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A Simpler Time

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and Bad Hair



BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM. There is the impulse to refer to bygone times as "simpler" and, by extension, better. But the past is not always simpler than the present. I suggest this because 1) I would rather not believe that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) was released 14 years ago and 2) the realization of that fact made me sigh and wistfully intone the cliché, stopping when it dawned on me that it's bullshit. The year 2006 was a hideously complicated time, some of us just had simpler perspectives. It was the beginning of the third act of the capitalist takeover of American democracy. The PR machine was hard at work pitching the holy war; President Cheney was using 9/11 to punch holes in the Constitution, metastasize his influence throughout the offices of the government and hand out defense contracts to his hunting buddies (presumably the ones he didn't shoot in the face). The internet, like many of its current figureheads/billionaires/demons, was in its infancy. We were living in the prelude to the current moment and had no way of seeing that the future, in becoming even worse, would actually be simpler than the present. With that future now fully upon us, when irony has destroyed itself, the denial of science has become a point of pride, a plague is culling civilization and instant communication has helped us grow crueler and more distant, it is easy to look back longingly to the night I saw Borat in a packed theater. We didn't know we were standing on the precipice — at least I didn't. Nor did I realize an erudite Briton playing an oafish reporter from Central Asia would persist as one of our ballsiest satirists. Or that 2020 would need his brand of hilarious, gonzo mirror-turning more than 2006, or even 2018, which saw the release of his Showtime limited series Who is America?

Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) has been breaking rocks in a work camp for bersmiching his nation's global reputation with his last movie. When Premier Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) learns that Donald Trump has been fawning over the strongman autocrats of the world, but not the Premier himself, he releases Borat and dispatches him to America to curry favor. The plan: Present Mike Pence with the gift of Johnny Monkey, minister of culture and Kazakhstan's most prominent porn star (also a literal chimpanzee). With Johnny having met a nasty end, though, Borat is forced to improvise to avoid failure abroad and a death sentence at home. His solution: Give his newly discovered teenaged daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) an American-style makeover and present her in Johnny's place. A wild gambit but it just might work. Complications ensue, of course (including the outbreak of COVID-19 and the rise of QAnon), but Borat is nothing if not adept at navigating tricky situations.

It would be impossible for this sequel to match the dam-burst effect of its predecessor and unfair to expect it to. But it cleverly subverts the shock and awe of the first movie with even more goofiness, some savage takedown stunts — including the Giuliani one everybody's talking about, wherein he most certainly starts to pleasure himself — and not a little gender equality education. It is both a harsh reminder of the simple, often terrible time in which we live and a momentary relief therefrom. R. 95M. STREAMING.

BAD HAIR. In the spirit of the season, it seems only right to recommend a horror movie. I've written at length about my excitement for the genre in recent years and the subsequent waning of that excitement as the flood of inventive, smaller-scale horror seemed to be petering out. In the democratization of moviegoing brought about by the pandemic, though, more and more of these movies — smaller movies across genres, really — can find an audience and arguably a larger one than if they had to fight for theatrical distribution. Bad Hair debuted at the Sundance Film Festival a million years ago in January, after which Hulu acquired its distribution rights. And as much as I would have enjoyed seeing it on a big(ger) screen, it's hard to imagine this movie getting the marketing push it would need to get people to the theater.

In 1980s Los Angeles (recreated and filmed with sublime Carpenterian grittiness), Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) scrapes by as an executive assistant at Culture, the Black music branch of Rock Music Video. She's got ideas and ambition, but is consistently passed over. When executive management shakes things up in the office, though, she comes to the attention of new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams), who recognizes her talent but gravely intones that she should straighten her hair. And so Anna's off to get a weave from the ominous Virgie (Laverne Cox), and after that a clever riff on LA, the '80s and cultural appropriation becomes ... something else. Written and directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People, 2014), Bad Hair succeeds as an homage to era and genre that synthesizes influences while introducing an original perspective. It falters a little in some of the action sequences, sure, but it's fun and creepy and smart in deeply pleasing proportion. NR. 102M. HULU.

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