MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Life of Pi

My problem with Life of Pi is simple.

It’s a piece of high art, tethered to earth in the desire to be accessible and PG-safe. It’s also an earthly big studio effects show, unable to entertain wildly enough to overcome the simplicity of the story as it rolls out and the unavoidable stench of death that hangs over the tale.

I sat in the film, completely open to all of the elements of the film. Ang Lee, check. Irrfan Khan, check. Fantastical journey story, check. Spiritual enlightenment, check. One man confronts his soul, check. The elements had me at, “Hello.”

But it never came together for me. Truly not for a minute.

The story, as offered from the first frames, is of a middle aged man telling his story to a reporter who has been sent to hear a great tale of a life’s journey. The movie is almost all a flashback, essentially. He tells the reporter the story of his youth, taking about 30 minutes before going on the boat journey that leads to the teen boy on the boat in the ocean that you’ve seen in all the ads.

I’m going to tell you one story that occurs in the first act that, for me, explains why this movie simply doesn’t work. I don’t think is a spoiler, but if you are especially sensitive to any story details, don’t read the next three paragraphs…

The family owns a zoo. And the pre-teen Pi is experimenting, wanting to see the tiger eat raw meat close up… to feed the tiger, really. When his father finds out, he is enraged about the lack of respect the boy is showing a wild – albeit caged – creature. And to show him the brutality of nature, he feeds the tiger a live goat… live and tied outside of the cage… until the tiger pulls it through the slits of the gate and carries it away.

And here is my problem with this film. The father, over the mother’s protests, is going to make the boy face this brutality… this reality. And what does the film do? It cuts away. Goat on the outside of the cage frightened, tiger coming for it, reaction shot of the family, tiger, half way down the hallway, dragging the goat, but without any blood or such ugliness.

Thanks for sparing us the lesson. But why would I care about the lesson the boy is having if I am not having a lesson that is emotionally as weighty? Movies have cut away from violence forever, but this is not Bambi. It’s not like we have an emotional stake in that goat. It’s not the boy’s personal pet. It’s just a goat that was going to be be lunch for the tiger one day.

For me. that disconnect from raw, honest emotion amongst the beautiful, fantasized pictures is what is lacking utterly in this film. The most disappointing inclination to stay away from the harsh reality of life is in the third act, which I won’t explain for sake of spoilage. But the audience is treated like an 12-year-old going to see their first R rated movie with mom and dad, being walked out of the theater when things get “too rough.”

I can live with the ol’ “train going through the tunnel” cutaway. But not in a movie that is about the complexity of dealing with your first sexual encounters. I don’t need or want a soft-core or hard-core porn film either. But a movie like The Graduate – sticking to the sex example – managed to express great discomfort and even anger in a sexual encounter without being explicit visually. The shot through Anne Bancroft’s bent leg has become iconic and simplified by that status, but in the life of that movie – still! – you still get a ton of personal politics condensed down into a couple of powerful minutes. Blood is drawn, even without seeing Hoffman’s butt bobbing up and down in and out of frame. (We’ll save that for the McG remake.)

So there are artful ways to smack the audience across the face with some hard reality, without being graphic. But this film cuts away emotionally as well as visually.

I made fun of Heath Ledger licking his fingers in Brokeback Mountain for years… but I have to say, the act of bravery in that choice, as directed and edited by Ang Lee, is profound as an act of filmmaking… like the Anne Hathaway sex scene, a big, bloody mouthful of reality in an otherwise very restrained piece.

But I digress…

The clear comparison to Life of Pi is to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, which, ironically, I sat in a Fox screening room alone to watch all those years ago. That was a movie that made people cry over a volleyball. This is a movie that pulls almost every punch.

The thing about Ang Lee, who I believe is masterful filmmaker, is that he makes films about repressed emotion. This film is about that too. But for me, that is not what the heart of this story is. It is about the human mind and spirit and for all of its talk of religion, about as anti-organized-religion as you can get. But spirituality doesn’t soar unless you are completely clear (no Scientology reference intended). And clarity requires both the good and the bad. Repressing one does not illuminate the other.

Weir… Aronofsky… Herzog… Schnabel… Boyle… Assayas… Demme… so many filmmakers who wouldn’t have flinched from the hard stuff. They have walked this walk. And there are others who would have made the fantasia that much more powerful, starting with Malick.

Behn Zeitlin, by the way, made a movie just this year that doesn’t declare its themes nearly as specifically, but is very, very similar to the material here, in Beasts of the Southern Wild… and is a much, much better, more interesting movie.

None of those versions of this would be as easy to sell.

But they might have been great art.

I don’t want to piss on anyone’s birthday cake, but I don’t have high expectations for this film, commercially or in terms of awards. I expect the ambivalent reaction that many have had to The Master, but without the “but obviously the guy is a genius” part.

Ang Lee is so talented… but man, what he could be if he just let his freak flag fly.

21 Responses to “Review: Life of Pi”

  1. Plpdigest says:

    “Ang Lee is so talented… but man, what he could be if he just let his freak flag fly”

    What, in your opinion, is the film he’s come closest to this with?

    (because this may seem like some criticism of your assessment, I just want to say that I’m just genuinely curious what people think it would be)

  2. Ryan says:

    The Ice Storm

  3. Antho42 says:

    Is the 3D game-changing?

  4. David Poland says:

    No, the 3D isn’t close to game changing. Captain EO.

    In fact, I found the majority of it irritating and wanted to remove my glasses.

  5. lazarus says:

    It should have been noted, David, that Lee didn’t pull any punches when he released Lust, Caution with an NC-17 rating.

  6. David Poland says:

    Well… that’s a more complex conversation than the rating.

    I think he was more audacious than he’s been, but still hardly a porn film. Some would say he was still somewhat restrained.

    I don’t know that punches were pulled as such. This may be his choice, 100%… though it is hard to imagine that a 3rd act sequence was not shot, given the casting (don’t want to spoil).

    I have a feeling this conversation will be going on for a while.

  7. anghus says:

    i think Lust, Caution is his most freak-flag flying film. I love that movie.

  8. Mark says:

    I’ve been reading reviews on the net for the last hour and it seems you are the only one who didn’t like it. I guess it is a matter opinion, but you are the only one who didn’t find the visual effects and the use of 3D satisfactory, to say the least. Quoting Anne Thompson “I think it is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen”.

  9. Christian says:

    This looks awesome from that fascinating preview and the critics who attacked that just shows you what most are worth these days.

  10. David Poland says:

    I think the effects are often beautiful… the 3D isn’t bad or anything, just not necessary except for a few shots. It is far from the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. The hummingbird, for instance, is so 1990s IMAX. I think there was a lot of telling people how gorundbreaking the effects are before the movie – the trailer got a full drool last March – and I don’t know that those factoids and the actual movie have separated in some minds.

    You know, everyone gets an opinion. Being out early means one opinion may stick out more. I am not anxious about my feelings about this film… and I often am when I feel I am being too hard on the thing. But as I noted on Twitter earlier today, most of my complaints are reflected in some of the other reviews, but overruled in the overall tone of those reviews. So…. there ya go…

  11. Rashad says:

    Cast Away, not Castaway. Two different meanings.

  12. Mark says:

    Sometimes all you need to do is watch a movie more than once… just to be sure. From your review I can only get the feeling thay this is the worst Ang Lee movie ever (even worse than that Woodstock crap… no, I am not being too harsh, it is the only Ang Lee movie I didn’t like) and not worth watching at all.

  13. David Poland says:

    Mark… I think you are reading too much into the review. I don’t think I am nearly that severe. I actually like a lot of things about the Woodstock movie.

    And this movie is as pretty as others have suggested. But is it the big emotional powerhouse that others are writing about…. don’t see it. I don’t think the pretty informs the memory enough or smartly enough.

    But I may well end up in the minority… or may not. These big awards movies have interesting life cycles. The first burst of energy is often suspect. People start changing course.

    There are a lot of movies that go from being overhyped to underappreciated in the course of 4 months.

  14. faclo says:

    The Problem with this review is it is drawing too many comparisons with other directors or other movies. Why do we need to compare this to anything else.

  15. Davey says:

    You missed the boat on this one. This may turn out to be Ang Lee’s biggest hit. It will do well internationally.

  16. David Poland says:

    1. Not sure how disagreeing with others is “missing the boat.”
    2. Not sure why box office is relevant to whether I think a movie is successful as a movie.
    3. If every single person who read the book sees the movie, that’s still less than 1/3 the gross of Crouching or Hulk.

  17. eric says:

    (Editor Note: Major Spoiler)

    sounds like Lee left out one of the most important aspects of the book, namely that the animals on the raft were actually people. Yes, there’s a whole other gruesome layer of the story that is not reveled until the end of the book that seems to have been dropped for the sake on making 3D adventure film

  18. TC says:

    To Mark above,
    I completely disagree with your assessment of “Taking Woodstock”, It was a vastly underrated film – it made my Top 10 of the year in 2009 – with an Oscar worthy performance by Emile Hirsch as well as tremendous performances by the rest of the cast. And if you’re going to bring it up, even if you don’t like it, at least have the courtesy to use the correct name and not toss it off as “that Woodstock movie” in the same way someone would curse “that damn cat”. It’s disrespectful and makes it seem like you’re not a film fan, but rather someone in it just for the snark…so please do us a kindness and be respectful…

  19. chris says:

    Eric, the layer to which you refer is in the movie.

  20. Edward says:

    I used to write reviews. I used to love reading reviews as well. However, I have come to see the bigger picture, and now I realize:

    WOW! People are too smart. They’re too critical, analytic and they seem too knowledgeable. They see all the flaws, and they have an opinion on everything. Why don’t they try to just CHILL for once? Especially when it comes to films, books and theatre. Whatever the flaws are, whatever a film lacks or isn’t able to accomplish or put across the way they [people– especially “smart ones”] expect it to be put across, etc… THAT’S SOMEBODY’S ART right there. And of course it’s not gonna be perfect. JUST FREAKING RELAX AND APPRECIATE THE ART!

    Humans these days are making everything more complicated than it is. Don’t be too smart. “Be dumb” for a while… you’ll see it’s not that bad to not care too much about imperfections.

  21. Don says:

    You may not have had an emotional connection to the goat, but I did and I imagine many others did. Your interest was in seeing the gore of animal slaughter when the reaction of the family and the goat being carried off did enough and then some to deliver the point.

The Hot Blog

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch

To me, Hunter S. Thompson was a hero. His early books were great, but in many ways, his life and career post–Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is a cautionary tale for authors. People expected him to be high and drunk all the time and play that persona, and he stuck with that to the end, and I don’t think it was good for him. I always sort of feel mixed emotions when I hear that people went and hung out with Hunter and how great it was to get high with Hunter. The fact is the guy was having difficulty doing any sustained writing at all for years probably because so many quote, unquote, “friends” wanted to get high with him … There was a badly disappointed romantic there. I mean, that great line, “This is where the wave broke, the tide rolled back … ” This was a guy that was hurt and disappointed and very bitter about things, and it made his writing beautiful, and also with that came a lot of pain.
~ Anthony Bourdain