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BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN They say that ignorance is bliss, but when it comes to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, it just might prove to be a handicap. Although it’s not quite the most buzzed about movie of 2006, as Newsweek reported a few weeks ago (have they already forgotten about that migraine-inducer called Snakes On a Plane?), the media coverage has been substantial enough that Borat stands poised to possibly emerge as a breakout hit. Originally conceived as a character on HBO’s Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary. There’s your plot. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they’re being questioned by a foreign reporter for a nonfiction piece that would presumably remain confined to the backwaters of a country on the other side of the globe. This naiveté and belief in anonymity allow the participants to open up more freely to Borat, often garnering controversial results. And therein lies the dilemma. If Borat is staged in any way, then it’s a hot-and-cold “mockumentary” that pales next to the Christopher Guest titles (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind); despite many uproarious moments, it stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point, and after about an hour, you’ll be satisfied. And indeed, there are a handful of sequences that feel staged: the Pamela Anderson interlude, for example, or a bit involving a flailing horse. Yet the filmmakers have loudly and repeatedly insisted that everything outside of Borat and his manager (played by Ken Davitian) is authentic in the picture: the situations, the interviewees, and the reactions of ordinary folks to Borat’s outrageous antics. If that’s the case, then Borat is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking that’s able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. The movie uses fictional bigotry (Borat’s) to reveal the real-life prejudices that blot the U.S. landscape, and, in that regard, it emerges as an unexpected piece of sociopolitical muckraking. Cohen is fearless in his confrontations with various citizens across our land, whether he’s telling a crowd of rodeo yahoos that he supports our War on Terror and longs for the day when Bush will “drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq,” or when he hands a dinner hostess a napkin containing his bodily refuse because he doesn’t grasp the functionality of the toilet and the principles of indoor plumbing. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny (once seen, it’s impossible to block out the nude wrestling match), but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie.

THE QUEEN Whether or not one agrees with a character’s declaration that the royal family is comprised of “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters,” it’s fascinating to watch these upper-crust Brits play out their own sordid soap opera in The Queen, a wicked -- and wickedly good -- show that takes a highly dubious premise and somehow turns it into one of the year’s best films. Director Stephen Frears, whose last picture, the shameless Mrs. Henderson Presents, is the sort of claptrap that he’s far too talented to be handling, and writer Peter Morgan, who co-scripted The Last King of Scotland, have performed cinematic alchemy with this sharp and swift yarn. Set mostly in the days following the death of Diana back in 1997, it focuses on the royal family’s reaction to the tragedy as well as the efforts of a newly elected prime minister to take control of the situation. It sounds like so much dreary sensationalism, a crass attempt at making a tawdry film that, frankly, would seem hard-pressed to adequately fill a 100-minute running time. Yet because Frears’ direction is nimble and Morgan’s script clever and resourceful, The Queen never bogs down in any potentially problematic areas. It manages to be both respectful and critical of the monarchy, a double-edged viewpoint that neatly reflects the attitude of the characters themselves.The films begins with the landslide victory of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new prime minister and his initial meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), who clearly has little regard for this populist politician. It picks up again a few months later, when the residents of Buckingham Palace are awoken out of their royal slumber by the news that the former princess was killed in an automobile accident in Paris while fleeing from pesky paparazzi. It only dawns on Elizabeth gradually that it’s Diana -- “the people’s princess,” as Blair calls her -- rather than Elizabeth herself who rests in the hearts of the Brits, and that there are many who think that the monarchy has outlived its relevancy and perhaps should be disbanded. Mirren’s performance is a thing of beauty. She initially makes Elizabeth as impenetrable as Fort Knox, yet as the movie moves forward, there are cracks in her demeanor that allow us to see that this woman is finally coming to terms with just how of touch with her subjects she might be.

CATCH A FIRE The title’s a bit misleading, insofar as this well-meaning movie never really catches fire. Based on a true story that unfolded in the early 1980s, it centers on Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a South African oil refinery foreman whose apolitical attitude allows him to largely fly under the radar when it comes to confrontations with the ruling white class. But after the members of an anti-apartheid organization sabotage the refinery, suspicion falls on the innocent Patrick, and he’s soon arrested and tortured under the supervision of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a key figure in the country’s homeland security division. Patrick withstands the abuse, but after his wife (Bonnie Henna) is similarly snatched and interrogated, something inside him snaps and he decides to enter the fray. Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to helming gripping films set in turbulent times and divided lands, but working from an unexceptional screenplay by Shawn Slovo (daughter of one of the film’s characters), he’s unable to duplicate the vibrancy of The Quiet American or the pathos of Rabbit-Proof Fence -- we naturally feel for these ill-treated characters, but it’s more of a Pavlovian reaction to the on-screen brutalities rather than because of anything served up in Slovo’s surprisingly conventional script. Those seeking topicality might attempt to equate the manner in which the violent actions of the white ruling class turn peaceful blacks into freedom fighters with the way that the intrusive U.S. army is turning many peaceful Iraqis into terrorists, but it’s an awkward analogy at best. 

THE PRESTIGE The Prestige, co-written and directed by the immensely talented Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento), is the third of this year’s releases centering around magicians (following Woody Allen’s Scoop and the Edward Norton sleeper hit The Illusionist), and it’s far and away the best. Teaming with his brother Jonathan to adapt Christopher Priest’s novel, Chris Nolan has crafted a dense and multilayered drama that explores his usual recurrent themes while simultaneously serving up a cracking good mystery yarn. Set in turn-of-the-century London, The Prestige casts Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier and Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, two aspiring magicians working under the tutelage of master showman Cutter (Michael Caine). Almost right from the start, it’s established that Angier is the more charismatic of the pair: gentle, romantic and extroverted enough to know how to grab an audience’s attention. The brooding Borden, by comparison, is more inwardly directed, and his devotion to his craft suggests that he’s willing to get his hands dirty and sacrifice anything to realize his dream of becoming a master magician. The movie isn’t simplistic enough to pit a “good” magician (Angier) against an “evil” one (Borden); instead, it recognizes the duality of each man’s nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS Clint Eastwood’s sober tribute to our fighting forces during World War II manages the tricky feat of honoring the past while also subtly deflating the attendant mythology that over time attaches itself like a barnacle to a ship side. It’s this strength of conviction that allows the film to toss aside some niggling aspects and earn its keep as a memorable war movie.  Working from a script by William Broyles Jr. and Crash Oscar winner Paul Haggis (adapting James Bradley’s book), Eastwood focuses on the events surrounding the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. The movie details how this single act, captured in a historic photograph, became a rallying point around which the military was able to energize an American nation weary of war. Publicity tours were staged with the active participation of the three surviving men who helped hoist the flag: sensitive Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), outgoing Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and anguished Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Eastwood and company view the tour as a necessary evil, a much-needed fundraiser that nevertheless leads the participating soldiers to feel increasingly uncomfortable donning the designation of “heroes” when so many of their friends have already died in combat.

KEEPING MUM Mary Poppins commits murder most foul in Keeping Mum, a slight but worthwhile comedy that proudly displays its droll British humor at every turn. Rowan Atkinson, toning down his Bean befuddlement just a tad, plays Walter Goodfellow, the vicar of a miniscule English burg as well as the head of a highly dysfunctional family. Walter has become so consumed with his church duties that he has emotionally and physically abandoned his wife Gloria (Kristen Scott Thomas), who in turns seeks comfort in the arms of an American horndog she employs as her golf instructor (leatherface Patrick Swayze, appropriately sleazy). Their children aren’t faring much better: 17-year-old Holly (Tamsin Egerton) sleeps with a different guy every day as a form of rebellion, while younger brother Petey (Toby Parkes) emerges as the school bullies’ favorite punching bag. But along comes housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith) to set things right. Working behind the scenes, she improves everyone’s lot in life -- never mind that this seemingly benign lady has to kill a few people in order to foster family unity.

MARIE ANTOINETTE The fall season’s premiere love-it-or-leave-it title, Marie Antoinette was booed by French scribes at the Cannes Film Festival before being rescued by American critics, the slight majority of whom have graced it with positive reviews. Yet despite its divisive nature, I’ve managed to come down in the middle: The movie, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s first since her magnificent Lost In Translation, is better than I had expected but not as good as I had hoped. Coppola’s intention was to create a teenager for our times, a girl who just wants to have fun even though her position in the French royal court demands so much more. It’s an interesting idea that’s only partially successful, largely because Coppola doesn’t go far enough. Where Marie Antoinette fares best is its examination of the royal life as a treadmill of constantly winding boredom; the scenes in which Marie, winningly played by Kirsten Dunst, is forced to succumb to the nonsensical rules and rituals of etiquette are poignant because they deny a child, that most impulsive of all creatures, the chance to experience life for herself.

FLICKA In Flicka, it isn’t a case of boy meets girl; it’s a case of boy becomes girl. Mary O’Hara’s classic novel My Friend Flicka details the relationship between a young lad and a wild horse (it was made into a 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall); this new screen version turns the protagonist into a teenage girl, a gender switch that adds different dimensions to the story. Alison Lohman plays Katy, a strong-willed 16-year-old who locates a soulmate in a wild mustang wandering the acres on her family’s Wyoming spread. Katy’s dad Rob (Tim McGraw), already peeved that his daughter isn’t capitalizing enough on her studies at a private school, forbids the girl to have any contact with the ill-tempered horse, but Katy ignores his mandate and proceeds to train the animal behind his back. It’s refreshing to see an American family on screen that doesn’t wallow in dysfunction: While there are plenty of conflicts, the overriding sense is that these folks truly love one another, and the relationships between husband and wife and between brother and sister are especially fresh and reassuring. Unfortunately, more so than in its source material, the emphasis on the humans de-emphasizes the presence of the mustang, and there simply aren’t enough scenes illustrating the burgeoning bond between Katy and Flicka.

MAN OF THE YEAR It’s junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn’t just a job; it’s an adventure -- and I’m owed some serious combat pay. Merging the premises of Warren Beatty’s razor-sharp Bulworth, Kevin Kline’s decent Dave and Chris Rock’s flaccid Head of State, writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian became president of the United States. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for office, finds himself on the ballot in 13 states. It’s a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson’s approach is so timid that it makes last spring’s soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn’t playing a fictional character running for president as much as he’s playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it’s the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passe around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions.

THE DEPARTED At this point in his illustrious career, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker’s hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that’s what’s taking place with The Departed, which isn’t an original screen story but rather a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film titled Infernal Affairs. Working from a script by William Monahan, Scorsese has made a picture that’s more in line with such past mob morality tales as GoodFellas and Mean Streets than with his recent spate of ambitious (and Oscar-lunging) period epics like The Aviator and Gangs of New York. But while The Departed is a strong film, it’s by no means a match for any of those aforementioned titles. Set in Boston, this new take casts Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, the crime lord with the foresight to make sure that one of his protégées, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is placed in a position to be able to rise through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police Department. Colin is eventually assigned to the special unit tasked with investigating Costello, an outfit run by the animated Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Ellerby trusts Colin, little suspecting that his right-hand man is actually the informant. Meanwhile, down the hall, the paternal Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the blunt Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) are just as determined as Ellerby to nail Costello. To that end, they assign Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get his hands dirty enough to convince Costello that he’s a bona fide criminal and worth adding to his band of outlaws. The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and even taking the milieu into consideration, they occasionally verge on overkill. So, too, does the performance by Nicholson, who begins the film as a terrifying villain but winds down as a raving buffoon. The younger actors do a better job maintaining the appropriate levels of intensity. DiCaprio is coiled and edgy, Damon alternates between charismatic and creepy, and Wahlberg (stealing the film) somehow turns surlinessinto an endearing character trait.