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At first it looks like a glossy, silly masala-style family comedy and then evolves, in a series of beautifully engineered startling transitions, into one of the Bollywood's most recent dark suspense thrillers. India's most durable and forceful movie icon, Amitabh Bachchan, has one of his strongest recent roles in years as the terrifying crime lord Viren Sahi, who returns to Bombay in a rage from exile Thailand to put a leash on his out-of-control spoiled son (Sushant Singh). There he not only gets embroiled in a gang war but has to fend off an assault from an unexpected source: a much more conventional middle class family that has been devastated by an accidental sideswipe encounter with one of the don's clean up campaigns. Although the movie is perfectly defensible as smoothly engineered escapism, a case could also be made for it as uncompromisingly skeptical examination of one of Bollywood's cinema's central institutions, pitting various kinds of families, and diametric understandings of family values, against each other. The director and co-writer, Rajkumar Santoshi, had his first success in the 1990s making tight and effective post-Rambo action films with a young Sonny Deol, and after a string of less-popular big-budget prestige pictures he seems to be gravitating back toward the blood-and-thunder side of the spectrum, with commendable results. He is a serious fellow with the crowd-pleasing instincts of a shrewd commercial craftsman. It is amazing to think back to the movie's bouncy pinball colored opening from its final images of Bachchan's seething, blood spattered character, contemplating the wreckage of his life. Very few movies take us on such an eventful and wrenching journey in just over two hours. (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)





It's hard to see how Albert Brooks, that indispensable mad observer of our mad world, could make such a bland, formless pudding out of the fertile premise of what is being erroneously billed (see Team America: World Police, if you must) as the first mainstream movie since 9/11 to mine humor from the East-West divide. Marooned miserably between half-assed situation comedy and a pale ghost of Brooks' trenchantly self-skewering early satires, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World features Brooks as Albert Brooks, a Hollywood Ugly American (though not nearly ugly enough to make the point), a second-tier actor sent by the U.S. government to South Asia to find out what makes Islamic people laugh. Not much, it turns out, unless you count a bunch of stoned Pakistanis who inflict their own brand of terrorist humor on the hapless entertainer, who has inexplicably been unable to wring so much as a snicker from Indian audiences for his standup show, which consists of antique ventriloquist routines culled from Brooks' early-career appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and an eye-poppingly ethnocentric lecture on improvisation. Blundering his way across this volatile region, Brooks the narcissistic standup comedian nearly re-ignites the smoldering hostilities between India and Pakistan. Brooks the filmmaker, however, is unlikely to ignite much more than a few faint chortles at some amusing bits of Bangalore-phone-bank business, and an Al-Jazeera effort to cast the comedian in their new series, That Darn Jew. Otherwise, the movie is a fatally benign effort to jolly us out of the post-9/11 blues while studiously avoiding giving offense in Dubai. The question for skittish distributors is not whether Looking for Comedy will play in Peshawar, but how long the movie will take to put Peoria to sleep. (Ella Taylor) (Century Stadium, Orange; Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana)


The 600-year old vampire princess Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is lethally efficient with the semi-automatic pistols strapped 'round her curvaceous waist, but as a blood sucker, she's an embarrassment: She doesn't believe in biting people (sigh). If Selene is vampirically challenged, it's probably because her mind, like that of those who sit through this film, has been numbed out by the hopelessly convoluted mythology devised by director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride. As with Underworld: Evolution's 2003 predecessor, you leave the theater feeling as if the filmmakers are still back there, with PowerPoint flow charts, explaining the flashback-intensive plotline, which this time has something to do with Selene's walled-in-a-tomb vampire uncle, his pissed-off werewolf twin brother and the gold amulet that will set them free. With her long black coat and mid-air karate chop skills, Selene is more Matrix-y Neo than Count Dracula, which may explain why this movie is so brutally un-fun. When Selene and her half-vampire, half-wolf dream-boy blond sidekick (Scott Speedman) have sex — a major event for Underworld fans — Wiseman is so busy staging tasteful slo-mo sighs that he completely misses the point: A hunky werewolf is fucking a hot babe vampire. That is not the moment to chintz on sharpened incisors and hairy paws. (Chuck Wilson) (Countywide)

Was it Pauline Kael who said that only a truly great actor can triumph over a bad wig? The fact that you find yourself fixating on the mushroom-shaped Beatle mop inflicted upon soulful Bollywood action star Sanjay Dutt in this “illegal remake” of Park Chan-wook's Korean cult thriller Oldboy is a pretty good indication that Zinda (Alive) isn't quite as gripping or as flamboyant as it should be. Park's film was itself a close adaptation of a 1997 manga series that is due out in English soon from Dark Horse, so the only real issue is whether the writer-director of Zinda, Sanjay Gupta, has his papers in order. Gupta has been turning out “cover versions” of his favorite neo-noirs for several years now: Kaante (Thorns) (2002), filmed on location in Los Angeles, was a literal Hindi translation of Reservoir Dogs, and his delirious breakthrough work, Musafir (Traveler) (2004), pimped Oliver Stone's U-Turn. Zinda isn't remotely in that gonzo league. Gupta comes close to matching some of Park's most-celebrated effects, like the pulsating one-shot fight sequence, but misses the additional layers of embellishment that enlivened Musafir. To Gupta's credit, he takes a more conventional approach than Park to his leading man's wounded-bear portrayal of the vengeful prisoner, who gets to do a couple of iconic slo-mo hero walks against the Bangkok skyline when he is released after 15 inexplicable years locked up in a small cell; at least now we have someone to root for amid the ugliness. The obligatory songs are used sparingly, but are surprisingly catchy and effective. We also get a glimpse of Indian mores in the fact that Zindaretains most of the gruesome violence of its predecessor, but elides the sexual shocks (the hammer survives but the incest doesn't). (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)

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