POSTED ON NOVEMBER 28, 2012:
Pretty Packages, Different Kinds of Gifts
Movies about both kinds of Indians and a Russian classic
Never having read the book on which it's based, I can't say with any certainty how Ang Lee's adaptation of Yan Martel's 2001 novel, Life of Pi, could have worked as a film. I have some ideas, though. One, don't use lazy plot devices; two, don't spoon feed with earnest pretension what might have been compelling themes to your audience just because you don't think they'll get it otherwise -- yes, the interconnectedness of man, nature, and God, we all understand; and three, tell an interesting story instead of only suggesting one.
Lee, a sometimes wonderful director -- I still like his much maligned Hulk -- is in essence making a children's film. But he has rendered Life of Pi a turgidly-paced, intellectually adrift and narratively clumsy bore -- which is a shame for Lee's typically attractive-looking film.
Pissing Patel (a purposeful mispronunciation of his name, Piscine Molitor -- named for a French swimming pool because apparently you can name someone whatever the hell you want) is a kid growing up in a French-infused province of India. Coming to believe in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam all at once, Pi (as portrayed by four different actors across his life), forces his name change amongst his school peers when he writes out the entire number of pi (hint: it's a long one) from memory for his math class. He's bright and curious, living on his parent's vast garden estate that his father has turned into a zoo, packed with exotic wildlife. He's so curious that he nearly gets his arm ripped off by a Bengal tiger.
When the upkeep of the zoo proves too expensive, his parents decide to move it to Canada by sea, across the Pacific, only to meet with doom over the Marianas Trench in a massive storm. Set adrift with only a couple of surviving zoo animals, Pi (at this age played by Suraj Sharma, in his film debut) is forced to survive on a small lifeboat in the vastness of the South Pacific with that Bengal tiger for company.
Sounds interesting, right? That's where that first problem comes in. Life of Pi often tells its tale from the third person perspective of the adult Pi (a pretty great Irrfan Khan) as he speaks to a writer (Rafe Spall), who's looking for fantastical book ideas. He's heard that Pi's story will make him believe in God.
What’s the Russian Word for Hot? Keira Knightley sizzles in Anna Karenina, a classic tale of adultery and betrayal.
And does Pi unload with tons of exposition, explaining everything to Spall, and by proxy, us -- a lazy narrative device that only serves to distance the audience from bringing their own thoughts to the themes of Martel's philosophical tale. Cutting back to the present just takes you out, usually just when the story begins to gain some traction.
The exposition is also lazy because Lee mostly drops it during the middle acts as his visuals take over: pristinely photographed seascapes, cinematic menageries of glowing stars and phosphorous ocean creatures and a verdant, floating island with bizarre secrets. While it all looks great, it's as emotionally empty as a glow-in-the-dark condom. God is not here.
What's left is a story that suggests more than such a structurally flawed film can tangibly render, albeit told by some charismatic actors and a bunch of dodgy CG animals. Now I know why this is getting compared to Avatar.
Perhaps if Ang Lee had trusted the audience, dropped all the narration, affectations, and clumsy time-shifting, and told the story as a poetic, visual narrative, he might have had an art masterpiece on his hands. Or maybe it still would've sucked. At least it might have seemed like Life of Pi were taking some chances.
Tolstoy is one of those realist writers whom any real writer is supposed to read in order to be taken seriously. When your book, Anna Karenina, is praised by names like Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Faulkner as the best thing since chilled vodka, and has been endlessly re-adapted for film and television once those mediums actually existed, it's safe to say that the 19th century Russian had a good story on his hands.
A tale of tragic love set amongst the Russian aristocracy, Anna (played in 2012 with gravitas by Keira Knightly) is a noblewoman trapped in a chilly, patriarchal marriage to a tsarist technocrat, Count Karenin (Jude Law). She's a woman in trouble when her tamped desires are stoked by a dashing officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with whom she begins an affair -- despite the mores of her place in high-society. In part inspired by her philandering brother (a boisterously charming Matthew Macfayden), Anna throws caution to the wind to pursue her passion -- begetting chaos for family, friends, and her own fracturing psyche.
Adapted by uber-playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and inventively realized for the big screen by Joe Wright (Hanna), Anna Karenina takes Tolstoy's oft-told tale and invigorates it with a distinct visual palette that, while gorgeous, also serves as a contemporary narrative device, the film falling in between cinematic realism and diorama-like montages that use a metaphorical stage to knit plot threads without making them literal scenes. It's a device as economical as it is tonally interesting. That striking visual aesthetic combines the vibrant, chilly atmosphere of old St. Petersburg and Moscow with the warm comforts of a well-told fireplace tale that can hold an audience -- even a less than interested one -- firmly in the story's dramatic grip.
Ringing the Bell (Okla.). Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) makes an impact in The Cherokee Word for Water, soon to premier in Tulsa and Tahlequah.
And I don't really like Anna that much. Sure, it's easy to understand her infidelity and how pent up a smoking hot Keira Knightly gets, being married to someone with the sex appeal of a misguidedly pious monk. But the stratospheric heights of total drama queen to which Anna takes her conflicted passions and circumstances made sympathizing with her difficult.
Maybe it's a cultural drift. I live in America. Women might be drama queens here too, but they can generally do what they want -- mostly unconfined by the strictures of social strata, religion, or institutionally patriarchal bullshit.
But the story is still compelling -- well-written characters, whether you like them or not, usually are. Joe Wright's deft, vibrant and rhythmic direction of Tom Stoppard's script creates an atmospheric world, beautifully lensed by Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) -- a world that ignores that Russian royalty sound like Brits on holiday in exchange for a Victorian familiarity that makes Anna's tribulations feel accessibly comforting within a visually rousing movie.
Knightly is fine as Anna -- she flirts with over-the-top drama here, but not even close to the degree of her histrionic performance in A Dangerous Method. Luckily she didn't need the Russian accent. Jude Law is reliably distant while Taylor-Johnson plays dashing in a way that his mustache only hints at. Wright gets good performances from the cast -- stylized but not stilted.
Anna Karenina is shooting for the Oscars and with its reworking of convention it probably stands a chance at winning a couple.
The Cherokee Word for Water
The story of Wilma Mankiller, a woman starting at the bottom with nothing and rising to become the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, is one worthy of a film in itself. The Cherokee Word for Water, an entirely local production with some heavyweight backing from Pixar and Skywalker Ranch, tells a part of that epic story -- perhaps the most lasting part.
One likes to think running water would have been a standard by the 1980s, though this was apparently not the case for the small, Adair County town of Bell. Battling opposition from their elders, Mankiller and her activist husband, Charlie Soap, rally the town to build their own 16-mile long waterline -- attracting national attention to the story of a community that pulls together against circumstance for a common cause.
Long in the making, the events behind the Bell Water Project are told through the work of many of the people that lived through it (and even worked on it), spearheaded by Mankiller's close friend, Kristina Kiehl, who eventually attracted the attention of some influential backers.
As Academy Award-winning producer Charles Heller (My Left Foot) told the Tahlequah Daily Press during the ramp up to the film's production, "Ever since the Bell Water Project happened, Kristina Kiehl, one of Wilma's closest friends, wanted to tell the story ... Wilma was a great woman, and Charlie is an amazing man. All of us got caught up in the dream of telling this story, and now it's happening."
The film is complete and set to open in Tahlequah and Tulsa, but not before a by-invitation premiere at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Thursday, Nov. 29, with the stars of the film as well as the producers, including widower Charlie Soap in attendance -- and special guests that include The Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society and legendary feminist author, Gloria Steinem.
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