The flamboyantly gifted Indian moviemaker Mani Ratnam has an epic romantic temperament, like a reform-minded 19th century novelist, with a great eye and a trunk full of Panavision lenese. In his most characteristic works, such as Bombay (1995) and Dil Se (From the Heart, 2002), he places intimate personal stories at the eye of the storm in sweeping political and social dramas. Ratnam's enthralling and eventful new picture, Guru, is one of his best yet; in fact it may be the best Indian commercial ("Bollywood") movie since the Oscar-nominated Lagaan (2000). Inspired by the rags to riches story of a real-life Indian petrochemical tycoon, the late Dhirajlal "Dhirubhai" Ambani, it's a realistically textured biographical thriller staged on an operatic scale. It aims at nothing less than the canonization of a new type of cultural icon for post-socialist India. Re-named Gurukant "Gurubhai" Desai and played with an exhilarating mixture of high-stepping enjoyment and focused determination by Abishek Bachchan, the movie's Ambani surrogate is a village boy who lays the groundwork for a huge company simply by pouncing on opportunities that others miss. We enjoy rooting for this enterprising businessman hero, and not just because we identify with the character's delight at working out a clever new way to avoid paying excise taxes. He's a hero not in spite of the fact that he's a crafty corporate Capitalist but because of it—because his textile factories have created tens of thousands of jobs, and because the ordinary people he recruited as shareholders have been hoisted out of poverty by his success. Some elements of Desai's story test positive for sentimentality, including his playful, ardent relationship with his plucky wife (Aishwarya Rai). The failure to make the private lives of the characters resonate with the main story is an unusual one for Ratnam, owing perhaps to his overriding drive to valorize Guru as a positive force in Indian public life. But the film is a triumph of casting: In a role that is often about the sheer steamrolling force of his character's personality, Abishek Bachchan's attention to detail makes Guru accessible rather than intimidating, admirable but also plausible. In the end this Guru is just like one of us, only richer. (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)
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What, have we already exhausted the world's reserves of recyclable 1970s schlock? Apparently not—is that a poster in the megaplex lobby for the goddamn Hills Have Eyes 2?—but nobody told music-vid whiz Dave Meyers, who sets his way-back machine for dimly remembered 1986 and fetches a beat-for-beat remake of Robert Harmon's sick, scary cult fave about a cross-country driver who picks up a hitch-hiking Terminator on a homicide spree. Sean Bean, stubbly and sinister but no match for Rutger Hauer's archangel-of-death gravitas in the original, plays the unexplained psycho, who slaughters cops and civilians aplenty as he dares motorists Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton to retire his opposable digits. (If the idea was to create a reactionary fable of unmitigated evil laughing in the face of dithering appeasement, mission accomplished.) Alas, switching the hero from a lone driver to a couple spoils the original's most intriguing idea: that the mass-murdering jackal may be the driver's own escaped id. That leaves little to fill 83 expendable minutes, which barely register as a movie even with snazzy KNB gore effects, critic-baiting clips from The Birds, a splattery variation on the '86 Hitcher's most notorious scene, and some out-of-place Bruckheimerisms on loan from producer Michael Bay. Meyers lays on the shallow focus with a dusting of the art-directed scuzz that passes for grindhouse revivalism nowadays, but to little avail: This Hitcher is all thumbs. (Jim Ridley) (Countywide)
Somewhere between grim and Grimm, between Dickens and Disney, Russian director Andrei Kravchuck charts the plight of his country's army of orphans, hapless waifs deserted by drunken parents, and a post-Soviet government in disarray. Caught between the brutalities of orphanage life and the profiteers of illegal adoption, little Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) longs to reunite with his real mother, and sets out to learn to read in order to find her. Beautifully photographed by Alexander Burov, who also shot several films by the Russian master Alexander Sokurov, The Italian achingly evokes both the physical depredations of the orphanage, (dank, stuffy interiors and slushy gray grounds) and the nexus of rough kindness and malign neglect in which a corrupt, ineffectual director vies for power with a nascent mafia of hardened teenaged inmates. A film more fully committed to its subject (and to the moody ecstasy of Russian fatalism) might have explored the shattered fantasies of reunification that are the fate of most kids dumped by an underclass itself broken by want and drink. Lured, perhaps, by the promise of international markets, Kravchuk instead opts for routine uplift, and once the heroic journey is set in motion, the rest is ballast. (Ella Taylor) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine)