Afloat on an ocean of possibilities

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is an eye-boggling demonstration of the virtuosities available to the poetically inventive film-maker in 2012 AD (Anno Digitale). I kept thinking of the TV Superman series and its famous old voice intro. Is Lee’s film a fable? Is it an adventure? No, it’s a super-movie. Faster than a speeding ballet, leaping tall decades at a single bound, this action fantasy from Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel says a final goodbye to pre-digital, pre-diluvian 3D.

Every filmgoer will re-become a child as he/she watches the shipwrecked Indian boy (played by vivid newcomer Suraj Sharma) grapple with adversity – storms, sharks, a fusillade of flying fish – as he is cast away at sea accompanied by a tiger from his dad’s zoo-in-transit. The other human characters, including a blink-and-you-miss-him Gérard Depardieu as the ship’s cook, are swiftly dispatched to Davy Jones’s locker; we don’t need them.

Though the worst of Martel’s book survives along with the best – the arguments for God’s existence which bookend the screenplay would barely stand up in a kindergarten – the best occupies most of the screen time. The lifeboat’s initial bestiary includes a zebra, orang-utan and hyena (terrifying), all digitised in part or whole, all in our faces or at our throats whenever Lee commands and the 3D specs obey.

The digi-tiger is a dazzler, expert, seamless, all-expressive: a screen tour de force as captivating in its virtuosity as the puppeteered stage equine in War Horse. Lee and his team also conjure high seas and mighty squalls and, for contrast, a night of phosphorescent jellyfish glowing back at the moon and a sunrise seascape golden, mirror-placid, horizonless. Sometimes boat and boy seem suspended in a vacancy between transparent infinities. This is picture-book picture-making as ensorcelling as any we have seen since Powell’s The Thief of Baghdad, another tale of an Indian boy, a world of magic, and showdowns with the elemental.

West Memphis, a documentary about an unresolved murder case, was press-shown on the morning of the day news broke of the Connecticut school killings. Coincidence? Or spooky cinematic karma? The case’s three boy victims, also primary school age, were also brutally and unfathomably murdered. America’s violent underside – Mr Hyde to the Dr Jekyll of its democratic freedom – never changes. The killings took place in 1994 Arkansas and delivered three teenage suspects to Death Row, convicted of Satanic homicides. That interpretation was based on the sexual mutilation of the bodies. The trio of defendants were convicted on slim evidence but with the confession, coaxed by police, of the most mentally challenged.

Amy Berg’s enthralling film, co-financed and initiated by no less than Peter Hobbit Jackson, arrives 18 years and three documentaries later. The Paradise Lost triptych, made between 1996 and 2011 by two directors of whom one, Joe Berlinger, went on to Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was full of florid speculation reinforcing notions of a cultist killing. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, though, began the climbdown into fact and followed several routes taken also by Berg and Jackson. With painstaking detective work and deep-pocket recruitment of witnesses (top forensic experts, top attorneys), enough evidence was culled to help free the accused – though not without some late-hour plea-bargaining stipulated by the Arkansas courts.

Astonishingly the film-makers also shine a Klieg light on the likely murderer, still free and likely to remain so, despite damning DNA evidence. Incredulously we watch courtroom footage of this man resisting grillings which would barbecue a lesser liar. The movie’s conclusion? In America death is cheap and justice expensive. Only the brave or quixotic spend their lives trying to bring the two things closer together.

In a poll on the hundred things we least need from Hollywood a comedy about an all-female a cappella group might come first. Pitch Perfect, though, is very funny: the Spinal Tap of unaccompanied singing. Two teams from the same fictive university go all the way to Lincoln Center’s national contest final. It’s the girls who take centre screen, desperate to restore their primacy after a victory-robbing mishap – cue flashback – the year before. (You have heard of projectile vomiting; this is the Polaris version.) The boys’ team does everything borderline-legal to outsmart them.

Both teams are led at the finish by sceptics-turned-songsters. Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air) is the girls’ take-charge ingénue, scrapping their flight attendant costumes and Kremlin parade choreography. Skylar Astin for the boys decides a cappella doesn’t have to be the “organised nerd singing” he called it in scene one. (But it still essentially is: no joke otherwise.) With the incomparable John Michael Higgins reprising his sardonic, scatterbrained event commentator from Best In Show, the whole movie goes at a gallop. If it had opened two weeks hence we would be calling it the comedy pace-setter for 2013.

British film-maker Bernard Rose cannot stop adapting Tolstoy. Anna Karenina; The Kreutzer Sonata; best so far, ivans xtc, his Hollywood modernisation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Boxing Day turns the short story Master and Man into a spry if improbable Colorado two-hander. During a long day’s journeying, the right hand (Danny Huston as a West Coast property dilettante visiting the Rockies) keeps being discombobulated by the left. That’s Matthew Jacobs as his English-born driver-for-the-day. The latter shoulders a class chip or two along with the heavy house-touring duties, as master and man go deeper, ever deeper into the snows and unknowns from which they may not return.

Some critics have moaned about portentousness. (All that Gorecki music.) But there’s a rueful wit in this character mismatch which becomes a sort of love match. Zen Buddyism. “Do you want me to call you ‘sir’?” asks Jacobs at one point, as if the whole matter of class and social difference is a consensus masquerade, a giant game of “let’s pretend” in which the world, by amicable conspiracy, has agreed to be the players.

You risk death by a surfeit of magic realism while watching Midnight’s Children (opening in the UK on Wednesday). Of the half dozen ways Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning social-historical-fantastical novel could have been brought to the screen, director Deepa Mehta and Rushdie himself, screenwriting, pick probably the worst.

Contemporary Indian history, enriched with fable and allegory, can be packed into a novel, albeit a mega-novel, if the author/narrator’s personality is there (it was) to style or singularise the plenitude. But cinema is insistently real unless counteracted by the insistently, hyper-really imaginative. A film that needed a Fellini, or Life of Pi’s Ang Lee, instead whirls pedestrianly, literalistically, through birth, sex, Indian independence, swapped babies, sorcerer’s abductions, Mrs Gandhi’s emergency, until we want to say “Stop the whirl, I want to get off.” Rushdie’s own voice, delivering gobbets of the novel, proves another bad choice. It’s too wry, professorial, media-familiar: all we see is the hero of a hundred chat shows with his beady charm. Everything here needed enriching, amping up, amplifying out. Less isn’t always more; sometimes more is more.

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