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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In this fourth installment of the durable Terminator series the year is 2018 and a nuclear holocaust has effectively ended civilization as we knew it. With Terminators snapping up what little remains of the human race a small group of survivors have gone underground in an effort to battle the controlling organization Skynet which shocked the world by triggering the apocalypse. Standing up against all odds is John Connor the one man who knew this was going to happen and Marcus Wright a death-row inmate who’s about to be executed when he’s given a new lease on life by Dr. Serena Kogan a scientist with big plans for this dead man walking. Though Connor is highly suspicious of Kogan’s creation he forms a precarious bond with the resuscitated Marcus as the two search for a way to infiltrate and conquer a very imposing enemy.
WHO’S IN IT?
Let’s start by stating who isn't in Terminator Salvation: Arnold Schwarzenegger star of the three previous installments is busy in Sacramento so except for his brief reappearance via the miracle of CGI this is a whole new ballgame. Taking on a beloved movie franchise — just as he did in 2005’s Batman Begins — Christian Bale steps into the adult shoes of John Connor who was previously portrayed in T2 and T3 by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl respectively. As the one key link to the entire series Bale’s Connor is intensely serious and dedicated to the task at hand — even though he’s vastly outnumbered. As Marcus Wright Sam Worthington gets to play both sides of the coin as a hybrid of human and machine delivering the most unique and convincing performance yet seen in the series. Both Bale and Worthington carry on this legendary series in style but it’s Worthington who gets the big scenes bringing an ironic element of humanity to the whole enterprise. Also noteworthy: Helena Bonham Carter as the doctor who creates a modern version of Frankenstein’s Monster; Anton Yelchin as future time-traveler Kyle Reese Moon Bloodgood as Resistance warrior Blair Williams; and rapper Common as Connor’s second-in-command.
Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) tackles the daunting task of carrying on this series without its signature star and pulls it off with first-rate action set pieces flawless production values and a fascinating new wrinkle in Marcus Wright a character at odds with himself as well as John Connor. In the time-honored tradition of a classic cinematic showdown these are no ordinary heroes. They’re conflicted warriors faced with a task that is truly overwhelming in its scope.
With such a strong story the filmmakers probably didn’t have to resort to so many motorcycle flips explosions and truck and plane chases — not to mention a pulsating soundtrack that’s amped up so high you may need earplugs. But with so much excitement on the screen it doesn’t really matter. Action fans will be wetting their pants.
MEMORIES OF THE GOVERNATOR:
Arnold appears briefly (in the nude no less) in what appears to be a CGI pastiche of his classic character. But don’t blink or you’ll miss him.
Terminators won’t die and neither will its signature line. When Blair asks Connor what she should tell his men after he’s gone he replies in earnest: “I’ll be back!”
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
It will be movie theaters’ OWN salvation this summer.
A big hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Hamlet 2 often careens out of control but when it connects the theatre fills with laughter. This is a story of a very frustrated high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who decides to stage his own play--a musical sequel to Hamlet featuring original songs he has composed (titles like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Gay As the Day Is Long”). Yes he’s aware everyone died at the end of Shakespeare’s immortal classic but the failed actor-turned-teacher has found a way to bring them back to life by using a time machine(!) In any event he’s desperate to save the Tucson school’s arts program which is being cut and he thinks this is the answer. Certainly it’s better he figures than his usual productions which have the students re-enacting live stage versions of popular movies such as Erin Brockovich that are regularly panned by the ninth-grade drama critic. Of course the non-PC nature of the show causes lots of outrage from school officials and community leaders but with the help of ACLU attorney Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) Dana remains steadfast in his determination to go on with the show. Coogan is brilliantly loony and wildly funny in a hit-for-the-fences interpretation of the character. He’s definitely taking chances turning off the audience with his off-the-wall approach to playing this desperate loser who has to resort to teaching bored kids. It’s Coogan’s energy and fresh approach that make the movie work better than it has any right to. Poehler who also scored recently in Baby Mama is hilarious as the take-no-prisoners lawyer who comes to Dana’s defense. Catherine Keener is droll perfection as his bored wife who is having an affair with their boarder Gary underplayed nicely by David Arquette. In the good sport category Elisabeth Shue turns up as…Elisabeth Shue now a local nurse after her movie career supposedly hit the skids. She’s actually very funny spoofing herself and the whole aura of the successful Hollywood star. The students are all first rate including Dana’s star pupils Rand Posin and Epiphany Sellers played amusingly by Broadway’s Spring Awakening cast members Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole respectively. And special mention to The Ralph Sall Experience for their hilarious musical parodies. Director Andrew Fleming lets the gags fly with abandon and gets much of the broad bits to actually work. He and screenwriter Pam Brady forge a close collaboration that results in a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio on the laugh meter; anyone expecting subtlety has wandered into the wrong theatre. Working with a wonderful group of actors with plenty of improvisational experience certainly has helped here and Fleming’s film has the look and feel of a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. The actual staging of Hamlet 2 is rather inspired with the multitude of wacky musical numbers cleverly presented. The Southwestern high school that Coogan’s character is stuck in is spot-on although Tucson residents probably won’t appreciate the numerous jokes made at the expense of their town.
Within the whole sports genre we really haven’t seen a Ping-Pong movie before—especially one portayed in such a spectacularly goofy way. Former child Ping-Pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) who was unceremoniously defeated decades ago is now reduced to performing ball tricks on stage at a local bar. But Randy’s luck changes when FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him for a secret mission: to ferret out FBI’s Most Wanted arch-villain and Ping-Pong connoisseur Feng (Christopher Walken) the man who killed Randy’s father. But times have changed since Randy choked and Ping-Pong is now played in an unsanctioned underground and extreme kind of way. Randy has to get into shape with the spiritual guidance of a blind Ping-Pong master named Wong (James Hong) and his kickass niece Maggie (Maggie Q) in order to make it to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound to play in the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. Randy has his work cut out for him though if he’s going to wield his paddle and triumph over rampant wickedness. Who is this Dan Fogler guy and why haven’t we seen him before? Apparently he’s been on stage winning a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things. Now Hollywood is beckoning—and it looks like Fogler has the chops to stick it out. Sort of a cross between Jack Black and Meatloaf the actor totally makes Balls of Fury’s campiness work. He also has lots of help from his fellow players: Lopez is hilarious as the FBI agent who has been working a desk job but fancies himself a James Bond; veteran Asian actor Hong gets to use chopsticks in some interesting ways as the sage but cantankerous Wong; the hard-bodied Maggie Q (wonder what the "Q" stands for) who up to this point has only kicked butt in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III plays it light in Balls; and of course Mr. Walken as the evil Feng doing his own impression of any Bond villian you can think of while still being Christopher Walken. That man has WAY too much fun in this film. Also look for loads of cameos by recognizable folks. Director/co-writer Robert Ben Garant and his screenwriting partner actor Thomas Lennon (who plays Randy’s hysterical uber-Nazi Ping-Pong rival Karl Wolfschtagg) certainly have a peculiar sense of humor something they created while working on MTV’s The State’s sketch comedy back in the ‘90s and then cultivated on their Comedy Central show Reno: 911!. They’ve gone PG with writing credits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier but have gotten R-rated especially with the Reno 911: Miami big-screen effort. Balls of Fury falls somewhere in between (that would be PG-13)--a mixture of James Bond bad martial-arts films Matrix-like slow-mo effects and just about any sports movie starring Will Ferrell. In other words for as many tiny balls that get batted around in any number of silly ways if you buy into their particular brand of comedy (like me) Balls of Fury will keep you in stitches. Oh and if you're a Def Lepperd fan you'll also be pleased with the soundtrack.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.