Life Of Pi
Oscar time again, and the seemingly never ending procession of women in expensive frocks and men in generally indistinguishable dinner jackets all hoping to go home clutching a shiny bauble or two is nearly over for another year. Thankfully sanity has been restored and the Razzies have returned to their traditional date of Oscar Eve, so they and the Independent Spirit Awards get dished out today, before we get to the main event on Sunday night. While the nominations get revealed before most of Hollywood is sipping their first skinny latte of the day, meaning that we get to watch them in Blighty during the day, the same consideration isn’t given to us Brits for the awards themselves so most of us, myself included, will be tucked up in bed by the time Seth MacFarlane strides out to face his audience.
It’s the most tempted I’ve been for a few years to stay up and watch the awards, given the participation of the intermittently reliable MacFarlane and the fact that I’ve seen every film or performance in all nine of the major categories, for I think the first time ever. (I’m referring to Picture, Director, the four acting and two screenplay categories and best animated, in case you were wondering.) It’s only the fourth time I’ve managed to claim a full set on Best Picture before the awards themselves, so 2012 will go down in history with 1997, 2005 and 2010 as years I’ve claimed a full house and can pass a fully qualified opinion on how wrong Oscar’s voters have got it this year.
But I won’t be staying up, because Oscar will get it wrong. Oscar gets it wrong about 19 years out of each twenty, as I scientifically worked out last year, and I don’t believe this year will be any different. So here again, as I did two years ago, I present my guide to What’s Actually The Best Picture (of those nominated) 2012. Feel free to tell me how wrong I’m getting it in the comments section, but remember kids: this is just an opinion, no more or less valid than that of 6,000 people who actually do this for a living. Probably.
The Least Best Picture is Silver Linings Playbook
It has great performances from Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and especially Jennifer Lawrence, but Silver Linings Playbook is muddled at best, grafting a confused look at various misdiagnosed mental illnesses to an enjoyable but cheesy and predictable romance. It’s not hard to see how it got a nomination, as it ticks pretty much every one of the Academy’s boxes, and the achievement of picking up nominations in every major category is a significant one, but if there’s any justice then that’s the most that Silver Linings will be remembered for. While Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the best performance, either nominated or not, she’s the one win that wouldn’t be begrudged.
Which is not as good as Beasts Of The Southern Wild
To describe Beasts as interesting almost feels to be damning it with faint praise, but that’s about the best I can say. Many have been beguiled by its supposed charms, with a mix of admittedly impressive performances from non-actors and a fantastical story set among the aftermath of Katrina, but for my money the realism and fantasy never quite gel to any level of satisfaction. That shouldn’t diminish the achievement of the more realistic parts of the storytelling, but for me this marks out Benh Zeitlin, Quevenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry as talents to watch, rather than the fully formed articles.
Which is not as good as Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty has one of the best performances of the year in the form of Jessica Chastain. She put together a fantastic run last year as well, from a scene-stealing turn in The Help to the supportive, desperate wife in Take Shelter, and if anything her simmering, nuanced performance here is better than any of them. This discussion isn’t Best Actress, though, it’s Best Picture, and Zero Dark Thirty has managed to rule itself out with its slightly iffy political stance and controversy. I still feel that Zero does look the other way a little too much and doesn’t deal with consequence as much as it should; while the impartiality is commendable, just a shade too much agreement with the methodologies of the CIA slips through the net. (Also, as much as I love him I think the world may end if John Barrowman’s ever in a Best Picture winner.)
Which is not as good as Les Misérables
Take one hot director coming off the back of his own award winning film, a variety of top Hollywood talent with a marked difference in their singing styles which probably won’t gel together particularly well and a grand total of two camera positions, and throw them into the mix with one of the most beloved musicals of the last thirty years, and what do you get? A crowd pleaser, to be sure, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on the verge of shedding a tear by the end, but Les Miz is too reverential with its source material to make any attempt to address the structural issues with both stage musical and novel to truly satisfy as a narrative. Mind you, I think I’ll still be humming “Do You Hear The People Sing?” this time next year. Maybe by then I’ll have learned more of the words, too.
Which is not as good as Argo
I’m not greedy. I know that several thousand Hollywood types will never manage to agree on the sensible choice (indeed, you’ll notice that the film at the end of this list was only fifth on my best of the year last year), so if the Best Picture award does go to a film ranked 9/10 or better in my book, I’ll take that as a reasonable success. That means that I’ll be happy if anything from this point on the list onwards wins, I’ll be reasonably satisfied, but none of that will make up for the ridiculousness of not nominating Ben Affleck for Best Director. I didn’t rate The Town hugely, but certainly Argo and Gone Baby Gone show a man who’s found his true home behind the camera, and I think nomination and win are both well within his capability in future years. But for my money, they may as well start engraving the gold baldie now, for I can’t see past Argo to win the real award tomorrow night.
Which is not as good as Lincoln
It’s in danger of becoming a cliché, and it’s maybe why I’ve struggled to come up with a review for this one as of yet, but it’s absolutely true: Daniel Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln. If you invented time travel and plucked the real man out of history, I doubt anyone would find him more convincing than this supreme performance from the man who is the finest actor of our, and arguably any, generation. It’s not a one performance film, and it has possibly the finest array of beards ever committed to cinema, but what holds Lincoln back from true greatness is an incredibly talky, expository first hour which stifles any forward momentum before Spielberg manages to balance his elements and deliver a rousing finale. It also has the problems with endings which have blighted the Berg’s films for the last twenty years, but that should come as no surprise.
Which is not as good as Amour
I still feel I’m doing Amour something of a disservice, but I just can’t escape the feeling that Amour isn’t providing radical new insight into the pain and suffering endured by watching a loved one slowly disintegrate before your eyes, while you stand helpless on the sidelines. It is the first film to truly expose that raw nerve and capture that experience in unflinching detail, with superb performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, and it might be the best chance Michael Haneke has to ever win the Best Director Oscar, an award which would be suitable recognition for the compelling body of work he’s assembled in his career. (Would also be worth it to see what the fake Twitter Haneke comes up with next lol.)
Which is not as good as Django Unchained
Prior to this, I believe that Quentin Tarantino had made two cast iron classics that will endure well past our lifetimes, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 1. This is the hat-trick film, perfectly blending a set of performances that could have filled the Best Supporting Actor category in a weaker year with Tarantino’s rich and joyous dialogue. That the slave narrative, which could have sat ill at ease with the more exploitative elements of the revenge fantasy, actually serves to enhance the overall ensemble is testament to how good a film maker Tarantino has become, and he finally proves that he can weave gold with a straight line narrative without needing to jump back and forth or rely on extraneous subplots. He’s even seemingly accepted his own limitations as an actor, cheekily making his own role even more ridiculous, but the sad omission from Oscar night of a Best Horse award means that Tony and Fritz will go home empty handed. Criminal. Which means that… (fumbles with envelope)…
The Best Picture Of 2012 is Life Of Pi
Filming a supposedly unfilmable novel, and reaping massive box office success around the world? Check. Combining superb acting with huge effects work? Check. Asking fundamental questions about the nature of our existence and our beliefs? Check. A director who’s had one of the most diverse careers in Hollywood showing that he’s as good, if not better, when filming in three dimensions as he is in two? Check. Never more convincing performances from CGI and fake creatures interacting at close quarters with humans? Check. Not going to win Best Picture because the Academy is as clueless as usual? Check. Life Of Pi is my favourite of the nine nominated films this year, but if it wins Best Picture I’ll eat an actual tiger.
The Review: Sometimes in life you have to put aside trivial matters and get to grips with the weightier questions of the universe. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there a God, or possibly Gods? And will 3D ever become a successful film making tool or forever remain a cheap gimmick? Well, the latter may not be weighing heavily on your mind, but trust me, it’s given me a few sleepless nights. You can count the number of truly successful directors in the medium on the fingers of one hand: Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Michael Bay (and that in itself is a depressing notion), but now you can add Ang Lee to that list. Impressively, that’s not the only question on the list he’s attempted to tackle in this gorgeous and reasonably faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel.
Many familiar with the novel thought it unfilmable and it had a strange structure for certain, divided broadly into two halves. Pi (played at middle age by Irfan Khan) sits down to tell a story to a writer looking for a story to tell (Rafe Spall), which starts at his childhood in India and details his adolescence and the key role his parents come to play in his development. It’s that development that then upsets the balance of Pi’s life, as the family zoo is being relocated to Canada for financial reasons, so the family and their menagerie is loaded to a cargo ship. The second half deals with the aftermath of a wild storm which sinks the ship and leaves Pi (played here by Suraj Sharma) afloat with a handful of animals, most notably an untamed tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker, and Pi is left to fight for his survival in more ways than one.
It’s the combination of unlikely characters, setting and material that would seem to make this a difficult film to adapt. First then to the film’s look: it’s simply stunning. The vivid colours and bold framing capture your attention from the first moment and never look like relinquishing it, but it’s the use of 3D that truly stands out. Not only does Lee understand the technical demands that a third dimension places, with constant use of fades and slow pans to keep everything in focus, but he also has fun with the toolkit, even throwing in aspect ratio shifts here and there to maximise the potential of the format, and rather than the normal 2D-plus-occasionally-poking-things-in-your-face, this truly feels like a film thought of, framed in and shot for three dimensions. More than that, Lee even uses that third dimension both to increase tension and as a narrative tool on occasion; if there’s been a more effective 3D movie in the modern era, I’ve yet to see it. The techniques used to bring the animals to life are for the most part flawless, with CG and real animals virtually indistinguishable. The soundtrack by Michael Dynna is also worth a mention, serving as an excellent backdrop for the varied emotional states the film seeks to evoke.
But no point in looking gorgeous if there’s nothing going on between your ears, and here Life Of Pi also doesn’t disappoint. It’s not to say that it’s the most sophisticated story ever told, coming over as park bench philosophising at times (a visual metaphor that the film plays out in an attempt to inject movement into its more talkative aspects). That occasional heavy-handedness is felt throughout, particularly in the last fifteen minutes – which comes perilously close to grating – but this is very much of the mythological, exploring the nature of storytelling itself through the fable that Pi takes us through but also prompting us to ask questions about what belief means and examining the possibilities of existence. It’s a tricky balancing act to maintain between story and visual and Lee manages it through never letting the story itself get too bogged down, especially tricky when you have so few characters – and even less of them with speaking parts – for such a large chunk of the running time. As well as that slight heavy storytelling hand, Life isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is, or would like to be, its storytelling dissection being just that and falling short of the treatise on religion it initially claims. That’s balanced by a refreshing lack of sentimentality as Richard Parker’s sea-based buffet unfolds in the second half, which extends throughout most of the story.
In terms of those characters, Life Of Pi represents another step forward, as the seamless blend of green screen, CGI and other more practical techniques have reached a point where a recreation of a living creature can interact seamlessly and never be anything less than utterly convincing. That also has to stack up against a living actor, and Suraj Sharma gives a powerful portrayal of the more youthful Pi, easily matching the ferocity of his feline foe but also getting to the root of Pi’s own inner turmoil. I’m prepared to forgive pretty much every one of those flaws mentioned earlier, for what Ang Lee has crafted is very much a modern cinematic treat, a feast for the eyes that is at the cutting edge of its medium with just enough nourishment for the mind as well. It may not change your thoughts on God or the nature of existence, but it might just capture a few 3D skeptics and fans of old fashioned storytelling.
Why see it at the cinema: Whether you watch in two or three dimensions, Life Of Pi is a work of art, both visually and aurally and as with so many art works, should be seen on a suitably sized canvas.
Why see it in 3D: But if you’re still undecided on whether 3D can bring anything to the cinema experience, you should be trying this with the glasses on.
The Score: 10/10