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.
In The Thing a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film of the same name a team of paleontologists Norwegian diggers and rugged helicopter pilots unearth an alien creature with the ability to disguise itself as the organic material surrounding it i.e. feeble humans. Ironically the movie itself also a deceptive shapeshifter impersonating its chilling horror predecessor with the same beats same characters and same scares—but completely void of soul.
A great remake brings something new to the table either in the form of plot twists design or fresh performances but The Thing begs to be compared to the original by cowering in the face of innovation. The movie forgoes character building wasting no time flying us to the familiar Antarctic setting: Girl-who-examines-unfrozen-animal-corpses Kate (played by the movie's saving grace Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is introduced by her friend Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) to sinister scientist Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) who quickly convinces her to throw away her life for a trip to the icy continent. When she arrives Halvorson reveals his team has discovered an alien life form trapped inside a block of ice and he needs Kate to watch him thaw it out.
Anyone with knowledge of the 1982 Thing (or horror movies in general) knows that the beast is far from dead and what unfolds is a flaccid translation of the first film's monster mayhem. Yes the movie has plenty of jump scares insane flesh effects and an increasing sense of paranoia throughout the group—but only because the first movie dictates that it must. Thanks to the charm of Winstead and her Kurt Russell-esque co-star Joel Edgerton the copy/paste script occasionally entertains (who doesn't love a gal who can wield a flamethrower?) but without characters to invest in the alien's rampage of violence is mostly a bore. By the time the group points fingers attempting to sift the real persons from the fakes by checking their teeth (their foe can't recreate metallic material so everyone with fillings is safe!) the movie's floundered its chance to get you to care.
If the titular "thing" was slick enough in its bloodthirsty frenzy perhaps The Thing could redeem itself as a creepy popcorn flick but sloppy CG creature effects end up separating the beast from his prey and obliterating any sense of danger. If they could pull off a guy's head erupting with tentacles using puppetry and prosthetics back in 1982 why not in 2011? When the movie does employ practical effects the results are terrifying—but the moments are few and far between. That speaks to the bigger picture: director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. attempts to mix the original Thing's slow burn terror with modern filmmaking and intriguing sci-fi concepts but can't seamlessly weave them together. Every time Heijningen Jr's Thing defaults to mimicking the previous version the movie craps out.
The Thing's nondescript title once represented the fear of the unknown but for the contemporary rehash it's an indication of a generic lifeless 100 minutes. Buried underneath layers of icy homage is a decent flick but unlike the film's otherworldly opponent it's DOA.
I could probably come up with a better pan for Mr. Popper’s Penguins than “flightless and foul ” but that would entail expending more creative energy on the film than its makers did. Directed by Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past The Spiderwick Chronicles) and based on a 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater it is so empty and artificial and formulaic that if I didn’t know better I would have pegged it as a very cynical parody or perhaps a film within a film about some desperate mafioso’s questionable money-laundering scheme.
Jim Carrey looking tired and perhaps a little embarrassed plays the title role of an arrogant self-absorbed businessman who is taught a variety of valuable life lessons by a sextet of penguins. The penguins bequeathed to Mr. Popper in his neglectful father’s last will and testament each exhibit a single personality trait which immediately makes them more emotionally complex than the film in which they appear.
They’re assigned names accordingly: there’s Captain the leader Loudy the screamer Lovey the hugger Bitey the biter Stinkey the farter and Nimrod the stumbler. I only wish this functional naming scheme were extended to the rest of the characters in the film – i.e. Clark Gregg is Nemesis Carla Gugino is Motivation Angela Lansbury is Conscience and so on. If anything it would have allowed the filmmakers to excise a healthy chunk of dialogue which in the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins only exists to punish the brain.
The film boasts three credited screenwriters among its crew. Though I’m not privy to each writer’s specific contributions I imagine their duties were divided in roughly this fashion: 1) scrub the story of all imagination or wit; 2) remove any deviations from pat Hollywood formula; and 3) cram it with as much toilet humor as the MPAA will allow in a PG film. You’d think that a single writer could have mangled a beloved
children's book just as convincingly but you’d be wrong: This kind of
debacle requires a team effort.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.