Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Story With the Tiger

I don't know about you, but I love a good survival story.  There's something about watching the endurance of the human spirit that just inspires me to be better.  I don't think it actually makes me better, but still it gives me the inspiration that I could be better.  I think that is why Cast Away, Alive, and other survival stories often are so well recieved by their audiences...people like seeing people win.  Of course, it's more than that...there's the sense of identification with the characters and the idea that regular people like us could survive under similar intense conditions.  However, not all stories of survival are about only the physical survival.  Some are also about psychological survival.  Take the film I just saw this weekend.  On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward survival story but at it's core, it is something much deeper.  I bring to you now, one of the most visually stunning films of the year and one of the greatest survival stories ever told...Life of Pi.

Pi Patel, an immigrant from India living in Canada, is approached by a local novelist who has been referred to him by his "uncle" (a family friend), believing that Pi's life story would make a great book. Pi relates an extended tale:  He is named "Piscine Molitor" by his parents after a swimming pool in France. He changes his name to "Pi" when he begins secondary school, because he is tired of being taunted with the nickname "Pissing Patel". His family owns a local zoo, and Pi takes a curious interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger ironically named Richard Parker (after a clerical error); to teach him the reality of the tiger's nature as a carnivore, Pi's father forces him to witness it killing a goat. He is raised Hindu and vegetarian, but at 12 years old, he is introduced to Christianity and then Islam, and starts to follow all three religions (when asked as an adult if he is also Jewish, he replies that he lectures in Kabbalah at the university). When he is a teen (and experiencing first love), his father decides to close the zoo, and move to Canada due to political concerns in India. They book passage for themselves and their animals (to be sold in North America) on a Japanese freighter named the Tsimtsum. The ship encounters a heavy storm and begins to sink while Pi is on deck marveling at it. He tries to find his family, but is thrown overboard with a lifeboat, and watches helplessly as the ship sinks, killing his family and its crew. After the storm, Pi finds himself in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, and is joined by an orangutan who lost her child in the shipwreck. A hyena emerges from the tarp covering half of the boat, and before long begins to eat the injured zebra, killing it. To Pi's distress, the hyena also mortally wounds the orangutan in a fight. Suddenly Richard Parker emerges from under the tarp, kills the hyena, and forces Pi to take refuge on a makeshift raft he makes from supplies. Realizing that he must feed the tiger to protect himself, Pi begins fishing, with some success. He also collects rain water for both to drink, and helps a desperate Richard Parker climb back into the boat after the cat leaves it to hunt fish. After many days at sea Pi realizes that he can no longer live on the tiny raft and trains Richard Parker to accept him in the boat. He also realizes that caring for the tiger is keeping him alive.

Life of Pi was considered an unfilmable novel for many years largely due to the fact that the main protagonist had to be placed in a lifeboat with a live bengal tiger.  How do you accomplish this?  Ang Lee, the director, has decided to use a CGI to bring Richard Parker to life and wow...does he ever impress.  The tiger looks almost real and in many scenes even frightened the audience (thanks to the 3D effects).  I'll admit it is the second time in my life that a CGI character has made my eyes fill with tears (the first being King Kong).  Performances are strong throughout and the visuals, oh the visuals.  Ang Lee uses the ocean like a mirror often and makes the world look endless and wonderous at the same time.  It enhances the fantastic aspect of the story while also keeping it grounded in a heightened reality that I found charming and totally believable.  The story is the real winner here though.  Yann Martel crafted a finely tuned tale in his original novel, and the film is wise to keep many of it's themes and questions alive in the narrative.  I shant reveal crucial plot points to you here, but suffice it to say that the story effectively challanges our conception of what is real and what is not while also showing that how we interpret our own stories is just as important as how others perceve them...and that the choices we make about our own stories can say a lot about our internal psychology.  Life of Pi is one of those marvelously universal stories that anyone of any age can enjoy and I insist that you make it a priority this Holiday season.  Take your friends, take your families...there's something in it for everyone.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Storyteller

Where did the weekend go?  Honestly, I'd really like to know.  I suppose when you rehearse from 8:30 - 5 one day and then 2-6 the next (with church and choir practice in between), you have a tendency to lose track of the time.  Not to worry though, friends, I still have a new film review for you.  I'm finally looking at considerably more "grown-up" material now that my first two "fantastic" films are out of the way.  This weekend I was looking for something quieter and more deliberate...something I could watch and enjoy a meal at the same time.  That last comment is not some random thought either, I really did eat a meal.  The AMC Theaters at Easton Towne Center opened a Dine-In Theater this past summer and, I must say, it really is the perfect match for a long and, dare I say, morose film.  You order when you arrive, and the server brings your food to you either during the previews or during the first half-hour of the picture.  It's slick, efficient, and surprisingly non-obtrusive to the viewing experience (servers will walk back and forth in the theater from time to time, but they always keep low and out of sight of the screen and are surprisingly adept at being heard over the film but also not disturbing the folks nearby.  The accommodations (comfortable and roomy seats that aren't squeezed together) and food aren't bad either (comparable to a T.G.I. Fridays or an Applebees).  It was the perfect evening for the quiet and thoughtful picture we chose to see.  It was a movie that required real attention to be paid to performances and the action on screen and, despite its seemingly stodgy and stuffy attitude, it commands your full attention the entire way through thanks to tremendous performances.  It is a film about one of the best amateur storytellers of our country directed by one of the best professional storytellers of the film world.  Let's travel back in time and get more acquainted with Lincoln.

The film opens on a the battlefield during the Civil War where two African-American soldiers and two Caucasian soldiers relish meeting Abraham Lincoln as he is going into his second term.  It gives a candid and frank look at the man behind the legend.  He is somber, quiet, and gentle in his speech and mannerisms and he enjoys telling a good story.  Flash forward a short while and we find Lincoln worrying over his latest obstacle, the proposed 13th amendment to the constitution that will abolish slavery.  It is established early on that many of the citizens of the Union who support Lincoln's proposed amendment only because they believe it will end the Civil War that is tearing apart the country.  Meanwhile, influential Republicans are trying to put together a peace treaty between the Union and the Confederacy and it threatens to undermine Lincoln's plan to remove slavery from the country.  Add to that the vehement opposition from the Democratic party, led by Congressman Fernando Wood, and suddenly the soft-spoken storyteller is finding himself stretched fairly thin.  Compounding the frustration is the knowledge that his oldest son Robert is joining the Union army and thus is forcing his wife Mary Todd to despise him.  Lincoln must overcome all of these obstacles to pass what may be the crowning achievement of his career.

Lincoln may sound like a generic biopic, and in many ways it is, however the direction and the performances manage to elevate this above average and into remarkable territory.  To see Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is to really see Abraham Lincoln in the flesh.  He becomes the man in a way that is uncanny and spooky, but it completely grabs you and transports you to that moment in time.  You want to see and hear him and to learn what he does.  The rest of the cast is amazing as well, but two others stand up above the crowd.  Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln is amazingly fragile and yet tough in a way I haven't seen her be since Steel Magnolias or Eye For an Eye.  She wins our sympathy early and keeps it, even when she behaves somewhat like a shrew to her husband (because, even though she hurts him...we understand why she does it and can empathise).  Finally, Tommy Lee Jones steals all of his scenes as Thaddeus Stevens through his uncanny usage of verbal irony and a completely dry delivery.  If he isn't nominated for Best supporting Actor, I'll eat my hat.  Likewise, Day-Lewis is the man to beat at the moment for Best Actor (in my humble opinion...I say that having not seen Joaquin Phoenix in The Master).  I'd say unless someone comes along and blows him out of the water in the next month (I'm looking at you Hugh Jackman) Day-Lewis will take home the gold.  Lincoln is definately a must-see film this season and you owe it to yourself to see it (unless history really makes you snore).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How Safe Do You Feel?

Another week, another new movie under my belt and this one was considerably more grown-up, though I think some could say that the difference is negligible.  I would argue that the film is more mature than some of it's brothers and sisters from the series, but hey...there's no accounting for taste.  I believe these entries will keep getting more and more serious given the output that's coming so this may be a good transition piece anywhere...somewhere between juvenile and mature.  Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.  At one point in this film, one of the main protagonists makes an excellent point about enemies to their nation (I say their rather than our, because we are in a different country...but I think it's still relevant to us).  The character asks the question (and I paraphrase) "Do you know who your enemies are?  Is it a country, a flag, a face?  No...the enemies are all in the shadows...so I ask you...how safe do you feel?"  Honestly, how safe do you feel in your home or life at any given time?  I like to think that I'm fairly safe and that I don't worry as much as people did during, say, the Cold War.  However, I can't say that I feel safe...partially because I know there is still danger in the world but also partially because I can't really identify who the danger might be coming from.  This is a driving theme of tonight's film for consideration and one which manages to make a rather old-fashioned series become relevant again.  On that note I ask that we settle in and face it all together, at Skyfall.

MI6 special agent James Bond is discovered mid-mission when the film begins and seems intent on getting the missing hard drive from a laptop back in his possession.  All the while he is being advised by M and his in-the-field partner Eve on what moves to make next.  M makes 007 rather angry several times with her curt orders (particularly when she advises leaving another operative for dead) and it becomes clear that the outcome of this mission is imperative to both of them.  M even orders Eve to take a shot at an escaping assailant even though it would put Bond at risk.  Bond ends up taking the shot in the shoulder and falling off a moving train while the thug and the hard drive both escape into a tunnel.  It turns out, we discover as M is brought up on charges of incompetence, the hard drive in question contained all the actual identities of several undercover agents and qualifies as the single biggest security breach in MI6's history.  Bond, after taking a little break from work (and to sulk over M allowing him to be shot), is compelled to return to London when an act of techno-terrorism leaves her office destroyed and MI6 humiliated and forced to hide in old London tube tunnels.  M puts Bond back into service (despite the fact that he is clearly not up to code) so that he can work to retrieve the hard drive and capture the terrorist responsible.  What he finds is perhaps his most dangerous adversary yet and it will require him to examine his future while also facing dark memories from his past.

Skyfall may be the most mature and dark Bond film yet, and also the most simple.  The story is very straightforward and there are none of the convoluted twists and turns that one generally associates with the series which might make you think that the writers weren't trying as hard on this one initially.  However, there are no worries there as it has left them plenty of room to develop Bond as a character as well as M, played again beautifully by Judi Dench, who has never been sufficiantly developed beyond being an infallible matron of MI6.  In this film she is portrayed as more flawed and uncertain of her footing in her position.  Indeed, the addition of Ralph Fiennes' character Mallory at first seems an attempt to simply give her a foil who intends to discredit her based on this latest foul up...however this just acts as a reason to push her front and center, a spot on the stage that no M has ever held in Bond history.  Bond, on the other hand, retains his darkness that was written in in Casino Royale but also gets an injection of insecurity as he sees himself failing in his job following his injury in the arm.  He can't hit a target, he can't push himself as hard, and he can't get a clear fix on who the attacker of M and MI6 could be.  Familiar characters are also added back into this outing who have been missing from the last few, namely Q and another whom I shall keep under my hat for those who haven't seen it yet.  This adds a feeling of familiarity and homage to the outing and helps stave off the feeling that "this isn't a Bond movie" that one might get watching it otherwise.  Seriously, it feels that different in comparison to the others (even the newest ones)...but as a wonderful seminarian stated in his sermon this morning, change is not only good, but essential in the evolution of any instutution.  And Bond is nothing if not an institution that needs to keep going for years to come.  Yet another two enthusiastic thumbs up for Skyfall...props to Adele, I've been singing the song all day.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Nightmare of Nosy Neighbors

Yesterday as I sat bemoaning the fact that I was running out of older films in my collection to review competently, I realized that I was being ever so slightly over-dramatic.  Yes, I think my resolution to review all the new Holiday Films I see is a good one to carry me through to the end of the year, but there are still films worth talking about that aren't so new.  I'm hoping to recieve one of them in the mail today actually.  It is a horror film that my own mother encouraged me to watch in my youth (I believe it was being shown on TNT's MonsterVision with Mr. Joe Bob Briggs) and yet she would tell me NOTHING about the film.  This is not what a teenager wants to hear when a parent is asking him to watch an OLD horror film.  However, I was a bit more evolved in my film tastes than most teens and I submitted to a viewing of it.  I wasn't sure what to expect, and I think that more horror films should be seen in this way.  It keeps the experience fresh and free from expectations.  In any case, on this day after election day that many feared would be the beginning of an apocalypse (and for some feels like it is...am I being overdramatic again?) I felt this film was appropriate.  Now I have to ask a question?  Have you ever lived next to a nosy neighbor?  I don't mean someone who asks the occasional question about your life and well-being...I mean someone who's always up in your business asking nosy questions and basically treating you like your life is a live soap opera?  I have one who is a candidate, but I think the neighbors in this film take the cake as far as being nosy and annoying...which is part of what makes their role in the film so sinister.  Let's bolt our doors against the busybodies of the world and find out what's happening with Rosemary's Baby.

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are a newlywed couple living in New York City and are full of hopes and dreams for the future.  They are currently struggling while Guy, an out of work actor, is attempting to find his way to stardom.  At the height of this challange, Guy and Rosemary decide to move into the beautiful and gothic Bramford apartment building on the Upper West Side where they find a real deal on a huge apartment.   While Guy goes out to job hunt, Rosemary stays at home turning the apartment into a place that they can eventually start a family.  In the process she meets Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly and eccentric couple who live across the hall, and Terry, the girl who lives with them.  Rosemary finds Minnie and Roman to be somewhat meddlesome and annoying, but mostly harmless and really enjoys talking to Terry.  Unfortunately, Terry suddenly commits suicide and Rosemary finds herself the new focus of Minnie and Roman's affection.  Soon after, following a dinner invite to the Castevet's, Guy begins seeing Minnie and Roman more, which proves puzzling to Roman.  Soon Guy begins landing important acting roles and getting famous and Rosemary becomes pregnant.  Upon Minnie's urging, Rosemary agrees to see a friend of the Castevet's, Dr. Saperstein, for her obstetric needs and soon after she begins having strange sensations and pains.  Rosemary begins to suspect that the Castevets and Dr. Saperstein are trying to harm her unborn baby and that Guy is in league with them.  Can she discover their plans in time or will they manage to complete their sinister plans?

Rosemary's Baby truely is best watched knowing nothing...so if you haven't seen it yet, just ignore everything you just read.  The film keeps a great many of it's secrets for a long time into the narrative and lulls you into a rather mundane drama about struggling newlyweds and the annoyances of living around people you don't like before finally dropping several bombs on you in quick succession.  Suddenly, old busybodies become enemies and even loving spouses can't be trusted (a theme the writer of the original novel for Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin, has toyed with another time in The Stepford Wives).  It also feels, despite it's supernatural undertones that get revealed, as though this could happen in every day life.  The film, unlike others that deal with supernatural threats and witchcraft, takes place in a major metropolitan city and in front of hundreds of witnesses.  And yet, the threat is just as present as it would be if the story was set in less contemporary times and in an isolated village or old-dark-house.  The film turns many cliches on it's head (and also invents a few) and manages to be deeply disturbing without showing anything like excessive gore or nudity.  It doesn't need them...it has mood, and the implication of "what could happen" to our unborn children if we blindly trust the people we meet because they simply "look harmless".  To that end, I must congratulate Ruth Gordon (who won an Oscar for her role) and Sidney Blackmer for their portrayals of Minnie and Roman, the two nosy neighbors.  They are both so annoying and grandparent-like that its hard to imagine either of them hatching an evil scheme, which is all the more frightening when you rewatch the film.  Also, Mia Farrow is the physical embodiment of pain and fragility as Rosemary (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance).  I won't reveal the unsettling conclusion of Rosemary's Baby but I will say that you will never forget it.  See it if you haven't already and prepare for a sleepless night.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

New Movies are fun to Review

Yeah, I haven't written much this year at all.  Blame that on my study hall, whom I enjoy talking to rather than try to avoid like last year.  Also, I've just been busy in the evenings either grading late at school or rehearsing for my starring role in "White Christmas"...however, I am here to make amends and to try and resume my writing (which I enjoy so much).  I also had a realization the other day, when I had time to write, that I was running dry on films to write about and that I was on the verge of repeating myself.  However, that does not take in to account all the new films I've seen this year that are also worth mentioning.  Dare I become a critic of new films rather than the old, familiar and (as is sometimes the case) the not so familiar?  I think I shall, and thus this blog is going to feature all the films I will be viewing this holiday season.  Thus I begin with a film I saw this past weekend.  It combines a great many things I enjoyed while growing up into one fantastic little film....things like animation, Disney, video games, and action set-pieces.  Its time to insert your quarter, hit start, and to play "Fix-It-Felix, Jr." as we meet Wreck-It Ralph.

Ralph is a regular, hard-working joe who does his job and does it well.  Unfortunately, no one seems to appreciate him.  You see, Ralph is the villain of a 30 year-old 8-bit arcade game called "Fix-It Felix, Jr." and his sole purpose is to wreck an apartment building in Nicetown so that the game's protagonist (controlled by the player), Felix, can fix it with his magic hammer.  At the end of each game, when the player wins, the residents of the building toss Ralph off the building and into the mud.  None of this would bother poor Ralph if only he wasn't universally feared and disrespected by the residents of his game.  When Ralph is not invited to the 30th anniversary party that is finally the last straw and he leaves his game to try his hand at a new game at the arcade called "Hero's Duty".  His goal is to win the game and earn a medal to show that he isn't a 'bad' guy and can be a hero.  Unfortunately, while there he sets in motion a chain of events that, if unchecked, could lead to the destruction of several games in the arcade along with the characters in them.  It's up to Ralph, Felix, Callhoun (the female protagonist from "Hero's Duty"), and Vanillope von Schweetz (a glitch from a game called "Sugar Rush") to try and stop the destruction before it is too late.

Wreck-It Ralph is yet another hit from Disney Animation that continues the fine quality set in pictures like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.  Not only does it look and sound spectacular, but the story is top notch and moving in a way that only a production overseen by John Lassiter could be.  Ralph features characters that you can relate to and who go beyond being simple video game stereotypes and who, due to the development spent with them, become real and three dimensional to us by the finale...none so much as Ralph and Vanillope.  This is helped greatly by having the voices performed by top notch actors such as John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman.  The animation is wonderful as well, looking the best that computer animation ever has, with an attention to detail that is marvelous (such as having the inhabitants of Ralph's game move in jerky ways akin to old 8-bit characters, and having cameos from real games like "Street Fighter", "Pac Man", and "Mario".)  In many ways, Ralph is like a meeting of Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by combining the ideas of "what do toys do at night when we've left them?" and real life games and references.  Ralph excels in almost every way and while it might not be as much of a triumph as Wall-E or Up, it is still further proof that Disney Animation is back to it's peak (even as PIXAR seems to be waning).  Do yourself a favor and see it the theater...and definately in 3D to get all of that marvelous detail and immersion.  This is a fantastic way to start the Holiday film season.