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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 48
Tiger tale
Arts & Entertainment
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Tiger tale

Visually audacious Life of Pi another triumph for Lee

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LIFE OF PI
Now showing


Life of Pi isn't an easy movie to talk about. Not because it has problems (though there are one or two) or because it does not entertain (it does that in spades), but more because its themes and morals are as ephemeral and as ghostly as the story spun by its central protagonist, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan). Based on the lyrical, time-bending novel by Yann Martel, director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter David Magee (Neverland) have crafted an elliptical visual poem where truth and fiction meld into one, discovering the heart and soul of the matter more important than solving the riddles revolving around its authenticity.

And what is that story told by the older Patel? As a young man (Suraj Sharma) he and his family, zookeepers by trade, were traveling from India to Canada by ship, their entire stock on board to be sold to a new zoo when they arrived at their new home. But tragedy strikes and their vessel is sunk, Pi the only survivor cast adrift on a lonely lifeboat in the middle of the hostile Pacific Ocean.

Scratch that, he's the only 'human' survivor. Pi is joined in his boat by a Bengal tiger with the curious moniker of Richard Parker. The pair engage in an uneasy battle of wills, each needing the other for survival but one knowing for certain that if he gets too close his compatriot will literally eat him for dinner. Together they travel across the ocean looking for signs of life, the ways of the universe colliding headfirst into them as their existence hangs by a tenuous thread.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Is that it? Is this all that is going on here? Without a doubt, that's a gigantic highfalutin' No. Lee and Magee do their best to explore Martel's ideas and concepts, crafting a visually audacious enigma speaking to who we really are as well as the best of who we hope to be. The journey is the point - whether it is true or not is nowhere near as important as you'd think it should be, the lines between faith, spirituality, pragmatism, religion, science, and nature blurring into one in the process.

For many reasons there wasn't any way that Lee could have adapted Magee's ethereal book in a straightforward manner. For maybe the very first time - maybe the only time - a filmmaker has found a way to use modern 3D technology in a way that actually services the story and propels the narrative forward. Sure, James Cameron's Avatar and Martin Scorsese's Hugo looked fantastic, but they get the job done just as well in a standard visual format as they do in a three-dimensional one. Life of Pi, however, needs this third dimension and in many ways thrives upon it, the way it kept drawing me deeper and deeper inside the frame key to allowing me to feel everything Pi was going through and understand his final comments, and potentially his unspoken truths, in a way I do not think I could have otherwise.

There is a slight pretentiousness to all of this that is sadly unavoidable, and I can't say every element of the journey worked as well as I would have liked. But the way Khan tells the story and how Sharma in turn acts it out is something to behold, the latter's interactions with the (mostly, but not always, and I couldn't really tell which was which) CGI-generated Richard Parker bordering on astonishing. Even though neither actor shares a scene with the other - how could they? - the way they work in tandem is quite extraordinary, the pair together elevating the proceedings in a way I personally found stunning. They do wonders, both delivering performances ranking as two of the absolute best of 2012.

I'll be curious to see how Life of Pi holds up on subsequent viewings, interested to see if it plays as well in 2D as it does in 3D (a statement I honestly thought I'd never, ever make). Lee once again proves himself to be a master director capable of handling material of any kind, in every genre, his latest achievement just as amazing as his prior classics have been. He's a one-of-a-kind filmmaker who enjoys tackling one-of-a-kind projects, making his decision to dive into Martel's supposedly unfilmable novel nowhere near as surprising as it potentially might have been.

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