Friday, October 30, 2020

Sacha Baron Cohen stars in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The prospect of a second Borat film, coming some 14 years after the original film became a cultural touchstone back in 2006 (and long after catchphrases "Very Nice" and "My Wife" became passé), seemed dubious at best. After all, who in the year of our Lord 2020 could still be fooled by a Borat prank? The answer, unsurprisingly, turned out to be none other than Rudy Giuliani, making what once seemed like a bad idea into one of the year's most essential films.

In the original Borat  Sacha Baron Cohen pulled the mask off of George W. Bush's America in gleefully subversive ways, holding a mirror up to the country and showing us the societal rot underneath the veneer of "compassion conservatism." In Donald Trump's America, the mask is completely gone - so what, if anything, is left to parody? Cohen's targets here are much more specific but also much bigger, with Borat targeting not only Giuliani (and humiliating him in grand fashion), but also Vice President Mike Pence. The plot finds Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) returning to America to atone for shaming his country in his original film by presenting Pence with a celebrated monkey. Instead, Borat's daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), stows away to join him on his quest, so Borat decides to give her to Pence as a gift instead.

Along the way, Borat encounters many every day Americans, and much as he does in the original film, entices them to agree and even build upon his openly racist views. When production is interrupted by the arrival of COVID-19, he bunks up with a couple of Trump supporters who espouse Q-anon conspiracy theories, attends Trump rallies and sings racist songs (much to the glee of the other attendees), and goes to a father/daughter dance where his sexually suggestive antics reveals some creepy behavior from the attending fathers. This time, however, Cohen achieves something almost more subversive than he did in the original film - he manages to find a glimmer of hope for our future amidst the grim surroundings. Rather than go along with his boorish antics, he encounters more people willing to push back against them. Whether it's the elderly Jewish women he encounters in a synagogue who provide him with a warm meal, or the kindly babysitter who watches after his daughter and gently pushes back against some of the ignorant anti-feminist views instilled by her father, or even the Republican women's meeting where the members extend warmth and compassion to the young immigrant girl - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm actually manages to display more than the worst of humanity.

Here, Cohen's targets are more powerful, and by actively seeking out bits of human kindness in the rubble of Trump's America, he actually manages to challenge Trump's hateful rhetoric not just by revealing how terrible it is (Trump has done that well enough on his own), he shows us that perhaps despite the ugliness Trump has brought out in us, that perhaps there is some good in us worth saving. That's what really sets Borat Subsequent Moviefilm away from Cohen's other, more nihilistic firebombs he's lobbed at America's hypocrisy - this film actually has a heart. His relationship with his daughter is actually quite sweet in its own way, and newcomer Maria Bakalova proves herself just as skilled as Cohen when it comes to enticing the powerful to make complete buffoons of themselves on camera. A new Borat film may have seemed like the last thing we needed in 2020, but Cohen proves that there was enough gas left in the tank to not only justify a second outing as the clueless Kazakh, but by tweaking the formula just enough, he's made it feel just as relevant and essential as it was in 2006. Not only is it deeply funny, it's also disarmingly moving - a damning yet hopeful portrait of America in 2020 that leaves us feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM | Directed by Jason Woliner | Stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Tom Hanks, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani | Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and language | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

ELIZABETH DEBICKI and JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic "TENET," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

The would-be savior of cinema turned sacrificial lamb to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christopher Nolan's Tenet was at one time set to draw audiences back to theaters after months of lockdown and quarantine. Instead, its anemic box office proven to be a warning to gun-shy movie studios, who promptly withdrew most of their remaining blockbuster titles from the 2020 calendar, effectively shuttering cinemas for the remainder of the year.

There's a certain irony in Nolan, whose purist views of the cinematic experience and devotion to 35mm film borders on the fanatical, unwittingly becoming the fourth horseman of the cinematic apocalypse, yet despite the fact that Tenet was released to mostly empty multiplexes across America in the middle of a global pandemic, its still something of a fascinating mess. Despite its scale, it isn't difficult to imagine Tenet underperforming at the box office even if everything were normal. It's a twisty, galaxy brained Nolan joint in the vein of Inception and Interstellar, but it's also surprisingly insular, featuring a convoluted time traveling plot that feels more obfuscating than cerebral. Nolan has often excelled at turning mind-bending concepts into accessible mass entertainments, but Tenet's refusal to adhere to its own internal logic feels mind-blowing and more sloppily constructed.

The plot, which centers around a CIA agent's (John David Washington) attempts to thwart an international plot involving "inverted" weaponry that moves backward through time, distributed by a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) working with an unknown force from the future, is fairly straightforward. But once the characters start moving both backwards and forwards through time, often simultaneously, Nolan's weaknesses as an action director become painfully clear. Make no mistake, Tenet is an often electrifying grand scale thriller that tackles bold structural concepts, but its execution is a decidedly mixed bag. When this thing works, it really works, but when it doesn't it's borderline incoherent.

Yet despite its flaws, Tenet is nothing if not fascinating, and Nolan's go-for-broke gamble of having two planes of action moving in different directions through time is riveting (harkening back to his breakout film, Memento), even if it isn't always cohesive. The thundering score by Ludwig Göransson takes center stage in the film's overwhelming sonic landscape, and is responsible for many of Tenet's most jaw-dropping moments. And despite many reports of "humorlessness," the film is often quite funny, trafficking in a droll kind of "blink and you'll miss it" humor that offers a welcome respite from the film's grim sense of weight. And while the threads Nolan weaves don't always successfully connect, the grandiosity of his vision is hard to shake. Tenet takes risks; they don't always pay off, but for those who have been able to experience it in a theater, it offers a return to a kind of big screen magic that home movie viewing just can't replicate. That it ultimately bites off more than it can chew is almost beside the point, but even in its imperfections Tenet is the kind of risky, unwieldy mainstream entertainment that we rarely see anymore in a time of increasing artistic homogenization. Is it the savior of cinema? No. But it's a good reminder of what we stand to lose.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TENET | Directed by Christopher Nolan | Stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.