Snippet Reviews: ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ and More

I had a hell of a weekend at the theatres, as one would expect with the cornucopia of films presented during the long Thanksgiving weekend. I was fortunate to not only take in two strong candidates in the Best Picture race (Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook), but also legitimate contenders for Foreign Language (Denmark’s A Royal Affair), Documentary Feature (The Queen of Versailles), and Animated Feature (Rise of the Guardians). What follows are my brief reactions and reviews for each film. 

In Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s larger than life tale of faith and survival, Suraj Sharma plays the peculiarly named title character who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck. The young boy with a fascination for all religions finds himself sharing a lifeboat with the least likely of companions, a ferocious Bengal tiger (one of the many animals from his family’s zoo that was being transported across the sea). Their journey together is one that is full of danger and self-discovery, and celebrates the strength of the human spirit against the worst of odds in a way that only a master director of Ang Lee’s magnitude could deliver. The true stars of the film are the visual effects and cinematography, which are both lavish and breathtaking, and while I rarely recommend the need to see a film in 3D, Life of Pi stands with the likes of Avatar and Hugo in that department. Based on Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi is quite a lovely theatrical experience. However, at times the film lacks the intimacy one might come to expect from the types of themes the film presents (especially for those who read the book), and (without spoiling) the ending left me a bit deflated. That being said, Life of Pi is still a fantastic film for the family to enjoy this holiday season, and one that I imagine will be very popular with audiences. (***½)

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man burdened with bipolar disorder who has lost everything from his job to his wife. After being released from a mental institution, he has returned to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) while he tries to maintain a positive mental attitude and rebuild his life. Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a femme fatale with troubles of her own, who offers to help him reconcile with his wife if he will do a certain favor for her in return. Silver Linings Playbook goes beyond being your conventional rom-com, as it is also a bittersweet and intelligent film about a dysfunctional family coping with mental illnesses (from more than one member). The performances from the entire cast are certain to get recognition, but despite the glowing reviews for Lawrence (who is terrific and currently the frontrunner in the Lead Actress category), it is actually Cooper who shines the brightest, and I’m betting that his brooding, agitated turn as a man struggling to get back to good will be more than enough to elevate The Hangover star to A-List status. Excelsior! (***½)

I should begin by saying that my least favorite genre for film is probably the costume drama/period piece, whether set in Victorian era England or, as in the case with Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair, the Age of Enlightenment in Denmark. There are probably only a handful of these types of films I can say that I’ve enjoyed, and only one (Milos Forman’s Amadeus) that I absolutely love, so you can probably add a star to my rating for those who are fans of this style of film. That being said, there were times during A Royal Affair (Denmark’s official entry in the Foreign Language Oscar race) where I was totally enthralled with the story being told, which centers around the love affair between Denmark’s Queen Caroline Mathilde (in a fierce, star-making performance from Alicia Vikander, who audiences will also see in Anna Karenina) and the king’s newly appointed personal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee (the amazing Mads Mikkelsen). The man in the middle is King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a childish monarch with an appetite for big breasted prostitutes and alcohol, who at first we regard with contempt or disgust as he idly sits back and lets his cabinet rule his country. But as the love affair between Struensee and Caroline progresses, the fascinating plot thickens, and the two begin to use the king as a means to bring a change to the laws of their country and better serve the people, and as the king willingly abides you begin to shift your views on the perverted ruler from those of distaste to those of pity. Sure, A Royal Affair delivers the same ingredients we’ve come to know and expect from this genre: fiery and tragic love triangles, elaborate costumes, impish kings, tedious and heavy dialogue; but it does so in a way that actually works without boring you to tears, and rather entrances the viewer in ways that few like it have done before. (***½)

A Documentary Feature Oscar hopeful, The Queen of Versailles follows a bazillionaire couple building the largest single family home in America (inspired by Versailles) until the recent real estate financial crisis brings their dreams to a sudden halt. I’ll be frank and start by saying that Queen was probably one of the least interesting, borderline-infuriating docs I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure how I am supposed to care about these over-privileged people at all, as their riches-to-not-even-close-to-rags story shows the couple dealing with the fact that they might have to “settle” with buying a three hundred thousand dollar home if their lives “fall apart.” The film doesn’t even have a satisfying and legitimate ending either – at least not one that leaves you knowing exactly how things end up for their estate. The Queen of Versailles is in the non-agenda based vein of doc that I usually prefer, I just don’t think I was the right audience for it. However, those one-percenters might find it a harrowing tale. (**) – It should be known that this film has a score of 80 on Metacritic and 95% on Rotten Tomatoes

If you asked me, I would tell you that this has been one weak year for animated feature films. Rise of the Guardians – a film I have been predicting to win the Animated Feature Oscar since September – arrived this weekend and did nothing to improve things for the genre in 2012. Pitch Black (Jude Law) is trying to take over the world by stealing the hopes and imaginations of children around the world, while Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (who doesn’t speak), and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) – aka The Avengers of the Holidays – do their best to stop him. It’s not that this tale about hope and faith (and by that I mean more than just a faith that there is a Santa Claus) isn’t extraordinary looking (the animation is quite beautiful, and from what I’ve seen the best of the year), it’s just that the superhero themed storyline comes up a bit short and is a tad formulaic. Needless to say, I’ll be switching my Oscar prediction in the near future. (**½)