Saturday, November 28, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Borat's 'totally sensationalized false account' and other...

Screen Grabs: Borat’s ‘totally sensationalized false account’ and other bombshell releases

Sure, it has Giuliani looking suspect—but is 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' any good? Plus, a new documentary on the grifters leading the alt-right movement, and 'The Guardian of Memory.'

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After the deluge of the last couple weeks, there’s just one newly arriving local film festival going the online-only route this week. Now in its 18th year, 3rd i’s SF International South Asian Film Festival is going “Bollywood and Beyond” with a pared-down schedule this weekend only. The opening selection on Friday is a showcase for queer Pakistani-American comedian, actor, producer, writer, and director Fawzia Mirza, a frequent past guest. She’ll offer several of her satirical shorts, followed by a live Q&A. 

The rest of the schedule encompasses features from South Africa (Avie Luthra’s drama Lucky), India (Sudhanshu Saria’s psychological thriller Knock, Knock, Knock), and Seti X’s U.S. documentary Word to Your Motherland, about the relationship between South Asian-American youth and hiphop culture. There’s also a reprise of Ashvin Kumar’s 2003 U.K. Road to Ladakh, screening as homage to recently deceased Indian superstar Irrfan Khan, who’s well-known to western audiences from appearances in films like Slumdog MillionaireThe Lunchbox, and Life of Pi. Here’s the full program, schedule, and ticket info

Commercial releases arriving today via digital and/or available theatrical options include local hero Wayne Wang’s SF-set domestic drama Coming Home Again, which 48 Hills previewed, and is available for streaming through Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home; Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, a comedy with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones that opened elsewhere in the country earlier this month; and the acclaimed South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws, now available through CinemaSF. Rafael@Home is adding both UK period piece Radium Girls, dramatizing a real-life 1920s fight for non-life-threatening workplace conditions by female factory employees, and Citizens of the World, a very Italian social-commentary comedy in the mode of director Gianni Di Gregorio’s prior Mid-August Lunch.  

There’s also the general release (on available Bay Area suburban screens) of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Synchronic, a somewhat disappointing time-travel tale from the makers of intriguing prior indie fantasies The EndlessSpring, and Resolution. Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye (also in Roxie Virtual Cinema) is a teen ensemble piece about a small town’s curious rite-of-passage that has a Dazed & Confused meets Donnie Darko vibe, but is less fun than that sounds, and which I frankly didn’t quite get. 

While many of these films roam the globe, the more politically attuned new arrivals are all in one way or another about the US of A—or rather ‘Murrica, being reflections of Ugly Americanism in the hopefully-soon-to-be-over Trump era. Most conspicuous among them is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a sequel to the original 2006 movie that plowed new ground for big-screen comedy, while its semi-scripted, semi-improvised pranks provided a devastatingly unflattering snapshot of our fellow citizens in the George W. Bush era. In the 14 years since, Sacha Baron Cohen has been a major asset to other people’s movies (including the concurrent Trial of the Chicago 7), but his own major vehicles have been letdowns. Nonetheless, one can hardly resist feeling an uptick of excitement at the return of his most famous character.

That fame is actually a problem Moviefilm struggles to overcome, even as it incorporates it into the plot. Sent back to the US on a special mission (after several years’ hard gulag labor for embarrassing his native Kazakhstan with the first film), TV journalist Borat remains too easily recognized by passers-by to get the job done. Ergo he dons various disguises—including, at one point, an elaborate Trump getup. But the joke remains the same, as malaprop-spouting, grotesquely misogynist, and anti-Semitic Borat both shocks and finds dismaying agreement amongst real Americans seemingly unaware they’re being pranked. (For various reasons, it’s often less convincing this time around that his victims really are being duped, rather than choosing to play along.) 

Moviefilm starts out somewhat unpromisingly, with too much rote scatological humor, and easy-picking targets like a self-proclaimed “Instagram influencer,” an anti-abortion reverend, and a Georgia debutante ball. The sequel also saddles itself with a middling sidekick in Borat’s previously-unknown daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), a stowaway on his return to North America who undergoes a gradual transformation from semi-feral to semi-liberated woman. 

Nonetheless, there are scattered big laughs, and things rise to a new level when corona-quarantining empties the streets—but introduces Borat to Jim & Jerry, two QAnon enthusiasts who prove perfect shutdown company. (Particularly in that, natch, they suspect COVID is a hoax.) Their attendance of an anti-maskers’ rally is pure gold, topped (at least in terms of newsworthiness) by a climax in which Borat and the sexily made-over Tutar gain access to none other than Rudy Giuliani, who no doubt will already be neck-deep in public denials of his on-camera behavior by the time you read this. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, Giuliani had already begun denying the film’s “totally sensationalized false account” of what very much looks like his preparation for an anticipated hotel-room freebie from in-character Bakalova.)

Subsequent Moviefilm does not and probably could not match its predecessor’s level of inspiration; for one thing, the original triggered too much imitation for even Cohen’s own efforts (here directed by Jason Woliner rather than usual past collaborator Larry Charles) to seem fresh again. For another, the Trump era has basically killed satire—nothing can be more ridiculous than straight-up US political reality now. Still, this belated sequel (which is available on Amazon Prime as of today) is ultimately pointed and funny enough to have been worth the effort.

Perhaps strangely, I found myself laughing at least as often and hard while watching the documentary White Noise (currently on iTunes, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms), even as it also made the blood boil. Produced by historied (since 1857!) US magazine-slash-multiplatform publisher The Atlantic, journalist Daniel Lombroso’s feature is the result of his several years’ spent embedded amongst numerous figures of the alt-right. He evidently won their trust, as there are many moments that could only have been shot if the subjects assumed they were in sympathetic company. But as the saying goes, “Give ‘em enough rope …” Whether in public or private, the white-supremacist-enabling folk here can’t help but hang themselves—they are by turns petulant, cowardly, evasive, dishonest, self-deluding, hypocritical, opportunistic, egomaniacal, and just flat-out assholes. 

Why is this funny? Well, you can’t help but perceive a certain hilarity in the gap between the delusional self-importance and reality of Lombroso’s principals, all of whom travel the globe spreading a gospel of white panic at growing minority and immigrant populations. There’s poor little rich boy Richard B. Spencer, poster child for neo-Nazidom who’s forever protesting being called a neo-Nazi … even as he methodically borrows phrases, gestures, symbols, and ideas straight from literal, textbook Nazidom. He says things like “I don’t want to sound too grandiose, but like, I’m bigger than the movement,” then later whines about being called a narcissist—just before moving back to his mom’s Montana mansion in a giant sulk.  

The other two main personnel here are not so much de facto leaders as parasitical media whores who’ve latched onto white power as an audience easy to exploit at their skill level. Canadian Lauren Southern is a junior Ann Coulter wannabe—younger, blonde, and photogenic of course—being a supposed “journalist” whose main purpose appears to be attracting negative attention for calculated “outrages” (she’s seen holding a sign on a campus saying “There Is No Rape Culture In The West”) to heighten her “brand.” Not a complicated character, she appears to have no interest beyond self-interest, and when in a rare moment of honesty she trills, “To be a minority can lead to oppression!,” she’s not acknowledging prejudice against actual minorities—only fear at what will happen if/when white people are no longer a majority! OMG, what if “they” treat “us” like “we” do “them”?!? Yes, the irony does escape her. 

Last and quite possibly least is alleged “meme mastermind” (i.e. he’s been a major driver of 4chan-type viral disinformation) Mike Cernovich, who “entered the scene as a men’s rights advocate” (apparently by mainly advising dudes on how to nail resistant chicks, then ditch ‘em). What a man: He admits to having lived off the alimony his first wife paid him, which coup he desperately suggests was “pretty alpha.” He’s largely seen here whinging about how his fame in alt-right circles is not turning into income, even as he endlessly hawks his “lifestyle products” and shows off his luxe new home, complete with saltwater pool and hot tub. Even Spencer calls him “a bit of a grifter.” Interestingly, Cernovich’s second wife is Iranian, and at the film’s end Southern is apparently marrying a man of color. Alas, this doesn’t mean they’ve “changed,” it only confirms that they sell racial hatred for purely commercial reasons. Somehow the lack of sincerity makes it even worse. 

Though we get alarming glimpses of Trump era extremist thuggery (including a march in which masses of men chant “Jews will not replace us” and give Nazi salutes), White Noise is not about the average people attracted to supremacist ideologies—who are often conspicuously lower on the economic and educational scale than their high-profile leaders. Instead, it’s about those who lure, incite, and profit from them, invariably declining any responsibility for the violence that frequently results. When Southern posts stickers that say “It’s Okay To Be White,” she, like the others, feeds a thumb-sucking sense that somehow the demographic which has always dominated our nation is somehow being “persecuted” by other groups wanting an equal (or any) place at the table. This is the true politics of “whaaaaah!,” no matter how conservatives love to call liberals crybabies. 

The documentary ends with a montage of recent hate crimes, incidents (up to and including murder) that all three protags disingenuously claim their rhetoric could have nothing to do with, unless it was “misinterpreted.” But how do you misinterpret a dog-whistle as piercing as Southern opines “Democracy isn’t always a good thing,” particularly when one might need sterner systems to keep minorities underfoot? As if that weren’t gruesome enough, this anti-feminist careerist shrugs “I mean, gang rape is an inherently democratic process.” These people are awful—but they’re also frequently ridiculous, with their childish behaviors and blatant fibs. Mostly they just seem desperate for a public spotlight, and might have become “social influencers” or reality-TV aspirants if far-right rabble-rousing didn’t work for them. 

No laughing matter at all is a contrastingly sober documentary newly added to Roxie Virtual Cinema, The Guardian of Memory. Marcela Arteaga’s feature trains focus on a geographically immediate yet little-noted or understood humanitarian crisis: How since 2008 the Mexican government’s supposed crackdown on drug cartels in northernmost municipalities (particularly Juarez) has resulted in decimation of the civilian population. Where criminal violence had hitherto been mostly limited to within the gangs themselves, since that point average residents have been subject to extortion, kidnappings, and execution-style killings, with the standard defenders of human rights (journalists, physicians, social activists) targeted first. 

What have the authorities done about this? Nothing, and worse: As various (sometimes sole) surviving family members testify here, their neighbors and relatives were evidently slain by police and military as often as by cartel personnel. The government has simply abandoned any pretense of order or security in the region, allowing a “systemic genocide” to occur, its purpose and beneficiaries unclear. As Texas-based Mexican expat immigration lawyer Carlos Spector explains, the flood of refugees from this violence are mostly turned down for asylum by the US—because they’re “only” fleeing criminal peril, not the political kind. But it’s increasingly clear to him that what’s going on is both: A murderous collusion between equally corrupt interests on ostensibly opposed sides of the law. 

Given a distinctly poetical tilt in its photography and scoring, The Guardian of Memory is beautiful but excoriating, towards cold-blooded American policy as well as Mexican institutional corruption. It’s an important piece of reportage that’s also an aesthetic jewel of unconventional documentary technique. 

These aren’t the only political docs newly available. Others, all released to VOD this week, include Sabina Van Tassel’s The State of Texas vs. Melissa, about the highly problematic case of the first woman sentenced to death in that state; Brittany Huckabee’s How to Fix a Primary, which charts the unsuccessful 2018 Michigan campaign of Abdul El-Sayed to become the nation’s first Muslim governor; and a restoration of the late William Greaves’ long-unavailable uncut Nationtime, a Sidney Poitier-narrated record of the National Black Political Convention of 1972. BAMPFA is also (as of tomorrow) hosting two documentaries by Evans Chan, 2016’s Raise the Umbrellas and the new We Have Boots, both charting Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy struggles. 

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