Tag Archives: Ang Lee

Our Favorite Films of 2012 — Life of Pi

By Steven Moore

 

 

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, without question, should win the award for Best Picture at the 2013 Oscars. It probably won’t, but it should. Life of Pi is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name. Whether Martel intended to write a modern Jainist manifesto or not, he did. The Jainist philosophy is one of pluralism, in which there is one single truth, but all beliefs are an aspect of that truth. If one person says a lemon is sweet and another says a lemon is sour, both are true, and both are aspects of lemons. Similarly, Pi, the protagonist, cannot limit himself to a single religion or ideology. He embraces Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Scientific Skepticism equally, claiming, “Faith has many rooms, and all of them have doubt.” Like his namesake, he does not allow himself to be constrained by tradition, but continues on, always ready for something new.

The movie begins exploring its central question through the framework of a writer interviewing the adult Pi, who relates a story through flashback, telling of his youth when he tried to feed a tiger, Richard Parker, only to be admonished by his father, who warns him of the danger: “You only see yourself reflected in his eyes.” While Pi is certain that all living things contain a soul and some notion of compassion, faced with the tiger’s brutality toward a living goat, he must also face the ugliness of the survival instinct. His father’s statement becomes the overall question of the movie. Like Richard Parker, is Pi’s survival instinct as animalistic and barbarous? When stripped of society and faced with just survival, is he nothing more than an animal?

Although we don’t realize it until the end, Pi tells his story using symbolism and parables, fitting since much of the movie revolves around religion. One of the most blatantly symbolic moments of the film for which there is no explicit “factual” counterpart is a floating carnivorous island. The island parallels the island of the lotus eaters and serves a similar purpose. This carnivorous island, which resembles a sleeping Vishnu in a wide shot, offers a safe harbor when Pi most needs it.  Like the island of the lotus eaters, the danger of the island is apathy. The island has everything he needs to survive, but Pi must decide if survival is more important than anything else. It’s no coincidence that immediately after leaving the island, the next scene shows Pi arriving back in civilization and the departure of Richard Parker.

 

 

When Pi relates his story, and it is rejected by a couple of Japanese businessmen as too fantastical, he tells the “real” story. This is when you realize everything you’ve seen has been symbolic, that Richard Parker’s departure was the departure of Pi’s survival instinct; however, the Japanese businessmen ”didn’t like my second story, and left without saying anything else.” The movie begins by promising to make Pi’s interviewer believe in God. When he reads the report the Japanese businessman wrote down, it is the more fantastical version of the the story. Pi gives two stories in which the boat sinks, his family dies, and he survives, then asks,”Which do you prefer?” One is the ugly reality of human suffering, and the other gives that suffering meaning. The Japanese businessman, the writer, and the audience prefer the first story.

Through its pluralism, Life of Pi makes a case for a single, shared human experience, simultaneously barbaric, tragic, beautiful, and full of meaning.

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Hulk mad at previous movies!

By Steven Moore

The Incredible Hulk has a long and sordid film history. From cheesy T.V. to summer blockbuster, no one can seem to get the Hulk to work on screen. Directors Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier have both tried to capture the Jekyll-and-Hyde story of a man at war with himself, but something is always missing.

Ang Lee’s Hulk explores the epistemological question of being the Hulk. How do social constraints placed upon Bruce Banner, a man of science and truth, make his devolution from the embodiment of logic and intellect into the embodiment of destructiveness and violence a necessity? By being boring, that’s how. Nobody cares that about the psychology behind something that can smash two tanks together. It’s like focusing on the psychology of a shark in a shark-versus-tiger fight. Who cares? It’s a shark versus a freaking tiger! Ang Lee, renowned for his deftness with action, delivered a nearly action-less Hulk film. It’s actually a brilliant look at the psychology of a man who is terrified by his desire and depravity, but who cares? It’s a freaking tiger versus a shark!

 

Hulk smash!

 

Marvel made a second big-screen attempt at the Hulk in 2008. However, in the Marvel film pantheon leading up the The Avengers, most people consider The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton to be the weakest film. The primary argument against The Incredible Hulk isn’t that it is a weak film, but that it lacks consequence. It isn’t a complete film, just a building block for a franchise and The Avengers. The film doesn’t explore an origin story (thank God) or a solution to the ultimate problem. Instead we just get Hulk vs. Something that can actually hurt the Hulk a little.

Leterrier learned a lesson from Lee, delivering action and destruction aplenty. There’s nothing really wrong with the movie (except one thing which I’ll talk about in a minute), but the film’s episodic nature limits it from being great Hulk film. The Incredible Hulk goes in the exact opposite direction of Ang Lee’s Hulk. It is an action flick that has no consequence, no sense of who Banner is as a man, that ends exactly where it started. It’s not, however, a bad film as many argue. Liv Tyler is a great Betsy Ross. William Hurt is a decent General Ross, despite the terrible make-up. The primary problem with the movie is that Edward Norton just doesn’t fit the role. He is a great actor who embodies his roles like few other actors can, but he just doesn’t seem like he’s barely in control, on the verge of rage at every moment. Norton is an actor who is always completely and totally in control, and he can’t help but convey that control on screen. Whoever made that casting choice should get a severe finger wagging.

 

Hulk smash!

 

The Incredible Hulk does seem to be a stepping stone to the Hulk in The Avengers, but it does it well. It shows who the Hulk is, not as a man, but as a monster. When Hulk and Betsy are in the cave after he has saved her from the fiery death her father had unleashed with his Nietzschean Moustache of Doom, the lightning cracks across the sky, and Hulk roars back, only capable of understanding danger and fear, not the rationality behind the danger. The scene reminded me that the Hulk has a sense of self and identity, which comes to fruition in The Avengers, but he is still an animal. He has nothing of the scientific understanding or logic of his “human” side. He’s pure emotion and instinct and rage.

Hulk should never be completely in control, even as Bruce Banner, and Mark Ruffalo conveys this better than anyone who has previously portrayed the Hulk. In The Avengers, his interactions with Thor and Loki, even after his transition to slight awareness during the final battle, reveal a toddler-like sense of the world and self. Ruffalo amazingly bridges that gap between the reluctant and terrified scientist with a sadistic edge, and the unstoppable raging id. Perhaps Ruffalo is personally angry because he cannot open his mouth very wide when he talks or because everybody slumped when he was announced as the new Hulk, but he is an actor who seems always to be seething in every role. I think back on his previous performances and realize he should have been the first, obvious choice. His natural awkwardness is transformed in The Avengers into a barely contained, trembling rage. He is able to bring a shaky control to the role that develops to fruition in the final scene of The Avengers.

 

HULK SMASH!!! (You never really need anything else as a caption for this guy.)

 

I can’t wait to see another Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo in the lead. I think he can make the Hulk movie we’ve all been waiting for. Norton provided a subtle depth to the Hulk, but I’m glad he has been replaced.

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Iron Man: A look back

By Nathanael Griffis

It was the summer of 2008, an eerily similar summer to this one. The behemoths of film were being released. Indiana Jones returned. It was last time Will Smith was in a blockbuster. We had two of the greatest animated films ever (WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda). There were comic book sequels: Hellboy II, The Incredible Hulk,  and of course, The Dark Knight. Even the Wachowskis were offering us a movie. Prince Caspian brought high hopes. Tropic Thunder looked like a match made in heaven. While some films left the bitter lingering taste of disappointment and have since become despised, several became some of my favorite films of all time. I’ve still never had a better time in the theater than the midnight showing for WALL-E. It’s strange to think this year again starts us off with a Marvel comic movie, that Will Smith is back for essentially the first time since Hancock. Twilight, which was also released that year, is ending (may God be praised). The Wachowskis are releasing their first film since 2008.  And, of course, we have The Dark Knight Rises on the horizon, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s shaping up to be an even better comic book movie year than 2008. Well, perhaps, the jury’s still out and, strangely enough, the tipping point may be Iron Man.

 

Now what did that mountain ever do to him?

 

I didn’t see Iron Man opening weekend, which is unusual for me. I could have even seen it for free, but I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t excited. I barely follow comics. I like Batman, Superman, X-Men, and Spider Man, and that’s it. Iron Man as a character was off my radar. I didn’t care for a man in an iron suit. Wasn’t that just a rip-off of Batman, minus the menace and terrifying villains? It took a friend dragging me on a Tuesday 12:20 p.m. showing, which I only agreed to because it was free and I had nothing better to do, to get me to go. I saw the film three more times that week, more than any other film that summer. For comparison, I never saw The Dark Knight or WALL-E, two of my Top 20 films of all time, more than once in the theater.

 

Yeah, it's gross in there.

 

It’s a nearly impossible thing to take a subject as fantastic as the superhero and turn it into a socially relevant topic. Iron Man, though, accomplishes this. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we were presented with a charming, brash arms dealer. As a viewer, I was surprised how appealing this war profiteer was. Robert Downey Jr.’s acting and the script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway deserve a lot of the credit here. Downey brings a tragic narcissism to the role that deftly reflects some of his own personal demons. The script plays off this and balances humor in such a way as to make you laugh and consider the implications of the joke at the same time. It takes a threat to Stark’s own life to awaken him to the horrors his company allows and profits from. He questions his own complacency and compliance in the deaths of thousands. This is brilliant writing, because it’s consistent with a  narcissistic character and yet allows Tony Stark to change in a believable, sympathetic way. It also not-so-vaguely challenges the exceptionalist spirit of Americans to consider our own responsibility for military action.

 

Have I mentioned explosions, yet? Because... cough cough... explosions.

 

What’s equally challenging, but nessecary to a comic book movie, is Stark’s solution. He builds a weapon. Stark builds a nuclear deterrent, a suit of armor so powerful it’s nearly indestructible.  Violence as a solution now becomes a primary argument, but we don’t go to comic book movies for philosphical musings (sorry, Ang Lee). I want to see things explode. Iron Man satisfies this amazingly well. I get enormous flamethrowers, tanks being destroyed by a single projectile, aerial combat, and a duel between two iron suits. Through all this blood and destruction, director  Jon Favreau asserts that it’s not the weapon but the wielder that is the issue. It’s an age old debate: is war spurred on by the gun makers or the gun slingers? Do we make laws about weapons to protect the people, or to allow for more freedom of firearms to provide the freedom to protect oneself? There is, wisely, never a judgment made about the current overseas conflicts. Instead the film asks us to weigh our choices as to how to wield our power. The film supports our military, skirts a political subject without being polarizing, and entertains through depth and humor.

Iron Man turns the superhero into a weapon himself. It starts to beg the question, are superheroes weapons to be controlled? This theme, which albeit is a fanciful one that depends on the existence of superheroes, is further explored in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. Iron Man is human, and we see this as his greatest flaw. His narcissism is his arch enemy. He’s blinded by pride and can’t see that his own company, let alone his mentor, played by Jeff Bridges, doesn’t want peace. In those several viewings of Iron Man, the character became, for me, as fascinating as the haunting morality of Batman, the humanized strength of Spider-Man, and the heroic symbolism of Superman.

 

Dude just wanted his rug, man.

 

I love the depth of the film, and with each watching it holds up and grows all the more engrossing. There’s the now-trademark Marvel balance of humor, action, story, and theme. Coming out of The Avengers I was riding a high, but as I started to think, which is always dangerous, I began to pull back. Iron Man takes a tricky issue, a modern issue, and uses the superhero story to discuss a relevant topic. It’s the modern day myth. I didn’t see that in The Avengers. There’s something to be said for the genius of the film’s sheer fun and balance of complex story lines and character arcs. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Avengers and reserve the right to change my mind on everything I say, but it lacks the socially relevant depth of films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man.

If you haven’t seen Iron Man in a while, watch it again and challenge yourself to consider the issues it’s addressing. While the world has changed in four years, it’s stunning to think how much these issues still matter.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)