Life of Pi- No, Ang Lee. No, please. Stop.

Part two of my summer preview session. This time we’re looking at Ang Lee’s ham-fisted forthcoming adaptation of another of my favourite novels, Life of Pi. What follows is a rant. Please be warned.

Let me start by gushing a bit about this book. It is one of most intellectually complete and artistically satisfying novels written, for my money, ever. That’s not to say its perfect; Yann Martel’s style is divisive, and can irritate and alienate some readers, but stick with it and you have an extraordinary testament of art and faith which is compelling from a scientific, psychological, spiritual, religious or literary perspective. Pi Patel, son of zoo-keepers and subscriber to three different religions, is the sole human survivor of the sunken ship bearing his family and their animals from Pondicherry to Canada. He finds himself cast adrift on a lifeboat, accompanied by an Orang-utan, a lame zebra, a Hyena and a 450-lb Bengal Tiger by the name of Richard Parker. With the width of the Pacific ocean to cross and the span of his faith to navigate, Pi realises that his survival lies in the deepest articles of faith his love of Zoology, God and Story-telling can muster.

And Ang Lee, has completely missed the point. At least, as far as the trailer tells us, The most inconsistent director in China or Hollywood has tried to “Hollywoodize” (with a big fat zeeee) a Canadian novel about an Indian boy lost in the Pacific ocean grappling with the core religions of Europe, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Recipe. For. Disaster.

I don’t know what to make of Ang. His opus veers wildly all over the place, from the sublime Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain to his horribly overestimated Hulk remake. This looks like a stinker, I’m afraid to say. And why is that?

Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with Computer imagery. There’d be far fewer stuntmen in the world, to paraphrase J. J. Abrams. But it needs to advance our perception of reality, not replace it. Spielberg nearly flopped on his first attempt at big-budget film because he insisted Jaws be made at sea, rather than in a studio backlot. The sense of scale afforded by his naive ambition contributed to the scale and menace of the open, ambiguous setting that has become cinematic legend- it just wouldn’t have looked right if it was made in a tank.

So WHY OH WHY does Ang Lee appear to have rented out Beverly Hills Leisure Centre to plop his protagonists’ lifeboat in? Everything is chintzy-clean, unnaturally calm and lit like a Vogue cover-shoot. Its far too good to be true, especially for a book which is all about the sheer overwhelming force of the elements.

The Animals have also evidently never seen an animal. Animating living things is notoriously tricksy, which is why it is generally reserved for long distance, wide-angled shots (See the Hunter for a very good example). It simply isn’t the same as a real animal, especially when its made up to look all pretty and just slightly unnatural. The tiger doesn’t look real at all, thus, no clutch on reality, thus, absolutely no sense of threat from that cat. And the whale. What on EARTH were you thinking with that Whale? Sorry, Ang, big mistake.

Its laden with Hollywood plastic Cheese.
There is no sense of the central themes of the book from this trailer. This is a challenging book, with a complex central character challenging some very challenging and divisive ideas. As perhaps we are coming to expect, the film appears to a lobotomised its source material. It simply fills a load of formulaic clichés designed to look profound whilst being very, very shallow. Its “exotic”, with an Indian boy playing lead, support and foil to himself. There’s a CGI tiger too, but that looks rubbish so its basically just Pi. But of course, no self-respecting movie-salesman would let your average idiot go to see a film starring just an Indian lad and a tiger. So lets make them fall in love! At least, that’s the way it seems to be going. And just to be clear, there is no love story in Life of Pi, tiger or no tiger. Bored? Never mind. Lets throw in a Whale. A big, flouresent, utterly pointless and badly rendered CGI Whale just to ramp up the AWESOMENESS of this story. Because there’s nothing that sells for less than good old Hollywood plastic Cheese, all over a sweaty minced up burger of a script, which has been mashed into being out of a veritable cash cow. Am I being judgemental here? Maybe I am, but this is the level of cynicism and misery that this kind of adcraptation has led me and half the cinema-going population to.

The titles are a case in point. “When all you’ve ever known” “IS LOST” “You will discover” “A life of friendship”. This kind of horrible monologging is all over modern movies- its very annoying commercial psychology that puts YOU in the front row of the cinema- because Hollywood, like Uncle Sam and all the commercial, autocratic baloney that funds them wants YOU. And YOU. And YOU, too- anyone with money and a vapid mind to bleach with stupid clichéd aphorisms that miss the point of this wonderful, meditative, CHALLENGING story. Credit us with some sense.

Everything is Big and Noisy and Hollywood “Spectacle”
Life of Pi is a quiet, contemplative story. It takes in several years of rigorous monotony and somehow makes each day unique. Even in a 2 minute trailer Ang seems to have lost patience. BANG shipissinking- the one “action” sequence of the book is expressed in a single line.

“The Ship sank with a monstrous metallic burp”

Lets see you sink a ship as simply and wonderfully as that, Ang. I dare you.
Modern Hollywood cinema strategy seems to take a leaf from George Bush’s guide to the Iraq war. Its like Shock & Awe tactics on cinema-goers; think of them like little scurrying locals, all they need is some deafening noise and bright lights and they’ll be stunned into subserviently coughing up all their money to endure another magic-lantern show writ large.

BANG. Ship sinks. BANG. Drama underwater. BANG. Everything falling, jumping, flying or generally moving. BANG. CGI TIGER. MORE CGI TIGER. BANG Everyone makes friends. BANG, oh was I boring you? Well here comes a bloody CGI Whale.

Its just not fun. Its not engaging. Its missed the point and makes me very, very nervous about the rest of what is to come. Fuller judgement to follow, once I’ve summed up the courage to go see it.

Rant Over.

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Preview: Cloud Atlas

I’ve had a month off. Not entirely intentionally, but I’ve been pretty busy and all the ideas I’ve had to blog about have stayed as ideas for the time being. Fortunately, that means I have a load of things to tell you about. Stay tuned.

Two of my favourite contemporary novels are being made into films- one I’m extremely excited about, the other I’m overwhelmingly anxious for. The first is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, being adapted by Tom Twyker and the Wachowskis.

Written in 2004 by David Mitchell, believe me when I say this is one of the most ambitious novels written in recent memory. Structured like Matryushka Russian Dolls, with six separate stories embodying six separate styles interweaving six protagonists, at least twice as many central characters across six periods past, present and future, the rise and fall (and rise again) of civilisation is written into an extraordinary piece of work that is enchanting, powerful and wickedly difficult to read.

Not the usual fare for a movie. Commercial cinema is a game of expectations and attention spans, and there is a formula that many, many production executives are afraid to stray from when financing films. So backing the Wachowskis, whose motion picture mantra is “to screw with audiences’ expectations ”, is a risky move indeed.

So why am I so darn excited about Cloud Atlas?

* Cloud Atlas is a Russian Doll of a book, and The Wachowskis love working with this.
Andy Wachowski described his passion for “serial cinema”, in the manner of Tolkein and the comic book style that he and his sister (Lana, who is transgender, officially changed from Larry after their 2008 film Speed Racer) cut their creative teeth on.
This is very good news for Cloud Atlas, which is essentially 6 short stories that evolve into each other, interspersed and influencing the emotional and narrative arcs of the novel. David Mitchell precisely cuts each story in half, and fills it with the next; highly demanding for the reader, but ultimately very rewarding as a whole. It will be interesting to see if the Wachowskis adhere to that.

* Adaptions of Novels require enormous editorial discipline, and the filmmakers appear to have nailed the essentials.
Film is a restrictive medium, and can’t afford the sprawl of a novel. Action, plot threads, characters and thematic subtleties all have to be refined to the purest form of the idea, and this is where a great number of book-to-film adaptations get lost (See my Life of Pi preview, coming soon). The directors appear to have understood the essential, central device of the book, the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate characters, somehow united despite being completely removed from each other in time, space, gender and race. From the incredibly generous trailer (5 and a half minutes, reflecting the 164 minute run time and the vast panoply of the cast), it looks safe to say that using the ensemble cast for several roles each is a stroke of brilliance that hits the narrative nail on the head. Lets just hope that they use this in the right way.

* Oh, and it looks GORGEOUS.
An absolutely sumptuous vision of an incredible range of environments, very subtly centred around Hawaii (which we see in Cloud Atlas at the points of Civilisation’s exponential rise and fall), taking in California, England, Korea, Belgium and the Pacific Ocean, each with its own distinctive look and, I hope, cinematography. If it were me, I’d hire six different production designers and six different DoPs, but its looking good so far for Cloud Atlas’ visual scope.

* Its a partially German film.
This may not mean much to many people, but Cloud Atlas is being financed and produced through German film companies and hopes to be the “first German Blockbuster”, according to its producers. Much of it is being filmed in Berlin, which has very little presence in the film industry. Think about the number of times New York, LA, London, Paris and so on have been used as film locations. They offer a very particular stylistic timbre that is reflected in the feel of the film. A Berlin film will have its own new look and feel. Very Exciting.

* The cast are far from typecast
And they are all very, very talented. Tom Hanks seems set to anchor much of the story, but his roles (for he plays several) are not the ones I originally envisaged for him. He is playing far out of his character comfort zone, with characters, in the novel, who are small cogs witness to incredible events. Just look at the photos. These are just a sample of what Cloud Atlas is all about.
Halle Berry appears near the centre of the story, tasked with playing everything from a California reporter to a white aristocrat to a futuristic demi-goddess. Quite how she achieves this I’m not sure.
Hugh Grant makes an appearance as the impressively tanned CEO whom Berry is set to clash with. His part is small but looks to make for some very interesting scenes.
Hugo Weaving is back on top Wachowski form, and he appears to be playing a mix of villains, including, it’s purported, the devil. Anybody who isn’t convinced should try and look directly at him for more than a few seconds. If that man’s middle name isn’t Beelzebub I’ll eat my shoe.
Doona Bae is set to play Somni~451, the figure on whom the plot twists. She is an unknown to me, so I will watching her story (an incredibly sophisticated and dark projection of commercial dystopia) with great interest.
Jim Broadbent marries a cantankerous composer and a comic turn as a beleaguered publisher set for some marvellous chemistry with Ben Whishaw.
Whishaw, one of my favourite actors of the moment following his sublime turn in Richard II on the BBC, plays my favourite character: the young, acerbic musical genius whose letters and “Cloud Atlas Sextet” underpin the nature of the movie. “ as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future.”

Take a look at to see more of these. They’re pretty incredible.

This is one of the most ambitious film projects I’ve ever seen. Lets just say, I’m looking forward to this. October 26th is the release date. Expect a thorough review.

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