Only the Young

A coming of age film about Christian youth trying to rebel? I’ll admit, this is one indie film concept I didn’t see coming. I’m intrigued, but really, how original is a story about little hipster Christian kids trying to find themselves while realizing there’s more out there than just God’s word (which will no doubt keep being rammed down their throat until they fall in line)? Even if they don’t rebel in their youth (or ever), they’re going to become hypocrites one day regardless. All brainwashed, non-thinkers do.

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Life of Pi

Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…

LOP-068    Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea.

Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.

Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.

The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.

Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.

life_of_pi_8Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.

This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.

I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.

The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.

Life-of-Pi-ShipwreckBasically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.

I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.

As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.

Flight

According to the commercials for the film Flight, critics are applauding it. Even the usually inspirational New York Film Festival made it the Closing Night feature which made me more excited for it. Denzel’s even got the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. But sadly, and oddly, this is the weakest work I’ve seen from both Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis in a long time.

Denzel floats through this movie, pulling the usual Denzel overbite smiles and scowls, but never able to create a lead character as anything more than a two-dimensional representation of a pilot with a drug and alcohol addiction.  The fact that there could even be people like this character out there flying our planes and entrusted with the safety of millions of people, is enough to make you really want to have some insight into this character – it’s the scariest thing about watching this movie, actually. But there’s nothing in this story a viewer can hold onto or even leave the theater thinking about later. This is film better suited to be a cable TV movie. It’s flat.

Some scenes are even (maybe purposefully) laughable. In one, we see Denzel supposedly so hammered on booze he can’t even speak, much less stand up. In another, we see a woman shooting coke to the point of overdose , being rolled out on a stretcher, and then next time we see her in the story she is officially clean. It’s preposterous. If Zemeckis thinks this is what a drug-addled life is like, and what drug-use plays out like in the most terrible of addicts, he’s spent a way too sheltered life. I mean he could have at least done some research; hell, watched Requiem for a Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, anything.

Denzel is a great actor when given the right director (Ed Zwick, Tony Scott, Antoine Fuqua) and this role in Flight was perfect for him. The Hollywood Reporter article even talks about how he prepared for it and his level of interest and discipline in preparing for the role. So, it’s infuriating for me to have to watch him reprise his single tear territory from the Glory days because Zemeckis can’t man up and put his actor in the grit or at least get the thing to be more well-rounded. Zemeckis is better suited to his standard PG-13 fare acceptable for all his caucasian Christian audiences to devour and tout and play for their kids during the holiday school breaks. I’m surprised he didn’t put Tom Hanks in this role. I mean really, why did it even have to be a black pilot who does these such despicable things? Plus, at least we know Zemeckis is capable of getting something tangible out of Hanks.

Denzel too easily becomes typecast to this kind of character (the flawed hero), but he also shines when give the right motivation (e.g. Training Day, Man on Fire), so why couldn’t Zemeckis pull this off like those directors did? And why is no one else seeing the atrocity of this film as I see it?!

Literally everything is wrong in the picture except parts of the flight crash sequence. There’s an odd, hard to read, badly played out few scenes with the co-pilot (before, during and after the crash). The scene after, in the hospital, we get the chance to meet his wife who Zemeckis decided to make an over zealous, cartoonish representation of a devout Christian. It was just ill-fitting in the movie. What is he trying to say? Why all the references to religion in the movie? How convenient and odd is it for the plane to coincidentally crash directly over the congregation of a cultish-like church? It’s like some M. Night concept that was abandoned by him and picked up by Zemeckis, but then never followed through upon.

Don Cheadle is a cold, heartless lawyer for the pilot’s union, of course. John Goodman is there for comic-relief I suppose, although he’s anything but funny (unlike usual). Instead he plays a Beach Boy-styled drug dealer. Again, ill-fitting to the story at hand. If this tells you anything, I actually liked Goodman better in the bit part he had in Coyote Ugly – and that was the last time I didn’t care for a film he was in.

Flight is completely void of any character development to the naked eye. In fact, any development that does happen, apparently happens off-screen and we’re just supposed to be OK with that. If I wanted somebody to tell me a story concisely, I’d just ask the guy at work next to me to tell me how the film was – a movie is supposed to envelop you and make you part of the lives inhabiting the screen. Flight, seems to only care about showing Denzel’s ass and how he can’t stop drinking, but it’s apparently acceptable, because all the alcohol in his system enabled him to think “clearly” during the life or death situation of the film, so that he could pull off a miraculous stunt like inverting a jetliner so that it glides to a softer impact. Right.

Flight tries to be too many things, dealing with religion, the existence of a higher power watching over us, drug use, corporate coldness and union deceitfulness (?), oh and romance, of course. Flight tries so hard, but never actually even gets off the ground.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

Scorsese had been working on Who’s That Knocking At My Door? since he was in film school at NYU, and as per his “assistant,” the film had changed titles (aka I Call First) and expanded storylines at least three times. Harvey Keitel was cast in the lead from a response to an ad for actors, and though at times his dialogue feels a little unrefined, a little unsure, it also feels like the Keitel we know today. Thereby (unintentionally) providing an added sinister undercurrent that a viewer may not have otherwise picked up on in 1968.


The story is fairly straight forward as most American independent movies of this period tended to be. Keitel plays a young Italian American named J.R. The film wavers between J.R.’s interactions with his male friends and his female friends, one female in particular which he meets while waiting for a ferry he “never usually takes.” In addition to his close (nearly interpretable as homoerotic) interaction with his male friends and on top of his disgusted reaction when Zina confides in him about her “impurity,” he is your average sexually repressed 70s male. Scorsese keeps very close to his Catholic roots in this film, not only with the overt actions of J.R., but the whole ending sequence which is basically a montage of Catholic iconography set to a rather obvious soundtrack for the movie’s overall style. Well worth a watch if you’ve sat through all the student films by Scorsese first.

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson has created a film unlike any of his others with There Will Be Blood. While Magnolia, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights all may appear as though they came from a dark place, Blood literally does: the ground.


Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview “an oilman” (you will agree) and self-proclaimed “family man” (you won’t agree). Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, an appropriate surname for a young man as seemingly devout as he is. Eli, in no uncertain terms, is more of a demon than a saint and almost more of a demon than the oil tycoon/Devil-incarnate that is Plainview.

The story is faceted to the belief that the weight of these character’s consequences is going to eventually be unbearable to them, and so we simply wait for them to collapse under that weight onscreen before us. Well, they do and they don’t, but shrouding their lives in the dripping American gothicness of the film doesn’t enable the audience to really identify with any of the characters anyway. The film is more of a dark, glossy fairytale than a palpable commentary on the death of American values due to capitalism (e.g. oil).

So the question is, even though it’s beautiful, austere, literate filmmaking by Anderson, is it really anything more than an empty exercise in exaggerated style?

Jesus, You Know

I don’t claim to know Jesus, but I do know the work of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl and for a filmmaker whose previous work I’ve seen a limited amount of (thanks to the fact that not more international films are distributed in the States), I sort of expected this documentary (if one can really call it that) to attempt to shed light on what it saw to be the inconsistencies, ambiguities or contradictions in religion. I was wrong. The movie instead seems to want to peel our eyelids back and force us to bear the private confessions of a select group of devout Catholic Austrians. On the whole, there is really nothing more to this film than the invasiveness it attempts to portray as cinematic, when in reality the “story” is more akin to a play (or anti-play) by Ionesco or even Beckett, with it’s dramatic structure accentuating the simple-minded, puppetry of its characters.


The film concentrates on the seemingly paltry confessions of local residents in all their unglorified normalcy; some of them interesting, some of them not. Of the interesting ones there is the housewife who dusts the many large crucifixes and wipes down the bloody chests of the crucified martyr suspended from them. Her confessions are of how she longs for her Muslim husband to accept her Catholicism. He does not and they fight about it often, furthermore the scenes involving both of them depict just how wide the gap is between their faiths, something which seems to be preventative of them embracing their relationship and continuing to share any love which they used to have for each other.

In another woman’s confession, we are shown the desperation at the thought of being alone at an old age. A little old woman quietly sits in the front pew of the church by herself confessing her thoughts at poisoning her husband who she believes is having an affair. She admits she simply doesn’t want to be alone. When she does confront him at a much later date, he leaves her anyway, and we watch as she takes sleeping pills to help herself cope with the fact of being alone at night.

And while these two individuals stick out for me, there are also other interesting storylines which crop up during our time as a voyeur in the various Catholic churches of Austria. It’s interesting to see the way Seidl cuts the dialogue of the “documentary” confessions almost as if the individuals are having their conversations with God. And one might argue from a religious point of view, that they are having conversations with God, and it’s validated in the way Seidl will always cut to a crucifix, or an adorned altar, or even the church itself just as the confessors conclude, as if to show the “reaction shot” or response of their listening Lord.

Seidl does a good job of showing us all sides of the devout. Some of the patrons only seem to call on God when they need him, some asking him for selfish things to boost their lapsing vanity—actually most all of them ask for selfish things, now that I think about it—with the exception of the one little lady who cleans the church floors and dusts the crucifixes; she prefaces the entire film by praying for all those who view Jesus, You Know. Now, that is truly someone who knows Jesus.