Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, The Interrupters, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Monsieur Lazhar

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

When modern 3D technologies first started making serious inroads into contemporary filmmaking, thanks to the phenomenal world-wide success of James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, I viewed the technology with more than just skepticism. “Why,” I asked, “is this even necessary? Are 2D movies with surround-sound systems not immersive enough – do we need the addition of the third dimension? Won’t this be just a gimmick, as it was in the 1950s? And what about those glasses?”

But Avatar had been – if nothing else – a visually beautiful and stimulating experience (though I found the story derivative and often nonsensical), so I was open to the idea that another director as creative as Cameron might be able to make equally good use of it (and have a better script). Then, in September, 2011, Panasonic lent my university its AG-3DA1 camera for a few weeks, and while we couldn’t quite figure out what to shoot with it in that time, I was nevertheless intrigued by the technology. But there was still the problem of how to view the footage or view the finished movie without needing glasses. Plus, it seemed as if the initial onrush of 3D movies was slowing down, and that it might take a few years for the true application of this technology to catch on: training videos, medical videos, and certain documentaries where modeling might be needed.

This past summer, when I was called upon to appear on the radio as a film critic, and to discuss the movies of the season, I went out and watched 14 films in one week (I had seen more films earlier). My impression after seeing most of the big 3D films of the year, then, is this: the technology, and the artistic use of it, is quite impressive. We have seen far too many slapdash after-thought applications of it in films that were never conceived in 3D, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, and far too many re-releases of films shot in 2D and now converted to 3D, like Titanic, to nauseate those of us with even the strongest stomachs, yet here was a batch of films that all used the technology brilliantly: The Amazing Spider-ManThe AvengersMen in Black 3, and Prometheus. Whatever one may think of those films, the 3D within them enhanced their respective stories. The one exception to this upward trend was the horrible Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which was ugly to look at it on top of its unappealing script.

What all of these films have in common is that they offer us tales of the fantastic and unreal. But now comes Life of Pi, which is certainly a movie that dabbles in the supernatural, yet also offers us images of the natural world, conceived and designed with such unearthly magnificence – and which surround us in all their 3D glory – that one has to wonder if 3D cannot also be used to tell more realistic tales, as well. Of especial note is the opening sequence of the film, in which the camera takes us on a lingering journey through a botanical garden, revealing animal after animal in vibrant colors, palpable and present. The hummingbird that circles around the koala’s head took my breath away. This is a deeply spiritual film that, although filled with religious allegory, is nevertheless grounded in the physical world, and it’s the technology that helps ground it.

I have not read the book, so I cannot say how well the movie works as an adaptation. I can, however, attest to how well it works as a film. For three quarters of its just-over-2-hour running time, Life of Pi is pure cinematic brilliance. From that opening sequence in the garden to Pi’s arrival at the floating island, I was in movie heaven. I am not particularly spiritual, yet I was along for the voyage, following the main character as he tries to find his way through life by embracing all of the world’s religions. Played as an adult by Irrfan Khan, Pi was especially appealing. I would love to learn about the Kabbalah from such a teacher!

The story is about a young Indian boy, named Piscine Molitor after a Parisian swimming pool (which he shortens to “Pi” to avoid schoolyard bullying) who, after a fairly idyllic childhood (in spite of the bullying) as the child of zookeepers, leaves India suddenly, as a teenager, and ends up, post-shipwreck, alone in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. The story of his survival, and what it means about faith and about God, is the main focus of the book (I think) and the film. As a multi-layered allegory, enhanced with striking visual imagery, it is sublime.

But then, towards the end, the film loses focus as we leave the lifeboat, first to visit a strange floating island inhabited by meerkats (why meerkats?), and then to visit Pi in the hospital as he recovers, post-rescue. I found the way that Lee filmed the hospital scene, where Pi must explain his oceanic ordeal, quite unimaginative. I admit that that may be his point – that once the mystical experience is over, everything is ordinary by comparison. But it was such a strange off-putting scene, with a series of overlong shots on Pi, with too much exposition and no supporting visuals. It might have been nice to have some flashbacks that would show us how different the constructed tale appears from the one we have just witnessed. Ang Lee could then have done something interesting with the color palette and shot design to highlight the separate realities. Well, it’s his movie, and he chose to do it this way. So be it. The unremarkable ending does not detract from the remarkable portions that come before. I almost wished I believed in God . . .

So who is most responsible for the gorgeous visual design of the film? Since digital production and post-production is still not widely understood by film reviewers, much less the general public, much credit is being given to the cinematographer (or Director of Photography – DP for short), as in this New York Times review. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since we can tell, by looking at Claudio Miranda’s IMDb page, that he has a lot of experience with what is known as “visual effects cinematography:” among the other films he has shot are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy. A DP who specializes in creating images for a film that will rely heavily on visual effects needs to know how to photograph images just like the cinematographers of old, but also needs to know how to light and capture images that will be used in artificially constructed “composite” frames in post-production, long after the shoot is over. Once his/her job is done, other people continue the process of refining the image.

These “other people” do not just show up at the end of production, however, but have been equally as involved as the DP and Director in the conception and design of the film. Probably the most important additional creative person in a visual effects-heavy movie is the Production Designer (whom we’ll call the PD), who in this case is David Gropman. This brilliant man (whom I had the privilege of learning from when I was a graduate student at NYU) has worked on films as diverse as Marvin’s RoomChocolat, and Hairspray. Traditionally, a Director may bring the PD or DP on to a picture first, depending on his/her preference, but increasingly, since so much of the image we will see on-screen is going to be constructed out of many different elements, the PD is the one who will need to see the film through to the end, along with a Visual Effects Supervisor, who in this case is Bill Westenhofer. And let’s not forget the legions of creative talent working within both the design and effects departments who help bring the film to life.

So when you’re watching Life of Pi, if you find yourself marveling at the beauty of the universe, think of all of the many different people responsible for that beauty. Ultimately, Ang Lee deserves our thanks, as it’s his vision that drives the movie. But you’ll probably see folks like Claudio Miranda, David Gropman, Bill Westenhofer, and others, nominated at Oscar™ time, and they will deserve that honor.

Now – we just have to get rid of those damn 3D glasses . . .

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

The most interesting part of this new adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s 1877 novel is also its most problematic. Director Joe Wright, wary of treading where other filmmakers have trod before, decided to design the entire movie as an elaborate stage set. Backdrops whiz up and down, characters move through ceiling-mounted catwalks, and all the time we see the ropes and pulleys at work, in a glorious reveal of the artifice that defines the process. Wright’s conceit is that the rules that defined behavior in 1874 Imperial Russia imposed the same kinds restrictions and limitations on behavior as those faced by actors in a carefully constructed and blocked play. Deviate one step from the plan, and the entire production will go awry.

I admire Wright’s daring, and he almost pulls it off. There is something fascinating, at first, about the transitions between scenes, with one door opening from a dining room or ball room and leading us into a snowy field. But after a while, this device begins to feel gimmicky, and ultimately acts as a wedge between the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) and the characters. If none of the action is real, then why should we invest in it, emotionally? This is the story of a married woman who carries on an affair with a younger man, and loses everything as a result. Given the tragic nature of the ending, the artificiality of the production design somehow doesn’t work.

Which is too bad, since most of the actors deliver fine and emotionally complicated performances. Jude Law is perfect as the upright but rigid Karenin, and Keira Knightley does fine as Anna. But the standout performance, for me, was Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother, the unapologetically hedonistic Prince Oblonsky. Previously I had not seen Macfadyen – great in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral – be so animated and sleazy. What fun! Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all of 22 years old, equips himself well enough as Vronsky, as well, yet somehow lacks the sexual magnetism that I always imagined he would need to tempt Anna to stray. My main complaints are with the actors who play Levin and Kevin, who are too boring to hold my interest, yet whose characters are central to the novel.

I studied Russian literature in college, and read Anna Karenina and other works by Tolstoy. At the time, I found the novel quite compelling. Today, though, watching the film, I found myself doubly detached. I already mentioned the first detachment, above. My second detachment came because I ultimately didn’t care about the lives of these people. As portrayed in the movie, Anna and Vronsky – pampered nobles, both – behave quite recklessly, throwing all of their good fortune away. Well, Anna throws it away. Vronksy (and Oblonksy), being male, can do whatever he wants and suffer no real consequences, which is one of Tolstoy’s points about the hypocrisy of the Russian society of the time. But even so, as I watched Anna ignore her son and stupidly flaunt her affair in front of Karenin, and then reject his (unwanted) offers of help, I kept on thinking that, a little over 40 years later, none of these petty problems will matter, because the peasants who are paying for the nobles’ rights to behave in this way are going to rise up and slaughter them.  It didn’t help that the previews for Les Misérables preceded the main feature . . .

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)

I had the great pleasure of seeing this film recently at a Friends of the Maryland Film Festival screening, where the director, Steve James, was present for a post Q&A. I had previously missed it at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival, so it was great to finally catch it. James, whose previous work includes Hoop Dreams and Stevie, is the kind of documentary filmmaker who does his research and spends the needed time with his subjects to guarantee that they will ignore him as much as possible. While no film crew, no matter how small, can guarantee that its presence will not affect the behavior of their subjects, in James’s case, the actions of the people being filmed feel real and unadulterated, and we, the audience, become completely immersed in the story as a result.

The result is a powerful movie about a group of brave and motivated souls trying to rescue violence-plagued communities in Chicago from their ongoing cycle of tragedy. These “violence interrupters,” as they are called, step in and start dialoguing with people who have, themselves, been subject to some kind of injury, be it a beating, a robbery, or a family member/friend who has been killed. In this way, they try to force a moment of reflection, or pause, that just might prevent a retaliatory act of violence. These amazing activists are all, themselves, former gang members and criminals who have done jail time and emerged from their pasts with a desire to better the world.

We watch as the three main interrupter subjects – Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra – operate under the direction of Tio Hardiman, who runs CeaseFire (now known as Cure Violence), the organization which employs them, and who is, himself, a former gang member. Navigating different Chicago neighborhoods, each painstakingly labors to save people from their own (very human) desire to exact retribution on others who have done them wrong. I was amazed, watching, at the amount of personal one-on-one time these courageous folk were willing to spend to reach out and (maybe) prevent violence. It’s heartbreaking work, and only they could do it, since only they have the credibility in these neighborhoods to lead these discussions. Whatever violence or crime Ameena, Cobe, Eddie, Tio and others committed in the past (and given the environments in which they came of age, it’s hard to blame them), they have more than made up for it with the work they are doing now. These are the kinds of people who deserve a Noble Peace Prize.

My kudos to James and his crew for making yet another riveting and moving film. In fact, the film is so powerful that it has even led Rahm Emanuel to allocate funding for CeaseFire, in spite of the reservations that some police officers have about working with ex-felons. The statistics apparently validate the effectiveness of this program, as Gregg Bernstein, Baltimore State’s Attorney, told us at the screening (since he was the one leading the Q&A). I’m sure it’s not a cure-all, and the program doesn’t address the roots of crime (which isn’t its purpose), but anything that prevents further violence is a net positive, as far as I’m concerned. So see the film, if you can, and spread the word.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Edward Burns, 2012)

As with all other Edward Burns films I have seen, this movie had lots of clumsy bits. The writing was also hardly filled with scintillating bits of dialogue. And yet . . . there were moments of genuine feeling here, and better performances than I was expecting. By the end of the film, when the family decides to reconcile for Christmas, I actually found myself with a tear in my eye. But then . . . Burns had to almost ruin it with an ill-conceived and badly executed ending dinner scene, in which he tried to make a bad modern arrangement of “Veni Veni Emmanuel” do the emotional heavy lifting for him. Oh, well. That flub does not take away from what works, earlier.

If you like family dramas, enhanced with ethnic specificity, then you might just really enjoy the picture. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets In America, and be grateful that Burns has come a long way, as both a director and actor, since The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One. He’s appealing, most of the other actors are appealing, and if you can ignore the missteps, you’ll emerge after 110 minutes feeling pretty good.

A final note: this is a film that you can either choose to see in theaters, or watch on Video-on-Demand (VOD). As such, it is a potential harbinger of distribution models to come (though not the first film to try this out). Choose your platform, and see which you prefer.

Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011)

An Oscar™ nominee for 2011 Best Foreign Film, Monsieur Lazhar is an effective and moving drama about an Algerian immigrant in Québec, struggling to overcome a deep personal loss, who copes with it by becoming a teacher in a school where the students must deal with their own serious tragedy: the in-school suicide of their previous teacher. Like many films about non-conformist educators who strive to reach out to their pupils and confront bureaucracies that stymie them – Dead Poets Society and Les choristes among them – Monsieur Lazhar has, at its center, an extremely appealing and charismatic protagonists, in this case played by the very affecting Mohamed Fellag.

I loved this movie for about two thirds of its approximately 90 minutes. But then, towards the end, when I realized just how irresponsible the titular character’s behavior actually is – I’ll avoid major plot spoilers here – the film lost some of my good will. True, the director remains neutral, to some degree, and avoids judging anyone, but I was nevertheless disappointed that we hadn’t spent more time trying to understand Bachir Lazhar’s motivations (even just 5 more minutes), After all, when a mature adult works out his issues through the medium of working with children, those actions have extremely large and reverberating consequences.

I didn’t mind the complexities of the story and the lack of simple answers – in fact, I embraced them and was grateful for them, since so often American films avoid these kinds of nuances – but I wished that we, the audience, were allowed just a little more of a cathartic release at the end. I appreciated the final hug between Lazhar and his star pupil (played by the precocious Sophie Nélisse), and maybe that was enough (as was her own final moment with her classmate Simon, played with just the right amount of bravado and vulnerability by Emilien Néron). I just know that I was left in want of a slightly more satisfying conclusion. Perhaps, over time, I will come to a more charitable interpretation of the ending. For now, however, I was left wanting more, and left thinking that Monsieur Lazhar had gotten off easy. A film like 2008’s Entre les murs does a better job, in my mind, of confronting the teacher and holding him accountable.

I still think it’s a film worth watching, if for no other reason than to enjoy 60 minutes of great cinema, and to enjoy some fine performances by the lead adult and the two leading children.


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