The Dictator.


Reviewing The Dictator in the New Yorker, David Denby writes that if Sacha Baron Cohen could only fine-tune his craft he could be the Groucho Marx of our time. If we were to judge him on the basis of Borat and Brüno, that daring duo of mockumentaries which duped people into thinking they were talking to someone as bigoted, ignorant or shallow as they were, there would be a case to answer. But that was before his latest effort, in which his craft has changed entirely. And now, after this crass, forced and foolish excuse of a movie that brings out all that was previously bad about Baron Cohen, his status as genius-comedian of our generation ends up being the only laugh on offer.

The core problem was somewhat inevitable: his biggest laughs had always played upon the fact that he was the only actor on screen. But now, due to fame and the nature of the new role, that style of filmmaking has become impossible. Hence his resort to scripting everything, conning noone, wheeling out rom-com and New York clichés and thereby reversing the jokes so they’re only on him.

Cohen, as Aladeen, is a fusion of the absurdities of Gaddafi and the Kims playing tyrant over a fictional African state. We see him discuss Bin Laden and his Porsche 911 in Arabic whilst on a helicopter trip over Manhattan, to the obvious fright of two American tourists. But whereas in past situations their reactions were sincere, now it’s staged. What real people might do or say is removed from the equation. And with faux-danger inevitably comes faux-fun: Cohen grinding out staged repulsion from his costars, strutting around his constructed world.

As always, there’s the crass jokes about sex that he apparently feels obliged to balance with his sharper, ‘higher’ political points, if only to ‘offend’ and fulfil the needs of his wage-paying mega-audience. Objectification of women? Check. Masturbation? Of course. Jokes about pubic hair? Why even bother playing bingo? These have been occurrences in his work right back to the Ali G Show (apparently the prejudices of white wanna-be Gs from Staines map onto the attitudes of Kazakhstani journalists, Austrian fashionistas and totalitarians nigh-perfectly). But at least they were always the exception. Here, with nothing left to say about the life of a tyrant after ten minutes of exhausting the caricature through parody, those old tricks become the basis for the entire damn film.

I mean, please. When he ends up making friends with and falling for a hippie vegan anti-armpit-shaving bi-Brooklynite, the epitome of everything he slags off except Judaism (but don’t worry, the end needs one more bad and easy joke, so that box is also ticked by her later), you know he’s given up on surprising us.

But what should we have expected when Cohen decided to turn his satirical teeth towards a laughable Libyan loony with virgin guards? Overthrown and killed after months of public madness, it’s hard to agree that Muammar was in need of 80 minutes of mockery to destroy his otherwise revered image. And when that is the context for a film that is 90% horseshit, the few later elements of slapstick worthy of Groucho are by then unbearable anyway.

Take a break, Sacha. Get your brains back.


Directed by Larry Charles. Running time: 101 minutes. Rating: 15.

Comedian and long time talkshow host Bill Maher takes a break from late night television to develop his rants at religion in Religulous, a documentary keen on keeping the laughter strong whilst claiming it is trying to understand the phenomenon of faith. It fails, but it doesn’t show much sincere interest in making sense of it, despite the opening professions to the contrary. Maher’s more at home meeting the most whacky and dogmatic religious people he can find and exposing their loopiness through lightheartedness, and the film’s perfectly fine for merely showing that. Just, please, spare us the closing-credit shots of bombs and guns which we’re presumably supposed to now perceive in terms of everything we’ve just seen. Whilst the Israel-Palestine conflict may indeed be contingent on the violent Judaeo-Islamic dynamic, that’s not what we’re shown here. It’s mildly laughable to say that, for all their idiocy, the South American man claiming to be the modern manifestation of Jesus and the Kentucky Christians who set up a creationist museum, depicting the harmonic coexistence of man and dinosaur, are responsible for widespread warfare. And yet that’s the type of person Religulous invites us to mock moments before its monumental pacifist turn.

Other standout encounters include young men from Mormon families explaining why the renouncement-rate is so low in Salt Lake (the crux: you become a social outcast), and there’s a particularly wonderful and idiosyncratic priest Maher finds at the Vatican, who happily concedes that the historical Jesus would laugh in the face of the modern church. And there is, of course, the obligatory Deep South Christian congressman so moronic as to shake even the most democratic of souls. But with Maher it’s always sure to be terribly funny even when predictably worrying. Religulous jumps around a little too much, in the sense both that the film lacks a narrative and any geographical coherence. But if you’re already onto the madness of most modern day religion, regardless of one’s own faith, it plays out like a collage of confirmatory case studies made more than amusing enough to be worth your time. If only the insight promised was also forthcoming.

Charlize Theron (Mavis Gary), Patton Oswalt (Matt Freehauf), Patrick Wilson (Buddy Slade), Elizabeth Reaser (Beth Slade). Screenplay by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rating: 15. Running time: 94 minutes.

Jason Reitman is back for the first time since Up In The Air with another sharp-hip comedy-drama, and it’s no surprise to discover that Young Adult is better than almost anything else on offer in this often overwrought, offensively bad genre. And the core themes of his career are continued here with yet another fusion of humour and light but serious social criticism, the latter for the first time feeling like the emphasis, the former instead now proving secondary.

The title comes from the genre of literature Theron’s character, Mavis Gary, writes for: teenagers that are neither kids nor mature grown-ups, instead sitting in that intermediate phase where love and lousing around dominate everything and you live like a child in a new, difficult developing world. But the joke is that Young Adult’ is the category Mavis herself fits into. She’s over thirty now, but she still lives like a student gulping diet coke for breakfast, persistently putting work deadlines off and instead killing time online or watching television. She proves incapable of getting over her ex, and yet she indulges in casual sex and excessive alcohol consumption most nights of the week.

The ex is happily married now and recently a father, but that doesn’t stop her from leaving the big city and returning to her hometown in a delusional attempt to win him back. And the film, ultimately, is a week in her life as her childishness is exposed, with all the dark humour and life lessons that accrue accordingly.

The film could have easily been made by Sofia Coppola, another fine young filmmaker who has flirted recently with the theme of bourgeois boredom and frustration in Somewhere, throwing due wit on First World problems and saying something substantial in the meantime. And Reitman shows himself to be equally clever insofar as he knows damn well by now how to tell a good story. And it’s made all the easier by the fact he’s working with dialogue this good, dished out once more by Diablo Cody who he worked with previously on Juno.

Theron is marvellously confusing, nowhere near as likeable as Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, who we loved to root for despite knowing deep down he was a shit. Her Mavis Gary, in comparison, ends up inducing both some real disgust and sympathy, even if her most revealing moments remain drenched in black comedy.

The only surprise is the lack of music given that all of Reitman’s previous films have been heavily driven by vibrant funky soundtracks. Young Adult feels quiet in comparison, and that conveniently reflects the tone it ends up striking more broadly. It’s the young director’s trickiest treat so far, but Reitman continues to respect us with intelligent but mainstream storytelling. More of this sort of thing from everyone, please. Hollywood would do well to accept him as a trend-setter.

Directed by Liz Garbus. Running time: 93 minutes.

One of the whackiest passages in Plato arrives in The Republic, when he writes that the best path to morality is the study of mathematics. His thought was that this kind of abstract thinking was necessary to transcend the physical world and discover greater truths, and with an appreciation of numbers will also come, in time, an understanding of other aspects of reality including ethics.

The mistake, of course, is to fail to distinguish the various senses in which an individual may employ reason and possess knowledge. Nothing in mastering algebra ensures one will also go on to be charitable and just, as Aristotle quickly noted. And if there’s anyone that could be offered up by him as a perfect example to counter Plato, Bobby Fischer would be the man.

There’s evidently a sense in which the guy was a genius. He spent thousands of hours throughout his childhood mastering chess theory, culminating in him defeating the US Open Champion when he was merely aged thirteen. But before he knew it he was a key pawn in the game of the Cold War, and it was Kissinger calling him to encourage participation in the World Championship, intent on using Fischer as an American asset to demonstrate intellectual superiority over the Soviet Union.

And come out as World Champion he did, but barely before descending into apathy towards the game and soon ‘achieving’ what can only be called senility. Over the next few decades he went from being a national hero to wanted villain. He could not return to the US for fear of imprisonment for playing chess in Yugoslavia whilst UN sanctions banned such activity, as part of a diplomatic isolation strategy. And Fischer became obsessed with anti-Semitism, cherishing his copy of Mein Kampf and other such associated literature.

It’s utterly bizarre, and the documentary sadly can’t help us to shed light on how such a perplexing mix of characteristics came to be carried by one mad man. But it felt odd that it wasn’t even interested in the chess and the beauty of his game that the interviewees harp on about, instead seeming more interested in his mind-game antics rather than his actual moves. Which was a shame. I saw no point in trying to avoid alienating non-chess players by omitting such details. One is, after all, unlikely to watch the documentary unless one takes a keen interest in the game in the first place.

And the moral offered is, I think, an unconvincing one. The film seems to want to suggest that Fischer’s fragility was intrinsic to his genius; that without his quirks and sociopolitical stupidity, he couldn’t have been so creative on the board. They have some minor evidence to suggest history supports that, but in the end the power of the film lies only in the intrigue it induces about its bizarre protagonist. But that’s more than enough.

So I never got around to making Oscar predictions this year. Partly because I lacked time, partly because I realised I care even less than you. Besides, I haven’t even rounded off the year by watching The Descendants, and given that was meant to be a decent contender for the top prizes, judgement felt unfair.

Anyway, they’re all done now, and no major surprises sprung up. Delighted to see Midnight win for Screenplay, and Dragon for Editing. Otherwise, I can’t say I’m feeling it.

The Artist was always going to sweep up, but I can’t shake the feeling that, a little like Slumdog, we’ll look back fairly soon and see this was a silly getting caught up in the moment choice. I don’t think the film will last. It’s just not that special, and given the other films out this year that will stand the tests of time, it’s quite a foolish victory.

The best way I can respond is to make my own ad hoc award list, so find that below. I’ve ignored the Awards I have no strong feelings about, and I’ve only nominated films or people that truly deserve it. There’s no set number chosen for each one.

I have found this tricky because, as you no doubt know, it’s come to the stage now where I idolise the films of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher all out of proportion. It’s the closest I’ve come to religion insofar as it tends nowadays towards blind faith. And I do think that Hugo and Dragon Tattoo are two of the best films out this year, even though neither represents either director at the top of his game. But I’m not really capable of judging either of these as if they were just any other film. I may have overcompensated for this by specially avoiding them, but I’ve done my best to deeply consider what I valued most this year. And, as you will see, I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is The Tree of Life.

Winners in bold, close runners-up in italics.

Continue reading ‘The Oscars, and S&S Awards.’

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson), Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater), Kathy Bates (Molly Brown), Billy Zane (Cal Hockley), Bill Paxton (Brock Lovett). Screenplay by James Cameron. Directed by James Cameron. Rating: 12. Running time: 194 minutes.

I want to say so much, and really feel the film deserves it, but lacking time right now brief comments alone will have to do.

I feel Titanic deserves serious time and thought because of the wicked mixture of enormous popular appraisal and severe elitist skepticism it suffers. It’s supposed to be cool not to enjoy Titanic, and for the reason that it is a James Cameron megabucks epic with more holes than the wrecked ship itself.

But revisiting the film in 3D (out in cinemas soon; this was a Valentine’s preview), this is not the film I saw. The film I saw was a masterpiece that is justifiably revered; so bold in ambition and broadly successful in pulling it off that anyone who claims to not be totally engrossed for its entire three hours is simply lying.

Of course there are problems; the main one being implausible snippets of dialogue that Avatar was justly attacked for, and I can see now the that the roots of the problem began here in Cameron’s crass scriptwriting. Too often in the second half of the film we see silly crew members complaining about damage to a sinking ship, as passengers insist they want brandies rather than lifebelts whilst others translate signs as the water level rises. And the elitist focus is necessary, but hugely overplayed to the point that it becomes annoying (Rose’s mother moans that she hopes the lifeboats aren’t too crowded), and Jack and Rose head down into danger only to return unscathed James Bond-style one too many times.

But all of this transpires within the framework of a film of sheer indisputable magic. DiCaprio’s youth and energy is spine-tingling, and Winslet’s beauty whimsical. The special effects are still spellbinding, and the story remains so oddly powerful for its blend of both romance and history. The first half in particular is almost perfect. The love develops without any mad, infuriating dialogue and the chemistry is oh so convincing. Only when the iceberg hits do some rough edges emerge, but by then we’re too engrossed in the scale of what is transpiring and the power with which it is being portrayed to give a damn.

And to round the experience off, I’m dumbfounded but delighted to say that the 3D works. This might be the first time I have happily traded the downsides of darkened images and a weighed down nose for the sake of the meaningful appearance of depth. Titanic has so many scenes set in corridors, and towards the end so much footage of crowds of people both on deck and tragically in the Atlantic – not to mention shots of a ship snapping and sinking from a dozen different angles – that the perception finally pays off.

It’s out April 6th. A century on from our fatal reality check. See it again. It won’t let you down.

Charles Chaplin (A Tramp). Directed by Charles Chaplin. Rating: U. Running time: 87 minutes.

City Lights is the first Chaplin film I’ve returned to since I’ve discovered, fallen in love with and grown to idolise Keaton. And it is, alas, not better than most of Buster’s brilliantly humorous work. In the debate in The Dreamers as to which one is funnier, I’m firmly in the Keaton camp. I found myself laughing far less than I did upon an initial viewing four years ago. There’s simply less innovation and surprising slapstick than one would expect from a silent comedy of such stature.

But fortunately this is probably to miss the pointThis is meant as much as a romance as a comedy, and on that front it does not fail. Keaton could never construct a sequence like City Lights‘ finale. It’s a moment of realisation and love brought together with such humanity in the acting that it’s no stretch to say it should be in everyone‘s list of top ten silver screen moments. You’ll do well to find a Valentine’s film as sweet and eventually quietly teary as this. And Chaplin pulls our emotional strings without a hint of manipulation, and without the need to resort to the utterance of a single word. Try to imagine the scale of that task; telling a genuinely moving love story without language. City Lights employs the image alone, and that suffices to make us sit and swoon.