A Tyrant’s Tale
Sacha Baron Cohen channels Charlie Chaplin
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Opens May 18
In the best tradition of Andy Kaufman, Sacha Baron Cohen likes to promote his movies in character. Admiral General Aladeen has been popping up on every talk show in sight, just like Bruno and Borat before him.
But unlike the German fashionista and Kazakhstani journalist, Aladeen is a fully fleshed, complex character who doesn’t have to repeat the same jokes over and over. Humour just gushes from him — not a small feat for a comedian often dismissed as crass and offensive at first sight.
The Dictator takes on a stereotype ripe for satire: the Middle-Eastern/Asian strongman who wins elections with 99 per cent of the vote and sheds heaps of money for a personal appearance by some Western pop-tart. Admiral General Aladeen rolls Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, Kim Jong-Il and a dash of Dick Cheney into one — minus their real-life ruthlessness and cunning.
Facing an international strike because of his (utterly worthless) nuclear weapons program, Aladeen is forced to abandon his luxurious palace in Wadiya and present his case to the United Nations General Assembly. The despot doesn’t even get to step into the UN when he is kidnapped and stripped of his trademark beard, courtesy of his treacherous number two (a game Ben Kingsley). Unable to prove his identity, Aladeen finds employment in an ethnic food store while plotting his return.
For the most part, The Dictator storyline is incidental to the satire that plays out on the screen. But unlike previous Baron Cohen flicks, this is not a mockumentary. There is dramatic development and tension build-up, even a romantic subplot with a hirsute Anna Faris. This is not to say Baron Cohen doesn’t stop the movie in its tracks on occasion to slot in a joke about torture or terrorism (apparently, there is a Wii game based on the 1972 Munich Olympics’ massacre).
The quality of the comedy in The Dictator shows improvement over the shock-based “humour” of Bruno. Baron Cohen pushes the envelope by making 9/11 the frequent butt of his jokes. While most of them land, it’s fair to wonder if it’s too soon. It was in 2007, when Uwe Boll’s Postal worked the same ground and flopped. The film gets far more mileage from the A-listers willing to humiliate themselves. You may not be able to look at Edward Norton the same way ever again.
Even though the denouement of the comedy is unfocused, it showcases a poignant speech reminiscent of Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (the only time the Little Tramp ever spoke was to indict Adolph Hitler). Admiral General Aladeen embraces typically despotic behaviors, like slashing taxes for the rich and denying the impoverished citizens of his country decent access to healthcare and education. Sound like any country you know?
Regardless of whether Sacha Baron Cohen is your cup of tea, the man is a notch above most comedians (and light years ahead of Adam Sandler and Mike Myers). His work is provocative, well thought out and funny. Worst case scenario, you get to hear “Everybody Hurts” in Farsi. It holds up.
RPL Film Theatre
You can’t blame Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) for wanting to make a movie about Aung San Suu Kyi, the extraordinary activist who received (in absentia) the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma and who recently led his party to a major victory in Parliamentary elections in that violence-torn country. You can hold him accountable though for doing such a hack job, so heavy-handed that it triggers more eye-rolls than admiration.
Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh, the only bright spot in this flick) is a Burmese expat who returns to her country in 1988 to take care of her sick mother. The Oxford-educated scholar lands in the middle of a pro-democracy movement, brutally repressed by the military junta in power. It takes little effort to convince Aung San (daughter of a revolutionary leader turned martyr) to lead the revolt. It would be the beginning of two decades of intermittent house arrest and pacifist resistance.
The focus of The Lady is not Aung San Suu Kyi fascinating political life, but her more pedestrian family tribulations. Married to British author Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and mother of two, her family was allowed to visit her a limited number of times due to the restrictions imposed by the Burmese regime. Aung San chose not to visit her husband in England as he was battling prostate cancer, fearing the junta wouldn’t let her back in.
Luc Besson goes through the motions with little concern over character development or complex historical circumstances (apparently, it’s really easy to win a Nobel Prize, you just have to know the right people). Besson makes Aung San list all her shortcomings, even though we haven’t seen any evidence of them in the film. She is not a saint, you see.
The Lady also shows Aung San’s nemesis, General Than Shwe, shooting one of his underlings point blank, in case it’s not clear that a tyrant who refused foreign aid for his cyclone-ravaged country is a bad guy. Even Rambo 4 was more nuanced.
For most directors, Dark Shadows would be a triumph. It’s got gorgeous cinematography, spectacular sets and a soundtrack featuring some of the best songs recorded in the ‘70s.
Instead, it’s a mild disappointment. Sorry Tim Burton, but it’s your own fault for setting the bar so high.
Responsible for sensible neoclassics like Edward Scissorhands and genre romps like the underappreciated Mars Attacks!, Burton has taken to transforming well-known stories into elaborate fantasies. In fact, the director hasn’t come up with an original idea since Corpse Bride (2005).
Based on a cult-hit soap opera from four decades ago, Dark Shadows is an ode to the outsider — in this case, one Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, as usual). Two centuries ago, Collins was a fishing industry titan who scorned the wrong witch (femme-fatale extraordinaire Eva Green). The vengeful sorceress cursed the thriving Collins, turning him into a vampire and locking him in a coffin for all eternity. Or so she thought.
Barnabas resurfaces in 1972. Besides the obvious cultural shock (leading to the best moments of the movie), the vampire is astounded to discover his beloved Collins family can barely make ends meet. Along with matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), Barnabas challenges Collinsport’s leading fish canning company — which, of course, is run by the witch who cursed him in the first place.
Less comedic than it appears in the trailer, Dark Shadows is a genre mess. Not quite a satire or a send-up, it also fails as a horror flick. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) tries to cram five seasons of plot from the original TV show into a two-hour movie — and largely fails. The acting goes from superb (the aristocratic Pfeiffer) to mannered (Chloe Moretz), but the characters rarely rise above caricatures.
At least Burton’s heart is in the right place. Vampire and all, Barnabas Collins is a hero worth rooting for, while the more “normal” characters are the ones to be wary of. The film’s end suggests the possibility of a sequel. Given the poor box-office results thus far, that’s the best joke in the movie.