Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Paula Patton and Tom Cruise flee Doc Brown's new car after an 88MPH chase through Mumbai.

(2011) Spy Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Lea Seydoux, Anil Kapoor, Samuli Edelmann, Ivan Shvedoff, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan. Directed by Brad Bird

 

The term “popcorn flick” usually refers to a movie which one brainlessly munches popcorn to, one in which the viewer is engrossed in the action and in a real sense leaves themselves behind and become enmeshed in the world the filmmaker has created. Strangely, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion. From where I sit, it should be a high honor to be a popcorn flick.

And here one is, the fourth entry in the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise which Cruise began 15 years ago as a big screen adaptation of an old ’60s spy series that in turn was a response to the wild popularity of James Bond. In many ways, the film franchise has of late outdone the Bond series, taking it high-tech and over the top.

The movie begins with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) being broken out of a Russian prison by Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Jane Carter (Patton), two fellow IMF agents. Hunt then receives orders to break into the Kremlin and retrieve information about a nuclear terrorist code-named Cobalt, who intends to destroy the information so that his true identity can’t be discovered. Hunt arrives too late; the information is gone and Cobalt has planted a bomb in the Kremlin, blowing it to smithereens. Hunt – and by extension, the IMF – are blamed.

Hunt manages to escape the hospital where he has been treated for wounds suffered in the explosion – and the dogged Russian agent (Mashkov) who is pursuing him – and is picked up by the Secretary (Wilkinson) of the IMF and Brandt (Renner), an IMF analyst. The Secretary explains that the IMF has been disavowed as an agency by the President – a situation called the Ghost Protocol – and that Hunt must stop Cobalt from initiating a nuclear horror and simultaneously clear the IMF from wrongdoing in the Kremlin explosion. Unfortunately, the Secretary destructs shortly thereafter and Brandt and Hunt barely escape with their lives.

Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure that takes Hunt and his team-by-default to Dubai and Mumbai in India, following Cobalt (Nyqvist) and his lackey Wistrom (Edelmann) and put them squarely in the path of lethal assassin Sabine Moreau (Seydoux) who had earlier murdered Agent Hanaway (Holloway who was Sawyer in TV’s “Lost” as you might recall) who also had been Carter’s lover. Carter is a bit cheesed off at Moreau because of it.

This is Bird’s live-action debut, having directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar. He is perfectly suited for this kind of movie, the M:I series being something of a live action cartoon in any case. There are stunt sequences here that are some of the best in the series, including one in which Ethan Hunt climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building using a pair of electronic gloves that allow him to stick to the glass surface. There is also a climactic fight between Cobalt and Hunt in Mumbai in one of those garages where the cars are stacked as in a carrying case and brought out robotically. There’s also a chase in a sandstorm involving Hunt and Wistrom.

If it sounds like Tom Cruise gets to have all of the fun in this movie, he essentially does. He has the charisma and star power still to retain your attention whenever he’s on the screen. However there is also no doubt that the man is getting older (he’ll turn 50 in 2012) and that he is slowing down some. This is not the cocky self-confident Cruise who did the first Mission: Impossible film. He is not yet too old for the role but he’s certainly showing signs that he’s on his way there.

Renner gets to show off his acting chops a bit, surprisingly, as Brandt. In many ways his character is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, having been given a bit of a backstory and Brandt gets to pull off a bit of pathos which is unexpected in a movie like this. Then again, it has been widely rumored that he is the heir apparent to the franchise once Cruise decides to bow out and it seems likely that a passing of the torch will take place in the next film of the series or perhaps two films down the road.

Patton and Pegg have supporting roles, she as sex appeal and he as comedy relief and both perform ably. Patton in particular really isn’t given a lot to work with and that may leave some cold when it comes to her character, but she is sexy when she needs to be and an action heroine when she needs to be.

An action film doesn’t need to have intelligence (although that can be a pleasant plus) in order to be successful. For those looking for entertainment that doesn’t require a great deal of mental investment, this is definitely the way to go. It’s got great stunts and fights, high tech gadgets that would make Q Division green with envy, sexy women, hunky men and international intrigue – not to mention exotic locations. There may be no casinos here but the spirit of James Bond is alive and well with this franchise – and with the Bond franchise as well, thankfully. Spy movie fans are certainly living in the best of times.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular stunts and amazing pacing makes for an exciting, breathtaking and ultimately mindless action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Cruise is a little long in the tooth for his role. Nyqvist makes for a pretty bland villain.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence action-style.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cruise performed the scaling of the Burj Khalifa tower sequence himself without the aid of a stunt double. The insurance company is recovering nicely from their angina.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely in the theater – the big stunts and big vistas deserve a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Darkest Hour

Made in India


Made in India

Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.

(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha

As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.

Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.

The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes,  Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.

Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.

She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.

However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.

As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.

Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.

The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.

To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.

Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).

There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?

There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.

Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.

This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.

REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.

REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter

The Other End of the Line


The Other End of the Line

How very 2008!

(2008) Romantic Comedy (MGM) Jesse Metcalfe, Shriya Saran, Larry Miller, Michael Chen, Nauva Green, Sara Foster, Harry Key, Austin Basis, Tara Sharma, Sushmita Mukherjee, Asheesh Kapur. Directed by James Dodson

Sometimes the difference between people is greater than the distance between their cultures. Love bridges a lot of gulfs but it generally has a hard time with secrets and lies.

Priya Sethi (Saran) lives in Mumbai and is obsessed with American culture. She works for Citibank as a customer service representative with a flawless American accent. She calls herself Jennifer David on the phone and passes herself off as a Caucasian woman living in San Francsico. Her family is far more traditional than she is and are disturbed by her American bent. However, they are pleased when Priya reluctantly agrees to marry Vikram (Kapur), a somewhat boring and generally unappealing arranged match.

Granger Woodruff (Metcalfe) is an advertising executive trying to save the account of a major hotel chain headed by Kit Hawksin (Miller), who is about ready to bolt after a series of ads make his hotel look like a hook-up place for escort services. Granger is a bit of a smug S.O.B., confident in his ability to sell anything, most especially himself and to woo beautiful women. However, what he doesn’t know is that there have been some fraudulent charges on his Citibank credit card.

Priya, or rather Jennifer David, is assigned to Granger’s case. She and Granger strike up a series of phone conversations that begin to morph from business professional to purely personal. She has begun to fall for the young ad executive, particularly when she looks up his picture on the Internet. She resolves to fly to San Francisco to meet him as Jennifer David and sets up a meeting with Granger.

Unfortunately, he is under the impression that Jennifer is a Caucasian woman so when he arrives at the rendezvous he assumes quite naturally that the darker-skinned Priya is not Jennifer (which she isn’t to be fair) and asks other Caucasian women if they are Jennifer. Crushed, Priya returns to her hotel and is getting ready to check out when she quite literally runs into Granger.

The two immediately strike up a friendship and go on a series of dates in San Francisco and are spiraling ever closer towards falling in love. Unfortunately Priya’s family has also flown to San Francisco to collect their wayward daughter and return her home for the marriage which they arranged. When Granger discovers the truth, he is completely floored and upset and calls off the budding love affair with Priya. It seems that cultural differences will get in the way of true love, after all…or will they?

This is an Indian-American co-production and the subject matter seems quite natural. Saran is well-cast; beautiful and bubbly, she is the ideal Indian woman from an American standpoint; strong-willed, gorgeous, and open-hearted. She is a top actress in Bollywood and has apparently chosen to remain so which is a shame; I think she’d do well on a more global stage if the right part came along.

Unfortunately she is one of the few standouts in the movie. The plot is a bit rote in the fish-out-of-water romantic comedy sub-genre. The comedy seems to rely more on people acting like idiots and keeping secrets from one another unnecessarily than on actual wit. I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were trying to meet the common denominators between American and Indian film audiences and wound up missing the mark for both.

Still, it is rare for Bollywood to “Americanize” itself and to be honest, I’d love to see more of it – I never turn down a chance to see more of the Indian culture which is horribly misunderstood here in the States. Unfortunately, this movie seems to pander more to American cultural insensitivity rather than celebrating the rich and fascinating Indian culture which could have made a much better – and more successful – movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Saran is charming and the culture clash aspects are at least fairly interesting. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Filmmakers don’t have the courage of their convictions. Characters are a bit witless.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material but it is fairly minor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that major Bollywood film Production Company Adlabs has paired up with an American distributor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $507,534 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: I Am Number Four

Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box