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Film Review: Borat

Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan



Nothing is sacred anymore.

Thank you, Borat.

The primary battle in the documented journey of British comic Sacha Cohen’s innocently bungling and all-too-curious Kazakh TV journalist across the United States comes not with the real-life characters within his moviefilm, or even with his beleaguered, well-meaning producer trying futilely to keep him in line. It deals, rather, with the logical lengths to which Borat Sagdiyev can misunderstand his largely hospitable subjects, or be misunderstood by them. 

The extent to which you appreciate Borat’s escapades depends almost entirely on how much you buy into what he knows or doesn’t know. Basically, this is the theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief,” the disregarding of a medium’s limitations in the telling of a story. The only difference with Borat is that the violation of these self-imposed limitations (in this case, a chosen format purported to be a documentary) are completely avoidable, which may cause you to take pause with what is occurring.

The plot in Borat is itself of little or no consequence. Borat is commissioned by Kazakh officials to travel to New York City in an effort to create a film about American culture, which is derailed quickly when he becomes infatuated with Pamela Anderson after seeing a Baywatch rerun, and demands that the trip take them to California so that he may marry her.

Cue the hijinks. The long, gratuitous hijinks.

On his trip across the country, Borat attempts, very awkwardly, to assimilate himself into American culture. He goes to driving school, as well as a joke-telling course, in which he inadvertently one-ups the teacher himself. He interviews a group of feminists, who walk out on him, and he brings a prostitute as a guest to a formal dinner party being hosted by a pastor. He goes to a rodeo, where he sings the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He hitchhikes with a band of roving frat boys. It’s a regular baptism by fire. And it persists.

Borat is the gangly merging of a road movie crossed with the Jackass franchise, with the late spirit of the once-indomitable Tom Green thrown in for good measure. If you have laughed heartily at the reckless, without-shame brand of comedy that was employed by either of those two, you will find Boratto be a laugh riot. The last thing that it is, is unfunny. Its laughs are long, its laughs are hard, and may often cause you to collapse into the aisle gasping for air. The sheer preposterousness of each successive segment is almost enough to carry the day on its own, but then, the unwieldy social commentary begins to crop up, and that’s where the film’s dual intentions begin to clash.

As a character, Borat is far from stupid, but thanks to his backwater, morally infastidious upbringing, he just doesn’t understand. We get this right off, starting with the introduction of the townspeople in his Kazakhstani village, but Cohen proceeds to ride this impropriety into the ground. We’re supposed to be sympathetically amused by his naive blundering, but lord, is it hard. His anti-Semitic sentiments elicit nervous laughs from us, the informed, first world viewer for the first time or two, but they rapidly become grating and unfunny. The sophomoric gags, which are predictably numerous, are rolled out in direct contrast with the film’s genuine moments, like the Kazakhs’ unexplained disdain for their neighbors in Uzbekistan. Even as it’s still very funny, we never find out why.

Borat’s verbal slip-up at a rodeo, mentioning Kazakhstan’s support of President Bush’s “War OF Terror” rather than his “War ON Terror,” feels about four shades too cutesy, and a cheap shot that just couldn’t be resisted. Having multiple camera angles to document kids’ reactions to Borat’s acquiring of a bear for protection in his ice cream truck belies the supposed “documentary” format. The film just wasn’t amateurish enough to sell me on the setup; it felt like a talented humorist from a technologically and culturally established country making an approximation of what a Kazakhstani documentary about America might look like.

Those who truly appreciate the gags of a set like the crew from Jackass do so because they can value those guys’ ability to just let something rip, logic and consequences be damned. With them, it’s all or nothing, if you laugh, you laugh, and if you don’t, you don’t. The spectacle is all they have. What they do is not art. It’s full-bore sensationalism for the sake of entertainment. 

In Borat, Cohen attempts to have his cake and eat it too. He is great at spectacle, and great at art, but at what point does the spectacle render the art pointless? Before long, the film becomes insatiable. Cohen has no “stop” button, and it works to his benefit. The film is nowhere near highbrow. In fact, its raunch and its ability to put Borat in some seriously discomfiting and unlikely situations are its defining characteristics. So, why fight it? Sure, two naked men wrestling in their hotel room, bolting through the halls and crashing into a crowded conference room just because they don’t know any better is bound to be funny, but to what end does it serve when you’re trying to tell me that ignorance knows no one culture?

It is possible be funny and send a meaningful message, but with Borat, Sacha Cohen has proven single-handedly that you can be too funny and blow your artistic vision to smithereens. Bigoted, misinformed and oblivious to reality looks the same in Central Asia as it does in the southern United States. Thanks, Sacha, no shit. If you want to serve a side of substantial social critique with your nonstop barrage of unchecked non-sequiteurs, then take longer than 80 minutes. I paid nine bucks. I’ve got time to be wised up.

Directed by: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans



The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion



Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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