Saturday, September 29, 2012

NYFF50 offers a fine opener in Ang Lee's and David Magee's adaptation, LIFE OF PI

What an unusual film -- lovely, rich and nipping at the heel of profundity -- has been chosen to open the New York Film Festival at its half-century mark. LIFE OF PI, written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee, from the internationally award-winning novel by Yann Martel, proves a genuine "family film": intelligent, thought-provoking, mysterious, emotionally resonant, and likely to leave both and adults and older children fulfilled on certain levels, even as they question and attempt to understand and appreciate it more fully on others. The movie's reach exceeds its grasp to perhaps just the extent necessary to make it miss greatness but achieve wonder. This is, as they say, no small potatoes.

Mr. Lee is working once again in a genre different from anything he's formerly tried -- a fantasy adventure pillared upon precepts both religious and rational -- and he is surprisingly successful at this, just as he has been at very nearly every genre he has attempted (though there is that Hulk problem). TrustMovies has not read the original Pi novel, but he suspects that Lee hews pretty closely to it in terms of both the letter and the spirit because this director has done so in all his other adaptations, as far as I can recall. He's a humanist intent on making us better understand and accept our humanity, and his films, one after another, achieve this in different ways, depending on the particular genre. If the film's characters don't always manage the necessary understanding and acceptance, we viewers thankfully can.

In telling this story of a young Indian lad and his family from Pondicherry, the zoo they manage, and what happens when they and their menagerie set sail for North America, Lee and Magee (and Martel) dissect storytelling itself as their tale unfolds in present time and past, with a narrator who is both his younger self and the wiser, more mature man he becomes. Along the way, we're treated to some spectacular visuals that somehow stay grounded in reality, even as they soar into fantasy. (The night scene above, complete with jellyfish, recalls Bright Future times 10,000.)

I am guessing that Lee was influenced somewhat by Michael Powell's The Thief of Bagdad. His leading man, at least -- played quite nicely by newcomer Suraj Sharma (above and on poster, top) -- though taller and longer-limbed, will put some of us in mind of Sabu.

The film has been shot in as glorious an example of 3D as we've yet seen, outdoing I think, even Hugo and Pina. (The photography, not in the least "too dark," as are so many of this latest batch of 3D, is by Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda.) The use of this process for depth in the ocean and the vast seascapes seems near-miraculous, while the occasional in-your-face effects -- a school of flying fish and, of course, that tiger -- are exciting and fun. And the relationship of the animal kingdom vis a vis humanity is brought home with wonderful courage and understanding. If only Grizzly Man had had our hero's father to educate him! And how understandable and moving is the scene in which the young man must kill for the first time.

I'll have more to say when Life of Pi, from 20th Century Fox and which played but twice last night at the NYFF, opens for its theatrical run on November 21.

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