Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of seven people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: All of these years I knew I had a good education in high school and in college.  I keep up with the news, I read books, I watch enough Jeopardy! and movies and television to know a thing or two about a thing or two but I almost comically have to admit something.  History buffs, please put down your virtual stones and don’t hate me but I wasn’t familiar with the Chicago 7 before I fired up The Trial of the Chicago 7, now available to stream on Netflix.  Weird, right?  The names Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin were familiar to me for other reasons and I was surprised that such an event could occur that I wouldn’t have at least peripherally tied to the trial over some medium.  Hey, you learn something new everyday, though, so I guess my lesson this particular week was related to the historic court case charging seven individuals with various crimes related to demonstrations and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

If you’re thinking this hyper-politically charged time we’re living in would be a prime time for a retelling of a landmark case brought by the government under not so honorable circumstances, you’d be correct.  Add writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) to the mix and you have sparks flying with Sorkin’s traditional rapid-fire banter helping to establish mood and place, not to mention character and intent from the start.  Right off the bat we feel like these are well-formed individuals because even if they may not talk like us (Sorkin’s prose is great but, let’s face it, no one talks like he writes) they are speaking a language that instantly engages you in small ways, helping to paint a picture in your mind.

The events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago are doled out gradually once the film has introduced us to the defendants by way of brief glimpses into their preparing to head to the event.  Passing glimpses at Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) & Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, The Hustle), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, The Invitation), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) & Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, Les Misérables), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, The Assistant), John Froines (Danny Flaherty, Hope Springs) show all signs point to the men having fairly benign plans for the day. From there, we jump forward to Washington D.C. when a young attorney (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Premium Rush) under a new administration is prodded into the prosecution of eight men that were arrested in connection with a string of crimes the former administration had declined to prosecute.  How we get from eight men to seven is something Sorkin will illustrate as he takes us through the lengthy trial that goes on for multiple months and is governed by a tyrannical judge (Frank Langella, Robot & Frank) who may be losing his mind.  A defense attorney for the majority of the men, William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance, The BFG), struggles to make his case in the face of prosecutorial tampering and a judge that doesn’t remember some of his own rulings.

Little doubt remains that this trial was a huge miscarriage of justice and had enormous complexity given the scope of the charges and men involved.  Sorkin’s film also feels equally enormous with a lot of ground to cover and a clock ticking down to get it all in.  What I thought would be the film’s climax turned out to be the first of several false ones and it started to drag as it approached its second hour, a rare occurrence for a Sorkin film that often chugs along with the energy of a locomotive.  Perhaps it’s due to the structure of having to tell so many competing storylines that rarely converge on each other or more likely its because not all of the Chicago 7 are as interesting as the rest.  It might even come down to performance…because I think there is great acting going on here as well as some goofy attempts at faux-counterculture attitude.

For instance, I think Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is a strong interpretation of the social activist known for his courtroom antics and outspoken public behavior.  Baron-Cohen is known for creating these larger than life roles that are often obnoxious and finally he’s playing a character that is actually obnoxious and he manages to make him a comfortable fit.  On the flip side, recent Emmy-winner Strong is completely out to sea as Jerry Rubin, giving the exact type of nuts and berries performance you’d expect when you hear the word “hippie” – no surprises here.  I think Rylance could have done this part in his sleep and he looks at half-mast for most of the film, as does Redmayne who feels more concerned about maintaining his American accent and keeping his hands in his pockets than delivering a single focused line-reading.  The best acting going on in the film is far and away Langella as the lunatic judge who terrorizes the defendants, jurors, prosecution, and probably anyone he comes in contact with.  Still one of the finest actors working, Langella should be justly rewarded for his wonderful work.

While I ultimately appreciated the history lesson and education brought on by The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s fractured time frame and tendency to tell instead of show gets a bit oppressive after some time.  The court moments are the most energetic and where Sorkin finds the best sequences to shine.  That’s when things really pick up and a rhythm is established.  It’s when we head out of that space where The Trial of the Chicago 7 becomes, well, a trial.

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2012)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

ReviewFair Warning Note:  It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers.  I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…

 

In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be.  In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.  As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.

Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought.  Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself?  Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.

If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded.  Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.

Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here.  What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him.  Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.

Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner.  A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again.  The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.

Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie.  Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost.  Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character.  My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud.  Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs.  “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.

In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for.  He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it.  Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me.  His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.

Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together.  London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late.  She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”.  Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers.  Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.

Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie.  I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her.  Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work.  She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film.  If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.

Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes.  Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is.  I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever.  Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.

Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences.  A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for.  Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.

As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me.  What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.