Three brief movie reviews

Better late than never. Here are three more films I saw over the last few months that I didn’t remember to review at the time.

Life of Pi

This movie had a lot of buzz even before it was released. Director Ang Lee won Best Director for the movie. This is not surprising if you see the movie because it is an amazingly intimate story of a marooned young man and a tiger adrift together on a boat at sea. Many of the scenes with the tiger were done digitally, only it’s impossible to tell, which speaks volumes about the state of modern CGI today. Presumably the same is true of the other animals in this lifeboat, but it’s sure not big enough to be a Noah’s Ark. The hungry tiger finds the other animals easy meat, and has his eyes on Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) as well.

Pi has a curious tale to tell as an Indian boy, including a story about his unusual name. He is obsessed with religion and seems to move easily from one religion to the other, without being committed to any religion. He also does not believe in animal’s violent nature and is willing to put his life in danger by offering meat to a tiger to prove it, all without protection. This alarms his secular father (Adil Hussein) who tries various things to change his son’s mind, none of which work. His father jumps at the opportunity to take a job in England, but the freighter his family takes capsizes in a storm. Pi is one of the few to survive. His journey with the tiger on a boat quickly takes on metaphysical aspects while also being one of survival. The whole story sounds preposterous which raises the question of whether Pi is telling the truth or not, and whether the truth even matters.

This is the heart of the movie, which is certainly well done and brilliantly directed. Whether you find this idea worthy of pondering in detail for two plus hours depends on your philosophical disposition. The movie tries hard to challenge you to think on whether there is a meaningful difference between reality and allegory. In Pi’s eyes maybe not, and you may walk away from the movie a bit more mystical, if not misty eyed, by seeing the world through Pi’s eyes. At all times he seems half in reality, and half in the spiritual world. I found the movie interesting, but a bit overbearing at times. It is certainly not a product of Hollywood. If nothing else it is refreshing to see yet another talented non-American director bring us a story outside our insular American perspective. Kudos for that.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Way Back (2010)

This movie looked very promising from the trailers, but seeing that it was directed by Peter Weir (who I greatly admired for Dead Poets Society) cemented my decision to rent it. If you like real adventure movies (unlike pseudo-adventure movies, such as the Indiana Jones series) it would be hard to top this one. It details the true story of a group of prisoners at a Soviet labor camp in the middle of Siberia who escaped from the camp in the dead of winter and somehow walked more than four thousand miles to freedom.

My God but Siberia is a cold and snowy place in the dead of winter. Hell has to be better because it is at least warm. The conditions in the labor camp are austere, to say the least, the food incredibly bad and it is hundreds of miles from anywhere. Labor consists of working in filthy coal mines, otherwise you spend your life huddled in overcrowded barracks trying to stay warm. Escaping sounds crazy but a group of them with some extra bread, a knife and not much else but their clothes escape and keep heading south sans map and survive by their wits. In such harsh conditions you might expect not all would make it, and they might be imitating Hannibal Lecter when they get hungry enough. Their immediate destination is Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake in southern Siberia. When the survivors finally make it there they cannot stop. They are still escaped convicts. They must keep going south, through Mongolia and its endless deserts, and eventually through the Himalayan Mountains to freedom in northern India. Yes, some do actually make it, and it’s the journey that is worth witnessing. Wier succeeds in making their journey painfully realistic.

For the most part the actors are unknown, but you will recognize Ed Harris as Mr. Smith and Colin Farrell as Valka. Around Lake Baikal they encounter a woman who joins them, Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who is not quite who she seems and has a complex story to tell that slowly unravels. An adventure you will definitely get, but it’s an adventure in grisly survival. You should also glean an appreciation for the enduring human spirit and its determination to live another day. Along the way you will see some of the worst of mankind and some of its best. Mostly what you get is a lot of painful reality and a lot of beautiful if not cruel nature wholly indifferent to human concerns. It’s good stuff, if you have the stomach for a real-life drama, but to not expect any new insights into human behavior. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

Chocolat (2000)

It’s curious that in small French villages everyone speaks English, at least in movies produced elsewhere. At least they usually do it with a French accent. Even today rural France is a pretty conservative place, and it is more so in this somewhat dated movie of village life starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne Rocher, a divorcee who blows into the village where everything revolves around its Catholic church and its obsessively virtuous priest. Vianne’s implicit job is to breathe some life and reality into the stuffy town, and her mechanism is to open a chocolate shop. She compounds her sin by making sure it is open after mass on Sundays, to the great consternation of the village’s devout. Vianne is a mischievous charmer and is quickly perceived by the cleric as a moral threat to the village. Father Henri (Hugo O’Conor) is particularly upset by the woman, as it is Lent and he must fast and yet her chocolate demons are so conveniently across the street. He organizes a moral crusade to castigate her and force her to move elsewhere. Vianne is not easily intimidated, and she has a teenage daughter Anouk to look after as well.

The movie has occasionally serious undertones, but it is mostly about Vianne’s tweaking the sensibilities of the townspeople, and particularly its priest by having the audacity to be her liberated and secular self. There are a number of great supporting actors in this movie, some of who were just getting fully established in their careers at the time. These include Johnny Depp as the morally dubious Gypsy named Roux, who runs a riverboat that sells dubious goods and seems full of vices. Carrie Anne Moss plays her friend Caroline. One actor who was not just getting established is the wonderful Judy Dench, here portraying Armande, a woman with a horribly abusive husband who feels strangled in her marriage because Catholics aren’t allowed to divorce. Vianne is nice enough to befriend her.

The movie has an impish feel to it and Vianne is its ringmaster. She is charming, disarming, and confident in her supposedly immoral ways and like Roux she seems party Gypsy. She is in town mostly to turn up the soil and see what crawls out, and I think you will enjoy seeing what she unearths. This heartfelt movie has already become something of a foreign film charmer and won plenty of awards. Mostly it is just a movie to sit back and enjoy, full of flawed but very real people mostly bumbling through the roles they were assigned in life but secretly wanting to break free. Vianne is their catalyst.

3.3 out of four-points.

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