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Indie Focus: The moment for more ‘Borat’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

With Halloween just around the corner, there were a few extra spooky movies released this week.

Adapted from the Roald Dahl novel by Robert Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro and Kenya Barris and directed by Zemeckis, “The Witches” stars Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci in a tale of a coven of a witches overtaking a small town. The book was previously adapted by Nicolas Roeg in 1990 starring Anjelica Huston, and as Justin Chang wrote in his review, “In Zemeckis’ hands it has become something markedly different, inching into gaudy Tim Burton territory; like that equally erratic Hollywood fantasist, Zemeckis has trouble getting a handle on the story’s diabolically tricky tone and a tendency to pour on the grotesque visual flourishes in lieu of real vision or meaning.”

The filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have created another head-spinning low-budget genre tale in “Synchronic,” about a pair of New Orleans paramedics (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) who discover the synthetic drug causing overdoses all over the city actually facilitates time travel. In a review for The Times, Katie Walsh said of the lead actors, “What makes ‘Synchronic’ sing is the two together, zinging each other with sardonic one-liners, their conversations meandering to the cosmic and the macabre after a few whiskeys.”

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‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’

A sequel to the 2006 film “Borat,” the new “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” made headlines this week when news broke of a scene involving Rudy Giuliani, for whatever reason, lying on a bed with his hand down his pants in the presence of a young female reporter following an interview. The new movie finds Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh reporter character of Borat Sagdiyev again traveling America, this time looking to make a gift of his daughter (Maria Bakalova) to Vice President Mike Pence. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Josh Rottenberg broke down the scene with Giuliani, going back to the former New York City mayor’s call to police after the initial incident occurred earlier this year and recounting the media dust-up that followed once the scene in the movie became known to the public this week.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “It may be that this movie, like its uproarious predecessor, cries out to be seen in a crowded theater — rather than, say, a depopulated living room — for maximum impact. It may also be that Baron Cohen’s usual ‘gotcha!’ games feel superfluous, even ho-hum, at [the] moment. … As the past four years have made clear, plenty of ignorant Americans are more than happy to announce their bigotry without any prodding from Borat. The folks he actually spends time with here may elicit the odd spasm of pity by comparison, like the guys who kindly let him crash with them during COVID-19 quarantine, only to regale him with QAnon-backed theories about Democratic blood-harvesting cults. It’s saddening, to be sure; it’s also the opposite of shocking.”

For rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz called the film “a deliciously unstable comedy,” adding, “‘Borat’ stays focused on its core mission: positioning its hero as a depraved, narcissistic fool whose flaws and excesses mirror his clueless targets’ so closely that they don’t realize they’re being made fun of, even when Cohen stops just short of hauling out a sign that reads, ‘YOU ARE THE JOKE.’”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “‘Borat 2’ may not hit quite as many shocking comic highs as the first ‘Borat,’ but it probably coheres more as a film — ironic, given that it appears to have been written, produced and edited in record time, during a global crisis — and it also manages to walk a fine line between offense and revelation. … He’s still fake and we’re still real. If his bite isn’t quite as sharp as it was before, it’s because the world has caught up to, and in some cases surpassed, his phony lunacy. So, no, we don’t actually need Borat anymore. But we should still be glad he exists.”

For Vanity Fair, Sonia Saraiya wrote, “There are inescapable frustrations with Cohen’s methods. His schtick is often more deeply uncomfortable than laugh-out-loud hilarious, and at times his humor comes across as cruel practical jokes. … ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ also has a major problem: It’s that 2020 so rapidly outpaced its jokes.”

Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."
(Amazon Studios)

‘Rebecca’

An adaption of the novel by Daphne du Maurier, “Rebecca” is directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and stars Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. (The same novel was of course adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 into a film that won the Oscar for best picture.) In the story, a lonely young woman (James) meets a rich widower (Hammer) and they soon marry. When they arrive back at his family estate, she begins to learn more about his late wife, in particular from the head housekeeper (Thomas), creating suspicions, jealousies and doubts. The film is playing in limited release where theaters are open and is streaming on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The disappointment of Netflix’s lavishly upholstered new ‘Rebecca’ ... is not merely that it falls short of some superior alternatives. It’s more that the filmmakers seem curiously at sea over the purpose of their assignment, possessing neither the patience to plunge headlong into the story’s familiar depths nor the radicalism to reinvent it entirely. Their guiding instinct seems to have been to drench the proceedings in as much youthful Hollywood glamour as they can withstand, which more or less explains the casting of Armie Hammer as the GQ-iest Maxim de Winter ever to grace the screen.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Du Maurier’s plot is a fine piece of gothic machinery, full of suspense and foreboding and subtextual kink. None of that seems to work in Wheatley’s hands. Instead of fusing melodrama, mystery and upstairs-downstairs tensions, the movie gestures toward meanings it lacks the wit to explore. There is nothing seductive, unnerving or even especially interesting to occupy your mind while you’re looking at the clothes. I suppose an attempt has been made to rework some of the narrative’s themes to bring it into line with contemporary sensibilities. Or something. To call this ‘Rebecca’ an update would be misleading. It’s just a mistake.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “‘Rebecca’ sits at an intersection of problems indicative of the state of contemporary Hollywood as a whole. Namely, the decline in American filmmaking’s interest and understanding of sensuality and sexuality, as well as the dwindling ranks of forcefully charismatic stars. Both James’ and Hammer’s careers rest on their looks fitting into the slim parameters of institutionally accepted beauty. Not to get too Norma Desmond on you, but where are the interesting faces?”

For The Ringer, Adam Nayman wrote, “‘Rebecca 2.0’ won’t have a cult following. It probably won’t please purists, either. For most of its two-hour run time, the film feels stranded somewhere between re-creation and reinvention — the artistic equivalent of no man’s land. It’s not an unpleasant watch, but what’s frustrating is that a witty, satirically minded filmmaker like Wheatley could have recognized the comic potential inherent in trying to reboot a cautionary fable about the anxiety of influence. The very idea of redoing ‘Rebecca’ is like a joke on the material’s essence: The whole thing is about the impossibility of trying to substitute one person for another.”

Armie Hammer and Lily James in "Rebecca."
(Kerry Brown / Netflix)

‘Bad Hair’

In the horror-satire “Bad Hair,” the new film from “Dear White People” writer-director Justin Simien, a young Black woman in 1989 Los Angeles, Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), is faced with difficult decisions about how badly she wants to advance in her career at a music video channel. After she succumbs to pressure to change her natural hair to a straightened weave, things take a turn for the supernatural. The film is at some drive-ins and is streaming on Hulu.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “While ‘Bad Hair’ is more humorously incisive than truly terrifying, Lorraine, in the leading role, sells it, while Simien creates space to discuss the ways in which women enforce unfair standards of beauty on one another in a white patriarchal society, using the horror genre as a blunt but effective tool to clear the path.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “Horror provides a useful framework for Simien’s critical voice. Black women have been asked to compromise their identities to satisfy white people, and ‘Bad Hair’ literalizes their sacrifices with blood, sweat and tears. The genre’s conventions — mythologies must be revealed and bloodlust sated — allow Simien to take aim at racism cinematically and without didacticism. Here, there is always an attack to survive or a kill to mop up. As a result, his dialogue and style in ‘Bad Hair’ are less fussy than in his previous work. Like Anna’s demon weave, Simien’s social critique gathers vitality from the gore.”

For The Undefeated, Kelley L. Carter wrote, “Think ‘Invasion of the Body Snatcher’ meets Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out,’ and that’s the ambitious direction Simien aims to go. There’s a clear social commentary he wants to make, while also poking fun of how in the late ’80s, the growth of blackness on television and in pop culture and the top-down demands of what black should look like forever changed (and some might say scarred!) us.”

For NPR, Aisha Harris wrote, “Simien seems even more assured as a filmmaker here than he did in his debut, and the promise shown in ‘Dear White People’ feels closer to being fulfilled; the specificity with which he depicts workplace culture and black music are a treat to watch. If ‘Bad Hair’ feels overstuffed and ultimately slight when it comes to its central conceit around hair, at the very least it’s still a fun ride.”

Elle Lorraine in "Bad Hair."
(Tobin Yelland / Bad Hair LLC)


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