There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles — at one point Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke The Dictator continues the self-reflexive satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion rape feminists body hair race religion politics STDs war crimes ethnic cleansing necrophilia and/or bestiality don't even bother. However if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch but also the funniest.
Alas the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist misogynist rhetoric endlessly and after a while...yeah we get it. However like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that with some exceptions you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op John C. Reilly is a racist security guard and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.
If Transformers: Dark of the Moon is indeed Michael Bay’s final entry in the Hasbro toy-inspired franchise as he has repeatedly intimated then it is a fitting swan song for a director whose lust - and gift - for spectacle remains unmatched. Exhilarating and exasperating awe-inspiring and stupefying the third installment in the blockbuster alien-robot saga is less a movie than a prolonged manic episode. In other words it’s a Michael Bay film.
Any suspicion that Bay might have matured at all since his last film 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen vanishes immediately after Dark of the Moon’s opening credits when model-actress (in that order) Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replacing tempestuous Megan Fox as the franchise’s resident eye candy is introduced ass-first. The camera lingers on her backside mesmerized as she makes her way up the stairs to summon our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from the bed she inexplicably shares with him. For a director so notoriously ADD-afflicted as Bay he can show remarkable focus when circumstances require it.
Times are tough for our boy Sam who despite having saved the world on two separate occasions can’t find a job. With the Decepticon scourge abated (for now) Optimus Prime Bumblebee and the rest of Sam’s Autobot pals have gotten side gigs as mechanized Hans Blixes roaming the planet in search of illegal WMDs and eliminating the regimes that harbor them. Feeling left out and finding little comfort in the arms his undeservedly hot girlfriend Sam yearns for a shot at more world-saving action.
He finds it soon enough when he is drafted into a plot so sprawling and convoluted that to describe it in full would extinguish what little neurochemical reserves I’ve managed to replenish since last night’s screening. It’s built on an enticing bit of revisionist history which casts the war between the Autobots and Decepticons as the real inspiration for the Cold War space race. It seems that many years ago an Autobot spacecraft carrying a technology that could turn the tide in their centuries-long war crash-landed on the moon. Alerted to the crash JFK immediately initiated the Apollo program with the specific purpose of harvesting technology from the craft before the Soviets could.
But that’s only part of the story as Sam learns when confronted with evidence by a raving co-worker (Ken Jeong) at his new job. (The two have a tussle in the loo – setting the stage for a hi-larious gay-insinuation joke. Vintage Bay!) Turns out there there’s much more to that fallen craft than anyone realizes and if its undiscovered cargo falls into the wrong hands – say Megatron and the Decepticons who are quietly regrouping in Africa – the implications could be devastating.
Dark of the Moon can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is a conspiracy thriller with a surreal comic bent with Bay aiming for – and dare I say nearly achieving – a quirky Coen Brothers vibe as Sam delves headlong into the moon mystery. (The presence of Coen veterans Frances McDormand John Turturro and John Malkovich among the cast reinforces the connection.) Credit screenwriter Ehren Kruger for recognizing that material this preposterous requires a suitably ludicrous sense of humor. But there’s also a sharpness and irreverence to Dark of the Moon’s wit that previous Transformers films have lacked. (It’s still however steadfastly juvenile: When Sam locks eyes with his future girlfriend for the first time his mom exclaims “What a gorgeous box!” while gazing at an unrelated object in the background.) Dark of the Moon's screenplay is a vast improvement over Revenge of the Fallen's in that it is an actual screenplay and not a stack of index cards.
The second half of the film centering on the Decepticons’ extended siege of Chicago unfolds essentially in one long action sequence. It’s as if Bay having sufficiently answered the biggest complaint about the previous film – the lack of a discernible plot – is suddenly unburdened free to commence the all-out sensory onslaught he’s been planning all along. In doing so he all but disavows the film’s first half rendering much of its storyline superfluous.
The battle scenes are truly epic – unprecedented in grandeur and scale and utterly resplendent in 3D – but the endless spectacle induces a kind of delirium. Each frame is positively crammed with images far more than our feeble non-Michael Bay brains could ever hope to process at the breakneck speed he presents them. And no two shots ever look the same: Even a simple shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchange shifts perspective on seemingly every other word. The net effect of Bay’s frenzied handiwork is a state of joyful discombobulation: mouth agape bewildered basking in the dopamine blush.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
Jagshemash! (Note: Excuse please any and all Borat-isms in this review. They've infiltrated our vernacular--just like they will yours! Chenquieh.) Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) a noted celebrity and TV talking head in his native Kazakhstan is set to travel to U.S. and A. for well make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan. With a camera crew and his show's director Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) along for the ride Borat stops first in New York City. It is a nice! Like anyone from a faraway land he is amazed that his hotel room is larger than an elevator and by all the peoples on the subway and by Pamela Anderson. In fact he is so smitten after watching his first Baywatch episode that his mission has changed: He will go to California and marry Pamela and hopefully make a sexy time! Of course he and Azamat will still have to cross the country--in their ice cream truck--to get there stopping along the way in the biggest cities and smallest towns and seeing everything from "vanilla faces" and "chocolate faces" to women who get to choose their sexual partners. If Academy voters had any "khram" whatsoever they'd give Cohen an Oscars invite...which he'd promptly parlay into the opening scene for Borat 2. And who in their right mind wouldn't just kill to see that acceptance speech?! But I optimistically digress. Any breakdown of Cohen's inhabitance of his alter ego Borat--one of three from his beloved Da Ali G Show; he's reportedly set to immortalize Bruno his gay Austrian fashionista from the show next--reveals what is stealthily one of the best performance in years. Before you scoff consider the indisputable facts: In Borat Cohen is (a) pretending to be if not totally becoming someone else and (b) has positively just one take to nail each scene and nail each scene he does. If those don't comprise an amazing performance in the most fundamental sense then what's the criterion? And not to be forgotten in all that Cohen pulls off here is Borat's entire straight-faced diction--from the accent to the word usage--which audiences could appreciate more in earnest if their howls of laughter didn't overpower some of the dialogue but who can blame 'em? Lest we forget veteran actor Davitian (a California native!) has a hand in quite a bit of the madness as well. One of his scenes in particular will be burned into your memory for a long time to come. Oh you'll know it when you see it--it's the one that makes a Steve-O stunt look like PBS programming. Borat is admittedly not for everyone because some people just don't like to laugh! In all seriousness--and more so as an obligatory disclaimer--the movie is beyond offensive and some people will walk out. But the worst thing you can do is dismiss it even if you just skip it. Because underneath Cohen's mustache that puts Earl Hickey's to shame his soiled suit and his who's-gonna-know-it's-faux? Kazakh accent the British comedian is interested not in attacking America but rather in exposing its underbelly that is rarely vulnerable--in other words if he didn't want to wake people up with this film it would've been called Cultural Learnings of Switzerland (which still would've been pretty funny). Thus his intentions while not necessarily educational fall somewhere between hilarity and eye-opening satire--not vitriol. Director Larry Charles (Seinfeld Curb Your Enthusiasm Entourage) must have some stories to tell his grandchildren about the guerilla-style hit-and-run filmmaking that was executed but as co-writer star and character creator Cohen shoulders all the onus credit and death threats. His anonymity and privacy might take some hits too. Speaking of which he is indeed Jewish. Unfortunately for Cohen however he's not also black mentally or physically handicapped gay a female a gypsy a Kazakhstani or an animal. Which is to say loosen up people! Nobody goes untouched here least of all the man perpetrating the offenses.
Alternately funny and poignant The Weather Man is the story of callow Chicago TV weather forecaster Dave Spritz (Cage) who--despite his seeming success--sees himself paling in comparison to his acclaimed author father (Michael Caine). He is also alienated from his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Hope Davis) and unable to bond with his disconnected kids. He even lacks a bond with his loyal viewers who sometimes randomly fling fast food at him on the street. There are laughs in Spritz’s anxious bids to connect with his kin to be sure but the film goes deeper and heavier than expected--and that’s a good thing. Spritz’s initially amusing attempt to bond with his daughter via her fleeting interest in archery turns symbolic after he becomes skilled at the sport. He embraces his bow and quiver as if they were much-needed proof that he’s capable of change. You’ve gotta hand it to Cage. Even after he’s walked through such by-the-numbers action fare as National Treasure his off-kilter but always razor-sharp acting instincts are never dulled when he tackles more substantial projects like Adaptation. The Weather Man is one of the latter and while Spritz seems poised to be crushed by the weight of his emotional baggage Cage effortlessly carries the movie on his shoulders. He is matched move-for-move by the wily veteran Michael Caine who raises his always impressive game to pitch-perfection for this one. That buzzing sound you hear is the Oscar talk that’s sure to swirl around both actors. Director Gore Verbinski is best known for high-production scare-fests like The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean and while The Weather Man may seem a radical departure from blockbuster-style filmmaking it’s assembled with just as much care and precision. This time Verbinski’s storytelling skills are bolstered more by strong performances rather than f/x. The end result has the dark character-driven humor and emotional resonance of a Hal Ashby film like Being There set against an artfully rendered Chicago cityscape. Indeed Verbinski is so adept he makes not only the Windy City a genuine character in the film he does so for the flung Frostys and French fries marking him as a director whose eye is as on-target as one of Dave Spritz’s arrows.