Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Larry Charles
Have you read enough about Borat yet? A disclaimer: this film is not the groundbreaking political satire so many reviews (say, Film Comment's) would have you believe. It started something when Michael Moore, upon seeing the film at the Toronto film festival, called it the funniest film he had ever seen. Yes, some of the funniest moments in the film have a political dimension you can't avoid, notably when Borat, the "Kazakh" TV journalist played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, announces to the spectators of a rodeo that President Bush should drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman, and child. (Confused applause greets him.) There are lots of stunts like this, some of the best skewering anti-Semitism: Borat and his producer are terrified to learn that the owners of their B&B are Jewish, and when they're convinced that the cockroaches that slip under their bedroom door at night are the owners transformed by Jewish magic, they throw money at the roaches, then flee screaming into the night. You may feel a little dirty laughing at some of the jokes, as goes with any "stunt" film that plays practical jokes on real people, but Cohen tries to diffuse that by making so many of his victims unlikeable, such as the antiques-store owner who sells confederate flag bumper stickers advocating secession. The bottom line, really, is that the movie is just constantly funny, and my face was in physical pain from laughing for 84 minutes. (Nobody notes that it's a comeback for director Larry Charles, whose last film was the pretentious, Bob Dylan-worshipping flop Masked and Anonymous.)
Casino Royale (U.K., 2006) * * *
D: Martin Campbell
Martin Campbell revived the James Bond series big-time with 1995's GoldenEye, reviving the best elements of the series in a thrilling way, with a suave, charming, and capable 007 in Pierce Brosnan. Eleven years later, he's been asked back to help the franchise out, not that it was on life support (I particularly enjoyed the last Bond film, Die Another Day, which was also a major box-office hit). Wisely, they've gone back to source novelist Ian Fleming by adapting his first Bond novel, Casino Royale; it's the first Fleming adaptation since 1987's The Living Daylights, and the news here is that it's very faithful, for its long middle stretch set in the titular club. To fulfill the requirements of the series, more ambitious action setpieces occur in the beginning, end, and (to keep things lively) smack in the middle, when Bond leaves the casino to stop a bomber from blowing up an airplane on a runway. But everything else is pleasingly subtle, building to its action slowly, and emphasizing plot and relationships, particularly the one between Bond (Daniel Craig, of Layer Cake) and MI6 contact Vesper Lynd (suitably gorgeous Eva Green). The story intends to tell Bond's origins: how he became a double-O (the pre-title sequence shows his first assassinations), how he developed a relationship with boss M (Judi Dench), how he came to like Aston-Martins (he wins one in a game), and, most importantly, how he came to be so cold-hearted. Daniel Craig brings to mind Timothy Dalton's chilly performance as 007, but Craig seems even more cold, and he seems determined to freeze his features into a statue's countenance, his lower lip slightly jutted out; he'll need to loosen up a little more to make his Bond really stand out, although the critics are already won over, and this film has received glowing reviews. This longtime Bond fan remains skeptical of Craig, but I'm impressed by the approach--this is the first Bond film in a long time to actually feel like a real spy story.
For Your Consideration (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Christopher Guest
Guest, having completed a mockumentary trilogy with Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, reunites the same ensemble in a film that doesn't pretend to be a documentary, but is just as loose-limbed, and chock full of ad libbing. The target of the satire is Hollywood, in particular Oscar lobbying: the cast of the Jewish-themed film "Home for Purim" learn they might be considered for Academy Award recognition, and soon all artistic integrity (which was pretty nonexistent in the first place) is thrown to the wayside as they clear their mantles for Oscars. Catherine O'Hara steals the show in the final act, with a great gag I won't reveal; but Harry Shearer, Jennifer Coolidge, and Fred Willard all get big laughs (co-writer Eugene Levy, by comparison, has a much smaller role this time around, playing Shearer's agent). What makes this film a step down from the previous Guest films is that the target has a been-there, done-that feel, and, more significantly, you don't really care about any of the characters. Still, the pitch-perfect comic timing ensures that not a scene goes by without a major laugh, and that's really what matters.
The Fountain (U.S., 2006) * * * *
D: Darren Aronofsky
Most critics are slamming this bold fantasy film by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), but it's only the difference between finding certain elements absurd, or enganging the ideas they represent and being thrilled at seeing them visualized. Maybe you have to read a lot of European comic books to appreciate The Fountain. Anyone who's read the graphic novels of Alejandro Jodorowsky--the former cult filmmaker behind El Topo and Santa Sangre--will recognize imagery seemingly lifted from his books such as The Incal, The Metabarons, and The White Lama. After watching star Hugh Jackman get into the Buddha lotus position and levitate in the air--while suspended in a bubble containing a massive tree and drifting through outer space toward a sparkling nebula--I was convinced that Jodorowsky had finally made it back to the big screen with the necessary budget to fulfill his ambitious ideas. But if that idea just sounds silly, well, you could stay away from The Fountain, or you could give it a chance and pay attention to what the film is really about: a scientist (Jackman) struggles in vain to find a cure for cancer while his wife (Rachel Weisz), writing a novel about a Spanish conquistador searching for the Fountain of Youth, slowly slips away to the disease. That's all it's about. What makes the film unique is that Aronofsky plunges you into the imaginary world of Weisz's novel (we see Jackman as the conquistador, Weisz as Queen Isabella) as well as the inner psyche of Jackman, which is where you get the bubble hurtling through space. It's an epic fantasy and an intimate drama all at once: a neat feat, and almost as rare, an intelligent work of imaginative fiction for the screen. Those who despise it need to broaden their sense of what genre can do: this film, as well as last year's 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai, represent the future of imaginative storytelling, where genre boundaries are deliberately indistinct.
Keeping Mum (U.K., 2005) * *
D: Niall Johnson
Richard Russo adapts his own short story into this strangely flat comedy about a sweet-natured killer freshly released from prison (Maggie Smith) who is released into the home of the unwitting Goodfellows, a household led by oblivious reverend Walter (Rowan Atkinson) and his sex-starved wife, Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas). Gloria is having an affair with her golf instructor (Patrick Swayze), and her daughter is sleeping with every guy in town. Walter notices none of this, so obsessed is he with church duties and getting his sermons written. When the homicidal Grace Hawkins boards with them, she decides, for reasons she keeps secret, to fix their problems with a few murders. A sound premise for a black comedy, but the laughs come way too late, and don't last very long. Atkinson and Thomas do a spectacular job of creating fully-realized characters--Atkinson in particular is lovable--but their efforts are not repaid by Johnson's slack direction and a script not worth filming.