Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life of Pi on DVD

I'm going through quite a few of the Best Picture nominees from this year's Oscars, as you can see if you've read my blog recently, and though Life of Pi was lower on my list, I still thought it would be worth watching (I heard it was beautiful, especially in 3-D). I haven't read the book, by Yann Martel (but I'm not sorry I haven't), and I went into it pretty much not knowing anything about the story, just that the book has been a bestseller and is sometimes read as school literature. I did not see it in 3-D, but I can see how it was filmed for it and could have been even more visually stunning than it already was. I have not been converted to 3-D yet, and I rarely see a movie in that form. (Didn't even see Avatar that way.) So, I find it somewhat annoying when I'm watching a movie and something comes straight toward the camera in a move that is designed for 3-D. It looks set-up and fake in the 2-D experience. I was especially annoyed by it in Oz the Great and Powerful, but it was done at least more tastefully in Life of Pi.

(SPOILER alerts about the ending to follow.) And it's true: Life of Pi is a visual treat. It's a beautiful story (thought I don't agree with the religious morals of it) right up until about ten minutes from the end. The story should have stopped there, but it goes on to pull the rug out from under everything you've believed about what you've been watching and it tries to tack on some feel-good, religious meaning to the whole thing. I was almost loving the movie until then. When I explained what it was about to my husband, he sort of chuckled drily and said it was an appropriate choice for an Oscar nominee. If you've read my review of three other Best Picture nominees this year, you know my opinion of what normally goes for Oscar bait. It's usually the depressing stuff, and though I've enjoyed some of the other nominees this year, Life of Pi fits the usual Oscar fare, unfortunately.

Now, for those of you who, like me, haven't read the book or seen the movie, I will give you the plot premise without spoilers you wouldn't be able to deduce fairly easily if you've ever seen the book's cover or the movie poster. Pi, an Indian boy whose father owns a zoo, is crossing the Pacific with a boat full of animals when the ship sinks. Pi gets stranded on a lifeboat with several other wild animals, including a dangerous Bengal Tiger. Thus, the stage is set. And it really is an amazing story. I assumed Pi and the tiger would hit it off like a happy Disney movie, unbelievably becoming fast friends, but that's not the case, and I'll leave any plot details at that.

I was so disappointed by the ending that I have to warn you, at least, though I won't give spoilers. It ruined it all for me. So, if you want a visual treat and aren't too concerned about where the story might be leading you, it's kind of fascinating. But if you don't like being misled, take it from me: skip this one. And I really hate to say it, too, because there are some beautiful scenes, and Pi's resourcefulness is fascinating.

As I alluded to before, the other thing I don't like about the movie is its religious message. Pi is a Hindu, so he believes in all kinds of gods, including Jesus and Allah. The message seems to be that belief is what counts, but as a Christian, I know it's more than that. It's whom you believe in that matters. It's a nice idea to think all religions can agree and are essentially the same, but it's simply untrue.

If I could somehow cut off the end of this movie, I might give it the high end of three stars. As is, I hate to rate it and do it a discredit because the art of it is beautiful, and the performance by Suraj Sharma as Pi is heartfelt and emotional. But as a whole I didn't like this movie.

Life of Pi is rated PG for emotional content and scenes of peril as well as normal predatory animal interactions, and it's just over two hours long.

MILA 2.0

I wasn't sure I could suspend disbelief fully enough to enjoy MILA 2.0, a young adult novel by Debra Driza. I was simultaneously intrigued by and wary of the premise: a teenage girl suddenly discovers that she is not quite human and that the life she thinks she's lived is false. Robots who can think for themselves and who have emotions are intriguing, but I find the idea of them really hard to buy into. After all, as much as we like to play what-if and pretend it's possible, technology isn't human and never will be. And, great, now I sound like the bad guys in I, Robot and all those books and movies that keep exploring the idea of sentient machines. The thing is, I have no problem suspending disbelief for other types of fantasy with creatures I'm sure don't exist. I wonder if the difference in my perception is based in my belief system. I believe I have a soul created by God, and I don't like the idea of Man creating sentient beings because I'm not sure God would gift those beings with souls, too. Still, we're talking about science fiction here; it's not real. So, I do suspend disbelief as much as I am able, and despite my misgivings, I can say that I did enjoy MILA 2.0's exploration of what it means to be human.

(This paragraph contains some SPOILERS related to the first quarter of the book. Read why in the following paragraph.) The story begins with Mila and her mother adjusting to a new life in a cozy town in Minnesota. They are grieving the death of Mila's father and trying to move on, even though parts of Mila's memory are missing. Aside from strict demands from her mother, Mila is enjoying her new life and making friends when an accident turns everything upside down. As her strange abilities surface and her identity comes to light, she begins to unravel as she realizes everything she's known is a lie. But losing it is not an option when her secret leaks to the wrong people, forcing Mila and her mother to go on the run.

This is all the set-up of the story, and much of it was vaguely revealed on the cover of the advance reader's copy I read. Also, the book's title, MILA 2.0, is rather revealing. But the set-up takes nearly 100 pages, and it's only then, for sure, that Mila finds out who she is. So, there's some heavy dramatic irony throughout the whole first part of the book since the reader begins the story knowing more about Mila than she herself does. I almost didn't want to tell you anything about the plot because it all feels like spoilers. But I can't be spoiling much more than the cover of the book already does. And I kind of understand the need to advertise the book as being about a robot; you sort of want to know that up front. So, then, the author and her editing team were left with a dilemma: reveal some spoilers and let the character's journey toward revelation, and what happens afterward (which is plenty), carry the book or shroud the book's genre in mystery and reveal the secrets slowly. I, personally, think I would have liked to be surprised as I read because I hate spoilers. But that begs the question: would I have picked up the book in the first place? Can't say for sure.

Regardless, once you've established that Mila is, indeed, a robot, the most unique aspect of the story is the way Mila's emotions come into play. She thinks and feels like a regular teenage girl. She fully believes she is human and can't come to terms with the fact that she's not, even after there's proof. After all, no one can manufacture feelings, right? They are hers and hers alone, and how is that not human? She must face the question: can a machine love? Does she deserve a normal life, or must she fulfill the purpose she was made for? The book explores these questions very believably. In short, despite my misgivings about the book's premise, it was handled in a way that didn't turn me off and that was entertaining, as well.

MILA 2.0 reminds me of another young adult book I read last year about a cloned teenage girl, born already grown in a lab, who suddenly discovered she could think for herself. Though that book, Beta, was an enjoyable 3-star read, I didn't want a repeat, and I'm happy to say this book distinguishes itself. I wouldn't mind finishing this trilogy as it is released. MILA 2.0 is the first and came out in March. But due to the spoiler-ish way this book is advertised as well as the moral snag of whether machines might be able to have souls or not, I give this one only three stars, as well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Catching Up with the Oscars: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo

Though I don't pick my movies based on the awards they receive, I am always curious to see who the Oscar winners are. I don't know why I care, because the Academy and I don't really see eye-to-eye on what makes a good movie. But the Oscars aren't about popular opinion, and I'm sure they have very good reasons for preferring sadistically nihilistic narratives over good ol' superheroes saving the day. However, the past couple years have surprised me for nominating a few movies people actually care about and have seen.

Though I wasn't able to see many of the nominees in the theater, I was interested in them. So, now that they are coming out on DVD, I'm able to catch up and see if the hype is really worth it. Below, I'll review three Best Picture nominees (one of which is the winner) that I've had the opportunity to see recently. Interestingly, these three are rather similar in that they all contain heavy thematic material (they did make the Oscars, after all) dealing with aspects of politics and the treatment of humanity.

This is probably the most accessible, family-friendly, positive movie of the three. (It's also rated only PG-13.) Who doesn't like Lincoln for what he did for the equality of man in this country? The movie's subject matter had broad appeal to begin with, and the performances are definitely top-notch. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his portrayal of Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field were both nominees for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively.

Everybody raved so much about Day-Lewis's performance that I was that sort of skeptical you get when you wonder if something can possibly meet, never mind exceed, your expectations. When I finally saw him in the role, I was both surprised and not. I knew he would be good, so I wasn't surprised there. But I was surprised by how much I liked him, despite constantly being drawn out of the character as I wondered what exactly he did differently than other actors to make himself stand out and meld simultaneously. Nick loved him, too, and now wants to read a biography about the guy. (I didn't care that much.) Lincoln is fascinating in this telling, and I wonder how close all of it is to the truth. Was Lincoln such a great storyteller? Day-Lewis captures that back-in-the-day vibe you get from some older men and grandfathers who always have a story to tell, and the stories always seem like they are from another world, even though they are just from an older time. You can't help but love those guys, even when they annoy you by interrupting your busy life with a tale of slower times. Even the way they talk is slow and measured, as if they still lived in those times. How do you recreate that? Day-Lewis does.

I could go on about the other actors. Many are memorable, and the dialog, especially in Congress among the State Representatives, is lively and entertaining (otherwise, the politicking would have bored me to tears).

I did find the movie's start to be a little slow. I'm not all that into politics and war in movies, and this one is full of both. Once it got going, I was invested, though I still found the politics of it all to drag on a bit. Perhaps that's how it felt in real life, as Congress fought seemingly endlessly over the very thing the Civil War was all about. It had to drag on for them, too. I know movies take some artistic license, so I don't know how much I should be trusting this movie as a history lesson, but I hope they got it right historically, because they got it right on the emotional cinematic level and it would be disappointing to discover they were making up details to garner interest or heighten cinematic tension.

Lincoln is two and a half hours long. As my husband joked the other night, can a Best Picture nominee even be under two hours? I found it a tad long and was somewhat disappointed that the actual shooting that led to Lincoln's death isn't even shown, but I can see how including it might have sensationalized that evil too much. After all, the movie is about the kind of character it takes to free a nation of slaves from selfish, wicked men. And what a character he had and was.

Zero Dark Thirty
Of the three, this may be my least favorite, perhaps because it's just so brutal. Torture is sickening, even if the person being tortured is evil. It's also a huge moral issue, one I'm not sure where to come down on. Is it right to torture some to save others? It's obviously something common individuals should not do, but when it comes to the government, what is right or wrong? Turning the other cheek is one thing when you yourself are under fire, but when should our duty to protect the innocent, the orphan, and the widow come into play? Is it then permissible to fight fire with fire, so to speak? Or should we still be humane? It's a question our government had to deal with during the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden, and this movie asks it but doesn't fully answer. How could they? It's a tough one.

But the movie is a fascinating watch for one reason: the woman behind the death of bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the obsessed agent, Maya, who spends 10 years, her entire career out of school, following a lead nobody else would consider in the belief it would lead her to the man responsible for over 3000 American deaths on September 11, 2001. Chastain was nominated for Best Actress for this role, and if you aren't convinced she deserved the nod, watch her ditsy but loveable performance in The Help. What a difference of characters!

I can't say how much of the movie is fully true or, again, how much artistic license is taken. The scene where American soldiers finally get bin Laden is likely the truest part, as it's well documented. The rest is a combination of character study and political maneuverings, which are more subjective. But if the real woman behind Chastain's character is anything like what the movie portrays, I feel sorry for her, enmeshed in all that brutality, surrounded by evil, alone. Where do you go after ten years of that? Essentially, that's the last question we are left with, which is a downer on a movie about finally beating the bad guy. At the end, we all sigh with relief, but we don't feel better because it was an exhausting long haul of a ride.

And as an audience, we get to experience in a fraction of a way just how long the journey was as we sit through over two and a half hours of this heavy stuff. Not surprisingly, with such content, the movie is rated R for some language but mostly for disturbing violence and imagery.

Argo won Best Picture (and doesn't even top two hours!) this year against Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and others. Of these three movies, it is the one I would have picked, too. Where Lincoln drags on a bit, Argo keeps moving. Where Lincoln's focus becomes rather broad (ending a civil war, freeing a race of slaves), Argo's remains narrow and to-the-point (getting six people out of Iran before they are caught and executed as spies). Plus, I enjoy tension and suspense more than politics, but that's just me.

Though all three movies are based on true events, I think Argo's story intrigued me the most for being so-crazy-it-just-might-work. In order to get six American embassy employees safely out of the country without raising suspicion from the Iranians as to their real identities, the CIA concocts a far-fetched plan to disguise them as Canadian filmmakers. The cool thing is, in order to make it believable, they buy a script, set up a film company with a bigwig to back it in Hollywood, hire actors, draw up storyboards, and advertise. Once the set-up is there, one CIA agent (Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, also the director of Argo) goes into Iran. His mission: transform the six Americans into a film location scouting crew and get them out. Everyone loves movies, even Iranians, and who wouldn't like their own backyard to be the location of a movie set? It's rather brilliant, but oh, so dangerous. With the Iranians working double-time to figure out the identities of the hidden Americans and the U.S. government balking at the plan, even after things are set in motion, the pressure is all on Tony to make it work and not get anyone, including himself, killed in the process.

I'm always a bit skeptical when someone wants to take the lead role in a film he or she is directing. I don't know why a person would do it. It seems kind of arrogant, but perhaps, in this case, Ben Affleck simply wanted to take on all the responsibility of getting it right. It does seem like the details are as close to the truth as possible (though I can't say for sure and only suppose that because of the remarkable effort taken to make the actors look like their real-life counterparts), though I'm sure events are slightly condensed and embellished to add cinematic tension (minor SPOILER alert: I'm thinking of the chase at the end here). Whatever the reasons Affleck chose to simultaneously direct and star, it works. He underplays his character outwardly, but Affleck's face speaks more than his character ever needs to. So much can be conveyed in that man's stare! He brings depth and humanity to his character and to the plight of the Americans he is sent to rescue. Though the story is about saving the embassy employees, it centers on Tony, the guy who believed a fake movie could make it happen. He is the anchor of the plot.

The movie is rated R for violence (much less so than Zero Dark Thirty) and language. The F-word is used in a rather unique way, and I have to admit, it even got me (who hates the word) to laugh. Humorous moments like that exist to give relief to the otherwise heavy tension pervading the story. The movie balances the tension so well that even though it's sometimes dark, you don't feel utterly drained and hopeless like you do watching Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, Argo is rather hopeful.

Of the three nominees reviewed here, Argo is the most rewarding to watch, combining an awesome true story (a movie about making a fake movie!) with CIA agents, suspense (it is a life-or-death rescue mission), daring odds, a little Hollywood drama, a foreign setting (the Middle East is always intriguing in one way or another), and gripping characters. I don't want to give any SPOILERS, but I think the cat's already out of the bag: this one even has a feel-good ending! (Is Hollywood going soft?) Argo also won in the Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, so you know it is well put-together. It has good flow and kept my interest throughout.

So, did Hollywood actually get it right this time? In Argo, they found a story compelling to us all, one with emotional gravitas and a real-life superhero! I'm gonna say it: kudos to the Academy! And if the Academy and I can agree on something, it just might be worth your time to check it out!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mind Games

I liked the premise of Kiersten White's young adult novel Mind Games. You don't see a lot of novels that focus on sisterly relationships, and while an almost-love-triangle exists in this book, it's not the primary emphasis. In fact, though there's room for romance to develop in future books, you could really say this book isn't a romance at all. It's more of a science fiction thriller and character study at the same time. Though one genre seems fast-paced and the other slow, they meld together pretty well.

Both Fia and Annie narrate the story, but the book is more about Fia, the girl with instincts so good she can almost never choose wrong, the girl who could be a weapon in the wrong hands. And, man, is Fia ever in the wrong hands. Her handler is a boy who she knows is bad and dangerous but who she wants to fall in love with anyway. He, in turn, is the son of an even more dangerous and mysterious man who collects women like Fia and Annie in order to control and use their special mind powers. Most of these women are Seers, seeing the future (like Annie), or Readers, reading minds, or Feelers, feeling emotions. Fia is none of that. She calls herself the hands. With special training and perfect instincts, she is the most dangerous of them all, a killer. And she has to remain a killer if she wants her sister to live.

The dynamics of the relationship between Fia and Annie are what this book is all about, but personally, I didn't really take to Annie. I can't say I loved Fia either, with her obsessive, angry thoughts and stream-of-consciousness narration, but she is clearly the character the author wants you to care most about...not that the reader isn't supposed to care about Annie. The reader is supposed to care about what Fia thinks of Annie, and Fia will do anything to protect her older, blind sister.

The book took longer than some young adult fiction takes me to get through, probably due to switching narrators but also due to flashbacks. That's why I said the story was part character study. We get a lot of background on Fia and Annie leading up to the present. It's an interesting way to tell a story. We get thrown right into the action, and then slowly, the specifics unwind. Interesting, yes, but I didn't love the way the story was told.

Still, having said that, what I really did enjoy was the concept of an unwilling human weapon. My husband can tell you that I love stories with powerful female protagonists. Under very different circumstances, I could have been a feminist, I'm sure. I love to see girls kick butt, and I'm a second degree black belt myself. But I also find it intriguing when a girl is powerful yet doesn't want to be. It provides for fascinating internal struggle, and in this case, it raises a lot of moral questions, too. How do you do detestable things to protect a loved one and still save your own soul? I wish there was a little more about that particular question in the book, but Fia is beyond believing she has a soul to save. Her hopelessness is understandable in light of the story, but it gets a little depressing. I do, however, like the way this first book of the series resolves itself, and I hope there is some interesting moral exploration in the books to come; the set-up is certainly perfect for it.

Three stars.