Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

I got robbed, I tell you.

A few years ago, when I wrote a review of MI4 (not to be confused with the smartphone model — this one’s more expensive, and that one won’t do too well hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa), I wrote about Ethan Hunt’s hypothetical dilemma: would there be a mission he’d look at and say, “Nah, I think I’ll sit this one out, man.”

And early on in this film, Ethan finds his mission description in a record store, and the message is a wicked little riff on the usual format.

In my review of the earlier movie, I wrote of the missed opportunity in not casting Vadivelu (to be fair, I said that about Citizen Kane as well).

And in this film, you have Simon Pegg playing a sidekick who is dropped into a bunch of situations where he finds himself in grave danger (is there any other kind in this franchise?). They didn’t get the great man himself, but they certainly infused the film with his spirit.

So you see, someone somewhere owes me a lot of money. Not that I’ll ever get paid. (My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to get a percentage of the gross rather than contribute to it in a miniscule fashion. And I’m choosing to sit this one out.)

But protestations of theft aside, here’s what I think. I think the franchise is a victim of its own success.

The first film did laughable things with computers and the Internet, but had absolutely kick-ass sequences (most memorably, a scene where the Hunt tries to get into a secure computer by hanging from the ceiling), and a plot so labyrinthine that it looked like Picasso wrote it after eating a few too many magic mushrooms.

So the sequel-makers had to ask themselves, how do I top that? You can’t make the plot any more complex if you want anyone to watch it, so what’s left is upping the ante on things going bang. And it’s not just the earlier films in the franchise you have to outdo: it’s every other franchise in the same race. The second one didn’t do so well on that count and the third was no better. The fourth managed a couple of truly impossible feats (hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa and driving fast through Mumbai rush hour traffic), and added a dollop of humour to what was becoming an increasingly sombre series.

The success of the fourth film (not to mention someone’s blog posts), must’ve given the makers an idea: maybe humour is the answer. So you have a, um… plot as usual, but Simon Pegg has a lot more to do and Jeremy Renner gets a nice bit part that allows him to deliver straight lines with wonderful comic effect.

Which is good, because the action has skipped past impossible to ridiculous. There’s probably a whole batch of JEE aspirants solving the physics problems in these movies rather than focusing on Irodov like they usually do. It’s not that I found it implausible – that’s never the driving factor. I simply got bored.

I gotta give them points for one thing, though: the use of the word “torus” instead of “ring” in a particular context. I don’t know if it sounds any cooler, but it certainly makes it easier for those JEE aspirants, and allows me to me hold out hope that the next MI film will have a computer hidden in a Klein bottle.

And if that actually happens in the next film, I’m definitely suing. Or writing a blog post, whichever sounds more possible.

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Time passes slowly when you’re not having much fun

The effects of dilation of time
Are magical, strange, and sublime.
In your frame, this verse,
Which you’ll see is not terse,
Can be read in the same amount of time it takes someone else in another frame to read a similar sort of rhyme.

— Courtesy: Physics limericks page on the Harvard University website

It’s funny how, for a film of this scale, the scene that works best in Interstellar is the one that involves a sequence of grainy video messages. It comes somewhere in the middle of the second act, when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his space station from an expedition that has, owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole, caused over twenty years to elapse on earth while he spent barely a few hours on another planet.

Now, read that last sentence again, but try and ignore the part that goes “owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole”? Apart from how much cleaner the sentence sounds, do you realize that you probably missed nothing of importance between the first reading and the second?

Fundamentally, I don’t think the film wants us to care about wormholes and black holes. It wants us to care about fathers and daughters, and about devil’s alternatives, and about survival being a zero-sum game at times. The science is basically just a way of putting people in difficult situations. What the characters do in these situations is a function of what they are faced with, as well as what they are like. There’s even a little space for ironic sidebars, such as how world hunger has brought about world peace, and how history has been rewritten to encourage students to think about the earth rather than the sky.

It’s not a bad premise to start with. Or even all that new. Like my wife said to me during the interval, it’s like Armageddon, except with a little less macho posturing. I suspect Christopher Nolan isn’t going to be overly thrilled with that comparison, but hey, she calls ’em like she sees ’em.

But here’s the thing: when you make a three hour movie about an interstellar expedition aimed at finding a new planet for humans to screw up, you want your audience to take home a wee bit more than a little scene that probably cost less than your catering budget for a week.

It’s okay to want to push both big themes and big visuals at us. I can see the ambition, even applaud it. But for the strategy to work, at least one of these things has to succeed spectacularly. Otherwise, one is still left with Armageddon without the macho posturing, and frankly, the macho posturing was probably the most enjoyable aspect of that film.

In order for the big themes to work, you have to be willing to follow your ideas to wherever they lead you. If you place hard choices about the survival of the species before your characters, you cannot allow yourself the luxury of a deus ex machina in the last 30 minutes. Also, I don’t think it helps your case when the protagonist’s humongous flash of insight about space-time is that the universe is like a little girl’s bedroom.

In order for the big visuals to work, you have to create at least one truly memorable sequence that people will keep talking about. Like Inception, where people would walk out of the film and tell their friends, “Oh, you just have to see the sequence where they roll up Paris.” Or The Matrix, where everyone remembers the business of bending over backwards to dodge a bullet in super slo-mo. (Or better still, the torture sequence in Narasimha, where Vijayakanth makes a power source explode simply by grimacing.) Or even something as leisurely as the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, as a friend of mine once memorably pointed out, you could watch on your laptop at work and convince your boss it’s a screensaver. There isn’t a single visual in Interstellar that expands your conception of what you could see in a  movie theatre.

As for all the science, it helps, I think, to think of it like this: When a film like Star Trek uses the term “warp speed”, the makers are fairly certain that 99.9% of their audience don’t understand it, while the remaining 0.1% deliberately try not to. All they need the audience to understand is, there’s a spaceship with good guys and one with bad guys, and warp speed is a thingummajig that allows the good guys to evade or catch up with the bad guys.In the Interstellar-verse, the side-effect of warp speed would be that the bad guys would’ve died of old age by the time the good guys got there, I guess. Or maybe I just don’t understand the science all that well. You know, I miss the good old days when you could solve problems by simply uploading a virus onto an alien spaceship’s computer.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

To clarify: The latest installment of the Hunger Games series (I almost said trilogy, before I realized that you don’t make as much money with three movies as you do with four) is reasonably faithful to the book. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of whether every plot point in the film is exactly as it was in the book — my memory isn’t all that great. I mean that the film captures accurately, the tone of the film.

This, sadly, is not a compliment.

There is an extraordinarily moving scene right at the end of We were Soldiers, the Mel Gibson-Barry Pepper starrer about one of the first major American military offensives in Vietnam. The Pepper character, a reporter named Joe Galloway who had flown in with the unit and witnessed the entire battle, is accosted by a bunch of reporters who have been flown in after the battle is over. They’re looking for a soundbite. Joe and the soldiers just look and them blankly and move on. Soon after that, you hear the words: We who have seen war, never stop seeing.

That’s the mental state you expect to find Katniss Everdeen in. Maybe worse, given her age. Her narrative voice has the slightly dispossessed quality of one whose daily life has given her a case of PTSD before the T proper has even begun. How do you expect her not to want to strangle the people around her who expect her to care about how she looks on TV? The hunger games themselves, as I wrote earlier, feel like an inverted version of a reality show: unreal world, real emotional response. You can think of the arena as a laboratory, almost. But the world outside the arena, which is where most of the action takes place as the series progresses, cannot have that luxury. I get what Suzanne Collins is going for — Greek mythology meets pick-your-favourite-satire-on-the-public-obsession-with-tv meets pick-your-favourite-post-apocalyptic-dystopia. But the ingredients don’t mix as well as they should, and the result is inconsistent at best.

To be fair, the problem may be with the whole idea of writing a book series revolving around teenagers placed in increasingly dark situations. You either have to go at a pace at which there isn’t much room for the horror to truly settle in, or do justice to the emotions that these characters would plausibly feel. I know we’re supposed to be horrified when a murderous game is treated like an everyday reality show, but how will that work when a teenaged girl who has volunteered to be (most likely) killed in place of her sister behaves like a sheep in a slaughterhouse when a costume designer wants to discuss how he is going to make her look? This is the tone — no, these are the conflicting tones — the film is going for.

Given that this isn’t the sort of film where things keep getting blown up every two minutes, the only way this works is if our emotions are manipulated skilfully enough that we stay with Katniss through the entire ride. She is, after all, our window to this world. That doesn’t work out too well either. There is, for instance, a scene early on where Katniss visits District Twelve (her home) and sees the bombed out ruins that remain. You see the grief begin to build up in her eyes, but before she is allowed to express it, the scene cuts to a calmer Katniss going through her belongings in the still-intact Victors’ Village. The effect is jarring, to say the least. I see why, in hindsight — the big scene with the ruins is not this one, but a later one where Gale talks about what happened, and letting Katniss have her moment of grief too early might have diminished the impact of the later scene. But then, why let her emotion build up before cutting it off? Wouldn’t it have been better to find a quieter way for her to express her horror and circumvent this compromise entirely?

But why am I even bothering to agonize over this? The film has apparently made nearly $500 million already, of which the price of one ticket came from me. Maybe Suzanne Collins was on to something after all.

Begin Again

A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?

The mess inside is better than the one outside

For those of you who wondered about the radio silence: I have a daughter who is old enough to acknowledge me as something more significant than Random Tall Creature With Facial Hair, but not yet old enough to want to watch Citizen Kane with me and argue whether it’s the greatest film ever made. (Her current approach to the Universe involves three fundamental questions: Is it a pair of glasses perched on a nose? Whatever it is, can I bang it on the floor and make some noise? Can I eat it? Citizen Kane, unfortunately, doesn’t check any of those boxes.)

What happens, therefore, is that I end up watching a couple of movies on long haul flights (and I don’t even travel all that often), and on the odd night when I really ought to know better than stay up late. On the flip side, I’m reading a lot more (on my way to work and back). So I recently revisited Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series, and thought back to my experience of watching the two movies (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire), the latter of which I watched on one of the aforementioned long haul flights. And I realized something.

The reason why I grew increasingly less enchanted with the writing in the series is the following: It is set in sort of a haphazardly put together dystopia — a cross between a TV show and a post-apocalyptic nightmare that feels real and plausible as often as not. Just when you begin to feel drawn in by the despair, an odd discussion about fur–lined leggings yanks you out of the mire of despond you happily found yourself in just seconds ago. It’s a bit disconcerting, and prevents you from getting involved, almost always a bad thing in a book.

The first book worked for me because it introduced us to this world, and quickly dropped its main characters into a deadly, inverted version of a reality show (unreal world, real emotional responses), where the plausibility of the setup was not a principal consideration. The second and the third books, being increasingly concerned with the world outside the arena, worked less and less as a result.

When I look back on the whole series, I realize that what holds the series together, if only tenuously, is the character of Katniss Everdeen. This is one messed-up girl, perhaps even more than Lisbeth Salander, who in recent times has become the archetype of the Batshit Insane Ass-Kicking Heroine. It is in charting Katniss’ scarred emotional landscape that Suzanne Collins gets a measure of control over her book — the story is simply there to provide a backdrop against which to set Katniss’ inner monologue. Since the story is told from her perspective, and her narrative eye looks inward as often as outward, we feel emotionally anchored to some extent.

The movies, on the other hand, can only hint at all of this. It can be like any other blockbuster action spectacular. But as far as adapting the actual books go, they basically have to hope that Jennifer Lawrence can hint at the more interesting inner narrative through her acting. As good an actress as she is — and let’s face it, after watching her in Winter’s Bone, we all pretty much knew she’d hit this waaay out of the ballpark — this is a tough ask. She almost pulls it off.


Across the Atlantic and a whole continent at 24fps

If you’re gonna be stuck in a tin can for 15 hours (Dubai to San Francisco), you better hope that you can sleep through most of it, or that your airline has a decent in-flight movie selection. I ended up with option B, and here’s the result:

Olympus has Fallen

High-octane hostage drama set in the White House. Here’s a little cheat-sheet:

  • John McClane: Gerald Butler (disgraced ex-secret service agent)
  • Holly McClane: Aaron Eckhart (POTUS)
  • Sgt. Powell: Angela Bassett (Head of the secret service)
  • Chief of Police: Morgan Freeman (Speaker of the Senate).
  • Hans Gruber: Rick Yune, whom you might remember as Zao, the guy with diamonds stuck on his face from Die Another Day. More pertinently, after Nazis, Russians, aliens and Middle-Eastern terrorists have had their say in Hollywood, it’s now the turn of the North Koreans.
  • Money: World domination, or something along those lines.

You can fill in the rest. Yippie kai-yay etc.

It’s good fun, though, and the presence of someone like Freeman gives the whole enterprise a lot more gravitas than it deserves. There’s a scene where he realizes that he is more or less in charge, and the buck stops with him as far as the hostage negotiation or the fallout of the crisis is concerned. The tension in the room is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. Freeman pauses for a moment, almost visibly pulls back and relaxes for a moment, and orders a minion to bring him some coffee, with precise instructions on how he likes it. Then he gets to work. Those twenty seconds are pretty much why he earns his paycheck.

The rest of it is standard bang-bang — as a genre exercise, it’s above average, but it’s no Die Hard.

Gangster Squad

Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Ryan Gosling. Nick Nolte. Emma Stone.

The story: A bunch of cops taking down Mickey Cohen in late-1940s Los Angeles. Think The Untouchables crossed with LA Confidential.

And the movie still ends up being a dud. The sheer, mind-numbing waste of talent and resources makes me want to throw up. How the hell do so many good people come together without even one of them realizing that they’re making an absolute turkey? In the beginning, an honest cop saves a woman from getting raped in a seedy hotel owned by a dreaded gangster. At the end, the same cop has a loaded gun pointed at the same gangster, but throws it aside so that he could beat him up with his bare hands. This is the sort of thing you expect to see in a bad Vijay movie (except, he’s more likely to have sidekicks than collaborators).

Adam’s Rib

Husband and wife end up as opposing counsel in a case where a woman is on trial for shooting her husband when she finds him with his mistress. I watched a stage play adapted from this material a few months ago — Between the Lines, directed by Nandita Das. One of the things that struck me about the stage adaptation was the easy chemistry between the real-life husband-wife pair of Nandita Das and Subodh Maskara. Their interaction helped the play tide through some of the not-so-well-written patches.

Funnily enough, the exact same thing can be said of the film as well. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play the couple, which ought to tell you nearly everything you need to know about the onscreen chemistry. The writing is weak in parts, particularly the ending. But Tracy and Hepburn seem to be having so much fun out there that it almost feels rude to point it out. Hepburn is great as always, but Tracy is the standout here — so much of his performance depends not on the dialogue but his facial expressions and body language, and he absolutely nails it.

Oh, and Jean Hagen, who played Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, has a lovely little cameo here. The woman’s one of the most underrated comediennes of Hollywood, I tell ya.

A Day the the Races

Groucho. Chico. Margaret Dumont. Harpo. In that order.

Forget everything else: plot, heroes, heroines, songs, dances. None of it matters when these guys are on screen. In case it does matter to you, here’s what it’s about: The owner of a failing sanatorium brings in a new head of medical staff (Groucho) who turns out to be a veterinarian. Hijinks ensue. He comes clean in the end:

Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.

Let me conclude by mentioning a throwaway exchange between Groucho and Chico:

Chico: One dollar, and you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.

Groucho: That’s the most nauseating proposition I’ve ever heard.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about this, to be honest. Only that, a few years ago this wouldn’t have even pinged my radar. You folks tell me: Is that happening to you too? Or maybe you’re a bit ahead on that curve than I am?