THE DROP (2014) Is Crime Drama At Its Best

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Blu-ray Review:  THE DROP (2014)

by

Michael Arrudathe drop poster

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite actors working right now.

Every time I see him in a movie, he’s playing a completely different kind of role.  Whether he’s the villainous Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) or the heroic Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) he’s making an impression.  In THE DROP (2014) which I recently watched on Blu-ray, he plays a soft-spoken ex-con bartender named Bob who works at a bar where there is more mob activity than alcohol served.  Bob is a fascinating character who plays his cards close to his vest.  You know there’s something more to this guy, but you just can’t figure out what it is.

In THE DROP Hardy is flanked by two equally talented actors, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini.

I saw THE DROP on Blu-ray the same week that I saw BLACK MASS (2015) at the theater, the lurid Whitey Bulger bio pic starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston mobster.  I found THE DROP to be the more compelling of the two, equaling the intensity of BLACK MASS but having a better story and more interesting and captivating characters.

In THE DROP, ex-con Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a bar owned by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) himself.   It’s a drop bar, meaning that the mob deposits money there on a regular basis.  One night, the bar is robbed, an act that the Chechen mafia who rule that neighborhood does not take kindly to, and they immediately suspect Bob and Marv of being in on the robbery. While Marv reacts nervously, Bob seems to take it all in stride and goes about his business in a quiet, unobtrusive way.

When he discovers a badly beaten pit bull puppy left for dead in a garbage can, he’s encouraged to take the dog home by his neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  He doesn’t want to do this because he says he doesn’t know how to care for a dog, but Nadia pretty much tells him the dog will die without his help, and she in turn helps him take care of it, and soon they become good friends, until her former boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up, claiming the dog is his and that he wants it back.  Bob tells him no, even though Eric has the reputation of being a loose cannon and evidently killed a man.  None of this seems to faze Bob all that much.

When Marv’s bar is chosen as the main drop bar on the night of the Super Bowl, meaning that a huge amount of mob money will be deposited there, the story comes to a head as Bob finds himself in the middle of yet another plan to rob the bar, the vengeful Chechen mafia, and the psychotic boyfriend who seems ready to kill Bob at the drop of a hat.

THE DROP works as well as it does because of the superb acting performances in the movie.  Tom Hardy knocks the ball out of the park with his performance as Bob, a man who finds himself in the tensest predicament yet doesn’t seem to break a sweat.  He’s a fascinating character who seems to be harboring some sort of secret, a key which defines his personality.

Noomi Rapace as Bob’s love interest Nadia has played this kind of role before and she can pretty much sleepwalk through it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not excellent.  She is.  Her part here reminded me a lot of her role in another thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) but that didn’t stop me from liking her performance.

The late James Ganolfini is also exceptional here as Cousin Marv.  When the movie opens, he seems to be the wise and weathered bar owner, whereas Bob seems more naïve, but as the story goes on, we learn that this is not quite the case.  Marv has a troubled life, and he makes poor decisions as a result.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane is flat out excellent.  It’s a complicated story that is never too confusing.  It creates captivating characters who you want to learn more about. It’s based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”  Lehane also wrote the novels Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island(2010). And even though this movie was based on his short story, it plays like a novel.  Its story is rich and deeply textured.

Director Michael R. Roskam has made a very suspenseful thriller that is as dark as it is satisfying.

If you like your crime stories populated with multi-dimensional characters who face crucial decisions throughout, in the face of threatening mob violence all around them, you’ll love THE DROP, a compelling movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with its characterizations.  It allows its audience time to get to know its characters without sacrificing intensity or excitement.

It’s also a showcase for Tom Hardy who continues to impress in movie after movie.

I loved THE DROP.

It’s crime drama at its best.

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UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Will Get Under Yours

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Blu-ray Review:  UNDER THE SKIN (2013)undertheskin poster

by

Michael Arruda

If you enjoy weird artistically-driven movies filled to the brim with neat visuals and creative camerawork, you’ll love UNDER THE SKIN (2013) a thought-provoking science fiction film by writer-director Jonathan Glazer. On the other hand, if you prefer mainstream movies with straightforward storylines and traditional story-telling techniques, you might find yourself reaching for the remote.

UNDER THE SKIN is not the kind of movie you’ll find playing at your mainstream multiplex. This is a good thing, and if you’re patient and willing to go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying movie experience that is more intellectually challenging than most.

UNDER THE SKIN stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman stalking the streets of Scotland in search of men and leading them to an unfortunate fate. She drives around Scotland in a van picking up these young men, and she brings them back to a rather unusual house where—well, to avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that these men don’t return.

Who is this strange woman?  Is she an alien?  A robot?  A serial killer? The film never really says, although since this movie is based on a novel about an alien, it’s a safe bet that she’s not from this planet.

As she continues abducting young men, she becomes cognizant of what she is doing, and she experiences an emotional epiphany which alters her actions and ultimately changes her fate.

UNDER THE SKIN is beautifully photographed by director Jonathan Glazer.  He uses the contrast between light and dark brilliantly.  Rather than rely on traditional dialogue to move the narrative along, Glazer prefers the use of images and camera techniques to tell his story. It all works.  While things might not always be clear at first, everything in this movie eventually makes sense.

UNDER THE SKIN also has a phenomenal music score by Mica Levi.  It’s weird and very horror movie-like, yet it complements the film wonderfully.

The screenplay by director Glazer and Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber succeeds in telling a story without relying solely on words.  In fact, there is very little dialogue in this movie.

One of the best sequences in the film is when the woman picks up a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, and it’s in this scene where we see her really begin to evolve as a thinking being.

When she seduces the men, she places them in a sort of hypnotic state, which is so effective she nearly hypnotizes the viewer as well.  Watching her seduce these men is truly a hypnotic experience, and the way it occurs on screen, it’s pretty cool.

Scarlett Johansson is to be applauded for playing a role that is far from traditional.  She speaks very little dialogue, and like the rest of the movie, a lot of what she is doing and what she is all about has to be inferred, but it’s all there.  You just have to pay attention.

I really liked UNDER THE SKIN.  I completely bought into its artistic vision of storytelling, for the simple reason that director Jonathan Glazer covers all bases and makes sure that in spite of the obscure scenes and nontraditional way of filming, that everything you need to know for it all to make sense is there.

This is a tale of some sort of alien race preying on humans for some form of sustenance, and how one alien, the one played by Johansson, develops an awareness of what she is doing and seems to make the connection that the beings she is devouring are not cattle but highly developed creatures.  She seems to almost want to become human at one point, to share in the human experience, and it’s this desire which ultimately puts her at odds with her superiors

Does everything about it work?  No.  As a writer, I would have enjoyed a bit more dialogue, but that being said, I am not complaining.  And as much as I loved the visual style of this movie, I found that at 108 minutes it was a bit long for a movie with this kind of pacing.  I did get a bit restless during the final 30 minutes or so.

But these are small matters.

As a whole I liked UNDER THE SKIN a lot.

In the mood for a science fiction film that will not insult your intelligence, but on the contrary will make you think long after it’s over, and that tells its tale not so much with words but with images, camera angles, uses of light and dark, and music?

Then check out UNDER THE SKIN.

Its title is true.  It’ll get under your skin.

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Julianne Moore’s Oscar-Winning Performance Leads STILL ALICE (2014) to Poignant Places

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Blu-Ray Review:  STILL ALICE (2014)still alice poster

by

Michael Arruda

When Julianne Moore, one of my favorite actresses, won the Oscar earlier this year for Best Actress for her performance as a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in STILL ALICE (2014), I made sure I added this movie to my Netflix queue.

In STILL ALICE, Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old linguistics professor who at this stage of her life has everything going for her.  She enjoys a successful career.  She’s happily married to a great husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and she has three wonderful adult children.  She has little more to worry about other than trying to convince her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) to put off her stage acting career just long enough to go to college so she’ll have a fall back plan if acting doesn’t work out, an argument that never gets her anywhere since Lydia is adamant about her love of acting and resents her mom’s meddling.

But when Alice struggles to remember some of the words to her linguistics lecture, and later when she actually gets lost while jogging, she realizes something is wrong and she seeks medical help.  To her astonishment, she learns that she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure.  Worse, she is informed that her disease is genetic, which means she has likely passed on the gene to her children.

When she breaks the news to her husband John, he reacts first with denial before finally coming to terms with her diagnosis.  Their children are devastated but supportive.  Her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is tested and learns she too has the disease, while her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) learns that he does not have the disease.  Lydia, ever the rebel, refuses to be tested, as she doesn’t want to know.

As the movie goes on, Alice’s condition deteriorates dramatically, and as she fights the losing battle to keep her memories and more importantly her dignity, and as her family struggles with watching her turn into someone they do not know, everyone strains to remember that through it all, she is still Alice, the wife and mom they all love.

STILL ALICE is not a happy movie.  But it is a rewarding one, even if the plight of Alice Howland, like real-life Alzheimer’s sufferers around the world, is one without a happy ending, as there remains no cure for Alzheimer’s.

As expected, Julianne Moore is excellent as Alice.  To watch her, a smart, albeit brilliant linguistic professor wrestle with her mental faculties is horribly depressing.  At one point in the movie, Alice makes a point of saying that being smart was her identity; it was how she saw herself.  For her, language, words, and linguistics were as much a part of her being as the way she looked, and now she was fighting to remember them.  It was, she said, as if the disease was ripping away her identity.

Moore captures completely the feeling of struggling with memory.  A distant lost look comes over her face, and suddenly her memory fails her.  It’s painful to watch.  Unable to put up much of a fight, Alice deteriorates into an entirely different person.  Once this disease takes hold of her, there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best moment, and one of the best moments in the entire film, is when she speaks at an Alzheimer’s conference.  As she reads her speech, she highlights each written line in yellow to prevent her from reading it again because she can’t remember what she just read.  She makes many wonderful points in this speech.  One of them is how difficult it is for Alzheimer sufferers to be taken seriously when they seem so incapable and even ridiculous, but she reminds her audience that this is not who they are.  It’s the most poignant moment in the movie.

Alec Baldwin is effective as Alice’s husband John.  He doesn’t come across as the clichéd loving husband.  He is supportive, yes, and when Alice can’t take care of herself, he’s there to care for her, at first, but he doesn’t like it, and he struggles with having to watch his wife become a helpless person.  Later, he is offered a new position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, far away from their New York home, and Alice asks him to delay the move, but he doesn’t want to.  It’s clear that he can’t handle taking care of his wife, even though he wants to.

He also talks down to Alice at times, as if she’s a child, telling her to go to bed when she was panicking about losing her phone, for example.  These scenes are frustrating, but they also come off as real.  John seems to love his wife very much.  He’s just not very good at dealing with her illness.

Baldwin and Moore work well together, as they did on TV’s 30 ROCK, where Julianne Moore guest-starred for a time as Baldwin’s love interest.

It was so good to see Kristen Stewart not in a TWILIGHT movie.  She’s really good here as Moore’s youngest and most rebellious daughter Lydia.  Other than Moore and Baldwin, she gives the best performance in the movie.  I don’t think I’ve ever said that about Stewart before.  Not that I’ve ever thought she was a poor actress, but that the films she was in rarely gave her the opportunity to do much more than brood.  This is probably the best role I’ve seen Stewart play.

It’s also a rewarding role.  Lydia butts heads with mom constantly, and yet, later when John is not there to care for his wife, it’s Lydia who moves in to take care of her mom.  In spite of their rocky relationship, Lydia and Alice share a special bond.

The rest of the cast is decent.  Kate Bosworth is fine as Alice’s oldest daughter, as is Hunter Parrish as their son Tom.  Parris must like playing Baldwin’s son, as this is the second time he’s played Baldwin’s son in a movie, having done so in the comedy IT’S COMPLICATED (2009), which also starred Meryl Streep and Steve Martin.

STILL ALICE was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.  Their screenplay was based on the novel by Lisa Genova.  These guys did a terrific job behind the camera.  They captured three fabulous acting performances by Moore, Baldwin, and Stewart, with Moore winning an Academy Award.  Sadly, Glatzer passed away earlier this year from complications from ALS.

STILL ALICE is a well-written, directed, and acted movie that reminds us of the finality of Alzheimer’s disease.  It follows one woman’s struggle to keep her dignity and remain relevant, even as her mind deteriorates to the point where she can’t even recognize her own children.  It’s also a showcase for Julianne Moore’s considerable acting talents.

Perhaps most importantly the film asks us to remember that people with Alzheimer’s aren’t simple-minded forgetful folks but individuals suffering from a disease without a cure, and as such, they deserve dignity and respect.

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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) Recalls Dark Times

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Dallas Buyers Club posterBlu-ray Review:  DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

When Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) earlier this year, I decided to go back and watch some of McConaughey’s roles from the past few years which led up to his Oscar winning performance, thus starting my own personal Matthew McConaughey tour.

Alas, the Matthew McConaughey tour comes to a close today with my review of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

Based on true events, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB takes place in 1985, just when the AIDS epidemic was first making front page news.  Ron Woodroof  (Matthew McConaughey) is an electrician who works at a rodeo.  He lives a fast and wild life:  sex, alcohol, smoking, and drug use, and that’s just in one day.   Nope, Ron is not going to win any awards for Man With The Healthiest Lifestyle.  In fact, he is shocked to learn that he is HIV positive, since he believed the AIDS disease was only contracted by homosexuals.

Initially in denial, he cusses out his doctors Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner) accusing them of mixing up his blood results with someone else’s, and he scoffs at their prediction that he only has thirty days to live.  Eventually, though, Ron realizes that he is indeed very ill, and he reads up on HIV and the AIDS virus.

He learns that the one drug treating AIDS is called AZT, but since it hasn’t been approved yet, he is not allowed access to it.  Ron decides to take matters into his own hands to get AZT by any means possible, which eventually leads him to Mexico where he meets a disbarred American doctor Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) who steers Ron away from AZT, calling it poison, and instead prescribes Ron with a series of vitamins and alternative medicines which do in fact succeed in prolonging his life.

Ron returns to Dallas and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a transsexual he met at the hospital Rayon (Jared Leto).  Together, they start the Dallas Buyers Club, a club in which members pay a flat fee for access to the alternative medicines which Ron continues to bring into the country in an effort to treat as many fellow AIDS sufferers as they can.  They fight an uphill battle against both doctors who see the Club as dangerous for their patients, and the FDA who see their actions as illegal and want to shut them down.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB tells a moving and relevant story, and for those of us who remember these times during the 1980s- the fear, the misinformation, and the stigma that went along with AIDS and HIV- it’s a chilling reminder of a troublesome  time in our history.  It’s a decent screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, but it’s not the strength of the movie.

The strength of the movie is the acting.  Across the board, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB features phenomenal acting performances.

Leading the way is Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, the homophobic womanizer who at first is anything but a sympathetic main character, but as the movie goes on and Ron grows more frustrated with the system and becomes more and more proactive in seeking out alternative treatments, he develops into a leader for the HIV infected community.  Through his actions, he becomes an admirable person.

And when we grow to like Ron, it’s not in a superficial phony way.  He doesn’t suddenly go from homophobic hick to open-minded hero.  He may become more tolerant towards the gay community and those suffering from AIDS, but he’s still the same roughneck personality.  He’s just channeling his tough guy tendencies towards a worthy cause.

McConaughey looks absolutely sickly and weak in this movie, which is a testament to both the make-up department and his performance.  In fact, Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.

Believe it or not, even better than McConaughey in this movie is Jared Leto as transsexual Rayon.  Leto also won an Oscar, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.  Rayon was my favorite character in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB because Leto makes him such a three dimensional sympathetic person.  We learn firsthand about his hopes and fears, we see him struggle through his weaknesses, and we witness some very painful moments in his life, like when he visits his father, who is completely ashamed and disgusted by his son.  Rayon is also the character who without really trying to do so reaches Ron, and breaks through his tough exterior.  Without Rayon, Ron wouldn’t have been able to operate the Dallas Buyers Club.

Jennifer Garner is also excellent as Eve, the doctor who at first warns her patients to stay away from Ron, but as the two become closer, and she listens to what Ron has to say and reads his research, she begins to change her mind about AIDS treatment.  Denis O’Hare is just as good as Dr. Sevard, the doctor who is steadfast in his opinion that Ron is flat out wrong.

Michael O’Neill is sufficiently annoying as FDA agent Richard Barkley, and Dallas Roberts is effective as Ron’s lawyer David Wayne, while Griffin Dunne makes his mark as the doctor in Mexico who first steers Ron on the path towards alternative medicines.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee has made a film that captures the fear, sadness, and suffering of this time period, when AIDS was a new and relatively unknown disease, and rumors ran rampant, and treatments were inadequate.  It goes without saying, that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is not a fun movie.

Of the Matthew McConaughey movies I watched this past year, the one I probably enjoyed the most was MUD (2012).  Taken as a whole, MUD was the most entertaining of these movies.  McConaughey was excellent in all of them, but he was best as Ron Woodroof in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

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PACINO and WALKEN Buddy Up in STAND UP GUYS (2012)

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stand_up_guys posterBlu-Ray Review:  STAND UP GUYS (2012)

By

Michael Arruda


Take Al Pacino, pair him with Christopher Walken, and then throw in Alan Arkin, and what do you have?  A group of stand up guys!

 

STAND UP GUYS (2012) is a comedy-drama that had a very limited release when it came out last year.  Although I had seen trailers for it at my local theater, it never opened in my neck of the woods, which is too bad because I really enjoyed STAND UP GUYS, having finally caught up with it on Blu-Ray the other day.

 

STAND UP GUYS opens with a convict named Val (Al Pacino) released from prison after serving a sentence of 28 years.  Val is met at the door by his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken), and what makes this more than just a best buddy reunion, is that Doc has received orders from crime boss Claphands (Mark Margolis) to kill Val.  You see, Claphands blames Val for the death of his son, and being the vindictive bastard that he is, he allows Val to serve out his 28 years in prison, and then on the day he’s released, orders his best friend to kill him.  Doc doesn’t want to kill Val, but Claphands makes it clear that if Doc doesn’t do the job, he’ll end up dead, too.

 

Doc asks for more time, and Claphands gives him until 10:00 the next morning to kill Val.  And this sets up the plot for the rest of the movie, as Val and Doc enjoy a night on the town together, reminiscing about old times and getting into mischief together once again. 

 

Their overnight antics include a comic run-in with Viagra, a visit to the local brothel, and funniest of all a reunion with their former driver Hirsch (Alan Arkin), who’s ill and dying.  For old time’s sake they steal a car and Hirsch drives them around town, outracing the police at one point.  They also visit family to make amends, and help a woman Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito) they find naked in the trunk of their stolen car get back at the men who raped her.

 

What makes things more interesting is that Val knows Doc has orders to kill him, and Doc knows he knows, yet both men choose to spend the evening together.  As zero hour draws near, the tensions rise as Doc has to make his decision regarding what he’s going to do about Val.

 

The best part about STAND UP GUYS is the interplay between Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as Val and Doc.  I could watch these guys all night, and as I watched this movie, I almost wished it was a television show so I could see these guys again.  They really are stand up guys.

 

The screenplay by Noah Haidle includes hilariously raw dialogue that had me laughing out loud.  The scenes in the brothel with Wendy (Lucy Punch) are priceless.  And when Val and Doc break into a pharmacy for the Viagra that Val needs, they end up spending a longer time there because Doc decides to stock up on his prescription meds.  “How much stuff are you on?”  Val wants to know.

 

The comedy works not only because the dialogue is funny, but because these guys genuinely care for one another.  STAND UP GUYS is a great friendship movie. 

 

There are also some nice poignant moments, like when Val asks a woman to dance with him at a club.  When he explains to her that all he wants to do is dance, without any monkey business, and if she dances with him, she’ll never have to see him again, it’s such a moving sincere moment.  Pacino nails the emotions of a man who’d been in prison for nearly three decades, here having his first opportunity to hold a woman close again.

 

Some of the other serious scenes don’t work as well.  The scenes where they seek out Hirsch’s daughter Nina (Julianna Marguiles) fall rather flat and seem rushed.  The scenes with the young waitress Alex (Addison Timlin) who Doc visits regularly work better, but I figured out the revelation about this relationship beforehand.

 

Directed by actor Fisher Stevens, STAND UP GUYS is a tour de force for Pacino, Walken, and Arkin, and as such, Stevens wisely remains in the background and allows these powerhouse actors to strut their stuff.

 

As you would imagine, the performances here are topnotch, and Pacino and Walken share a genuine chemistry together.  I truly believed they were lifelong friends.  Throw Alan Arkin into the mix, and you’ve got a clinic on both comic and dramatic acting.

 

The supporting players are also very good.  Lucy Punch is hilarious as Wendy, the woman who runs the brothel, and Addison Timlin is like a bright ray of sunshine as Alex, the young waitress who Doc visits regularly.  Vanessa Ferlito makes her mark as Sylvia, the woman who gets to avenge the men who raped her, and only Julianna Marguiles doesn’t fare as well as Hirsch’s daughter Nina, mostly because it’s not the most memorable part.

 

Mark Margolis makes for an effective heavy as crime boss Claphands, even though it’s an underdeveloped character.  Margolis spends his brief screen time screaming threats and looking angry, as opposed to actually doing things.  Of course, Margolis does anger well, and if you’ve seen the TV show BREAKING BAD you know what I mean.

 

I wasn’t crazy about the ending.  While I understood and completely bought into Doc’s decision at the end, what happens afterwards was somewhat of a letdown.

 

That being said, the weak ending in no way takes away from all that came before it, and as a result, I still found myself enjoying STAND UP GUYS a lot.

 

It’s all about friendship, and looking back at one’s life from one’s twilight years and having some buddies there looking back with you, helping you make sense of it all, the kinds of friends you can count on.  In short, stand up guys.

—END—

 

LIFE OF PI Visually Impressive But Spiritually Lacking

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Life of Pi posterBlu-Ray Review:  LIFE OF PI (2012)

By

Michael Arruda

This story will make you believe in God.

That’s what they say in the movie LIFE OF PI (2012), anyway.  I say it will make you believe in good CGI effects, but that’s about it.

The first half of LIFE OF PI, winner of four Academy Awards and now available on Blu-Ray, really does play like a spiritual experience.  The set-up is there for a big payoff, a religious/transcendent experience where young Pi and his ferocious tiger Richard Parker will ultimately bond and join forces in order to survive, stranded on the open ocean.  Trouble is that payoff doesn’t satisfy.

A writer (Rafe Spall) visits a man named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) because he’s been told that Pi has a story to tell that will make the writer (and ultimately his readers) believe in God.  Pi agrees to tell the writer his story, and it begins with interesting anecdotes about his life, how he was interested in religions at a young age, and how he grew up at a zoo.

When Pi’s father decides it’s time to move, the entire family and their zoo animals take a trip on a ship which ultimately sinks in a storm.  Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself the sole human survivor.  He manages to make it to a lifeboat, along with some of the zoo animals, including the tiger, nicknamed Richard Parker.  Needless to say, the other zoo animals do not survive for very long.

It’s this story that makes up the magical adventure of LIFE OF PI, the survival tale of Pi and the tiger, lost in the middle of the ocean.

Visually speaking, LIFE OF PI is a rich and rewarding experience, and the Blu-Ray print was vibrant and colorful.  But in terms of story, I was left somewhat disappointed.  The story of Pi and Richard Parker is a realistic one, but for me, it was too realistic.  I was promised a spiritual experience.  What I got was a very human one.  I wanted more spiritualism, but ultimately, the only thing magical about Richard Parker is the CGI effects which created him.

The bond they share is steeped in realism, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the movie never ventures into childish Disney territory.  Pi and the tiger don’t become best buddies, and they never reach the level where Pi isn’t afraid that the animal will kill and eat him.   But since this is a tale which supposedly will cause those who hear it to believe in God, I expected something more profound.

The tiger is more a symbol of Pi’s drive to survive than just a fellow creature that bonds with the boy.  LIFE OF PI is about survival, and if that’s the story of God, then that’s only part of it.  God is about more than just survival.

I found LIFE OF PI full of spiritual questions but limited in the answers it gives.  Ultimately, it only answers part of the great question of life.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed the first half, the build-up, more than the second half, the pay-off.  The screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, does a nice job bringing the character of Pi to life.  The retelling of Pi’s early childhood, his schoolhouse misadventures, for example, and his forays into multiple religions, is light and humorous, and sets the stage for what’s to come.

But what follows, the main part of the film, the shipwreck adventure of Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, while compelling, never quite reaches the spiritual level promised at the beginning of the film.  It presents a limited story of bonding between man and beast, and it doesn’t provide satisfactory answers to its spiritual questions.

The most compelling reason to see LIFE OF PI is for its visuals.  Its Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects was well deserved, as was the Oscar for Best Directing which went to director Ang Lee.  The tender and sincere story no doubt benefitted from Lee’s strong guiding hand.

The cast is decent enough, but again, the real stars here are the CGI effects.

The story touched me on an emotional level, and I bought into Pi’s plight, his struggle for survival, his uncomfortable camaraderie with the tiger Richard Parker, and I was excited to take the spiritual journey with him.  However, it’s on the spiritual level that the film lost me.  It seemed incomplete, as if it didn’t want to go the extra mile and hammer home its points on life, religion, and God.  It took on these issues peripherally, did a nice job steeping them in symbols, but when push came to shove, it just didn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is, who we are and what our place is in the universe.  While we are small and insignificant, we are part of a bigger universe, but just what that part is, is less important in LIFE OF PI than the idea that we are part of something.  That concept seems to be enough for this story, but after such a promising build up, I expected more.

LIFE OF PI will stimulate your senses, move your emotions, and even fuel your curiosity, but when it comes to mystical matters, it’ll leave you stranded.

—END—