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.
It’s 1988 Brooklyn and the rampant underground violence is about to come to the surface and strike one family especially hard: the Grusinskys. We Own the Night opens with a shot of the black-sheep Grusinsky Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix)—who has changed his last name to Green to hide his lineage—and his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) in a private room and a very private embrace. When Bobby exits the room and enters the nightclub he manages it seems as though he owns the night; the phrase however was coined by NYPD's finest—like Bobby’s brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and deputy-chief dad Burt (Robert Duvall). The law-enforcing Grusinskys clearly don’t get along with Bobby who spurned the family tradition of police duty for the fast life but that all changes with the firing of a gun. While standing just outside his apartment Joseph gets shot and nearly killed in a drive-by and the shooters are related to the owner of Bobby’s nightclub. Suddenly Bobby feels guilty by association and not long thereafter he is ready to switch teams for the sake of his family. But partnering up with the cops means ratting out his former allies and it’s a move that puts everybody he loves—not to mention himself—in the direct line of fire. There are definitely great actors in We Own the Night but of the slightly underperforming variety. Phoenix has established himself as the consummate actor’s actor of his generation and he’s certainly more than able-bodied as Bobby the emotionally and physically battered centerpiece of the story. But it’s far from his best work like his point-of-no-return transformation we saw in Walk the Line or we’ll see shortly in his Oscar-baiting Reservation Road role. His middling performance however is most other actors’ career peak so yes Phoenix is still very much watchable. Wahlberg makes this role look like one he accepted prior to the fervor (and Oscar nod) that followed The Departed—in which he also played a cop—because he’s not on screen all that much and when he is his trademark testosterone injection is noticeably absent. The movie’s resident living legend Duvall is effectively curt as a hardworking proud Brooklyn cop/father. But when the role calls for some physicality well let's just say the aging actor would've benefited from more stuntmen and aerial shots. And Mendes the only actress with a real part in the movie will be blogged-about much more for her opening nude scene (which appears tragically to involve a breast double) than her secondary role. In many ways We Own the Night is a lite version of our favorite urban cop dramas—or maybe it’s just that writer-director James Gray is a Martin Scorsese lite. More specifically Gray’s movie seems to yearn for The Departed-like heights. To Gray’s credit his story is not totally dissimilar to that of Scorsese’s Oscar winner and the action is intoxicating. But his homegrown tale which reunites his leads (Phoenix and Wahlberg) and NYC melodrama from 2000’s The Yards has nothing on Scorsese’s heart-pounding Departed buildup and there’s just one major scene of action of which to speak. Perhaps uncoincidentally it’s also the only time Gray displays true originality: On a rainy highway Phoenix’s Bobby is chasing the bad guys in his car as they chase his dad in their car with the windshield wipers pulsating in accordance with the action. It’s great breakneck fun; it’s the only real fun. Aside from that scene Gray’s efforts fall into a vast pile of nondescript mediocrity—never terrible or stimulating.
It’s Halloween Eve in suburbia and while most of the neighborhood kids are gearing up for a candy extravaganza two young‘uns--DJ (voiced by Mitchell Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner)--are fretting and dreading. They’re convinced that the decrepit house across the street is in fact a monster house inhabited by an old hermit named Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) that will lure kids in on Halloween night. But just as DJ’s parents who naturally don’t believe him to begin with leave for a vacation DJ inadvertently sends Nebbercracker to his death--or so he fears. Now DJ believes Nebbercracker’s monster house will seek revenge on him specifically and to make matters worse his negligent babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) won’t hear of his yapping. After DJ and Chowder are forced to take action they along with a girl peddling candy (voiced by Spencer Locke) discover how the monster came to be and just how unforgiving she is. When it comes to animation acting the main goal is to make audiences forget that the actors are giving their performances in a studio possibly dressed in their PJs and sans makeup. That goal’s usually achieved but Monster House takes a gamble in supposing that child actors comprising the lead characters will be able to wrap their still-expanding brains around the concept. Somehow Lerner and Musso grasp this despite sounding like they haven’t even been in this world very long! The two are surrounded by a fail-proof supporting cast: it takes a while to recognize Buscemi’s voice as Nebbercracker but once it hits it fits and Gyllenhaal as the babysitter is great if unpredictable casting. Quasi-cameos from Jason Lee as Gyllenhaal’s punk boyfriend Jon Heder as a video-game god and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as slow-moving and -thinking cops garner the most laughs. Not only does it help a film’s box office performance to have Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis onboard as executive producers it helps a film’s director--in this case a rookie director named Gil Kenan. (Zemeckis directed ‘04’s somewhat similar-looking The Polar Express.) While the animation doesn’t quite stand up to say Pixar’s earth-shattering visuals Kenan makes up for it with a fun-filled story (from scripters Dan Harmon Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and an overall lively involved effort--and it’s not like the movie doesn’t still look gorgeous. Besides sometimes it’s refreshing to not be so entranced by the CGI that you lose sight of the actual movie at hand. Kenan’s film is one of the scarier animated movies in a while but that still doesn’t exclude many age groups. What the first-time director thrives on is stopping just shy of true horror moments at which point he reverts to feel-good mode without ever being sappy.