Borat; Volver

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“Borat” may be dangerous to your health; there must be a limit to how many convulsions a belly can take without trauma. Sacha Baron Cohen’s stunningly funny mockumentary functions as a sort of Candide Camera focused on Borat Sagdiyev, a lascivious and blithely bigoted journalist from Kazakhstan who traps hapless Americans into taking him seriously as he crosses the United States in a decrepit ice cream truck on a voyage of wide-eyed, hare-brained discovery.

As fans of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” already know, Borat is one of several alter egos created by Cohen, an English comic actor who uses unveiled insults and brilliantly skewed logic to befuddle real-life interview subjects. In this feature film, which was directed by Larry Charles, the pretext for Borat’s road trip is a TV documentary meant to explain America to audiences at home. Yet the movie takes flight even before Borat leaves an unreal-life Kazakhstan where the national answer to the running of the bulls at Pamplona is an annual event called The Running Of the Jew.

Not surprisingly, the real-life Kazakhstan has registered strong complaints. But Borat’s calumnies have been distributed without fear or favor -- among blacks, gays, women, evangelical Christians, gypsies, fat people, fat cats and frat boys, as well as Jews (of which Sacha Baron Cohen is one.) And insult humor isn’t the character’s only strong suit; if it were, the movie would soon wear out its welcome, even though the running time is only 82 minutes.

What’s so appealing about Borat is the ironclad integrity of his idiocy – mistaking an Oliver Hardy wannabe for Adolf Hitler, a yard sale for a gypsy encampment, an elevator for a hotel room. Borat also combines an unquenchable jubilance with the lechery of Groucho Marx and the taut anxiety of Alan Arkin; he’s a world traveler who can help replenish the New World’s dwindling supply of irreverence. Not since the halcyon days of Archie Bunker and “All In the Family” has so sharp a wit punctured so many balloons.

If truth be told about Sacha Baron Cohen’s vulgarian truth-teller, his antics pale now and then. And a few of those antics go beyond the pale -- not just of good taste, but of taste as we know it. The most startling example is a hideous and hilarious battle between Borat and his producer, who exposes a physique that suggests a Kazakh sumo wrestler.

Having said that, though, I urge you to expose yourself to Borat, a twisted De Tocqueville with a peerless gift for showing us ourselves in a fun-house mirror.

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In the beautiful new film “Volver” (which means “To Return”), the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar gives us nothing less than a shaggy ghost story; a rueful meditation on the culture of death; a slapstick comedy about disposing of a corpse; a celebration of sisterhood, strong women and reconciliation (in other words a return to some of the themes of Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother”), and, at the center of all the swirling action, the saga of one blocked, angry wife and mother – Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda – who comes joyously back to life.

Raimunda’s story is the easiest one to follow – it’s all about mobilizing her formidable talents when the ground beneath her suddenly crumbles – and Cruz’s performance is the easiest one to dress with a necklace of adjectives: dazzling, passionate, witty and mercurial, yet all the while implacably grounded.

It’s hard to say if “Volver” is a great film – hard because every woman and girl in it is so damned endearing (the men are either impediments or bystanders to the real business of life) – but safe to say it’s right up there with Almodóvar’s best, and that’s very high praise indeed.