If you want to debate the ethics of Sacha Baron Cohen’s prank-driven comedy, maybe there’s a conversation to be had. The people subjected to his “Candid-Camera”-meets-“Jackass,” politically charged, ambush-style comedy are typically very unhappy about it. And I realize that Cohen (like any one else) should not be immune to criticism.
But the man’s work is damned hilarious; you can’t argue with that. Like 2006’s “Borat,” this new film made me laugh out loud repeatedly (even if I cringed at times too). “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is simply a first-rate comedy; I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.
This is due largely to Cohen’s twofold genius. First, he succeeds in creating a truly funny fictional character that could easily make us laugh in a scripted TV sitcom, or a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Second, Cohen again demonstrates his mind-boggling ability to gain the trust of his targets — and then manages to stay in character throughout the elaborate pranks. (If you think about it, it’s probably tougher than we might realize. There can’t be any second takes for what we see unfolding before us onscreen.)
A movie like this easily might have suffered from the addition of a second comedian who isn’t as funny as Cohen. But newcomer Maria Bakalova hits it out of the park. (She plays the fictional daughter of Cohen’s titular bumbling foreigner.) She is nearly as funny (and just as good at keeping character) as he is. With Sacha Baron Cohen, that’s saying a lot.
Again, some of what you see in this film will be cringe-inducing. But it’s damned funny stuff.
20th Century Fox.
The hectic first episode of “Black Summer,” Netflix’ new zombie series, looks like ambitious stuff — it plays like a hybrid of “28 Days Later” (2002), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “24” (2001-2014). While it seems unlikely that this show can emulate the greatness of those classics, “Black Summer” still gets off to a damned good start. I’d rate the first episode an 8 out of 10 for being a pretty lean and mean start to a decent zombie series.
Part of the episode’s appeal is its frantic vibe and format — something that seems like a deliberate contrast to “The Walking Dead’s” slowly placed, methodical epic. The viewer is plopped down into the middle of a heartland neighborhood evacuation effort, three weeks into a zombie epidemic. With a series of lengthy, real-time tracking shots, we race beside a collection of unconnected characters who are desperately trying to reach United States Army pickup point.
The zombies are few in number. But they are the “high-speed zombies” that most modern horror viewers associate with Danny Boyle’s film, so the arrival of even one imperils the fleeing families. The makeup effects are good, the transformation process is effectively rendered, and the show is satisfyingly scary. The show makes this even more interesting by filming each character’s dash individually, and then showing them as discrete vignettes that are out of chronological order.
The story is weakest when it slows down enough to allow its characters to talk. The dialogue is truly bad, even if the quick action sequences make up for it. (Has there ever been a more generic bribery offer, for example, then the one we see here?) But this weakness doesn’t much affect the overall quality of an episode that follows so much action.
I was even more surprised that the episode works when I googled “Black Summer.” The Netflix series is produced The Asylum, the film company notorious for “mockbusters” like “Dead Men Walking” (2005), “Snakes on a Train” (2006) and … sigh … “Transmorphers” (2007). What’s more, “Black Summer” is intended as a prequel series to The Asylum’s “Z Nation,” the lamentable horror-comedy zombie series that ran for three seasons on SyFy. (It was so bad I couldn’t get through a single episode.)
It’s a weird world.
Here’s another bizarre relic of Boys’ Life magazine in the 1980’s — an ad for what was apparently a $4.95 do-it-yourself hovercraft. (Kids needed to read that entire ad to understand that what this company was selling you was not the “AIR CAR” itself, or even its parts, but only “plans and photos.”)
A pal of mine in the Cub Scouts had his heart set on this, but I wisely cautioned him that you couldn’t always trust advertisers. (I’d learned my own lesson a couple of years prior from the duplicitous marketers of “Sea Monkeys.”) You’ve gotta read the whole thing through, I told him. Pretend that you’re dealing with the least trustworthy kid on the school bus. It was one of those truly rare moments in my life when I counseled circumspection to others instead of vice versa.
He was pretty zealous in his desire for this thing. For some reason, he really wanted to take it out over the Long Island Sound (to … Connecticut, presumably?) I’m still not sure why he didn’t want a jet ski. We indeed had those in the 80’s. Oh, well. As dreams go, it wasn’t the worst that a kid could have.
He never wound up sending away for it. I’m not sure if that’s because I talked him out of it or not.
But here’s the stunning O’Henry-style postscript — I’ve read a few Reddit and Twitter posts from men in their 40’s who also remember this Boys Life ad, and who actually sent away for the plans. A couple of them claim that they successfully built this device, and that the damned thing actually worked. (Cue the theme music for Christopher Nolan’s 2006 “The Prestige.”) It certainly couldn’t hold 100 pounds, they qualified, but it technically still worked.
I guess if I ever run into my old friend from the Cub Scouts after 40 years, I owe him a hovercraft.
Maxf [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
What’s with all the people in music videos looking so damn young these days? Did they change the child labor laws?
There was a time when I was daily viewer of MTV (the sedate stuff on VH-1 was for old people), and I rocked hard, people. It seemed to me that whenever I watched a video, I saw people who were my own age.
Now these videos are inhabited only by people who look young enough to be my kids. And that makes sense, because … they kinda are young enough. (Yes, I realize the video below for The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go” was made 18 years ago, but that’s beside the point.) If the performers in a video today were in their very early 20’s, then they’d be about the right age, if I’d fathered kids when I was 26.
Furthermore, some astute commentators pointed out online Monday night that 2019 is the year in which the original “Blade Runner” (1982) was set. The opening title card names “November, 2019” as the time when all things Fordesque turn angsty and existential and killer-androidy. Am I … older than Harrison Ford’s character? I am six years older than Ford was when he made the film.
Now I just feel weird. Why do I write these blog posts, anyway?
[Update: Today I am learning that “Akira” (1988) and “The Running Man” (1987) also set their stories in 2019?! That’s ironic, given that the future we’ve come closest to is that of 2006’s “Idiocracy.”
I wonder how people in our parents’ generation felt when 2001 arrived, if they’d happened to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” in theaters in 1968.]
So I just managed to catch the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” (2018), and it was predictably jaw-dropping. (I recently ran a couple of clips here at the blog that Showtime had released concurrently with the show’s July 15th premiere.) I’d rate the first episode a perfect 10 for being both hilarious and an absolutely biting half hour of … prank comedy? Subversive documentary? Performance art? I think any of those labels might apply in varying degrees, depending on how you view Cohen’s work. It’s wacky stuff.
I opine that Cohen is a creative genius. We can all debate the ethics of the imposter interviews that are his trademark (and there were a couple of moments during 2006’s “Borat” that made even me squirm). But nobody can deny that the man is exceptionally good at what he does. And I don’t think that his success derives from the false personas he adopts when sitting down with political figures. (There are several new ones that he’s created for the show.) They are funny by themselves, but not hilarious, and countless comedians can perform a character. (One of Cohen’s creations, the “Finnish Youtuber,” even reminds me a little of Dana Carvey.)
Cohen has something more. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a skill set that matches closely with that of any standard con-artist, allowing him to gain his interviewees’ trust to an extreme degree. I’m willing to bet that he works hard at building rapport with his subjects long before the cameras start rolling, and that the feckless nature of his false identities further puts them at ease.
Anyway, Episode 1 features interviews with Bernie Sanders and Trent Lott. A clip from the Sanders segment is below. He acquits himself far better than other participants, although I also think Cohen went far easier on him. (There isn’t actually a joke at Sanders’ expense; it’s really just Cohen’s character clowning.) The humiliating interview with disgraced Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t appear until Episode 4, but I just had to include it here.
This is utterly bizarre, utterly funny stuff. I highly recommend it.