Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
dir. Larry Charles
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is incredibly offensive. And incredibly hilarious. You already know there's a scene where one man rests his balls on another guy's chin, right? Later, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) tries to put Pamela Anderson in a sack. (A sack.) He interrogates Alan Keyes, and gets saved by Pentecostals. It's hairy, balls-out humor—but behind the seemingly random spray of political incorrectness, it's very carefully calibrated.
Borat is a Kazakh television personality from a backwater where, supposedly, retarded brothers are stored in cages, where sisters are prostitutes and wives are enormously ugly, where pretty much everybody is related to the town rapist. On a scale of dangerous humor, riffs about a place few Americans have ever heard of, except perhaps in news reports about its self-aggrandizing dictator, are probably pretty safe. Humor about humorless feminists: relatively safe. Humor about idiot frat boys ingesting unidentifiable substances: very safe. Almost not-humor about red-state bigots: Uh, wait, aren't they most of the moviegoing public? Humor about Jews (even delivered by a Cohen): safe as Palestinian houses.
We are given to understand that Kazakhs are all blithe anti-Semites. In the full-bore opening scenes, Borat proudly describes the traditional "Running of the Jews" in his hometown. But the running gags about the Jewish race are meticulously refuted in later scenes (the Jewish bed-and-breakfast owners Borat runs into are soooo old and soooo sweet and soooo generous with their white-bread sandwiches), whereas less dangerous ruses are left flapping in the wind.
In any case, I'm not complaining. As I said, the movie's incredibly hilarious. There's also a reason it isn't being initially released in much of middle America. It comes down on homophobes hard, and proves, without a doubt, that Jews eat sandwiches too. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam has long cultivated a rep as a visionary stymied by the irrational demands of blockheaded studio execs. The fascinating documentary Lost in La Mancha, however, painted a rather less noble picture: one of an artist who, left to his own devices, would happily obsess about the smallest curlicue to the detriment of everything else. Unsettling as it is to consider, what if—gasp, choke—the suits had a point all along?
Tideland, Gilliam's microbudgeted follow-up to the large-scale debacle The Brothers Grimm, is perhaps the purest shot of the director's sensibilities since Brazil. It is also, I think, horrendous and terrible and borderline unwatchable—the most depressing film by a major filmmaker in recent memory. Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, the storyline follows the sad tale of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a 10-year-old girl entrusted with prepping the daily smack rations for her rock-star wastrel parents (Jennifer Tilly and Jeff Bridges). Through a series of morbid events, she soon finds herself living alone in a decrepit farmhouse, her only companions being her beloved severed doll heads and some remarkably unsavory neighbors.
It's easy—perhaps too easy—to see what attracted Gilliam to this project, where a character reacts to mounting exterior unpleasantness by retreating into fantasy. Indeed, Gilliam seems so smitten with this conceit that he never deviates from it, resulting in one big, tonally unvaried chunk of whimsical misery. Narrative misfortunes aside, what registers most strongly here is an unintentional portrait of a director who won't—or more worryingly, can't—be bothered to let the viewer into the heads of his characters, possibly because it would mean that he would momentarily have to leave his own. The only sign that Gilliam gives a fig about the audience, really, comes in the form of a pre-credit introduction, where he appears on camera to implore the watcher to think like a child. It's the sort of pompous, twee statement that the director, back in his Monty Python short-form glory days, would have promptly smooshed with a giant foot. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. David Bowers and Sam Fell
There were ominous signs, certainly, when it was announced that Aardman Studios—creators of the brilliant Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comfort shorts—would be forsaking their trademark stop-motion animation style in favor of CGI. Even more worrying were indications that the filmmakers were taking inspiration from their American backers at DreamWorks, the folks responsible for the pale Pixar-lite likes of Shrek 2 and Madagascar. Devotees of the company's previous small, homey marvels could be forgiven for wishing on a graven image or two.
Bad news first: Flushed Away, Aardman's first feature-length film since the triumphant Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (and notably, the first made without the participation of W&G creator Nick Park), is indeed significantly more manic than the films that made the studio famous. Fortunately, it's a great kind of manic, with an unapologetically crass, blitzkrieg approach that more than delivers the comedic goods. Indeed, while the structure does hew fairly closely to the post-Shrek success model—hip song montages as padding, easily recognizable celebrity voices (Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet), rapid-fire pop-culture references—in Aardman's hands it somehow all comes off as charming, rather than disposably soulless.
The plot—spoiled pet rat gets accidentally washed into the sewer, only to discover a cockney rodent subculture held under the thumb of a toad mob boss (Ian McKellen)—is slight, yet charming. What makes the thing zing is the attention to detail, spanning from the large (the cityscape, cobbled together from various flotsam and rubbish, is a marvel to behold) to the blink-and-you-miss-'em gags. Although the loss of the painstakingly animated, somehow tangible clay models remains an undeniable bummer, the bulgy eyes, veddy British wit, and drop-dead Aardman timing are still very much in effect. Fret not, Gromit fans, the magic remains. For now, anyway. ANDREW WRIGHT