by Steve Habrat
If James Cameron’s day-glo spectacle Avatar had you longing for another visually immersive event movie, then you need to run, not walk, to Ang Lee’s shipwrecked epic Life of Pi. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, many fans of the book argued that the story would never transfer properly to the big screen but we all know that will never stop Hollywood from trying. There is no argument that Lee’s Life of Pi has plenty of emotional force and spiritual weight behind all the dazzling visuals and eye-popping 3D but the major problem with the film is that it does seem to loose its way more than a few times. At slightly over two hours, Life of Pi does get a bit long in the tooth, especially when the film trades the dry land whimsicality for Pi’s soggy Pacific adventure. Still, Life of Pi has plenty of cutesy humor, young love, religious curiosity, and tough life lessons worked into the first half of the film to shape the towering second half. Despite boredom setting in here and there, you can’t ever take you eyes off of star Suraj Sharma and his growling travel buddy, Richard Parker, a savage Bengal tiger eager to claim their little slice of lifeboat heaven for himself. It is a joy to watch these two try to establish a mutual trust so they can work together and ultimately be saved.
Life of Pi begins in the present with a Canadian writer (Played by Rafe Spall) approaching Indian immigrant Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Played by Irfan Khan) about an incredible story that would make a great book and make him believe in God. Pi agrees to share his story, which begins in Pondicherry, with how he got his unusual name (he’s named after a swimming pool in France) and how he got his nickname Pi (he gets sick of being called “Pissing” Patel by his classmates). Pi also dives into how he became interested in religion (he follows THREE religions) and how his family owned a local zoo that contained a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. At the age of sixteen, Pi (Played by Suraj Sharma) and his family decide to close up their zoo and move to Canada. They board the Japanese freighter Tsimtsum along with their family of animals and they settle in for what they assume will be a relatively smooth journey. Shortly after setting out, the ship encounters a terrible storm and Pi’s entire family is killed as the ship sinks. Pi manages to find his way into a lifeboat but a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker soon join him. All alone and fearing for his life, Pi has to learn to work together with his wild travel buddies and hold on to his faith in face of the impossible.
Considering that a majority of Life of Pi is set in a lifeboat, one could assume that the film would get awfully dry very fast. How do you keep the viewer hooked and entertained visually? Lee seems to understand this so he crafts a number of hallucinatory sequences that boast Avatar’s neon glow and 3D that expands Pi’s watery environment. Near the end of the film, Pi stumbles upon an island that is paradise by day for the hungry and thirsty traveler and then a glowing Hell in the same vein of Pandora by night. The island is inhabited by armies of meerkats, who munch on the algae and roots in the sunshine but dash into the trees when the sun sets to avoid the acid that takes the place of the fresh water. Even Richard Parker can sense that something is off in this island that may or may not exist. Then there are the moments where Pi’s boat drifts silently over smooth waters that reflect the starry sky above. It would seem that Pi is floating through the stars. And we can’t forget the humor from David Magee’s screenplay, which infuses a little more pep in Life of Pi’s step. The crown jewel is the scene in which Pi tries to establish territory on the boat using urine. Of course, Richard Parker doesn’t take kindly to this and proceeds to pee on Pi.
Life of Pi is basically a one-man show in the acting department. Sharma is incredible as the crafty Pi, who has to figure out a way to keep away from his ferocious travel buddy. Lee allows him to pepper in some physical comedy as well as play with his faith to give his performance a powerful punch. He did move me when he shouts at the sky in a storm, demanding to know what else God wants from him. We share in his joy when he catches a massive fish and feel his disappointment when he spots a ship far in the distance ignoring his flares and sailing the opposite direction. You may even fight back a tear when Pi attempts to grieve for his dead family but he doesn’t get much time to properly mourn. In the present, Pi is portrayed by Khan, who is basically the storyteller and boy, does he sell it. His tear jerking final moments will floor you. Spall’s writer is there just to move the story along and to act as a Ryan Reynolds lookalike (Maybe Reynolds was too busy?). Tabu is another stand out as Pi’s loving mother, Gita Patel, who is tickled by Pi’s curiosity in religion. Adil Hussain leaves a mark as Pi’s strict but wise father, Santosh Patel. And we can’t forget Richard Parker, a mostly CGI creation but one that really seems to be flesh, hair and blood. The relationship that builds between him and Pi is wondrous.
While I hate to criticize Life of Pi for loosing my interest in a few parts, I feel as though a film should hold me every single second it is on the screen. I should be wrapped up in every single moment, big and small, but sadly, there were parts where I found myself drifting out of Pi’s adventure. No matter how much spectacle Lee threw my way, I wanted the story to progress and at times I felt as though it wasn’t. I did enjoy the out-of-left-field twist at the end, which does leave a lump in the viewer’s throat. I also really liked Pi’s mini pit stop on that seriously astonishing island. If you are planning on checking out Life of Pi on strictly an entertainment level, you are going to be broadsided by how heavy the film gets at points. The film makes the bold claim that by the end of this story, you will believe in God. Whether it accomplishes this task is completely up to you but I wasn’t necessarily swelling with faith by the end credits. Overall, like a moth to a light, you can’t help but be drawn to it’s idea that even when facing impossible odds, hope will deliver you through it. It will also be very hard to resist Lee’s marvelous direction (I smell a Best Director nomination) but at over two hours, Life of Pi is a bit bloated. It may not rank at Lee’s best film but Life of Pi is certainly a rousing and tender work of art that will have a heavy presence come awards time.
by Steve Habrat
While American Pie is beginning to show its crow’s feet, 2001’s American Pie 2 hasn’t aged nearly as bad as the 1999 original. It may be blasphemous to say but I have always found American Pie 2 to be slightly better than the original film, both in story and laughs. Maybe it is the fact that the film is a nonstop party, a beer stained snapshot of these character’s glory days. In the end, I think I like American Pie 2 better because it shows us how these characters have evolved (or stayed the same) and it tackles how people change between high school and college. You are always eager to get back after your first year without parental supervision and trade war stories with your high school pals. Much like the original, the underlying content has found staying power, especially with a younger audience, but I too enjoy watching American Pie 2 and being reminded about the first summer back from pouring over books, cramming for exams, and constant parties. It made me reminisce about a time when I didn’t have a care in the world. American Pie 2 smartly bottles up that electric enthusiasm to see how those who were close to you have changed for the better or the worse.
American Pie 2 picks up with the old gang, showing us their last few days of their freshman year of college. The gang heads home to their hometown of East Great Falls, eager to start sharing their new experiences with one another, most of these experiences having to do with sex. Jim (Played by Jason Biggs), Oz (Played by Chris Klein), Kevin (Played by Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Played by Eddie Kaye Thomas) head to their old haunts and look forward to summer sipping beers at party guy Steve Stifler’s (Played by Seann William Scott) house. At Stifler’s party, they bump into their old female chums from their high school days, Vicky (Played by Tara Reid) and Jessica (Played by Natasha Lyonne). After a few embellished stories about college, the cops break up Stifler’s party, leaving the gang with no other place to get drunk over the summer. The gang soon finds themselves traveling to Grand Harbor, Michigan to shack up in a beach house for the summer. Jim also learns that foreign exchange student Nadia (Played by Shannon Elizabeth) will be returning home at the end of summer and she is very eager to spark up an old romance with him, leaving Jim turning to the only person he has ever been intimate with, band geek Michelle (Played by Alyson Hannigan), to help him tweak his sexual sills.
The major handicap of American Pie was the shaky acting from the young leads, mostly from the awful Chris Klein, who has slightly improved between the original and the sequel. Klein still lacks chemistry with his goody-goody girlfriend Heather (Played by Mena Suvari) and it really wounds the film. Suvari certainly tries to coax some out of him, but he is a lost cause. Seann William Scott’s Stifler gets a bit more room to shine in the second helping of Pie, checking in a more obnoxious performance than he did in the first time around. While he remained largely on the outside when the gang was simply trying to loose their virginity, he is part of their inner circle here and for those who hated him the first time, well, you’re going to loathe this beach house bonanza. Biggs gets even better, finding himself in more gauche situations than he did the first time around, even worse because he found out he was horrible at sex and now he has lost the little confidence he once possesed. His chemistry with Hannigan’s Michelle, which wasn’t fully developed the first time, is front and center here. They have some truly wonderful exchanges as she helps shape Jim into an irresistible stud for the gorgeous Nadia. Also a standout is the returning Eugene Levy as Jim’s unassuming father, who tries to give him words of wisdom every time he embarrasses himself.
American Pie 2 fairs better from improved direction and writing, which allows the cast to be a bit more believable. Screenwriter Adam Herz does up at the ante on the sex gags that are sprinkled throughout and he does cook up a few tasty sequences. One scene involving the boys and two girls they believe are lesbians is pretty sharp and full of surprises. It mirrors the Internet broadcast sequence in the original. Another scene involving Jim trying to watch porn and mistaking superglue for lubricant is another winner. Biggs helps the scene by wearing aghast facial expressions, especially when his situation goes from horrible to dire. It is also a bit obvious that American Pie 2 has a bit of a larger budget than the original film, having a much more polished look to it. It seems like the production company didn’t gamble much on the original film, especially since the original is riddled with so many mistakes (the tainted beer cup, the opening sequence that is supposedly taking place at night when we can clearly see sun shining through the windows).
American Pie 2 isn’t any deeper than the original, actually possessing less depth than the original did. The film is more concerned with extended party sequences, trying to squeeze in as much nudity as it possible can, and devising ways to put Shannon Elizabeth in a bikini. There aren’t even any missed opportunities for saying something profound. In a way, this may be why I like the film a bit more than the original. It doesn’t try to be anything else than a party movie that just wants to get laid. Sure it gets the feeling of meeting up with your old friends correct, an aspect that completely saves the film from being irrelevant and disposable. The real saving grace is that the actors are much more comfortable in their character’s skins, making them feel much more real than they did when they were just lowly high school students. It’s the same old debauchery, just a little bit wiser, more scantily clad girls, and with a higher alcohol tolerance.
American Pie 2 is now available on DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
Imagine every screwball moment of your exploited genius childhood narrated as a prelude to your adulthood by Alec Baldwin. Then imagine your adulthood reaches its pinnacle way early and the only way you see fit to recover from the disappointment of an early peak is to move back home. At the same time as your bother and adopted sister.
This is the premise for Wes Anderson’s third essay into character structure and storytelling (also co-written by Owen Wilson)—and so far his most successful.
As Royal Tenenbaum, the father of these three genius children, is evicted from the lofty conveniences of his hotel residence for payment delinquency, he receives news of a suitor after his wife, whom he’s been separated from for most of the children’s childhood and even adulthood. When the news hits that Henry Sherman, Etheline Tenenbaum’s accountant, is interested in marrying her, Royal takes the opportunity to get back into her life by faking a terminal illness, scoring himself a place to live as well as an advantage to win over his the affection of his estranged children (who one by one have found themselves living with their mother, Etheline).
Our characters consist of Richie, played by Luke Wilson, a tennis professional by the age of thirteen by the nick name “Baumer”. Richie Tennenbaum was the apple of Royal’s eye which lead his brother Chas, a financial and technical prodigy, into a lifetime of sibling rivalry that keeps him at a distance. Our third character in the list of siblings is adopted sister Margot, an early successful play write in love with her brother (but not by blood) Richie.
Richie’s best friend, played by Owen Wilson, brings back the original chemistry that jumpstarted Anderson’s career, though the cast of The Royal Tenenbaums is held up by each actor in the film and lead by no one in particular. Even the narration of the film by Alec Baldwin is essential as well as the smallest parts played by Bill Murray (as Ralleigh St. Claire) are crucial to the twisted familial clusterfuck that is the Tenenbaum reunion.
But this isn’t just your run of the mill, everyone hates each other and fights type of dysfunction. The entire family rallies behind Royal, even Chas who is reluctant to do so. So no family member is left behind. Everyone loves each other, though there are some who love each other more and those with more of an even keel on the situation.
The drama in the film exists in places you would most expect it to live within your own family, but certainly not on the screen. Think about it for a minute: You and your siblings living MTV’s Real World style. Pretty much the best and worst of everything you’ve ever known with an ending that is as hopeful as the Real World is hopeless.
And Wes Anderson knows this drama and knows how to portray it. The themes and colors of previous films exist in The Royal Tenenbaums and the themes and colors of films to come are hinted in it. Seamlessly, Wes Anderson has created almost a centerpiece to his cannon of work, not as a pinnacle (by no means has he hit his peak) but as a confident stride.
Plus, I mean, the soundtrack! If you ever wanted to seem cool in front of anyone, just down load a few of Wes Anderson’s soundtracks and act like you know exactly what you’re listening to. Or better yet, get to know what you’re listening to and be extra cool.
Top Five Reasons To Watch The Royal Tenenbaums:
1) You learn what a javelina is! Unless you already know and if you do already know, skip to reason #2.
2) The kid who plays Richie Tenenbaum as a child is a riot.
3) Find Kumar Pallana.
4) Shameless smoking and drinking.
5) If you are unsure of where your style of dress is going, you could just adopt the style of one of the Tenenbaums and never think twice about it. Or even look to Henry Sherman for an example.
by Steve Habrat
If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.
In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.
If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.
There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.
Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.
by Steve Habrat
I think I speak for a good majority of people when I say that the announcement that Hollywood was going to release not one, but two motion pictures in the same year that dealt with an event that was so catastrophic, the wound hadn’t even begun to scab, was quite a shock. It left me with a mixture of skepticism and anger. Is this just a scheme to capitalize on a horrorific event that left thousands dead and their family members grieving for years to come? Should we really be making blockbuster pictures out of a senseless act of terrorism? But after watching United 93, the terrifyingly real account of what took place in the sky aboard the plane that didn’t reach it’s intended target, was at once delicate with it’s subject matter and uncompromisingly unflinching. It lacked a specific stance on terror and instead presented real people up against other real people and stands as a testament to unity and heroism. It helps that director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) shot the film in a documentary-esque manner and casted a slew of no name actors and a few of the prominent individuals who were mixed up in the chaos that day. The film works because of its prodigious realism.
To sum up of the film would be a waste of time because everyone is familiar with what happened aboard United Flight 93. I was worried that United 93 would become a product that was interested simply in dramatized entertainment and would easily prey on the raw emotions of it’s viewers. Yet it’s told-in-real-time approach mounts the tension to unbearable heights, just as if we were transported back to that sunny day in September and had our eyes glued to the unfolding news all over again. The gut-wrenching terror just kept elevating and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves, “How can this get any worse?” It slyly shrouds the audience in dread by its structure and not simply on subject matter alone. This would be an easy way out and Greengrass is well aware of it. United 93, however, lingers on its characters a bit. It allows us to get to know them and lets us know that these heroes are no different than us. One man is late for his flight and is scrambling at the last minute to get aboard the doomed flight. We see documentary-esque shots of the behind the scenes activity that the flight crew went through that very day. We know how this will turnout, but this normalcy is weirdly comforting.
Hand-in-hand with the normal routines of the American citizens, we see the ritual of the terrorists that fateful morning. We see them praying, reading from the Quran, and shaving. The film humanizes the monsters. They even dress like us and putting ourselves into the mind frame we possessed before that horrible day, we wouldn’t even look twice at their routine actions. Were they really any different than us? In the beginning, when the flight is departing, there is a foreboding scene in which one of the hijackers glances out at the still intact World Trade Center looming in the distance. You can’t escape the trepidation and judging by the expression on the hijackers face, all traces of a rational, peaceful human being diminishes and the hints of a monster leaks through. They cease to be average and personify evil in the blink of an eye. It mirrors our view of the day. What only several minutes ago seemed normal has been engulfed by evil. When they are on the verge of hijacking the flight, they argue with one another about when the proper time to overtake the flight. One even appears to have a case of cold feet. It suggests that they still may have clung to some distant strand of fear. And possibly fleeting humanity.
This film should also be hailed for the careful and reverential direction form Paul Greengrass. For a project this risky, Greengrass never lets a frame of this film feel unnatural or exploitative. It could have so easily fallen victim to either one. Instead, Greengrass gives us the facts and nothing more. The film is never romanticized, singling out any one character. Instead, the film focuses on a group that we root for, the unified good. You’ll find yourself fighting the urge to leap out of your chair and cheer them on when they make their stand. The group the we empathize with, which consists of the terrified passengers who are unable to fight back and instead make heartbreaking phone calls and say their final “I love you”s and goodbyes. You’ll be left biting your lip and fighting off tears for these individuals–ones who did not deserve the fate that ultimately claimed their lives. The outburst of violence at the end (which is, as we know, inevitable) is disquieting and gory, but his camera doesn’t revel in the violence. It’s necessary and even those who are usually turned off by violence this extreme in a motion picture will find themselves pushing through it.
The film’s extreme realism also stems from the casting in the film. It lacks a familiar face from Hollywood’s A-List. This choice at times makes the film almost uncomfortable to watch because it feels as if Greengrass ripped the top off the real plane off and stuck a camera inside so we can see actual events taking place. Real pilots and flight attendants portray the flight crew in the film and he even cast individuals who were actually there that day and watching the events play out. The most notable one is of course Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager who made the call to ground all flights. The unknown actors do an unbelievable job and are amazingly convincing.
United 93 is, without question, a comfort blanket of a film. It soothes us with the fact that while September 11th, 2001 felt like a hopeless day, we did fight back and lives were saved. We can take solace in the fact that even though we were pushed, we did push back. This is a fact that I think is sometimes sadly overlooked. These people gave their lives to save countless others and kudos to this film for recognizing them. It also acts as a cathartic experience that should be seen by all, but it should not be approached lightly. You should emotionally prepare yourself for what is to come. You will emerge from the film shaken up, there is no doubt about that, but you will feel uplifted. Even as we hit the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, it still feels as if it were yesterday. It acknowledges the fact that even though evil won that day, good still made a ripple. United 93 is a triumph because it chooses not to focus on one face, but the face of many, and what the face of many can do is simply extraordinary. Grade: A+
United 93 is now available on Blu-ray.