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July 10, 2009

WSJ Film Review: Joe Morgenstern on Bruno, Soul Power and Herb and Dorothy - WSJ.com

Fashionista ‘Brüno’ Has No Clothes

Baron Cohen tries for a Borat, fumbles offense game; ‘Soul Power’ blasts from past

Here’s the bad news: “Brüno” is no “Borat.” Here’s the worse news:
“Brüno” crosses the line, like a besotted sprinter, from hilariously to
genuinely awful.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his 2006 hit stars the English
comic actor as a blond, flamboyantly gay fashion journalist from
Austria who looks lithe in lederhosen, but suffers from career-wrecking
adhesions in an outfit made of Velcro. The movie means to cross many
lines by confronting straights with aggressive gay behavior and
revealing—or so the theory goes—their homophobia. It’s an exercise in
offensiveness, an exploration of over-the-topness and a gleeful working
of both sides of the street, with sporadic frolics in the gutter. What
brings “Brüno” down, though, is sinful behavior. Mr. Baron Cohen
commits the cardinal sin of unfunniness.

Universal Pictures

Sacha Baron Cohen plays the outrageous title character in ‘Brüno.’

Scene from 'Bruno'


Watch a scene from the newest Sacha Baron Cohen film "Bruno." Video courtesy of Universal Studios.

Borat and Brüno began life as characters on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.”
Borat sustained a feature film, albeit erratically, as a charmingly
cockeyed Candide who stumbled from one deadpan misapprehension to
another during a cross-country American road trip. There’s a bit of
that in “Brüno,” and many bright lines in the early stretches. (“For
the second time in a century Austria had turned on its most famous
man,” the embittered, umlauted fashionista says after his Velcro
disgrace.) But Brüno, bent on nothing more or less than becoming
famous, is only a provocateur, and so relentless in his provocations
—you really don’t want to know the extent of his anality or frontal
nudity—that his scandalous conduct grows tedious and unpleasant. The
film, which was directed by Larry Charles—he also directed
“Borat”—wears out its welcome long before the end of its 83-minute
running time, even though a coda featuring famous musicians brings it
belatedly back to life.

“Brüno” is Mr. Baron Cohen’s “Transformers,” a terrible movie that
will make tons of money. It’s a disappointment, but also a puzzlement,
because its hugely talented star seems to have mislaid the essential
ingredients of his trusty formula. “Brüno,” like “Borat,” is a
mockumentary, a series of encounters with people who may or may not be
in on the basic joke that the whole thing is a put-on. In the first
film, most of those encounters were deliciously ambiguous. In the new
film, though, many if not most seem to be put-up jobs involving faux
victims on the production’s payroll, so what’s the point, apart from
mechanical shock and manufactured controversy? One ambush was clearly
the real thing, a mirthless encounter with Ron Paul, the Libertarian
Texas Representative and former presidential candidate, during which
Brüno strips seductively to his skivvies. But the result is only
embarrassment. Mr. Paul, disgusted, wants nothing more than to be out
of there, and you can’t blame him.

‘Soul Power’

Sony Pictures Classics

B.B. King is among the stars in the documentary ‘Soul Power.’

pieces can be marvelous or musty, depending on the period, as well as
the piece. “Soul Power” is marvelous, and no wonder—among the
performers in this concert film are James Brown, B.B. King, Bill
Withers, Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz, all at the peak of their powers.
The concert, which has come to be called “Zaire ’74,” was supposed to
run in conjunction with “The Rumble in the Jungle.” That’s the
legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and the
subject of Leon Gast’s superb 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings.”
When Mr. Foreman cut his eye during training the fight was delayed six
weeks, but the concert went on as scheduled—12 hours of music and dance
over three nights. The new documentary, directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte,
was created with outtakes from the earlier one, which focused on the
fight rather than the concert. These outtakes—including fascinating
footage of Mr. Ali himself—outshine most conventional movies’ takes.

“I want to do my thing!” James Brown howls gleefully as the movie
begins. It’s a while before he and his colleagues get to do it. The
film sets the stage with footage of the performers en route from New
York—an airplane full of elated artists, most of them African-American,
about to reconnect with their musical and cultural heritage. On the
ground in Kinshasa, concert promoters and financiers try to roll with
the brutal punch of the fight delay (the loudest instrument at that
point is Don King blowing his own horn), local musicians fire up their
own amps for the tourists, and local residents go gravely about the
business of their daily lives. (A slightly lame mother straps two
babies to her body for a long trek to market, then balances a huge
metal pan full of produce on her head.)

Once the concert starts, the musicians and their audience exchange
megadoses of joy. (If the visual and audio aspects don’t match the
spectacular sparkle of “Woodstock,” they’re fine in their own right. Al
Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating and Roderick Young did most of
the cinematography.) Miriam Makeba looks like an extragalactic goddess;
singing her exuberant Click Song, she sounds like one. James Brown
launches into his trademark bedazzlements, including splits. Celia Cruz
and the Fania All-Stars shake the rafters, even though the stage wasn’t
built with any rafters. And Bill Withers, doing “Hope She’ll Be
Happier,” stops time when he sings “I never thought she’d leave me,”
then holds for a small eternity on the phrase “but she’s gonnnnnnne.”
It’s the essence of the blues in a movie about the transformative power
of music.

‘Herb and Dorothy’

Scene from "Herb and Dorothy"


Watch a scene from "Herb and Dorothy." Video courtesy of Fine Line Media.

and Dorothy,” a documentary by Megumi Sasaki, grows on you just as its
subjects do. The unprepossessing husband and wife of the title—Herbert
Vogel is a retired Manhattan postal worker, Dorothy Vogel is a retired
Brooklyn librarian—came to possess one of America’s most important
collections of contemporary art, a treasure trove that includes works
by Sol LeWitt, Chuck Close, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle,
Lynda Benglis and Robert Mangold. How they did it over three decades is
a study in Puritan thrift, enlightened acquisitiveness and benign
monomania. (In 1992, when the couple donated their priceless collection
to the National Gallery in Washington, five moving vans were needed to
transfer all the holdings from their one-bedroom apartment in
Manhattan.) While Ms. Sasaki makes no judgment on the nature of their
obsession, her film leaves no doubt that the Vogels have done noble
work in a spirit of almost pure selflessness, the only qualification
being that they’ve loved the art they bought.

When I mentioned the documentary to an artist friend who’d been part
of the 1960’s New York scene, she said, laughing, “I remember those
little mice going around scavenging everywhere.” Mr. Close recalls, on
camera, that he always thought of the Vogels as the mascots of the art
world. But that’s only part of the story that the film tells. Its
essence is passion—for finding the art, as well as owning it, enjoying
it and protecting it. The painter Will Barnet believes the Vogels were
“born with an aesthetic eye.” Lucio Pozzi says, “They look. He comes in
and he points at the art like a hound.” Mr. Tuttle speaks of them with
admiration tinged by awe. “Most of us,” he says, “go through the world
never seeing anything.”


‘Waiting for Guffman’ (1996)

send-up of amateur theatrics was directed by the master of the
mockumentary, Christopher Guest. (He and Eugene Levy wrote the script.)
The setting is small-town Blaine, Missouri, where a flamboyantly gay
and endearingly fatuous former chorus boy named Corky St. Claire (Mr.
Guest) has been commissioned to stage a pageant commemorating the
town’s sesquicentennial. The show is doomed to be awful, but the people
of Blaine don’t know it, since they’re the pool from which talent will
be drawn, dragged or dredged. The best—i.e. the worst—of the bunch
includes Mr. Levy’s lazy-eyed dentist, Allan Pearl, and Catherine
O’Hara’s bibulous travel agent, Sheila Albertson.

‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1999)

German director Wim Wenders crossed a concert film with a documentary
about a group of venerable Cuban musicians who made the 1998
Grammy-winning album of the same name, which was produced by Ry Cooder.
Toward the end we see one of them, an 81-year-old singer named Ibrahim
Ferrer, walking through midtown Manhattan for the first time in his
life. “Linda, linda, linda!” he exclaims rapturously: “I never could
have imagined. . . .” Watching the movie can induce rapture too. It’s a
labor of love prompted by Mr. Cooder’s labor of love, and the most
intensely emotional work of the director’s career.

‘The Collector’ (1965)

a collector of art, but of butterflies, and then of a beautiful
specimen of the human species. William Wyler directed this eerily
understated thriller, based on the novel by John Fowles. The hero, a
sociopath in sheep’s clothing, is Freddie Clegg, an unprepossessing,
love-starved London bank clerk played by Terence Stamp. Samantha Eggar
is Miranda Grey, the London art student who becomes Freddie’s captive
in the pleasantly furnished cellar of his newly acquired, and fatefully
remote, Tudor farmhouse. Robert Krasker and Robert Surtees share the
credit for cinematography. Maurice Jarre did the eloquent score.

WSJ Film Review: Joe Morgenstern on Bruno, Soul Power and Herb and Dorothy - WSJ.com