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Wandering lust: Verdú in Y tu mamá también.

Viva la Teen Sex Comedy
By Shawn Stone

Y tu mamá también
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

‘And your mother too” (“Y tu imamá también”) is the kind of pointed, juvenile taunt best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) regularly toss at each other. They’re a pair of callow, horny teens working hard at maintaining their stash, keeping the beer cold, and plotting future sexual conquests. For them, the future is barely perceptible through a perpetual, contented haze of pot smoke. With their girlfriends spending the summer in Italy, the boys’ only interests are immediate and carnal. If the setting weren’t Mexico and the language Spanish, one might be forgiven for thinking Y tu mamá también would turn out to be just another teen movie.

Enter Luisa (Maribel Verdú). A Spaniard from Madrid, married to Tenoch’s smug cousin, and 10 years their senior, she meets the boys at a wedding. Typically brash, the two would-be studs start right in hitting on her. Both flustered and amused, she brushes them off without a second thought. Then the smug husband has one affair too many, and she give the boys that second thought. Their phony, testosterone-fueled babble about a trip to a mythical beach called “Heaven’s Mouth” suddenly appeals to her, and the three set off on a raucous, sexually charged journey across Mexico.

What sets the film apart is director Alfonso Cuarón’s distanced take on the action, and his determination to place this bizarre love triangle firmly within the context of Mexican society. The sense of distance is maintained by having a narrator (the unseen Daniel Gimenez Cacho) guide the audience through the story; like a noncommittal deity, the narrator fills in missing details, comments on the characters, and goes off on mystifying tangents that ultimately prove revelatory.

Cuarón puts each character in his or her place. Tenoch is privileged, the son of a corrupt, wealthy politician, while Julio is a middle-class kid with social ambitions. Luisa is a little bit of both, a working-class woman who married well. They travel through a countryside riven by poverty and revolution with a disinterest and entitlement that is both shocking and amusing. Of course, the political angle is never allowed to distract too much from the sex. What’s the point of hiring attractive young performers if they’re not naked half of the time?

Attentive moviegoers won’t be surprised by the crude mix of fascinating personal upheavals and conventional, convenient plot twists that punctuate the picture’s resolution. Offhand comments (like the film’s title) and subtle details from seemingly throwaway scenes pay off in unexpected, satisfying ways. The boys discover more about each other than either could anticipate, just as Luisa finally comes to terms with her failed marriage and immediate future. (The audience has to come to terms with the fact that Luisa is less a real woman and more a dramatic contrivance.)

In one joyously drunken moment near the end of their journey, Luisa leads the boys in a toast to their country. Luisa, the European, celebrates Mexico for its abundance of life. Tenoch and Julio enthusiastically second her sentiments, but the film’s denouement makes it clear the degree to which they are able and willing to embrace life’s possibilities. In his bracingly jaundiced, if facile, take on the political and the personal, Alfonso Cuarón poses the same question about Mexico and its future.

Peroxide Bland

Life or Something Like It
Directed by Stephen Herek

The very blonde young teen who exited the theater ahead of me said it best: “Oh, Angelina is so beautiful!” Through a brave, teary smile, her equally blonde friend agreed. That is about the most emotion, genuine or not, that I witnessed at the screening of this purported romantic comedy.

Yes, Angelina Jolie, as Seattle television reporter Lanie Kerrigan, is distractingly beautiful, even under the overcoifed, virtually platinum blonde hair that one might expect to find satirized in a John Waters film. Unfortunately, Jolie’s exquisite bone structure and nearly lascivious lips can’t distract us from the fact that there is nothing substantial in Lanie or, for that matter, in Life or Something Like It.

Jolie wears a plucky smile throughout much of the film no matter what befalls her, disastrous or fortunate. When she hears from the scruffy street prophet, Jack (Tony Shalhoub), that she is going to die within the week, the news is digested with the same superficiality she shows when learning of her promotion to a featured spot on a popular network morning talk show telecast live from New York.

And since she doesn’t invest the proceedings with much emotional depth, neither do we. It’s shocking and saddening to see the normally cool and knowing Jolie cluelessly foundering in John Scott Shepherd’s and Dana Stevens’ trite, predictable screenplay, which seems pulled from hoarier tombs than even Jolie’s Lara Croft raided.

Nor do we care a jot about her realizing that her star baseball player boyfriend is not her soulmate. It seems that role is meant for her blunt cameraman, Pete (Edward Burns), who lamely claims not to be attracted to Lanie despite his obvious attraction to her. Burns self-extinguishes just as badly as Jolie, and there is certainly no flame, let alone spark, between them. Their pairing makes the recent Richard Gere and Winona Ryder feature, Autumn in New York, seem like a trenchantly observed masterpiece.

Whether or not Lanie’s mortality issues grab naive moviegoers, one thing seems certain: The film should be dead, or something like it, in a week.

—Ralph Hammann

Beyond the Veil

Kandahar
Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

For a considerably more nuan-ced look at the old, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than one is likely to find on any cable news outlet, there is Kandahar. Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf paints a stark, documentary-style portrait of a country ravaged by 20 years of war, picked over by bandits and ruled by a theocracy whose reactionary nature is only exceeded by its uselessness as governing authority.

Nafas (Niloufar Pazira) is an expatriate Afghani lured back to her desolate homeland by a desperate letter from her sister. The sister, maimed by war and suffocating under the cruelties of life for women under the Taliban regime, plans to kill herself after the last solar eclipse of the last century.

Nafas is Westernized, independent, and a journalist. Her naive confidence and breezy determination to reach the city of Kandahar and save her sister seem quixotic from the beginning. (By the time she reaches the Afghan border, there are only two days left before the eclipse.) She departs from Iran in the guise of being the fourth wife in an Afghan family also trying to return home. Barely on their way, they are forced to turn back. Nafas is left alone, and her real adventure begins.

If this sounds a bit contrived, that is how it plays out on screen. (It doesn’t help matters that Pazira’s performance is placid to the point of being inexpressive.) As a character, however, Nafas is sufficient as a device for the film to take the audience on its grim journey.

The fact that a woman can’t travel unaccompanied becomes Nafas’ constant problem. She must rely on men for help, in a place where men aren’t supposed to help such women. In turn, she meets an engaging if slightly menacing young boy named Khak (Sadou Teymouri); an expatriate African-American named Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantai), whose search for God led him to a spiritual dead-end; and Hayat (Hoyatala Hakimi), a crafty survivor whose blunt wiles are her best hope for reaching her sister in time.

The Taliban are barely mentioned by name, but the oppression of their regime is everywhere. There are the all-male religious schools where the Koran and the Kalishnikov are the only subjects of study; the intellectual and physical poverty of a society in which all forms of modernism (except, as one character wryly observes, weaponry) are banned; the onerous strictures placed on the behavior of women. If everyone in this Afghanistan is in a kind of societal prison, then women, forced to wear the dehumanizing, head-to-toe covering of the burqa, are in a literal prison.

Subversively, however, the filmmaker suggests that however awful the Taliban are, Afghanistan is so utterly broken that most of the characters are too preoccupied with mere survival to worry about niceties like freedom. Starvation, disease, and the terrifying, omnipresent land mines left over from wars hot and cold are more tangible oppressors. When Nafas finally faces her own and her sister’s fates, however, Makhmalbaf couldn’t be clearer in making the point that it is the Taliban, and their brand of organized lunacy, who have the final say.

—S.S.


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