In his 2006 iconic phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat came from the backwards land of Kazakhstan to experience the joys of America, a place with hospitable people who often say horrible things. Americans, boorish and racist and consumed with empty courtesy though they may be, at least didn’t stage offensive parades and give wide swaths of their population over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. Thirteen years later, Borat returns to the US to attend anti-COVID-lockdown gatherings and hangs out with Qanon adherents who believe the world’s most powerful liberals distill the blood of children for precious hormones. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, America has turned into something like Cohen’s imagined Kazakhstan, except no one from the South Carolina tourism department is going to sue him for defamation. Cohen justifies his sequel by simply observing how strange and poisonous America has become, and then justifies it again by gaining a worthy sidekick. It takes more than one Kazakh to satirize America in 2020.
A new level of Jewish cringe comedy is reached in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. Seligman’s feature debut contains enough toe-curling awkwardness to make Larry David sit up and take notice, all contained within a party that’s not as extreme as the events of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but reminiscent nonetheless. Adapted from a short, Shiva Baby piles tension and complication on its protagonist, a young woman of little accomplishment who’s confronted with judgmental relatives and the thorny untangling of her sexual escapades. Seligman meticulously lays out scenario after scenario to bedevil her lead, and the result is a tremendously watchable film even if it must occasionally be seen through hands over eyes.
For obvious reasons, I’ve always confused The Big Chill with The Ice Storm, and the latter was the one I happened to watch first. Despite their titles and the shared presence of Kevin Kline, these films aren’t exactly similar, but Ang Lee’s acid-tipped recreation of the late 70’s was exactly what I wanted out of Lawrence Kasdan’s star-studded tale of 60’s hippies turned into 80’s yuppies. It turns out the Big Chill has little to say about the withering of youthful idealism or getting stuck in historical patterns, and it has even less to say about the Reagan-era time period it takes place in. That doesn’t make it dull, which it isn’t, but it does make it slight and something of a waste of all the considerable talent on the screen.
Half military recruitment ad and half confirmation of everything the Village People implied about the Navy, Top Gun is somehow more than its reputation. Quentin Tarantino wrote himself a long diatribe about the film’s homoeroticism, but it’s so much more aggressive than one mere the volleyball scene. It’s known as one of the first coproductions with the Department of Defense, but the militarism is apparent on every frame. The culture has undersold the most notable aspects of Tony Scott’s breakout film. Top Gun is shocking in its shamelessness, a perfect vehicle for a mid-80’s America that needed the smallest of shoves to fall back in love with the military and all its wet-butted studs.
Julie Taymor’s turgid and cliché-ridden biopic of Gloria Steinem, The Glorias, had the misfortune of coming out within several months of the excellent FX miniseries Mrs. America. Though Steinem was only one lead of many on that series, it both scooped and improved on every single aspect of Taymor’s attempt to tell the story of second-wave feminism and the women who led it. The Glorias, by contrast, falls into every biopic trap and ultimately has nothing to say about anything.
My Dinner With Andre, Louis Malle’s meal in real-time between an eccentric playwright and a workaday actor, has the feel of a homework movie. A play adaptation that’s also a two-hander about insular theater types seems like exactly the kind of navel-gazing paean to the difficult life of actors that would keep anyone who’s not an actor at arm’s length. I should’ve trusted Malle and actors/writers Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory more than that. My Dinner With Andre knows when its characters are being pretentious and it knows how to break down their pretensions until they’re just humans grappling with the same things that any aging human thinks about. This is the thoughtful conversation a person dreams about having with their friends, and the film itself realizes how rare and meaningful such an interaction can be. Before the 80’s gave itself over to biceps and blockbusters, Malle made one of the best of the decade with two nebbishy men, just talking to each other.
A charming Israeli comedy that teaches the viewer more about Judaism than nine seasons of Seinfeld, The Women’s Balcony illustrates the dramatic differences between a five on the religious conservatism scale and a nine. Emil Ben-Shimon’s superb debut is well-versed in the seductive power of charismatic leaders and the creeping language of repression while also being warm and funny. Assemble a minyan and be taken in by one of the best films to ever come out of Israel.
David Fincher’s newest film and his first in six years reaches back into his own history and that of Hollywood’s in Mank, a fractured narrative about the writing of Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz. Working from a decades-old script by his father, Jack Fincher, the junior Fincher was supposed to direct Mank in the late 90’s, but things fall apart. Now, years after Jack’s death, Mank sees the light of day, or at least streaming in what is Fincher’s least commercial film. Shot in black and white and about a narrow slice of behind-the-scenes producing and writing, Mank is far away from Fincher’s adaptations of popular/controversial books, but box-office notwithstanding, the film contains that comforting sense that everything happening onscreen is purposeful and meaningful, even if the viewer doesn’t have the in-depth knowledge of Orson Welles and RKO Productions that would no doubt make Mank an even richer experience. After a too-long hiatus from film, Fincher churns out the ultimate one-for-me, paying tribute to his personal and professional predecessors, and finding camaraderie with writers everywhere despite him having never put his own name on a feature script.
Sean Durkin’s long hiatus from film directing finally comes to an end with The Nest. After breaking out with intense cult psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that also marked Elizabeth Olsen as a major talent, audiences have had to wait nine years for a follow-up and Durkin delivers with a marital drama that retains the level of unbearable intensity that his debut also demonstrated. A film that feels like it could’ve been made at any time during the last seventy-five years, The Nest has a timeless quality that evokes the great actors of Hollywood past and puts it out of step with the grand spectacle that so much of modern filmmaking is increasingly consumed with. Though it’s easily imaginable as a film that Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman could have acted in, The Nest also reaches back into recent history and presents a version of the kind of greed that will reshape the world for the worse, all while presenting a picture of a marriage with a rotted foundation. Durkin’s multi-faceted film represents a major leap for him as a filmmaker, or it would if The Nest received any of the widespread recognition that it deserves.
Gavin O’Connor’s three sports movies have moved from the straightforward Miracle to sports-as-therapy male weepie Warrior. O’Connor’s newest film, The Way Back, follows a similar track as Warrior wherein some kind of medical extremity forces a character with father issues through a physical transformation, only to find some kind of clarity through sports. It’s a more interesting tack than the head-down, work-hard, believe-in-yourself messaging so many lesser sports movies engage in. In fact, endless wind sprints won’t cure one’s alcohol problems and profane anger directed towards referees isn’t an appropriate way of releasing stress and pressure. Featuring a career-best performance from Ben Affleck in a period of his life that mirrors his character, The Way Back is less triumphant buzzer-beater and more incremental improvement over the course of a season. The former leaves the viewer in a cheerier place, but the latter contains far more truth.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.