The Dictator (B-)
U.S.: Larry Charles, 2012, Paramount
Sacha Baron Cohen is no Charlie Chaplin, but at least he's willing to give his comedy a shot of social and political consciousness, like Charlie did. The Dictator, an heir to the agility and impudence and political courage of Chaplin's great 1940 The Great Dictator (in which Adolf Hitler was sent up as "Adenoid Hynkel"), shows us Baron Cohen in that mood of mildly terrorist hilarity and cheerful bad taste that infused Borat -- or, to be more complete about it, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Here, helped once again by his fellow writers Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer and by director Larry Charles, Baron Cohen sticks a knife in world amity and savages the stupidity of power and the media. But insead of a knuckle-headed, mispronouncing, sexist, racist, boorish reporter from Kazakhstan, we get a knuckle-headed, mispronouncing, sexist, racist, boorish, murderous dictator from Wadiya -- the Muammar Qaddafi-Sadam Hussein-like dumbbell despot Aladeen, who has ruled the little mythical North African nation with an iron fist and a brain of granite since the age of seven.
Aladeen is a full-blooded fascist tyrant, a proud oppressor. Whenever Admiral General Aledeen wants someone executed, he simply turns, catches the attention of a nearby lurking assassin and a makes a little "snuff" gesture with his fingers. On his bedroom wall is a gallery of photos of celebrity sexual conquests (all apparently bought and paid for), including Oprah Winfrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Megan Fox rushing out the door from his latest tryst, refusing his plea for a cuddle.
Surrounding this horny buffoon is a scurvy band of henchmen and minions and possible traitors, including his right-hand killer, relative and the country's rightful heir to tyranny, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Aladeen has a nuclear project going out in the desert, held up by his propensity for executing scientists -- especially when they balk at his request that the missiles have a pointed top rather than a rounded one. He thinks pointed tops look more ferocious.
To put it cruelly. Aladeen is an amoral dunce and a bloody nincompoop, qualities he shares, in part, with many other great and not-so-great dictators, from Adolf Hitler to Adenoid Hynkel to Kim Jong-Il (to whom The Dictator is dedicated in "loving memory"). As such, he's sometimes funny, sometimes not. The Dictator is a film admirable for its audacity, erratic in its comic attack, defiantly tasteless and, for the first time for Baron Cohen, somewhat sentimental and upbeat and conventional.
The plot comes partly out of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, with a sideswipe through Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. Aladeen has been summoned to the U.N. to explain his atrocities and his nuclear projects. ("Peaceful," he explains, cracking up.) He's accompanied by his retinue and his latest double, a lame-brained goatherd who is even stupider than Aladeen. After they all arrive, Tamir sets in motion a plot to kidnap Aladeen, sub the double at the U.N., proclaim Wadiya a democracy, call in Chinese businessmen, and start divvying up the oil profits.
So, before you can say "waterboarding," Aladeen is hauled off to be tortured by grinning U.S. agent John C. Reilly. After the two exchange torture tips, Aladeen escapes -- and winds up in the hands of a wide-eyed, bouncy, tender-hearted feminist -- head of the local politically correct food store, the Free Earth Collective. Her name: Zoey (played, deblonded, by Anna Faris). He also runs into one of his presumed victims, the nuclear scientist who didn't want to do pointed missile tops, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas). Nadal is now part of a New York expatriate community called Little Wadiya (their hangout is the Death to Aladeen restaurant) and the two hatch a counterplot to replace the double, give another U.N. speech repudiating democracy, and get back to the dictatorship racket -- in a country that, Aladeen believes, loves to be oppressed.
We don't have enough political comedy in our films, and maybe that's why Baron Cohen received such a rapturous reception for Borat. But Baron Cohen, a talented and uninhibited writer-comedian, makes movies that are such a hit or miss proposition, his lack of inhibitions can outstrip his talent.
Norway: Morten Tyldum, 2012, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Think you'll be bored at a movie about corporate headhunting and a missing Peter Paul Rubens painting? Not necessarily. The Norwegian neo-noir Headhunters may have its flaws -- outrageous improbability chief among them -- but it's definitely no bore. In fact, the movie pretty well blasts you away as you watch it , employing heavy doses of hot sex, cold brutality and a twisty, frequently surprising crime plot to put you on the edge of your seat while trying to knock you right out of it.
Based on a best-selling novel by Jo Nesbo -- Norway's most popular crime novelist, and the creator of the Harry Hole detective series -- Headhunters revolves around a diminutive anti-hero, 5'6" Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), who looks a bit like a shrunken Chris Walken, works as a headhunter and CEO recruiter, and dabbles in art thievery on the side. Roger, a self-professed "overcompensator," is also married to the intimidatingly tall and beautiful Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), and he pulls his jobs with the unabashedly pathological and somewhat flipped-out heist man Ove Kikerud (Eivind Sander), an explosive creep with nerves of ice and a taste for booze and Russian hookers.
Into Roger's life comes the intimidatingly tall and handsome Clas Greve (Danish actor Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-Dutch commando who also happens to have his hands on a long-missing, incredibly valuable Rubens painting, titillating the little headhunter/thief on two levels, and maybe more. Roger's life soon turns into a bloody mess.
The film, however, is no mess. It's slick and fast and gorgeously shot -- if sometimes almost criminally over-the-top. Director Morten Tyldum (a Norwegian TV commercial whiz), cinematographer John Andreas Andersen and editor Vidar Flataukan all succeed at times in knocking our socks off -- or at least in getting them pulled pretty far down off our toes. It's hard to like anyone here much except Lund's Diana -- and she might have worked better as a femme fatale. But the four main actors are all compelling, and Hennie and Coster-Waldau make a sparky pair of Mutt and Jeff antagonists. You may be irritated by Headhunters, but you probably won't be yawning.
Norway's Nesbo is a thriller-writer in the Steig Larsson tradition, mixing sex, violence and social corruption with complex criminal behavior and dense plotting, and generating huge worldwide sales. Nesbo's noir novels are touted in the press notes as having been published in 140 countries and translated into 35 languages. He also scored the top three places in a recent Norwegian newspaper poll (by the journal Dagbladet) on Norway's all-time-best crime novels -- and then took five more slots among the next eight. Hollywood is apparently impressed: Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg are among the names that have been mentioned for the seemingly inevitable American remakes.
But I suspect those remakes, when they come, may not have quite the pizzazz of the Norwegian novels, or of this movie. It's a racy, violent, hell-on-wheels neo-noir that makes Norway and Sweden look, for at least a little while, like the capitols of fictional crime -- and of overcompensation too.
Tonight You're Mine (C)
U.K./Scotland: David Mackenzie, 2012, Sony
At a huge, rowdy music festival in Scotland called T in the Park, two rock band members from different groups -- American Adam (Luke Treadaway) and Scots girl Morello (Natalia Tena) -- get handcuffed together, and then lose track of the guy with the key. From then on, until (or if) the key pops up, they have to do everything together, including sharing the stage on each other's gigs and crawling in the sack with their respective lovers -- and though they start out hostile, love soon blooms -- even as their erstwhile mates (Alastair Mackenzie as establishment guy Mark and Ruta Gedmintas as model Lake) get jealous.
It's the old Robert Donat-Madeleine Carroll manacle routine from The 39 Steps, of course, less funny and inventive or engrossing than anything Hitchcock did, but shot against the boisterous backdrop of the actual five-day T in the Park, in Kinross, Scotland. There's lots of music ("Tainted Love" is this movie's signature tune) and lots of real-life youth and energy. The director is David Mackenzie, who made the Cannes fest film Young Adam (from Alexander Trocchi's novel), with a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan. The fly-in-the-crowd cinematography is by Giles Nuttgens, and the script is by novelist Thomas Leveritt (though much of the dialogue seems improvised).
For a movie shot in five days at a tempestuous actual event, it's not bad. Then again, it's not particularly good either, despite a compelling job by Tena. You'll like it a lot more if you enjoy the music, especially the songs by Adam's supposed band, The Make, and, of course, "Tainted Love." (Extras: "Making of" documentary; interviews with Treadaway and Tena; featurettes on The Make, the music and the costume designs.)
The War Room (A-)
U.S.: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, 1993, Criterion Collection
If you have a yen to see U.S. democracy and our political process in action, then The War Room could be your prime ticket. It's a movie that gets about as far inside American politics as two cinema verite cameras can go -- an exhilarating account of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign for the presidency, as managed by two political operatives who became media stars as a result of this picture: Clinton's lead campaign strategist James Carville (the Ragin' Cajun) and his Greek-American communications director George Stephanopoulos.
This stardom wasn't calculated. Candidate Clinton declined to give filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker much access to himself, or Hillary, for their proposed documentary, but he did allow practically unlimited camera spying on Carville, Stephanopoulos and their team (which included Paul Begala and other future political and TV luminaries). And the duo, a pair of natural camera personalities (and, in Carville's case, a grand Southern ham), were happy to oblige. Cinema verite master director-cinemtographer Pennebaker, who'd so memorably captured Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back, was the perfect eye for the job. And his subjects were compelling. Stephanopoulos was a slick operator and good-looking workaholic. Carville had a sizzling personality, a vocabulary to match, and a campaign slogan that became legendary: "It's the economy, stupid."
As for the election....Clinton won.
And afterwards, Clinton's dynamic duo became, respectively, a star political TV pundit (Carville), and a star TV political correspondent and Sunday news show host (on ABC's This Week). Carville later formed another on-screen partnership with his Republican campaign opposite number, and future wife, Mary Matalin (whom we also also see and hear in The War Room.)
Even though Bill Clinton remained elusive in victory, his managers were so approachable that The War Room became a surprise commercial and critical hit. No documentary had ever covered a campaign so intimately, and you can probably bet that few will ever get so close again. The current political atmosphere has gotten too contentious, too image-obsessed, too harsh, too downright vicious -- and political operatives and strategists now have too much to hide, and too much to lose if they or their candidates are caught with their pants down.
The War Room is an engrossing entertainment. But what does it tell us about American politics? For one thing, that it's a blood sport managed by sometimes colorful people who sometimes like the spotlight. For another, that it's a lot like American show business. The guy or gal who wins is often the one with the most star quality and the best story -- or, these days, with the most loot to spend on TV ads. (Extras: documentary Return to the War Room, U.S.: Hegedus and Pennebaker, 2008; panel discussion from the Bill Clinton Foundation, with Carville, Vernon Jordan, Ron Brownstein, and a surprise guest; interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg; Hegedus and Pennebaker discuss the travails of shooting political campaigns.)