learning of Hinduism, Pi is told the story of the gods, how one looked into the mouth of another and saw the universe there. At one point, when Pi looks into the water, he sees something similar — something transcendent, something beautiful, something good, but also something violent, something broken, something ugly. Life of Pi is able to accomplish these moods not only in the same film, but sometimes at the same time.

Everything in the film is beautiful, but it never comes at the price of the inherent tragedy of what Pi has lost, of the loneliness and isolation he feels, of the possibility that help may never come. When a leaping whale destroys many of Pi’s food stores, it does so in a luminous array of light and color. When Pi faces down the knowledge of how far from civilization he truly is, it happens in empty loneliness — conveyed as a still and glassy see, a mirror that leaves him floating in clouds. An island with dark secrets is seen as a mossy, green oasis populated by friendly meerkats and dotted with deep, inviting pools. How quickly it turns.

Even the sinking of the ship: it’s fierce and exciting when it happens, even as it is ferocious and terrifying. When Pi goes beneath the waves, he sees it sinking, the lights shining — blurred — through the water and blinking out one at a time, a tragic and yet strangely beautiful sight.

Life of Pi sees existence as a complex and confusing series of emotions, and it manages never to get lost in the muddle. It covers every spectrum of human feeling, one to the next, almost always earning it, almost always following through to the best of its ability. It is a dreamlike and transcendent journey, steeped in metaphor and symbolism.

Not only does the journey propel Pi toward adulthood, it also becomes a means of seeking after God. This, too, mirrors so much of humankind’s relationship with and chasing after of the unknown, passing through seemingly every stage.

Pi’s relationship with the divine fluctuates. He is hopeful when it is easy to do so. When hope fades, he feels abandoned by God and demands to know what it is he did wrong, what it is he ought to be learning from all of the tragedy and suffering he has endured. The storms eventually wind around to strengthening his resolve — overly so. He becomes something near a zealot, more dangerous and reckless even than the tiger with which he shares a vessel. On and on and on it goes. It is implied that on the island, occurrences are symbolic of Pi facing himself and what he’s become and deciding what he wants to be, leaving behind the awful things he’s done and pressing on — perhaps hopelessly, but it doesn’t matter. He’s made his choice. He’s chosen something spiritual — whether God or something within, who can say?

Here, too, the film’s juxtaposition of emotional states weaves wonders. Pi feels constantly disconnected from God, isolated. Is God there? Is he real? Is Pi’s faith a delusion? He has to ask these questions because all around him, there’s only more ocean. Hope arrives, and then fades.

And yet, there are wonders at every turn, many of them unseen by Pi but known to the audience. They feel like foreshadowing at a certain point, a subtle but nagging suggestion that, as awful as things have become, God has not left Pi. Pi’s journey becomes something akin to his forty days in the desert — not a period of testing, though, for he will surely fail, but of growth.

This, of course, is where things get quite controversial. No film, I think, has ever provoked as much conversation based on a single five-minute stretch of its run-time — not recently, at least. And aside from The Sixth Sense, no film jumps out at me as having an ending that so powerfully changes one’s perspective on what transpired before as what Life of Pi has.

I won’t spoil it. But it results in a question: “Which story do you prefer?” And, after The Writer answers, Pi says, “And so it goes with God.”

One common criticism is that this answer is a cop-out, a cheat on the audience’s time and investment. I disagree with this. The film is steeped in metaphor, symbolism, and dream-like imagery. The ending contextualizes it and, if anything, makes it far more interesting, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I spent a long time wrestling with this ending, trying to figure out what it meant, if it could truly be so miserable as it appeared. What is being suggested by this? It seemed to set up an impossible and wretched choice: God, which it seemed to think a delusion, a coping mechanism for tragedy adopted by humanity because it’s the better story; on unbelief, which it seemed to think fundamentally nihilistic, hopeless, and without point or worth beyond basic survival.

It left me thinking of Life of Pi as a good film, possibly a great one, with plenty of emotional and intellectual interest but an ending that is hollow and not nearly so affirming as even the darkest and most wretched moments in the rest of its run-time. I could not find any hope in the conclusion at which it seemed to arrive.

Of course, with time, I’ve come to see it differently, and it all hinges upon a realization that, again, is quite simple but somehow elusive: the stories from which we are asked to choose are the same stories. And because of that, their ultimate conclusion is an affirmation of hope, the human spirit, and redemption.

It is possible that the story Pi tells is the truth and that his other story is a lie designed to assuage the skeptics — or perhaps to persuade them of the other’s validity. In that case, the hopefulness is clear.

The other possibility is that the second story is what truly happened, in which case the first is simply a metaphor for it. That, judging by the characters’ reactions in the film, is the worst-case scenario.

And yet, if they are indeed the same story, then every inch of redemption, beauty, growth, and spirituality you saw in the first is also in the second. The fact that it is possibly a metaphor does not change this.

In fact, the second story possibly makes it more powerful, when you look beyond the surface awfulness of it. In that story, Pi goes to even darker places, does even more awful things, and experiences even more tragedy. But still, on the island — which I’m certain, if this interpretation is correct, is the crux of his entire journey — Pi looks in the mirror, and he chooses goodness. He chooses redemption, and to move on. The man we see at the beginning of the film is no wreck. He has experienced much. He has been hurt greatly. It is possible he has hurt others greatly. But he has come to terms with this, and he has turned his eyes forward, to a life that he has the power to make better.

Of course, this being the case, it raises the question of why the film makes that inquiry at all. If they are the same story — and there appears to be little doubt that they are — then what is the choice? Perhaps the film asks this question knowingly, understanding that the answer is “both,” but if it does, it gives little sign of it. It comes across almost as a false choice, two options that are not mutually exclusive. And, thus, the follow-up statement — “And so it goes with God” — becomes even more baffling, because the question of God’s existence does not necessarily hinge upon the answers with which we are presented.

This is possibly something that repeat viewings will unearth. As of right now, it seems a bit of a muddle. But one thing is for certain — as dark as Life of Pi becomes (and it carries, at times, even darker implications), it has unwavering faith in the human spirit, in the ability of people to be redeemed, to choose goodness and mercy and hope regardless of circumstances.

It speaks to the human condition almost universally. Whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, or perhaps simply uncertain, mankind’s journey toward wholeness is reflected rather beautifully here. In my case, it took quite some time — days — before I moved from being incredibly frustrated with this movie to being in love with it, warts and all. But it has become something that, while a bit frustrating, is also incredibly satisfying and moving on a multitude of levels.

The question of its rank against the other films of the year is a pointless one. Life of Pi is uneven and wobbly, rough around the edges, and it is also a thing of breathtaking beauty whose flaws come near to giving it character. There is power in this story. I’m not certain I’ve seen anything like it before.

 

-Matt T.

Hitchcock (2012)

Starring- Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johannson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith, Ralph Macchio

Director- Sacha Gervasi

PG-13- some violent images, sexual content and thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rQuRLERl6A

Hitchcock is an entertaining enough piece of work. But lurking under the surface at almost every juncture are glimpses of the great movie it could’ve been, attempting to push and prod their way out.

The central problem, I suppose, is this: the man himself was a very distinct, memorable, and interesting figure. The film about him is not nearly as much so.

The film follows the infamous director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) through the production of Psycho, what would arguably become his most famous film.

Fresh off the success of North by Northwest, “Hitch” finds himself feeling old, like the industry is already drawing plans to force him out. He wants to do something new, something fresh.

The book Psycho catches his eye. Based on a series of real-life serial killings, it has the appropriate number of dark twists and turns. Of course, the Hollywood censors have never seen anything like it and are unlikely to give it their approval, which is the same reason why the studio won’t fund it.

But Hitch is undeterred. Determined to finance the film himself, a troubled production, upon which he has staked his entire career — on top of his home and possessions — begins.

Hitchcock treats its title character’s filmmaking process as a way of living out his own fantasies and working out his own problems, which feels right. Every human being harbors dark recesses, he says.

The production of Psycho, as portrayed here, seems to mirror Hitch’s relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). The two of them are playing their own game; she’s trying not to fall in love with a writer, played by Danny Huston, who gives her attention and affection Hitch does not, and Hitch’s obsession with his leading ladies is starting to become a fantasy of its own. The two of them become involved in an increasingly hypocritical and occasionally childish contest of wills.

And as much as the parallels are interesting and have potential, the film never really explores them the way it could. The production of Psycho gets phased out gradually, and the focus returns more and more to the marriage relationship.

It’s not a bad relationship; it’s not utterly flat, and it doesn’t ring false. But it feels mundane, pedestrian, something that’s been seen before and done better in other films. Alfred Hitchcock was a fascinating figure, a fact that was exposed by the films he made as much as anything else. And in fact, exploring his relationship with his wife in the context of a movie has the potential to work very well. Hitchcock’s filmography had a lot to say about his attitude toward women, little of it good. Hitchcock women, even when they were portrayed heroically, as in North by Northwest (well, after a fit) and Notorious, were often covert and deception, manipulating the emotions of men to accomplish some larger goal.

It raises two questions: firstly, how is the psychology and nuance and functionality of this romantic relationship so very ordinary? Of course, the standout figures of history were in many cases less interesting than the record made them out to be, but the fact that the man in this film is Alfred Hitchcock has little to do with anything emotionally. It could’ve been anyone. It’s about aging, it’s about romance going stale, it’s about losing one’s passion in life, it’s about the search for purpose — all good things, but the fact, again, that it’s about Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t seem to put a new spin on any of these angles.

One must remember: this is the man who would go on to essentially torment Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds and subsequently ruin her career. It wasn’t the first time he did such a thing to an actor, either — particularly, again, if they were women. After all, it was Hitchcock who famously said, “Actors are cattle.”

The man who would do those things is not the man in this film. He certainly has an obsession with his actresses, and it’s a touch creepy, but it’s more puppy love than anything. As unstable as he comes across, he rarely seems capable of causing them genuine harm — at least, not in the cause of ensuring that his movie is perfect. The end of the film, to some extent, sees him moving past that — but of course, the production of The Birds was yet to come.

It’s difficult to speculate about the inner workings of a long-dead man you never knew, but surely he was somewhat more distinct than he is here? Surely, there was more on his mind, more driving him, more informing his personality, than this?

Of course, Hitchcock invents a reason, and it’s not a good one. It implies that Hitch has become fixated on the killer on whom his film is based. Said killer converses with him in his mind, the suggestion being that Hitch is also in danger of becoming a violent psychopath as control over his life and future begins to slip through his fingers. Of course, we’ve no way of knowing if this actually happened, and the film doesn’t make the greatest argument for it, seemingly including it only because it’s dramatic and interesting and provides the opportunity for more horror-based sequences. It’s a quick and easy step to getting the audience through slow moments, but it doesn’t mean much.

The second question it raises is this: is Psycho really the film through which to contrast Hitch’s work with his private life?

Other films of his are far more psychologically interesting: Vertigo, Rear Window, even North by Northwest. Not that the elements aren’t there in Psycho: the character played by Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) kicks off the plot, through, you guessed it, an act of theft and a series of deceptions that follow, and the villain is driven by an unsettling obsession with his dead mother. But Hitchcock only alludes to the latter element in a perfunctory way and does nothing with the former. You really don’t get the sense that Hitch’s worldview is either informing his films or that his films are informing his worldview; in fact, he seems a touch detached from them, more interested in the sensation and the entertainment and in seeing what he can get past the censors. The only reason I see to select Psycho for this film is that its production was more difficult, and perhaps its place in film history (though an argument could be made for just about any of his films on that last count).

And the production of the film is the best part, unsurprisingly. It’s the place where the legend and the man interact. Seeing him on set, working with his actors, managing the script — the film is at its most entertaining during these moments. His cast and crew have a strange relationship with him, a mixture of awe at his talent and acclaim and slightly humored disbelief at his sporadic childishness, creepily obsessive behavior and seeming inability to interact with other humans in a normal way. My only complaint here is the way the film slowly phases out this aspect, focusing instead on Hitch’s somewhat mundane marriage.

It’s buoyed by a number of great performances, from Anthony Hopkins, from Helen Mirren, from Scarlett Johannson, and from James D’Arcy. There’s a special difficulty in playing characters who were in movies, those who looked and acted a certain way and are known to have looked and acted in that way. Johannson and D’Arcy, perhaps especially, pick up the behaviors and mannerisms of their characters almost perfectly; it’s a shame the latter’s role is so limited in this film. It’s harder to say with Mirren, who does a fine job anyway.

Hopkins is as fantastic as one would expect him to be. He’s not helped, however, by the fact that his voice sounds very little like Hitchcock’s, which was very distinctive and iconic in its own way. Nor is he aided by the unconvincing fat suit.

Hitchcock has its moments. It’s slickly and stylishly directed. When it’s fun, it’s fun, the rare film one might refer to as “devilishly entertaining” in its dark and subversive way. It’s got a good cast that carries it through a lot of rough patches.

In fact, it doesn’t really do much wrong. It just never really sits down and makes a particularly through case that its story needed to be told. Much about it is mundane and ordinary. Alfred Hitchcock, however, was neither of these things.

 

-Matt T.

Red Dawn (2012)

Starring- Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, Edwin Hodge, Brett Cullen, Alyssa Diaz, Julian Alcaraz, Will Yun Lee, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Director- Dan Bradley

PG-13- sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGoe7BdGdlg

Oh, right. Bad movies. I review those, too, sometimes. Well, that streak was going to get broken eventually.

Jed (Chris Hemsworth) and Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) are brothers in a suburban community. The former is a Marine recently returned home. The latter is a hotheaded high school quarterback. Together, they fight crime.

(One of these days, I’ll stop using that joke, but it is not this day.)

What they actually do is fight North Koreans, after they invade the United States out of the blue and soon put the brothers’ entire town on lockdown. A few escape, them included.

Soon, realizing that help will be long in coming, they and a number of other high school students organize into the Wolverines — freedom fighters determined to make military occupation as uncomfortable as possible…for the North Koreans.

I really don’t know what to think of this movie relative to the original 1980s film. On one hand, this new one is, technically speaking, probably an improvement overall. It is also far less entertaining for probably that exact reason.

I can’t decide if I really like the original or think it’s terrible or both at the same time. I don’t usually get on board with the whole “so bad it’s good” thing, and mostly only indulge it out of morbid curiosity. But the original Red Dawn hits that exact right zone for me — deeply earnest, trying to tug on the audience’s heartstrings, trying to mean things. But the acting is bad in that way where it’s not so much wooden as it is wildly overdone, with everyone trying super hard to make every conversation really significant and meaningful, you guys. It really emphasizes a lot of the inherent silliness of suburban teenagers acting like hardened soldiers, like a home movie with a budget. The dialogue is kind of silly, and its symbolic moments about coming of age are frequently just as much so — the deer scene is just cinematic anti-perfection in the best way.

The remake, on the other hand, is just kind of boring.

Like I said, there are senses in which it’s superior to the original. Granted, the whole thing is sunk from the beginning due to a combination of two facts: its self-seriousness, and the audience’s objective knowledge that North Korea is nowhere near capable of accomplishing anything like this. But we’ll skip over that.

It’s got higher production values, for one thing, and the acting has achieved, if not greatness, then at least basic competency. And while its characters aren’t any better developed and may actually have even less personality, the remake does devote some time to introducing most of them prior to the plot actually getting started, unlike the original, which presented its characters pretty much as they were leaping in the back of the truck to safety and hoping we would recognize them by hastily glimpsed facial features that then spent the rest of the film obscured behind camouflage and winter headgear.

Basically, with the remake, you won’t remember their names, but you’ll probably at least be able to identify them more or less on sight.

The problem, though, is that the remake doesn’t really aspire to be anything other than “the original except with higher production values.” It has no real ambitions, adding nothing much to the story and actually excising the few ideas the original did have.

I went into the original thinking to myself, “Okay, it’s going to be a jingoistic, YEE-HAW ‘MURICA movie,” and, well…okay, it was at times, and the fact that it so frequently fell back on that when it ran out of actual drama was one of its major problems. But whether by accident or design, there was a certain point when I realized, to my shock, that it actually appeared to at least be trying to show the effects of war and violence on young people. The ending was kind of tragic, and even if it didn’t feel like it earned that, it still seemed the natural culmination of some point that it was at least halfheartedly trying to make.

In the remake, after a montage-style training session courtesy of Jed, everybody’s a hardened soldier. Only Josh Hutcherson’s character expresses any doubt or revulsion at all about what they’re doing, and even then, for all of one scene. No one else seems much bothered by it and in fact seems to be having a certain amount of fun. This despite the fact that the remake actually adds complications to the overall situation, including former friends and neighbors who comply with the enemy’s demands and render aid.

And for what it’s worth, the North Korean regime here…well, it doesn’t actually seem that bad. Most of the awful things it supposedly does happen off-screen. What we see on-screen is that most of the citizens, the ones who don’t cause trouble, are largely left alone to live their lives as normal. We even see a bunch of Americans casually eating lunch at a Subway restaurant that appears to still be open for business.

I mean, the original went way too far to make its antagonists evil, up to the point that they spent the first ten minutes of the film gunning down civilians for no readily apparent reason. (Granted that, in both films, one is driven to question why the enemy feels the need to devote resources to occupying insignificant little towns like this one that have no noticeable strategic value.) It was over the top and dumb, particularly given that both films seem to perceive themselves as highly realistic, but at least it lent some credence to the fight the Wolverines are waging.

Here, only three Wolverines are blessed with actual motivations in the form of parents who were killed by the invaders. Two of those deaths are off-screen and happen to characters we never meet. The other one we do see, but it occurs as the end result of one of the dumbest acts of self-sacrifice I’ve ever seen in a movie, the sort where the character shouldn’t have any reason to believe it’ll do any good and plenty to believe it’ll do the opposite. And that’s all these deaths are, by the way — motivations. They supply an answer to the question of why these characters are doing this, and nothing else, because they hardly have any effect on anything else for the rest of the movie.

(Also, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to talk about who dies because I don’t like spoiling things when I can avoid it, even when no one’s seeing it for the plot, and because I suspect my problem with this aspect of the film is more unfortunate accident than deliberate hatefulness. Suffice to say that, if you read through the cast, you can form a good death list based on the last names.)

In the end, though, it’s unclear why armed rebellion is totally necessary. And when the remake, like the original, starts to demonize the town’s mayor for complying with the invaders, it feels incredibly hateful. Here’s an invading force that is letting civilians live and go about their lives as usual provided they don’t interfere. If I’m an elected official in that situation, then of course I’m going to be following the enemy commander around, keeping the people who trusted me with their community safe and calm. The character never does anything other than this, by the way; he doesn’t cut deals to keep himself safe or to advance his station, and he continues to keep his people safe even after his doing so becomes a threat to his son, a member of the Wolverines. But because he’s not a part of this semi-terroristic resistance, he’s worthy only of condemnation. What else was he supposed to do?

The remake mostly steers clear of following the original’s plot point-by-point, which is a laudable effort, but it falls flat on its face. It doesn’t replace what it removes and doesn’t, therefore, acquire any twists or turns or new information as the movie goes forward. The plot description above? Yeah, there’s not much I could add to that. It’s yet another film where, at one point, the heroes begin squaring off with the Big Bad midway through an action sequence, and I looked at my clock and said, “Oh, hey, the movie’s been on for two hours; I guess it is just about time for the climax.”

But then, all of a sudden, it comes to a screeching halt and becomes extremely beholden to the original’s plot. It reprises the tracking device scene from the original and uses it to cause one of the major deaths that happened at the end of the first movie. However, this all happens in the last five minutes of the movie and therefore has no effect on anything whatsoever. Move the ending of the movie back five minutes, cut those scenes, and absolutely nothing would change, other than the amount of actors needed to come back for the sequel.

Oh, did I mention that? Yeah, this movie ends with a gratuitous sequel hook, in that it does not end. Awesome.

Like I said, mostly Red Dawn is boring. It’s every bit as self-serious as the original, if not more so, but it’s too competent for that to become amusing. It’s better positioned to have actual ideas than the original was, but it somehow comes out with even fewer. It’s a film without ambitions, which makes its remake status even more questionable. I never thought someone could produce a remake of Red Dawn that would leave me saying, “See the original instead,” but, well…see the original instead.

 

-Matt T.

Anna Karenina (2012)

Starring- Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery, Emily Watson, Holliday Grainger, Shirley Henderson, Bill Skarsgard, Cara Delevingne, Alexandra Roach, Thomas Howes

Director- Joe Wright

R- some sexuality and violence

Anna Karenina is a costume drama in the most traditional sense of the word, and it’s made for people who enjoy that sort of thing. I’m not one of them. Inasmuch as I am equipped to make such a distinction, Anna Karenina is probably a decent costume drama. But, you know. Still a costume drama.

Even when I try to describe the plot of this movie, I find my brain going, “Did I really watch this on purpose?” It’s lust and passion and young love and affairs and betrayal and social stature and social stigma and rich white people in very ornate outfits prancing about in the Victorian era and worrying incessantly about all of the aforementioned things.

In one corner: Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the quietly dissatisfied wife of a prominent politician (Jude Law), whom she married out of convenience and not necessarily love. In the other, young, good-looking, passionate military man Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Your imagination may supply the rest.

I know I’m seeming rather brusque here and that I ordinarily only do that with films that I dislike on such an uninteresting level that I almost feel them unworthy of a review, but I assure you, it’s not the case here. To the extent that it’s actually possible to do so, I honestly think I liked Anna Karenina, if only a little bit. No, my brevity here has far more to do with the fact that I’m not certain I have anything of interest to say about it.

Its strength is its weakness — in more ways than one. Firstly, as previously stated, it’s a costume drama. It works on the level that such films do and fails on the level that such films do. It’s big and emotional and passionate. Everything that happens is the New Most Important Thing That Has Ever Happened. Everything is all about loooooooooooove.

The big, weepy scenes and moments of interpersonal betrayal are to this movie what explosions are to Transformers: cinematic drum solos. It’s emotional spectacle.

And it’s hard, at times, not to get swept away with it. But it’s guilty enjoyment, eating junk food while saying that you need to quit eating junk food.

The framing of the film is probably what keeps it from becoming completely insufferable. It’s shot somewhat like a play, and the scale and grandeur of the whole thing becomes more bearable if you view it as performance art reaching out to an audience that’s right there. It feels like a grand stage, one that requires its actors to shout and bloviate and make everything huge and important. It’s a grand, Shakespeare-era entertainment, a soap opera in Victorian garb.

The framing of the film as a semi-play elevates it in more ways than one. Anna Karenina is a visual marvel as a result of it, one worthy of every award it has won in this category.

It’s extremely colorful, and the sets are as intricate as they are ornate — bleeding into each other as well, such as in one scene where a character walks upstairs from a pristine, white and light blue ballroom and instantly finds himself in a rickety, wooden, and cramped marketplace. He looks down from it and sees the ballroom there, beneath the walkway. There may not be much rhyme or reason to it, but it’s endlessly inventive — spacious indoors open up into a frozen lake; a theatre and a racetrack become interchangeable. The transitions from one scene to the next are different nearly every time they occur; at a certain point, half the fun is in figuring out the setup.

That Joe Wright is more than a competent director doesn’t hurt this in the slightest; he uses the stage both to emphasize the scale of everything even as often as he uses it to accentuate a character’s isolation in crucial moments. He shoots his actors like marble statues, everything beautiful, smooth, and poised. The outdoor scenes are lit like Romantic-era artwork; the indoor scenes have the soft but distinct touch of, well, a spotlight on a stage.

One gets torn, however, knowing that the hugeness of the scale and the technically immaculate construction of the sets, despite being the film’s best quality and saving grace, are also drowning out the human story at pretty much all stages of the film, crying “look at me” and drawing the eye away from what’s happening with the characters.

And it’s a shame, because as costume dramas go, it’s smarter than the average cookie, if only just. It probably has as much to say about cultural attitudes toward women as it does romantic love, and it’s somewhat observant on that end. It has three central stories involving three couples, and only one of them truly ends happily. Unsurprisingly, it’s the only one where the spouses are not tied up in matters of maintaining social stature and public appearance or obsessed with purely physical passions, seeming to realize, after a fit, that as naïve as their idealism might seem, it’s the mature approach, leaving the things of childhood behind.

Of course, it can be difficult to take it too seriously, given that the approach is so broad and the emotions so unnecessarily huge and the visual style so painterly. Like I said, Anna Karenina is like an action movie, except that its action sequences are people crying. On that level, there’s something a bit fun about its excess and bombast, but only for the type of person who has a tolerance for that sort of thing.

 

-Matt T.