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December 2011

#651 - 652
December 9, 2011 - December 23, 2011


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#652 December 23, 2011

M O V I E S

Don 2 *** 1/2 soundtrack review
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Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (PG-13) ***
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Don 2 poster While a sequel to his 2006 global action hit, Farhan Akhtar's Don 2 is really the first film to truly reflect what an ongoing Don film series would look like should it continue. After all, being a remake of a 1978 film, Akhtar's first Don was thus beholden to a certain arc and plot beats (which he not only revisited but reinvigorated with a slicker, sleeker style and sensibility); but more importantly--and intriguingly--the film closed on a note that would then send any proper follow-up in a wildly different direction from the original '70s incarnation. To try to both satisfy expectations built by a wildly successful film and follow a distinctive, divergent path that still feels valid and consistent within the original framework is a daunting challenge--but for a filmmaker like Akhtar, it's also very much a galvanizing dare that leads him to up the ante in just about every respect and fully claim the Don mythos as his own.

Akhtar and co-writers Ameet Mehta and Amrish Shah have wisely written in the five-year gap between releases into the movie world, making for a conveniently organic opportunity to reshuffle and reboot where necessary. The titular crime boss (Shahrukh Khan) has by now conquered the Asian drug trade, which makes him prime target for the kingpins in Europe, who suspect him to have their territory next in his sights--which, of course, he does, and figuring in his plan is an unlikely ally: archenemy Vardhaan (Boman Irani), who had been left to rot in prison in the last half-decade. With the European underworld after him as well as the international authorities--led by Roma (Priyanka Chopra), now officially carrying an Interpol badge to support her ongoing personal revenge mission--it would have been easy for the script to once again go with the chase film format of the first film(s). But the pursuit, while still very much an important element, takes a back seat to what is essentially a tightly wound heist picture, as Don, Vardhaan, and a few new recruits (including Kunal Kapoor as a computer hacker and Lara Dutta as Don's latest right-hand moll) plot a potentially game-changing robbery in Berlin--the game of which is, naturally, constantly in flux with its players' self-serving interests and shifting allegiances.

Akhtar milks the mechanics of the complex caper for all their suspenseful worth as expertly as he handled the first film's fights, car chases, and all other manner of slam-bang mayhem--which are all still very much present here and just as polished, aided immeasurably by the work of cinematographer Jason West and editor Anand Subaya. In adding yet another layer of genre convention into the blockbuster action mix (which is already laid on top of the standard Bollywood conventions), plot and character could have easily and, to be frank, understandably been sacrificed, but that admirably isn't the case. Unlike most action sequels, this is neither a retread nor a self-contained "Don's Next Scheme" episode, but an organic continuation of existing story elements (in fact, a key plot catalyst stems from a more casually played moment in the first film) and, more importantly, character. The inevitable twists and turns are far from arbitrary, for the film remains firmly rooted in the established personalities. This does mean that the newcomers are neglected to a degree (Dutta cuts a striking figure but is only sparingly used; Sahil Shroff gets even less to do as Roma's besotted partner), but they ably serve their ultimate function in supporting the ever-compelling goings-on with the returning cast. In a rather gutsy move, Akhtar doesn't take the easy way out in bowing to the character's popularity and soften Don into a more palatable "antihero"; Don remains gleefully, unrepentantly evil (and retains his fondness for Tom and Jerry cartoons), making for a rather refreshing villain's perspective-driven actioner, and a fiercely energized Khan clearly relishes this latest opportunity to break away from his trademark roguish romantic hero persona. Even more important, however, in fueling the drama are the ever-evolving relationships between those familiar characters, the most fascinating continuing to be that between Don and Roma, whose tense and still-intense erotic electricity ignites further complications, manipulations, and uneasy yet undeniable truths.

That wicked waltz becomes quite literal in one memorable scene that is emblematic of Akhtar's savvy, narrative-focused use of Indian popular cinema tropes. Given Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's infectiously old school funk-inflected song score (an inspired way to carry over the '70s homage vibe now that Don has no longer dons flamboyant pimpdaddy fashions this time out), it is a bit disappointing that song and dance is at a relative minimum here. But the one full-blown production number, "Zara Dil Ko Thaam Lo" ("Hold on to Your Heart"), arises where it makes story sense (and nicely mirrors the touchstone "Main Hoon Don" number in the first film), and Akhtar and West make it count in a big way, going all-out with the spectacle, marrying the memorable music with Viabhav Merchant's creative choreography and a stunning, silhouette-driven visual design. Similarly, in an especially clever touch, Akhtar trots out the old Bollywood cliché of a surprise superstar cameo in a way that actually serves, rather than distracts from, the plot.

But then it doesn't take any familiarity with Hindi film or any such conventions, or even to have seen the first Don, to enjoy Don 2. More than a worthy sequel, it is simply an exciting and downright fun thrill ride of a movie, period, and Farhan Akhtar deserves his due as one of the great mainstream film talents currently working anywhere, period.

Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol poster Another franchise redirection is going on with the now-15-year-old (!) Mission: Impossible film series, for the advertising downplays the familiar small- and big-screen-proven branding in favor of the film's subtitle, Ghost Protocol--a decision that turns out to be completely appropriate and rather ironic. While Tom Cruise still toplines and produces the latest adventure is not, as the previous three films were, virtual solo spotlight showcases for his super-agent Ethan Hunt. This is more of an actual Impossible Missions Force team mission, in so doing making this the first of the movies to truly feel like the real Mission: Impossible of television that became such an enduring pop culture phenom in the first place, with an extended opening credits sequence to the full-length version of Lalo Schifrin's indelible M:I theme music plays as a back-to-basics mission statement (pun intended) of sorts. So by having Ethan lead a capable, constantly present team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and the returning Simon Pegg) brings a fresh energy to a plot line that more than slightly recalls the first film, with our intrepid hero--or, rather, heroes--being disavowed after being blamed for a tragic catastrophe and, without any government back-up or safety net, work to find the actual culprit and foil his larger diabolical scheme. Although spy intrigue is an essential element to the winning M:I formula, the feature films have always tilted more toward the action spectacle, and snagging Oscar-winning animation director Brad Bird to fill the director's chair proves to be an inspired choice--and, upon thought, a bit of a no-brainer, given that his The Incredibles was one of the most exciting action pictures in recent memory, animated or otherwise. Bird's proven hand at creating spectacular and imaginative set pieces (a chase in a raging sandstorm; an insane parking garage fight that's Pixar-ready) is in full effect here as well as a heretofore unseen skill at nailbiting suspense (a sequence of Cruise--not a double--scaling the side of the world's tallest building is by far the best non-documentary use of large format IMAX photography to date). Cruise and his co-stars are energized to match in their commitment and chemistry, making what had seemed a dead horse of a film franchise not only alive but off to the races.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows poster Losing some momentum in his second go-round is Guy Ritchie's take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes (once again played by Robert Downey Jr.). On paper, A Game of Shadows should take this series to the proverbial next level, what with the introduction of Holmes's cunning archnemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) into this film series. However, while Harris makes for an appropriately smart and menacing adversary, the loss of Rachel McAdams (only briefly seen this time) as Holmes's romantic foil proves to be a more sizeable step backward; while she was not the most comfortable fit in the first film, her chemistry with Downey was promising--which becomes all too painfully clear when neither Downey nor Jude Law (as trusty sidekick Dr. Watson) show much rapport at all with her ostensible replacement, Noomi Rapace as a gypsy who (platonically) joins the duo's mission. That all said, the most important relationship still crackles, and that's the ever-amusing, playfully prickly pair of Holmes and Watson; that Downey-Law chemistry, along with Ritchie's reliably flashy visual style (amped back up to his more trademark levels, in keeping with the "bigger, louder" sequel mantra) and rough-and-tumble action beats, still makes this a game worth playing. (Special thanks to Naz8 Cinemas and Reliance Entertainment)


In Brief

Albert Nobbs poster Albert Nobbs (R) ** 1/2
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Glenn Close (who also produced and co-scripted) delivers a deeply felt performance as the title character, a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to hold a job as a butler in 19th century Ireland. But the performances (including that of Janet McTeer as another incognito female) is all about all that captivate in Rodrigo Garcia's latest female-centered drama, based on George Moore's novella--and it indeed plays like designed-for-short material stretched beyond its natural breaking point, for as good as Close is, the character itself is so remarkably passive that the mind and, worse still, heart cannot help but eventually wander. It becomes increasingly difficult to truly root for Albert to achieve his/her dreams of a better, independent when he/she repeatedly bends to the might of his/her circumstances, large or small, without so much as an attempt at pushback, and over the course of the run time one's admiration for Close's work becomes more for her versatility and fearlessness than a connection with the character she portrays.


Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked poster Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (G) * 1/2
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While I am far from a fan of the live action/CGI film series based on the '80s cartoon mainstay Alvin and the Chipmunks, I at least can see the appeal to the pre-teen set: namely the high-pitched--in every sense--covers of fairly current hit pop songs. So it's all the more baffling that the third big screen go-round of Alvin (voiced by Justin Long--again, why go to the expense of casting name actors only to have their voices rendered unrecognizable?), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney)--and the second featuring their distaff counterparts, The Chipettes (Christina Applegate, Amy Poehler, and Anna Faris)--keeps music to a minimum as they, along with trusty caretaker Dave Seville (Jason Lee, returning full time after sitting out most of the second film, The Squeakquel) and archnemesis Ian Hawke (David Cross), get separated from their cruise ship and find themselves "chipwrecked" on a deserted island. Without many musical numbers to juice up the energy level and add undeniable novelty value, the clichéd potential perils (hello, volcano) and slapsticky survival antics are all the more stale for anyone older than the preschool set.


The Flowers of War poster The Flowers of War (R) *** 1/2 Christian Bale & Zhang Yimou's Flowers of War party photos
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Zhang Yimou's adaptation of Geling Yan's novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing, set during the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanking, begins in appropriately harrowing fashion, with a group of innocents, largely schoolgirls, barely evading bullets as they scurry across the rubble of the Chinese capital in search of safe haven. The expertise with emotion-infused action Zhang displayed in his unofficial trilogy of Hero, House of Flying Daggers (my personal fave of the bunch, leaving me absolutely gutted every time), and Curse of the Golden Flower is in full evidence on an even more epic scale from frame one, explosive not with literal combat pyrotechnics but unbearable tension, all playing against a visually startling landscape of devastation. This grabber of an opening is a warm-up to what Zhang really does best, which is the epic scale of intimate human emotion, brought to the clear forefront when the action slows and tightly focuses on a church, where a misfit assembly of schoolgirls, prostitutes, and an American mortician (Christian Bale) find sanctuary while attempting to figure out an escape. The presence of Bale in a lead role instills fear of another Great White Hope movie, and while his character does follow an expected redemption arc from his initially boorish, boozing ways, his is ultimately a shared journey between all within those walls to find within themselves the capacity and courage to not only save themselves but each other. The mostly confined setting does not keep Zhang from crafting striking visuals (he and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding milk the stained glass windows for all their worth), but as usual the real vibrance derives from the performances from Bale and the cast of newcomers, most especially first time actress Ni Ni as the focal brothel refugee. Showing real acting promise to match her leading lady beauty, her career prospects in the West are likely brighter than previous Zhang muses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, given her English language fluency. Her work reflects the title, which in turn reflects the whole of the film: how warmth and life can emerge from the most bleak of circumstances.


In the Land of Blood and Honey poster In the Land of Blood and Honey (U Zemlji Krvi I Meda) (R) ** 1/2
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Angelina Jolie shows admirable, unvarnished commitment to her ugly, messy subject matter (even going so far as to shoot in the native Serbo-Croatian tongue though an alternate English language cut was shot simultaneously) in her writing/directing debut, painting an appropriately harrowing portrait of war-ravaged Sarajevo in the 1990s. If she doesn't skimp on showing (tastefully, though still unflinchingly) the rampant atrocities committed from genocide to rape camps, what she does unfortunately lack here is a point of involving connection, which is supposed to be supplied by the forbidden affair between a Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic) and a Bosnian prisoner (Zana Marjanovic) who once shared a flirtation before the war. With the blurred lines and possibly shifty motives, it's an idea not without dramatic promise, but it plays as a bit of an afterthought, with Jolie's obvious passion lying in bringing attention to the horrific situation as a whole, and her two stars, while delivering strong work individually, never ignite together strongly enough to believe either fiery romantic passion or burning anger and hatred--or, above else, the conflict between those. As such, one is left with an admirable but cold effort clearly meant to incite more feeling than is present by the end credit roll.


Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl poster Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl ***
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Yash Raj Films scored a sleeper success last holiday season with Band Baaja Baaraat, so it's not a surprise that the venerable production house has reunited the principals behind that hit, director Maneesh Sharma and stars Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma, for another go-round this year. But what is a surprise--much to everyone's credit--is that it's centered around a far less romantic concept than their previous film's wedding theme: Singh plays the Ricky Bahl of the title, a slick con man who preys on the trust and/or affections of young women to make millions. When three of his marks (Parineeti Chopra, Dipannita Sharma, and Aniti Sharma) band together and plot revenge with the help of quick-thinking, fast-talking friend Ishika (Anushka Sharma), it looks like Ricky has finally met his match, in more ways than one. Edgier and mold-breaking the premise may be, this is still a Yash Raj entertainer, so what ultimately develops between Ricky and Ishika will come as no surprise, and if writing makes the circumstances behind Ricky's change of heart (or, rather, development of one) sketchy at best, the natural, proven chemistry between Singh and Sharma more than convincingly fill in the holes in the text, as do their individual performances. Singh is appropriately charismatic as a charming rogue; the effortlessly effervescent Sharma continues to look all the more like Preity Zinta's heiress apparent in spunky Bollywood bubbliness; and both excel when dancing to Salim-Sulaiman's familiar--but no less catchy--urban pop-inflected song score. The secret weapon to the film's fun are the three other ladies of the title; Chopra, Dipannita Sharma, and Aniti Sharma may not be the most recognizable faces in Indian film right now, but I suspect their natural charm will be featured on screen for the years to come. (Special thanks to Naz8 Cinemas and Yash Raj Films)


D V D / B L U - R A Y

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara Blu-ray Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara DVD Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Won't Get a Second Life) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2
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The premise of Zoya Akhtar's sophomore effort behind the camera more than slightly resembles that of her brother Farhan's 2001 filmmaking debut, Dil Chahta Hai: it traces three buddies and their journeys in love and life over a fairly brief time period. But this film is a spiritual sibling to that seminal film far beyond surface story basics: it is also a smart, relaxed, and understated character-driven seriocomic entertainment whose poignance sneaks up on you. Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol, and (once again working in front of the camera for his sister after her 2009 debut, Luck by Chance) Farhan Akhtar play the trio here; on the eve of the wedding of Kabir (Deol, a grounding presence), he, workaholic Arjun (Roshan, ably cast against type) and jokester Imraan (Akhtar, giving his most natural and appealing on-screen performance to date) go on a three-week bachelors' road trip through Spain, along the way indulging in a surprise adventure/stunt secretly chosen by each. Much like Dil Chahta Hai, plot is secondary to the characters and their relationships, and if the actors are assigned to play types (also extending to the female cast; Kalki Koechlin plays Kabir's uptight fiancée Natasha, and Katrina Kaif plays free-spirited diving instructor Laila), they inhabit them with genuine personality and humanity and exhibit affable, appealing chemistry with each other. Accordingly, Zoya Akhtar and co-writer Reema Kagti achieve a deft balance between each character and their respective arcs. While there is a major superstar in the cast in Roshan, he is (not unlike Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai) very much one of the ensemble, for Arjun's life-changing possible romance with Laila doesn't overwhelm the other two main concerns, Kabir's doubts about his impending nuptials and Imraan's search for his long-lost biological father. Similarly, and more importantly, balanced is the tone; the dramatic beats are given their proper weight while lighter moments and laughs emerge organically--as do the songs, for Akhtar only gives the full-on lipsynch treatment to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's memorable tunes only when the moment naturally calls for it, otherwise using them as effective, theme-enhancing underscore. But as breezily charming the film is as it plays, just how lovingly and carefully Akhtar has assembled it doesn't come clear until the final moments, when one realizes just how genuinely involved one is in these characters and invested in the bonds between them.

Eros Entertainment has done a beautiful job with the Blu-ray transfer, doing right by Carlos Catalan's gorgeous cinematography that not only makes for a gorgeous travelogue but also presents Spain as a living, breathing, vibrant character in its own right. The sound mix also does Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's songs justice, most especially for the centerpiece "Señorita" number; a nice inclusion on the de rigueur song menu is a chapter listing for all of the Imraan character's lovely poems (written by the film's lyricist Javed Akhtar, father of Zoya and Farhan), which are heard as voiceover throughout the film. Sadly, the Blu-ray does not include any extras whatsoever, jettisoning the solid supplements that appear on the bonus disc of the two-disc DVD edition. Leading the extras is a terrifically done hour-long making-of documentary. While on the surface the run time seems a bit indulgent for what is essentially an intimate romantic dramedy, the various technical challenges involved in the extensive location shooting across Spain alone call for a more detailed examination. That all other aspects of the production--casting, writing and recording the music, conceptualizing song numbers--are also covered with uncommon depth. For those only interested in the soundtrack, segments focusing on the "Ik Junoon (Paint It Red)" and "Señorita" numbers excerpted from the longer documentary can be directly accessed from the menu. Six deleted scenes, presented without subtitles and clocking in a little over nine minutes in total, round out the DVD extras; these are nice little beats with the endearing characters but hardly anything essential. And while these extras are well done, they are also not too missed on the Blu-ray, for the high definition transfer and the film itself as a whole are strong enough to merit a purchase without any added bells and whistles.

Blu-ray specifications: MPEG4 AVC, 1920x1080 24psf, 16:9 widescreen; Hindi 5.1 DTS; English subtitles. DVD specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi 5.1 Surround; Hindi Dolby Surround; English and Arabic subtitles. (Eros Entertainment)


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#651 December 9, 2011

M O V I E S
In Brief

The Dirty Picture poster The Dirty Picture ***
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The meteoric rise and equally quick fall of a 1980s South Indian screen sex siren is a dream character arc for an actress to play on screen, and Vidya Balan immerses her body (not only baring a lot of it, but also gaining a substantial amount of weight) and soul into playing Silk, a fictionalized version of real life bombshell Silk Smitha. Balan attacks the role with the same ferocity her character nakedly (in more ways than one) pursues fame at any cost, commanding and compelling when Silk is at her most successful and vain, heartbreaking when she falls into increasingly desperate self-destruction. If only director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora were as committed to plunge headlong into the dark side as their fearless star, softening their film's intrinsically disturbing subject matter first by adopting a needless framing narration by an artistically ambitious filmmaker (Emraan Hashmi, doing what he can in what eventually proves to be a fairly impossible part) who resents her pandering success; then they do so even more artificially by grafting on an earnest romantic subplot far too late into the game. But those missteps cannot dull the impact of the forceful work by Balan and Naseeruddin Shah (as the self-absorbed older superstar whom Silk seduces for career purposes) or this period story's close-to-home relevance to contemporary society's prevalent and shameless hunger to be famous just for being famous. (Special thanks to Naz8 Cinemas)


New Year's Eve poster New Year's Eve (PG-13) 1/2*
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Garry Marshall's second holiday-centered ensemble romantic comedy ups the star power even further than Valentine's Day--not only in those carrying its main storylines (for a start: Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Duhamel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank, Zac Efron, Katherine Heigl, Lea Michele, Abigail Breslin, and Robert freakin' De Niro joining Valentine's returnees Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Biel, and Hector Elizondo, all playing different characters), but also in bit players (Halle Berry, Sofia Vergara, Carla Gugino, Ludacris, Alyssa Milano, Common, Cary Elwes)--but not even the meager returns yielded by that bloated affair are met in this colossal waste of talent and time. Valentine's writer Katherine Fugate is back along with Marshall, and somehow, some way the deadly duo put in even lazier effort this time, not only again throwing their star-laden cast into mere scenarios (for example, Michele and Kutcher stuck in an elevator; rock star Bon Jovi putting on a big concert; Duhamel trying to get into the city in time for a big date; Swank trying to get the famous Times Square ball drop functioning), not plot lines; but worse still, pairing them up seemingly at random, without any thought to actual chemistry within the pairs, making the insipid threads even more of a chore to sit through. The only moment that generates any feeling comes at the very end, where Berry manages to spin shit into startlingly affecting gold when her largely background-skulking character gets a surprising emotional payoff. But that right there shows what a mess this film is: a character that spends most of the film on the fringes somehow elicits a genuine emotional response, while little in the way of laughs or love come from the more prominent figures that scurry in an around New York City as the ball drops, in more ways than one. Anyone in the mood for multi-story, multi-star New York New Year's-set rom com would be better off renting 200 Cigarettes--not a great film by any stretch, but a far more watchable one than this.


D V D / B L U - R A Y

No One Killed Jessica DVD No One Killed Jessica full movie review
Movie: ** 1/2; DVD: ***
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Vidya Balan's brazen, brilliant performance in The Dirty Picture makes for a nicely matching bookend with the other great performance she delivered at the beginning of the year, in Raj Kumar Gupta's fact based drama about the 1999 murder of model Jessica Lall. As the grieving sister who devoted years of her life to bring the killer to justice, Balan is the complete opposite of the sexy, slinky Silk but no less captivating and poignant. While her co-star in this film is another great talent, Rani Mukerji--who further proves her range as a brash, ballsy, foul-mouthed TV newswoman who joins the fight for Jessica--her overly showy character runs counter to the more natural emotional authenticity Balan lends to and Kumar clearly intended from the entire picture.

UTV's DVD edition includes a 21-minute English language making-of documentary that features genuinely insightful thoughts from Gupta, Balan, and Mukerji on how the film came together and their approaches to the tough, Bollywood-unconventional material.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi 5.1 Surround; English and Arabic subtitles. (UTV Home Entertainment)


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