Saturday, December 24, 2011

Don 2 (2011)

Farhan Akhtar is not only an interesting storyteller, he is a technically proficient one too. In each of his directorial ventures, he has brought something new to Hindi cinema. In Dil Chahta Hai, he brought modern sync-sound technology to the medium. In Lakshya, he went to ridiculously high altitudes with a crane to shoot his film. Don, undoubtedly the least of his works, still showcased a slickness in its production that few films at the time, if any, could rival. Now, with Don 2, he returns to the director's chair after a hiatus. Technically, it is unarguably his finest production to date. The photography, the production design, the action are all stunning. But in terms of substantive content, it's good, not great.

After conquering Asian drug market, Don (SRK) has set his eyes on conquering Europe. But he faces stiff competition with the drug cartels already operating there. Joined by his former arch-nemesis (Boman Irani) and a rag tag team including a savvy hacker (Kunnal Kapoor), a bombshell beauty (Lara Dutta) and a bunch of goons, Don plans the ultimate heist, which could not only allow him to get very, very rich but also help him eliminate his competitors.

What sets Don 2 apart is in ways, its greatest strength but also its greatest weakness. Everyone is going gaga over how the film is the closest we have come to a slick Hollywood production. Some have lauded Akhtar for that, others have thrown brickbats at him. I choose to applaud him for it, especially for doing a bang up job of integrating Hollywood suavity with 70s Bollywood kitsch. However, I don't think that's what really sets Don 2 apart. What distinguishes it, even from the Oceans and Mission Impossible series(es) which most critics seem hell bent on comparing it too, is its protagonist. Unlike Ocean and his 11, Don isn't an anti-hero. He is a villain, plain and simple. He is a narcissistic, mean spirited, evil bastard out to take over the world. He doesn't have any redeeming qualities. He has no moral compass or anything that remotely resembles a conscience. He isn't Danny Ocean. He's Terry Benedict. It is inordinately more difficult to weave a story around a character like that. Yet, Akhtar does and largely, succeeds thanks to a well plotted, mostly consistent script (a rarity in Bollywood thrillers), some truly epic dialogues and a strong central performance by Shah Rukh Khan. The role is tailor made for SRK and he does it full justice.

However, no matter how hard Akhtar may try, those very qualities also makes it difficult for the audience to root for Don, much less love him. Even all the world's cool cannot compensate for a black heart. After Europe and Asia, Don could take over the world in Don 3, but that won't make him any more endearing (or interesting) to an audience. Because of this, the appeal of Don, as a character and as a series, is limited. Akhtar truncates the appeal also by allowing the film to remain a one man show. One can't help but wonder: for a drug kingpin who controls the Asian market, where is Don's entourage? The lone ranger act is unconvincing. The other characters are mere stick figures brought in for support. Had Akhtar built a true ensemble playing off each others' strengths, the film would have been a lot more fun.

Also, the length doesn't help things . For a film with just one song, Don 2 has no business clocking in at 145 minutes. The film is stretched to an exasperating point, particularly in the last half hour. This, along with the lack of an ensemble, robs the narrative of its energy at several points. The climax is a letdown as a film ends with a thud instead of a bang. The action work, though slick, is very been there seen that. They lack imagination and feel like a Rolex watch perfectly duplicated in a cheap Chinese factory. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy give one of their worst performances ever.

Perhaps I have been too critical of the film. Its virtues are numerous. Its vices are not for lack of trying. I had a genuinely good time for the most part. It is definitely recommended as a one time watch and the only big budget film this year that actually delivered on many of its promises. Also, a cameo by a certain someone (ahem ahem) is rather cleverly used. In many ways, it is indicative of how far we have come. In others, it shows how much farther we can go.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

The Mission Impossible series has been a mixed bag at best. The first was a hyper convoluted and verbose; the second simplified the plot and delivered high octane thrills; the third was sappy and, in terms of plot, all foreplay & no climax. So, despite the uneven graph of the series, the makers are back with a fourth. The film marks the live action feature debut of Brad Bird, who has previously helmed two Pixar animation classics, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Heavily promoted in India, particularly with the presence of Anil Kapoor, the paid preview was packed to the brim.

The plot: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his crew (Simon Pegg & Paula Patton) are on the run after a mission is compromised and the Kremlin is destroyed. The US and Russia are on the brink of war as a consequence and without any resources, support or back up, Ethan and his team must prove their innocence and save the world from nuclear holocaust. As they jet set around the world, accompanied by an analyst with a dark past (Jeremy Renner), time is running out.

The first thing you notice in the movie is just how much Tom Cruise has aged. My god, he looks old! You almost want to recommend Olay to him. Nevertheless, he more than makes up for it through his performance. As he daringly jumps off the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, races his car through a sandstorm and kicks some serious ass, it’s easy to look past the age factor and appreciate the physicality of his performance. He is the foundation of the series, and in that capacity, he is still strong.

As for the film, it is broadly divided into three acts. The first two acts (set in Moscow and Dubai respectively) border on brilliance. They are fast, funny and have some highly innovative action set pieces. The action work is more old school, relying on death defying stunts rather than just computer generated imagery. Also, the dig at the Iron Curtain is particularly clever. While the technical wizardry may be a little hard to stomach at places, the rapid pacing and the sense of fun that Brad Bird brings to the enterprise help it go down smoothly enough. The sense of thrill and adventure is more pronounced here than in any of the previous films. The other major strength of it is the humour. Simon Pegg gets his moment to shine and he really brings the house down in several places. Jeremy Renner proves himself to be a competent future replacement for Tom Cruise.

Unfortunately, the third act, where the action shifts to Mumbai, is dull, overlong and clunky. The climax pales rather evidently in comparison to the rest of the film. Anil Kapoor has a small role as a sleazy billionaire and those expecting a classy affair are going to be disappointed. Also, being from Mumbai, it is easy to see the little flaws in the production design; particularly, the use of Southern languages on notice boards in all places. Also, Michael Nyquist’s villainous Kurt Hendricks is never fleshed out well enough to make a lasting impression.

Nevertheless, by the time you realize this, you care little and are willing to forgive the film for most of these things. Overall, this is easily the best entry in the series edging out the second film which was, in my opinion, the previous best. It is quick, nimble and loaded to the brim with great action. So sit back, enjoy the mission.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl (2011)

Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl is a disappointing fare for a number of reasons. First, the pacing is sluggish. It has a simple premise. Three women hire another to con the man that conned them. Things complicate when the con woman and the con man fall in love. This wafer thin premise is stretched unnecessarily over 140 minutes. The film is overlong by at least half hour. Songs are thrown in at random and seem forced, particularly the first one which appears within three minutes of the film’s opening. Their forgettable tunes don’t help things much.

The plotting only makes things worse. Unlike the clean, uncomplicated storytelling that we saw in Band, Baaja Baaraat, the film’s graph is erratic and the result is a mess. If the first half takes too long to set up the premise, the second half is handicapped by some ridiculous, plotting. The con game is silly, unbelievable and laborious. Beyond the loud mouthed Dimple, there is little by way of humour. The writing is stale. The love story between Ricky (Ranveer Singh) and Ishika (Anushka Sharma) is extremely poorly developed. They have chemistry, undoubtedly so. But the director doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Of course, the proceedings are made bearable by the bubbly vivaciousness of Anushka Sharma and the chemistry she shares with co-star Ranveer Singh. They do their best with the lackluster material that they’re given to work with. Sharma lights up the screen and brings life to the otherwise dull proceedings. She also looks irresistible. What is disappointing though is that Ranveer Singh is stripped of the rugged, mofussil charm that made him so endearing in his maiden film. Too quickly, he has been packaged into a slick, suave product ready to be marketed. Typical, given that it is Yash Raj Films. But sad nevertheless. The supporting performances are solid. Particularly noteworthy is the debut of Parineeti Chopra who brings the house down in places with her loud mouthed, spoilt Delhi girl act.

On the whole, Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl lacks many of the things that made Band Baaja Baaraat so popular: fresh writing, well fleshed out characters, clean storytelling, great music. It is a surprisingly lifeless enterprise. A sizable disappointment, this one’s strictly to be seen with low expectations, especially in terms of logic.

Rating: 2/5