THE irony of movies that celebrate the value of storytelling is that they tend to become so enamoured of their own proselytising nature that the yarn they’re spinning rarely makes for the gripping cinematic adventure its characters imagine it to be.
Life of Pi (PG)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
* * *
One good thing about Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Canadian author Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning novel, is that the opposite is true. Though bookended by a dreary framing device that spells out the film’s meaning in needlessly idiot-proof fashion, Lee’s handling of Martel’s central fable about an Indian boy adrift at sea with only a Bengal tiger for company is a reminder of how cinema can sometimes work wonders on material previously thought unfilmable. Indeed, for large chunks of Life of Pi, Lee makes the fantastical plight of its titular hero (played as a teenager by Suraj Sharma) so compelling and strange and bewildering and beautiful that his insistence on forcing us to question its literal meanings via the interactions of the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) with the “writer” (Rafe Spall) to whom he’s telling his life story have a habit of making the film seem less special. Sketching out young Pi’s life as the resilient son of a zookeeper plagued from an early age by big questions about God, spirituality and the workings of the universe, the film really gets going during a stunningly rendered shipwreck that plunges Pi into his saltwater odyssey with his predator companion. That companion’s name is Richard Parker, but such anthropomorphism is no cutesy indication of his temperament. As Pi is warned early on in his life, Richard Parker is a killer with Darwinian instincts for self-preservation and Lee depicts him as such. This gives rise to a marvellous degree of tension, not to mention one Jaws-style shock that led to a collective scream at the screening I attended. The simplicity of the story also gives Lee plenty of room to embellish it with some of the smartest use of CGI seen in a contemporary blockbuster, so it’s all the more frustrating when he stops trusting cinema as a visual medium and tries to transform it into a literary one by having characters explain things he’s already done a fantastic job of showing us on screen.
The House I Live In (15)
Directed by: Eugene Jarecki
* * * *
THE complete failure of America’s 40-year war on drugs is the subject of this sobering, highly personal and damning documentary by Eugene Jarecki, brother of Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki. Approaching his vast subject through the prism of the African-American childhood nanny who helped raise him, he begins first by confronting his own ignorance of the problem by paralleling his fate with that of her children, who, deprived of the same kind of parental attention he enjoyed, fell victim to the poverty trap that results in so many being caught up in a cycle of drug abuse and crime. From here, he broadens his scope to explore the historic connections between drugs, race and criminality and shows how decades of successive administrations providing the wrong answers to the wrong questions have systematically and disproportionately marginalised and criminalised America’s black drug users and dealers. That he starts filming on the eve of Barack Obama’s historic first election victory also gives the film a frisson of dramatic irony, given that what follows offers little evidence that the system is ever going to improve. That’s in part because politicians simply can’t be elected by taking anything other than a hard line on drugs, even when given overwhelming evidence that such an approach isn’t successful (Richard Nixon, for instance, was shown that treatment was more effective in the long run than conviction, but discounted his own findings when he ran for re-election in 1972). The notion of personal responsibility is also examined, but as Jarecki intelligently demonstrates, blaming those with no hope for the future for flocking to the only industry (drugs) that embraces them with open arms is a vast over-simplification of the problem. Frank interviews with beleaguered cops, frustrated prison guards, convicted felons, judges, sociologists, doctors and historians certainly back up his bleak prognosis with plenty of clear-eyed insights. The most persuasive interviewee, though, turns out to be The Wire creator David Simon who, in typically eloquent and pugnacious fashion argues that the war on drugs has not only destroyed good policing by placing the emphasis on hitting arrest targets rather than solving crimes, but is tantamount to a “Holocaust in slow motion”, one that has had incalculable human costs already and will, if allowed to continue in this manner, lead to the elimination, regardless of race, of America’s poor from society. It’s eye-opening stuff.
Pitch Perfect (12A)
Directed by: Jason Moore
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow
* * *
SET in the world of competitive collegiate a cappella singing – which is apparently a big enough thing to warrant it being the main joke in a Hollywood movie – Pitch Perfect is a surprisingly harmonious mash-up of Mean Girls, Bring It On and DodgeBall, with just enough decent gags (courtesy of 30 Rock veteran Kay Cannon) to make its predictable oddballs-learning-to-function-as-a-team plot bearable. Anna Kendrick takes the lead as Beca, an aspiring record producer forced by her college professor father to give higher education a go before he helps her move to LA to pursue her real dreams. As part of the deal, she has to participate fully in campus life and so is cajoled into joining singing group The Bellas, whose humiliation during the previous year’s national championships – vomit was involved – has made them the social pariahs of the school and thus desperate to take in anyone who can sing, regardless of their appearance. That’s basically a cue for Bridesmaids’ Rebel Wilson to steal scenes as the self-named Fat Amy, but Kendrick has the right mix of eye-rolling disdain and guilty pleasure enjoyment to make Beca a likeable lead. Fans of The Breakfast Club (and Simple Minds) should also get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek cornball ending.