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After a cataclysmic shipwreck, young Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the only other survivor – a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Bound by the need to survive, the two are cast on an epic journey that must be seen to be believed. (From Fox’s official synopsis)

 Life of Pi (2D)
I keep starting reviews by claiming the director I’m talking about is the most eclectic working today (knowing perfectly well that no currently working director compares to someone like Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks). I’ve said this about Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott (both of whom can handle massive scale and intimate detail), and Danny Boyle (who makes a point of dealing in every major genre), but I’ve neglected Ang Lee. Lee began his career writing and directing a series of similar dramadies about Chinese family life, but, after he moved to Hollywood, he started embracing culturally diverse, period-specific, genre-specific movies, including a Jane Austen adaptation ( Sense and Sensibility), a ‘70s-set portrait of Americana ( The Ice Storm), a revisionist American western Ride with the Devil, a Qing Dynasty wuxia epic ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a modern, big-budget superhero adaptation ( Hulk), an intimate portrayal of a gay relationship spanning from the ‘60s through the ‘80s ( Brokeback Mountain), an erotic WWII espionage thriller ( Lust, Caution), and a comedy about late-‘60s hippy youth ( Taking Woodstock). All of these films have unifying themes and even visual similarities, but prove that Lee is interested in covering a wide, time-spanning array of subject matter. Life of Pi matches the pattern in that it follows some of the director’s favourite themes while being generally unlike any of his other films on a conceptual level.

Yann Martel’s book, also entitled Life of Pi, was already a massive success in its own right, selling more than ten million copies worldwide. Of course, Hollywood wanted to make a movie, but, as often happens, the critics called the book unfilmable, leading to series of departures from the project. The series of high-profile directors originally attached included a post- Village M. Night Shyamalan (poor guy chose Lady in the Water, instead), a post- Prisoner of Azkaban Alfonso Cuarón (he chose to make his best movie to date, Children of Men, instead), and a post- A Very Long Engagement Jean-Pierre Jeunet (he eventually chose to make Micmacs). When Lee eventually signed on (though he wanted to shoot Taking Woodstock first), the anticipation levels began to rise. If anyone could manage to capture feelings on film, it was probably Ang Lee.

Life of Pi marks the second time Lee has won the Oscar for Best Director without his film winning Best Picture. That’s gotta sting. The first time this happened Lee was awarded for his hard work on Brokeback Mountain, a great movie that somehow lost Best Picture to Paul Haggis’ Crash. Haggis not winning the Director prize makes sense, since the movie is terrible, but there’s no accounting for his Best Picture win. Lee winning Best Director for Life of Pi makes more sense and not just because the Best Picture favourite’s ( Argo) director wasn’t nominated. It’s pretty easy to assume that the director picked up Shyamalan, Cuarón, and Jeunet’s leftovers more for the sake of experimentation in digital effects and 3D photography, not so much for the sake of adapting Martel’s book. In interviews, Lee has spent a lot of energy discussing the film’s theology, but his vision for Martel’s material certainly overtakes any deep exploration of religion. It’s likely that the challenge was further stoked by claims that the book was ‘unadaptable.’ This doesn’t make Lee’s efforts any less impressive – he had a vision and he executed it as only he could – nor does it downplay the film’s other Academy Award accolades, which include Best Cinematography for Claudio Miranda, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Score for Mychael Danna – though I should note all of these awards sort of back up my theory of the film running on form, rather than content.

 Life of Pi (2D)
Tonally, I’m unable to find an appropriate comparison in Lee’s filmography. It’s a whimsical, occasionally cartoony film with strangely weightless performances (save many of Suraj Sharma’s solo sequences) and colourful images set against life and death struggles. The tone doesn’t whip from light to dark, either; it just hovers between extremes. Still, no matter how cynical my assumption are about Lee’s involvement, I can’t possibly mitigate the awe he achieves with his choice shots. Despite all my reservations with the story and message (which I’ll get to in a moment), I found myself consistently engaged by Lee’s increasingly surrealist imagery. He achieves true emotional resonance without dealing overtly in theology. At a certain point where only the most hard-hearted individual could not be moved by what Lee’s selling, even if he is pulling the shamelessly obvious heartstrings imaginable (sad animals, for example). Life of Pi might be the ideal example of a film that deserves accolades for direction without deserving equal credit for the sum of its parts. I also can’t imagine any of the previously mooted directors pulling this material off so spectacularly, though I do see a hint of Jeunet’s visual sense in Lee’s treatment.

Screenwriter David Magee, known only for British-flavoured/Amrican-acted, button-pushing sap-fests Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, does his best to find a plot in this mush of feelings and images. Again, I have not read the original book, but this particular script smells like a book adaptation, thanks to its episodic storytelling structure. The theological themes and cute little stories of Pi’s childhood are charming enough, but feels like the first episode of a longer miniseries, not the first act about a movie mostly concerned with the adventures of a young man and a tiger stranded on a boat. Magee’s flashback structure and Lee’s fluid sense of editing (more or less the same thing he did with parts of Hulk, where I thought it worked pretty well) dulls some of the preachiness of Martel’s story, but the opening act still acts a lot like an after-school special blended with something you’d see reenacted by a Sunday school class.

Once Pi’s family boards a boat on their way to Canada, the ‘stage is set’ for the central story (Yann Martel, the character, not the author, states this outright), but it feels like it took an awful long time getting there. The harsh life lessons aboard the lifeboat tell the same story without quite so many words. This would seem to be the purpose of the exercise to me – to preach tolerance and love via largely wordless exchanges between man and beast that mimic parables – so why waste time explaining what you’d rather your audience figures out for themselves? I genuinely enjoyed myself once the film takes to the sea, but Magee’s Best Adapted Screenplay nomination still doesn’t make any sense, because I can’t imagine he did much more than choose which passages to take from the book and which to ignore. Then there’s the climax (or coda, whichever term you prefer), which extends the story to include the possibility that the story adult Pi is telling never happened. Supposedly, this is meant to create further, deeper theological questions, but really cheapens the otherwise successful middle section. At worse, it feels like a failed attempt at a plot twist in a film already entangled in allegory.

 Life of Pi (2D)

Video


I often regret not seeing films on the big screen, but it’s not often that I regret missing out on a 3D experience. Life of Pi joins Hugo and Adventures of Tintin on that short list. Since I’m not set up for a 3D home experience, this review pertains to the 2D, 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray release (there is one scene where the aspect ratio changes to 2.35:1 and one where it changes to 1.33:1). Life of Pi was shot entirely on digital using Arri Alexa and the James Cameron-developed PACE Fusion 3D cameras. It marks the first time Lee has worked with digital ‘film’ or 3D and the second time cinematographer Claudio Miranda has worked with digital 3D, following Tron: Legacy. It also marks the third time in four years that a digital 3D film has won Best Cinematography.

This is an almost impossibly crystalline image, sitting somewhere between a BBC nature documentary and an entirely CG animated film. This makes for a weird mix of life-like textures and utterly unreal fine detail. The overall look is cushy and soft with some slightly blooming whites, but never at the risk of hard defining lines or the more important fine textures (i.e. Richard Parker’s fur, Pi’s increasingly sunburned face). Busy sequences, like scenes of hundreds of meerkats scurrying against a grass-infested terrain, don’t suffer compression noise issues. Like many 100% animated features, the bigger value of the 1080p image is found in the vivid colour quality. Lee and Miranda don’t have a theme colour set for the film, but do kind of break their varied palette into parts. The land-set scenes are the most eclectic in terms of overall colours and are especially warm. The daytime seafairing scenes are more de-saturated and cool, with simple red highlights and harsher contrasts. The night sequences are deeply dark and cut with neon black-light colours. All colour combinations are brilliant and tightly cut against each other with only minimal edge enhancement. The one problem I have with this transfer is its motion blur. From what I understand, this is not so much an issue with this transfer, but an effect of the chosen digital format. I don’t know why I didn’t have the same problem with Avatar or any number of other Arri Alexa releases, but definitely had issues with 2012 and Date Night, both of which were shot using Panavision Genesis cameras. Like 2012, the ghosting issues on Life of Pi mostly effect non-effects sequences.

 Life of Pi (2D)

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is the kind of thing that works as a demo disc, but only in parts. The bulk of the film, especially the first act, is music and dialogue driven with minimal ambient noise or directional enhancements. The first big audio moment is the scene where the boat sinks. Things begin rather simply with rain and thunder effects, but grow much more complex as the boat begins to go under. Soon, Pi is surrounded by frightened animals, diving into the flooded hull, and finally falling into the rushing ocean on a lifeboat as the ship goes under. Just about all the directional movement, throbbing bass, and other all the immersive noise you could ever need is found in this scene. From here, the track is made livelier, because Pi is trapped at sea, keeping the rear and stereo channels busy with the sounds of lapping water. Other highlights include the flying fish sequence (which was used as an extended trailer before the film was released) and the chattering reveal of an island of adorable meerkat. Composer Mychael Danna won the film’s fourth and final Oscar for Best Original Score (he was also nominated for Best Original Song, but lost to Adele and Paul Epworth for Skyfall). Danna has worked with Lee on Ride with the Devil and Hulk. Otherwise, he’s been plugging along without a whole lot of accolades. This score works mostly because it’s stylistically eclectic, though I mostly found it forgettable background noise, sort of culturally diverse elevator music. The music mostly settles beneath the dialogue and effects with handful of brass standout moments.

 Life of Pi (2D)

Extras


The extras begin with a four-part behind-the-scenes documentary entitled A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey (1:03:30, HD). It’s fluffy in terms of its touchy-feely tone (the word ‘emotional’ must have been spoken 200 times), but valuably covers the original book, pre-production, hiring Ang Lee (skipping any discussion of the other directors attached before him), screenwriting (cultural challenges, finding a plot), location scouting, editing, production design/art, pre-viz, casting (complete with audition footage), training, shooting/set-building in Taiwan, shooting in India, tiger training/research, Rhythm & Hues Studios’ CG work (you know, the studio that went bankrupt after the film was released and who were cut off at the Oscars), 3D cinematography/editing, and music. Interviewees include Lee, author Yann Martel, screenwriter David McGee, Fox executive Elizabeth Gabler, real-life shipwreck survivor/author Steve Callahan, editor Tim Squyres, casting director Avy Kaufman, yoga instruction Eli Alouf, stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell, marine coordinator Rick Hicks, production manager Michael J. Malone, production designer David Gropman, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, tiger trainer/consultant Thierry Le Portier, effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, script supervisor Mary Cybulski, composer Mychael Danna, and lead actor Suraj Sharma.

The extras are completed with A Remarkable Vision (19:40, HD), which further explores the film’s physical and digital effects (with a lot of overlap with the documentary), Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright (8:40, HD) about the tiger training scene, an image gallery, and storyboards.

 Life of Pi (2D)

Overall


Sometimes, the most satisfying movies are the ones you enjoy in spite of yourself. The heavy-handed themes of Life of Pi make me roll my eyes, but I can’t help but be in awe of Ang Lee’s powerful images. On the other hand, the most frustrating movies are the ones that come close to real greatness, only to fall victim to a series of bad/weird choices. The middle two-thirds of Life of Pi work so well that it’s a real pity they’re framed by such weak bookends. We’re not talking about a Peter Jackson-sized mismanagement of time and content here, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much more powerful the allegorical elements would’ve been with the free rein of a single actor, image-driven film. This 2D Blu-ray looks incredible (save the occasional motion blur that I’m guessing is part of the original material), sounds fantastic, and features some pretty extensive behind the scenes documentary material (I’m not sure exactly what more the 3D release holds other than deleted scenes).

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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