Friday, December 28, 2012

Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi

Please note!  This review was originally posted on Nov. 25, 2012, but in my attempt to clean up some residue in the Comments flow below it ended up being reposted on Dec. 28, 2012, so if any of the references seem a month old, they are.  Once again, thank you, Google Blogspot, for your ongoing operational craziness (see ongoing RSS feed alert below for additional wacky stuff).  Thanks to everyone for continuing to put up with this mess; I just wish that I could control it better.  Happy New Year!      Ken B.

   Honest, Abe, I Took My Meds, But I Swear 
  There Was a Tiger in That Boat
             Review by Ken Burke       Lincoln     

History comes alive in Daniel Day-Lewis’s remarkable portrayal of our Civil War President in his final months as he maneuvers passage of the 13th Amendment.

                                                             Silver Linings Playbook      
An unusual blend of mental illness and romantic comedy with some excellent performances and very unexpected situations for humor, if you’re OK with that.

                                                            Life of Pi
A high form of high-concept story: a young man is marooned on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sharing it with a hungry tiger. Strange but amazing.

No blood pudding for me, kids.  I prefer turkey
... and not your kind.  KB
            As I begin these ruminations on Thanksgiving Day (with no hope of being done until the end of the weekend as other needs keep creeping in, including the “minor” need to see 2 of the films), I’m reminded by Jon Carroll’s annual Thanksgiving column (see article/A-song-of-thanks-a-grat-etude-4058113.php) of things to be grateful for.  Among many others for me (especially my wife, Nina, the most wonderful woman in the world—really, the U.N. gave her a plaque a few years ago; it’s right on the living room wall next to her machete), as an after-opening-weekend film critic setting my own agenda I’m thankful that I don’t have assignments to watch and report on such holiday fare as The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 (Bill Condon), Red Dawn (Dan Bradley), and Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey), no matter how well any of them may be doing at your local box office.  However, I’m also very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to witness much more wonderful cinematic specimens presented to us by accomplished masters of the art in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg), Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell), and Life of Pi (Ang Lee)—all of which I’m going to review this time in an even more extended review than usual (so that you can read it while you’re digesting your leftover turkey; if you’d prefer something much shorter but still relevant to the topic at hand then just read the blurbs above on the 3 films and Lincoln’s most famous—but very brief—speech at gettysburg.htm) because other obligations will likely prevent me from posting anything new next week so I'm unloading it all here (it’s holiday live theatre time, but I won’t intrude on Pat’s territory [remember Pat?]—although I keep hoping that he’ll finally get a chance to intrude on mine).

            But depending on what the obligations in your life might be, I’d highly recommend that you find time to see Lincoln, both because it’s an excellent way to understand the history of how this country was governed about 150 years ago (with sad reminders that little has changed regarding the posturings and crafty dealings of politicians) and because it features what simply has to be the finest performance by a film actor of this year or most others.  (Except for Lewis himself in his previous Oscar-winning roles of Christy Brown [another biographical story, this one of a man refusing to be subdued by cerebral palsy, directed by Jim Sheridan in 1989] and Daniel Plainview in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson [who in my opinion might well be competing himself this year against Lincoln for Best Picture and Best Director for The Master, my choice so far for 2012’s best (review on this blog posted on Sept. 27, 2012)]—and which could easily win Best Actor nominations as well for its own protagonists, Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd [although Hoffman’s likely to be promoted for Best Supporting Actor], along with a possible Best Supporting Actress nod for Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, with likely competition from Sally Field for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln, with Phoenix, Adams, and John Hawkes [see below] as the only ones noted in this aside to not have taken home one of those golden statues yet; I know there’ll be other strong contenders—including from the other two films in this week’s review—by the time Oscar nominations are announced in January, but if your first-run viewing time is limited I couldn’t encourage you more to invest it in The Master and Lincoln, but while you’re at it I’d also heartily recommend Ben Lewin’s The Sessions with equal Oscar-nomination-quality acting by Hawkes and Helen Hunt as long as you can accept the fact-based quasi-graphic sex between a guy normally confined to an iron lung and a professional sex surrogate, which turns out to be a lot more endearing that it might sound [review on this blog posted on Nov. 9, 2012] and Ben Affleck’s Argo [review on this blog posted on Oct. 19, 2012], another compelling true story, this one of a few American hostages brazenly smuggled out of Iran in 1980 with strong probabilities for Oscar nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor [for Affleck] categories; OK now back to our actual review, already in progress.)

            With a demeanor that merges humor, vision, pragmatism, deep compassion for issues and people in his life, and a firm determination to not let singular opportunities escape him, Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, forced by circumstances partly of his own making to preside over this country during the fierce years of the Civil War, was one of the great figures of all humankind. It’s easy to see why Lewis was very reluctant to take on the challenge of offering something substantial to transcend the images of “Honest Abe” that have been engrained into our culture in everything from his constant presence on $5 bills and classroom walls to Henry Fonda’s memorable portrayal in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) to the animatronics robot that’s been stirring audiences at Disney theme parks for decades (you can get a lot directly from Lewis, and Spielberg, about his hesitations and working procedure in the long interview video clip noted at the end of this review).  But Lewis proved extremely capable of rising to the challenge, turning in an extraordinary performance that outshines the larger impact of the film itself.

            So, what’s wrong with the film itself?  Relative to most of the visual mediocrity that hits the public screens each week, not much (and, I admit, I’m quibbling over how far up on my top 5 of the year this film is likely to fall, not that it’s anything short of brilliant … even though brilliance shines in relative degrees of perfection), but given the enormous challenge this film faced in making the horse-and-buggy era, where the only forms of mass communication were the newspaper and the telegraph, relevant to our society where no one can sneeze without there being a publicized Twitter count of how many “gesunites gesheuntites gezuntites God bless you’s” were offered (and from which counties), Lincoln still comes across to me as a bit more of a refresher school lesson that you’d watch as a PBS or History Channel miniseries than a major film that successfully rivets your attention relative to constructed conflict and outcome.  Some of that lack of achieved tension comes from the general foreknowledge that in these last four months of Lincoln’s life in early 1865 he was successful in maneuvering passage in the House of Representatives of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (adding to its previous passage in the Senate and the solid assurance that it would be ratified by enough of the remaining states of the Union to win addition to the Constitution prior to the Confederate states being re-admitted after the war), oversaw the South’s surrender on April 9, but then was brutally murdered just 5 days later.  By knowing so much of what is to come before we even enter the theatre (if only Lincoln could have known his future when he entered Ford’s Theatre the way we know our past—at least those of us who managed to stay awake in grade-school history classes—that past would have evolved so differently), we need an extraordinary animation of these facts to keep us intrigued given that we’re aware for every second that we’re watching what we know the results will be.  Day-Lewis helps tremendously in that effort in that he imparts such a fantastic sense of humanity, imperfection (barely but plausibly, given that even Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having moments of doubt and fear hours before his execution so we can’t expect Lincoln to make nothing but benign and honorable decisions, as with his controversial strategy of prolonging the war despite overtures of surrender from the South in order to gain passage of the Amendment while he still had the likely votes), and troubled hope (with his disturbing dreams of being alone on a ship bound through stormy seas to an unclear destination, leading him to quote Hamlet: “I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams”).  Beyond that we see the sadly familiar difficulties of getting progressive legislation passed in that distant time (not only the specific abolition of slavery but future considerations of the supposed “blasphemies” of allowing Negroes—and, even more horrifying, women—the opportunity to vote) and how political bribes were just as much the necessity then to overcome an entrenched opposition as was the similar situation of passing Health Care Reform in 2010 (with similar talks of “political capital” and oppositional condemnations of the President as a “tyrant”) when, ironically, the more recent horse trading had to done solely among Democrats because no Republican would even consider voting for the legislation (at least Lincoln managed to cajole 20 Democrats to join in with his Republican anti-slavery votes [admittedly, this took place in a lame-duck legislative session because in those days the new Congress began on March 1 rather than in January so there were further complications on how anyone might vote as they were leaving Washington, D.C. anyway], but only after making major concessions just to keep all of his fragmented GOP Representatives in line).

            Of the many recognizable faces in this film (and some not so much because of the heavy makeup—or is some of that heaviness just the result of too much living the good life of a previous fat TV contract, James Spader [as W. N. Bilbo, one of the aggressive vote rounder-uppers]?), probably the one who makes the most impact (and might well score a Best Supporting Actor nomination of his own) is Tommy Lee Jones as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a long-time staunch abolitionist who has to be convinced to keep his rhetoric to the level of supporting just legal rather than full human rights for African-Americans, just as we have to be convinced that his weird mop of hair might actually be growing on his head until we’re finally assured it’s just a wig in one of the final scenes.  Jones’ marvelous fiery tirades outside of the House chamber and his reluctant insistence on staying within his self-imposed oratorical bounds during the final debate and vote on Jan. 31, 1865 show that his consistent range of talent even within the limitations of a career-long string of gruff characters (back to the days of playing Loretta Lynn’s husband, Doolittle, in Coal Miner’s Daughter [Michael Apted, 1980], for which I got to travel to a critic’s junket in L.A. to interview him when even as a rising movie star beyond his previous TV work he was already known as someone to be feared if you asked what he’d consider to be silly or inappropriate questions, so there was a lot of tension in the room before he walked in) always adds impact and gravity to any film, especially this one where Spielberg’s obvious goal was to make a known story and one very known protagonist find resonance beyond the fundamental necessity of the rightness (and for some the righteousness) of the legislation.

            Besides Jones and Field (who gives an emotionally-effective rendition of Lincoln’s emotionally-unstable wife), other notables include David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (less visionary than Lincoln but a pragmatic necessity to his cause), Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincolns’ conflicted son Robert (who feels a duty to be in the Union army but is privately terrified of the gruesome fate that has befallen so many on both sides of this vicious combat regimen of distant cannons and too-close-for-survival-let-alone-comfort bayonets), and Mad Men’s Jared Harris as the stubbornly-victorious Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (chief Commander of the Union forces, a future-but-failed President in his own right, and 10 times more valuable than Lincoln in currency matters given his portrait on our $50 bill).  There are other well-known actors in relatively minor roles as well (hell, even Kevin Kline’s in there if you can find him), but I won’t do any further name-checking because if Lincoln simply turns into “Who’s that behind the mustache?” guessing games (as did long-ago Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments [Cecil B. DeMille, 1956] and The Greatest Story Ever Told [George Stevens, 1965], even as the emphasis was supposed to be on Moses and Jesus, respectively), then Spielberg would have traded in talent for trivia, which was clearly not his intention.

            Where I find he falls a bit short in his intentions—and I’ll admit that I don’t know that any other director could have done it better nor could any other screenwriter have delivered a better foundation for this narrative than did Tony Kushner (another likely Oscar contender, for Adapted Screenplay based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln)—comes ironically with the power Spielberg invests in the lead with the thespian genius of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Everyone else with major speaking parts in this film comes across as talented professionals making a reasonable case for themselves as mid-19th century personages, but Day-Lewis truly emerges as the full reincarnation of Lincoln if we had been able to preserve him on audio and image recording devices in 1865 (Thomas Edison, you were born too late; although, the other technological support systems you would have needed probably weren’t available at this time either).  In that sense he seems to be a holographic projection from the past incorporated into a contemporary film (somewhat akin to the supposed alien presence of the lead character in Eliseo Subiela‘s marvelous Man Facing Southeast [1986]), a more real presence than his surrounding actors working from a script under Spielberg’s direction.  This Lincoln doesn’t seem to owe anything to Spielberg (although Day-Lewis, despite his own innate genius, surely must have been more of a collaborator than an independent operator), he just seems to have allowed us to experience his quiet (although, at times, agitated) power across the great temporal divide, making it hard for us to conceptually integrate him seamlessly into what feels otherwise like just an extraordinarily well-constructed cinema story (with makeup, costumes, locations, set decorations, and lighting from nothing but seeming sun and flame sources that all succeed in conjuring up an extremely viable but far-removed Washington, D.C. and surrounding environs).  Day-Lewis’ Lincoln just transcends everything around him, no matter how effective the rest of the film may be.

            Academy voters may well accept this as a fulfilled package (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they do because of the overall Spielbergian quality that’s infused into this film [depending, of course, on how well Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables might surpass Lincoln in sheer cinematic grandeur])—and at least there’s little of the potential Spielberg mawkishness that overran his War Horse (or was that really supposed to be titled Lassie Joey Come Home?) last year (although the opening bit where the white soldier can’t fully remember the Gettysburg Address while the Black one can, followed by his chastisement of Lincoln for the Black troops not yet being led by any Black officers borders on this sort of overreach)—and I admire Lincoln fabulously as well, but I never felt the entire film quite resonated on the level of the protagonist portrayal (as did The Master for me, where the excellent acting was in service to and in league with a deeper exploration of the wayward human spirit).  But for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance alone—with his frequently-praised higher-register vocal delivery that ironically reminds me of another Republican icon, but one with a vastly different political agenda, Ronald Reagan—I urge anyone within travel distance of a theatre to see Lincoln, with its lead acting job for the ages as well as a sobering history lesson on how even when we do the right thing it’s not always done for the right reasons or with the noble strategies that we might assume (if, after this last national election cycle, we still have any delusions about nobility in politics).

            With all of the other Oscar acting nominations noted in this review, you might think we’re about to run out of contenders even before we get to the long-awaited debut of Les Misérables (as well as Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden-trackdown story, Zero Dark Thirty, and Juan Antonio Bayona’s tsunami-disaster drama, The Impossible), but if you skip over the very clumsily-named-but-script-justified Silver Linings Playbook then you might be surprised when the final names are announced because Bradley Cooper (as Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (as Tiffany), and even Robert Di Nero (as Pat’s dad, in a very active, emotionally-felt supporting role) are generating plenty of buzz in this very offbeat romantic comedy focused on a guy with mental difficulties verging on immense problems of coping with his life beyond the psych ward, despite his insistence that he’s got it together enough to win back his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), even after having been jailed for a homicidal attack on 1 of their high-school teacher colleagues after Pat catches the 2 of them in the shower.  Pat’s a neurological mess, with a clear case of (undiagnosed-before-the-attack) bipolar disorder, laced with a severe problem of delusionalism, a hefty dose of compulsiveness (easily inherited from his father, whose OCD is manifested in his catalogue of rituals intended to bring winning bookie results from his beloved Philadelphia Eagles’ football games), and a need in his therapy sessions for anger management skills (a problem also handed down from Dad, who’s been barred from attending the Eagles’ contests because of brawling at the stadium).  Most of the focus of the Oscar talk regarding Cooper in this role is that he’s stretched himself in ways that belie his assumed limitations from previous work, notably wacky comedy (the Hangovers [Todd Phillips, 2009, 2011, and another on the way in 2013—I guess that first one should give me a tiger linkup with Life of Pi but I’m not going to pursue it]) and other lightweight roles (although he already transcended his far-from-demanding action notoriety from The A-Team [Joe Carnahan, 2010] with this year’s very serious celebrity-author-with-a-moral-dilemma role in The Words [Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal; see my passing comments if you like in this blog’s Sept. 22, 2012 review of Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage]).

            That Cooper could transform himself into a simultaneously likeable but destructive (self- and otherwise) character while someone like Joaquin Phoenix is perceived as not having to go beyond his own personality that much to embody the tormented Freddie in The Master gets us back to the old argument (often discussed by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicleof whether quality acting is about transforming yourself so that you constantly become someone else (as with Meryl Streep or, in this case, Cooper) or about simply perfecting your craft so that audiences are in awe of your abilities despite being able to recognize the essential “you” who’s playing a part (as with De Niro here or Ben Affleck in Argo).  Conversely, I’ve heard no such justification for Jennifer Lawrence, who is simply accepted for her powerful transformative screen presence in such films as Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) and the ongoing Hunger Games trilogy (Gary Ross for this year’s first episode, Francis Lawrence for Catching Fire in 2013).  In Silver Linings Playbook she’s once again at her best as a neurotic young widow, independent and outspoken, highly attracted to/repelled by Pat, and determined to find some sense of accomplishment in her life again by partaking in a dance competition clearly above her skill level, requiring her to coerce an even less-talented Pat to join in her quest.

            Given that Pat is still convinced that his future lies with his estranged wife, Nikki, despite his growing ease around Tiffany (the thaw in their relationship beginning with their dance rehearsals as oddly—but successfully, for me at least—accompanied by the 1969 Nashville Skyline album duet of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash singing, in a harmony-seeking-reconciliation manner quite like that of Pat and Tiffany, “Girl from the North Country” [take a listen yourself if you like at while you’re reading the rest of this long review—but as Arlo Guthrie sang in “Alice’s Restaurant” (you can look that one up on your own—wait a minute, it’s the only Thanksgiving somewhat-themed song I know so when you’re done with Bob here it is too, sung live along with Arlo on the video at, although the sound quality is a bit poor on this one so here’s one that’s a bit better but with no live video at and I concur, “I’m not proud … or tired”]), the ongoing focus of Silver Linings Playbook is how any of these unstable and/or delusional characters (and their variously enabling family friends such as Ronnie [John Ortiz], who provides the connection for Pat to Tiffany, and Danny [Chris Tucker] in the most notable small role, as a former inmate friend of Pat’s who keeps showing up in Philadelphia prior to his official release date only to shipped back to the Baltimore psychiatric hospital) will ever find any sanity in their lives, or maybe the real question is whether sanity is as necessary as stability brought on by whatever strategy helps us find our footing on life’s eternal tightrope, whether it’s finally getting on his needed meds for Pat, lucking into a winning final bet for Dad with the Eagles vs. the Cowboys after all had been temporarily lost, or just accepting that the ongoing love and acceptance from Mom Delores (Jacki Weaver, herself a possible Best Supporting Actress candidate for her benign steadiness within the tropical storm of her family) despite the daily frustrations of living with her husband and son will provide an emotional anchor when mental and financial ones seem to be consistently elusive.  Pat’s therapy motto from his hospital stay is “Excelsior,” a manifestation of his desire to “don’t worry, be happy” (lifted by me from Bobby McFerrin’s upbeat 1988 tune; if you want more music, relive his optimism at, an action that will stabilize your troubles much quicker than Pat was able to accomplish) that he’s sure will reawaken Nikki’s love for him.

            Pat Sr. (De Niro) ultimately lives by that philosophy as well, determined that his son will find a better life than the one that has left the old man suddenly pensionless in his old age and dependent on how well a bunch of beloved strangers can push a football 100 yards to victory several times each week (I’m not sure what he does after football season but Tiffany quotes some Philadelphia Phillies baseball victories to him as well—as proof that local sports teams do better when Pat is with her rather than slavishly watching the games with Dad or attending with brother Jake [Shea Whigham], more stable than Pat but with his own issues at times—so maybe he dabbles in all things Philadelphia-sport while trying to raise enough cash to open a restaurant)Certainly you could find more stable ways to spend your days than with the Solitano family as presented in a relentless series of claustrophobic interior closeups, but ultimately they all care for each other (despite Pats Jr. and Sr. getting into a fistfight over the son’s erratic behavior) with a warmth that ultimately embraces Tiffany as well, despite Dad’s initial concern that the last thing his “crazy” son needs is someone who seems to be even crazier (as we find out later, Mom’s a lot more sympathetic, setting up opportunities for the two to meet, with a late reveal of her matchmaking undermining Tiffany’s seeming psychic abilities to just show up spontaneously when Pat Jr.’s out jogging).

            As for what awaits our damaged lovebirds as they finally start flying in formation is for speculation beyond this film, with its abrupt bursts of humor and constantly meandering plot destinations that finally arrive in anticipated territory despite the misdirections and misunderstandings along the way.  Pat and Tiffany are obviously made for each other (and at least they realize their own neuroses enough to verify that connection, despite Pat’s insistence for most of the film that he’s doing everything in a mature, consciousness-expanding manner that will win Nikki back, even as he begins to realize that he shares Tiffany’s push-pull reaction to him).  What brings this particular version of temporarily-star-crossed lovers out of the ranks of decades of similar “When will they ever just kiss?” rom-com frustrations (even as these obstacles are acknowledged as necessary to the narrative payoff of connection) is the stark honesty cut with wit of the two protagonists (as if Michael Shannon‘s morose-but-insightful character, John Givens, from Revolutionary Road [Sam Mendes, 2008] suddenly found himself adapting to life in a Saturday Night Live skit).  Lawrence is a marvelous combination of ferocity, vulnerability, and self-serving strategy (beware the seeming honesty of hand-delivered letters, just as impactful but also just as suspect in origin in this film as in Shakespeare’s plays), while Cooper can swing moods like an energized pendulum while jogging through his neighborhood nonchalantly wearing a garbage bag over his sweat clothes yet never offering the hint of an explanation.  Their competitive dance routine may end up more like a scene from There’s Something about Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998) than Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), but you never doubt that whenever either of these two really focuses themselves on something, or especially when the focus is a mutual goal, that some sort of victory will be theirs, even if it’s judged to be a bare crossing of the finish line by higher social/competitive standards. 

            My always-insightful wife, Nina, wondered why after all the intriguing and generally unanticipated buildup in Silver Linings Playbook that the resolution was so predictable.  (And I guess this is the only 1 of this week’s 3 films that I’m even mildly doing a spoiler alert on given that we know what happened in D.C. in 1865 just as we know in Life of Pi that the adolescent protagonist survived his ocean voyage with a tiger because his adult self is telling the story at a later time in Montreal, but, really, does anything about the previews or other reviews of Silver Linings Playbook even hint that we’re not headed for happily-ever-after [as long as we all stay on our meds]-land?)  She also wondered why audiences are so eager to see this film (we had to come back another day this weekend because our anticipated screening was sold out—a rarity in our frequent-suburban theatrical landscape, but the crowds may be biggest in Northern California because I see that the weekend estimates are only approaching $5 million for Silver Linings while Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Skyfall, Lincoln, Rise of the Guardians, and Life of Pi are all substantially over the $20 million mark and the top 2 are in the $40 million range).  I can only guess that the combination of Cooper’s perceived sexiness (neither of us are particularly able to connect to that), both his and Lawrence’s recent box-office successes, the consistently solid reviews (which I’m happy to contribute to; I just didn’t expect audiences—at least in our neighborhood—to be so embracing as well given the more high-powered competition noted above), and maybe the reality that this was a default choice after all of those other movies were even more ferociously sold out all contributed to its popularity, which many in the business predict will grow as we move closer to the Oscar nominations.  In the meantime, I have to say I liked Silver Linings Playbook quite a bit because of the caustic, witty dialogue, the generally unhinged characters, and the honest expressions of exasperation with social and personal expectations that fly around in this film.  I wouldn’t call it a top 10 contender for Best Picture but several of the actors and screenwriter Russell may well benefit if this film has “legs” over the next month.

            There are too many legs on too many animals for Pi Patel’s (Suraj Sharma for most of the film as a late teenager, Irrfan Khan as the older adult version telling his story to a curious writer, and a couple of others briefly in his younger days) comfort in Life of Pi, a film—like the other 2 in this review adapted from a previously written source (raising the possibility that all 3 of them might be competing for Best Adapted Screenplay [Russell for Silver Linings based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 book and David Magee for Pi, working from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel], along with Lincoln and Life of Pi being likely nominees for a number of technical categories)—that may not land the acting accolades of the others noted above (although certainly consideration should be given to Sharma for providing such an ongoingly convincing depiction of what it would be like to be stranded in uncharted Pacific Ocean waters for 227 days, sharing a lifeboat and a makeshift raft with a hungry tiger, especially with the tiger as a non-presence while filming to be added in later with CGI and the ocean a huge water tank that in Sharma’s eyes becomes a menacing reality from which there seems to be no escape) but will certainly be remembered for its inspirational qualities as a manual for survival against almost-impossible odds, an oblique insight into spiritual possibilities that somewhat elude the more philosophically-assertive Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski), and a stunning quality of 3-D delivery that proves that you don’t have to travel to mythological times, distant galaxies, or deep into the center of the Earth to justify this expensive technology. Film proposals (or novels for that matter) just don’t come any more high concept than Life of Pi, as a boy named Piscine (after a swimming pool his Indian parents admired in France) manages to shorten it to Pi (after being taunted mercilessly by schoolmates who pronounced it “pissing”), then finds himself on a freighter bound from India to Canada where his father is transporting an ark-full of animals from their former floundering zoo in order to sell them and start a new life; instead, the boat capsizes and sinks in a storm, killing almost all aboard except for Pi, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the aforementioned tiger (just to keep things ongoingly weird, the tiger is named Richard Parker, based on a mistaken log entry from the hunter who found the cub years ago), who all manage to land in a small lifeboat.  As you might imagine, soon it’s just Pi and the tiger (not to be confused with “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III [with triple-threat action from Sylvester Stallone who directs, writes, and stars]; if you’re interested in these musical interludes I keep offering you, here’s another one, along with scenes from Stallone’s movie, at for most of the film, all told in flashback by the adult Pi to an interested listener but with a twist at the end that possibly confounds the previous narrative or enhances it as you are free to interpret (this would be a real spoiler alert, so read on with care).

            Pi is a complex character, given his unique childhood circumstances (made just a bit more normal as he reaches teenager love status with a girl that he must leave behind as his family goes off in search of financial stability and social stability as the former French colonial status is removed in their section of India but that leaves their subculture as the object of rejection by their neighbors; however, Pi can certainly be forgiven for not having come back as promised given his life-changing adventures experienced on his nightmare ocean voyage), enhanced by his spiritual complexities as his Hindu upbringing is purposefully broadened by his own decision to also embrace Christianity and Islam, a metaphysical  package of support that will aid him immensely in his ordeal, even though Life of Pi never veers into any sort of proselytization for any of our protagonist’s many religious beliefs.  All he “preaches” to himself and to us is that his destiny is not to sink into the ocean alone and forgotten (nor to become Richard Parker’s last meal) but that he will survive (OK, I’m on a sing-along kick this week [must have been too much wine to help wash the turkey down] so I can’t resist: just to energize yourself after so much reading you should crank up Gloria Gaynor at and boogie on to the long-awaited end of the review), which he does in a fashion that comes from both Texas-level determination (hey, you try to live there day in and day out without a steely resolve that “this too shall pass” and see how long you get along) and what seems to be divine intervention from Allah, Jehovah, or some of the 33 million Hindu gods that must be aware of his long and winding road (last time, I promise, but I couldn’t resist one more musical interlude, this version at in which McCartney performs and footage of the other Beatles is cut in as if they’re somehow magically together again, my third wish from the genie in the bottle I’ve yet to find, after (1) altering history to prevent the assassinations of Lincoln, JFK, Malcolm X, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr., and (2) bringing peace to the Middle East, even if Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad have to come back and negotiate it themselves).  What Pi learns from his daily ordeal is how resourceful he can become when forced to by situations beyond his control, how we all (man or beast) are interconnected and must find ways to co-exist even when we are born as mortal enemies, and how this personal tragedy beyond anyone’s wildest imagination can also provide moments of existential beauty such as what we see in the photo above and what is presented throughout this film, in which 3-D technology is essential to the widescreen eloquence that lurks behind the impending tragedy of the experience, presenting us with enthralling vistas of our encompassing planet whether it’s embracing us or preparing to swallow us up for all time.

            There’s no denying that Pi is facing immanent death every minute of every day from the tiger, sharks, starvation, and dehydration that confronts him (there were some supplies on the lifeboat but not nearly enough for the many months that he floats along into the unknown); however, he never gives up hope nor does he assume there is no chance for rapport with the tiger, as long as he asserts himself in a manner that shows that he’s an equal in this horrible predicament and not just a banquet for the big cat.

            The fully spiritual aspects of Pi’s unintended journey come in some dark scenes when he witnesses the grandeur of various illuminated ocean species, the magnificent night breaching of a mighty whale, the seeming salvation at one point when Pi and Richard Parker are suddenly inundated by a school of flying fish that literally throw themselves into the lifeboat as a needed meal, and then the sudden appearance of a floating island that provides plants for the vegetarian Pi (although he learned to eat raw fish for survival, but somehow I wonder if he ever had a taste for sushi after that [just as my father virtually echoed Scarlett O’Hara in saying after the Depression something like “As God as my witness, I’ll never eat red beans again!”]) and thousands of meerkats on holiday from The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) for the tiger to feast on before Pi discovers that night brings on danger here as the island mysteriously comes alive and consumes anything on ground level so he and Mr. Parker hit the road—well, the water—the next day only to drift for days upon end again until stumbling onto the shore of Mexico where Pi lay exhausted until rescued and the tiger unceremoniously disappeared into the jungle, not as a departing friend but as the wild beast that he was, returning finally to an environment that felt like home to him.  As older Pi later explains to his enthralled listener, the Japanese insurance company that investigated the sinking of the freighter found his story just too incredible to believe so he gave them another one in which the survivors were his mother (a parallel for the orangutan), a sailor with a broken leg (similar to the zebra), a cruel cook who kills them both (like the hyena) for fish bait, and Pi (now representing the tiger), who kills the cook in response to his inhuman actions.  The company men were more accepting of the second version, but Pi asks his visitor (who stands in for us, just like the reporter seeking the meaning of “rosebud” in Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941]) which story is more acceptable to him, with the reply of the former, to which Pi says to his agnostic/atheist audience of one (who came seeking not just a tall tale but also some reason for enlightenment) something like, “And thus it is with God,” implying that we crave the more fantastic, mythological rendering of something, even if we know that a more rational explanation might be closer to the literal truth.  We’ll never know if Pi’s ordeal was truly based on holding a tiger at bay for much of a year while floating on an endless ocean or on killing a butcher who had defiled humanity in the name of survival.  Did he find temporary peace with an actual tiger or did he become a temporary tiger himself in order to avenge an infamy, even one brought on by conditions of desperation?

Rene Magritte The Human Condition 1935
            What you take away from that question about Pi may tell you a lot about your own connections to what you understand as the metaphysical high ground and what you would hope to gain from a life challenge beyond anything yet dreamed up on TV’s “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race.”  What Pi learned can only be understood in context of the serenity he has found with his new family (wife and children) in Canada and the memories (enhancements?) of his previous life.  Similarly, Pat and Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook found some strategies that helped them move on beyond their previous roadblocks, just as Lincoln found that through force of will backed up by pragmatic political manipulations he could engineer a social restructuring that would change this country forever for the better (even if we’re still struggling with the devilish details of true integration of the visions of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and all of the former slaves determined to be accepted as fully equal members of the human community).  This Thanksgiving season is potentially a time of acceptance, family celebration, and forgiveness of the stupidly-constructed barriers that isolate us from our best destiny, but it folds right into a period of blind consumerism, relentless expressions of “peace on Earth, good will to men” even if spoken with bitter hypocrisy, and wishes for a harmonious new year underwritten with the silent desire that my good fortune will be paramount even if it must reduce yours in the process.  Each of the above films strives to preserve something better about ourselves, even in our most flawed manifestations, so whether they become Oscar contenders or not they offer us a vision of better resolutions, better acceptances, better hopes to live for even when the inspiration is snuffed out too soon (as was the tragic case with Lincoln).  Yes, these are only fictional cinema offerings in narrative form, but if they can also offer us a bit of hope at a time when blood is still spilled needlessly on a daily basis throughout the world and politicians still offer blame rather than compromise for the common good then I’ll take hope, no matter how rationally it may be challenged in the small flaws of these particular filmic epistles (but like Pi, I’m not advocating some religious salvation either, just a belief—as shown with Abe, Pat, and Tiffany as well—that  we all can rise to the best versions of ourselves when the stakes are too high to ignore).  With that, enough uplifting philosophy for now because there’s a leftover turkey sandwich calling my name (see you again in a couple of weeks).

            If you’d like to know more about Lincoln here are some suggested links: (43 min. interview with director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis)

            If you’d like to know more about Silver Linings Playbook here are some suggested links: (this comes about as close as I’ve ever seen to showing everything significant about the movie in roughly 2 ½ minutes; I still think you’d enjoy seeing the whole thing in a theatre but if you can’t this compresses everything essential to being able to appreciate the film) (a 44 min. press conference from the 2012 Toronto Film Festival with testimony from director David O. Russell and actors Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Jacki Weaver, and Anupam Kher)

            If you’d like to know more about Life of Pi here are some suggested links: (transformation of actual tiger footage into CGI tiger for the film)

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  1. Ken, your latest review is another excellent piece of work. Pat, you need to get busy or else you guys will never have your own show.

    Unfortunately Silver Linings has not made it to the San Antonio Bijou, but Lincoln and Life of Pi certainly has. The local art film theater as well as the premier Palladium palace are all providing History and Tigers to the masses for Thanksgiving. I humbly offer a few comments, certainly not worthy of even an introduction or ps to your ongoing literary achievements.

    Humm? Spielberg's Lincoln "falls a bit short" because he failed to rein in Daniel Day-Lewis' "transcending" performance? I say keep falling short Mr. Spielberg if this is where your "short" efforts land. Spielberg could have required more from his supporting actors, but could they be expected to match Daniel's skill and intensity? Maybe Meryl Streep could have taken Sally Field's role. But then we would hear howls when Day-Lewis and Streep once again swept the Awards, leaving the merely great actors forever disappointed. Perhaps retire his jersey? Not sure we want this jersey retired.

    Luckily for the rest of Hollywood, Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly picks and chooses his roles and therefore only competes every few years. Lucky for us he made "There Will Be Blood" or else that gem might have been forgettable with Brad,George or even Ben as the lead. Perhaps one could argue that Lincoln would have been even better with a broader view of Lincoln's life, but sometimes less is more. Spielberg's Lincoln is another American masterpiece, and is a reminder that America is still preeminent in fields such as film, engineering, architecture and of course, higher education.

    Then Ang Lee demonstrates how close the Chinese are in matching American storytelling and the use of modern film making tools. As Carson would say, Ang Lee has "good stuff". On a side note, (see I am picking up Ken's bad habits) I am confident the current American leadership will keep China as a partner and not create a new villain while we continue to educate their kids and consume their products. It is interesting that most of their kids elect to stay in the nation of opportunity and two car garages.

    Life of Pi
    But what about Richard Parker? First I offer full disclosure. I am Richard Parker. Well maybe not "that" feline predator but sometimes internally pretty close to the Pi version. Interesting to see the interest in Richard Parker in the media and marketplace. Not the Spiderman version this time. Particularly interesting when one considers one of the backstories (note 1): A real life British Richard Parker who was eaten by fellow shipwrecked survivors in 1884.

    Mr. Lee pulls out the stops when creating his version of the Life of Pi. He succeeds in bringing a potentially drawn out and hard to film book to life and makes it a must see event.

    I would suggest that the second story Pi offers at the end may be more traumatic and involve more than just fish bait. I believe the alternate story PI conveys parallels the fate of the real Richard Parker, but this time PI himself is guilty of inappropriate dining.

    PI makes it clear the cook digested his victims, which obviously set Pi off, releasing his own inner Tiger, who then finishes off the cook ala the Donner Party. It is interesting to note that the real 1884 Richard Parker's consumption by his mates lead to new laws making such survival tactics illegal. Before that time it was considered acceptable behavior under the circumstances. Overall another masterpiece, but I still think Lincoln sets the bar this year.

    Note 1:
    In 1884, the yacht Mignonette sank. Four people survived and drifted in a life boat before one of them, the cabin boy Richard Parker, was killed by the others for food.

    1. Interesting discussion of Lincoln on Sirius / XM radio's second hour of December 3rd's Internal Medicine Show. A repeat for those with access is Sunday at 4pm Pacific on Dr. Radio channel XM 81. (4PM is the start of the second hour)

      The short summary below leaves out many of problems discussed that Lincoln and Mary Todd likely had. The Doctor's positive opinion of Day-Lewis' portrayal is included along with diagnostic methods used today to determine the President's medical issues.

      Internal Medicine

      The health of Abraham Lincoln. From mental health issues to droopy eye lids, Dr. Ira Breite reveals the medical issues our 16th president is believed to have suffered from---things you won’t hear about in the movie “Lincoln”

    2. Hey rj, Thanks for continuing to enhance the coverage here.

      Better watch out, Pat, this guy's moving in on your territory--but don't forget that possession is 9/10 of the law (depending on what you're possessing, which might get you 9-10 years). Anyway, rj, we appreciate your contributions. Ken

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for reading what we put out there and for your detailed, thoughtful comments (regarding my snide remarks about Texas, though, I assume you take them in good humor now that I know you're in the beautiful San Antonio area or else you'd have told me where to shove a Lone Star longneck by now).

    Excellent enhancement on the background possibilities that inform "Life of Pi" (nice to have you as a collaborating author working with us). That was very interesting stuff for me to learn about.

    As for "Lincoln," if I implied that Spielberg should have tempered Daniel Day-Lewis to get him down to the level of his mortal thespian co-stars then I left the wrong impression. I wouldn't ever want to see any less of him (although you're right that his infrequent appearances in films just further enhances his stunning presence on screen), I just hope to see others find their way up to his level, which few except Streep (and maybe Michael Fassbinder) seem capable of doing.

    Anyway, it's always a pleasure to read your comments and thanks again for reading "ours." (Hey, Pat, see you in a couple of weeks--you are reading these reviews regularly, aren't you? Of course, I knew you were.) Ken

  3. Ok, I saw Silver Linings Playbook tonight, primarily on your recommendation. Two thumbs up from me. However this had to be the most expensive movie ticket ever for me. Southwest to Kansas City, a car, a hotel and there I am watching Silver Linings Playbook. Seriously.

    Well maybe I have another purpose for this trip, but the entertainment value has worked out so far.

    Best Actor Portraying Bipolar Disease? Phoenix wins by a landslide. The real tragedy of Bipolar disease is the mountainous depression that crushes the victim for months and years. The disease rarely resolves so well, best illustrated by the agony of Mr. Phoenix in The Master. Silver Lining almost magically resolves which certainly makes it the far better date night movie but perhaps harder to believe in than a Tiger on a boat.

    With that said, Silver Lining was a riveting production to watch with an excellent screenplay and stinging dialog. It has at least one stunning performance characterizing a mentally ill character. But for me it was Jennifer Lawrence displaying a rare thespian acuity, not Mr.Cooper. Cooper reminds me of a young Clint Eastwood who has gained small screen recognition as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide. Cooper's "Dirty Harry" has yet to come, it probably will, perhaps in a Western. To me, Jennifer Lawrence in this movie was dazzling, showed tremendous power and range and was sexy as hell. I think she is sure to become the next female megastar.

    So we had three movies all depicting the effects of mental illness, temporary (Pi?), influential (Mary Lincoln), and wide spread (Cooper, DiNiro and Lawrence). All good with exceptional elements.

  4. Hey rj, Damn! That's dedication--all the way to Kansas City just to see "Silver Linings Playbook" (I hope you had some ribs there, too, but that's a tight contest between Texas and KC for Bar-B-Q mastery)!

    Glad you liked it overall, and I agree that Jennifer Lawrence just keeps showing what a marvelous depth of talent she possesses, but maybe Bradley Cooper will someday transcend his "Rawhide" level (great comparison; you ought to be doing full-blown reviews on your own, you've always got solid insights).

    We agree about this trio of "wackos," which yield three very intriguing films. I'll be back with something new in a week or so, but feel free to take over in my absence. Ken

  5. I expected Ang Lee to spare some moments on Pi's second story. In Yan Martel's book it was the key section which ignites the discussions on 'Do you believe in God ?' Do agree that Martel's narration was a bit disturbing and that would have been more on screen. Have to believe Ang Lee is a pure theist and also he might not want to give the audience some unpleasant moment or Richard Parker may have become his obsession. However for those people like me who went to the theater expecting a terrific moment of Tabu was hurt by Ang Lee's reluctance !!

  6. Hi Aby, Thanks very much for your enlightening comments (and for reading this review after our conversations based on your postings in Linkedin). In that I haven't read the book (no surprise, unfortunately) all I can do is feel agreement with you that there's the potential here for a deeper spiritual experience, but that's the sort of narrative element that scares off big-budget film producers because they often don't want their audiences to have to think too much or be challenged by important ideas.

    My invaluable Texas collaborator rj has provided links to a couple of sites that might help those of us who haven't read the book understand better what Aby is referring to. If you'd like, please visit summary of Life of Pi book and comparing Life of Pi book and moviefor further information, and thanks again to both of you for your comments on this. Ken