Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Movie Review: Life of Pi

Title: Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 158 minutes
Classification: PG-13 (M)
Genre: Drama, Magic Realism

Life of Pi tells the story of a boy who survives a shipwreck only to find himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. A tad unbelievable, perhaps, but that's the whole point. This is meant to be an epic, spiritual journey – one, which we are told, will make us believe in God. Now, I couldn't help but have high hopes for this film, given its celebrated director, prize-winning book, stunning trailer and great reviews, and I was ready to be a sucker and *~believe~*. Unfortunately, I walked away feeling slightly but distinctly unsatisfied.

Things start off well enough. The visuals are stunning from the get-go, with a vivid palette and adorable HD zoo animals. But as I saw more and more of the writer (Rafe Spall) and adult Pi (Irfan Khan), I felt myself deflate. The use of the interview as a framing technique seemed to work well enough in the book, but here it felt limiting and more than a bit contrived – rather than letting the story speak for itself, we are told, on no uncertain terms, that we are about to embark on a ~journey of faith~.

Perhaps it's because I sat in a bad spot in the cinema, but what ensued was not especially captivating. The early discussions on religion are superficial but heavy-handed and the acting somewhat stilted. As such, the retelling of Pi's childhood seems to drag on (get to the tiger already!) and I failed to connect with the character and his beliefs.

Things get better once Pi is played by Suraj Sharma and the ocean voyage begins in earnest. His plight is terrifying yet so absurd that it isn't so much frightening as it is surreal. The vast expanses of ocean and sky only accentuate the dream-like atmosphere. Speaking of, the visuals live up to the hype. They are, simply put, very spectacular; the tiger looks very life-like and the scenery is gorgeous. It's possibly the most beautiful movie I've ever seen and is worth watching for the graphics alone. Pi's strange adventures on the ocean are easily the best part of the film – in survival mode, Pi becomes easier to relate to and you get a sense of his joy, his awe and his despair. As a bonus, everything looks magnificent, but I think I may have mentioned that already.

At the end we're confronted with the question of what to believe and the answer, supposedly, will affirm our faith. At this point, my good spirits withered away. Especially given the shallow treatment of faith and religion at the start of the film, I found this turn of events to be somewhat of a let-down and a reminder of the things I should have felt but didn't. Where I had previously enjoyed this as a story about a Boy and his Tiger, it all now felt a bit hollow. I can't quite remember feeling this way with Yann Martel's book, so I'm not sure whether the problem lies in the tale or its telling.

Many have found Life of Pi to be marvellously uplifting, but I'm afraid I hold with the less favourable reviews. Certainly it is impressive on a technical level and certainly it is a unique tale to have been brought on screen. Pi's adventures with the tiger are indeed wondrous, but alone, they are incapable of carrying the whole narrative. The film's key flaw is that it fails to give substance to its own spiritual aspirations – but clearly, it seems, many would disagree entirely.

Alex's Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Book Review: Good Omens

Title: Good Omens
Author: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Year Published: 1990
Genre: Urban fantasy, Comedy

Good Omens is about the Apocalypse – the actual biblical, Judgement Day, end-of-the-world sort, as opposed to the prelude-to-a-distopia variety. Angels and demons have been fighting to influence the fate of mankind for centuries, and this now this is all set to culminate in the Great Battle, set to take place on Saturday.

There are some, however, who don't want the world to end. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley have formed an alliance of sorts, each half-arse-ing their jobs so as to make their own lives easier. Neither wants things to change. Meanwhile, Adam, an eleven year old boy, is simply enjoying the summer with his friends in Lower Tadfield, England. Unbeknownst to Adam, he is the Antichrist, and therefore key to the whole Armageddon thing. At this crucial time in the world's fate, Aziraphale, Crowley, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a witch and a witchfinder all find themselves drawn to Lower Tadfield.

This is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most inventive books I have ever read, and perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, given who the authors are. It's littered with random footnotes, wordplay and satire on pretty much everything. I'd recommend it based on the lulz alone – there's at least one on every page. Some knowledge about the biblical End of Days would probably bolster you enjoyment of the book. If you're religious, you should know by now whether this sort of thing is your cup of tea, though I'll just add that the book doesn't go out of its way to either insult or promote Christianity or religion in general.

My favourite parts were the bits about Agnes Nutter and the Four Horsemen – they were quirky and funny, a fresh take on an old concept. Crowley and Aziraphale also make a great odd couple. My least favourite part were the bits involving the Them, since I wasn't particularly enamoured of their cute kid discussions and found them somewhat repetitive. Further, even though the book is a pleasure to read, by the time I got to the middle I was impatient for the world to end already since the book is essentially build-up to that event.

I also have a not-quite-criticism of the way women are handled in this book. They're generally portrayed as independent and (more) capable (than men), which I guess is great and all, but at times it felt like the authors were actively pushing some sort of pro-female agenda. My impression wasn't so much that women are fantastic, but rather that the authors want us to know that they're not sexist, in which case, mission accomplished, I think? I'm probably being cynical and over-sensitive here, and I know this is unlikely to be the authors' intention, and you can call me ridiculous, but I couldn't help that this was my impression. I doubt that many others would have the same reaction – if anything, I reckon most people would be pleased that there are strong female characters at all... Another bit of side-eye I'll throw the authors' way regards how apparently, all Tibetans are Buddhist monks... but I digress.

The book loses a bit of steam towards the end, as if the authors weren't sure where to take things but had to end it somehow. Given the interesting premise, I suppose this was something bound to happen. Still, the writing is so charming that the outcome doesn't really matter and I can see why Good Omens is beloved by so many. It's held up very well for a contemporary book and its critique on pollution and body image is still relevant today. Most importantly, it's very funny, and that's the main basis on which I'd recommend it to others.

Alex's Rating: 4/5