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View From the Couch

Borat, Casino Royale, 49th Parallel

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BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (2006). Snakes On a Plane was supposed to be the movie that showed Hollywood how incessant Internet hype could single-handedly turn a dubious project into a box office smash, but after that film rightly tanked, it was up to this even greater longshot to demonstrate how it could be accomplished. The blanketing of the Web with Borat news items 24/7 did its part, but the fact that the end result was actually amusing -- and did I mention controversial? -- certainly didn't hurt. 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 -- and there's your plot in a nutshell. 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. The one-joke concept is occasionally stretched to the breaking point, but overall, this is an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking, one that's able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny, but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which our societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie. DVD extras include eight deleted scenes, the international promotional tour, and theatrical trailers (billed on the DVD menu as "Coming Kazakhstan In 2028").

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

CASINO ROYALE (2006). In most respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best James Bond films produced over the past half-century, almost on par with Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. Basically, it wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. As intensely played by Daniel Craig, this 007 isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser (more Connery and Dalton than Moore and Brosnan) who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. With memorable characters and exciting action scenes, Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating. DVD extras include a making-of featurette, a piece on the casting of Craig, an entertaining program (originally created for AMC) featuring interviews with over a dozen former Bond girls (including Ursula Andress and Honor Blackman), and the music video for Chris Cornell's theme song, "You Know My Name."

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

49TH PARALLEL (1941). One of the earliest efforts from the esteemed filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), 49th Parallel proved to be a resounding success in the U.S. (where it was released under the title The Invaders), padding its box office returns with an Academy Award for Best Original Story and additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay (losing both to a less accomplished piece of propaganda, Mrs. Miniver). Created under the auspices of Britain's Ministry of Information with the primary purpose of gaining sympathy for the war effort from both the United States and Canada, 49th Parallel boasts an episodic structure as it follows the six survivors of a downed German submarine as they navigate their way across Canada. Their ruthless leader, Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), wholeheartedly subscribes to his country's fascist principles, but one of his subordinates, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), begins to question the Nazi doctrine; meanwhile, their journey is hampered by various representatives of democracy, including an initially twee Brit (Leslie Howard), a cynical Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey), the philosophical head of a Hutterite colony (Anton Walbrock) and a feisty French-Canadian trapper (a hammy Laurence Olivier, the weak link in an otherwise sturdy cast). Complex shadings (such as allowing one of the Nazis to emerge as a sympathetic figure) compensate for the heavy dose of expected speeches engineered to boost Allied pride. Extras in this two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, the Powell-Pressburger propaganda short The Volunteer (starring Ralph Richardson), and A Pretty British Affair, a documentary on the two filmmakers.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

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