Sometimes a movie feels less like a cohesive work to be taken on its own merit than something to be picked apart. As a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest it’s pretty okay, not as consistent or intelligible as the version we saw at the fountain in Piedmont Park, but more intelligible than Prospero’s Books was on VHS. Helen Mirren is wonderful as Prospera, the set design is marvelous and the rest is hit or miss. Too much flailing about before green screens, and I could’ve done without the song. Personnel in decreasing order of goodness:

– Tom Conti as the Richard Jenkins-looking companion of the king

– Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper (I kept thinking he was Sean Bean or some other lord of the rings) as the king’s men, incompetently plotting against him.

– Alfred Molina as the king’s drunken butler

– Ben Whishaw as the sprite Ariel

– Djimon “Digimon” Hounsou as the monster Caliban

– David Strathairn as Shipwrecked King Alonso

– Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney as the Young Lovers (the king’s son and Prospera’s daughter)

– the extras in the shipwreck scene

– Russell Brand as Molina’s companion – he was tolerable for a long time, longer than one would expect, but finally doesn’t belong in this movie or anywhere else.

Set in the days leading up to WWI, opens as a sepia-toned silent film with projector noise. Narrator/society reporter Mr. Orlando leads us around an ornate cruise ship packed with opera singers on a ceremonial trip in memory of a departed fellow artist. It’s all quite perfect-looking (and perfectly fake), except of course for the inexcusably awful lipsync. There’s some scheming, some rivalry and nervous looks but most everyone appears to be in the grand spirit of things, even spontaneously singing for the stokers during a tour. But there’s less goodwill to go around when a boatload of Serbian refugees is picked up by the captain and they stare hungrily through the windows as the elite try to enjoy their opulent meals. Eventually the Serbians and opera singers start to blend, and we get some Titanic-like inter-class scenes.

I’m not too good with WWI-era Euro-nationalities but I thought the ship (and some of its royal passengers) was Austro-Hungarian, so when an Austro-Hungarian warship shows up demanding the surrender of the Serbians (but agreeing to wait until after the burial ceremony) I get a bit confused. The art-ship finally sends the Serbians over to the war-ship, but one lobs a bomb and the war-ship ends up sinking the art-ship. Rather than take this seriously (are there enough lifeboats? are the stokers all killed?), Fellini puts the narrator in a lifeboat with a rhinoceros and shows off his sets and camera setup.

Fellini: “The sea was created from polyethylene. The obviously artificial painted sunset looked beautiful. The appearance of artificiality is deliberate. At the end, I reveal the set and me behind a camera, the entire magic show.”

The pudgy Grand Duke’s sister, the blind princess, is played by Pina Bausch, the only time she played a character (not herself) in a film. Narrator is Freddie Jones (Dune, Krull). Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, The Ninth Gate) is an elegant, sad singer, the only one who appears to be in mourning. Not the latest Fellini movie I’ve seen – that would be Ginger & Fred, which seems similar to this one in my memory (assembled group of artists in single location).

An ensemble version of the Titanic story without the James Cameron love story – in fact, with no lead actor at all, just a lead event. Second officer Kenneth More is first billed, followed by a hundred British actors I’ve never heard of (makes you realize just how few British actors appear in the Cameron version), and supposedly Sean Connery and Desmond Llewelyn in bit parts. A quality film, the biggest British production of the 1950’s, made as accurately as possible based on survivor accounts. Seems pioneering in that respect, that it’s a massive studio film meant to be a true-to-life account without big stars or melodramatic additions.

Roy Ward Baker (not yet fallen to the depths of Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) mixes in footage of the Mauretania and from the 1938 launching of the Queen Elizabeth, plus scenes from a Nazi-made Titanic movie. We spotted some dialogue recycled by Cameron, who reportedly loved this movie. Won a golden globe in the forgotten category “best english-language foreign film” (the only other winners: Richard III in ’56 and Woman in a Dressing Gown in ’57).

Irrfan Khan is Pi, having a quiet day at home when an annoyingly Richard Dreyfuss-looking writer (Rafe Spall, one of the Andys in Hot Fuzz) shows up demanding to be told a story. So Pi starts at the beginning – he is named after a French swimming pool and lives with brother and parents (Tabu, who played Khan’s wife in The Namesake, is his mom) at a zoo, and is interested in religion.

One day the family packs up their zoo and heads off in a ship, which sinks in stormy waters, presumably killing Pi’s whole family. He finds himself on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a rat, a hyena and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker, but the animals soon eat each other until it’s just Pi and the tiger. He fashions a raft so he can sleep without getting killed, but loses all his food and water due to a leaping whale. Formerly vegetarian, Pi learns to catch and eat fish. Boy and tiger stop on a “carnivorous island,” then get the hell out of there after loading up on edible roots. Finally, land and rescue, though Pi is sad that he never managed to connect with the tiger.

Rafe Spall thinks the whole thing is pretty far-fetched, so Pi gives another version of the story (told, not shown), where the lifeboat survivors were people, including Pi’s mother and a sadistic cook from the boat (Gerard Depardieu), then asks Rafe which story he prefers. The center of the film is just perfect – more colorful and awe-inspiring than a shipwreck story has any right to be.

G. Kenny:

But the frame story, in which an older Pi, a happily settled vegetarian living in Canada, tells his tale to a white male writer who in the credits is called “The Writer” is both a little cloying and forced and smacks a bit of, dare I say it, colonialist thought. I know that it’s a faithful adaptation from the book, and I know the book’s author is a white male writer, but I personally am just a wee bit tired of the convention in which a representative of The Other relates a tale of profundity to a white dude. Changing it up a little can’t hurt. Hell, a white woman would be less boring. I understand that second-guessing the artist is poor critical practice. But that fact remains that this convention, which was always pretty patronizing to begin with, has ossified into cliché, and the movie suffers for it.