Movie reviews: 'Borat Subsequent MovieFilm' will make you laugh, but it's also geared to make you think
BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM: 4 STARS
Anyone who ever said, “Is nice,” in a broad unidentifiable accent, or wore a bushy fake moustache or, horror of horrors, donned a fluorescent Mankini Swimsuit Thong for a day at the beach will need no introduction to Borat Sagdiyev.
Fourteen years ago Kazakhstan’s most famous reporter, the comic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, spawned a million Halloween costumes and ten times that in bad, inappropriate impressions.
Now, into a world of fake Borats, the real deal returns. “Borat Subsequent MovieFilm,” streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, once again blurs the line between comedy and tragedy, reality and fiction.
The new movie begins with a chance for redemption. After the events of the first movie Borat was thrown into prison, an embarrassment to his country and family. His son is so ashamed he changed his name from Sagdiyev to Jeffrey Epstein. Only his daughter Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev (Irina Novak) still talks with the family patriarch.
The action begins with Borat being released from prison, cleaned up and once again sent to “Yankeeland” on a mission. His job is to earn the respect of Donald Trump by giving the gift of a monkey to “Vice Premier Pence.” When Borat arrives though, the monkey is gone from its packing crate. In its place is Sandra. “My daughter is here,” Borat reports back to Kazakhstan. “Should I give her as a gift?”
Thus, begin the journey that will see Borat and Sandra meet with a real-life cast of characters that offers cringe worthy insight into Western culture. There’s an Instagram influencer who teaches Sandra to be submissive to increase her appeal to men.
“You want them to like you so you can get money from them.”
Then two MAGA men take Borat to a rally where he performs a country song—“Journalists! Who wants to inject them with the Wuhan flu? / Chop them up like the Saudis do.”—that elicits cheers and straight-armed salutes from the crowd. And then there’s a debutant ball “fertility dance” that redefines the term OMG.
Those scenes are as nervy and squirmy as humour gets but the sequence everyone will be talking about sees a sit-down interview with Donald Trump’s handsy personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. It begins with Rudy asking, “Did you ever eat a bat?” and goes downhill from there. It is the most outrageous of the film’s several must-be-seen-to-be-believed moments.
It’s not often you can describe a comedy as nerve wracking but “Borat Subsequent MovieFilm” is that film.
Baron Cohen’s audacious work is often hilarious, but it is the danger that comes along with his stunts that pushes the material from funny to fearless. His work is “Candid Camera” with a sharp edge; a cutting satire that mixes real-life undercover reporting with aggressive and often tasteless humour. It is both a high-brow exposé of the dark underbelly of this American election year and a low-brow comedy that will do anything to make you laugh.
Just like the year it is being released, “Borat Subsequent MovieFilm” is a chaotic, uncomfortable experience. It will make you laugh, but is geared to also make you think.
Cue another round of bad Borat impressions.
OVER THE MOON: 3 ½ STARS
Glen Keane brings 43 years of Disney character animation experience to a new film now streaming on Netflix. From “The Little Mermaid’s” Ariel, “Beauty and the Beast’s main character—the Beast, not the Beauty—to the eponymous folks in “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan,” he’s the Disney Legend who created some of the most indelible characters of several eras.
This week he turns his eye, as character designer and director, to “Over the Moon,” a fanciful animated musical loosely based on the Chinese legend of Chang’e, starring the voices of Sandra Oh, Phillipa Soo and Ken Jeong.
The action begins in modern China, four years after the passing of Fei Fei’s (Cathy Ang) mother. She’s smart, funny and a romantic who believes in the legend her parents told her about Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), the Moon Goddess who yearns to be reunited with her true love. Fei Fei is still grieving her mother’s loss when her father (John Cho) becomes involved with another woman Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her 8-year-old child, Chin (Robert G. Chiu).
To prove that love is forever and that her father’s affection for Mrs. Zhong is misplaced, Fei Fei concocts a plan. She builds a rocket ship to visit the moon so she can get evidence of Chang’e existence to prove to her father that love burns eternal. Unbeknownst to her Chin stows away on the adventure to the moon that will help her appreciate what she thinks she is missing on Earth.
“Over the Moon” isn’t a Disney picture, but it feels like one thanks to the Keane touch. The familiar tropes, a deceased parent and adventure, are given a zippy new life with colourful, fun animation and some beautiful sequences like the cross cut between the CGI to the more traditional hand drawn animation in the telling of the legend.
There are flashier more fluorescent sequences later on, particularly in the vivid and abstract Lunaria scenes, but the use of an organic style of animation to illustrate a time-honored story is the first of many of the film’s good decisions.
Also strong is the voice work. As Fei Fei, Ang is feisty and smart as a self-sufficient youngster on a journey of self-discovery. She is no damsel in distress, just a kid looking to make things right in her world. The supporting cast, like Margaret Cho in a dual role and Ken Jeong as Fei Fei’s sidekick Gobi bring the goods as does Soo, who earned a Tony nomination for her work on Broadway in “Hamilton,” but her work leads to one of the film’s minuses.
Soo is a great singer, and has one of the movie’s show-stoppers, a Broadway-by-way-of-Beyonce tune called “Ultraluminary,” but each of the songs feels tacked on in an effort to sell soundtrack downloads. A mix of show tunes, K-Pop and pop music, with the exception of “Rocket to the Moon” none of the tunes feel necessary.
“Over the Moon” is a beautiful movie that celebrates Chinese culture, tells a story of overcoming grief and has some great animation and while the main story beats feel familiar, the high gloss visuals are unpredictable and consistently interesting.
DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA: 4 ½ STARS
Jonathan Demme's “Stop Making Sense,” his movie of an iconic a 1983 Talking Heads live show is considered one of, if not the greatest concert films of all time. Elegant and exciting, it made everything before it seem old fashioned and everything that came after feel like an imitation.
What “Stop Making Sense” was to the 1980s a new concert film, also starring Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, is to these uncertain times. “American Utopia,” directed by Spike Lee and now playing on HBO Max, is a joyful film about everything from protesting injustice and police brutality to optimism and the celebration of life.
It’s got a good message and you can dance to it.
Filmed during the show’s 2019 Broadway run at New York's Hudson Theatre, the film captures the cerebral but exuberant concert that features Byrne, alongside eleven musicians, all dressed alike in skinny grey suits, and all unfettered from amplifiers and the like.
With wireless guitars, keyboards and all manner of other instruments on an empty stage with no other gear or risers, Byrne and Company fill the space with intricate choreography, eclectic songs, new and old, and an uplifting social message of fellowship and faith in humanity. Byrne’s enthusiasm is infectious and Spike Lee, using a combination of you-are-there camera angles, including a beautiful overhead shot, captures the jubilant postmodernist performance in glorious fashion.
It is so much more than a Talking Heads greatest hits package. There are familiar songs like “Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place” and “Once in a Lifetime,” but they seamlessly blend with Byrne’s originals, written for his 2018 solo album of the same name.
Highlights, and there are many, include “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” Byrne’s ode to inclusivity and a potent cover of “Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monae’s protest song about police brutality. The latter song, a call and response featuring names the names of African Americans killed by police, is given extra clout by the addition of Spike Lee’s graphics that update the names mentioned in the song to include dozens of others. It is a powerful moment and an urgent call for change.
“American Utopia” is a gem. A concert film that, like “Stop Making Sense” redefines what live performance can be.
REBECCA: 2 ½ STARS
What the new remake of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas and now streaming on Netflix, lacks in gothic thrills it makes up for in eye candy.
Taking over as handsome widower Maxim de Winter, the role Laurence Olivier made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning 1940 film, is Armie Hammer. Max is a charmer, a trust fund aristocrat with a beautiful estate, called Manderley, and a dead wife, named Rebecca.
On vacation in Monte Carlo a young woman (Lily James) catches his eye when she is refused service on the balcony of a fancy hotel restaurant. She is not a guest, she’s told, but an employee of a guest and therefore must eat elsewhere, anywhere but among the wealthy tourists enjoying their canapes and champagne. He invites her to join him and a whirlwind romance ensues. When her boss decides it’s time to travel to New York for debutant season, Max asks her to stay with a marriage proposal.
They move to Manderley, his family home on the windswept English coast. The sprawling home has been in his family for generations and is so grandly appointed it makes Downton Abbey look like an outhouse. At Manderlay the romance, which blossomed quickly, fades as the specter of Rebecca, the late lady of the estate, hangs heavy over the house and on Max’s mind.
Keeping Rebecca alive in heart and in mind is Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Manderley’s baleful housekeeper. She is not impressed by Max’s naïve new bride who she thinks is trying to take Rebecca’s place.
Cue the dirty tricks, withering glances and gothic tomfoolery.
“Rebecca,” directed by Ben Wheatley, is undeniably beautiful looking. From its good-looking stars to the sumptuous production design is by Sarah Greenwood, it will make your eyeballs dance. The set decoration at Manderley alone is “Architectural Digest: Baroque Edition” worthy, but this is a movie that wants to appeal to more than just your eye and that’s where it disappoints.
The bones of the story seem perfect for a 2020 revisit. du Maurier’s exploration of the power imbalance between a wealthy man and a woman who must fight to find her own sovereignty is timely but undone by a story that never takes hold.
Hammer’s take on Max misses the essential coldness of the character. He’s short tempered, snippy and brusque, but the icy core necessary to freeze out the new Mrs. de Winter is missing. Without that character element his reactions to events don’t bring the friction needed to engage the audience. At the pivotal ballroom scene, where the new bride is (MILD SPOILER ALERT) tricked into making a serious error in judgement, Max seems irked, pouty but the wound that is unintentionally opened doesn’t seem particularly deep. If Max doesn’t care that much, why should we?
From that moment on Wheatley drifts through the story with none of his patented risk taking—think his daring adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s “High-Rise” or his edge-of-your-seat “Kill List”— relying Clint Mansell’s score to provide the emotional highs and lows.
Like the story’s female protagonist the new version of “Rebecca” is haunted, this time by the ghosts of the story’s previous incarnations.
THE CURSE OF AUDREY EARNSHAW: 3 ½ STARS
The folk horror of “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw,” now on VOD, is set in 1973 but feels very much of the moment.
Divided into chapters like I: The Incantation, II: The Descent, “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” builds an atmosphere of dread as it tells the tale of a tiny American community settled by fundamentalist Irish Christians in 1873. Isolated from the modern world, they live a simple agricultural and spiritual life frozen in time at the moment the settlers arrived.
Of concern inside this closed-off community is a pestilence that kills children, crops and livestock. The villagers think a 1956 eclipse is the source their problems. They see it as sign from God and feel powerless to do anything about it.
In that same year a baby was born in secret to Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), an outcast from the local church. Now, seventeen years later that baby, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), has come of age. Suspicious eyes are cast at the Earnshaw farm which is unaffected by the plague. As the villagers starve, Agatha’s fields are ripe with crops and healthy livestock, leading the frantic locals to accuse the mother and daughter of witchcraft.
“The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” breathes the same air as Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” Robert Eggers “The Witch” and Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” (not the Nic Cage version). Like those other filmmakers, director Thomas Robert Lee uses isolation as an incubator for hysteria and horror. He takes his time with the story, creating the off kilter, claustrophobic feel that goes a long way to create the necessary dread to make this story work.
Lee also leans on two central performances. As Agatha, Walker is fiercely maternal, a mother with a secret to protect. She is a character straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the movie’s other influences. Knowing, yet unknowable, Walker wears her character like a shroud.
Reynolds brings both innocence and a steely edge to Audrey. As she comes of age, she discovers her power and wields it like a sword, seeking revenge on the townsfolk who treated her mother disrespectfully.
“The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” is ripe with tension and bloody practical special effects that should satisfy the genre lover but more than that it mines the very timely idea of isolation. To varying degrees many of us have been cooped up during the pandemic and while this haunting movie takes place in a very specific place, it showcases the dangers inherent in cutting one’s self off from the world.
HAUNTING OF THE MARY CELESTE: 2 STARS
First, the history. One of the great nautical mysteries dates back to 1872 when a British brig called Dei Gratia came across a ship adrift in choppy seas. They were 400 miles east of the Azores in rough water when they changed course to offer aide to the Mary Celeste, a Genoa, Italy bound ship, now in distress.
What the Dei Gratia boarding party found on board the ship Mary Celeste unnerved them. The cargo load was intact, as was a six-month supply of food and water. What was missing was the crew. Ten souls, lost without a trace.
The fate of the Celeste crew has confounded historians for years. A new thriller, “The Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” now on demand and on digital, offers up a supernatural solution for the crew’s disappearance.
Researcher Rachel (Emily Swallow) has an idea that borders the scientific and the supernatural. It is her hypothesis that there are places on this planet where every now and again there is a rift when the tectonic plates shift. There is a physical change during the event and, like the blowback on a gun that sucks matter into the barrel, the crew members of the Mary Celeste were drawn into the rift, never to be seen again.
Rachel has determined the date of the next rift and is determined to prove her theory. With a small crew on a rented ship owned and operated by Tulls (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree) she sets off, only to have her theory proved in increasingly scary and weird ways.
“The Haunting of the Mary Celeste” is the kind of straightforward thriller where people optimistically say things like, “Hey Rachel, something’s going to happen tonight. I can feel it,” before everything falls to pieces. With characters straight out of Central Casting, the gruff old sea captain, the hot headed assistant etc, it offers up a soggy sea-bound adventure with very few actual thrills.