Monday 24 December 2012

Review: Life of Pi

I've never been to see a film before in the hope that it would be completely and utterly average, but I did for Life of Pi, just for the sake of the cheap gag of giving the film 3.14 out of 5. Unfortunately for me however, the film was simply wonderful!

Based on the novel of the same name, director Ang Lee's Life of Pi tells the remarkable story of Pi (Suraj Sharma), a young man whose family owns a zoo in India. When the family decide to move the zoo around the world, a disastrous storm that hits their ship leaves young Pi stranded overboard in a small life boat, all alone. Or so he thought, and as the realisation hits that a tiger is also aboard the boat, Pi's difficult challenge to survive becomes that little bit less likely...

Life of Pi: That film with the tiger in a boat!

Undoubtedly you will be aware of Life of Pi as to say that the marketing campaign for it has been extensive would be an understatement - the film is everywhere! Adverts have been playing on TV for weeks, just about every film for the last half of the year has had the trailer attached to it, most of the buses driving around the country are plasters with posters, and even the film itself starts with a small advert telling the audience to spread the word after experiencing what they defined as 'the phenomenon' via facebook and #lifeofpi! The marketing truly has been remarkable for this film, and it's easy to understand why; two words - 'The Hobbit.' With such a big franchise film released just one week earlier, a film like this is easy to miss; but quite frankly it really shouldn't be.

One of the quotes that you will have probably seen written everywhere on all of the advertising calls the film 'the next Avatar,' and it's not difficult to see why. The visual effect are nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful, with a lot of the film implementing a largely CGI environment flawlessly. One problem that I often find with films that depend on the use of CGI too heavily is that I can become very aware that it is in fact just a load of computer graphics as the technology tends to age quickly and stick out like a sore thumb, losing a sense of attachment and taking me out of the film as it reminds me that I am watching just that - a film. This is often a very big off-put for me, yet the CGI used in Life of Pi, bar a few animals that did look like computer animations, was flawless. The almost fantasy-like world created by the special effects team is nothing short of breathtaking, and a well deserved pat on the back is certainly in order. But it's not all about impressive CGI effects - who really goes to a film for that!? The effects in Life of Pi are so beautiful however that they actually made me more engaged within the world of the film. Particular shots are so incredibly beautiful that they created a strong emotional response just looking at them. The film is like a piece of art work; not an art film, it's still very much a mainstream piece, but it really is breathtaking to look at - and although it hasn't been released in IMAX, this would have been the perfect film for it.

 One of my favourite shots from the beautiful film: Life of Pi.

But perhaps more importantly, let us not forget the tiger! As Pi and the comically named tiger (I shan't spoil the gag for those who don't know) are essentially the two leading characters, it is important that the tiger is created well with the CGI (for obvious reasons using a real tiger was out of the question) so that the audience can experience an emotional response to the relationship and peril that the film explores. What comes as a result is perhaps the most convincing piece of CGI that I have ever seen in film. The tiger is brought to life so well, that I actually forgot that it was CGI, and although I knew that it obviously was, I even at times had to question whether or not they actually used a real tiger. If the film wins anything this awards season, it'll certainly be for these technical achievements.

The story itself is like a spiritual version of Cast Away on a life boat with a tiger! That may not be what they'll print on the posters, but who doesn't want to see that film!? Pi's story is extraordinary - the film is engaging, captivating, magical and moving - it's nothing short of wonderful. It isn't based on any true events, but a big theme of the film asks the question of just how much can you believe, and what you should believe, bringing in big ideas, themes and questions about spirituality and religion. Life of Pi is very much at its heart a spiritual coming of age tale about a boy, confused by the many different religions and their multiple ideas and teachings, becoming a man and finding the answers that he is searching for. Perhaps that isn't your thing, and if it isn't then you still have a tiger in a boat, but for those who care to look a little deeper, the film will give you a fair bit to think about. This is where it suddenly loses the 'next Avatar' title, by becoming something far greater than just pretty special effects.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) has a spiritual search for his maker in Life of Pi.

The effects are extraordinary, the story is captivating, and the film is well paced and at a good length (it's not too short, it's not too long, it ends exactly when it needs to), but I do have one nagging problem with the film in amongst all of this praise. Life of Pi has been released in 3D (as I'm sure will come as no shock to you), with the advertisements for it putting a lot of emphasis on that fact to make you go and see it for a higher premium (hence 'the next Avatar' quote). However I chose to see it in 2D in order to appreciate the great attention to detail and vivid colour that the film clearly boasts but would lose a lot of behind a pair of 3D glasses. As I was happily watching the film, mid way through the aspect ratio suddenly changed from filling the entire screen to wide-screen letterbox for one particular sequence, then again later to an even smaller size from another shot. Whilst Ang Lee replied in an interview on that he chose to do this because "I've always wanted to do that... since film school, and no one allowed me to," I just feel that it is a bad move (although fair play to the guy for giving it a shot). What it does, perhaps even more so for 2D audiences, is to take you out of the film. The sudden change of the aspect ratio makes you question whether perhaps something has gone wrong with the projector as it's so abnormal and sudden, thereby reminding you that it's only a film and taking you out of the moment as a result. It's nothing more than a cheap 3D gimmick (in this case to make something look like it is jumping out of the screen), and personally I couldn't care less about it - hence watching the film in 2D. No-one else does Mr. Lee, and perhaps for good reason too; why bring an imperfection to such a wonderful film?

Ang Lee's beautiful adventure Life of Pi is a true spectacle of cinema. It will make you laugh, smile, jump, think, and maybe even cry a little as you watch a stunningly visual piece of modern cinema. Call it 'the next Avatar' if you will, but the film brings a lot more depth than that, and I'm not talking about the cheap 3D gimmicks that slightly dampen what is otherwise a fantastic piece. I'm not sure if it has what it takes to bag the best picture awards come awards season, but of the films released in the build up to it, Life of Pi certainly has a fair shot - but regardless, it's a wonderful family film and my pick of the Christmas Holiday releases this year.

Verdict: 5/5

Life of Pi (certificate PG) is now showing in cinemas across the UK.

Have you seen Life of Pi? Agree or disagree with my review? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Fans may have been waiting nearly ten years for The Hobbit to finally be adapted for the big screen, but this prequel to The Lord of the Rings is never late, nor is it early, it has arrived precisely when it meant to - well almost! The road for the filmmakers and the fans has been nearly as long as the one Bilbo Baggins is just about to embark upon himself, with changing directors and studio crises aplenty, but now that it's finally here the big question will be answered: was it all worth the wait?

The first instalment of Peter Jackson's LOTR prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, sees familiar Hobbit face Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) embark on an adventure with wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a group of Dwarves to reclaim an ancient treasure taken from the Dwarves by the dragon Smaug. Along the way, the fellowship must encounter numerous creatures, challenges and threats, as well as a familiar face or two from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, including a certain motion-captured Gollum (Andy Serkis), who just so happens to be in possession of a certain ring of power! The journey will be long and perilous, and it has only just begun...

Home, Sweet Home.

This one is going to be a bit trickier than most of my reviews, for as you'd probably expect it's difficult to review a film that you've only seen 1/3 of! Of course I did see the whole of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - I didn't get annoyed and walk out an hour in or anything - but in the grand scheme of things this is just the first of three films that will make up the film adaptation of The Hobbit, and much like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy I expect that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. Unlike other great film trilogies, like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy for instance, the three films form the beginning, middle and end to Bruce Wayne's story, but each film is its own individual piece that can be watched without necessarily needing the others. Whereas in the case of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings the tree parts form just one continuous story, making it difficult to fully appreciate just one of the films as a standalone piece. So for those asking the popular question 'is it as good as The Lord of Rings?' - come back and ask me summer 2014!

As for part one of The Hobbit, fans of Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy should feel what I felt; a sense of coming home. Returning to the world of Middle-Earth is nothing short of a nostalgic pleasure, jumping back down the Hobbit hole into the shire brought back the warm sense of homeliness established over a decade ago - I was back where I wanted to be, I was back home. Peter Jackson continues his cinematic argument that New Zealand is the most beautiful place in the world, with stunning vistas of wide fields, streams, mountains, forests and the like bringing the adventure well and truly to life. It all seems so familiar, with thanks in part to Peter Jackson returning to the helm to give the a film stylistic consistency with LOTR (whilst I'd have been fascinated to have seen how Guillermo Del Toro would have handled The Hobbit when he was set to direct it, I am glad to see Jackson back for this reason), and also with the return of a number of key members of the original cast too. I shan't give away all of the returning characters for those who don't know, but as you'll probably already be aware Ian McKellen returns in fine form as the lovable wizard Gandalf the Grey, and Andy Serkis steals the entire film with his reprisal of the iconic character Gollum in the best sequence of the entire film. But let us not forget the newer members of the cast too, with Martin Freeman effortlessly bringing life to Bilbo Baggins, and the ensemble of Dwarves forming a similar pleasure to be around too.

Andy Serkis steals the show once again by reprising his 'precious' role as Gollum

However, all is not well down in Middle-Earth. Whilst a Hobbit may be short, The Hobbit is not, in fact just like the epic trilogy that it is a precursor to, An Unexpected Journey is just short of a 3 hour running time. The film is very long, and at a number of points it does take it's time, which is good in some respects as it allows the us to fully explore the characters and plots of the film, but at times it is drawn out far too much to become unnecessary and a little tedious. This is where the maths doesn't quite add up: The Lord of the Rings is 3 books and 1077 pages long, where as The Hobbit is just 1 book and 255 pages long. So if there are 3 LOTR films each approximately 3 hours long, logically there should not be 3 Hobbit films at the same length if the tale is that much shorter. The Hobbit would benefit from a much shorter running time, as the film does not need as much time as the much bigger, more eventful Lord of the Rings Trilogy needs. They may be linked by certain characters, locations and events, but these are two very different stories. The Hobbit is a much more family based tale (with characters like Radagast the Brown and his cute woodland friends illustrating that point precisely), and the question needs to be asked: how many children can sit through such a long film?

This point extends further into the film's classification of a 12A, with some very dark moments and creatures that may not appropriate for the younger potential audience members. In this sense the film seems confused between deciding what it wants to be: the separate and more family orientated tale of The Hobbit, or the dark and foreboding precursor to The Lord of the Rings. However as I touched upon earlier, it was the prequel nature of the film that made it so enjoyable for me. As you'd expect the film ends on the cliff-hanger of the further journey ahead, and with certain elements of the LOTR trilogy already in place, I left the cinema in anticipatory excitement not only for the next chapter of The Hobbit story, but also to see how this will further lead into the events of The Lord of the Rings. The film ends on an exciting high note that will make the year long wait for The Desolation of Smaug a painful one.

Bilbo and the Dwarves face their greatest challenge yet - the long wait for the sequel!

The film is structured around - as readers of the book may already be familiar with - a series of mini-adventures that Bilbo and the gang encounter on their grand adventure to rescue the lost treasure. My main criticism toward this is that it does feel like something more appropriate for a television mini-series than to a film, with an episodic structure that would work on the smaller screen similar to something like Band of Brothers (with 10 1 hour episodes that make up the whole story) - breaking up the long run-time and making it more accessible to the family audience. It is also worth mentioning with all the hype and controversy surrounding the film being shot at 48 frames per second (rather than the standard 24fps) that I did see the film in 24fps 3D so cannot comment upon this matter, but I have heard several people saying that watching it at 48 gives the film a television feel (as TV is broadcast at a higher frame rate), further adding to that idea. (If I get the chance to view the film at 48fps as I hope to at some point, I shall update this section.)

EDIT: Debate 48. Well I had the opportunity to see the film again the other day in HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D and it's an odd experience I have to say. First of all the fluidity and the sense of higher definition hit me straight away as the Warner Bros. logo flew onto the screen at the very start of the film. However from the very first shots of the film problems very quickly began to appear for me. I personally  found through watching The Hobbit that in some cases the effect of seeing 48fps made things look like they were moving at double speed, in particular dynamic moving shots, close-up shots, short shots, and shots with a lot going on in them. As other people have said it can also give the effect as if you're watching live TV too, and I also felt this, as well as some shots (often unsteady ones) looking like home video footage. For a lot of the film it wasn't too bad, but quite often the same side effects would return to haunt me throughout. Perhaps this was just me, if you saw it at 48fps too then I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below - nonetheless, I've yet to be won over by HFR films...

It has been a long wait for fans of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and readers of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novel, but finally The Hobbit has arrived. Despite some problems with the film's running time and plots that cause it to drag at times, fans should feel a sense of pleasure in returning to the wonderful visual worlds and inhabitants of Middle-Earth after such a long time. Perhaps not as masterful as the LOTR Trilogy, An Unexpected Journey gets off to a bumpy but promising start for the rest of the films with scene stealing moments with Gollum and a foreboding cliff-hanger, but we'll have to wait until Summer 2014 when the final piece is released before we can see the bigger picture and decide just how good this prequel trilogy really is. One thing is for sure though: this Christmas, it'll be the film that everyone is Tolkien about...

Verdict: 4/5

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (certificate 12A) is now showing in cinemas across the UK.

Have you seen the first instalment of The Hobbit Trilogy? Agree or disagree with my review? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Saturday 15 December 2012

VOTE NOW! For the 2013 Beyond Infinities...

As the end of 2012 quickly approaches, and the film world is gearing up for the impending awards season, a new awards ceremony is about to arrive. Forget the Oscars, I'm of course talking about The First Annual Beyond Infinity Film Awards - otherwise know as The 2013 Beyond Infinities!* The Beyond Infinities will take place sometime early next January, and will commemorate the achievements in films released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2012 (or rather, the ones that I actually managed to see). But until then, I need your help...

I have decided to give you - the beautiful, smart and talented Beyond Infinity Film readers - a chance to get your voice heard for one of the categories. Ooh, how exciting!? The category in question is for Most Anticipated Film of 2013, and there are 10 nominees for you to choose from. Simply scroll down to the poll below, make your choice, and submit it - it couldn't be simpler! You have until Monday 31st December to cast your votes, and then the winner shall be announced on the day of the awards itself (date to be confirmed).

So what are you waiting for? It's time to get voting, and may the best film win...

*Poll Closed. Thank you for voting.*

(*The BIFAs acronym was already taken by the British Independent Film Awards - oops!)

Keep your eyes peeled for the for the First Annual Beyond Infinity Film Awards early next January, where all the award winners will be announced...

Thursday 6 December 2012

Review: End Of Watch

End of Watch follows the story of two L.A. Police officers (Gyllenhaal and Peña) as they face the day to day trials and responsibilities of their job. Whilst the two guys are just carrying out routine, some local criminal gangs have however formed a grudge against the two cops after they stick their nose into their business one time too many, and set out to rid of the duo for good.

Watching the trailer for End of Watch (embedded below) may leave you expecting a fully blown-out action spectacle that focuses of guns, fights, chases and drug gangs more than anything else (which, don’t get me wrong, are most definitely present throughout the film). Yet the film is in fact more than just that. The focus on the film – which forms the driving force and the heart and soul of it all - lies within the idea of the adopted brotherhood between the two police officers. The casting of Gyllenhaal and Peña is a brilliant one, with the actors providing two very good performances as two men who are culturally very different, but are connected by a unique central relationship that comes through the roles and pressures of their job: the strong theme of brotherhood in the service, and the responsibilities of looking after another man's life whilst venturing together into the dangers of the world. The film takes its time to explore this relationship in depth in order to create a moving emotional core as you become very quickly attached to the two men and both the ordinary and extraordinary sides of their lives. This also forms the basis of the element of humour that pulses through the film (which makes scenes of the pair simply driving around the city highlights of the film), and a definite homoerotic undercurrent that brings the film closer to being a buddy movie/bromance than the advertised crime action thriller.

The heart and soul of the film lies in these simpler moments.

Yet as enjoyable as it is to watch the relationship between these two actors develop and respond to the surroundings, the film is more than slightly flawed: it's all over the place!

Stylistically, End of Watch never seems to quite decide what it actually wants to be. The film opens with Gyllenhaal's character breaking the fourth wall by talking to the camera, establishing the idea that the film is being shot by him (with a handheld camcorder and other supporting cameras hidden on shirts and in the car) for a college project in his spare time; promising a found footage film. This idea is extended with the occasional footage from gang members being shot on home video cameras too. It doesn't take long, however, for that notion to unravel as more types of shots that can't possibly have been shot by the characters start to appear through a conventional documentary style approach that creates a mockumentary feel. Then there are moments throughout the film that seem to forget both of these ideas and adopt the standard Hollywood fiction style of shooting. And as if that wasn't enough, certain scenes - especially toward the film's climax - implement POV video game style shots from the firing end of a gun (resembling something that you'd see in a Call of Duty game): confused? Exactly!

The found footage idea provides an interesting concept, that quickly descends into a confused and annoying mess.

All of this goes on to further unravel the realistic approach that the filmmakers clearly intended to achieve with End of Watch. The idea of realism is crucial to the film as it makes the emotional connection that we establish with the two male protagonists even stronger. It is the use of the found footage/mockumentary approach that allows us as the audience to feel closer to the characters and understand them more as we gain full access to the personal lives of fictional beings that are presented as real life people. However, the opposite effect is often evoked as a result of the found footage shots. The fact that we see some of the gang members inexplicably filming their criminal activities through town on a camcorder (the footage of which was obtained how exactly?), and the fact that Gyllenhaal's video project seems to go on for months, if not years, makes you realise through these unrealistic moments that you are in fact just watching a fictional film. To further that point, the POV video game shots in fact undermine the entire point of the film by putting you into the two cops' shoes; placing you into the moment, as opposed to focusing intimately on the relationship between the two cop characters that the film should have achieved instead.

End of Watch promises a police action thriller, surprises and pleases with an intimate character study between two male L.A.P.D cops, but ultimately disappoints with both style and substance that's all over the place. The problem lies within the film's divide between the real and unbelievable; a documentary style built up considerably by found footage shots allow us to get up close and personal within the lives of the characters, but often reminds you that you are merely watching a fictional piece with the unrealistic explanations for the shots found within the narrative. In the end, End of Watch becomes confused with its unrealistic and forced over-the-top action set pieces (put in to please the masses) being placed next to the slower tempo realistic shots which in turn feel unbelievable as a result. Despite an entertaining and emotive performance from two strong leads, End of Watch wants and attempts to be many things, but ultimately suffers for trying to be all of them at the same time.

Verdict: 3/5

End of Watch (certificate 15) is now showing in cinemas across the UK.

Have you seen End of Watch? Agree or disagree with my review? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!