Suraj Sharma in Life of PiLIFE OF PI

Some 45 minutes into director Ang Lee's Life of Pi, there's an image that's so deeply resonant and beautiful and sad - one that's presented with so little melodrama or fuss - that I immediately welled up and felt compelled to stifle a sob. I remember the image clearly because I rarely stopped feeling that way for almost the entire hour-and-a-half that followed.

Based on the beloved bestseller by Yann Martel, Lee's latest is, in essence if not execution, a simple survival tale. Traveling by steamer, from India to Canada, with his family and a host of zoo animals, a young man named Pi Patel (the engaging, moving Suraj Sharma) lives through a horrific shipwreck and winds up sharing a lifeboat with the only other passengers to emerge unscathed: an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and an enormous, growling Bengal tiger amusingly named Richard Parker. As you might guess, those first three animals don't stick around long, and when it's just Pi and the tiger - and Pi has managed to keep the still-hungry feline at bay - the human desperately scribbles a note, stuffs it in a glass container, and hurls it as far as he can. Yet as Lee shows us in one of his movie's many, many shots of haunting grandeur, Pi's attempt at sending an SOS is for naught: The note sits there, bobbing in the ocean, about 30 feet from the lifeboat, and the gentle, circular ripples of water formed by the container's landing suggest that no one, no one, is likely to discover Pi or his furry boatmate for a very, very long time.

It's an ineffably heartbreaking moment and, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda fully capturing the glimmer and majesty of Life of Pi's digitized seascape, a visually resplendent one. But it's hardly an aberration; for the rest of the film's length, Lee and Miranda (greatly aided by composer Mychael Danna's aural caress of a score) deliver one scene after another in which the wrenching emotionalism of Pi's plight directly collides with the startling purity of the on-screen images. What results, consequently, is a movie in which you can't separate empathy from rapture - you simultaneously want Pi to be rescued and hope he isn't rescued too quickly - and this sensory tug-of-war allows Life of Pi to emerge as a profoundly affecting experience ... provided, that is, that you can ignore the picture's unimaginative and rather unnecessary framing device.

Actually, considering that it's performed by the relaxed and charming Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Life of Pi's effectiveness, however, is still slightly marred by the narrative bookending that finds Khan's middle-aged Pi describing his miraculous story to Spall's visiting writer, their conversation underlining Martel's themes of spirituality and grace with too heavy a hand. Khan does expert work with the prosaic, somewhat leaden dialogue given to him by screenwriter David Magee, and Spall listens with rapt attention. But the elder Pi's onslaught of exposition - presented, amidst flashbacks, in a series of unimaginative two-shots - makes the film feel awfully Forrest Gump awfully early; the momentum and visual panache of the introductory scenes in India are continually waylaid by the flat, colorless staging of the Khan and Spall sequences. Happily, though, Magee and Lee are wise enough to avoid returning to the men (at least until the film's last 15 minutes) once Pi and the tiger are cast adrift, and the rest of the movie is so chock-full of spectacular bliss-outs that it's easy to ignore the unfortunate blandness of its opening and closing scenes.

And good Lord but those bliss-outs are spectacular! Life of Pi is endlessly fascinating when focusing on the practical considerations of its lead's dilemma: How, exactly, does one secure access to fresh water and food, and avoid the madness of months-long solitude, without succumbing to fatal thirst, hunger, or the whims of a ravenous traveling companion? (A makeshift raft attached to the lifeboat proves hugely beneficial.) Yet there are almost no words to express the aching, jaw-dropping loveliness of Lee's imagery here: the sight of a whale emerging from, and returning to, a sea of luminescent green algae; the signal from a flare gun falling hopelessly against a starry sky; an island of curious meerkats, thousands of curious meerkats, standing in unison and gazing at a pair of unexpected visitors. These and dozens of other digitized wonders truly put the "special" in "special effects," and none of Life of Pi's visualizations of the fantastic is quite as remarkable as Richard Parker, a CGI invention so stunningly lifelike - especially in the movie's thrilling 3D presentation - that it seems wholly deserving of the animal equivalent of a SAG card. Like the best parts of Lee's film, that tiger is sleek, fierce, and gorgeous, and in its digitized way, positively teeming with life.


Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, and Chris Hemsworth in Red DawnRED DAWN

Director Dan Bradley's Red Dawn is, as you probably guessed, a remake of John Milius' 1984 action flick about the foreign occupation of U.S. soil. Given this new, embarrassing example of Hollywood filmmaking at its most xenophobic and inept, why would any other country want it? Heaven knows that Milius' movie, with its macho-blowhard posturing and dicey politics, was crap, in spite of the inordinate fondness that many of my generation have for this tacky Reagan-era "classic." But Bradley's Red Dawn, which also follows a group of patriotic and incredibly well-armed high schoolers as they face down a citywide insurgence, is just reheated crap, notable only for a few evocative images of parachuting North Korean marauders and the sight of our teens being led into battle by Thor himself. (The buzz-cut Chris Hemsworth doesn't bring his hammer but does bring the film's one semblance of a good performance, despite a solid attempt, in a meaningless role, by The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson.) With its incoherently staged scenes of street warfare set against routinely pathetic stabs at sentiment, I giggled all throughout this laughably inane trifle, and only felt truly connected to the goings-on when Jeffrey Dean Morgan's grizzled Marine stared forlornly at America's best hope for survival and muttered, "I hate these kids. Hate 'em." At last, I thought. A moment of sanity.

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