Should You Watch It: Lincoln and Life of Pi

November 29, 2012 11:15 am 0 comments

Two holiday epics under the microscope in the latest edition of HMGL’s “Should You Watch It” series.

Matt Ford

There are a ton of exciting movies out right now — some are better than others. (Sounds like a premise for future power rankings!!!!!!)

For help planning out your winter movie budget, here is a primer to two epics. First, Spielberg’s Lincoln, then Hollywood’s adaptation of Life of Pi.

Three reasons to see Lincoln:

1) I don’t have to tell you — everyone is saying it — they might as well just announce the Best Actor award at the Oscars already. Daniel Day-Lewis does a freaky good Lincoln, adding so much tenderness, thoughtfulness and dimension to one of the most complex American presidents.

You know when you first saw The Dark Knight and you literally missed the Joker when he wasn’t on screen? That’s how you feel when Day-Lewis is off-screen.

He’s convincing, compelling, and endearing; he makes this movie worth watching by himself.

One other thing: You know when people say, “It’s like I was watching Abraham Lincoln in the flesh!” Well, none of us ever heard Lincoln speak, watched him walk, saw his relationship with his family or saw him weigh nation-changing decisions. All of those subtle interpretations — and the cloak of super-realism — were brought to life by Day-Lewis.

Yes, there was great writing behind him, but credit for a truly transcendent depiction belongs to the actor.

2) An interesting dose of history. If you were to do a biopic on Abraham Lincoln, you could make a lot of choices of when to start and end the story.

Do you start with the Lincoln-Douglas debates? How about his fight to be elected in 1860, during which he campaigned knowing full well he would not receive one electoral vote in the South? How about when the South seceded? How about the Gettysburg Address?

All worthy candidates. Lincoln, interestingly, centers around the fight for — and extensive political maneuvering surrounding — the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States.

Also, interestingly, it includes his assassination. More on that later.

3) As great as Day-Lewis is, Tommy Lee Jones deserves special mention for his portrayal of hardcore abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. His speeches are poignant, eloquent, fearless and sardonic. TLJ shows the pained, urgent efforts of a older man examining his legacy, desiring to be on the right side of history.

Don’t be shocked if Jones wins his second Oscar for the effort.

What’s Not To Love?

It’s hard to pick faults with a movie that will surely and legitimately be nominated for Best Picture.

My only fear going into the theater was the potential footprint of the director. Because Steven Spielberg is just so … Steven Spielberg.

How to explain what I’m saying…

One of the things I loved about Argo – and there were a great many — was that there was nothing superfluous in the whole movie. Not one unnecessary shot, one extra word, nor one instant of directorial arrogance.

On the contrary, Lincoln borders on the overtly sentimental. Admittedly, though, affectation is difficult to avoid when depicting a once-in-history president, especially when combined with a once-in-a-generation acting performance.

Here’s what I mean. The film ends with Lincoln laying dead (I’d say this is a spoiler, but you all knew what happened to Abe Lincoln), after showing Lincoln’s youngest son on the night of the assassination. It’s brutal.

Come on, Spielberg — we all know the history. Don’t go for a tear-jerker — let the story speak for itself. Small complaint, I know, but the over-sentimentality in that moment and several others (soldiers reciting the entire Gettysburg Address? come on!) was enough to distract from the story.

Last point: Go back to the trailer above and listen to the music. The movie is scored like a Dinsey movie, not an urgent game-changer like There Will Be Blood or The Social Network. The trailer itself says quite a lot about the film, which aims to be quaint and sappy too often.

I believe a less formulaic, more anti-Hollywood director could have done a bit better.

Verdict: In spite of the aforementioned sentimentality, go see it in theaters.

From history to fantasy; here are three reasons to see Life of Pi.

1) Avatar set the standard for 3D CGI-heavy filmmaking, yes. Life of Pi matches or exceeds Avatar. Consider the challenge for the director, Ang Lee: well more than 50 percent of the film revolves around interplay between a teenager… and a tiger… alone… in the Pacific Ocean.

(Fifteen artists just for the CGI tiger’s fur?)

If you could justify chucking away $16 to see Avatar in IMAX 3D, you better get your tickets to do see Life of Pi, which is almost undoubtedly a better film, not to mention equivalent — or better — visually.

2) The Hollywood debut of Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, is perhaps worth the price of admission alone. Tom Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award for a remarkably similar role in Cast Away (he lost to Russell Crowe in Gladiator).

Sharma is wildly compelling as he does his best Tupac (“Just me against the world“) in most of his screen time. If you do see this movie, just remember all that his scenes take place in front of a green screen with no co-star. He is incredibly believable.

3) A plot twist. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a major and certifiably weird plot twist at the end of this film. If you’ve read the book, I assume the two twists are similar. I’m not sure what to call it, but I believe scientists call it a “mind-fuck.”

I’m not sure if you’ll like it — shit, I’m not even sure if I liked it — but you definitely won’t see it coming. That’s worth something.

Alright, unfortunately, I can’t say what I didn’t like without revealing spoilers. If you’ve read the book, don’t plan to see the movie or have seen it already, feel free to read on. If you want to see Life of Pi in theaters, stop right now and I won’t be offended, as long as you promise to come back later (and also give me a job at Grantland). Alright? Everyone cool?

Verdict: Get tickets to IMAX 3D if you want to see it now (not worth it in 2-D), or catch it on Netflix next year.

Alright, spoiler time.

What’s not to love about Life of Pi?

Now, I never read the book, so maybe director Ang Lee transposed the book to the screen religiously and it’s not his fault.

But the whole “By the way, I was a murderer/cannibal” thing kind of blindsides you, right?

Yes, you probably could guess the tiger/orangutan/zebra/hyena relationship isn’t real. And the island with the tooth in the plant seems pretty weird. But movies where a character has a really vivid imagination/mental disease (like Fight Club or A Beautiful Mind), there is some moment of realization for the character. There is some reckoning and/or regret the character has to face. Some sort of self-awareness and reconciliation occurs.

In Life of Pi, Pi reveals the true story without ANY accompanying footage — not one frame! Then the movie basically ends.

As is so often true, my feelings about this movie are explained best via Family Guy. 

Stewie kills Lois! ... Wait, not really. But hope you enjoyed the ride!

You know that episode when Stewie finally almost kills Lois, but then she kills him? (Netflix link, as this exchange is not on YouTube.)

Then it’s revealed — after two full episodes — Stewie was wearing a virtual reality helmet the whole time? And then Brian wonders what the fuck the deal was? The conversation goes like this:

Brian: Theoretically, if someone watched the events start to finish, only to find out nothing really happened, don’t you think it’s like a giant middle finger to the audience?

Stewie: Well, hopefully they would have enjoyed the ride.

Brian: I don’t know man, I think you piss a lot of people off that way.

I agree, Brian. What the shit, Ang Lee?

Matt Ford is the Editor-in-Chief of Hire Me Grantland. Want to know what it’s like for a white girl to live in Harlem? Or whether you should see Skyfall and/or Argo? No? Alright then, bring it on home.

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