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Column Fri May 18 2012

The Dictator, Bernie, Mansome, Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog & First Position

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgHey everyone. First a note of apology. Due to my insane travel schedule this week and next, I'm going to be missing a fair amount of press screenings of some of the bigger and/or more important films being released this month. For example, this week I don't have reviews for Battleship or What To Expect When You're Expecting (I know how broken up most of you are about the latter; probably no more so than I am). Next week's big release, Men In Black 3, I actually will get to see for review, but there may still be one or two that escape my grasp. Anyway, there is still plenty to choose from this week. Let us continue...


The Dictator


While I would never call myself a Sacha Baron Cohen apologist (the guy doesn't have to apologize for his style of humor), I will say that I've liked most of what he's done in the TV and film world, which includes everything he did with his Ali G character on both sides of the pond to Borat to his supporting work in Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Cohen isn't always going for the big laughs in his work, but when he does, he tends to try harder than just about any other comic actor today. He doesn't always succeed, but I don't think he'll ever be accused of phoning in a performance.

His latest starring role is a change from his Borat/Bruno format of tossing one of his outrageous creations into a real-life situation. As far as I can tell, there is no documentary component to The Dictator, in which Cohen plays the Supreme Leader Shabazz Aladeen, dictator of the fictional land of Wadiya in the Middle East. You have an idea where the film is headed with the opening dedication to Kim Jong Il. A peer to Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, Aladeen wants to be seen as a nice guy who just happens to hate Jews and wish destruction on the West.

To make himself the complete dictator, he changes a couple hundred words in his own language into the word Aladeen, which is tough when a doctor asks a patient, "Do you want the Aladeen news or the Aladeen news first?" The real punchline to that scene is almost too shocking for words, but it's actually very funny. He also pays celebrities to sleep with him just so he can have a post-coital photo taken with them. His wall of fame is most impressive, and Megan Fox has a very funny cameo in the movie to illustrate the practice.

But The Dictator really kicks in when Aladeen goes to America, where he is planning to speak in front of the United Nations. But thanks to a well-placed double, a CIA operative (played by John C. Reilly), and a double-crossing close advisor and rightful heir to the throne (Ben Kingsley), a plot is afoot to replace Aladeen and declare Wadiya a democracy so that the controlling oil companies can move in and make the shadow government extremely rich. This seems like something we as an audience should be rooting for, but thanks to Cohen's charming take on Aladeen, we actually hope he prevails in keeping his nation a dictatorship.

With the helps of a primo hippie chick (Anna Faris) who doesn't realize the defrocked leader is actually Aladeen (the villains shave his enormous beard, rendering him almost recognizable), the Supreme Leader works to take out the double and expose this insidious plot. With the help of Borat and Bruno director Larry Charles, The Dictator never lags even is all of its jokes don't hit the mark. Site gags and physical comedy will always have their place in the world, but this film is at its best when its being supremely smart in its approach to stupidity.

And there's a final-act monologue about what it takes to be a true dictatorship (and how the United States isn't one... ahem) by Cohen that is pure genius and is practically the punchline of the entire feature-length (barely 80-minute) joke, as if the only reason he constructed this movie was to give this biting speech. Good for him, if that's true.

The film doesn't spare us large amount of laughs about body hair, dick jokes, some truly sick gags about a severed head, but most of it worked for me. With a few well-placed cameos by some familiar jokesters and an giggly energy level that will likely work its way into your bones, The Dictator is a great reminder what Cohen can accomplish with his usual level of exuberant conviction. He's simply one of the funniest guys out there, and if you don't believe that statement, you'll probably hate this movie.

If you agree and find yourself drawn to his type of humor, there are points in this movie where your ass will be on the floor from you having laughed it off. The material doesn't stray for Cohen's wheelhouse, but it's still damn funny. Despite the rudeness of some of the gags, there's also something strangely old fashioned about the way Cohen works, whether it's his nods to the Marx Brothers or Coming To America. For some reason, that only endears me to him more.


Bernie


I can't think of another film of late that has charmed me with its deviant thoughts and behaviors more than director Richard Linklater telling of the true story of Bernie Tiede (played with a sweet earnest by Jack Black), a sensitive assistant funeral director, churchgoer, leader of the local community theater, and just overall likable man living in a small town in East Texas. Bernie is directed by another great Texan, Richard Linklater, who thrives on these uniquely Texas stories and gets the beauty and sheer gobsmackery of small-town America. And he captures this by interspersing interviews with many of the actual local townspeople who knew and loved the real Bernie.

One of Tiede's "traits" was that he looked in on elderly widows who had recently buried their husbands with the funeral home he worked for. He wasn't seeking money or sex (the evidence he was/is gay is strong but not conclusive), and it was the conclusion of the community that he just cared that much. One of the hardest nuts to crack was the richest lady in town, Marjorie Nugent (played with a walnut-like hardness by Shirley MacLaine, who is most certainly not going for laughs this time out), but eventually Bernie works his way into her home and heart, and the two become constant companions and even frequently travel together.

Although the trailer pretty much gives it away, I won't say anything more than Bernie commits a terrible crime fueled by a rage he probably didn't know he had in him, and as a result he is eventually arrested and taken to trial by the publicity-hound district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, with a terrible wig-and-glasses combo), who uses Bernie's fondness for the finer things in life against him with the working-class jury. But what's more fascinating about Bernie's story is that even after his confesses to his crime, the townsfolk implore the DA to let him go; some even refuse to believe he committed the act. As McConaughey says at one point in the movie, it's like he hypnotized the entire town.

The very genuine performances are what sold Bernie for me. I've never seen Black lose himself so completely in a character, even in his last outing with Linklater, The School of Rock. He is a gentle soul who sings along with spirituals in his car, always sees the best in others, and never gives up on the most difficult of souls. He's a natural leader, teacher, preacher and talent, and Black never once mocks the man. McConaughey is such a dastardly seeker of justice that he has no qualms about calling Bernie's sexuality into question or casting it in a negative light. Although he is the only person in the movie seeking justice, he's looked upon as the film's villain. But it's the townspeople (the real ones and the actors playing others) who I fell madly in love with; they are so funny and are unwavering in their points of view about the type of man Bernie was and the type of monster Mrs. Nugent could be. McConaughey's mother, Kay, plays one of my favorite interviewed characters.

When Linklater captures a time and place so completely is when I am drawn into this works completely. This and his last film, Me and Orson Welles, are two of my favorite Linklater works of his more recent works. And without even realizing it, my enjoyment of nearly all of his films over the years has made Linklater a director whose works I love almost completely; even his failures are completely watchable. And I always look forward to what he has next. It's unlikely you've seen a movie quite like Bernie, and if you have it probably wasn't told to such perfection. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interviews with Bernie star Jack Black and co-star Matthew McConaughey and director Richard Linklater, go to Ain't It Cool News.


Mansome


I'll admit freely that I have a soft spot for the works of Morgan Spurlock, and that's for the pure and simple reason that I like to laugh and learn. I'm fully aware that when Morgan is on screen being informative and a bit of a jokester that he's sacrificing a fair amount of more detail-oriented facts that he could be giving us about topics such as the dangers of fast food, how keeping Osama Bin Laden unfound works to our previous administration's advantage, and the seedy business of product placement and corporate sponsorship. He's got the tools of a proper investigative reporter, but he rarely scratches the surface of what his subjects are, which is actually perfect for his latest film, Mansome.

Mansome is about what's on the surface of men — in this case, their hair, skin, clothes, all of the elements that make up the evolving nature of male beauty, and the industries that have cropped up around making dudes spending our making themselves look good while appearing that they spent no time doing so. What sets Mansome apart from other Spurlock films is that he's actually structured it more like a straight-forward comedy than any of his other films, including some very funny between segment inserts with Will Arnett and Jason Bateman getting the complete spa treatment as they discuss male beautification habits and attitudes. It's good stuff that feels improvised, but there's no information there, and that's OK. If anything, those moments underscore that the film is about a mostly silly subject.

But then you meet someone like Ricky, a man of Indian decent who wore a turban as a kid and was mercilessly teased about it. When he grew up, he became (and remains) obsessed with this appearance to a disturbing degree. When he goes to an eyebrow threader to have three out-of-place hairs removed, I was rendered speechless. Sure, I've done it before, but that isn't the point. And while it might not be dangerous behavior, it could lead to some pretty scary self-image stuff down the line.

Then we get more light-hearted moments, such as the one where Spurlock shaves his mustache for the first time in nine years and confronts his young son without it for the first time in his life. The kid's reaction is startling and severe and humorous, but do we actually learn anything from it? When you compare Mansome to something like Chris Rock's Good Hair, one is gently poking at dude's beauty secrets, while the other is a deep cultural examination of black women's mysteriously substantial focus on a certain kind of hair style. Getting high grades for comedy and marking it down for lack of analysis of the trends it examines, Mansome made me laugh consistently, but some of the chapters (particularly the one set in a male wig maker) go on too long and aren't even that interesting. The film opens today at the AMC River East theaters.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Mansome director Morgan Spurlock.


Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog


Originally made in 2004, I'm not sure why Music Box Films decided to pick up this Japanese film for distribution today, but I will say that Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog is one of the strangest little movies about a guide dog. The movie is part training film, part true story about a yellow Lab who is picked from the litter to be a guide dog for the blind. The film is loaded with obvious (and probably not all that true) plot devices to add drama to the story. For example, when Quill is given over to a blind man named Watanabe, the new owner is reluctant to use the dog or the special instructions given to him. The blind man's gruffness is a little too, well, acting-class gruff.

Still, this sweet movie by director Sai Yoichi has a very cute and loyal dog at the center of its story, and if you aren't at least a little misty by the end, you're the spawn of satan. There really isn't much to say about this fairly predictable story, but formula doesn't mean it isn't effective, and Quill has just enough at its sincere, heartfelt core to overcome its many obvious stylistic and plot turns and get a pass from me. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


First Position


What I thought would be an examination of the seemingly cruel practices that go into transforming a child into a top ballet performer turned out to be so much more ambitious and complicated than that. From director Bess Kargman, First Position follows the journeys of a half-dozen young dancers as the ramp up for the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition where various age groups are awarded everything from scholarships to actual contracts and positions with the world's top dance companies.

Kargman has an almost Wiseman-like attention to detail and lack of narration, although there are formal interviews and title cards to help us keep the players and their progress straight. Some of the kids make it look so damn easy, while others struggle through parental pressures, financial issues, injuries and anxiety. They all agree that they have to forego a traditional childhood to make their dreams to dance come true. And they all seem acutely aware that their careers can live or die based on how they perform at this event, which seems like so much pressure to put on human beings who have barely reached puberty in some cases.

We see quite a range of parents, coaches and fellow dancers, all of whom influence these kids. The one thing we don't see much of are friends their own age, which might speak volumes about the impact of spending every free moment rehearsing, training, working with a stretching coach, etc. But Kargman structures her non-judgmental film in such a way that by the time we reach the actual competition, the sacrifices all seem worth it. I'm not sure that's actually true, but we get so up on the final performances, we're holding our collective breath right along with each dancer's support team.

The biggest compliment you can give any filmmaker is that they made us care so much about their characters that we want to see where they go from here. And I hope Kargman revisits these remarkable kids years down the road to let us know how they fared in a world where dance companies and schools are shrinking. First Position is a beautiful film about talented, beautiful children whose lives are both satisfying and a struggle. They never ask that we feel sorry for them, but they don't want to be judged for pursuing a life that makes them do things to their bodies they bodies simply weren't meant to do. It's a fascinating work, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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