Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ach-Yah or Nicht-Nicht?

Now for what you’ve all been waiting for: my Brüno review. Let me just start by saying that this film is just as hilarious and perhaps even more outrageous, disgusting, incendiary and complicated than its predecessor Borat. The undeniably brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen has a knack for creating films that – whether you love or hate them – raise many issues and cannot be ignored. In fact, eliciting strong reactions from his audience and spurring discussion is arguably what he is best at, and with Brüno this proves to be no exception. However, while Brüno is fascinating and undeniably hysterical, it is also a definite disappointment especially when compared to Borat.

In many ways it is unfair – though inevitable – to compare the two films. Borat had the huge advantage of coming first and of being utterly unique, thus creating – in my opinion – a revolutionary oasis in the arid world of modern cinema. Never before had someone blended fiction and fact in such an innovative and socially relevant, revealing way. Thus it is unavoidable that Brüno would fail to be as fresh, as it follows the exact same method of storytelling. However, Brüno not only falls short in this respect; it is less structured and not nearly as culturally significant as Borat.

While both films follow a clear plotline, Brüno spends much time meandering. Borat follows a plainly directed course across America in his quest to make a documentary about “U.S and A” and find his beloved “Pam-ella,” but Brüno’s quest is murkier. He starts out in Austria, where he finds himself in the middle of a major faux pas and seeks to rectify his fall from social grace by becoming internationally famous. Fair enough. From here he decides to travels rather haphazardly from Austria to America to the “Middle Earth” (or Middle East) and then back to America, which makes for a more convoluted, less understandable plotline.

However, the film’s structural concerns are minimal compared to its larger shortcomings. In essence, the point of Brüno is vastly underdeveloped. While Borat sought to expose America’s latent anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny, Brüno tackles homophobia, shallowness and general ignorance but with much less success. For whatever reason, Brüno fails to uncover nearly as much damning material from those he interviews.

To the film’s credit, some scenes work brilliantly; my favorite is one in which Brüno interviews stage parents about casting their toddlers in an extremely un-P.C photo shoot that involves pushing a Jewish child into a stove. Their willingness to comply with the horrific questions he asks them just to get their children cast – including if their two year-olds could undergo liposuction or operate large, out of date machinery – are truly horrifying and Baron Cohen scores big in exposing cultural ignorance in all its hideousness. Other successful scenes include the “Jew Converter” scene, and one in which Brüno interviews two of the dumbest charity organizers ever.

However, too often Brüno attempts to uncover hidden prejudices by putting people in strange, uncomfortable situations, but fails in attaining his goal. For example, scenes like the one where he locks himself in a room with Ron Paul and begins to undress, or tells Paula Abdul to sit on a person instead of a chair while discussing her good deeds for humanity are hilarious but fail to expose anything about society. In both cases, Paul and Abdul act as anyone would if put in such a ridiculous, awkward situation and thus, while the scenes succeed on a comedic level, they don’t have much any cultural significance.

Perhaps this trend of setting up a ridiculous yet ultimately pointless scenarios is most noticeable in the scene in which Brüno takes his African baby on a talk show and proceeds to insult the intelligence of his audience by calling Africa a “country filled with African Americans,” and proclaiming that he got his baby (named O.J) by “swapping him for an ipod.” The audience is understandably irate, and it is extremely unclear who is being made fun of and exposed as ignorant. Surely it’s not the justifiably enraged audience, so it must be Brüno himself. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of the scene?

Here we get into the complicated and over-discussed issue of whether – by watching and laughing at Brüno – we are laughing at or with gay people. Though I don’t personally find Brüno offensive (despite the fact that he is a stupid, crude caricature of a gay man), I completely understand how many people would find him to be so. Borat, by contrast, was also a disgusting character, but the film sought to condemn the traits Borat himself held, while Brüno arguably seeks to expose homophobia, not make gay people look worse. Regardless of one’s personal response to Brüno, his character and many of the scenes in his film are less clear and socially relevant than Borat, making me question who or what I was really laughing at and why.

So yes, Brüno is just as funny as Borat. I laughed the whole way through. But the film is not nearly as revealing or important as its predecessor, which is what made Borat such a success. The bottom line is, see this movie. It’s impossible not to have a strong reaction to it, and the issues that it raises – however feebly – are important ones to discuss. In fact, perhaps the fact that Baron Cohen was unable to obtain more direct examples of homophobia is itself significant. Is homophobia that much of a repressed issue that no one will admit to it despite the fact that gay marriage is illegal nearly countrywide? Perhaps matters like this – which Brüno hints at without really delving into – are what make this film most fascinating.

Drag Yourself to the Theater

I’m a total sucker for scary movies, but of course I don’t consider many things very scary, hence most horror films disappoint. Drag Me to Hell (directed by Sam Raimi) is not really an exception as it wasn’t particularly frightening, but I wasn’t so much disappointed as amused. This film was all over the place; it was simultaneously contrived and typical of the horror genre, while at the same time funny and almost avant-garde in its kitchy peculiarity. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead of trying to stick to the books of what defines a horror film, Raimi has fun weaving disparate elements of horror, comedy and camp together into this devilishly enjoyable offering.

The film stars Alison Lohman who is perfectly cast as Christine Brown – a kind hearted if meek loan officer who hopes to garner a promotion by putting her foot down and refusing a loan to a haggard and hideous gypsy woman (Lorna Raver). After refusing the loan, the woman curses Christine and strange, terrible things begin to happen. She seeks the help of Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a sexy psychic who tries to aid her in purging the curse before she is literally dragged to hell. Will she succeed? I won’t say, but her experience makes for one bizarre film.

Much of the film relies on moments of contrived shock value as per usual of the horror genre. For example, scenes like the one in which Christine finds herself alone in a darkened parking garage with the grotesquely predatory gypsy rely on typical elements of scary films – dramatic mood music, eerie sound effects, suspenseful editing, and surprising reveals. However, the scene stops being so generic when the old woman loses her false teeth and winds up gumming rather than biting Christine’s face for what can only be described as an inordinate amount of time. Though it might not sound funny, this disgusting scene undercut the formulaic tension of a horror film with disturbingly gross-out humor.

At other times Drag Me to Hell also strays from the prototype of a horror film with absurdly campy scenes like the one in which Christine has dinner with her boyfriend’s parents. Shot in oddly washed out colors which add to the scene’s surreal nature, Raimi makes no pretense at trying to be scary, but instead plays up the film’s macabre, fantastical side with Christine talking to herself, yelling profanities at the dinner table, and even consuming a fly and consequently burping it up. The film also takes on an almost Twin Peaks-esque vibe when a plagued Christine ponders how to escape her curse whilst wandering around an all-night diner filled with an odd assortment of nutty characters worthy of their own film. It’s a scene that has little thematic relevance to the rest of the movie, but nonetheless it fits well into the creepy yet quirky world Raimi has created.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the film is the unwarranted anomaly that is Justin Long who plays Christine’s boyfriend. I do not just mean to imply that he is out of place and unwanted in only this film, I mean that he is never needed or appropriate in any film ever. What is the point of this guy? He is almost as perversely unnecessary as Shia LaBeouf. Justin (and Shia – though his worthlessness can be saved for another post) is not good looking or charismatic enough to ever play leading or supporting roles, nor interesting or adept enough to be a character actor. He is an extremely limited performer who seems to have no niche at all in the dog-eat-dog world that is Hollywood and frankly I’m shocked that he continues to book roles. If you’re looking to cast the adorable, dependable type (which is what I would peg Justin’s character as in this film) there are a handful – neigh, a few hundred – other actors who fit the bill better than Justin. This is true for any role that Justin has ever landed. I’m baffled and annoyed that his career continues to rise when his parts could go to some much more deserving, struggling actor. Justin is worse than insufferable mediocrities like Jude Law or Hugh Jackman with their tedious blandness; he is a nonentity that I am embarrassed to have taken up this much of my time discussing as he isn’t worth any time at all.

Whatever, apart from Justin, this film is weird, strange fun. Go see it - you'll be in for one hellish good time!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Have you seen Brüno yet? Ish have! Ish loved it! Go see it! No time to review now, ish am too busy being fabulous. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

So Far, so Tasty

Yay more Top Chef! Granted, I don’t think Top Chef: Masters is as palatable (or some other lame food-related quip) as a regular installment of the show, but it is enough to satiate some of my cravings (ok, I’ll stop). Mainly, Masters falls short because it doesn’t follow the same group of people week by week – rather, it features four different, already established “master” cheftestants who face off head to head with one winning and going on to the Champions Round – thus making it more difficult to root for anyone in particular. Also, as a result of their “master” statuses, none of these chefs takes the competition too seriously – why should they? – so the whole thing feels a bit half-assed at times. Furthermore, because of the high caliber of chefs, the judges’ criticism is pretty bland (sorry, last food related adjective, I promise) and scathing reviews are one of the things that make normal Top Chef so fun. Also, I miss Tom and Gail (though apparently she’ll be on later this season) and yes, even Padma. This new host, Kelly Choi, is pretty but a bit lackluster (I avoided a food word there). And, notably missing from the lineup of competing chefs are the dreamy Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain both of whom I would love to see compete. But really, I should stop complaining; the show is still fun, and it is pretty impressive to see how talented these people are and how much passion they have for food.

So I think I’ll give you a week-by-week rundown and just share a few of my thoughts.

Week One – I was glad Hubert Keller won. He’s obviously incredibly talented and also has a good personality – I won’t mind seeing him again come the Champions Round. The best part of this episode though was seeing all the chefs confused by Whole Foods as they don’t do their own shopping and mystified by microwaves.

Week Two – My big problem here was that the woman who won – Suzanne Tracht – was by far the least interesting of the four contestants and I don’t care to see her compete again. Both Wylie Dufresne and Graham Elliot Bowles were fascinating to watch, had interesting personalities and a great bromance/rivalry. It’s a shame one of them didn’t win.

Week Three – I had a similar problem with this one as I did with episode two. I liked Rick Bayless least out of all the cheftestants – he reminds me of someone’s possibly gay overbearing father and just gives me the creeps – and yet he is the one who I will have to see compete again.

I also think it’s amusing to note that at the end of every episode when they add the picture of that week’s winner to the Champions Round in which six slots represent the six winning chefs, the unfilled slots all show Hubert’s silhouette. Weird, right? Anyways, I’ll report more next week. So far, I’m rooting for Hubert.