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Review: ‘Borat Subsequent MovieFilm’

It was 14 years ago when Sacha Baron Cohen struck comedic pay dirt with his mockumentary Borat, solidifying his fearless jabs at the idiocy around him and creating a legendary character in the process.

It seems only fitting that 2020 is the perfect time for another Borat bloodletting, and boy, he doesn’t hold any punches. In our current state of gross incompetence, bankrupt moral corruption and rampant selfishness, Borat Subsequent MovieFilm feels like a comedic salvo that shows we truly have crossed the satiric other side with no return. It’s amazing that an outrageous character like Borat seems more reasonable than many of the people and establishments he lampoons here. I won’t give away any names, but it’s a glorious thing he manages to capture on film over and over again.

Following the template of the first film, Cohen again embodies Kazakhstan’s third most famous reporter as he’s sent to America on a mission of goodwill in the hopes of endearing his government to the Trump administration. As those plans quickly fall apart, Borat is saddled with the presence of his daughter (a memorable debut for actress Maria Bakalov, who matches Cohen in courageous bouts of playacting), and the duo embark on a journey that not only brings them closer together, but allows for plenty of gallows gender humor.

Alternating between vicious candid camera set-ups (one of them at a Georgia daddy-daughter dance that stands as the most outrageous moment in a film laden with them) and scripted portions, Borat Subsequent MovieFilm swings for the fences and more often than not succeeds. Clearly, the ideas for this new effort have been gestating for awhile and Cohen has found the perfect cluster of world events and attitudes to ply his trade.

Those clips that popped up several months back of someone possibly being Borat and singing a racist country song that gains impromptu sing-alongs from the crowd? Yep. The murmured interruption at a national conservative convention that made the social media rounds? Check. I can only imagine the lithe skill director Jason Woliner and stars Cohen and Bakalov had to exert in casting themselves into such situations before anyone figured out the joke.

The first film navigated its comedic graces around (mostly) everyday people and their reactions to this very odd foreign reporter. Borat Subsequent MovieFilm mixes in some of that, but the stakes are even higher here and it works.

If there’s one thing that dulls the sharp political satire, however, it’s Cohen’s insistence on hammering away at the elements of Jewish xenophobia and male patriarchy. Parts of what made the first film a bit ugly are present here as well. One can’t help but think there’s plenty of larger cultural fish to fry and these potshots aren’t necessary.

But looking beyond these insensitivities, Borat Subsequent MovieFilm shows that Cohen’s shotgun approach to comedic criticism knows no boundaries. Here’s hoping a third film will come along when we need it… or maybe an off-shoot starring Bakalov.

Borat Subsequent MovieFilm is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


Review: ‘Radioactive’

Marjane Satrapi’s new film about the extraordinary life of pioneering scientist Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) begins almost at the end of her life. We see her working tirelessly before collapsing off-screen, followed by a gurney trip down a long hallway where her life flashes before her eyes, becoming the film that we’ll watch for the next two hours.

Radioactive shows us Marie’s life as both rewarding and perpetually haunted. The groundbreaking work she did as a scientist discovering two new elements in the late nineteenth century (being radium and polonium) and their unknown combustibility, as well as finding the love of her life in partner and husband Pierre (Sam Riley) certainly resonate as the happier and productive times.

However, personal tragedy, reluctant skepticism from the French intellectual society and some nifty temporal film shifts into the future about how her elements would ultimately be used by advanced societies reveal a woman whose breakthroughs in science could never compensate for some of her personal losses.

As Marie Curie, actress Pike doesn’t reduce her character to anything less than strong, and its her portrayal that carries most of the film. The way she barbs with fellow (male) counterparts when they don’t trust her or how she gently pleads with her adult daughter (Anya Taylor Joy) to remain safe as she serves as a nurse during World War I strips away the normal stuffy biopic regard and make her a compelling and dimensional lead.

Another way that Radioactive skirts the traditional trappings of the genre is when it dares to jump ahead in specific moments of time when radium changed the facade of humankind- from the major (think World War II) to the minor (a young child receiving experimental chemotherapy). Some have questioned this feat, but I found it to be a sobering reminder that the best intentions are often laced with horrifying consequences as time and science advances. If there is a heaven, what do all the creators think of their creations?

Based on the graphic novel “Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss (and adapted by Jack Thorne), this is the second such adaptation tackled by director Satrapi after Persepolis (2007). Here she also wisely keeps some of the novel’s more fantastic elements, such as the tangled shadows of Marie and Pierre rising into the air as they make love or the eerie mood of a seance Marie is dragged to by her friends, initially discrediting them and then falling to her knees in total sadness when she asks the medium for help later in life. Again, its a scene that’s been done before, but Pike imbues it with such guttural ferocity that her cries cut to the bone and Satrapi finds the delicate balance between history and emotion.

At the beginning of Radioactive, we glimpse that Marie’s hands are scarred and red from years of handling her precious elements, and the now understood after-effects were just being whispered about. The thing she discovered ended up killing her, but not before she got the chance to use an X-ray machine and save the lives and limbs of countless soldiers during the war. As her solemn face reveals while being transported on that gurney, there’s no remorse. Radioactive is a good depiction of someone who truly made mankind better, no matter how horribly others would twist her inventions.

Radioactive begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday July 24th.

Review: ‘My Spy’

Peter Segal’s My Spy doesn’t gain any points for narrative originality. With a plot rehashed from a film that would’ve been a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the late 80’s or early 90’s, in this day and age, that role goes to the equally bulky Dave Bautista.

As an actor more than up for the recent challenge of alternating between superhero films and straight comedy, he shows the same range of meat-headed sweetness and heart-of-gold moralism as the actor-turned-(California) governor. In this version, Bautista plays a CIA agent who befriends a 9-year-old girl while staking out her mom on special assignment. Yes, My Spy goes exactly where one thinks it will. Kid-friendly at times and hard-nosed action film at others, it’s an odd effort whose muddled tone and mood may struggle to find an exact audience.

The film opens with JJ (Bautista) working undercover in the Ukraine to help broker an arms deal. It’s not long before the mission goes sideways and, like the super-agent he is, JJ calmly and methodically shoots his way out of the mess, scored to a medley of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and a foreign-language version of “My Heart Will Go On,” aka Celine Dion’s Titanic theme song. It’s only the beginning of cringe-worthy music that will pop up during the remainder of the film in hopes of parlaying awkward humor into something more than what it is.

Blamed for the titanic mess (ahem), the agency sidelines JJ to Chicago with his nerdy but energetic fellow agent Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) on the simple assignment to watch the home of Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), in the hopes that her ex-husband’s super-villain brother will make contact with her.

Complicating their seemingly ordinary mission is Kate’s young daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who seems smarter than the agents at every turn, figuring out their lurking presence within her apartment building and manipulating JJ to not only be her friend, but her protector and father-figure as well. And, like the ubiquitous themes of most Disney films (although this isn’t produced by them), Sophie’s motivations of righting her broken home is a melancholic underlying factor to their relationship.

It’s in the give-and-take banter and growing affection between Bautista and Coleman that My Spy earns most of its goodwill. Their relationship is sweet and the best part of the film. It’s everything else that struggles in Jon and Erich Hoeber’s cobbled-together script. At times, the film is a goofy, kid-friendly light comedy. At other times, a few choice swear words, some dangerous violence and the inclusion of an inopportune same-sex couple create a foggy narrative of conflicting tempo. Frankly, I don’t see adult Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) fans succumbing to its childish charms so easily … or younger viewers warming to its somewhat older nudges very quickly.

Referencing the Indiana Jones films and straight up cribbing from Notting Hill (1999), My Spy is largely harmless, however, I only wish its exaggerated action subplots were replaced by a more simple story of a young girl and her hapless father-figure. There’s a complex story somewhere in there, it’s just hidden by plot mechanics and over-ambitious, dumb action-film zeal.

My Spy begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of Friday, June 26.

Review: ‘7500’

Patrick Vollrath’s hijacking thriller 7500 starts out on a promising note. Through static security camera footage, we observe the process of a group of men as they prepare to board a plane, readying their homemade supplies and maneuvering through the airport with lethal anonymity. It’s a series of shots that emanates dread through its methodical pacing and absence of sound. It’s something that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a cerebral Michael Haneke drama or even the pretext for a Jason Bourne-like action film.

Unfortunately, the remainder of 7500 doesn’t quite live up to the orchestral brilliance of these opening shots, perhaps because it then becomes confined to an airplane cockpit with very little room to breathe or expand. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s emotionally draining performance aside, Vollrath’s debut film becomes suffocatingly ordinary as the tension rises and the stakes mount. As it grows louder, I only wished the masterful quiet of its opening scenes would return.

As the co-pilot of an airliner, Tobias (Levitt) is not completely out place in this Berlin-set destination. An American who has found a home and girlfriend with on-board flight attendant Gokce (Aylin Tezel), 7500 immediately sets the stage for a personal tragedy as mostly everything and everyone he loves is on board the flight. Friendly banter aside with his fellow pilot Michael (a very good Carlo Kitlinger in a brief but commanding role), Tobias is soon dealing with a barrage of men trying to enter the flight deck.

Via more grainy footage of the cock-pit entrance camera, Tobias is forced to watch and make some very difficult decisions as the hijackers use extraordinarily violent means to persuade the locks to come off.

Asked to scamper through an array of emotions, Gordon-Levitt (one of the more talented young actors of the last fifteen years or so) is extremely believable as a man under intense pressure to abide by the rules and save many while sacrificing a few. His performance is strong around a screenplay whose character reversals and heightened archs are commonplace tenets of action thrillers. If there’s any reason 7500 doesn’t fully take flight, it’s not on his shoulders.

The dangers of a single-set film — ruling out all those passionate plays transferred to film whose dialogue is enough to sear itself into one’s memory and eradicate their singular locales — rear their heads with 7500. It doesn’t feature searing dialogue or secondary characters prominent enough to make it anything more than an average examination of hard choices rendered during a violent crisis. It’s not long before the cockpit becomes exhausting, and not in a subversively good way either.

7500 opens on Thursday, June 18 via Amazon Prime Video.