February 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: Many spoilers

Life of Pi (2012) directed by Ang Lee, was a near miss like many other Ang Lee films including Ice Storm, The Hulk and Brokeback Mountain. The special effects were stunning, and the story was unique in that it does not remind you of a hundred other films you have seen. I have not read the novel, but skimmed it in a bookstore to check if the movie was essentially faithful, which it appears to be. What had previously deterred me from reading it was that it seemed to be essentially superficial metaphysical fare along the lines of Tom Robbins, what the critic John Simon once called (he was referring to the movie 2001) a “shaggy God story”. The movie and novel both make the annoying error, during the big reveal of the narrator’s unreliability, of interpreting the story for us we have just spent two hours watching: some Japanese executives, investigating the shipwreck, start explaining to one another that the zebra which broke its leg represents the Buddhist sailor, the orangutang is Pi’s mother, etc. I also resented being told that I had invested time and energy in a story which was supposed to be false, and whose significance was that it was more beautiful than the tawdry truth. The moral of this trite metaphysics is to believe in the beautiful when the alternative is dreary, a recommendation which is easy, shallow, and neither beautiful or true. The novel and movie have some other problems: a non-Indian novelist writing about a cute Indian with a funny name (“Piscine” or “Swimming Pool”, “Pi” for short); the amount of set up before we are on board the life boat with the tiger; the extended, not very interesting interregnum on Death Island before we finally reach the Mexican coast. In the end, what I remembered and enjoyed was a movie about sharing a life boat with a Bengal tiger, which someone like Luis Bunuel, excising all the bullshit, could have made into a stripped down and highly interesting little movie about God (or His absence).

August: Osage County (2013), directed by John Wells, is worth seeing for some brave performances, including Meryl Streep with no restraints playing crazy, angry and pathetic, and Julia Roberts playing a grim, ugly character, very well too, an enjoyable revelation from an actress who has always carefully played cool, beautiful women until now. The performances are so gripping that you may not notice until much later that the movie is cobbled together from some very familiar elements: crazy older woman from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, alcoholic and drug abusing family from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with a touch of Glass Menagerie, and the “your lover is your half brother” trope from Lone Star, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and a hundred other novels, plays and movies. It occurred to me watching that, just as there was not one wholly original trope, there was no memorable dialog either, no line you might quote a week later. It is an actor’s play (and movie) written by an actor, in which the scenes and dialog are merely intended to provide a platform for the actors to go wild and show their craft--the opposite of a Shakespeare or Williams play in which the actors are mere vessels of the playwright’s Idea in Prose.

I don’t think I had ever seen A Star is Born (1954), directed by George Cukor, in its entirety, and I don’t like it much as a movie, but it is a fascinating sociological artifact of the 1950’s. All that alcoholism and vanity and public attention, and there’s not a hint of marital infidelity by either party. Judy Garland is strong, proud, independent, and happy to submerge herself in the identity of her fading husband, Norman Maine. Her return to show business, at a benefit a few months after his suicide, is portrayed in the last scene; the words “I am Mrs. Norman Maine” are the last words of the movie. The comparison between clashing male and female versions of self sacrifice is fascinating: he kills himself so as not to harm her career, just as she is deciding to give up that career to take care of him. The compromise is that she will carry on as his rib or representation.