Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
If you have a Halloween-inspired urge to be scared witless, at this particular junction in the U.S. of A.’s devolution, click on over to the news. On the other hand, if you crave the cathartic release of fake fear—scary movies—there’s horror a-plenty available on every platform and network. This week’s picks land somewhere in between.
Marcela Arteaga’s quietly chilling documentary starts out as a study in exile on our southern border. But instead of a familiar portrait of short- and long-term U.S. residents deported to Mexico and separated from their families, the film bravely exposes a less-publicized tragedy: The terror unleashed on ordinary people in and around Juárez and Guadalupe by the federal police and military who are sent, ostensibly, to combat the cartels.
Since 2008, thousands of activists, journalists and human rights advocates have been kidnapped, disappeared and executed, along with anyone who dares to criticize the ongoing injustice. Arteaga’s camera pans across haunted desert landscapes—a veritable land of ghosts—while interviewees recount the brutal and unwarranted deaths of their sons, sisters, fathers and cousins.
The Guardian of Memory is an important and unexpectedly beautiful act of bearing witness, a mournful lament tied to a socioeconomic exposé. El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector, a champion of political asylum for Mexicans threatened by unbridled agents of their own government, puts it straight out: “Impunity is not a consequence of violence. It is the policy of violence.”
The English provocateur Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, High-Rise) enjoys exposing the barely sublimated cruelty and resentment undergirding 21st-century class warfare. He uses it to propel the first two-thirds of his glossy, drossy adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s famed novel, submitting his lady’s maid-cum-well-off wife (Lily James) to a parade of insults and humiliations. Imagine Cinderella living ignominiously and insecurely ever after. Not quite a fairy tale ending, eh?
So Wheatley gives the initially naïve and timid waif a makeover, turning her into a proper bull in a china shop. (That would be Manderley, the tchotchke-filled manor of new husband Maxim de Winter that bears the fingerprints, footprints and imprint of his recently deceased and impossibly perfect wife Rebecca.) But neither incarnation of the second Mrs. de Winter is winsome nor sympathetic, and it only gets worse when she turns into Gumshoe Annie in a noir-tinged, third-act departure from du Maurier’s perfectly plotted yarn.
It doesn’t help matters that the romantic leads (Armie Hammer plays Maxim) are painfully miscast. And it goes without saying that a color-drenched reproduction can’t approach the impressively oppressive Gothic foreboding of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 triumph. However, if you’ve never read the novel or seen Hitch’s film, then you’ll likely find this Rebecca ... pretty, nonsensical and forgettable.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Now streaming Amazon
The shelf life of a Borat movie, especially in the age of streaming, is roughly that of a banana. That’s not to disparage Sacha Baron Cohen’s intelligence, wit, imagination or cojones. But his brand (really, any brand) of Candid Camera hijinks is a two-trick pony: Exposing the average person’s stupidity and gullibility, and recording the awkward, spontaneous embarrassment of people presented with inappropriate (and gross) behavior.
Yes, fine, but is it funny? Well, Cohen’s audacity—and capacity to appear utterly, shamelessly ridiculous—is good for several laughs. The unblinking ease with which some people accept Borat’s supposedly Kazakh (closer to Mesozoic, really) attitudes toward women is, um, revealing. The dubious intellectual facility of some Republicans in the South, and the grinning amorality of the President’s lawyer, are perhaps less amusing given the stakes of the imminent election.
Like he did in the original film, Cohen as Borat speaks Hebrew, not Kazakh. (Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, playing his daughter, doesn’t speak Kazakh, either.) That may be the best shtick of all.
Aaron Sorkin, the prolific and glib TV writer lately turned director, has a gift for mass entertainment. His understanding of story structure is so acute, and his execution so polished, that the results of his labors have a whiff of the formulaic. I don’t mean that as a compliment.
It’s not surprising that Sorkin’s take on the mythic leaders of the ’60s anti-Vietnam War movement—Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and Rennie Davis—is poppy and irresistible. Flipping back and forth between irreverence and earnestness, pot jokes and war casualties, Sorkin conjures the twin illusions of high times and high stakes.
His rendering of the U.S. government’s 1969 puppet trial, a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a farce convened the year after the Chicago cops beat up protestors during the Democratic National Convention, plays like a funhouse mirror image of the courtroom scenes in Sorkin’s first produced screenplay, A Few Good Men. The gravitas here is supplied by Mark Rylance (one of our finest living actors) as defense attorney and moral paragon William Kunstler and Frank Langella, whose casual, offhand flair gives lunatic Judge Julius Hoffman an amusing air of weird coherence.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brings dignity and the fire as Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader whom the vindictive, paranoid Nixon Administration shoehorned into the conspiracy charges. And because every viewer must have someone to identity with, even true-believer prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has an epiphany about justice and power.
Sorkin’s endings are as sentimental, in their way, as Steven Spielberg’s. Going back 20 years to The West Wing, Sorkin has had a saccharine urge to reconcile antagonistic protagonists in a reductive sprinkler-wash of mutual respect sprung as a calculated third-act revelation. It’s effective here, by and large, because he has darn good actors (Eddie Redmayne as Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie) to put it over and pull it off.
The San Francisco Film Society will give Sorkin its annual Kanbar Award for Storytelling at this year’s SFFS Awards Night on Dec. 9. I expect Sorkin’s acceptance speech will be literate, political and witty, with a glaze of patriotic affirmation. Unless the election goes the other way, in which case Super Bowl Sunday, Halloween and every other 2021 holiday will be of little comfort.
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