Saturday, 29 December 2012

Jack Reacher

There have been complaints, I’ve heard, about Tom Cruise’s height and its impact on the long-awaited on-screen debut of Jack Reacher, author Lee Child’s supposedly skyscraping ex-military anti-hero. While the couch-jumping Mr Cruise stands at a measly 5’ 7”, the hulking Reacher of the page famously towers at a comparably mighty 6’ 5” — indeed, from what I’ve read, it’s one of the few physical features regularly attributed to the man. Fans of the film’s best-selling source material, who are many and who are loud, are justifiably displeased with the missing 10 inches: perhaps they would have preferred WWE-fighter-turned-leading-man Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (6’ 2” says google) stepping into Reacher’s boulder-sized boots — even then, that’s three inches too short.

But, and this is a question furiously fretted over throughout the centuries, does size really matter? For Cruise as Reacher, I think not. Now, I am admittedly unfamiliar with all 17 of the popular potboilers in which Reacher has appeared (so far). But what I am familiar with is Tom Cruise, and as the Reacher of Christopher McQuarrie’s hard-edged big-screen adaptation, the “Mission: Impossible” star fits the bill: Cruise brings to the titular role a roguish swagger, unflinching confidence, fierce physicality and a smooth charisma that does much to compensate for his limited stature. So what if he’s dwarfed by the beloved book-Reacher? He’ll kick your shins in in an instant and chew your ankles to the bone.

The story, based on Child’s “One Shot,” begins with a chilling, and all too relevant, act of violence. One morning, America is awoken by six gunshots: from a parking garage in Pittsburgh, a sniper shoots and kills five innocent bystanders, apparently at random. All evidence left at the scene leads to James Barr (James Sikora, “Shutter Island”), a military sniper who is promptly arrested. With a mountain of evidence stacked against their suspect, District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins, “The Cabin in the Woods”) and Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo, “Lincoln”) can’t believe their luck, though Barr stubbornly protests his innocence when interrogated. Seemingly about to confess, Barr instead scribbles three words: “Get Jack Reacher.”

And so Jack Reacher appears, all 5’ 7” of him, following a teasing sequence in which we follow the back of his head. Once a decorated military cop, Reacher now operates off the grid as a wandering drifter, travelling the lands on foot and by bus and carrying nothing but the clothes on his back and a fold-away toothbrush. He is tasked with aiding attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike, “Wrath of the Titans”), Rodin’s daughter, who is defending Barr in an attempt to get him off death row and consequently spite her overbearing father. As Reacher delves into the case, believing for good reason that Barr has indeed committed the crime, he begins to suspect that America’s most hated gunman is in fact the victim of a set-up.

This is a conclusion achieved through actual detection: unlike Tyler Perry’s Alex Cross, who waltzes into a crime scene and instantly knows all that has occurred, Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher does appear to do some investigatory legwork, while Cruise thankfully persuades for the most part as an analytical mental machine. Perhaps less convincing is the wise-cracking, pearly toothed A-lister as a brooding lone wolf and self-declared hobo: when one sees Mr Cruise sitting in a city bus, attempting to blend in with the poverty-stricken passengers, one can’t help but snigger at the sight.

He’s in far more comfortable territory roaring through the streets and back alleys of Pittsburgh in a black-striped, blood-red, beat-up dodge charger (stolen, I should add), and engaging in brawls and shoot-outs with henchmen and thugs. In a sharply choreographed street fight, he effortlessly takes on five barroom bullies at the same time, or should that be three: “The last two guys, they always run,” he warns. And they do.

His investigation leads him to discovering the real shooter (Jai Courtney, soon to be John McClane’s son in “A Good Day to Die Hard”), the gun range owner with whom Barr practiced (screen legend Robert Duvall) and, most surprisingly, Werner Herzog, the Bond baddy who never was. The esteemed, hopelessly eccentric German filmmaker and documentarian (who once cooked and ate his own shoe) makes a truly terrifying appearance as chief villain The Zec, a violent Russian mobster. In one scene of knuckle-gnawing intensity, he forces an incompetent underling to chew off his own fingers (“Show me you’ll do anything to survive”). Notably, Herzog wears a milky-white contact lens in one eye, presumably to make him appear more menacing. It seems unnecessary: spend enough time in the company of Herzog, he’ll have you convinced to chew your own fingers off too.

It’s a pity he’s so underused and that the run-of-the-mill story, infused with the twisty-turny sensibilities of an airport page-turner, leaves the film lying somewhere in the middle of the road. The film also comes to a disappointingly generic close: in an action-packed showdown at a rain-soaked rock quarry, Helen ends up a helpless damsel in distress, while Reacher, when faced with an unarmed key antagonist, decides to drop his gun and start a fistfight. Why do they always do that?

But “Jack Reacher” is an above-average crime thriller, directed with slickness and written with pristine pulpy wit by McQuarrie (whose deviously clever script for “The Usual Suspects” earned him an Oscar in 1995). It grips and occasionally it thrills: if a new blockbuster franchise is intended, this is a solid enough start. Many will not be sold on Cruise as Reacher, if only for those missing ten inches, but remember: big things can come in small packages.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Pitch Perfect

“Pitch Perfect” is set in one of those movie colleges where students don’t read, don’t study and don’t attend class: they’re far too engrossed in making friends, making out, hanging on the campus and, as in this movie, singing a cappella. Debut director Jason Moore’s bright and sparky, “Glee"-inspired musical comedy, which is a musical in the same way that “School of Rock” was, is set in the fictional Barden University. Here, the art of a cappella is treated with the same fist-pumping enthusiasm and cutthroat rivalry that, say, football is in most schools of higher education. As far as I could tell, the closest anyone gets to a classroom in this institution is when students chill in their dorm rooms. How they expect to get their degrees I do not know.

For the uninformed, a cappella is a musical medium in which music is created vocally rather than with instruments, although I could have sworn I heard some instrumental intrusions in the film’s big finale. Barden U. is part of a fiercely competitive a cappella contest held every year, the real-life NCCA. Commentating at each stage are John Michael Higgins (“Bad Teacher") and Elizabeth Banks (also an executive producer), whose insensitive wise-cracks and wildly inappropriate remarks will remind many of the great Fred Willard as the batty dog show commentator in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show.”

Our heroines are The Bellas, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-woman underdogs to crowned champions and “big-headed garbage dirtballs” the Treble Makers (in the activities fair, they taunt passers-by by spontaneously bursting into mockful singsong). The Bellas endured crushing public humiliation the previous year when control-freak group leader Aubrey (Anna Camp, “The Help”) projectile puked on-stage mid-performance (and impressively reached the third row). Looking to finally bag the top prize this year, Aubrey and bubbly co-chief Chloe (Brittany Snow, “John Tucker Must Die”) hold auditions for new members in the assembly room, where a gaggle of social misfits and all-round oddballs come a-singin’ and a-dancin’.

Chief among them is Beca (Anna Kendrick, “End of Watch”), a cynical “alt girl" newly enrolled in Barden. Beca’s forte is seamlessly mashing together individual songs on her laptop to create a whole new track (a talent that comes in handy when The Bellas require a little rejuvenation in their music selection). Her sole reason for auditioning is to get her father off her back: he promises to let her quit college and pursue a music-producing career in L.A. if she embraces an extra-curricular activity and it doesn’t work out. Of course, soon enough she’s fully committed to The Bellas and the contest, and becomes an integral cog in their success.

Her fellow Bella newbies are weird and wonderful, and multicultural. Rising Australian comedy starlet Rebel Wilson (Kristen Wiig’s intrusive roommate in “Bridesmaids”) is Fat Amy, so-called so that, in her words, “twig bitches like you won’t call me it behind my back.” Ester Dean (“Rio”) is Cynthia, who’s the subject of a running gag in which fellow Bellas believe her to be a lesbian. And then there’s Lilly (newcomer Hana Mae Lee), a softly spoken Asian girl whose voice is so low no-one can hear a word she says, let alone sings (how she passed her audition is anyone’s guess).

The film follows The Bellas as they work their way towards the final in New York’s Lincoln Centre, and as Beca falls for Treble Maker nice guy and “The Breakfast Club" fanatic Jesse (Skylar Astin, “Wreck-It Ralph”). Naturally, as the newly assembled Bellas progress, they improve in their harmonies and presentation, although an underground, improvised “riff-off” with the Treble Makers strains believability (think of it as an “8 Mile”-style rap battle but with bubblegum pop tunes).

Moore, nominated for a Tony in 2004 for directing Broadway production “Avenue Q,” adds sparkle and pizazz to the stage-set musical numbers, which flaunt the painstaking choreographic precision of a Michael Jackson video. Kendrick and co. perform with style and energy, each proving they have quite a set of lungs on them, bellowing out both oldies and modern hits, and (thanks to Beca’s music-mixing skills) sometimes both at the same time.

Screenwriter Kay Cannon, who also writes for “30 Rock” and “New Girl,” provides much smart-mouthed snark in the vein of the Tina Fey-scribed “Mean Girls” and presents characters who may be stereotypical but who shine in personality. Giggles are aplenty, but in one notably sickly scene Cannon and Moore overdo the gross-out factor: late in the film, Aubrey’s upset stomach returns with a vengeance, which one character rather unexpectedly uses as an opportunity to make snow angels (yeuch!).

Admittedly, “Pitch Perfect” is pure formula, and it does little to raise it above basic expectations: it slavishly adheres to every cliché in the dog-eared underdog book. What it has in its favour is a winning, unpatronising “girl power" message and a sprightly ensemble cast confidently led by the reliably radiant Miss Kendrick. Stealing the show is the sizzlingly sassy Miss Wilson, who appears to have been given much room to ad-lib (a mid-credits blooper confirms this). As for the a cappella routines, they’re irresistible, toe-tapping stuff: one could almost forgive The Bellas for ignoring their college education.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — and it’s a problem many fans have likely foreseen — is that it follows in the Middle-earth-shattering footsteps of a giant. Peter Jackson’s masterfully assembled “Lord of the Rings” films, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy book series, arguably made for the greatest trilogy to have ever graced the silver screen: staggeringly epic, meticulous in its world-building, showered in Academy Awards and instantly amassing a legion of hardcore enthusiasts, it was a crowning achievement that, for some, was the true “Star Wars” of the noughties. By sheer comparison, this first entry in a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s more kiddy-friendly “The Hobbit,” while boasting its own thrills and charms, comes up a little short — it’s a hobbit pitted against a giant it couldn’t possibly outmatch.

It’s a comparison that might have been uncalled for if it weren’t for the direct connections Jackson makes between this new prequel trilogy and the earlier films: a wholly unnecessary prologue finds Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins and Elijah Wood’s Frodo having a chat in the former’s humble home, while Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee briefly return in a visit to the opulent Elven outpost Rivendell. Even some of the musical cues are the same: the re-introduction of the Shire is soundtracked by Howard Shore’s whimsical piece “Concerning Hobbits,” and the appearance of the one true “precious” ring is greeted with that ominous string melody from “The Prophecy.”

Indeed, the “Hobbit" series looks set to wander down the same route traversed by “The Lord of the Rings,” regardless of whether or not it is fit for such a lengthy trek: what we are getting once again is a trio of closely released three-hour epics covering a perilous on-foot adventure across the treacherous mountains and thorny forests of the orc-infested Middle-earth (here 60 years younger). What we’re not getting is as compelling a story: in “The Lord of the Rings,” the Fellowship’s quest was necessary in stopping the evil Sauron from gaining ultimate power and turning the land into a post-apocalyptic wasteland; in “The Hobbit,” the quest embarked on by our heroes is merely to reclaim a dwarf kingdom from a pillaging dragon that snoozes in amongst its piles of golden treasures.

Still, while the destination isn’t as pressing this time round, this unexpected journey is always enjoyable, and our travelers make for good company. Our unlikely, 3ft-tall hero is Bilbo Baggins, as played by the always appealing Martin Freeman (“Sherlock”). A pipe-smoking, pointy-eared, hairy-footed resident of the sunnily picturesque village of Hobbiton, the timid Bilbo lives a snug but largely uneventful life that is one day disturbed by wise wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, “X-Men”). Gandalf seeks Bilbo’s help: he requires a burglar to sneak into the Lonely Mountain with him and steal the treasure from the villainous dragon Smaug (that’s pronounced “smowg,” not “smog”), and the pint-sized Bilbo seems an ideal candidate.

Reluctantly, Bilbo agrees to be Gandalf’s burglar, finally venturing out from the comfort of his home to embark on an adventure that may well claim his life. Accompanying them is a band of thirteen warrior dwarves cruelly driven out of Erebor kingdom by Smaug. Flaunting ferocious appetites, bellowing singing voices and boundless energy, these diminutive goofballs are a hairy-faced delight, although differentiating between a few of them proves a difficult task. Leader of the pack is the brooding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, “Spooks”), essentially Aragorn but half the stature. As their quest begins, Thorin is ruthlessly hunted by the vengeful pale orc Azog, whose right forearm was lopped off by Thorin’s blade mid-battle.

Their journey, like that of the Fellowship, brings them to sensational set-pieces. In the woods one night they encounter a trio of lumbering, horse-thieving Cockney trolls who develop a taste for dwarf and hobbit. On a mountainside they find themselves in the midst of a tussle between towering giants made of stone, dodging chunks of the mountain hurled by both opponents. In the film’s most bombastic sequence, they escape from an underground cave system, chased by an army of goblins across rickety wooden bridges atop bottomless gorges. Jackson maintains his rousing visual flair in framing these sequences, lending the action an epic scope and a sweeping pizzazz.

But where “The Hobbit” shines brightest is when Gollum, that bug-eyed ex-hobbit, crawls out from the darkness of his cave to engage in a game of riddles with Bilbo. It’s a tense scene, the most suspenseful in the film, as our intrepid little hero takes part in a battle of wits against an instinctively deceptive, clinically schizophrenic creature of the dark. The great Andy Serkis, again voicing the iconic character and providing his every spidery movement, damn near steals the show, and, as stunningly rendered with state-of-the-art special effects, Gollum has never looked so good (well, considering...).

Trouble is, many of these set-pieces feel like needless diversions from the central quest, especially in that aforementioned visit to Rivendell (found nowhere in Tolkien’s book). One senses that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro are overstretching Tolkien’s original text for the sake of shaping it into the soaring “Lord of the Rings" mould (after 169 minutes, we’ve reached the beginning of chapter seven). Speaking of which, there’s a dilemma at the film’s core: does Jackson want this to be the lighthearted, rompish “The Hobbit” of Tolkien’s story, and thus grant the film its own identity, or does he want to stick to the grim, gritty violence of “The Lord of the Rings”? The Kiwi director, I’m afraid, fails to make a decision, resulting in slapstick shenanigans and graphic beheadings occurring within mere seconds of each other (and, as in one poor goblin’s delayed decapitation, at the exact same time).

What holds it all together, the magnificent production values and Jackson’s eye for stunning spectacle aside, is Freeman. The British actor’s good-natured charm and uncanny knack for deadpan comic delivery make for a brilliant Bilbo Baggins whose growing courage and lion-hearted heroism is completely convincing. Like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin from the previous films, Bilbo is hopelessly out of place in a band of experienced warriors on a trek to save the day, but we as an audience are with him all the way. A key question in Tolkien’s original book is why Bilbo decides to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their dauntless expedition. His reason is the same as ours: for the adventure.

Endnote: I saw “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 3-D and in 48 frames per second. The 3-D is immersive and not a distraction. The same cannot be said for 48 fps: while it undeniably gives the image a crisp, crystal clarity, it also makes the film look like a televised (dare I say cheap) BBC production, while the often unnaturally speedy movements of the characters and the camera give the impression that the film is stuck on fast-forward (think Benny Hill being chased by nurses). My advice: see it in the standard 24 fps first time round to bask in the story and characters undisturbed and, if curious about the higher frame-rate, see it in 48 fps the second time round.


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Despite the confusing connection between their vaguely heroic titles, “Rise of the Guardians” is not a sequel — nor, for that matter, a prequel — to Zack Snyder’s straight-faced 2010 computer-animation “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole." Rather, it is a DreamWorks-produced, CGI-rendered adaptation of William Joyce’s bestselling children’s series “The Guardians of Childhood,” in which the eponymous protectors are much more festive and much less feathery: standing side by side are timeless fairy tale figures Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, reimagined and reinvented as super-powered action heroes bravely battling the forces of darkness. Think of them as the Avengers for preschoolers.

When not dealing with their own seasonal business (building toys at the North Pole, making chocolate eggs, etc.), the Guardians unite to protect the children of the world from those who seek to harm them. They’re an international team: North, popularly known as Santa (Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”), is a Russian macho man; E. Aster Bunnymund, aka the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, “Real Steel”), is a boomerang-wielding Australian warrior; Tooth, aka the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fischer, “Rango”), is a bubbly American mishmash of Tinkerbell and a bird of paradise; and Sandy, aka the Sandman, is a short, stout mute who can instantly construct any object out of sand, from a windproof umbrella to a fully functioning fighter plane.

They’re about to get a new member. The Man in the Moon, who recruits all Guardians, has chosen winter spirit Jack Frost (Chris Pine, “This Means War”), bringer of blizzards, to join the squad. Jack, a 300-year-old teenager with silver hair and a magic staff, has a bit of a problem: he’s invisible to children, who walk right through him as if he were thin air. This is apparently thanks to their lack of faith in him: while many believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman, nobody believes in Jack Frost. With the aid of the Guardians, he hopes to one day gain the faith of the world’s children and ultimately prove himself to be a hero worthy of the legendary troupe.

It’s a gimmicky but promising concept that should illicit squeals of delight from younger viewers when realised on-screen. Oddly, however, the interaction of the Guardians is lacklustre. There’s not as much joy in the company of these classic holiday icons as there was in watching the interaction of, say, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk in “The Avengers,” or Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in “The Expendables.” It doesn’t help matters much that, as a personality and a presence, Jack Frost is as blank as snow, nor that the ill-tempered Easter Bunny is strangely intimidating, nor that jolly ol’ Saint Nick — with his burly figure, heavily tattooed forearms and Eastern-European growls — looks and sounds like a serial killer.

The villain is an evil spirit named Pitch Black, who often refers to himself as the boogey man. With a deathly pale complexion, piercing yellow eyes and a full set of sharp fangs, Pitch certainly looks the part, and, as voiced with diabolical menace by Jude Law (“Contagion”), he sounds it too. Tired of being routinely ignored by children, he plans to strike fear into their hearts and rid them of their faith, thus giving him strength and destroying the reputation of his arch-nemeses, the Guardians. A typical English villain, Pitch sneers and monologues endlessly, and has a dark, demonic swagger that younger viewers might find rather frightening.

There are spectacular sequences, as when the Guardians first take Santa’s sleigh for a spin, darting at breakneck speed through twisting tunnels of razor-sharp icicles. Or a sequence in which they frantically collect teeth from under children’s pillows before Pitch steals them as part of his heinous scheme. With the helping hand of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, the animation is richly detailed, vibrantly rendered and bursting with life. Debut director Peter Ramsey presents an animated fantasy world as gorgeously realised as I can recall.

But I dunno. There’s something mechanical about “Rise of the Guardians,” which lacks the kind of warmth and charm that DreamWorks Animation has boasted in recent years: it doesn’t have the high-octane exhilaration of the “Kung Fu Panda” films, nor the spell-binding enchantment of “How to Train your Dragon.” For the studio, this is an altogether middling effort, completely inoffensive but missing that all-important childlike sense of wonder. For kids, it might provide some light, if forgettable, popcorn-friendly entertainment. For parents, I’d advise getting the “Arthur Christmas” DVD instead.


Friday, 14 December 2012

Life of Pi

It is as remarkable a culture clash as I can recall. In a small, wooden lifeboat straddling the waves of the vast Pacific Ocean sits an Indian teenage boy named Pi and a fully-grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Victims of a shipwreck, they sit at opposite ends of the 27-foot boat, watching the horizon in search of land, food and rescue. Together as man and beast, they drift across the deep blue sea for 227 days, embarking on a death-defying voyage so magnificent and so moving its telling is said to have made many believe in God. While “Life of Pi” did nothing to alter my faith (or lack thereof), it did much to confirm my beliefs in the power of cinema and the miraculous possibilities of storytelling.

The director is Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning Taiwanese filmmaker who gave us the ground-breaking “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000 and the heart-wrenching “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. It is based on the worldwide bestseller by Yann Martel, published to much acclaim in 2001 and arguably something of a modern classic. With its countless metaphysical elements and physical near-impossibilities, Martel’s spiritually rich novel was, like “Watchmen” and “Cloud Atlas,” popularly deemed “unfilmable.” But when one sees the story unfolding on-screen with such fluidity and grandness under the firm grasp of Lee, one struggles to recall why a faithful and elegant transition from page to screen was considered so unassailable and unthinkable.

Our guide is a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan, “Slumdog Millionaire”), who recounts his treacherous odyssey to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall, “Prometheus") in search of a story. First, we witness Pi’s early years growing up in India, where his middle-class family owned the Pondicherry Zoo. Teased at school for his Christian name, Piscine, he adopts the nickname “Pi,” like the seemingly limitless mathematical constant (which Pi can recite to a thousand places). He is curious about all things, but it is the concept of God that piques his interest: he prides himself as a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim, simultaneously embracing all three religions, much to the annoyance of his scientifically minded father.

When the zoo business dries up and it seems life in India is no longer feasible, Pi’s family decide to sell their animals and set sail for Canada. Their cargo ship, in which the animals are caged, is struck by a monstrous storm and is claimed by the sea in a sequence that is the most spectacularly staged of its kind since “Titanic.” Towering, roaring tidal waves devour the Japanese vessel as monkeys cling to the railing and as giraffes kick and bleat in the waters below. A truly haunting image comes when Pi, immersed underwater, watches hopelessly as the giant freighter containing his family slowly but surely sinks to the depths of the Pacific.

Pi boards a lifeboat with four fellow survivors: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and of course Richard Parker, the whimsically monickered Bengal tiger. Soon enough, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine, it’s just Pi and Richard Parker left in the boat. When Pi was young, his father taught him a crucial lesson: a wild animal is indeed a wild animal, unthinking, vicious and concerned only with its own survival. No longer naive, Pi knows that if he is to make it home alive he must tame the ferocious, 450-pound beast that looks upon him with increasingly hungry eyes (it is made absolutely clear that this is no tiger from a Disney cartoon).

What follows is a riveting oceanic tale of survival against the odds, of adaptation, of endurance and of good old fashioned adventure. For Pi, the journey is both literal and spiritual, as his body, faith and spirit are brought to breaking point and put to the ultimate test. Screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) sticks close to Martel’s original text, sacrificing none of its philosophical complexities, while Lee for the most part stays true to its more harrowing aspects, adding into the mix dashes of honestly earned sentimentality.

The immense weight of the film leans heavily on the shoulders of 17-year-old Suraj Sharma, who, in his debut film role, fearlessly portrays the teenage Pi. So committed to the role was Sharma that he starved himself in the name of our malnourished hero’s drastic weight loss, his ribs all too visible through the skin of his chest. Often, he is reacting to thin air: I was stunned to discover that the majestic Richard Parker was, in most scenes, a digital creation. Their interaction, which occurs in spite of Pi’s protestations, is seamless, and on the boat Richard Parker is a frightening presence with a mighty roar that sends a tremor through the entirety of the Pacific Ocean.

What Lee adds to Martel’s ideas and musings is a visual banquet so luscious and luxurious it is worthy of the king of the jungle. Working with Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda (who shot “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and an art department whose work is sincerely breathtaking, Lee paints pictures of such staggering, awesome beauty one feels they must be framed and hung on the walls of a gallery. Take, for example, a scene in which the ocean’s placid surface is gorgeously lit up in the dark of night by the bright neon glow of bioluminescent jellyfish, an image almost immediately topped as a blue whale rises from below and leaps over the lifeboat like an illuminated Free Willy.

A sudden visit by a gigantic school of flying fish that catapult out from the water, and out from the screen it appears, takes full advantage of the film’s 3-D; Lee utilises the medium with the same skill and ingenuity used by James Cameron (“Avatar") and Martin Scorsese (“Hugo"), and with it creates one of the most immersive experiences I have ever had in a movie theatre. Lee doesn’t use the technology as a cheap gimmick like so many have done. Rather, he uses it to advance the story and immerse us in its watery world.

And then there’s the mysterious, algae-smothered island populated by a million meerkats, who stand, watch and run as if they were one. Like much of Pi’s journey, this island sails the fine line between reality and fantasy. Called into question at this point, and at several other points, is whether Pi’s journey is real or whether it is a hallucination. Does it really matter? Is it really important? What matters is the experience that is “Life of Pi” and the joy and exhilaration that it so effortlessly brings. As the middle-aged Pi remarks towards the film’s conclusion, “Why does it need to mean anything?”

I had the great pleasure of watching “Life of Pi” with a large audience of men and women, boys and girls, movie-goers of all ages, sizes and races. Together, we gasped as Richard Parker leapt out at the screen; we laughed at Pi’s failed attempts at taming the feral beast; we wept as hope seemed drained from Pi’s system; and we smiled as that hope came thundering back. “Life of Pi” is a film bold in its ambition and pure in its heart. It is a wonderful, faithful adaptation of a rightly beloved book, and it may well be the year’s best film.


Friday, 7 December 2012

End of Watch

“End of Watch” is a no holds barred, vivaciously visceral thriller centred on two workaday cops as they patrol the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer has been working towards this film his whole career. In his previous efforts, such as “Street Kings,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Dark Blue,” Ayer strived to enter, explore and examine the mindset of the American law enforcer, with mixed results. In “End of Watch,” he nails it, providing a captivating insight into the daily life of an L.A. police officer. This is the best and most absorbing L.A. cop movie since the Ayer-scripted 2001 morality tale “Training Day.”

At the film’s heart is a buddy cop duo worthy of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Jake Gyllenhaal (“Source Code”) and Michael Peña (“Tower Heist”) are LAPD officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, partners in crime-stopping and best of friends. In the past, Ayer’s focus has been on dirty cops, the kind more interested in stuffing their wallets than serving and protecting. His focus is shifted in “End of Watch:" Taylor and Zavala, smart and courageous, are good cops, though they may occasionally bend the rules to make certain that arrests are made and justice is served.

They operate in a particularly nasty district of South Central, where, according to Taylor, cops are forced to pull out their guns more on just half a shift than most cops do their entire careers. For much of the film, we follow Taylor and Zavala as they are on watch, observing the area from their patrol car, responding to call-outs and pursuing suspects. Often, we sit in the vehicle with them, listening to their conversations, which proves just as enthralling as the blood-pumping action.

Our POV is frequently that of a video diary filmed by Taylor for a documentary of sorts, placing “End of Watch” in the presently popular found footage genre. Cameras are set up on the dashboard of the patrol car while Taylor and Zavala strap mini-cams to the pockets of their shirts. Sometimes, Taylor films crime scenes with an HD camcorder, much to the annoyance of his camera-shy co-workers. Presumably for logical reasons, many scenes are shot partly in a traditional style, which retains the same raggedy, frenetic quality that comes so naturally to the found footage format.

The plot is loose and only springs into action during the third act, though there is much build up to its outcome. A fatal drive-by ordered by notorious Latino gang leader Big Evil (a terrifying Maurice Compte) intensifies a feud between the local black gang and the overtaking Mexican cartels. Smelling something fishy, Taylor and Zavala secretly embark on an investigation above their pay grade, soon uncovering an illegal operation involving drug smuggling, human trafficking and bloody massacres. Their persistent tampering with the cartel’s business leads to a target being painted on their foreheads, and Big Evil is looking to collect.

Gyllenhaal and Peña share the kind of brotherly chemistry that can only have been an accident; one senses that their characters have been close friends since time immemorial. What’s most startling about “End of Watch” is how well, and how quickly, we get to know Taylor and Zavala through just the conversations they have on their beat: as they trade advice, stories and insults, we learn of their home lives, of their personal preferences, of their past and what they wish for in the future. We know everything about them, and yet they still surprise us, as in one especially harrowing scene in which they selflessly run into a burning building together not once but twice to save two children trapped inside.

They are supported by a strong cast. Frank Grillo (“The Grey") is the grizzled police captain who warms to Taylor and Zavala once they start getting results; David Harbour (“The Newsroom") is hard-nosed veteran cop Van Hauser; and America Ferrera, almost unrecognisable from her days as “Ugly Betty," is tough cop Orozco. Playing Taylor’s new squeeze, bright college student Janet, is the reliably radiant Anna Kendrick (“Scott Pilgrim vs the World”), and playing Zavala’s long-time wife and high school sweetheart, Gabby, is Natalie Martinez (“Death Race”), who gets a great scene in which she, using wildly imaginative hand gestures, giddily shows Janet the many ways of pleasuring Taylor once he gets home from patrolling the streets.

The jittery, handheld filming style, which is always up close and personal, lends both intimacy and grit to the proceedings. However, it can also be problematic: when it is revealed that the gangbanging badguys are also filming their every move (“Get that fuckin’ camera out of my face!” is often uttered), the found footage format seems contrived, and whenever the film is shot in a traditional method, one can’t help but wonder what the point of the found footage aspect was. But you can’t deny the immersive atmosphere and raw, authentic edge wielded by this grimy, guerilla aesthetic.

Humour is an important element in “End of Watch,” and the film is indeed very funny when it wants to be. Taylor and Zavala’s merciless banter is sure to raise a smile, as are their goofy pranks back at headquarters. But there’s thematic resonance to the more comedic moments of what is an otherwise grimly violent police procedural: as Taylor and Zavala sit in their patrol car, waiting with tense uncertainty to find out what horror they will next encounter, it is humour that keeps them calm and keeps them sane. It is here that “End of Watch" provides real insight into the lives of these boys in blue: for the LAPD, the job is tough and often haunting, and it seems laughter is the best medicine.

Considering the perilous dangers Officers Taylor and Zavala are seen to face on such a regular basis, “End of Watch” isn’t likely to persuade many to join the force. But it will give many a newfound respect for both the institution and the guys on the streets risking their lives every day in a quest to protect the peace. This is a gripping, scarily plausible portrayal of how life is for those who enforce the law and ultimately how they deal with the unexpected, and the expected too.