Saturday, September 29, 2012

Can "Life of Pi" put Ang Lee back in the Best Picture Race?

Suraj Sharma
Update: I have written a review for the movie here.

Recently at the New York Film Festival, we saw the opening of director Ang Lee's Life of Pi. Critics like Jack Giroux have called it near perfect while Katey Rich was taken away by the visuals and believes that it will dominate the visual effects categories. Still, can this $100 production of Yann Martel's bestseller book bring Lee back to the forefront of the Oscar season, or is the idea of a man on a raft with a tiger not able to compete with Argo, The Master, and other high concept, zeitgeist-stemming movies?

The biggest strength that this movie has going for it is the director. Ang Lee is the only non-white and more specifically Asian to win Best Director for his work on Brokeback Mountain. Along with three wins for that film, he has also garnered four wins for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which gave him a Best Foreign Film win and a Best Picture nomination. This is a rarity for foreign language films, and only makes the work of Lee look all the more impressive. 

In fact, the only real conflict with Life of Pi getting major nominations comes from his lack of recognition since Brokeback Mountain. He has made films like Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock, which were well reviewed, but didn't get any Oscar consideration. While the Academy is likely to recognize any great film that Lee does as a return to form and a possible Oscar contender, the hype around this film probably suffered a blow because of Lee's fairly low profile career.

Still, with positive reviews coming out of New York Film Festival, there is some buzz that it may get recognition. For those that are not familiar with the plot, IMdB states it as:
"The story of an Indian boy named Pi, a zookeeper's son who finds himself in the company of a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger after a shipwreck sets them adrift in the Pacific Ocean."
To the average film goer who has seen the recently released trailer, this idea seems a little silly and hard to perceive as anything more than a farce. Still, Yann Martel's book has been highly acclaimed and has even featured praise from President Barrack Obama, stating that it is "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling." While quotes from Oprah Winfrey could also get this book some clout, the fact that the president gives high regards to the story is saying something.

It is not like wilderness stories are hard to film, especially with ones that survive wreckage. Stories like "Swiss Family Robinson" have that at its core. These are moments to reflect and discover what makes us human. An example of an Oscar nominated film that has explored being trapped as a time of reflection is director Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, which featured nominations for Best Picture as well as Best Actor for James Franco and Best Adapted Screenplay. The limited surroundings didn't handicap the movie, but instead gave us a chance to peer inside Aron Ralston's head. We also get this in films like Castaway, which earned Tom Hanks a Best Actor nomination as well, though without a Best Picture nomination.

The big difference between those castaway movies and Life of Pi is that they are somewhat based in reality. In the trailer, we are transported to a magical land with neon whales and a Bengal tiger as a supporting character. This seems more far fetched, but in a time when sci-fi movies have gotten Best Picture nominations, it isn't too bizarre if a fantasy film, especially one from a former winner, can get a spot. The bigger question is how far are the voters willing to go?

Another high point in this consideration is the writer. David Magee received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Finding Neverland. This is one of the movie's more positive notes, as that story featured a nice blend of a biography on J.M. Barrie, excessive use of imagination, and character drama. These are elements that regardless of the film, will greatly impact the final product. If the story can have convincing characters, then maybe Magee will save this picture.

It is a tough call to determine how Life of Pi will play just yet. While the reviews are positive, there is a chance that this is a fluff piece and may just be a purely enjoyable cinematic experience. Still, with nominations for movies like Avatar, there are chances for lighter fare that doesn't challenge the mind. Ang Lee has earned the right to make these types of movies, though hopefully with such niche subject matter, it captures some interest to a wider audience, especially on a reportedly $100 million budget.

One of the bigger issues that may face this film is, as Obama has stated, religion. Many films have passionately explored themes and been accepted, but never about religion. While I haven't read the book or know the story, my understanding is that the analysis of religion is very blatant and important to the character. The question now is if it will overpower the narrative, or simply work itself in effectively. Still, religion is a tricky subject, with many audience members not wanting to get mixed in with movies dealing with that subject matter. Will this just play as a propaganda film, or will something greater come of it?

I have faith that Ang Lee and David Magee have that all worked out. The reason that Brokeback Mountain was so successful was that it was an honest portrayal of gay cowboys. Lee was considered (and awarded) for choosing such obscure subject matter and making it almost human. Now the question is if Life of Pi can do it again. Can he explore deeper, more controversial themes, and still have an audience ready to accept him?

Left to right: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas

Another issue facing Life of Pi is another film that goes on a grand scale: The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's Cloud Atlas. As it stands, both are from directors that have proven themselves visually to be stunning and manage to weave interesting narratives. Still, both are dealing with deep subjects about life and reincarnation. It just so happens that Cloud Atlas has more Oscar nominated pedigree than Life of Pi, which features first timer Suraj Sharma as Pi. Maybe he can carry the movie, but it looks doubtful that he will get a nomination. 

The one benefit for Ang Less is that the Wachowskis are coming off of their most maligned film Speed Racer, which was visually interesting until the narrative was introduced. At three hours, there is a chance that this is another case of hype defeating the quality. Also, the Wachowskis have yet to earn a Best Picture nomination. This plays in Lee's favor and gives him the upper hand. However, the Wachowski's project seems more ambitious and if it succeeds, may get bigger buzz from the Academy. Still, there is nothing wrong with smaller stories, especially ones that are more self-reflective.

For the time being, it is a far cry to expect Life of Pi to get a Best Picture nomination. However, if we are to believe the other hype, notably from Katey Rich, this could be a strong contender for visual effects categories. The 3D has been considered superb, and is probably what gave director Martin Scorsese's Hugo the edge in the technical films last year, earning it five wins including Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects. Of course, Scorsese is also a seasoned veteran, having proven himself a skilled filmmaker for over 30 years. Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which gave him recognition, is only 12 years old.

Still, if we are to be bought in by the spectacle, we may have a big contender for the visual fields this year. The trailer itself is a colorful and impressive look into a world we haven't seen. So what if it is on a boat with a Bengal tiger? It takes a lot of craft to make a story like that visually appealing and even technically impressive. I will probably be writing a follow-up on this when it gets closer to release in November.

It will also be a nice change of pace from the original Oscar contenders. We already have The Master and Argo fighting for top spots. These are more traditional dramas and explore human character in more familiar ways. They are have strong narratives and are ambitious, but on a more subtle field. It is possible that the voters, which already have shown bias against more edgy work. However, Life of Pi is already a familiar subject and it probably will not be less edgy than Cloud Atlas. It could be profound and therefore give the Academy a more obtainable thing to look for in the movie.

What do you think? Is this Ang Lee's return to the Best Picture category? Does Cloud Atlas stand a chance of dethroning the momentum, or is the seasoned, winning veteran enough clout to make up for that?

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