Sunday, March 25, 2012

a few quick thoughts on Agent Vinod

I have no interest in and no respect for much of the wild critic-bashing that flares up when the professionals don't think highly of a movie that the rest of us seem to really like. Critics are part of the audience too, and many of the ones I've talked to, at least, are in their line of work sheerly because of love of cinema. The ones I read (and, go figure, I focus carefully on the people who seem to think before speaking) I give the respect I would extend to any friend or colleague, and even if I don't agree with them I try to follow their arguments and give consideration to why they thought what they did. So I'm surprised to find myself wondering why so many of them—and friends and blog-colleagues on Twitter, too—are so disappointed in Agent Vinod. Until the last fifteen to twenty minutes, I had a damn good time.

As for that: yes, the ending is terrible. Whoever is responsible for it needs to be given tight slaps and made to re-read some good books and film scripts to see how finales can go. That said, we've all seen countless Hidni films that falter and topple over throughout most of the post-interval run—"the Curse of the Second Half," as it's known around these parts—and still liked them overall, and we've probably seen even more films, particularly from the 70s, it seems, that simply stop with a brief, completely perfunctory end and do not bother with real conclusion, extrication, or even satisfaction. Agent Vinod goes the other direction and offers several decrescendos, and, for no good reason I can discern, doesn't do anything particularly interesting with any of them. The Bolly/Holly desire for romance creates some of the worst English dialogue I've heard out of Mumbai in some time; the spy film zeal for twists throws in wrenches that don't inspire; the James Bond love comes up with a brief but utterly plastic nod that adds nothing. Thank goodness the film actually ends with "Pungi,"* and its episodic, goofball vibe restored my mood about the film and had me dancing in my seat. So in all, if I gave points to films, in good conscience I could only take one off for the last chunk of AV because 1) seriously, think of all the crappy endings Hindi films have had,  2) at least the team tried, as opposed to just running out of steam and not bothering to put something together, and 3) the last flavor is one of pure energy, glee, and goodwill.

Here are the sections of Agent Vinod's dossier that impressed me most.
  • It's very stylish and looks terrific. I love the jet-set trappings of James Bond and this film set up and met those goals well. Remember all the praise that got heaped on Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for what it did with Spain? Apply it here for Morocco and then admire the textured interiors of the shady Riga brothel, the dining car of the Russian train, the detail even in the photos on the wall of Prem Chopra's mansion, the contrasts among the public, unused, and service areas of the Karachi hotel. (Though I'm sorry, there is no way in hell that the toilet of an Afghani weapons depot in "the desert of death" has toilet paper. Just no.) And the costuming! Classy and refined. Think about that gorgeous embroidered tunic Prem Chopra has, the huge gold and orchid stone cuff Kareena wears at the auction (or that orange ring with the metal snake winding across the stone—WANT), all the black berets just so on the ISI soldiers. As I tweeted from interval yesterday, Saif Ali Khan looks like a million bucks in those beautifully tailored button-down shirts and slim trousers. And yes, his face is a little weird (which I notice way more in these stills than I did in motion in the film), but they dressed him as befits a man his age and as the character's missions suggested. I will watch him adjust his tuxedo cufflinks, roll up his sleeves, or recline in a half-undone shirt all damn day, thanks very much, especially accompanied by that crazy creaky voice of his. His gay playboy look in particular is jaw-dropping. (A huge bravo for that, by the way—no judgment, no spectacle, no kerfuffle, just another thing he pretends to be in the name of mission.) The costume crew didn't skank out Kareena, either, which I appreciated, not only because it let the man-candy shine for once but because her role didn't require it. If you want a film to escape with, I can think of nothing richer and more polished to feast your eyes on for a few hours.
Guh. Pictures from the official site.
  • Overall excellent performances by the whole cast. I'll be singing Saif's praises in my Wall Street Journal India Real Time column this week so you can read my thoughts on him there [update: column is up here], and everyone else is solid too. The primary baddies are pleasingly inscrutable and unflinching, and Prem Chopra and Ram Kapoor have the right amount of fun with their silly-yet-menacing roles as links in their chain. I think it's fair to say Kareena is under-used, even as the only sizable female role in the whole film. More than the ridiculous ending, the film's greatest flaw for me is this non-use, non-presence of women. It's all too common in macho films from any culture and is maybe aggravated by the  stain of the sexist world that seems to be impossible to excise from the Bond franchise—though c'mon, AV, not even a Judi Dench-style commander anywhere in any of those half-dozen locales? FAIL! At least Dr. Bilal acts intelligently, speaks in whole sentences, and has a few shades to her character. She has as much backstory and development as even the hero.
  • The music is put to fantastic use. The songs make sense and work as well with the narrative running smack through them, I'd argue even more tightly than is typical, as they do on their own when listening to the soundtrack in isolation. To my surprise, "Raabta" is played totally against tone and is very funny in context, giving me a whole new way to enjoy it. "I'll Do the Talking Tonight" is fun in its own way too, and I love the wink (even if it's unintentional) of having a fleet of tackily-dressed Eastern European nightclub dancers actually in Russia for once, and instead of grinding all over them our hero has more important business to attend to. The soundscape of the film as a whole is so effective—taught, teasing, swimming in and out with ideas and locations.  
But most of all, it's fun! It's interesting! It's easy and cool! There are jokes without any straining comic relief, a dash of emotion without any pause in action, moments of patriotism without preaching! Stuff happens that rewards you for paying attention! Far from perfect, oh sure. Maybe this is just precisely my kind of escapism, in what's happening, who's involved, and how they're doing it. Shrug. I was entertained and, apparently, more than won over by the things it did right, enough that I am happy to ignore its woman-excluding, logic-bending, conclusion-deriding faults—standard contemporary big masala film problems—that I often can't as easily get past. 

* To my ear, Borobax Corp has a good case. Why is it so hard for composers to just acknowledge their influences and recognize them in the proper channels?

21 comments:

Another Kiran In NYC said...

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this technically great film (minus the morose Kareena)!]

Perhaps after my daydreaming spell involving embroidered caftans and ordering around the help in a beautiful Riad in Morrocco, and the Colonel (dishy dishy dishy) and the deliciously metrosexual Saif... I will have recovered enough to write a review. As for now, just leave Saif, the Colonel and me be, and bring us all Martinis stirred, not shaken. Oh and Saif will sing dance to Pungi for me!

carla said...

I'm really glad you had a good time!

For me, the things it did right just highlighted how much better it could have been overall - I wish it had applied throughout the same sense of humor and wit that went into those best moments. To be fair, though, I really, really don't like fights, gunplay, or car chases, so a movie that makes me sit through so many of those has to offer a lot more in order for me to not hate it. And I didn't hate most of *Agent Vinod*.

I think it flagged well before the last 20 minutes though - as weird as that draggy, 3-ending ending was, the entire last quarter had a "get on with it already" sort of feel. No suspense at all; nothing to hold my attention.

But, you know, my opinion should probably be discounted, as I probably shouldn't have seen this movie in the first place. Genre-wise it's not the kind of movie I like in any language.

-carla (filmi geek)

Katherine said...

You know, although I experienced some mild moments of disappointment (especially with the ending(s)), I actually liked the film, and adored bits of it.

Carla's point about genre is interesting, because for me, this is a genre I rather like. I suspect that's where my disappointment lies, because I expected and wanted brisker pacing and more adrenaline and just a little more cracktastic.

That said -- I'm dying for a sequel. If they can get so much right this time, maybe they can make the rest better next time?

dustdevil liz said...

Put me down for "liked it a whole lot", and I just want to add a hearty "hear-hear" for the following points you brought up:
1) Saif in a white shirt. I'd like to see him cast in a recurring role in Mad Men, just so I could see him in those clothes.
2) The music and sound design was so fantastic.The saxophone and Charlie Chaplin music wedding scene (was that still Latvia?) was crazy, but really well done, there were a couple of chase scenes set to old film music, and I especially liked the establishing shots of Delhi with older music, and then it cuts to the Lakshar safe house, where the music is playing on the radio.

Robespierre said...

Hooray, a positive review! I loved it too, although the ending lost me as well - is it really that hard to have a climactic fight scene and then call it a day? Somehow my local theater had put the film in the wrong aspect ratio, cropping out the subs, and couldn't fix it, but I just collected my refund and sat through the rest of the film anyway. It was entertaining enough even without what I suspect was very utilitarian dialogue.

Sad that it's not doing well, because I would love to see a sequel.

KimT said...

I wish you posted more often, Beth! Your *positive* take is very refreshing and a definite change of pace from other bloggers. I see you publish through the WSJ, what other news outlets do you write for?

BTW, I can't wait to see Agent Vinod and if I didn't live in the middle of nowhere Ohio I wouldn't have to wait until DVD!

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Beth said...

Kiran - me too! :) We will have to work out a Saif-sharing strategy.

Carla - I am going to leave my responses on YOUR blog post! :)

Katherine - I too love this genre, though I don't consider myself knowledgable or up-to-date about the current standards (I've only seen the first of the Borne films, for example). Many of the criticisms of AV seem to talk about its pacing, and I'm beginning to wonder if I am too jetlagged to notice pauses? :) Actually, if I could see it again, I would pay special attention to that and wonder if any kind of cyclical pacing is partly a response to the masala formula and the kinds of different episodes that often happen in mainstream Hindi movies. But that's just an idea that I cannot back up at the moment. :) And I'm with you - SEQUEL PLEASE and with a kickass woman!

Liz - Yay! I am so with you on the white shirt I can hardly type it. Remember the horse bit in Race? Eee. And I'm really glad you liked the sound and music too. That Chaplin bit was hilarious (and maybe a little WTF), especially with the line about stealing the hog and then then motorcycle roaring off! The Delhi bits were SO GOOD! I loved the old songs in...was it in the Riga hotel? I can't remember, but it added such a nice nod to vintage without literally re-doing scenes or lines.

Robespierre - First, I have to tell you, my mom is an 18th and 19th century French historian so your name cracks me up :) Second, yeah, I don't know what in the world happened with the endings. There were too many, yet none of them was any good. Sorry you missed the subs! AFter having seen Kahaani and London Paris New York without them, I was very grateful for them in AV. But you're right, you didn't miss a ton - for example, there were not as many one-liners as Bond tends to get.

Kim - I hope you can excuse this last absence since I was in India for almost a month! :) But my pace in the last year or so has really slowed and I'm hoping to correct that. My outlets are here, the WSJ, my twitter (bethlovesbolly), and the also "not often updated" podcast I do called Masala Zindabad (there's a link in my sidebar).

Hope you get to see AV! How close is your nearest cinema?

movietrends - You might be spam, but in the off chance you are not, thank you. :)

jennyketcham said...

Hmmm...now you've gotten me to rethink my Agent Vinod boycott. I don't usually like Bondesque films, and Don 2 didn't give me much hope for this one, but perhaps you did! I ended up seeing Kahaani again, just to gaze into Nawazuddin Siddiqui's eyes once more. He's a pint-sized package of Omar Sharifness. Love it.

In India for a month? For fun or blogging? Have you posted about the trip yet? I am so jealous.

Jenny K
Filmigoris.net

eatpraylovemovies said...

I kinda agree with your thoughts about agent vinod. The first half was awesome. But when the second half doesn't live up to all the hype built up in the first, it's disappointing.

The film became the victim of its success, if I can put it that way. Also, bloggers, including me, went into making comparisons. Sriram Raghavan has delivered better. Ek Hasina Thi. u seen it?

Cheers!
Mansi

Aparna said...

I liked Agent Vinod, and I still don't understand why critics are bashing it up all so much.

But yeah, I would have actually loved it if they had removed a few fights, and maybe at least one sequence...I mean, there are only so many cities you can go to when you are chasing a nuclear bomb - case in point MI-4 (or maybe any MI movie, but I remember the part 4 because I saw it recently)...they could have reduced at least 15-20 min if they took out the sequence in Pakistan which doesn't add anythign to the narrative except for a 2-woman mujra.

Beth said...

Jenny - Did you end up seeing it? I wasn't able to get to Don 2 and still haven't seen it, but I'm setting my bar lower and lower with each person I talk to.

Mansi - I loved all of it except the end, which was such a mess. I did see Ek Hasina Thi, actually just a few hours before seeing Agent Vinod. I liked it and definitely appreciated that it's a less typical type of Hindi film.

Magpie Ima said...

Nice to see a positive review. I had low expectations going in but we get so few Hindi movies here that I don't pass up much. I was very pleasantly surprised and want to see it again. The music, the color, the locations, the Saif.....it was very well done. I usually lose the plot in these kinds of movies--Don 2 totally lost my and I love me some SRK--but this made sense almost all the way through. Except for the ending--the Kareena part of the ending--can't believe that was really the ending. The Teen and I had a lively argument about that ending all the way home.

Beth said...

M. I. - I'm with you - if something comes to town, I see it. I MIGHT EVEN SEE HOUSEFULL 2 if it shows up, apparently not having learned my lesson after loathing the first one. :) Anyway, yeah, I really loved AV and am glad to hear it fit together pretty well for you (I will admit to not paying particular attention to some of the logic-type concerns - and I never think Bond movies make a whole lot of actual sense anyway). I feel you on the Kareena part - WTF.

Rashi said...

Really great piece of info, well, i'm big fan of saif and kareena loved their acting as well as looks... simply superb movie.

Magpie Ima said...

Housefull 2? That I can miss! But if you do see it, I am sure I will enjoy your review more than I would have enjoyed the movie itself so you go!

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priya mehra said...

best movie i love saif

কুণ্ডপর্ণী সম্মাদ্দার said...

Agent Vinod is really fabulous ...

Madhulata said...

Saif Ali Khan has a squint