Some Stones Unturned

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Archive for the tag “movies”

The overuse of the delayed character reveal in Jack Reacher

I went to see the Jack Reacher movie with my family last week during the holidays.  I haven’t read the books, but I really enjoyed it.  In contrast to a number of recent action movies I’ve seen (particularly Bond), it didn’t try to throw so much stuff into the plot that things stopped making sense.  And, in spite of hitting all the action movie tropes (initial refusal to come out of retirement, car chase, girl getting kidnapped and going to save her even though she’s clearly bait in a trap), it didn’t feel overly predictable.  It was just predictable enough that I felt clever for figuring the occasional thing out, but not so predictable that I had it all figured out and got bored.

But what I thought was strange about it is that the writer or director or someone involved in the movie seems to be a huge fan of what I think of as the delayed character reveal.  And in a bizarre way where the use of the technique doesn’t serve any purpose that I can determine.  Let me try to explain.

Sometimes a character’s face is hidden from the audience.  Things about the character are revealed by shots of their hands or other character’s reactions to them or voiceover narration about the character.  Then, at an appropriate point, the camera finally moves to show the face of the actor playing the part.  This is the delayed character reveal.

As explained on the TV Tropes page for The Faceless, there are several possible reasons for hiding a character’s face.  Sometimes, like in Kill Bill 1 or the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, hiding the villain’s face makes them seem more important or threatening.  Sometimes it’s done to show a crime but still keep the mystery of which character (who will be seen throughout the story) is the culprit a secret (eg. Murder She Wrote, Law and Order, most CSI episodes).  But neither of those are quite what I’m talking about and in fact the sort of hidden face here doesn’t necessarily have to be used for a villain or a twist ending.

Perhaps closer is what sometimes happens on the TV show Criminal Minds, where they show a crime without revealing the perpetrator’s face, but the point isn’t so much to preserve the mystery of the killer’s identity.  Often in Criminal Minds, the culprit isn’t otherwise seen as a character in the show: the FBI agents don’t speak to the criminal before they manage to track them down at the end.  Instead the point is more to keep the possibilities open for the audience to form ideas about them without an actual image of the face.  As the FBI narrows down the profile, the image in your mind gets sharper and it becomes clear to the FBI agents who the killer is at the same time as the camera finally gets a clear view.  Often the reveal is of someone we’ve never seen before.  Sometimes there’s a twist like they had been looking for an old man all along, but just realized the killer is a young woman, but often it’s just that the connection between the killer and the victims is made.  This style of delayed character reveal doesn’t have to come at the end of the story and can be quite brief.  It can also be done with heroes, having people describe them while they are still off-screen or in voiceover while headless shots of them go by so you can get a sense of the character before their face is shown.

So anyway, Jack Reacher has three delayed character reveals in just the first 20 minutes and several later in the movie as well.  I will discuss just the first three and there aren’t really anything I consider spoilers since the end result is pretty clearly telegraphed ahead of time, which is part of what makes their abundant use so bizarre.

The movie starts out with shots of a man driving a van fairly recklessly into a parking garage interleaved with shots of making bullets, prepping a gun, etc, so it’s clear he’s up to no good.  He parks, pays and gets his gun out of the van and starts lining the sites up with people in a park across the river.  During this time, we only really see this guy from behind or in shadow and so the idea conveyed is “Who is this guy?  Why is he doing this?”  He shoots five people in the park and then his face is shown.  On its own, this isn’t such a strange reveal, potentially falling into the “faceless people seem more threatening and have an air of mystery category.  But in fact it turns out that this is not the Big Bad with all his hidden motives and master schemes.  Rather it is some hired gun, who does feature quite prominently in the story as Reacher’s adversary, but for whom mysterious motivations are not required.  Neither is it some well-known actor, which is often the case in these sorts of reveals.  So it seems a bit strange to hide his face for the first ten minutes of the movie and then reveal it for very little payoff, but it wouldn’t be that remarkable if it weren’t for what happens next.

The police arrive on the scene and start gathering evidence: picking up shell casings, dusting for prints, security footage.  This gets them a name and they head to the man’s home.  We are less than 15 minutes into the movie at this point, so it could not be clearer that this is not our guy, yet the film-makers still go to the trouble of keeping this man’s face hidden: having the police find him passed out face-down on the bed, keeping shots below the neck and, as he is being questioned, keeping the cameras focused on the interrogators so the man’s answers come from off-screen.  This goes on for a couple of minutes before the camera pans over to reveal what have known to be the case since they busted into the man’s home: this man is not the face of the man we saw in the parking garage.

The wrongfully accused man then asks for Jack Reacher.  Who is this Reacher guy, the police and DA want to know.  A detective does some research and explains to the DA that Reacher is an ex-army member of the military police.  We cut to a shot of a man’s legs walking.  He was exceptional, the detective’s voiceover tells us.  He served in wherever, has a bazillion medals blah blah blah.  Headless man is still walking.  But Reacher is basically a ghost now, dropped off the grid since he got out of the army.  His payments go to an account in Virginia and he always collects them by wire transfer at a location they won’t be able to get without a warrant.  We see the legs walk up to a Western Union booth and the woman behind it hands over some cash with a nod as though she sees the man regularly.  Headless man walks away.  The description continues and the legs go a few other places.  Now I don’t see a lot of commercials and this wasn’t my movie pick, so I didn’t know a ton about the movie going in, but even I knew that Tom Cruise played Jack Reacher.  It’s on the poster outside the theatre.  So when the DA, defense attorney and detective are talking in the hospital outside the accused man’s hospital room and the legs walk up to them and they want to know who the man is, I’m not quite sure what the point of revealing Tom Cruise’s face as he introduces himself as Reacher is supposed to be.  It’s unusual to meet the main character so late into a movie but presumably the idea is to emphasize that Reacher is a tough guy to find and make his protestations at being drawn into the events more believable.  But delaying it even longer than necessary with these awkward camera angles is puzzling.  Once Reacher’s name is mentioned, shouldn’t it be fine to just cut to him doing his thing?  That’s what we’re there for.

After this, I couldn’t stop noticing how characters were introduced and re-introduced.  Weirdly, they sort of subvert the trope with the Big Bad.  He is standing off in the shadows at first, but it’s not long before he steps out and one of the minions then actually turns his head away to avoid seeing the Big Bad’s face because he thinks that increases the likelihood of his being killed.

Anyway other than the overuse of the delayed character reveal, which I found distracting (I kind of want to watch it again just to catalogue them all), I really enjoyed the movie.  If you’re an action movie fan and not bothered by Tom Cruise, I recommend it.

How I would write a Snow White Movie

I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman last night. As a film that starred Charlize Theron’s hair and a dress made out of ravens and goo, there was a lot to like about it. As a film about Snow White, it was pretty mediocre, maybe even less than that. It was way too long for one thing. And long in a bizarre way, like they actually had a decent script at one point but then someone decided folks weren’t getting their money’s worth so they went back and filmed people walking through mountains and getting rained on to stretch the thing out to two hours. But I also feel like it really missed some key points of the story. I really love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. I support having multiple interpretations of a particular fairy tale and so I thought that rather than do a straight review, I would outline how I might attempt to tell a more adult version of Snow White (which in Snow White and the Huntsman means “darker and edgier”, but I’m going to give a few options), with some commentary on the movie.

Read more…

Mission: Impossible and Getting Around in the City

Note: post contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, as well as descriptions of certain scenes in The Bourne Supremacy and the BBC Sherlock episode A Study in Pink, although I wouldn’t really call the descriptions spoilers.

I saw Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol (Ha.  I didn’t notice until I looked it up just now how they had to use a dash for the subtitle because they already used the colon after Mission.  So many sequels that they’re running out of punctuation!) yesterday.  I really enjoyed it.  They moved around from city to city and I thought it was really interesting how they adapted the action scenes in each city to give them a different feel.

A bit of background from my life (skip ahead two paragraphs if you’re not interested and just want to know about the scenes in the movie): I moved to Toronto from a much smaller town a little over five years ago, not really expecting to like it but ending up pleasantly surprised and really growing into it.  The way that large numbers of people manage to live practically piled on top of one another and make it work fascinates me.  And a big part of that is how to get around efficiently.  Not just public transit, although that is a major method and knowing the major bus routes and subway lines is important, but also moving around the neighbourhood on a smaller scale: walking and biking.  The fastest pedestrian route to the main intersection near me involves crossing through a parking lot, along an alley beside an outdoor pool and then through another parking lot.  Then you cross Yonge street and go into a little mall and you can walk through the mall to get to the subway (Toronto has a very large, confusing set of underground walkways and shopping areas).  When people visit me and I take them this way, there are generally comments.  Why not just walk along the street all the way out to Yonge and then outside down Yonge to the subway entrance?  Well because that’s not the best way; my way is at least 20-30 seconds faster.  And it’s more interesting usually.  I am hardly the only pedestrian taking this route.  Since taking up biking, I’ve noticed these sorts of separate-from-streets routes even more.  There are streets where cars aren’t allowed straight-through but bikes are excepted, shared paths through the park or pedestrian overpasses over railway tracks that you can walk your bike through.

And so when I think about if I had to face off against someone in my neighbourhood, if they weren’t familiar with the area, I think I would do all right if I could get a decent head start, even if that person were a well-trained American movie actor spy.  Streets run in grids and if you’re used to driving then you might see the city as all straight lines and right angles.  But if you walk, you know there’s probably a short cut or alternate route somewhere.

Anyway, the point is that now when I watch movies, I often take note of how exactly they deal with getting around in the city.  Driving a car down a perfectly straight highway with infrequent exits is not necessarily the best way out of town.  It’s obviously one of the fastest, but it’s also the first place anyone would look and the one where it’s easiest to cut someone off because you know which direction they’re headed and there are only so many ways to bail out (assuming you’re not going off-roading).  And Mission Impossible actually makes use of this when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) ends up in a car chase with the bad guy, Hendricks, on a highway out of Dubai.  Hendricks is going from one highway to another, taking an onramp that makes a 270 degree turn.  Rather than follow him directly, Hunt slams on the brakes, turns 90 degrees, goes the wrong direction onto what I presume is the offramp, onto the highway and then goes the wrong direction up the onramp Hendricks is in the course of coming down (if this explanation is as unclear as I think it is, see the potentially equally unclear picture below. #NotAnArtist), so that he can slam their cars together.  This is relatively successful; there aren’t a lot of ways off an onramp after all.  It seems like it would have been better to lay low in the city for a while and hide in amongst all the other people in plain sight (and to be fair there is a foot chase through some area of Dubai that appears to be pedestrian-friendly, although it’s hard to tell because it’s in the middle of a sandstorm).  But, on the other hand, if you’ve got to get out of somewhere fast, speeding down the highway to a ridiculously conspicuous helicopter is probably a better option than hoofing it.  Also it makes for more exciting film viewing.

car crash schematic

Slightly better CGI effects in the actual movie

Contrast this to Russia, where the movie starts.  Judging from the movie, Russia is full of trains.  First a team of agents is sent to steal a set of nuclear codes, which involves finding one man getting off a train in a sea of hundreds and hundreds (at least, I think this train is in Russia.  Apologies if I don’t remember all of the details accurately).  This operation is considered “routine” but involves the use of phones connected to a database that can quickly look up names and give you a picture, as well as contact lenses with facial recognition software.  A train station actually does not seem like an ideal place to find someone you’ve never met to me, although the advantage is that train stations are generally designed to funnel people in one direction and are also full of folks sitting around looking asleep and one more body is unlikely to be noticed (people minding their own business in the city is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse).

Later, Hunt and another character, Brandt, have to get on a moving train (though this appears to be a cargo train rather than a passenger train) because they are meeting other team members there and co-ordinating for their mission.  Hunt and Brandt run through the train yard, dodging cement poles and grabbing onto the old door handles on the car, and when they finally get pulled inside, the sleek look of the inside of the car, filled with video screens, tech stuff and weapons the IMF has stashed there, is jarring compared to the train yard.

Moscow feels distinctly different from Dubai and Mumbai, where the chases involve fancy cars and rotating elevators in parking garages.  It’s not all trains, but overall it does seem to have a starker, older feel.  Moscow is where Hunt escapes from a hospital and runs through side streets and back alleys, managing to steal a shirt and jacket from people’s clotheslines and a set of shoes from a street vendor and so on.  He does this while escaping a Russian who is likely familiar with the area, but the back alleys are presumably too numerous and convoluted for pursuit.  There are also scenes in Russia where Hunt jumps onto the roof of a pretty fancy van, and later Hunt meets the Secretary in a car with a driver that gets shot up, so it’s not like Russia is devoid of action scenes involving personal vehicles or anything, but it’s just a general observation.  Russia is the land of the Cold War and nuclear politics, but Dubai is where they have business meetings in fancy suits (and also really tall buildings.  I am sad that the CN Tower has missed its chance to star in a Mission: Impossible movie as the (former) tallest freestanding structure) and India is the place where telecommunications equipment is bought and run.

One final note is that the idea of cars and traffic being a problem in the city, and the need to know the area and know alternate routes, comes up in Mumbai.  Traffic is bad and Hunt can’t get to the satellite relay fast enough.  They pull up their fancy holographic computer route map and cut through an alley.  This gets them closer, but even then they are held up by a bunch of pedestrians crossing the street and ultimately they fail to get where they need to be in time.  The final fight then takes place in a parking garage where, yes, Hunt and Hendricks fight, but parts of the scene are almost both of them fighting against the parking garage, which is a high-tech thing that delivers cars via an automatic elevator.  The two try to keep the briefcase from getting away from them and also try to figure out where the elevator things are going next.

The chase through the city is a pretty common action movie trope, but some movies seem to take a particular interest in making use of the streets, alleys and architecture of a particular city (note I have not actually been to Moscow, Dubai or Mumbai, so I can’t comment on how accurate Ghost Protocol is in its portrayal of these places).  Other movies and shows that I think did this well include:

1. The Bourne Supremacy: Jason Bourne does a lot of running through streets and, while there are a number of car chases in this series, what stands out is Bourne arranging to meet Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) in the middle of a square in Berlin.  The CIA puts a bunch of surveillance on Parsons to try to protect her, but the meeting is set to take place in a public square where there is a protest going on that day.

Alexanderplatz

Scene from the Bourne Supremacy

Once Bourne phones Parsons and tells her to get on a tram, the CIA basically has no chance of keeping tabs on her or finding Bourne (As the character who pulls the blueprints for the subway tunnels says “Three levels, fifteen tunnels and they’re all converging in a five block radius”).  Bourne takes Parsons down to subway level and questions her in a room where the wire she’s wearing won’t transmit out.  I have been briefly to Berlin, although not to Alexanderplatz, specifically.  There pretty much did seem to be constant tram activity though and lot of parallel subway lines you could lose yourself in.

2. A Study in Pink (Episode 1 of the BBC’s Sherlock): Sherlock Holmes and Watson, on foot, chase a car through the streets of London.  They take advantage of Holmes’s knowledge of the area to predict the car’s likely route (“Right turn, roadwork, one way, traffic lights, fast lane, pedestrian crossing, left hand only, traffic light, pedestrian crossing, traffic lights.”) and then use the shortcuts available to pedestrians (up some stairs inside a building to the rooftop, jump across to another rooftop, down a fire escape and through a series of alleys) to try to cut the car off.

Car Chase

Route of car through London streets in BBC's Sherlock.

Car Chase

Route Holmes plots to head off car in BBC's Sherlock, including a missed opportunity to stop the car where the lines cross.

When they just miss the car, Holmes is able to re-evaluate on the run and find the next crossing where they’ll likely meet the car.  I don’t know London, but I assume that it’s like most cities in that there are just some areas where it’s tough to get around.  For whatever reason I thought a modernization of Holmes might involve him having the entire London transit schedule and route map memorized because he seems like the transit geek type (and also it’s a good way to keep tabs on what’s going on in the city), but I guess that’s probably not necessary if you have a phone and the transit authority has an accurate schedule online.  And if you think back to the original stories Holmes was always hiring hansom cabs in the city, with the train being for longer journeys.

3. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Too much to list, but basically this is what it would look like if you enjoyed the idea of a chase through the New York City’s public transit system and alleyways so much that you decided to make an entire movie about it.

I’m sure there are lots of others, but there’s a start.  And I thought Mission: Impossible did a pretty good job of distinguishing different cities based on the layout of the streets and the ease/difficulty of getting around in various ways.

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