These could count as scary Halloween movies, too, while positioned directly before the November 3 elections: “Totally Under Control,” “All In: The Fight For Democracy” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (with the costume play of Spike Lee and David Byrne’s “American Utopia” as exuberant palliative).
“Totally Under Control” is the vivid, urgent, shot-in-secret documentary by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, capturing in torn-from-headlines fashion the catastrophic failure of the federal government under the hand of Donald Trump to consider, let alone encompass, the potential of raging pandemic. Dense yet cleanly arrayed, “Totally Under Control” illuminates the choices made that underpin the unnecessary losses by the United States in 2020, not limited to 240,000 deaths and counting. Solid; enraging.
Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés’ “All In: The Fight For Democracy” captures the charismatic and committed Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, whose loss of the Georgia governorship is facilitated by the electoral shenanigans of then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who made the rules and counted the votes and made the exceptions that cemented his election. (Kemp and his wife are in quarantine after exposure to the virus days before the election.) Abrams is the central figure in their engaging, flammable history of voter suppression in America from the very start.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” has been streaming for a week, and its most notorious scene has aired out: Trump “personal lawyer” Rudy Giuliani’s garrulous eagerness to lie back in a hotel suite, thinking he has chanced upon a honeypot and admittedly “tuck” with his hands down the front of his trousers in front of a woman fifty years his junior whom he finds fetching. It’s not hard to imagine what a packed theatrical audience would have made of those moments, the way “Borat” sucked the oxygen out of theaters fourteen years ago, propriety be damned, couth ripped asunder.
There’s more to the sequel, including an emphatic text/subtext of a father and a daughter embracing and emboldening one another, as well as the expected blunt, juvenile japery, and especially, stunt-driven harpooning of modest minds. Cohen’s burnished filth is hit-and-miss, but there’s so much that’s seething, that offhandedly places hate in the right place: confederate flags, “McDonald Trump” and the essence of the man for whom he must deliver a young woman: “America’s number one ladies man, Michael Pence… known to be such a pussyhound that he could not be left alone in a room with a woman.” Sallies like that function, rather than as a gathered audience freed to shower gleeful contempt, as little laughs of yes, yes, this is so. But the Gatling gun of gags goes off without mercy: “May all your shit have antlers”? Cohen’s most subversive goal may be the father-daughter armature. “I wanted this movie to be an emotional family tale about a father from a primitive society where women are not respected,” Cohen told the Financial Times, “who finally grows to respect his own daughter.”
Even what might be jaw-dropping savagery seems almost quaint in these terrorized, terrified times: archival footage of Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein dancing and ogling flocks of young blondes are followed by Borat asking the man at the farm store how many “gypsies” he could exterminate with a propane gas cylinder. (Imagine the jokes the six-person writing team rejected.) Cohen’s grab-bag ends with a salutary on-screen gag: “Now vote… or be execute.” (Amazon Prime)
Palate cleanser? Spike Lee’s filming of David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” a choreographed film, from the Broadway musical, of higher spirits and higher hopes. Clad in a smaller suit than in Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, “Stop Making Sense,” Byrne and his musician chorus, are barefoot and in sharp-lined gray suits. Talking Heads songs and Byrne songs are interspersed with surprises, including an unexpected cover. There’s a little chat from the Scottish-born all-American, and it exemplifies his pop-culture wanderings since the 1970s. Simple? Profound? In a few sweet words: It’s a celebration. Let’s have one. (HBO Max)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.