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Film/Video Reviews

Foreign films reviewed with a discerning eye.

Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

It is the 1890s and India is still occupied by the British army. A commander I'm going to call "slimy British guy," after the local Raja refuses to eat meat, decides to double the tax (or "lagaan") that the province pays to the crown. The raja feels helpless to do anything but pass on the news.

In a local village, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and his friends hear the news, and since the lagaan involves giving ten percent of their grain, they go to talk to the Raja. The raja is watching the soldiers play a game of cricket, which Bhuvan and his friends ridicule, likening it to a game that only children play. Slimy British guy challenges Bhuvan to a game with high stakes: if Bhuvan's team wins, they lagaan will be removed for three years; but if the British win, the tax will be tripled. After much consideration, Bhuvan accepts.

This is only the first hour of what turns into an epic (almost four hours) film of struggle, friendship, and redemption. Bhuvan's village is furious with him, because they know they cannot win. And it has not rained yet this season, so what are they going to eat, let along pay lagaan with? But with help from a surprising source, Bhuvan assembles a ragtag team of players, including one with a crippled right hand.

Lagaan is a fabulous film from the Indian "Bollywood" film industry, made of feelgood films where people break into song at unexpected moments. I loved this film, the acting was phenomenal all around. In fact, it is only now, writing this, that I even considered it to be "acting." Star/producer Aamir Khan draws us into the story of Bhuvan and his friend Gauri (the lovely Gracy Singh, in her first film) steals all her scenes with grace and beauty. It's a joyous film with the requisite happy ending (sort of like Major League with cricket, except a lot better) and the humor and music raise it above anything Hollywood has put out since its golden days. If this film were in English, it would be a blockbuster. I've made it my job to make sure that you watch it so more like it will be made and more people will know about Lagaan.

Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding

Director Mira Nair has gone back to her roots with Monsoon Wedding, a loving portrait (from a screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan) of one Delhi family's preparations for their daughter's wedding.

The action takes place over five days with the daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) still in the midst of an affair with a married man, cousin Ria's (Shefali Shetty) witnessing of the corruption of another young cousin by the same uncle that abused her, and wedding planner P.K. Dubey's (Vijay Raaz) growing affection for housegirl Alice (Tilotama Shome). The mixture of the celebration of the wedding with the tension behind the scenes is perfectly balanced, with the love story countering the discomfort of the mildly-approached incest.

Nair truly knows these people (she said she has wanted to do a modern-day "Delhi dot-com family" portrait) and the details are what make Monsoon Wedding so evocative. Despite the uncomfortable subject matter, it is a purely enjoyable film and is much more layered--and therefore a much better film--than its sitcom-ish counterpart, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which was obviously geared to a more mainstream audience).

Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos)

Cesar is a handsome man who can have any woman he wants. His current relationship is with a woman named Nuria. But his best friend Pelayo comes to Cesar's birthday party with Sofia on his arm. Cesar notices Sofia immediately and they hit it off. He thinks he may even be in love. In fact, he spends the evening at her apartment, doing nothing sexual by choice. When he leaves in the morning, he finds Nuria waiting outside. After coercion from her, he rides away with her. She drives him and herself off the road, killing herself and severely mangling his face.

Then the fun starts.

Is Cesar really mangled? His psychiatrist seems to think not. (The story is told by Cesar to his psychiatrist in a mental hospital where he is staying because he was blamed for Nuria's death.) But when he looks in the mirror, that's all he sees. Is Nuria really dead? Does Sofia even exist? These are all questions you will be asking yourself, and that are sufficiently answered, but not until your mind has been taken on a rollercoaster ride of suspense and confusion. I was only able to predict one plot turn in advance, and I have seen several movies of this ilk.

Just sit back and enjoy this ride from The Others director Alejandro Amenabar.

Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También

Alfonso Cuarón directed this coming-of-age film about two teenagers who go on a road trip with an older woman, specifically the wife of one's cousin.

Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal from Amores Perros) are best friends who offer to take Luisa (Maribel Verdú) to a private beach they call Heaven's Mouth. Along the way, she seduces both of them and they bond in an even more lasting way. But love can hurt.

First off, this is a film for adults. The extreme amount of sexual talk, activity, and just plain nudity gave this unrated Mexican film a lot of controversial publicity. Otherwise, I may never have heard of it. (There is an R-rated version which I did not see, but I can't imagine what they would have had to cut out to receive that rating. There is a rumored cut--made to pass Mexican censors--that is ten minutes long.)

It also received rave reviews, which I will say right now it deserved. Y Tu Mamá También is one of the best films I saw in 2002. The acting is amazing. I believed that Tenoch and Julio had known each other since childhood although they were obviously two actors who had never met before.

And it's a fun film. Road trip movies usually are about the events encountered along the way and there are plenty of those, but this is more about what happens inside the car among the three vulnerable people: Luisa who has a secret, and Tenoch and Julio each hoping to be the one to receive her "attention."

Y Tu Mamá También is definitely worth a viewing, and is probably worthy of multiple viewings. It's one of those movies you watch and then cannot stop thinking about.

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro

Yet another triumph from director Akira Kurosawa and his favorite star, Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo is one of the more influential films Kurosawa made. Although the simple "man in the middle pitting two sides against each other" has been seen as early as Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, Yojimbo has been remade twice (as A Fistful of Dollars and the Walter Hill/Bruce Willis actioner Last Man Standing) and has long been recognized as one of the greatest samurai films ever made.

Mifune stars as Sanjuro, a run-down samurai with no current direction. He happens upon a village with two feuding factions and instantly sees the opportunity. He hires himself out as a bodyguard, first to one then the other and has them wipe each other out with little physical effort of his own.

But don't think that Kurosawa misses any opportunity to show off Sanjuro's skill with the sword. However, their appearances are few and therefore to be treasured. Mifune is perfect as the has-been samurai and Kurosawa's dark sense of humor has never been so showcased.

Although not as praised as his masterpiece Seven Samurai, Yojimbo is more accessible to the average viewer and is thus a perfect introduction to the director's work.

Its sequel, Sanjuro, while surely the lesser film, is no less enjoyable. Originally a different story that was later rewritten for Mifune's samurai character, this time Sanjuro chooses sides with a group of young samurai against a corrupt official. With his help, they manage to defeat the official and rescue two women hostages.

The story is much simpler this time around, but Mifune is the whole show here. His character, so wonderful in Yojimbo, is just as much fun in Sanjuro. Watching him rub his stubble in thought while he surprises people with the skill hidden under his rough exterior is a great joy and I can't imagine any other actor being able to pull it off. His easy confidence is an inspiration to "not judge a book by its cover."

The final duelling scene is notable for a tremendously bloody battle between the defeated official and Sanjuro. The carnage is almost laughable in its volume, but somehow Kurosawa makes it work in the context of his story.

Those who have not seen Yojimbo would still enjoy Sanjuro as it is simpler and thus more acceptable to a mass audience, but viewing them together gives one a fuller portrait of this enigmatic freelance samurai. A man who seems to always show up when he is needed, and then move on before he has worn out his welcome.

    Foreign films in other categories
  • Amelie -- Especially stylish, this delightful romantic comedy is from the director of City of Lost Children.
  • The City of Lost Children -- From the premier style director Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes a darkly fantastic tale of longing.
  • Deep in the Woods -- A French slasher film. Who'da thought?
  • Diabolique -- The suspenseful French film Hitchcock just missed making.
  • Run Lola Run -- Lola has to get money to her boyfriend in twenty minutes and the film shows three different possible outcomes.
  • ...more to come...