The bigger the target: Part I (a double feature of “Drag Me to Hell” and “Life of Pi”)
When one sees several films in rapid succession, there is a temptation to compare them, even arbitrarily. Hell, it’s a part of movie culture. The Academy Awards are predicated on the idea that one movie can encapsulate a certain kind appeal broad enough to appeal to a wide range of voters but high-minded enough to “feel important” to be named the Best Picture of the year. Critics top ten lists demand that their creators decide, not just their favorite films of the year, but the exact order in which they are loved. It’s an inherently silly exercise.
What I’m getting at is, it’s more fun to compare films when the comparisons are not completely arbitrary. Which is why I’m about to compare the three films I’ve seen in the last 26 hours: “Skyfall”, “Drag Me to Hell”, and “Life of Pi”. Trust me, I have something here.
That something is thought that emerged as “Life of Pi” reached its rather unsatisfying ending. It was a superb, often poetic visual experience. But the film uses an odd device to frame its story, relying on conservation between a middle-aged Pi (played wonderfully by Irfan Khan) and a Canadian writer played by Rafe Spall. This device really adds nothing to the story. I have not read the book, and I don’t know how the story played out in the original text. But cinematically, it felt like Lee couldn’t commit to the story just playing out on screen. He force-fed the possibility of it just being a fable for… well, God knows why. It added nothing to my enjoyment of the film, and led to a strange sequence at the end where we see middle-aged Pi explaining a teenage Pi’s explanation of the events of the film. Now, it wasn’t a bad idea to let Khan, a splendid actor, deliver this emotionally charged monologue. But it was a jarring removal from a story that felt committed to. Never mind the implications of the explanation, which I will say nothing of for those who have yet to see the film. What I will say is this: “Life of Pi” is at its best when it is simply a tale of survival, one that gives Ang Lee ample opportunity to use the ocean setting to play with some astonishing visuals. As for the deeper religious and philosophical elements of the film, well, those feel a bit short changed, and I can’t help but feel that something was lost in the adaptation. But knowing which parts of the source material will best translate to the screen is a crucial part of adapting books to film, and Lee almost had it here, and faltered just enough to leave me wanting more from “Life of Pi”. There is no faulting what Lee accomplished visually, but he and screenwriter Dave Magee failed to recognize the best aspects of their adaptation.
Earlier in the day, I had seen Sam Raimi’s 2009 horror film “Drag Me to Hell”. And it was a splendid experience. It was an exercise in pure phantasmagoria for Raimi, a non-stop barrage of jump scares and gross outs. Usually jump scares piss me off in horror movies, since being startled is not the same as being scared. But you can sense the joyful smirk on Raimi’s face as he simply refuses to let up in this film, using shock after shock to the point that they’re just silly fun, and at the same time creating far more unease than most directors (who space out their jump scares as if they are legitimate horror set-pieces) are capable of. Raimi knows the territory he was dealing with well. If anything, this type of film is his personal vintage, crafted with his “Evil Dead” trilogy: horror films that provide a steady supply of scares that are usually coupled with genuine laughter, as the audience is well aware what Raimi is doing and is just going along for the show. “Drag Me to Hell” is nowhere near as ambitious as “Life of Pi”. But Raimi’s mastery of this type of film made it endlessly enjoyable.
Is “Drag Me to Hell” better than “Life of Pi”? Maybe, but I honestly don’t care that much. I liked them both. You can probably tell from your tastes alone which one you would personally like more. They are what they are: a carnival thrill ride, and a majestic attempt at a masterpiece that falls short of its ambitions.
Next: Part II: “Skyfall” and its haunting climactic Highland shootout