Archive for October 2020

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 23, 2020


“I was tucking in my shirt” might just be the movie critique of the year. Then again, look at the year. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen brings his big-hit satirical character Borat Sagdiyev out of retirement, and the result is sporadically explosive, with more obviously staged sequences than I remember the original 2006 Borat having. Here, Borat is apparently too recognizable to Americans from his previous film, so he puts on a fake fat suit, a beard, and a wig that all make him look like an Amish elder who’s gotten into too much butter. There are some scenes where Baron Cohen, in one disguise or another, interacts with people who don’t seem in on the prank, and many others where Borat hangs out with characters clearly played by actors — a couple of QAnon hicks, a black woman Borat hires to look after his 15-year-old daughter.

The daughter, Tutar, is very much the movie’s saving throw, and the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress who plays her, Maria Bakalova, swipes the movie right out from under Baron Cohen’s thick mustache. He lets her run with it, knowing what she brings to the party. Tutar is intended as a gift to Mike Pence on behalf of Borat’s mother country Kazakhstan, but her babysitter points her towards feminist awakening and rejection of the fearful sexism Borat teaches her. Loudly and crassly, at fancy events for shocked rich white people, Tutar embraces the feminine. Some of the movie’s more screamingly funny moments (it’s too bad we can’t see this in a packed and roaring theater as it deserves) don’t involve Borat at all; it’s all Tutar, and Bakalova jumps into each fresh outrage with both feet, hungry for life and pleasure. 

The shirt-tucking moment has gotten all the press, but really it doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, which is to say — to quote All the President’s Men — “these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” So to speak. It’s a good gotcha moment, but in truth, the subject’s predatory leers beforehand tell a more disturbing story. Maria Bakalova deserves hazard pay, not only for the “sex attack” she may have narrowly sidestepped but for sitting within feet of America’s mayor as he coughs and hacks into his hands. Much of the movie was shot as the COVID crisis unfolded, and I’m sure the production observed strict protocols, but it’s still a chilling moment. This is a man so monstrously privileged and delusional he just figures your space is his space. He moves in a world where he gets to accompany a very young-looking girl to a bedroom, lie down, and stick his hand down his pants. Or he gets to cough at her.

This Borat sequel has nine writing credits (the original had five), and there are stretches where you can feel the chaos being wrested into a narrative, an arc wherein Borat learns to love and respect his daughter. It’s a far different movie than the first Borat was; it feels like a transitional film from Borat’s punk-brat origins to something with more heart, albeit Hollywood heart. Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, apparently continues to think anti-semitism is smashingly funny, or at least allows for dark satirical doodling. Some will no doubt chafe at the scene in which Baron Cohen brings out Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans to inform Borat that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. I think, for Baron Cohen, anti-semitism represents all other forms of idiotic hate, and as always, the sharpest scenes come when Baron Cohen can get random folks on camera heartily agreeing with Borat’s blinkered, almost childlike racism. Stick around for the end credits — no mid-credits scene, but an absolute stomper of a cover of “Everybody Dance Now” by the Russian punk band Little Big.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

October 19, 2020

chicago 7If the titular trial of the Chicago 7 hadn’t happened, writer-director Aaron Sorkin would’ve had to invent it. It has everything that brings a spring to Sorkin’s step: the hostile contrapuntal duets of the courtroom, the urgently witty walk-and-talks, the blind spot for women. (Women exist here generally to tell their men to be careful or to entrap men while undercover for the police. Because it’s Sorkin, they do get to be as snarky as everyone else.) I’d be dishonest if I said The Trial of the Chicago 7 wasn’t engaging, though it feels a little … light. The stakes don’t seem as high as they might. We spend most of our time with eight men (if we count, as we should, Bobby Seale) and their defenders, and that’s essentially why we don’t want them to go to jail. The larger point, that the system was trying to make dissent unlawful, is somewhat glossed over in favor of the combustible (or square) personalities in play.

The movie is framed and edited so that it goes like a shot and doesn’t, for the most part, feel like a filmed play, which it unavoidably is. It’s constructed as candy for actors, and for all the showboating on display, the strongest presence is John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the sort of activist you put on the stand because he looks like the bland folks you’ve got to convince. Lynch plays Dellinger as the glue, the lifelong agitator (he was a conscientious objector during WWII) who knows exactly how far to push before the authorities will push back. He doesn’t get any grandstanding speeches. He doesn’t need them. The movie says that if your anti-war movement needs media clown princes like Abbie Hoffman, it also needs reliable potatoes like Dellinger.

Hoffman the sardonic Yippie gets the red-carpet treatment from Sorkin and from Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays him as an attention junkie who’s smarter than he lets on — and that’s part of his media image, too, the stoned goofball who can whip out quotes from Lincoln and scripture. If the movie has a lead, though, it’s Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, the presentable young man who only misspoke, telling the crowd at a heated point, “Let us make sure that if blood flows, it flows all over the city,” when he meant to say “if our blood flows,” meaning not the cops’ blood. Abbie Hoffman’s diagnosis of this statement as a grammatical whiff on Hayden’s part — dammit, man, you always forget your possessive pronouns! — is perhaps the movie’s weirdest moment of triumph.

It’s clear from the flashbacks to the event that the police herded the protestors into a fight-or-flight position, except that flight wasn’t possible. Sounds quite a bit like the tactics used by the Portland police last summer, though of course the film was written (Sorkin started work on the script in 2007) and shot (last fall) long before the widespread protests that made the movie and its story feel freshly relevant. Unlike, say, Spike Lee or Oliver Stone, Sorkin has resisted the temptation to use contemporary news footage to comment on the past (which, as Stone reminded us at the end of JFK, is prologue). Sorkin isn’t a hot-blooded activist like those two men; it’s combative dialogue and not injustice that gets his creative juices going.

Generally, Sorkin’s debates come down to two people, like Tom Cruise versus Jack Nicholson. Here, the two voices raised in anger are essentially on the same side, disagreeing on the style of revolt. You have Tom Hayden, the principled young man you’d bring home to meet your mother. And you have Abbie Hoffman, no less principled but scruffy and redolent of weed and media stunts. These opposed egos almost render Judge Julius Hoffman (in a contemptuous, near-Nixonian turn by Frank Langella) irrelevant to the fracas. Judge Hoffman can only confine the left’s bodies; Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden are fighting for their hearts and minds. In the end it’s Abbie the hound and doper and mischief-maker who takes the stand and quietly speaks for reason, while Hayden does his own brand of grandstanding by reading aloud in court the names of the American dead in Vietnam (did he really? yes and no, mostly no). Sorkin doesn’t do anything so gauche as to depict a grudging but firm climactic handshake between Tom and Abbie before the end credits, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see it.

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

October 11, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-10-11 at 3.51.14 PMAlmost everyone in the new documentary Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something smiles when talking about him, and Chapin himself, who died at 38 in a 1981 car wreck, is seldom seen in the movie without a smile. Even when performing some of his saddest story-songs — “Taxi,” “A Better Place to Be,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” — Chapin wore his irrepressible grin, because in these songs he was working with two things that meant a lot to him: music and humanity. His joy was unquestionable and contagious. What we see in this film, though, is that his musical project was inextricable from his life project; he didn’t just sing about the downtrodden worthy of help — he worked to help them.

By hanging his film on the structure of Chapin’s awakening as a man who agitated endlessly for change, director Rick Korn avoids the trap of the conventional rockumentary — the drugs (Chapin was a straight-edge), the rise and fall (Chapin may have given away lots of time and money, but he never really fell), the comeback. Part of the point of When in Doubt, Do Something is that, in the ways that would have mattered to Chapin, he never died, never went away, so never “came back.” His musical legacy is rock-solid, but his political legacy — not only his charity foundations that survive him after almost forty years but the activists he inspired, from Bob Geldof to Michael Moore — almost outpaces it. Chapin might have thought it was nice if someone happened upon “Taxi” and felt less lonely, but he would’ve grinned his grin to hear that one of his charities filled a belly.

Korn is generous with concert clips anyway, and the literally homey sound of Chapin’s voice — making his songs feel like something you came home to, something that wrapped you against the cold outside in the warmth of story — rings clear. We see a few people (Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen) make noble efforts to cover his songs; his brother Tom comes closest to nailing that affably sympathetic I’ve-got-a-tale-to-tell-you tone (and Tom has the film’s dramatic highlight, heartbroken and almost losing it while performing “Remember When the Music” at Harry’s memorial service). To the extent that Chapin’s music informed his politics and vice versa, the movie gives his songbook its due, but perhaps only as the thing Chapin used to get where he really needed to be — in a room with President Jimmy Carter, talking Christ down from the cross until Carter in essence said “Okay, enough! I agree with you! Let’s do something!”

Chapin comes across in the film not as a saint but as simply a good man, who in the years after his death might have been diagnosed as a type-A personality. Sometimes in entertainment-media fairy tales you hear the beloved story of the star who gives everything of himself and still, mysteriously, has some left for his family. I have a feeling you had to be accustomed to a certain frequency of scattered energy level to hang with Harry Chapin. He sometimes reads here, in anecdotes and in interview footage of him, as the kind of guy who would give away a bunch of his royalty earnings to help feed the hungry but not save aside enough to pay the electric bill.

A few of his old friends and co-activists who reminisce about him here — Sen. Patrick Leahy (age 40 in the vintage footage, with the hair of a 70-year-old), priest turned rock DJ Bill Ayres — seem to be plugged into a similar vibe. They’re still here, still working for change. Chapin, who would have been 78 this year — and who likely would still be here if not for the semi-truck that rear-ended his VW — would be matching them step for step. When in Doubt, Do Something, like Chapin himself, thinks it’s all well and good that he got up onstage and reached millions with his empathy, but his true work on Earth was putting that empathy into real practice. When that fact clicks into place, we understand why so many people who talk about him smile.


October 4, 2020

posessor Surprises abound on the movie beat. If a filmmaker’s debut feature doesn’t do it for you, a second chance might be in order, and I thought Brandon Cronenberg, who bowed with the tedious and unpleasant Antivirus eight years ago, was still serious and sincere enough to merit further scrutiny. Cronenberg’s new one, Possessor, sadly confirms my earlier response. Cronenberg, whose father is the legendary director David, is certainly no dummy, and he doesn’t go for cheap thrills, or indeed any thrills. His work sure is gory, though, and the violence is crueler than it needs to be while not really engaging our emotions — just our gag reflex. People are always slipping and sliding on bloody floors, the soles of their sneakers squeaking around in puddles of gore. You can’t say Cronenberg romanticizes murder or death at all. It’s presented as a sticky, soul-scorching and repulsive experience.

Does this mean that Cronenberg has earned a third visit from me? I’m afraid not. Possessor is bleak and cold, out of touch with ordinary feeling. Like the recent She Dies Tomorrow, the film takes off from a premise of fantasy but isn’t moved to explore the premise’s nuts and bolts, preferring to study the humans involved and create a mood. The problem is that there are no humans in Possessor, and the mood is dreary and depressing. Andrea Riseborough appears as Tasya Vos, a futuristic assassin who jacks into another person’s consciousness and rides their body around, eventually committing murder. Tasya’s main problem is that the host bodies of this neural hijacking are supposed to blow their own brains out after the job is done, and Tasya can’t bring herself to do it. The first time she does it in the movie, she engineers a suicide-by-cop. Her second assignment that we see doesn’t go quite as smoothly.

“Andrea Riseborough is worth watching in anything” is a sentence I can no longer use after Possessor. It’s not her fault; after a certain point, she enters the consciousness of a corporate lackey (Christopher Abbott), and the wounded, numb-spirited Riseborough vanishes into the glowering Abbott, who never manages to suggest being puppeted by Riseborough or even by a woman. (You’d think a filmmaker with Cronenberg’s lineage would have more fun with the concept of a female assassin who finds herself with male equipment and using it on a woman. No fun to be had here.) Riseborough-as-Abbott commits double murder, again with far more sadistic relish than seems necessary given the no-nonsense demands of an assassin; then she loses control over the body, and the body heads for Riseborough’s family’s house. But Cronenberg’s morose, dead-affect treatment of all this aborts any pleasure we might take in the twisty plot.

I understand how unfair it is to compare an artist to his parent. But David Cronenberg, no less serious or contemplative, also brings an astringent wit to his work, as well as deft pacing. David Cronenberg’s films are often hushed and eschew false, easy climaxes, but they move, and almost despite themselves they entertain. His violence, too, is never just gross or off-putting; he usually approaches it with the air of a bemused scientist. The difference between David and Brandon can clearly be seen in the way both men direct Jennifer Jason Leigh. In Cronenberg pere’s 1999 eXistenZ, Leigh had the lead as a videogame designer on the run from her fans’ fatwa, and Cronenberg provided a fun and funky adventure for her, giving her eye-candy support with Jude Law. Cronenberg fils casts Leigh as the scientist who runs this whole secret-agent deal, and here she has the same flat affect everyone else does. It could be anyone in the role. Leigh just sits around in a dark blue room and mumbles bitter mumbo-jumbo. What a waste of a still-vibrant actor! Cronenberg’s punishment should be one screening of Heart of Midnight — Leigh’s equivalent of Vampire’s Kiss — and going to bed without supper.

It could be that Brandon Cronenberg somehow can’t get interesting performances out of interesting actors because he’s not an actor’s director. In that case, he should stick to short films of ideas and avoid grasping at emotional straws that just aren’t there. The only things holding me to Possessor were its unsavory brutality and the dread of more and worse. Now and then Cronenberg tries to employ the language of film to evoke disorientation, but it comes off like a student director playing with film stock or exposure levels. And, as with Antivirus, the movie has a clever premise but offers no clue as to why it was made. We don’t feel any passion behind it, no suggestion why this story needed to be told now in this way. We feel no horror or sadness at the killings, just nausea and distaste for the killers. My only surprise at Possessor was that I managed to sit through all of it.