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Films
by Kathi Maio

ALL MAN-EATERS GREAT AND SMALL


WHEN NOT viewing films for this column, my tastes still gravitate toward horror movies—but not the zombie, monster, or slasher films you might associate with the term. My preferences run more toward environmental and social documentaries. My online queue is full of them. They vary from the quirky and personal (example: Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold's 2002 Blue Vinyl, which considers the environmental and medical implications of ubiquitous PVC house siding) to the politely professorial (example: Al Gore's 2006 Oscar-winning climate change lecture, An Inconvenient Truth) to those that are preachy yet oriented toward problem-solving (example: Peter Byck's 2010 feature, Carbon Nation).

I'm not that choosy. The topic can be the death and disappearance of pollinators (Vanishing of the Bees), the health consequences of industrialized food (King Corn, Food, Inc., etc.) or Earth's mounting fresh water crisis (Flow). Whatever the topic, such nonfiction films have the power to scare the bejesus out of me in ways that Freddy Krueger's antics never did.

Of course, some other folks look at such "documentaries" and question their ability to convey anything close to the truth. For them, Sicko's Michael Moore is a scarier monster than Halloween's Michael Myers. While I generally find that movies like the ones I've mentioned above are sincerely attempting to inform and educate, there's no question that this is still storytelling with a sometimes frightening and fantastical aspect. When Josh Fox's 2010 indictment of natural gas "fracking," GasLand, shows ordinary Americans setting their formerly potable kitchen tap water on fire, it looks like a special effect, but sadly isn't. Franny Armstrong's The Age of Stupid (2009) actually incorporates science fiction into her reportage. In it, Pete Postlethwaite plays a forlorn archivist (circa 2055), who sits alone on his devastated planet and reviews footage of all the ways in which humanity did nothing to preserve Earth at the turn of the 21st century.

If nonfiction films are tempted to cross over into science fiction, it is understandable that fiction films are increasingly prone to return the favor. It's beginning to feel like every other horror or science fiction film down the pike falls into the "found footage" category. So much so that I shudder at the announcement of every new example. Nevertheless, the proliferation of hand-held video technologies like smartphones and the resulting tendency of the general populace to record every aspect of the world around them, would argue that this trend will continue, not only on nightly newscasts, but also in cheaply produced feature filmmaking.

Resistance is futile. Mockumentaries may have jumped the shark, but it's likely the next Jaws will be told using found footage techniques. And in the right hands, it might just work. You can almost see the possibilities of retelling that tale through the varying iPhone and Android device viewpoints of fisherman and beachgoers of coastal America. And if you can't visualize it, Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Wag the Dog) clearly could. He even inserts a digital camera record of a very Jaws-like savaging of a swimmer into his new low-budget horror film, The Bay.

The film received a limited theatrical release and went straight to VOD services. But "On Demand" is actually a good fit for Levinson's feature. As a faux news exposé, it works well on a TV screen, where I found it to be a very effective melding of my favorite ecological documentaries with found footage fictional horror. If the movie's formula pedigree is not obvious enough, Jason Blum, Steven Schneider, and Oren Peli, who produced the Paranormal Activity franchise, are also producers of The Bay. This type of film is their meat and potatoes. But it is a real departure in style for Barry Levinson.

Still, it's no wonder that the filmmaker was drawn to this particular story. Known for his affectionate social dramas about his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, Levinson has watched the growing dead zone in Maryland's treasured Chesapeake Bay with genuine alarm. He even considered producing his own documentary on the ecological peril of North America's largest estuary. But he quickly realized two things. One was that Hedrick Smith had already reported an excellent 2009 PBS/Frontline documentary (directed by Rick Young) called "Poisoned Waters," which explored the destruction of waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. The other thing he realized is that excellent PBS documentaries don't reach enough people or incite enough action. So he decided to take a different tack.

Teaming with writer Michael Wallach, he concocted a tale of a disastrous 4th of July weekend in a charming little bayside town called Claridge, Maryland. Although the events occurred in 2009, it was only recently that a "GovLeaks" website acquired and released the suppressed video evidence of the earlier events, exposing a wide-scale government cover-up. One of the few survivors of the catastrophe is a young woman named Donna Thompson (Kether Donahue), who had been a perky college intern at the local TV station sent to cover the 2009 Festival. Now she is a disillusioned young woman eager to get the truth out. Through a Skype interview with an unseen documentarian, Donna acts as narrator of the video clips that document the disaster.

Although two marine scientists had already died in what was erroneously labeled a shark attack, the holiday festivities were going on as planned. Miss Crustacean had been crowned and the crab-eating contests and kiddie crab races were underway. It was All-American normalcy until people started taking sick. At first, citizens developed mysterious rashes and boils. Then symptoms worsened and the number afflicted kept growing. Before long, dedicated Dr. Abrams (Stephen Kunken) at the community hospital is overwhelmed with desperately ill patients.

Initially, it looks like a Contagion-like virus outbreak. But soon the blood and gore (and creatures trying to eat their way through distended bellies and ravaged mouths) indicates something closer to the Alien franchise. However, there is nothing alien about the creatures—isopods—portrayed here. They are recognized strains of sea lice. But they have mutated and grown in the toxic soup of polluted Chesapeake waters poisoned by mercury, PCBs, an earlier nuclear accident, and years of urban and agricultural run-off. (In one clip, an "Eco-Spy" reports on forty-five million pounds of hormone-laced chicken shit washing into the Bay each year from nearby poultry farms.)

As events spiral out of control, young Donna posts reports to her TV station and her blog—until they are suppressed by the FBI. Besides the news footage, the film laces together FaceTime chats, smartphone and digital camera home movies, surveillance cameras, police dashboard videos, local radio podcasts, video conferences with the CDC, oceanographer video diaries, and PC Skyping. In all, Levinson makes use of twenty-one different industrial and consumer technologies to tell his story. And he tells it well.

I wouldn't call The Bay a great piece of filmmaking. But as found-footage eco-terror thrillers go, it both entertains and delivers its intended message. Like the cheesy old horror films of the 1950s that cautioned about nuclear radiation, Levinson and Wallach want us to worry about what's happening to our waterways. I'm sold. But then, after all those documentaries I've watched over the years, this Maryland-raised gal was on board before the movie even started.

Another recent movie explored quite different waterborne dangers and also did so using the framing device of a narrator looking back on a time of personal terror. And that's about all The Bay has in common with the sumptuous, high-budget filmic extravaganza called Life of Pi.

You have to say one thing for director Ang Lee—he really never makes the same film twice. From Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) to Sense and Sensibility (1995) to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to the best director Oscar-winner Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lee's career has been both varied and notable for his skill and artistry. (We can discuss whether 2003's The Hulk was an anomaly on a whole bunch of levels another day.)

Lee's films are visually powerful, but unlike so many contemporary directors, he spends as much time developing and nurturing his characters as he does in producing thrilling action or stunning (and in the case of Eat Drink, mouth-watering) images. And so it is with his latest offering, a relatively faithful adaptation of Yann Martel's Man Booker prize-winning bestseller, Life of Pi.

Pi (or Piscine Molitor Patel—he was named after his honorary uncle's favorite Parisian swimming pool) was born in the Pondicherry region of India. As a young boy (played first by Gautam Belur, then Ayush Tandon), Pi is entranced by the polytheistic spectacle of his first religion, Hinduism. But before long he is equally drawn to Roman Catholicism and Islam. Exactly why Pi becomes a multi-denominational pantheist while still a youngster isn't well explained by the movie or by Martel's novel. And although the story (written and filmed) seems to have a good number of religious trappings, it is hard to know what any of it is supposed to mean.

Is the story an allegory full of cryptic meanings? Maybe. But above all else it is a castaway adventure of most singular variety. This is what screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Lee wisely focus on.

Because of political unrest in India, Pi's parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) decide to emigrate from India to Canada, taking their two sons and much of their animal menagerie with them. But soon after a stopover in the Philippines, their ship suffers a cataclysmic event and goes down in the deepest Pacific. Of the humans on board, only Pi (now a seventeen-year-old played with lovely intensity by Suraj Sharma) survives. He makes it onto a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena….and a Bengal tiger with the incongruous name of Richard Parker. Carnivorism, cunning, and size/food chain dynamics being what they are, before long only the hungry tiger and the heretofore vegetarian teenaged boy remain.

Naturally, Pi would have preferred not to be trapped at sea on a small boat with a man-eater. Yet on two occasions Pi has the chance to abandon Richard Parker to certain death, and in both cases chooses to save him. Which brings a few more of those allegorical queries. What's up with the tiger? Does it symbolize Pi's own primal id? Or perhaps a savage and unknowable deity? Best to throw such philosophical questions overboard, my friends, and simply abandon yourself to the visual wonders of this magical film.

With or without the optional 3D oomph, I defy anyone not to marvel at the look and feel of this movie. Just the opening zoo credits and early India scenes alone were enough to sell me on Claudio Martinez's photography and David Gropman's production design. And then there were the special effects. Although Lee and his team spent a week filming and studying four living Bengals and a hyena, the actual film's carnivores are almost completely CGI. And exquisitely done, at that.

Richard Parker is so real and is framed with so much fearful symmetry that the movie is often too frightening for the small children who might reasonably be brought to a PG movie. Behind me in a theater, a little girl whimpered at the shipwreck and wailed when the carnage (usually done off-camera, at a distance, or in shadow) occurred. Her father kept saying—way too loudly, the jerk—that it wasn't real, it was made up, it was fake. But the little girl believed what she was seeing and plenty of nearby adults were equally transported by the sea, the sky, the fearsome cat, and all manner of additional manufactured magic—including a predatory island populated by thousands of meerkats.

Like the novelist (Rafe Spall) who visits a mild-mannered, middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) in Canada to hear his story, and like the Japanese shipping executives who cross-examine young Pi after he eventually washes up on the Mexican coast, we might wonder what is real and what is not in this preposterous fable. But in the end, we must abandon ourselves to the storytelling. With a gorgeous film like Life of Pi, that's not hard to do. Whether it's enough to make us "believe in God" is another matter altogether.

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