Delhi Combo and Mexican Takeout

Reviews of Monsoon Wedding and Y Tu Mama Tambien

Sex, exotic worlds and lots of tasty and nutritious food for thought — oh, and did I mention sex? — are front and center in a trio of unique new films opening in the Bay area this week. Not all of the films are entirely successful, but their arrival comes not a second too soon for bored-silly cinephiles faced with the prospect of choosing between that new Cameron Diaz romantic comedy or sitting through Blade 2 for the third time. If it's the sex angle that really floats your boat here, proceed directly to Y Tu Mama Tambien, a smart but seriously steamy Mexican import about, among other things, two teenage boys living out their fantasies with a willing older woman. If you like your sex on the sweetly romantic side, mixed with all manner of cultural exotica and expertly folded into a firsthand look at one of the most fascinating spots on the planet, then India is the place, and Monsoon Wedding is the movie for you.

A masala even more spicy and resonant than her 1988 debut Salaam Bombay, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding takes all the exuberance and exotic color of a big budget Bollywood spectacle and combines it with the layered, multiple story lines and witty social observations of a Robert Altman film. The event around which all the various story strands whirl is a wedding — a ritual that Altman himself, like so many of his filmmaker colleagues, has milked more than once to considerable dramatic and comedic effect. Taking a cue from Altman, Nair sets her wedding in a distinctly upper-middle class milieu (a 180-degree turn from the dirt-poor mean streets of Salaam Bombay), while leaving herself enough room around the edges to examine a variety of different social strata, attitudes and ethnicities.

Nair actually manages to out-Altman Altman, deftly introducing us to a cast of characters that's every bit as sprawling and more complexly intertwined than any ensemble Big Bob's treated us to in recent years. We get parents, in-laws, brothers, sister, uncles, aunts, friends, lovers and, of course, the bride herself — a zaftig, angel-faced woman-child who's about to enter into an arranged marriage with a man she's never seen before.

Perhaps the most memorable relationship in Monsoon Wedding is also its most unlikely, an inexplicable but ultimately enchanting affection that blooms between an annoying wedding planner and the family's household servant. Nair's film treads a delicate balance between being an idealized Bollywood fantasy world where all things are possible and a gritty and unglamorized slice of life that wouldn't be at all out of place in a hip American indie.

Above all else, Monsoon Wedding is a comedy, sweet, light and thoroughly life-affirming, but Nair punctuates her story with documentary-like footage of the barely controlled chaos of life in the Delhi streets. It is against this intensely colorful and very real backdrop — the shops, the noise, the endless streams of people — that the entire movie plays out. The film was shot quickly, on a low budget and apparently with a considerable amount of improvisation, all of which translates into a product that feels, for the most part, fresh and full of energy.

The film tips its hat to Bollywood more than once with a series of predictable, all-but-obligatory plot points, mostly revolving around the ways that love affirms and reaffirms itself among the movie's various characters. As in all Bollywood flicks, mandatory deep-dark secrets are revealed and eventually resolved, and there's even a full-blown musical number or two (most notably a song performed at what I assume passes for a bachelorette party in India). To her great credit, Nair handles all of these tried and true elements with such affection, grace and natural humor that they easily transcend the cliches they might very well have become.

Speaking of unbearable urges, the two 17-year-old boys at the center of Y Tu Mama Tambien can barely control themselves — and while in Hollywood that would generally translate into another variation on American Pie, here it makes for one hell of a movie. Alternately exuberant, wry and bittersweet, this blatantly sexual Mexican import is something of a road-trip movie as well as a coming-of-age film. To be sure, quite a bit of it is about just plain cumming.

The bare bones of the story are simple: Best pals Tenoch and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna from Amores Perros) are typical happy-go-lucky, hormone-crazed, teen party animals, utterly consumed with visions of pussy and getting high, and given to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with mottoes like "It only hurts when I think." The two friends meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu), an attractive older woman, and can barely believe their luck when, on an impulse, she agrees to come with them on a trip to what they describe as the perfect beach (and which the boys just happen to have invented). One thing leads to another, emotions and impulses broil away under the surface and then erupt, and everyone eventually winds up sleeping with everyone else.

The beauty and originality of Y Tu Mama Tambien lies not just in its empathy for its characters and its attention to the details of its landscape (a wonderful montage of small towns and Mexican roadside villages) but in its extraordinary honesty — an honesty that fully extends to the sexual realm and that manages to be both blunt and eloquent, often at the same time. The movie opens with one of the most no-holds-barred lovemaking scenes since Betty Blue and then regularly infuses itself with all manner of full-frontal fun. There's little that feels "composed" about the abundant sex in Y Tu Mama Tambien — it's frequently clumsy and haphazard, just as in real life, and all the more erotic and effective for it.

Director Alfonso Cuaron (atoning for the mainstream sins of Great Expectations) works in some interesting Godard-like sonic experiments, periodically cutting off the natural sound and replacing it with a voice-over of matter-of-fact commentary on what we're seeing and not seeing. The narrator's curiously deadpan observations cast the film in a strange, almost ghostly light as if we're watching people, places and events through a dark prism, reflecting a time long past.

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