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The U.S. vs John Lennon, a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, opened nationally a couple of months ago to reviews that seemed quick to nitpick over its supposed faults—suspiciously quick, I'm tempted to say.

Idol pleasures 

Larger than life movie subjects from Liverpool, London and, er, Kazakhstan

click to enlarge As if. John Lennon and Yoko Ono in The U.S. vs. John Lennon. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LIONS GATE FILMS

The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, opened nationally a couple of months ago to reviews that seemed quick to nitpick over its supposed faults—suspiciously quick, I'm tempted to say.

It's directed in a bland VH1 style, some charged. Because all of Lennon's music and image rights are controlled by Yoko Ono, others added, the film offers a portrait of Lennon that airbrushes out complexities like the wild years in the '70s when he lived in Los Angeles. And, more than a few opined, given the prevalence of interview subjects like Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Tariq Ali, the venture's politics are a bit too pat and schematic.

I will grant you there's truth to each one of those contentions, but here's why I'm suspicious of their prevalence in the reactions to The U.S. vs. John Lennon: They make it easy to avoid looking at the ideas Lennon and Ono espoused, ideas that deserve to be seriously considered now that the United States is mired in another disastrous, divisive war.

Though the film's nominal focus is the Nixon administration's campaign to surveil, harass and deport Lennon, its heart—the subject that deserves your attention, irrespective of the objections noted above—is his and Ono's pacifism. I almost hate to use that word, because it can sound wimpy and old-hat. The Lennons' commitment was anything but. It was hip, humorous, self-aware and, in the best sense of the word, artistic.

Above all, it was principled—so much so that it makes you realize how few people in the public sphere today are willing to put themselves on the line for unpopular, war-defying principles.

One thing that none of those carping reviews noted was how the Lennons' brilliantly imaginative campaign for peace resulted from a singular artistic convergence. John Lennon was, of course, a popular artist. Yoko Ono was a conceptual artist. Apart, their differing gifts might have kept them confined to the worlds of mass adulation and elitist admiration, respectively. But combined, they comprised something new under the sun: conceptual art that had the chance of reaching a worldwide audience. And the concept being broadcast was a single idea—peace.

The ways they relayed the idea to the world were dizzingly ingenious. First of all, of course, were songs like "Give Peace a Chance," which threw a chill into Richard Nixon when he imagined a nation of newly enfranchised 18-year-old voters (aka cannon fodder) being swayed by them. But the Lennons were equally creative in turning every aspect of their public lives, like their Amsterdam honeymoon "bed-in," into peace activism. Nor were they only preaching to the converted. Their appearances on talk shows like Mike Douglas' were conspicuous attempts to reach out to Nixon's "Silent Majority."

They seem a lot less naïve and kooky now than they may have at the time, and that touches on something that really struck me in The U.S. vs. John Lennon. Back then, the press wasn't particularly inclined to take them seriously because the press had something else more important on its mind: itself. One of the film's most amazing scenes has Lennon trying to speak reasonably, humanely, to New York Times writer Gloria Emerson, a chic automaton who can't hear anything beyond her own sarcasm.

Strange thing: This movie appeared concurrently with Ric Burns' Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, a fine work which seems to prove that one-time artistic revolutionary Warhol is now beloved by the entire culture. That makes sense, given that today Andy seems to equal an uncritical embrace of consumer culture. The world has caught up with Warhol, in other words.

It hasn't caught up with John and Yoko. They are still dangerous, still at large, and still right.

click to enlarge From Kazakhstan with love: "I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards." - PHOTO COURTESY OF 20TH CENTURY FOX

Once you dispense with the full title—Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan—in favor of the one-word version, the next question is: How funny is Borat?

On my laff-o-meter, it registered a solid "very funny." Certainly funny enough to suggest that star Sacha Baron Cohen, an import from British TV via HBO, has a long movie career ahead of him. Funny enough to justify all the hype? Perhaps not, given how massive the hype was. To me, the film ranks a couple of slight notches below the summer's wonderful Will Farrell vehicle Talladega Nights, in which Cohen achieved third-banana sublimity playing a gay French NASCAR driver.

As that show-stealing turn proved, the lanky, open-faced comic not only has a genius for over-the-top absurdism and daffy foreign accents, he's also a very appealing screen presence. As Borat, an over-eager, culturally obtuse Kazakh TV reporter bumbling his way from one end of the United States to the other, he's so engaging that we can't help but root for him, no matter what the potential embarrassment. When he gets on a New York subway, opens his suitcase and a chicken comes flapping out—presumably, the freaked out passengers don't know they're being filmed with a hidden camera—we surely don't want him to get beaten to a pulp.

Though there are lots of such provocative, surprising and sometimes flat-out hilarious moments in Borat, the film still faces the age-old challenge of trying to make what's basically TV skit comedy work at feature length. Borat tackles that one, first, by making its story a road comedy, which has the natural advantage of suggesting that what we're to expect is breadth not depth, and sequence rather than structure.

Its second tack is to keep raising the outrageousness ante. I must admit I wasn't expecting the film to contain quite so much humor of the lowbrow, gross-out variety. I'm not complaining, given that we live in the Age of Jackass and all. But Cohen's satiric smarts are such that I'm not sure he needed the nude wrestling match between Borat and his obese producer that gives the film its (admittedly) most jaw-dropping moment.

Borat also stands apart from the comedy mainstream in that much of it was apparently filmed surreptitiously, a la Candid Camera, which allows us to watch Borat spray his unwitting insults at a broad cross-section of unsuspecting Americans. While the targets seem too obviously chosen to assure equal-opportunity offensiveness (gays and feminists on the left, Pentecostals and rodeo fans on the right), the film constantly plays with our curiosity regarding which scenes are "real" and which staged.

Borat is in the news because some Jewish groups have taken umbrage at its outré deployment of Jewish stereotypes, which of course is presented as a spoof of anti-Semitism. It must be said that Cohen really does push the envelope, as when Borat suspects an elderly Jewish couple of "shape-shifting" into cockroaches to steal his money. But criticism of the film comes in a week when The New York Times reports that canny conservative groups are electing not to take the bait of liberal filmmakers by mounting protests that only feed the publicity mill. That would seem to be the appropriate response here, since, clearly, any "controversy" that Borat hopes to whip up is the kind that sells tickets.

click to enlarge The Queen
  • The Queen

The first scene in Stephen Frears' The Queen, a seriocomic look at Britain's royal family at the time of Princess Diana's death, shows Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) conversing with an artist who is painting her portrait. I can't recall the contents of their exchange, only the very shocked thought that went through my mind as I listened to the dialogue: This is television!

Meaning that the writing is the very obvious, on-the-nose, zero-obliqueness sort common to the tube. What caused my surprise wasn't just that the movie had arrived with lots of advance acclaim, but also that Frears has directed some very smart, very cinematic scripts by writers ranging from Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) to Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things). Peter Morgan, the TV-bred scribe of The Queen (and the upcoming Last King of Scotland), is nowhere near their league.

And that's a shame, because the central idea of The Queen is a winner. When Diana dies, Britain practically goes into a meltdown because, while the public clamors for open displays of emotion and a public funeral, the royals—the Queen especially—are cluelessly stiff-upper-lipping it behind the gates of Balmoral. Caught in the middle, brand-new, eager-to-please prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has to stage a kind of blueblood family intervention while listening to his wife's shrill anti-monarchist bleatings.

You can imagine someone like Robert Altman taking this premise and filleting an entire culture with his satiric scalpel. But Altman would have ordered up a script that had bite, intelligence and subtlety, the very qualities lacking in Morgan's hackneyed effort.

Its most damning defect: Like so much TV dramatic fodder, the screenplay doesn't dare venture a distinct point of view. Are the media-besotted British masses who now worship glamour and celebrity right to demand soap-operatic gestures from their monarch? Or is Elizabeth right to cherish personal decorum and the dignity of grief? With an equivocal blandness that amounts to a kind of reflexive pandering, Morgan's script declines to a hard choice here; it wants to have it both ways, and no doubt hopes its evasion will be taken as "complexity."

The film's other failings are more curious. How could the filmmakers have managed to locate an actor who's almost Tony Blair's exact double (and a skillful performer to boot) but come up with a Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) who looks more like George Bush and a Prince Philip (James Cromwell) who belongs in a Milk of Magnesia ad? Beats me.

One thing is for sure. Mirren's turn as the Queen seems certain to end up the year's most overrated performance. As we know, people love to applaud actors offering finicky surface imitations of famous people. Mirren's, which misses both Elizabeth's poised dowdiness and her steely resolve, is no more superficial than most of its ilk. It just stands to go a lot further because its pedigree is, well, royal.

All three movies open Friday.

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