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
You’d think that a film that has Robert Englund, Sid Haig, and Erin Moran starring in it would be this stuff that cult movie dreams are made of. Well, then you need to see the atrocious 1981 Alien rip-off Galaxy of Terror, a Z-grade lemon from legendary producer Roger Corman, the man who churned out countless cult movie classics. Galaxy of Terror, or Mind Warp, as it is sometimes called, is a trippy glow-in-the-dark poser that scrambles the viewer’s brain with vague dialogue, musty storyline, rickety sets, and bland acting. The three things that Galaxy of Terror has going for it is some fairly decent gore for those who are simply looking for that, Tron-like lighting, and a scene in which a gigantic maggot rapes a curvy blonde. Yes, you read that correctly, a rape scene actually acts as a highlight moment for this piece of junk. I was pretty surprised too when the film ended and I found THAT one of the most interesting aspects of the whole experience.
Galaxy of Terror follows a group of space explorers who are sent to the desolate planet of Morganthus to locate another space crew who have all been killed by a mysterious unseen force. The newly landed crew consists of the troubled Captain Trantor (Played by Grace Zabriskie), Commander Ilvar (Played by Bernard Behrens), empath Alluma (Played by Erin Moran), cocky team leader Baelon (Played by Zalman King), the ship’s cook Kore (Played by Ray Walston), the wise space veteran Cabren (Played by Edward Albert), the ship’s technical officer Dameia (Played by Taaffe O’Connell), crewmember Ranger (Played by Robert Englund), and crystal thrower Quuhod (Played by Sid Haig). When the crew arrives, they discover a strange pyramid and slimy alien creatures that begin attack them one by one. Soon, they realize that the aliens are not the only things that they need to fear on this strange planet.
First, lets discuss the rotten aspects of Galaxy of Terror. Director Bruce D. Clark realizes there isn’t much meat to his storyline, a problem that he covers up with colorful lighting, special effects, forced depth from his characters, and lots of gruesome violence. He also doesn’t offer up anything in the way of likeable characters, allowing none of them to fully develop so we start rooting for them. All of the crew members walk around sulking and complaining about shaky events in their past, but it is all so hazily illustrated that you will find yourself not caring in the slightest. Half way through the film, Clark also sloppily establishes that Cabren is going to be the main protagonist. Everyone else that consists of the space crew is there simply to die in some off beat way; the most outrageous is the maggot rape, which just acts as an excuse for Clark to show off O’Connell’s body.
As far as the good aspects are concerned, it’s basically everything that Clark used to cover up his weak storyline. The film contains several scenes that will drive the gore audiences wild. There is death by constricting wires, an alien ripping one crew members stomach open with its claws, that certain rape scene, and more. I will say that the filmmakers did a good job with all of these effects; obviously more care was put into the gross stuff rather than anything truly substantial. The filmmakers also effectively light the sets, which are clearly cheap in their construction, making the planet itself fairly unsettling and surprisingly expansive. The film also benefits from having a few neat monsters lurking about, even if they are uninspired. These monsters are wisely kept largely in the dark or lit in extreme reds or blues, but it is anyone’s guess if they did that purposely because they’d be creepier or if they are really that cheap. Another layer of gross is added to the monsters by Clark’s use of nasty sound effects which accompany their icky attacks.
As far as twisty science fiction horror is concerned, you can do a hell of a lot better than Galaxy of Terror. The only other real reason to see this film is to see a familiar name in the opening credits department. That name would be James Cameron, director of such little films like Avatar and Titanic. Here, he is listed as Production Designer and Second Unit Director. It has been said that he was the one who designed the maggoty severed arm and designed it so the fake maggots would slither around the arm. There have been stories passed around about how Roger Corman used to make bets about how quickly he could shoot a film, the shortest being two days and one night, a rumor that seems to confirm the idea that Corman really didn’t care about the quality of the products he was producing. I could very easily see Galaxy of Terror being a film that was shot quickly, with no real artistic vision or care poured into the craft. Fun only as a did-you-know experience, make Galaxy of Terror a double feature with Alien and make sure Galaxy of Terror is played first. That way, Alien will make up for how letdown you are in Galaxy of Terror.
Galaxy of Terror is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After its sweep at the Golden Globes, the silent French film The Artist finally received a wide theatrical release. With all the hoopla and chatter about how wonderful this film is, I braved a snowstorm with two of my buddies who were intrigued by a silent film but were conflicted on the idea of seeing one. So is it worth the hype? Yes, The Artist is a testament to our imagination and is a vivacious spectacle without explosions. It’s comical, touching, smooth, and cute with two leads who have classic Hollywood movie star stamped all over them. To be fair, it is a intrepid move on the part of the filmmaker and the studio to take a risk on this film, mostly because American audiences wouldn’t give it the time of day. Yes, it is silent and yes, you have to pay attention to the screen or else you will get lost. That means you have to slide your phone back into your pocket, pause the Angry Birds, and ignore that text for an hour and forty minutes.
The Artist picks up in 1927 with amiable silent film star George Valentin (Played by Jean Dujardin), who proudly wears a pencil-thin mustache, greased back hair, and bops around with his dog costar, at the height of cinematic fame. As he departs the premier of his new film, A Russian Affair, photographers swarm Valentin and in the hysterics, he bumps into a strikingly beautiful woman named Peppy Miller (Played by Bérénice Bejo). She plants a big kiss on Valentin’s cheek, igniting a swarm of speculation in the papers: “Who’s That Girl?” Peppy uses her tabloid fame to get a job as a back-up dancer for a movie studio where she slowly climbs the ladder of celebrity. While in production on another film, studio boss Al Zimmer (Played by John Goodman) approaches Valentin and tells him he has something to show him. Zimmer introduces Valentin to a new kind of film—the talkie! Valentin waves the talkie off as just a fad that will never catch on, but as the years pass, Valentin watches as audiences embrace the new approach to this medium. As a result, Valentin’s fame and fortune slowly fades away, leaving him a broken man. Peppy, on the other hand, finds herself rapidly rising as the new “It” girl in Hollywood.
The film tells a timeless tale, one we are all accustomed with—a story of swallowing one’s pride, adjusting to the new times, and reluctance to accept change. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius tells it with a fresh visual approach, making us forget we have heard this story before. I would say that The Artist turns itself into an event film, yes, like Avatar or Grindhouse, because it dares to show us something we do not go to the movies and see every week. Sure, it doesn’t feature blue aliens or go-go dancers with machine guns for legs, but it does transport us to the early years of cinema, much like Grindhouse took us back to the rundown movie palaces of the 1970’s and Avatar felt ripped from the distant future. It is not satisfied with simply evoking, much like the other nostalgic films of 2011 were. It is a blockbuster of romanticized imagery. I found myself wishing that I would have worn a three piece suit and the theater would have been filled with cigarette smoke.
The Artist features some dazzling physical performances from both Dujardin and Bejo, both sweeping us up with the batting of an eyebrow and a smile. Dujardin is so damn magnetic that I can’t wait to see what he does after this film. While he flashes pearly smiles and looks cool strutting in a tux, he is capable of dramatic emotional lows. We feel for him as his marriage and career unravels even if we are saying, ‘Told ya so” in the back of our minds. Dujardin really sparkles when he breaks into a tap dance or performs slapstick with his four-legged companion. Bejo blazes up the screen with her bouncy sexuality and old Hollywood glamour. She is classy even when she is haughty, an imagine she embraces even if she is aware that it isn’t her true character. When the two share a scene, they have unlimited chemistry that Hazanavicius is fully aware of. A tap dance sequence at the end of the film left me wishing for a musical sequel that would feature George and Peppy together again. Goodman as the studio boss is right on the money. It was strange not hearing his gruff voice but even silent and chomping on a cigar, he is just as scene stealing.
Don’t worry if you feel like a fish out of water when The Artist first rolls onto the screen. It will take you a minute to adjust to it but when you do, you will forget that it is silent. Ludovic Bource’s old-fashioned score is a standout, as the music was the punctuation to the stories being told in silent films. The real beauty of The Artist comes from the message it sends to the audience. Film doesn’t need sound or flashy set pieces to send a profound statement and sometimes minimalism can stir up the strongest emotions in any given individual. The most important aspect of any work of art is the love, care, and attention the artist gives to their work and their willingness to stand by it. The Artist is bursting with Hazanavicius’ love, care, and attention in every single frame, which is why this film wins us over. It speaks a universal language without saying anything at all.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.