Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Is 'Borat' truly a new comedy classic?

I’m just going to go out on a limb and say it: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is the most overrated comedy, perhaps movie of the year. There I said it. Pummel me with tomatoes and various other fruits and vegetables if you must (I prefer fresh, if you please), but hear me out.

“Borat” is funny. You will laugh. It is deserving of all its box office success, in both the states and in star Sacha Baron Cohen native country, England. I even say, good on ya for the 92% positive reviews at rottentomatoes.com, which gathers reviews from around the country.

It is the content of these reviews, which often give “Borat” their highest rating that give me pause. I’m not denying the film is funny, even hilarious. Perhaps it is a moot point to debate how funny or brilliant the film is, but there is something about how highly praised it is that bothers me.

Cohen is being heralded as a brilliant satirist. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote he “is a balls-out comic revolutionary, right up there with Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Dr. Strangelove, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Cartman at exposing the ignorant, racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, Jew-hating, gun-loving, warmongering heart of America.”

And he’s not the only one to pile the praise and comparative name-dropping high. Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote that, “it is ‘Jackass’ with a brain and Mark Twain with full frontal male nudity.”

In a Minneapolis Star Tribune review entitled, “‘Borat’ just might be the funniest movie ever,” Colin Covert claimed the film is “conceptually brilliant and fearlessly executed, it rewrites the rules of screen comedy, presenting something never before seen on film: a gene-splice of Andy Kaufman’s high-wire character humor and caught-on-the-street pranks from ‘Punk’d.’”

“Borat” is some, but not all of these things. The film is a faux-documentary about a Kazakh journalist, who comes to the states to make a film about the country in hopes of benefiting his country.

Cohen did really go across America as Borat, interviewing people, who thought his character was the real deal. The film is a blend of the real with the staged. How much is genuine and how much is fake is hard to say.

The film is compiled from hours of footage and what appears in the film was specifically chosen. Only the UK magazine Empire really stresses that point stating, “we recognise that Cohen was hardly going to include footage of those people who lambasted Borat for his views, or rumbled the ruse.”

The Borat character is racist, sexist, homophobic and an all around bigot. These traits are supposed to reveal and show how ridiculous our own prejudices can be. The real encounters are supposed to reveal the true America or as Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly states it “the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America — a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride.”

Even Cohen, in a Rolling Stone interview, the only one done not as Borat, admits that was his intention stating that Borat is tool that “let’s people lower their guards and expose their own prejudices.”

The film does do this and when it does it well, such as the sequence at a rodeo, it does indeed cut deep. The problem with Gleiberman’s statement, and others like it, is that it is over selling the point. The film through its comedy does raise important issue and reveals the worst of some Americans, but the key word is some. In many reviews and articles there’s almost a rolling over and accepting that all Americans are bigots. Suddenly, the few represent the all.

Much has been written that Cohen and director Larry Charles have invented a new film genre, but its execution is hardly new or ingenious. The mockumentary format that the film utilizes has been around since Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and was perfected by Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap.”

Calling it a more intelligent version of “Jackass” and “Punk’d” or even “The Tom Green Show” is accurate, but hardly raises the film to brilliance. The points the film brings up are important, but “Borat” is hardly the first film or TV show to raise them.

Often there isn’t anything profound or surprising about the supposed revelations about Americans. Perhaps that is part of the point, or maybe it is because it is merely a reiteration of points made elsewhere.

It is shocking that people were duped into saying bigoted things on camera, but “The Daily Show” has been getting real people to say dumb things for years. “South Park” has been showing America’s hypocrisy for just as long. Even Will Ferrell’s summer comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (which Cohen co-starred in) did a good job satirizing skewed American values.

Even so, Cohen as a performer can’t be faulted. The word brilliant can be applied to him, even if his film isn’t necessarily so. He is completely immersed into the character of Borat in a way that does indeed recall Andy Kaufman, Peter Sellers and other comedy greats. His ability to improvise in real situations is amazing.

The film's more satirical moments are paired with humor of the fish-out-of-water variety, which while funny, is hardly fresh. The film features a lot of scatological humor, culminating in Borat and his producer getting into a nude wrestling match that is cringe worthy. You’ll laugh, but you won’t feel good about yourself for doing so.

“Borat” will cause thought provoking conversation for some, while others will simply revel in its low-brow humor. Some will claim that’s part of why it is so inspired. But maybe at the end of the day, “Borat” is simply a very funny movie. If it is a classic, can we at least wait a few years before branding it so?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Bond shakes things up

Bond. James Bond. He just never goes away. Just when you think he has become stale, irrelevant or out of style he finds away back into your life. With “Casino Royale,” the Bond franchise is given a harder edge and a fresh start that should leave audiences both shaken and stirred.

It is clear from the opening, which is shot in a stark, grainy black and white that we are dealing with a very different Bond. This is a younger, meaner Bond, who is still rough around the edges, even a bit sloppy. This Bond isn't afraid to get his hands bloody and uses his physical dexterity and ingenuity over flashy gizmos.

“Casino Royale,” the first of Ian Fleming’s novels featuring 007, centers on Bond’s first mission as a double O agent. He must enter into a high stakes poker match to prevent a banker from funding terrorism groups.

Part of the fun of the Bond movies were their formula, but when the producers ran out of Fleming books to adapt, they had to start creating new missions for Bond. These original scripts were often Bond-by-the-numbers.

First, open with an extravagant action sequence. Next, head back to headquarters for some banter with the ever-elusive Ms. Moneypenny. Stop over to see the ever-sarcastic Q to pick up a few new gadgets.

Then it is time to meet the pre-requisite Bond girls, some good, others bad and an over-the-top villain. Throw in lots of over blown action sequences, plenty of bad double entendres that will inevitably lead to an abundance of sex.

Since this is the story of Bond’s beginning there is some divergence from the classic blueprint. There is no Moneypenny. No Q. No fancy gadgets. No double entendres. It seems having Fleming as a foundation again has given the filmmakers the chance to build a stronger film.

The Bond series long ago became too hung up on the next big action scene to include much spying. Much of the film’s first hour focuses on Bond using his wits to piece together and thwart a potential terrorist attack. The film has plenty of action, executed with tension and suspense by director Martin Campbell (“GoldenEye”), but never at the expense of the plot.

With the new start, comes a new actor, Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”). There was an outcry when Craig was named Pierce Brosnan’s replacement. A blond haired, blue eyed Bond? Preposterous. It clearly says in the books that he has black hair. A blond Bond just wouldn’t be right. And so went the superficial debate.

But, the protesting was all for naught. Blond hair or not Craig looks the part. He is able to make the often vicious fight scenes believable, and still look slick in a tux. He is charming, but in an oddly casual way. Even the naysayers would be hard pressed to find fault in Craig’s performance.

Craig brings an intensity to the role that has been lacking because in the past Bond was a fairly one-dimensional character. However, this being Bond’s first mission, Craig has a character arc to play against that allows him to let a bit of vulnerability to seep past the cold fa├žade.

Some things will never change though. There will always be Bond girls and over-the-top villains, but even those feel fresher this time around.

Mads Mikkelsen (“King Arthur”) as Le Chiffre gives an effectively understated performance. He is as cool and collected as Bond, but quietly sinister and calculating. When Mikkelsen finally let’s loose on Bond in a disturbing, darkly comic torture scene it is made all the more shocking by Mikkelsen restraint throughout the rest of the film.

As for the Bond girls, the “bad” girls are flat and uninteresting, but Eva Green (“Kingdom of Heaven”) as Vesper Lynd is a dynamic female counter to Bond.

Green is more than mere sex object. She is a strong, intelligent woman, who knows how to keep Bond in his place. Craig and Green’s first encounter is full of sexual tension, but on an intellectual level. The innuendo heavy dialogue of previous outings is replaced with snappy banter that wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy.

That’s the other thing about this latest model, it is funny and not in a cheesy, self-aware way. The film has a cynical, black sense of humor that suits the overall darker tone of the film.

“Casino Royale” is perhaps a little overlong, and drags a bit towards the end, but it ranks among the best Bond movies. It is hard to say if the filmmakers will be able to sustain this new direction, but with Craig signed on to play Bond again, it will be fun to find out.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

'Spam' a lot of fun

New York may have had first dibs on Eric Idle's musical adaptation (or as the posters and programs call it, rip off) of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but something feels gloriously right about the show's run in London. The stars are where they should be, the planets are in their proper positions and "Spamalot" is in the West End.

The production, directed by film director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf," amongst others), stars the original sweet transvestite, Tim Curry. The show's Broadway run garnered rave reviews and an armful of Tony Awards. Of course, one cannot forget that it is based on a film with a fan base that knows the film verbatim and is quite willing to do a one-person show of it upon request. That is quite a pedigree.

The comedy group Monty Python, which started on TV in the sketch comedy show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" reveled in silly, surreal humor that played on the absurdities of society, history and life.

Only former Python Idle had anything to do with the writing of this latest carnation of the Monty Python brand, although John Cleese, perhaps the most famous Python has a cameo as the voice of God.

Idle had the difficult task of incorporating all the best bits from the film, along with new material and new songs. "Holy Grail" only featured one song, ("The Knights of the Round Table," which for the musical is expanded to an elaborate Las Vegas style production) and yet Idle has written a series of songs that stay faithful to the spirit of the film at the same time that they lampoon pretense of musical theatre.

It is hard to imagine what the uninitiated will make of "Spamalot," as this is very much a production tailored to fans. Even so, the show is funny and even those unfamiliar with Python are sure to find plenty to laugh at. The production works as both a reworking of the film and a satire of musicals.

As in the film, the plot, which centers on King Arthur (Curry) and his knights search for the Holy Grail, is inconsequential and is merely an excuse for a series of gags that parody Arthurian legend, politics, religion, history and sexuality. It is all rather silly, but it takes a lot of wit and intellect to do silly this well.

For those familiar with the film, all your favorite parts are here, the Knights Who Say Ni, the Black Knight, the French Taunters, the killer bunny and other classic bits. This well-known material is expanded upon and played with vigor and impeccable comic timing by Curry and the rest of the cast, who like in the Python shows and films take on multiple roles.

The biggest new addition to the musical is Hannah Waddingham's Lady of the Lake. Waddingham gets some of the best, most satirical songs and has vocal prowess to sell them big with tongue firmly placed in cheek. The role calls for her to mock the often overblown singing style of musicals. It is a plum role for an actress/singer and Waddingham nails it.

The production's best musical set piece has to go to, "You Won't Succeed." Arthur is not only on a quest for the Holy Grail, but to put on a musical in the West End. Sadly, as Sir Robin (Robert Hands) informs him, he won't succeed in showbiz without a Jew.

The number, which may sound gimmicky in mere description, is riotously funny in execution and for sheer outrageous irreverence is on par within from Mel Brooks' "The Producers."

Perhaps the only forced part of the production is Idle's attempt to sneak in the most famous Python song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" into the show. It is the only moment of gratuitous filler.

The song originally appeared in "The Life of Brian," sung by what can only be described as a crucified chorus of slaves. Pulled out of its original context the song loses some of its ironic punch.

Given the song's popularity, it was probably inevitable it would show up here, but Idle's attempt to work it in falls flat. It works much better when brought back at the end of the show as an audience sing-a-long that ends the show on a high note, ensuring the audience will leave the theatre with goofy grins plastered across their faces.