herald

Thursday 17 April 2014

Tiger tiger burning bright

TYPICAL. You wait decades for an adaptation of an 'unfilmable' Booker Prize-winning novel set in India to come along and then you get two of them in the space of a week. The big-screen treatment of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children opens next week but first we have Ang Lee's take on Yann Martel's 2002 winner, a book that sold seven million copies, although whether a fraction of that number made it anywhere near the last page is open to question.

Lee has decent previous form when it comes to literary adaptations, having done great work with Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, but a movie chiefly set on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific where the characters are a teenage boy and a fully grown Bengal tiger would surely test his skills to the limit.

Life of Pi

Lee and his screenwriter David Magee overcame a major narrative hurdle by introducing the device of having a struggling writer (Rafe Spall) meet the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) in order to hear a tale that will both reinforce his waning belief in storytelling and instil a sense of wonder in the world.

With that framing structure in place, we're back to 1950s India, to Pondicherry, 'India's Riviera', where the Patel family have taken charge of a zoo and the young Pi (Ayush Tandon) is relentlessly ribbed by his classmates due to his forenames being Piscine Molitor, a result of being named after a swimming baths in Paris.

These early scenes have a great warmth and charm about them, the Patels clearly being a warm and loving family as they tolerate their inquisitive son's seeming intent to embrace and adopt every single one of the world's main religions in a search for knowledge and truth.

Moving forward a decade and the family, beset by financial difficulties, has decided to move to Canada, taking the zoo's animals with them as they set sail for a new life in North America. A terrible storm -- brilliantly realised by Lee -- dooms their vessel, leaving Pi (now played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) adrift on a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a wary orangutan, a violently hysterical hyena and the Bengal tiger, who happens to be called Richard Parker.

Before too long, it's just Pi and Parker on the Pacific, desperate to survive and coming to depend on each other to a certain extent. It's here where Lee's skills as a film-maker carry what could have been a hokey and unbelievable narrative.

Through a seamless combination of CGI, animatronics and a real live tiger, at no point do you doubt that Richard Parker is there on that lifeboat and with disbelief duly suspended, you're free to enjoy the fabulous visual feast which unfolds.

There are some stunning sequences to savour here, whether it be a humpback whale cresting through a fluorescent sea, or Pi and Parker landing on an island populated by meerkats, but at all times you're aware that the adult Pi is telling this to a writer desperate to hear it, so what's true and what isn't?

In the end it doesn't really matter, as a fabulous tale has been woven with awe and wonder, a story delivered with such style and beauty that within minutes I barely noticed that it was in 3D. Some achievement that.

Pitch Perfect

A movie about an inter-college a cappella competition may well have you bemoaning the influence of Glee! on the wider universe -- and there is certainly a touch of that in this endearing comedy/musical -- but with 30 Rock stalwart Kay Cannon on writing duties, this is far more than a jazz-hands jamboree.

All-girl group the Barden Bellas lose a national televised final to their male rivals the Treble Makers following an unfortunate vomiting incident and are out for revenge the following year.

With the addition of Fat Amy, a boisterous Tasmanian played by the show-stealing Rebel Wilson, and the hip Beca (Anna Kendrick), an aspiring record producer who's caught the eye of the Treble Makers' new recruit Jesse (Skylar Astin), can the Bellas turn the tables?

It's hardly the most original storyline in the world, but what makes it so enjoyable is the quality of the writing, the verve of the performances -- Anna Kendrick has a Tony nomination under her belt so this must have been a doddle for her -- and a tone that steers just the right side of snarkiness. Mention, too, must go to Elizabeth Banks (who co-produced) and John Michael Higgins as a pair of commentators, whose banter brings a most welcome element of Best in Show to proceedings.



Smashed

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives an eye-catching performance a long way away from her previous roles in Scott Pilgrim vs the World and, er, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with her portrayal of a young primary school teacher, Kate, who realises that her drinking is out of control.

Well, throwing up in front of a class of six-year-olds and pretending to be pregnant as a result would certainly indicate that not all is well, not to mention smoking crack with someone you've given a lift to and waking up on a couch in a parking lot on the wrong side of town.

Kate's husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) also drinks a lot, but has no intention or desire to quit, and it's when she joins AA that the cracks begin to appear in their marriage.

Smashed feels a tad too stretched at times -- and at 80-odd minutes it's not that long anyway -- but just about manages to stop short of being a preachy promo piece for the 12-step programme.

Still, it's Mary Elizabeth Winstead's performance which lingers longer than any memory of the material.