Tuesday, December 25, 2012

10 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching Boy Vs. Ocean, the Elements and Tiger in "Life of Pi"

1. Despite Life of Pi's mid-level Oscar buzz, decent reviews and healthy box office, I completely ignored it for nearly the first month of its release. Only in the last week or so did I even realize that it wasn't a biopic about some little-known mathematician. I'm glad I finally got myself informed: I'm a sucker for a film about a boy and an animal -- Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows were two of my favorite movies as a kid -- and even if I ended up being bored by the adventures of Pi and the Bengal tiger while they're lost at sea after escaping from a sinking ship, there would be the 3D aspect to entertain me.

2. Going to the cinema in Bangkok is a far cheaper experience than it is in the United States and Australia (160 baht, or roughly $5, for the equivalent of a business-class seat, plus 100 baht -- or about $3 -- for the 3D glasses). You can get cheaper snacks at 7-11, but not in the food courts at Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Mueang International Airport. And as added insurance for boring movies, "business" seat C1 was comfortable enough to fall asleep in.

3. The only downsides to the movie-going experience at SP Cinema City in Bangkok's Terminal 21 mall (which, true to its name, is designed like an airport): The credits in the trailers were all in Thai script, so I couldn't tell which actors got top billing in any of the movies, and I wasn't thrilled about having to stand for several minutes during what I assumed was the Thai national anthem being played while footage of Thailand's king and his family was shown onscreen. National pride is one thing, but after all my months in Thailand, I'm still at a loss to explain the blind reverence Thai people have for their monarch. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, blind reverence -- disguised as faith -- would be a major theme of the movie.)

4. I love that Hollywood is embracing Indian actors and Indian culture more these days. It's only been a few years since Slumdog Millionaire won the Best Picture Oscar, and 2012 already has already given us The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In recent years, we've had key characters/actors/personalities of Indian descent on 90210, Revenge, Smash, HawthoRNe, One Life to Live and Top Chef. If only Outsourced had been a little funnier.

5. The book is usually better than the movie, and it's safer to be faithful to the source material than sorry for straying too far from it. No arguments here. But I wish Pi director Ang Lee had taken more liberties when adapting Yann Martel's 2001 novel. The first thing he should have done was dump the framing device in which a grown-up Pi tells a writer his story. Not only did these scenes get the movie off to a wobbly start and detract from the flow of the main story, but the actors weren't particularly good in them. Clint Eastwood used the same tactic to better effect in last year's dreadful J Edgar. In Pi, the actors came across like amateurs in a religious infomercial.

6. Speaking of religion, Pi could have used less of it. The narrative was strong enough -- Cast Away entirely at sea, a buddy road movie in which one buddy is also the villain -- to stand on its own without forcing Deep Meaning onto it. The dinner table scenes in which the Patel family discussed religion and philosophy were my favorite ones on dry land, and I appreciated the movie's shades of Noah's Ark. But during the framing sequences, the film's religious overtones were too heavy handed, with grown-up Pi -- and Lee -- practically clobbering us over the head with his faith.

It's one thing to show Pi begging the Lord to save him from the stormy seas. It gave the film dramatic heft. But even if God was responsible for Pi's survival, isn't sparing a boy's life after taking his entire family's and leaving him lost at sea for more than 200 days, a lot like stuffing a lump of coal into his Christmas stocking? I file that one under "Covering His Own Tracks," right next to sending His only begotten son to save us from a law of nature -- human sacrifice as atonement for our sins -- that He enacted and enforced. Regardless of how I feel about Him -- and for the record, I don't believe He's as actively involved in our everyday lives as Christianity would have us believe -- I think full credit should go to Pi's survival instincts and to the guy who found him washed up on that Mexican shore. Were both the work of God? Moviegoers should get to figure that one out for themselves. We don't need grown-up Pi trying to guide us to the "right" answer.

7. The scenes on the boat were almost perfect. The realistic qualities of the CG animals was boosted by the 3D effect. Several times I literally jumped out of my cushy seat because I thought those fish were flying right at me!

8. I so enjoyed Pi's interaction with his family that I found myself missing them nearly as much as he did and wishing that they, miraculously, got off the sinking ship and made it safely from India to Canada. I especially loved Tabu, the beautiful actress who played his mother. I hope I see more of her in the future.

9. In fact, aside from the the actors in the present-day scenes, Ang Lee did a fine job with the casting. Suraj Sharma, the 19-year-old actor who plays 16-year-old Pi lost at sea, is a real find. He offered the right balance of charm, humor, innocence and dread, making us pray as hard for his survival as he does. According to Wikipedia, Lee didn't want big stars to detract from the story, so plans to cast Tobey Maguire as the writer were scrapped (big mistake). What then was Gerard Depardieu doing in the movie as the ship's nasty cook who refused to make vegetarian meals for Pi, his mother and brother? I understand that the scene was meant to underscore Pi's vegetarianism so to later further separate him from the carnivore tiger, but I kept asking myself, Why is Gerard Depardieu being such a prick again (after those nasty comments he made a few years ago about Juliette Binoche!)?

10. The movie was finished by 7.15pm, and The Impossible was playing at 8.20. For a moment, I considered making it a double-bill night, but I may have had my fill of man vs. nature for one day. Maybe I'll save the tsunami for after Santa has come and gone -- but definitely not on Boxing Day.
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