Monday, October 26, 2020


In a world where large swathes of educated people wilfully believe that vaccinations cause autism; and that the Clintons and Bidens are part of an elite paedo ring; and that Covid is a hoax; I am was was really wary of watching a new BORAT film.  Isn't real life already filled with toxic racism, homophobia and misogyny?  How do you satirise bigotry when the entire political discourse of America in 2020 feels like it's gone through the Looking Glass?  But I am so happy that I watched this film, because it's really fucking funny, and really fucking horrifying, and both are important things to experience and acknowledge right now. Because whether or not the White Supremacist in the White House is evicted next January, the attitudes he exposed, the grievances and bigotry he unleashed, the lies he peddled will remain in the public discourse.  We need Borat to help us channel our anger into laughter, but we need to feel angry nonetheless.

Of course, if the world has changed for us, it's also changed for Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is so recognisable he has a knock off fancy dress costume as seen in this sequel.  So Cohen couldn't actually use the Borat character to lure his bigoted marks into a false sense of security and expose their hatred.  Rather, he has to spend most of the film as Borat dressing up as someone else. And the real heavy lifting is done by the previously unknown but apparently comic genius Maria Bakalova, playing Borat's daughter Tutar. It is Bakalova that exposes the misogyny and sexual perversion at the heart of public life, not least in the coup de theatre that is the final scene where she plays a OAN-style news reporter in mini-dress and blonde wig, buttering up a lascivious Rudy Giuliani, who is all too ready to have a drink with her in a bedroom, let her take off his mike, lie back on the bed and apparently start to masturbate. What an absolute sleazebag. 

Which isn't to say that Baron Cohen/Borat doesn't have some phenomenal scenes himself.  In this sequel, we see Boart released from a long prison stint for embarrassing Kazakhstan's dictator, and sent to America to offer Trump a gift to make sure that he's seen as a friend of Trump in the same way that Bolsanaro and Putin are.  But Borat's daughter Tutar has contrived to be shipped to America instead, so that Borat has to offer HER as a gift. Cue some really queasy discourse about the pornification of young girls, and the appropriate role of women in modern life.  The most awful scenes are probably a tie between an anti-abortion pastor ignoring a case of incest and rape to focus on preventing abortion, and Borat in disguise singing a song to the delight of his bigoted audience as they chant along that their enemies should be given the Wuhan Flu while raising Nazi salutes.

Basically this is a film that makes you sick, but also makes you laugh in the way that maybe only Sacha Baron Cohen can. It's absolutely the film for this moment.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated R. It is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


Laura is a thirtysomething young mother whose husband is always travelling with work. Her life has been subsumed by getting the kids from A to B, and as much as she loves them, she's struggling to create the mental space to focus on writing her new book. Even worse, rather than having a rich inner intellectual life, she's stuck listening to other mums complain about their dating lives.  And even when Laura's husband Dean does coming home from yet another travel trip, he's exhausted, she's exhausted, the conversation gets mired in the bureaucratic minutiae of family life.  Things hit a tipping point when Dean drunkenly starts having sex with Laura but pulls back when he realises it's her. And then she finds his hot colleague Fiona's beauty kit in HIS suitcase. Is he having an affair?

Laura confides in her father Felix who argues that Dean probably is having an affair, because heck, that's what men do.  Felix seems to relish spending time with Laura as they tail Dean through New York and even to Mexico to uncover evidence of his misdeeds. And all of this makes for a hilarious buddy comedy that could easily serve as a prequel for a detective duo TV show. Rashida Jones (Laura) and Bill Murray (Felix) have real chemistry and it's just an absolute blast seeing them slope around Manhattan together in his absurd red sports car just being charismatic and witty and rogueish in that Bill Murray way. And we also get a side order of comedic genius from Jenny Slate (LANDLINE) as the hilariously self-involved school mum.

But there's so much more going on in this film. It's almost as if Bill Murray is back in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS but this time he's playing the Gene Hackman role.  Laura's willingness to suspect her husband of infidelity is clearly coloured by being raised in a broken home. Likewise, her father's willingness to think Dean is cheating is coloured by his own predilections.   It's clear that Laura feels lost and hurt.  But is any of that her husband's fault?  Or is this just motherhood damaging her sense of self, and thus self-esteem.  And is that lack of self-esteem in her marriage bringing up issues around her own childhood and her father's infidelity.  

So, from my perspective, this film isn't about whether the husband cheated or not at all. And that's why the Marlon Wayans character, Dean, is so vacuous.  We actually don't care about him, and maybe neither do the lead characters. In the words of Laura, "what if I'm just in a rut?" And also paraphrasing from Laura, what if her dad just wants to spend more time with her?  And from writer-director Sofia Coppola (THE BEGUILED), maybe the shadow Laura is trying to move out from under isn't that of motherhood but her larger-than-life dad?  

ON THE ROCKS is rated R and has a running time of 96 minutes. It is streaming on Apple TV+.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

AMMONITE - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Closing Night Gala

AMMONITE suffers in my head from comparisons with the devastatingly brilliant PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, which played at last year's festival and has a very similar story at its heart. In both cases a young girl trapped in either the reality or prospect of a loveless and controlling marriage meets a talented older working class woman with a professional skill.  In both cases, the meeting takes place in a geographically isolated and brutally beautiful place and the relationship that builds is a slow-burn to a physically passionate end.  But in the latter, I truly believed in the connection between the two women, and in the former I'm not sure I did.

Part of the reason for this is that it was 50 mins for the protagonists in AMMONITE to have an actual (if insubstantial) conversation and 1hr10m for them to have a kiss.  And the interest in the characters is deeply asymmetrical.  Kate Winslet's Mary Anning IS fascinating. She's so repressed and locked in - maybe as much by her consciousness of her poverty and working class status as by her homosexuality - and has a fierce pride that refuses to accept help.  By contrast, Saiorse Ronan's Charlotte is the typical silly Victorian woman, fit for nothing but to be admired for her beauty. This is not to victim-shame, but she is exactly the product of societal strictures and doesn't really display an inner life in the way that PORTRAIT's young woman does. There doesn't seem to be much under the surface.  I had the feeling in AMMONITE that I always get watching Brideshead Revisited. I can understand why Charles is fascinated by Sebastian but not why Sebastian wants to hang out with Charles!

So the relationship develops and is crystallised at a beautifully staged elegant supper party where Charlotte is immediately embraced by the ladies, and Mary is left sitting excluded at the back, full of jealousy and surprise at just how much she resents them taking *her* girl away from her. We then move to a hyper explicit sex scene.  Now, it's really great to see a no-nonsense depiction of lesbian sex on screen, but it did feel strange in a movie where so much is repressed and withheld. It just felt tonally jarring rather than a cathartic release and a meeting of bodies and souls.

On the positive side, this movie looks and sounds ravishing. The costumes and way in which Lyme Regis is depicted is as austere and fierce and unique as Mary, and the sound design batters our ears with gales and tides that hint at what Mary feels under her still surface.  The acting was also top notch as one might expect,  with Winslet giving a masterclass in facial acting where there is no dialogue.  I also loved the Fiona Shaw character Elizabeth and wanted to see more of her, because I feel so much of Mary's characters reticence is due to class rather than queer concerns and that plays into their former relationship. I also love that because Charlotte is so worldly she has only experienced love as a kind of material possession and so when she falls for Mary she also expresses that with a kind of material possession. Just as she, as a wife, was expected to be subsumed without objection into her husband's world, she now expects that of Mary.

I also love how male a space the British Museum is, and the power of these two women at the centre of it at the end - as though the director Francis Lee (GOD'S OWN COUNTRY) is finally re-centring women in British history. Here is a woman who's name is not mentioned on the fossil that's on display at the Museum, but she can reclaim it visually in this film. Truly, it has been a long time coming.

AMMONITE has a running time of 120 minutes and played Toronto and London 2020.  It opens in the USA on November 13th.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

LOVERS ROCK - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 12

LOVERS ROCK is another of the five-part series of films that Steve McQueen (TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE) has made to be shown on the BBC as part of its Small Axe series of films exploring British Black history.  It couldn't be more different from the courtroom drama, MANGROVE, that opened the festival.  Rather, this is a celebration of a certain time and a certain style of home-made West Indian entertainment - the house party! As the movie opens in early 80s Notting Hill, some young boys are clearing out the furniture from a house, and some women are cooking up a storm while singing together.  Hours later young West Indian men and women don their finery and pay their fifty pence to come into an absolutely banging house party, with the most amazing music. The atmosphere is hot and sultry with dancing in the queue for the loo and people eating home-made food and making out in the back garden.  As with all parties, there are unwelcome attentions from men, but also more happy couplings, and evidently a copious amount of weed being smoked.  The best way to approach this film - with little plot or dialogue - is just to be carried along on the positive vibe. To become so absorbed, as the revellers do, that when the song Silly Games stops, you feel the music continue, with perhaps the most tuneful dancers of all time singing a cappella. The sun comes up and so does reality.  This safe and warm private space that celebrates West Indian culture is exposed for what it is.  An attempted sexual assault is thwarted.  And as a new couple leaves to make out in the workplace of the boy, his boss finds them and scolds them.  The black man puts on his cockney geezer accent that makes him less Other and threatening to the White man. The compromises of living as an ethnic minority begin again. 

LOVERS ROCK has a running time of 68 minutes. It is the second episode in Steve McQueen's Small Axe TV series.  It will air on UK TV on November 22nd and be released on the internet in the USA on November 27th. 

FRIENDSHIPS DEATH (1987) - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 9

FRIENDSHIP'S DEATH was originally released in 1987 but has since been lovingly restored by the BFI and is playing in this year's London Film Festival. 

It stars a very young Tilda Swinton as woman who seemingly just shows up in Jordan in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1970, and is befriended by a journalist played by Big Paterson.  The rest of the movie plays as a two-hander and takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hotel room in Amman. We hear the bullets and bombs firing and very occasionally see archive news footage but essentially this feels like a filmed stage play, albeit with some rather funky camera angles and some deeply cool outfits for Swinton.

The conceit of the film is that Swinton is actually an alien from a more advanced planet where the biological beings have long since died out and been superseded by cylons. She has been sent to Earth to make contact with the academic community and give them an axiomatic ethical system that can ensure humanity's peaceful survival.  She ends up in Amman by mistake, and seeing the brutality of war gives up on her mission, rather accurately predicting that if she did make it to MIT she'd just be turned over to the FBI for endless testing and exploitation - and that - in the funniest line of the film - if she went to England the authorities there would do the same but just more slowly.

Those looking for a sci-fi film will be disappointed.  This is actually a rather more philosophical film where two smart people - well one person and one robot -  debate the Singularity and ethics. The wonder of the film is that despite its short running time, we really believe in the friendship that has built up between the pair, and indeed delight in Tilda Swinton's delight at the absurdity of shaving, or at building things with Lego! This is - then - a beautifully acted chamber piece, remarkably prescient in its ideas and understanding of technology.

FRIENDSHIP'S DEATH originally played Toronto 1987 and Berlin 1988. It is playing in the BFI London Film Festival 2020 in a new restored version from the BFI National Archive.

Friday, October 16, 2020

NEW ORDER / NUEVO ORDEN - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day

NEW ORDER is a nasty brutal short film about social inequality, envy and corruption.  As the film opens, patients are being kicked off hospital beds to accommodate the victims of a brutal social uprising. We cut to naked cadavers splattered with green paint.  We then cut as brutally again to a wedding in a spectacular mansion where guests hand envelopes bulging with cash to the bride and her mother locks them in a safe.  Their old gardener interrupts the celebrations. His wife is desperately ill but was kicked out of the hospital and now he needs money for a private operation. Mother, father, brother all reject charity but the bride wants to help, and when the social justice rioters reach the wedding house and start shooting and looting, she flees with the gardener. A day later, the house is a scene of carnage and murder.  The bride, who had taken shelter with the gardener, is seized by armed militia.  She's rounded up with other rich people, brutalised, raped and then offered up for ransom.  As the movie ends, whatever this New Order is that has staged the coup has become as bad as the old regime - and may indeed be in cahoots with parts of it.  We end the film with extrajudicial killings.

What is director Michel Franco trying to do with this film?  He rightly shows how the politics of envy underlies a lot of modern political unrest. He rightly shows that rich people can be really self-centred. He rightly shows that there is brutality at the heart of humanity and in that sense, this film makes an interesting companion piece to SHADOW COUNTRY, also playing in this festival. But these are not especially radical thoughts, and I didn't care about any of these characters. The movie soon became a kind of thought exercise - what would happen if...?  And I would have liked more precision and clarity around the ending. 

NEW ORDER has a running time of 88 minutes.  It played Venice 2020 where it won the Silver Lion. It also played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2020.  It does not yet have a commercial release data.