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Man on a Mission

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Longest film title of the year. Exact same number of words as Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, but, unless I lost count, seventeen more letters. Also the hardest-working and sweatiest film title of the year, unwilling to delay for an instant the wanton breakage of English. For anyone, like me, who heretofore had never encountered the character on HBO, Borat Sagdiyev will need an introduction. He is one of the personas, my research tells me, of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show, a Kazakh TV reporter dapperly dressed in a dove-gray suit, bristlingly mustachioed, blissfully sexist, superstitiously anti-Semitic, and not yet toilet-trained (he splashes water on his face from the commode in his New York hotel room, takes a doggy-style dump in the bushes of a public park, jerks off in front of a Victoria's Secret display window, and so on), ostensibly dispatched to America to shoot a documentary for home consumption -- a built-in excuse for bad camerawork. A Baywatch re-run on the hotel television, however, dictates a change in his itinerary, and the purchase of a secondhand ice-cream truck, to enable him to chase his dream of claiming Pamela Anderson for his bride. At least that's the course the film takes. I don't know what goes on in the HBO show.

Scripted scenes, or at any rate pre-planned scenes, primarily involving Borat's obese and camera-shy producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), secondarily involving a slightly less obese African-American call girl (Luenell), and presumably also involving the proprietors of a Jewish B&B (how can we be sure?), alternate with unscripted performance-art pieces, so to call them, in which assorted innocents, dupes, patsies, and joke-butts are lured into the gag unawares: a humor coach, an etiquette coach, a trio of feminists, Republican politicos Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, a Middle American TV news team, a rodeo crowd, a Civil War antiques dealer, an RV of inebriated University of South Carolina frat boys, et al., all the way to the climactic meeting with Pamela Anderson at a SoCal book-signing. These unrehearsed bits, no doubt more compelling, more riveting, more nerve-racking than the planned-out parts, naturally give rise to thoughts of their comedic antecedents and analogues: Candid Camera, the practical jokes on a Dick Clark Bloopers special, MTV's copycat Punk'd, the crank calls of any wisenheimer radio deejay, Andy Kaufman's chauvinist-pig wrestling career, the Yes Men (and their eponymous film of a couple of years ago), etc. At the same time, they give rise to moral concerns -- to say nothing of legal ones -- that far overshadow artistic ones. Concerns, that is, about one type of person being given, or taking, precedence over another. Concerns about the rampaging egotist arranging humanity in a hierarchy and installing himself at the top of the heap. That kind of thing. Can, as an example, an Alabama minister's wife -- bluntly insulted for her dearth of pulchritude -- be safely assumed to be less of a human being than our fearless guerrilla artiste, or has the latter's sexism perhaps crossed over, there, from fiction into reality? Any diversion afforded by such thoughts is all to the good, because the general impression of the film, right down to the spottiness of its laughs, and regardless of whether staged or not, is amazingly similar to that of your average Will Ferrell comedy. (Or Rob Schneider. Or David Spade. Or -- name your SNL alumnus.) In a word, over-the-top and high of the target. Funnily enough, or anyhow fittingly enough, my only prior experience of Sacha Baron Cohen was in the role of the gay French race-car driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, an average Will Ferrell comedy with a title of above-average length.

Babel. Communication problems the world over. An American tourist is struck by rifle fire in Morocco, arousing erroneous worries of terrorism. An illegal-alien nanny drags along the two towheads in her care to a Mexican wedding, and runs afoul of the Border Patrol on their return. And a horny pantyless deaf-mute Japanese girl can't get a man, any man, to take an interest in her. These three storylines are fashionably "interlocked" (anyone who can recognize the voice of Brad Pitt over the telephone will immediately know the connection between two of them), and the film strategically ends in the same place, from a different point of view, as it begins, coming full circle. The illusion of complexity, for all that, could scarcely be more transparent. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, much in the manner of his Amores Perros, achieves depth only in the way that a hero sandwich achieves it; and it achieves length -- almost two and a half hours of it -- in the same way as a footlong at any Subway shop. Tenuous in construction, slack and sluggish in pace, sketchy and far-fetched in plot, the film does nothing to justify its epic length or its cosmic ambitions. (The Mexican storyline, particularly weak, goes nowhere until it goes bananas: a series of decisions so bad as to forfeit all sympathy for the characters, let alone for the storyteller who compelled the characters to make the decisions.) With a somewhat calmer camera than his norm, however, the director does some nice scene-setting, some impressionistic documentation of the locales, to help realize his goal in sheer duration.

Flushed Away. Animation from the Aardman Studios, not claymation, like their signature Wallace and Gromit series (and not Nick Park directing), but instead compliant, acquiescent computer animation, and a compliantly, acquiescently crasser and cruder sense of humor to go along with it. (Traces of which began to creep into the feature-length Wallace and Gromit outing last year.) The basic plot premise: a housebound tux-wearing pet mouse, in his owner's absence, gets dispossessed by an intrusive sewer rat, literally flushed down the loo, to discover an alternative, miniature London in the underground, plus a feisty feminist mouse, a villainous toad and his toadies, a French-accented frog (get it?), among others. The trademark ping-pong-ball eyes are still in place, although all sign of a human touch in the modelling of the figures has been smoothed out, and the three-dimensionality -- the light and shade and all the rest -- is blatantly counterfeit, and the total effect is markedly less distinctive. Still, a good deal of skill went into it, in matters of pacing and timing and elementary draftsmanship. Hitting the hero in the nuts in a variety of ways in rapid succession is almost as ingenious as it is low. Almost.

* * *

I have just started to notice that the AMC theater chain now tags some of its offerings with the designation "AMC Select," meaning "special films for special tastes." E.g., Running with Scissors, Catch a Fire, Marie Antoinette, Little Miss Sunshine. An objective observer, of course, will have long since reconciled himself to the idea that the taste of the ghoul and the ninny will be the taste of the mass, the mainstream, the middle of the road. No cautionary note of "special" need be attached to the likes of Saw III and Jackass Number Two. Come one, come all. Wherever an element of evaluation enters the picture, however, there will always be room for dispute, as when something like Flags of Our Fathers is excluded from the ranks of the "special" and lumped in with such unesoteric fare as Employee of the Month and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. If "special tastes" are understood to be finicky tastes, discriminating tastes, refined tastes, as opposed to merely quirky tastes, minority tastes, oddball tastes, then they can hardly be guaranteed satisfaction by surrendering to AMC's guidance.

* * *

The lampposts of Little Italy, more honestly an Itsy-Bitsy Italy, have been adorned with vertical banners in tribute to prominent Italian-Americans. The one at the northwest corner of Fir and India, a block from the Reader offices, honors the household-name movie director, "Martin Scorese." That's what it says. "Scorese."

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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Longest film title of the year. Exact same number of words as Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, but, unless I lost count, seventeen more letters. Also the hardest-working and sweatiest film title of the year, unwilling to delay for an instant the wanton breakage of English. For anyone, like me, who heretofore had never encountered the character on HBO, Borat Sagdiyev will need an introduction. He is one of the personas, my research tells me, of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show, a Kazakh TV reporter dapperly dressed in a dove-gray suit, bristlingly mustachioed, blissfully sexist, superstitiously anti-Semitic, and not yet toilet-trained (he splashes water on his face from the commode in his New York hotel room, takes a doggy-style dump in the bushes of a public park, jerks off in front of a Victoria's Secret display window, and so on), ostensibly dispatched to America to shoot a documentary for home consumption -- a built-in excuse for bad camerawork. A Baywatch re-run on the hotel television, however, dictates a change in his itinerary, and the purchase of a secondhand ice-cream truck, to enable him to chase his dream of claiming Pamela Anderson for his bride. At least that's the course the film takes. I don't know what goes on in the HBO show.

Scripted scenes, or at any rate pre-planned scenes, primarily involving Borat's obese and camera-shy producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), secondarily involving a slightly less obese African-American call girl (Luenell), and presumably also involving the proprietors of a Jewish B&B (how can we be sure?), alternate with unscripted performance-art pieces, so to call them, in which assorted innocents, dupes, patsies, and joke-butts are lured into the gag unawares: a humor coach, an etiquette coach, a trio of feminists, Republican politicos Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, a Middle American TV news team, a rodeo crowd, a Civil War antiques dealer, an RV of inebriated University of South Carolina frat boys, et al., all the way to the climactic meeting with Pamela Anderson at a SoCal book-signing. These unrehearsed bits, no doubt more compelling, more riveting, more nerve-racking than the planned-out parts, naturally give rise to thoughts of their comedic antecedents and analogues: Candid Camera, the practical jokes on a Dick Clark Bloopers special, MTV's copycat Punk'd, the crank calls of any wisenheimer radio deejay, Andy Kaufman's chauvinist-pig wrestling career, the Yes Men (and their eponymous film of a couple of years ago), etc. At the same time, they give rise to moral concerns -- to say nothing of legal ones -- that far overshadow artistic ones. Concerns, that is, about one type of person being given, or taking, precedence over another. Concerns about the rampaging egotist arranging humanity in a hierarchy and installing himself at the top of the heap. That kind of thing. Can, as an example, an Alabama minister's wife -- bluntly insulted for her dearth of pulchritude -- be safely assumed to be less of a human being than our fearless guerrilla artiste, or has the latter's sexism perhaps crossed over, there, from fiction into reality? Any diversion afforded by such thoughts is all to the good, because the general impression of the film, right down to the spottiness of its laughs, and regardless of whether staged or not, is amazingly similar to that of your average Will Ferrell comedy. (Or Rob Schneider. Or David Spade. Or -- name your SNL alumnus.) In a word, over-the-top and high of the target. Funnily enough, or anyhow fittingly enough, my only prior experience of Sacha Baron Cohen was in the role of the gay French race-car driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, an average Will Ferrell comedy with a title of above-average length.

Babel. Communication problems the world over. An American tourist is struck by rifle fire in Morocco, arousing erroneous worries of terrorism. An illegal-alien nanny drags along the two towheads in her care to a Mexican wedding, and runs afoul of the Border Patrol on their return. And a horny pantyless deaf-mute Japanese girl can't get a man, any man, to take an interest in her. These three storylines are fashionably "interlocked" (anyone who can recognize the voice of Brad Pitt over the telephone will immediately know the connection between two of them), and the film strategically ends in the same place, from a different point of view, as it begins, coming full circle. The illusion of complexity, for all that, could scarcely be more transparent. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, much in the manner of his Amores Perros, achieves depth only in the way that a hero sandwich achieves it; and it achieves length -- almost two and a half hours of it -- in the same way as a footlong at any Subway shop. Tenuous in construction, slack and sluggish in pace, sketchy and far-fetched in plot, the film does nothing to justify its epic length or its cosmic ambitions. (The Mexican storyline, particularly weak, goes nowhere until it goes bananas: a series of decisions so bad as to forfeit all sympathy for the characters, let alone for the storyteller who compelled the characters to make the decisions.) With a somewhat calmer camera than his norm, however, the director does some nice scene-setting, some impressionistic documentation of the locales, to help realize his goal in sheer duration.

Flushed Away. Animation from the Aardman Studios, not claymation, like their signature Wallace and Gromit series (and not Nick Park directing), but instead compliant, acquiescent computer animation, and a compliantly, acquiescently crasser and cruder sense of humor to go along with it. (Traces of which began to creep into the feature-length Wallace and Gromit outing last year.) The basic plot premise: a housebound tux-wearing pet mouse, in his owner's absence, gets dispossessed by an intrusive sewer rat, literally flushed down the loo, to discover an alternative, miniature London in the underground, plus a feisty feminist mouse, a villainous toad and his toadies, a French-accented frog (get it?), among others. The trademark ping-pong-ball eyes are still in place, although all sign of a human touch in the modelling of the figures has been smoothed out, and the three-dimensionality -- the light and shade and all the rest -- is blatantly counterfeit, and the total effect is markedly less distinctive. Still, a good deal of skill went into it, in matters of pacing and timing and elementary draftsmanship. Hitting the hero in the nuts in a variety of ways in rapid succession is almost as ingenious as it is low. Almost.

* * *

I have just started to notice that the AMC theater chain now tags some of its offerings with the designation "AMC Select," meaning "special films for special tastes." E.g., Running with Scissors, Catch a Fire, Marie Antoinette, Little Miss Sunshine. An objective observer, of course, will have long since reconciled himself to the idea that the taste of the ghoul and the ninny will be the taste of the mass, the mainstream, the middle of the road. No cautionary note of "special" need be attached to the likes of Saw III and Jackass Number Two. Come one, come all. Wherever an element of evaluation enters the picture, however, there will always be room for dispute, as when something like Flags of Our Fathers is excluded from the ranks of the "special" and lumped in with such unesoteric fare as Employee of the Month and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. If "special tastes" are understood to be finicky tastes, discriminating tastes, refined tastes, as opposed to merely quirky tastes, minority tastes, oddball tastes, then they can hardly be guaranteed satisfaction by surrendering to AMC's guidance.

* * *

The lampposts of Little Italy, more honestly an Itsy-Bitsy Italy, have been adorned with vertical banners in tribute to prominent Italian-Americans. The one at the northwest corner of Fir and India, a block from the Reader offices, honors the household-name movie director, "Martin Scorese." That's what it says. "Scorese."

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