Thursday, 26 January 2012

MIssion Impossible 4, because, damn I'm not giving in to these portentous supplementary titles two weeks in a row

Oddly enough, Mission Impossible 4 was at least twice as good as Sherlock Holmes 2, despite having a title which was objectively a million times worse. Game of Shadows was stupid, but had something to do with what was going on. Ghost Protocol just sounded like a computer game. Probably one based on a Tom Clancy spin-off novel. I harp on this because if you've bothered hiring writers (an increasingly optional notion in Hollywood) you'd expect them to focus on getting the title just right. The title is, after all, the very first string of words that anyone who sees the movie is going to read or hear. It's the ne plus ultra of first impressions. You'd try to avoid something actively awful, at the very least?

As always, I'm wrong. As I get older, I've learned to tackle every problem by asking myself "What would I do here?" and when I've figured that out - not taking too much time over it - I may not know what's going on, but at least I know one thing which is certain not to happen. Despite having enough writers to get the movie to hang together between set pieces, and a director from Pixar, nobody involved in producing MI 4 thought it mattered in the slightest what they called it. I'm sure, if the question came up, it was laughed down "The TITLE? Don't be stupid. It's the new Tom Cruise movie. The new Mission Impossible! We could call it Mission Impossible: Telly Tubbies go Sodom, and people would still buy tickets. Bwahahahahaha." Or the like.

Mebbe. I was on my own in the Hidden City's fleapit deluxe, the only person in the whole rundown, dreary metropolis who thought it worth braving the elements to see Tom Cruise not quite get killed. Who knows? With a snappier title, I could have had company.

I quibble. Title to one side, it's a pretty enjoyable flick. Not great art, exactly, but Brad Bird understands the speed of plot. You can get away with some pretty stupid stuff if you just keep things moving fast enough that people don't have time to think "Hang on…." For about the first two thirds of MI4, things are motoring along so briskly that you never really have the leisure to ask what the heck is supposed to be going on. Afterwards - days afterwards in my case - you finally get the time to think "But why the jailbreak at all?" or "Why would the FSB shoot up the Secretary's car in the first place?", but while you're sitting there in the fleapit, at least up until the moment when the whole caravan lurches into Mumbai, there's no room for those little demons of doubt.

The big action centerpiece of the film is Tom Cruise climbing up the outside of the Burj al-Khalifa in Dubai. I expected to hate this, but it's absolutely terrific. The last couple of seconds of the whole thing are brilliantly done. it's halfway through the movie, you know Tom Cruise is not going to die no matter what, and even so, as he swings through the air trying to get back to safety; I was on the edge of my seat. I'm not quite sure what magic was done there, but Brad Bird somehow got suspense into something where it shouldn't have been possible.

Part of what makes it all work was one very simple trick; none of the technology works. All the gizmos which the MI team have used to dazzle us over the years break down, pack in, or just give up the ghost. They don't even get to do the rubber mask thing, because at a critical moment their rubber mask machine burns out. Everything has to be improvised. Just that one switch in approach is enough to make everything fresh - and come to think of it, it might have something to do with the relative flatness of the Mumbai section, where pretty much the toys do work about as well as they usually do. Of course, the corollary of toys not working is that actors have to, and Bird does OK there. Paula Patton hits her marks, Tom Cruise is predictably charming, and Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner give the movie all the heart it needs. Watching Cruise and Renner together is fascinating; if you ever had to explain the difference between glib and clever, you could use their scenes together and probably save a lot of time. Rumour has it that Renner will be the lead in any MI 5, should have ever happen. Get Brad Bird in as well, and they can have my money, even if the title is even dumber.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Oh dear

I'm a bit Holmesed out these days, what this and the far better Sherlock on TV. I like Robert Downey, and so I wanted to like the new Holmes movie, but it's pretty much crap. At the moment, all hell is breaking loose in the wider world of teh intarwebs about file sharing and piracy and what all, and I keep hearing that piracy will kill Hollywood and stop new films from being made. And with Game of Shadows under my belt, I have to say; sure, fine, bring it on. Sounds good. Because movies are getting worse, not better. Stopping now almost sounds like a plan at this point.

Game of Shadows' problem is the same problem that most expensive movies seem to have nowadays; it's a bunch of stuff happening, and then it's over. The stuff isn't there because it has anything to do with the characters or the story - not that there actually is a story these days - but because some empowered hyperactive child thought it would be really cool if there was a scene in the movie where stuff exploded in some novel way. So, the train to Brighton gets destroyed about half way through the film because Guy Ritchie thought it would be awesome. I could see how it would have been expensive, but it wasn't awesome, or even very interesting. When I have time, the whole way through a hyper kinetic action scene, to wonder just why the hell people would be doing what they're doing, the scene has failed, even at being hyper kinetic. Why would anyone fire a maxim gun the length of a train? Why would anyone send a squad of people disguised as redcoats to kill a honeymooning couple who don't even suspect that they're targets? And so on.

Which is not to say that there are not moments. Both TV's Sherlock and Game of Shadows end on a Reichenbach Falls routine, and Game of Shadows actually carried its Falls moment off better, both in terms of the staging and more importantly in terms of the motivation. There's a clever moment when Watson turns the tables on Basher Moran by bringing a MUCH bigger gun to a gun fight (what makes it work is Moran's "Oh, that's not fair", which is just perfect coming from a bullying aficionado of the sneak attack). And the whole opening ten minutes of the movie while Sherlock tussles with Rachel McAdam is great fun; it's exactly what the rest of the movie ought to be and ain't. Hmmm. Therein lies the real problem, now that I ponder it; Downey is a good actor, with excellent comic timing and once you have an asset like that, you build the movie to make the most of it. Instead, Ritchie spends most of the movie concocting stupid set pieces in which Downey can't get a word in edgewise. It would have been a much better movie if it had never left London.

The very last scene of the movie shows Holmes sneaking back in to 221B Baker Street and typing a "?" after "The End" which Watson has just added at the bottom of the final page of his account of the adventure. The answer to that question has to be "Gosh, I sure hope so." Downey has better things to be doing with his time. So do I.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

Forbrydelsen; fudging the landing

Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, was a big deal on the BBC this year, but I never got the chance to see it till I got it as a Christmas present. Whereupon it got watched in big four hour chunks, just like the creators didn't intend at all. Not only did it go out once a week in Denmark back in 2007, but they took a long break in the middle. People actually protested a bit and got the break shortened. They had a point; the show is compulsive. The gimmick is simple in the extreme. Take a single murder, and then spend twenty episodes not so much trying to solve it as trying to show the ways that the effects of a murder ripple out in all directions to ruin lives. The exact opposite of your standard cop show, in other words.

It works brilliantly as a show about people. This is just as well, because the murder mystery winds up not making any sense. There's a huge amount of drama in the way that the victim's family falls apart, and almost as much drama in the way that the lead detective lets the case take over her life and destroy everything in it. There's even a certain amount of traditionally Shakespearean tragedy in the way that the investigation draws in an ambitious politician and ruins him, although it's hard to get anyone in Ireland to care what happens to politicians these days.

Now, to get a murder investigation to last over twenty episodes, you've got to chuck red herrings about like snuff at a wake, and The Killing tosses in so many blind alleys and false leads that one sane response is just to let them wash over you and wait for something to happen to the characters you care about. That was pretty much my reaction. I don't really read or watch crime shows out of any curiosity about the mystery; it's the journey that interests me more than the destination. Still, I'm moved to grumble out the final landing in The Killing, because the ultimate revelation doesn't make sense of all the the blind alleys which have gone before. From quite early on, the killing's been set up as the work of a serial killer, maybe even a serial killer who's being protected by the government. And - sorry if this is a spoiler - in the end, that turns out not to be the case. And I'd be fine with that, if it weren't for the fact that it's really hard to square the final outcome with the stuff in the middle. It doesn't make sense that all those extra complications would have sprung up given the bone simple motive at the heart of the murder. So I was sitting there at the end of the twenty hours thinking, well, that was a great flight, but the pilot's really messed up the landing.

And several days later, I still think that. I'd still recommend The Killing over most of the TV I've watched in 2011, but I'd do it on the basis of the way the whole world is brought to life, and the way the main characters hold your attention no matter what they're doing. Just enjoy the journey, and don't expect the pay off to be the equal of the build up.