NYFF Daily Reviews: Life of Pi and Leviathan


The indefatigable Nick Schager is back with two more reviews of NYFF films, this time Ang Lee’s hotly anticipated of that one book people keep recommending you as well as a stellar and unsettling maritime documentary.

Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee
Screens many times tonight only

The opening-night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, Life of Pi is narratively elegant, tonally gentle, and aesthetically immersive thanks partly to non-gimmicky 3D that adds enveloping depth and sumptuousness…. But the movie is so torpid, preachy, faux-high-minded and “prestigious” that it makes one desperately hunger for the nearest slice of B-movie sleaze. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel is one about storytelling and faith, ideas conveyed through a mixture of expertly composed and controlled visuals and CGI, and a script that wastes not a single opportunity to spell out its themes.

Lee’s saga concerns Pi (Irrfan Khan), an Indian adult who recounts to an American writer (Rafe Spall) his pan-religious upbringing (Hindu, Christianity, and Islam, with a dash of Judaism as well!) and, after a shipwreck that kills his family while traveling to Canada with his father’s zoo animals, his teenage (Suraj Sharma) ordeal stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Lee’s imagery proves some of the most beautiful ever captured in 3D, culminating with a gorgeous multi-dimensional shot of Pi hovering underwater in front of a twinkling sinking ship.

Yet, as with much of the action, it’s so much loveliness detached from pressing emotion. While Lee’s hallucinatory centerpieces have a majesty that’s most powerfully felt during a middle section featuring Pi’s attempts to survive the high seas by training (and reaching a détente with) Richard Parker, Life of Pi routinely addresses the question of God’s existence with a bluntness that negates its effect. Beauty aside, it’s a film that dulls any sense of the spiritual through a reliance on the literal. (Nick Schager)

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Screens Saturday, October 13 at 6 p.m.

A far more raw and urgent document of man and beast on the open waters than Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Leviathan finds Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) and Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts) detailing the bleak work of North Atlantic commercial fishermen. Filmed in part by the anonymous subjects themselves with a chaotic immediacy that places prime emphasis on immersive proximity, the documentary provides up-close-and-personal views of creaking cables, lurching nets, grinding machinery, bruised and scarred skin, and fish, stingrays, clams and scallops being chopped and prepped for delivery, their remains left to slosh around the deck and their meat tossed unceremoniously into crowded buckets. Marked by overblown colors and hectic camerawork that teeters on its axis and plunges into the black waters surrounding the boat (often to afford a turbulent fish-eye’s POV), all with unholy screeching and splattering engulfing the soundtrack, this mesmerizing work makes clear that hell is such high-seas toil.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s hypnotic long takes help create a depiction of nightmarish conflict that’s devoid of any sentimentality or judgment, with the only slight trace of humor peeking through in a shot of an exhausted fisherman listening to Mastodon’s Moby Dick-inspired prog-metal album Leviathan.

With the vessel a veritable slaughterhouse that gives back to the ocean only torrents of blood and corpses, even imagery that suggests birth – such as the sight of hundreds of fish spilling out of a womb-like net – is colored by death, resulting in a masterfully grim and gruesome portrait unlikely to stoke one’s appetite for seafood. (Nick Schager)

You can find all of the Voice‘s daily NYFF reviews here.

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