Reel Opinions

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Borat: Subsequent Movie Film

2006's Borat took Sacha Baron Cohen's satiric character from his TV show, and dropped him in the middle of George W. Bush's America.  With his broken English and politically incorrect views on Jews, minorities and women, the Borat character seems designed to make us laugh and offend at the same time, as he openly exposes some of the more openly dumb elements of our culture, posing as patriotism.  The film followed Cohen as the titular character as he visited America, and performed a lot of hit and miss hidden camera gags where the comedic actor showed just how far some people were willing to go with their beliefs, the people not realizing that they were being trolled or even filmed the entire time.

It's 14 years later, and Cohen has now given us Borat: Subsequent Movie Film, which hopes that lightning will strike twice by reviving the character within Donald Trump's America (or McDonald Trump, as the character calls him), as well as a culture that has been dealing with a pandemic.  Again, there are laughs here, but a good deal of the film left me feeling more uncomfortable than amused.  Maybe that was the intention.  However, seeing our Vice President tell a crowded room early this year that the virus is under control and that there are only 15 cases in the U.S. just doesn't exactly inspire a sense of levity in the viewer.  Same goes for the now famous "interview" with Rudy Giuliani that everyone by now knows about that happens late in the film.  More than what eventually happens, what made me uncomfortable was listening to his theories on the virus.  

Maybe this movie will play funnier to me years from now when all of this is a memory, but being in the middle of it all and watching it being played out for rude laughs just made me feel uncertain on how to respond.  Like before, this is a largely hit and miss affair.  It does try to add more plot to the film, giving Borat a 15-year-old daughter named Tutar (played by the 24-year-old Maria Bakalova), and making a majority of the film hinging on whether Borat can be a good father to her.  Tutar herself also carries a large portion of the film, as her storyline deals with her learning that women can do things like drive cars and live their own lives when she visits America for the first time with her father.  It seems like an attempt to add some heart to the crude antics that are frequently on display, and while Bakalova does a great job (both in the scripted moments with Cohen, and the hidden camera moments with random strangers), the warped sentiment of her plot does not always click.

The plot initially finds Borat doing hard labor after bringing shame to his homeland of Kazakhstan after his previous movie came out.  He gets his chance for freedom when he is brought before the Premier of his nation.  The Premier wants Borat to go back to America, and deliver a gift to Vice President Mike Pence, namely a monkey who also happens to be Kazakhstan's Minister of Culture, as well as its leading porn star.  And so our intrepid reporter goes back to America to prepare for the monkey's arrival via a crate.  When he opens the crate, however, he learns that his daughter Tutar has stowed away, and ate the monkey during the journey.  She has longed to see America ever since she saw a Disney-style animated movie about Melania Trump, and how she met the current President.  Thinking quickly, Borat decides that he will present his own daughter as a gift to Pence, and the two go on a road trip to make Tutar more "presentable" to men of power, which include a beauty make over, crashing a debutante ball, and learning how to be submissive to older horny men.

Borat: Subsequent Movie Film tries to balance the father-daughter bonding plot, alongside the pit stops along the way where the characters do hidden camera pranks.  At one point, Tutar eats a tiny plastic baby that was on top of a cupcake, so Borat must take her to a clinic, and explain to the doctor that he, her father, put a baby in her.  There's also an extended sequence where Borat moves in with a couple of QAnon believers who teach him that Obama hates America, and that the Clintons are demonic pedophiles.  It leads to an overall tone that, like I said, does have some big laughs, but also a number of scenes that just made me feel uneasy.  I understand that is likely the point, and what Cohen is going for.  Still, some of this stuff just did not play as funny to me.  He is trying to hold up a satirical mirror to our current culture, but living in the middle of it all, sometimes I had to just kind of look away.

2006's Borat left me with a mixed reaction, and so did this film, so maybe that will be enough to let you know if this is for you.  Whatever your response to the original, this one will probably be the same.  I admire what Cohen is trying to do here, but not all of the jokes land, and sometimes he doesn't really seem to be trying for laughs, and just lets the camera linger on the worst parts of society.  Maybe it's just not easy for me to laugh at a lot of the things that are going on in the world right now.  You might feel differently.


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Hubie Halloween

In Hubie Halloween, Adam Sandler gets to play one of his favorite comedic character types - The socially awkward loner loser who's a super nice guy, talks with a lisp, and despite being generally disrespected by everyone he comes in contact with, wishes harm on nobody.  His character, Hubie Dubois, is basically Sandler's characters from The Waterboy and Little Nicky, just tweaked a little to be slightly less annoying.  Maybe he's mellowing out a little with middle age.

That being said, the guy Sandler is playing is harmless, and so is the movie itself, which plays kind of like a Greatest Hits of the actor's past success.  Not only is his character familiar, but a large number of his friends who have acted in several of his past movies make appearances throughout.  You get the sense that the vibe on the set was kind of like a bunch of friends getting together to be silly and have fun.  The movie is largely hit and miss, but I have to admit, I did smile quite a lot through it.  It's eager to please, has a couple good gags, and really just wants to help you forget your troubles for 100 minutes with a goofy comedy featuring horror undertones.  It's probably one of the better comedies Sandler has done recently, and if I were 13-years-old, this would probably be a new seasonal favorite.  That last sentence probably tells you whether you're the audience for this.

As is to be expected with a Happy Madison Production, the film's hero is a weirdo who constantly means well, and is usually the butt of jokes of numerous bullies.  Hubie Dubois rides his bike through his hometown of Salem, and basically has been the unofficial safety monitor for the entire town every Halloween.  He gives lectures to children about proper candy etiquette, he makes sure everyone is playing safe, and he crashes teen parties just so he can warn them about the dangers of underage drinking.  Naturally, this makes Hubie a prime victim for bullying and pranks.  Not just from the kids either, but basically every adult in Salem who grew up around him hates the guy.  In one of the film's funnier running gags, every time Hubie is riding his bike, off camera kids throw stuff at him as he passes.  The things they throw start out simple, such as toilet paper and eggs.  But by the end of the film, he's dodging computer monitors and flaming arrows being flung at his head by unseen assailants.

Hubie lives with his loving mother (June Squibb), who seems to have a huge collection of inappropriate and obscene T-shirts that she doesn't understand the meaning of.  He also longs after the sweet Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen), the most popular girl in his high school class back in the day, who is now a single mother to some foster kids.  As Halloween approaches, Hubie is getting ready to keep the streets safe in his own way.  But this year, there's something sinister afoot.  There's talk of an escaped mental patient roaming the streets wearing a creepy pig mask, and Hubie's shady new neighbor (Steve Buscemi) seems nervous about the coming full moon, and is boarding up his windows.  And when some of the local kids and adults start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, it could be up to Hubie alone to save his town.

With its Halloween atmosphere and horror tone, Hubie Halloween does seem a little bit more eventful than some of the usual comedies to come from Sandler's production company, such as That's My Boy or Jack and Jill.  Regardless, in case you're thinking this might be a more high class product, there's still time for jokes here built around dog droppings and urine-stained bed sheets.  This comes with the Sandler territory, but there are some genuinely funny moments here as well.  As is to be expected, the film is packed to the gills with a lot of the star's former Saturday Night Live castmates, as well as friends who have appeared in many of his films.  Kevin James, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Ben Stiller, and naturally Rob Schneider all turn up throughout the film, although a lot of them are not being used to their best here.  There's even a very bizarre cameo for Shaquille O'Neal.  Of the cast, only Buscemi and James seem to be having as much fun as Sandler is.  The rest are just happy to be there.

Still, there is a certain laid back goofy charm to the film that held my attention throughout, even if the movie was never quite as funny as it could have been.  I especially liked Hubie's multi-purpose thermos, which is tricked out like a spy gadget with solutions for every situation our hero finds himself in.  There's also a nice anti-bullying message here that manages to come through the silliness of the entire film.  It never offends, never gets too gross, and will probably be a big hit with kids up to a certain age.  For adults who grew up on the star's early comedies, this is a nice throwback to when he made likable dumb movies, instead of movies that played solely to the lowest level of intelligence.  

I can't exactly label Hubie Halloween a success, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it kind of worked with me on some level.  It's a likable and harmless way to kick off the holiday, and it does have a certain silly charm.  You can tell that the cast is having a lot of fun here, and that spirit does manage to carry through to the audience.


Thursday, October 01, 2020

Console Wars

The new documentary, Console Wars, covers a pivotal time for anyone who was in Elementary or Middle School during the time frame of the late 80s to about the mid 90s.  Namely, the war between Nintendo and Sega to capture the attention of children with their high-end 16-Bit gaming consoles, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.  Based on the 2014 book of the same name by Blake J. Harris (who is credited as a co-director of the film), the movie reveals just how cutthroat the corporate battle really was, told from the point of view of people from both sides.

This film has been in production almost as soon as the book was published, as initially Seth Rogen and his filmmaking partner Evan Goldberg were set to direct a film adapted from it. (They serve as Executive Producers here.) Over time, the project morphed into a documentary, a TV series at one point, and finally the film that is currently available to watch on CBS All Access.  As someone who not only lived through this time of gaming history (I was lucky enough to own both consoles back in my youth.), but still collects and plays games from that era to this day, I have been anticipating this for a while.  However, I can't help but feel that Console Wars might be the victim of bad timing, as Netflix recently launched a docu series about the video game industry called High Score just weeks ago, and one of the episodes covers the very topic that this film is focused on.  So, I don't know how much of an audience this will get, or if fans will learn much new here.

The core of the film belongs to Tom Kalinske, who back in the 80s helped revive the Mattel Toy Company by bringing Barbie back to the top of the doll world after slowing sales, and even helped launch the Masters of the Universe toy line.  While vacationing with his family in Hawaii in 1990, he was personally tracked down by Hayao Nakayama, the President of Sega of Japan at the time.  Nakayama had a 16-Bit video game console called the Sega Genesis that despite being more powerful than the Nintendo Entertainment System, was hardly able to make a dent in the market.  Nintendo was basically an unstoppable juggernaut at the time, and despite some flashy gimmicks from Sega to draw attention, such as celebrity endorsements with Michael Jackson and Joe Montana, they were still losing to hardware that was almost 10-years-old at the time.  Even worse, Nintendo was just about to launch their own 16-Bit console, and the company's dominance seemed destined to continue.

Nakayama wanted Kalinske to turn Sega's fortunes around the same way he had been doing for Mattel.  After much personal deliberation, Kalinske agreed, and became the new CEO of Sega of America.  He developed a four stage plan to bring the Genesis into more homes.  These stages included such things as going aggressively after Nintendo in their advertising, making deals with big entertainment licenses that would appeal to American game players like Disney and Marvel Comics, and going after the older audience of teens and young adults that Nintendo usually ignored in their advertising.  But the biggest and most bold decision  Kalinske made was that they should include their newest and hottest game, Sonic the Hedgehog, free with the system.  Sonic had the potential to be the biggest thing Sega had ever published, and some felt could even rival Mario in terms of video game mascots.  To help get the word out, Sega of America staged a massive multi-State mall tour where they let kids play both Sonic the Hedgehog and the newest Mario game at the time, Super Mario World, and let kids decide which one they preferred.  

Tom's gamble paid off.  Not only did Sonic become a household name in the video game industry, but the sales of the Genesis increased so dramatically that for a short while, they were able to dethrone Nintendo of America from the top of the video game pack.  However, as time went by, the relationship between Kalinske and Nakayama soured.  There was a lot of tension between the Japanese and American divisions of Sega, and neither could see eye-to-eye on where they should go next, or what the next console Sega should focus on when the time came for them to move on from the Genesis.  This is the main weak point I have with Console Wars.  The film is at its best when it's talking about Tom's early years as the head of Sega of America, and how his ideas paid off big.  But after that, the movie starts skimming over or just plain leaving out a lot of key details to the story.

For example, while the film does talk about the console release of the original Mortal Kombat, and the key role it played for both Sega and Nintendo at the time, it doesn't go nearly in depth enough with the outcome that happened when Sega had a version with a code that could unlock all the violence and gore of the arcade game, while the Super Nintendo rendition was heavily censored and watered down.  It also oddly downplays the aftermath of the game's release, and how both companies found themselves being grilled by politicians about the increased violence in video games being sold to kids.  Like I said, it's touched upon, but given what a humongous impact it had (it led to all games needing a rating system), it seems kind of truncated.  I was also a bit disappointed that we don't get to hear as much from Nintendo's side as I had hoped.  We never get to hear about any of their strategies they employed to combat Sega's come from behind victory.  The release of Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo (another pivotal moment) is never even brought up, and we only get a brief mention of 1994's Donkey Kong Country, which was a definite game-changer at the time, and helped turn the tide back to Nintendo's favor when the 16-Bit wars were done.

The biggest disappointment is that we never actually get to hear from Nakayama, or anyone from Sega of Japan.  The film is told entirely from the American division's point of view, while Nakayama and others from Japan are only seen as broad caricatures in cartoons done in a video game graphic style that are played throughout.  Maybe the filmmakers just couldn't get anyone who worked at Sega of Japan at the time to agree to appear in the film.  Whatever the case, it constantly feels like we're only getting half the story here.  I looked up Nakayama, and learned that even at age 88, he is still involved in the world of business today.  There is some talk in the film that Sega of Japan was jealous of the success the American division was having, as the console (known as the Mega Drive over there) was never as popular as it was in the U.S.  I would have liked the film to go more in depth with this.

Speaking as someone who has a lot of interest in this particular subject and point in time in gaming history, I felt Console Wars did not quite dig deep enough.  Once it's through covering Tom Kalinske's early success, the movie kind of loses its vision.  However, if you don't know a lot about the story, it might grab your attention to look deeper into the story.  Even if this isn't the film it could have been, it still is entertaining enough, and a reminder of a great time in recent pop culture.


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