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Burning Bright 

Ang Lee ponders god through the eye of the tiger



LIFE OF PI. It's been years since I read Yann Martel's 2001 novel, but I remember generally enjoying it, with a few reservations. And that's more or less how I feel about director Ang Lee and writer David Magee's adaptation. It's bright and imaginative but loses points for its inappropriately conventional structure.

The framing story -- of a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounting the harrowing tale of a shipwreck in his youth to a white-bread novelist (Rafe Spall) -- feels clumsy and unnecessary. Once the visually stunning flashback sequences start, each return to that framing story breaks the momentum and takes the audience out of the central narrative.

Pi, short for Piscine Molitor Patel, grows up theologically curious on the grounds of a zoo in French-colonized Pondicherry, India. When social unrest threatens the well-being of his family, Pi's entrepreneurial father brokers a deal to sell the animals and relocate to Canada. But harsh seas interfere, and Pi's family and most of the animals are lost. Pi becomes a castaway on a life boat in the middle of the ocean, accompanied by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Most of the narrative concerns Pi's struggle for survival and his meditations on the nature of god, meaning of life, existence of a divine spark and so on. Thematically this stuff worked better in the novel. But here, at least, it provides Lee with a canvas for some of the most visually exciting filmmaking of his career. The movie's middle section is filled with painterly, psychedelic compositions, many of which will probably end up replayed on a loop in dark, giggly college dorm rooms for years to come.

Suraj Sharma, as young Pi, nicely pulls off the herculean task of acting solo through the majority of the movie. And the CGI, production design and cinematography -- including some clever uses of 3D -- cohere beautifully, at times brilliantly.

It's all very dazzling, but ultimately the banal structure, along with the too-pat handling of profound existential questions, really put me off. PG. 127m.

RED DAWN. Like most of his work, writer/director John Milius' 1984 version of this story was arch, strident and couched in masculine ideology. To its credit, the original Red Dawn survives as a cultural document: a paranoid fantasy born of the then-decades-old Cold War. At the time, American culture was saturated with fear of Soviet aggression and nuclear proliferation.

While it could be argued that we're living out the legacy of that era, the remake of Milius' movie doesn't really touch on the contemporary global situation beyond clumsy exposition. That and the fact that the movie is generally miscalculated and miscast ensure that it will have zero resonance and very little popular appeal.

Don't get me wrong; Milius' story is not without its shortcomings. His puffed-chest philosophizing can make his movies overbearing and occasionally cartoonish. That's certainly true of Red Dawn, but at least his version had philosophy in play. Beyond the sociopolitical thrust, he made an effort to examine the idea of young men forced unexpectedly to become soldiers.

For the uninitiated, here's the basic premise: Foreign troops invade a small, sleepy American city. A group of high-schoolers take to the hills and eventually wage guerilla war against the aggressors. In 1984 those aggressors were Russians and Cubans, the setting was Colorado, and the cast included standouts like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell.

In 2012 it's the North Koreans (my understanding is that the villains were originally Chinese, but this was "adjusted" in post-production so as not to diminish Chinese box office) invading Spokane, Wash., which is defended by a uniformly unremarkable cast. Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Cabin in the Woods) takes the lead role, originally Swayze's. He and would-be love interest Adrianne Palicki (heartbreaking on TV's Friday Night Lights) are both capable of strong performances, but this movie doesn't do them any favors.

The filmmakers have stripped this story of the nuance and emotionality that made the original worth watching. In that version, Robert (Howell) makes a painful transition from innocent to hardened killer, losing part of his humanity in the process. Here, none of the characters are that complex. The bad guys are faceless placeholders, the scenario is full of silly red herrings, and the whole thing clanks on noisily until it eventually just peters out. PG13. 114m.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Yet another computer-generated holiday movie with a talented cast that I wish was more fun. Santa (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) team up to make the children of the world believe in them again, and to take back the night from Pitch Black/the Boogeyman (Jude Law).

A fun premise, but the story bogs down in the middle and never recovers. The Santa's workshop and Easter Island set-pieces are enjoyable at first, and Baldwin and Jackman seem to be having a good time. But it's just not enough to sustain one's interest. Plus, Jack Frost and Pitch Black are the hero and villain? Who're these guys even supposed to be? PG. 97m.

--John J. Bennett


KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Brad Pitt reunites with writer/director Andrew Dominik, whose 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a gorgeous, melancholic spellbinder. This time out Pitt plays a mob enforcer set loose on three moronic small-timers who stuck up a card came. With James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta. R. 97m.

THE COLLECTION. Three years ago, critics said that The Collector felt like the final, welcome nail in the coffin of the grisly torture-porn genre. Naïve much? This sequel promises more funhouse disembowelment by (yawn) a demented psychopath. "From the twisted writers of Saw IV, V, VI & VII," the preview boasts. Seriously. It actually says that. R. 82m.

For us snooty film buffs who lament the state of commercial American cinema and/or the dearth of indie films (as we call movies) that get to theaters here in Humboldt County, Friday's our chance to put five dollars where our mouths are. Or -- even better -- slide that Abe into the ticket booth at the Arcata Theatre Lounge and watch the latest installment of Future Shorts, a traveling festival of indie and foreign short films. This year's lineup includes an Oscar nominee from Germany, a coffee shop romance from Cairo and a documentary on conceptual artist John Baldessari narrated by Tom Waits. Very cool. 8 p.m. The next night at 8 you can catch the (classic?) holiday rom-com Love Actually (2003). And next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night will feature the 1964 Japanese sci-fi flick Evil Brain From Outer Space.

Speaking of film snobs, their ranks were atwitter last August after The British Film Institute released the latest of its once-per-decade polls of critics, scholars and directors: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) unseated Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) as The Greatest Film of All Time. Adjust your lives accordingly. If you're a Garberville resident you can catch Vertigo for free this Friday as part of "Heroes Night," an open house tribute to seniors and veterans, featuring a cocktail hour from 1 to 2 p.m. followed by cinema's crowning achievement and, finally, door prizes and mingling with the Healy Senior Center board of directors.


ARGO. Ben Affleck can direct! Here he helms and stars in a thrilling and surprisingly funny account of the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. R. 120m.

FLIGHT. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest GumpCast Away) goes into darker territory with this tale of a heroic but alcoholic commercial airline pilot (Denzel Washington). R. 138m.

LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.

SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films in their 50-year history. PG13. 143m.

TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN PART 2. The fifth and final installment of the moralizing vampire soap opera has arrived. In case you hadn't noticed. PG13. 115m.

WRECK-IT RALPH. A video game bad guy with a good heart sets out on an existential quest across the pixilated landscapes of Pac-Man, Street Fighter and the like. PG. 108m.

--Ryan Burns

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