Freeze Frame #170: Twelve Angry Men

One of the most affecting scenes in Twelve Angry Men is one where one of the jurors goes on a rant about “these people”, and the others respond to it by simply getting up and walking away and turning their backs on him. The verbal response that comes at the end of the scene is effective precisely because of the non-verbal responses that precede it.

It’s impressive how loudly the silence speaks in this scene. It drowns out the actual speaker. But consider this: we, as viewers, hear the silence. But that is because the other jurors actively create it by turning away.

Period piece?


Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.

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 book.

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?