Parents of teen and tween girls must have felt somewhat conflicted when Suzanne Collins's young-adult novel The Hunger Games came out. On one hand, it featured Katniss Everdeen, a young female protagonist who, unlike Bella Swan of Twilight, exhibited agency in her life and choices and wasn't particularly interested in either of the boys in her orbit, never mind mooning over them to the exclusion of all other activity. On the other hand, part of the reason Katniss doesn't waste a lot of energy thinking about her future romantic prospects is that she's determined not to bring any children into a dystopia in which teenagers are forced by the state to battle each other to the death until only one is left standing.
By now, viewers who’ve been following Sacha Baron Cohen’s career over the past decade probably have a feel for his newest, The Dictator, sight unseen. Admiral General Aladeen — perhaps you’ve seen him dumping “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest, or holding the mother of Extra movie-doll Ben Lyons hostage? — as a child, with fulsome pubic hair and a glorious beard. The autocrat Olympics he stages, in which the finish line runs toward him. The first of many celebrity cameos: Megan Fox in the palace of the Mad Dog of Wadiya, hastily putting her clothes back on. (“Katy Perry said she got a diamond Rolex,” Fox says, rummaging through her blood-money sack.)
Fox’s presence is a clue that at least one thing about The Dictator is different. Baron Cohen’s newest is also his first entirely fictional film since the 2002 false start Ali G Indahouse — the one that begins with Baron Cohen’s Ali G break-dancing his way out of a hail of bullets and sort of deteriorates from there. The Dictator is not quite in that zone of B-movie unease, but it’s not Baron Cohen’s best effort, either. It’s funny, but cheap and thin and ultimately not that different than any number of other movies in which Anna Faris plays a slightly dim ingenue, albeit with way more jokes about rape and torture and 9/11. It should do fine, though probably not any better than fine.
Silver: A star-studded cast featuring a mix between established Hollywood stars and fresh up-and-coming faces, some badass gangster dialogue, visceral imagery, and violence, violence, violence. But enough about The Untouchables. Sub out Chicago for Los Angeles, Penn for DeNiro, Brolin for Costner, Gosling for Garcia, and Nolte for Connery. The only difference here is that The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma when he was at the top of his game and Gangster Squad is helmed by Ruben Fleischer, who’s coming off the unwatchable 30 Minutes or Less. And something tells me that Gangster Squad writer Will Beall’s credits (ABC’s Castle) aren’t quite what David Mamet’s were when he wrote The Untouchables. Gangster Squad appears to be lifting so much from The Untouchables that I’d be disappointed if it didn’t contain a scene where a baby carriage rolls down the steps of a train station during a bloody gun fight. (Which, for you film fans, was lifted from Eisenstein’sBattleship Potemkin.)
The Dictator — Sacha Baron Cohen's "eccentric totalitarian leaders of history"–mashup satire — is in theaters next week. Which means that, just as with SBC's Borat and Brüno before it, it's time for the elaborate in-character media blitz. You may recall Admiral General Aladeen spilling Kim Jong-Il's ashes on Ryan Seacrest during the Oscars (apparently, though, they were originally destined for George Clooney). You might have caught Admiral General Aladeen on SNL this weekend, torturing Martin Scorsese. And you possibly read up about Admiral General Aladeen's press conference in New York yesterday, in which he warmly welcomed the "devils of the Zionist media." And for his next trick — well, now he's messing with Robert Mugabe.
Silver: Sacha Baron Cohen better be careful. He’s scarily close to crossing the dreaded “Mike Myers Line.” That’s when a brilliant comic writer/performer rests on his/her past success and just recycles bits (I believe the line, “Exsqueeze Me? Baking Powder” appeared in both Wayne’s World films and at least one Austin Powers movie). I send this warning to Mr. Cohen because I believe him to be a true talent, but from what we can see (plot-wise) from this latest The Dictator trailer, he’s once again telling a story of a gregarious and politically incorrect outsider who comes to America with his trusty sidekick (here, Ben Kingsley), and after some misfortune, is left to fend for himself. Unlike Myers, I trust Cohen’s “in-between” stuff (better known as “the jokes”) to be fresher and more biting. But for his next film (not one in which he just acts), I’d like to see Cohen try to challenge himself. He’s a brilliant performer, and I’d rather see his career go the way of Peter Sellars than of Mike Myers.
Rem, please tell me you can make me feel better about this one.
In the interest of gaining closure on one of the more absurd Oscar storylines we'd been tracking, and assuming (hoping, really?) that you didn't make the mistake of tuning in to the red carpet coverage to watch Ryan Seacrest psychically discern the designer of every starlet's dress (with near 100% accuracy!), we note that Sacha Baron Cohen did, in fact, show up in full Wadiyan strongman regalia and earn the free publicity for The Dictator he and Paramount so doggedly sought. Congratulations?
And, inevitably, here's Sacha Baron Cohen's in-character response to his Oscar "ban" (if we're willing to define the word "ban" to mean "being politely asked not to show up on the red carpet in despot drag to proposition Angelina Jolie in an Wadiyan accent while swatting her with a riding crop"). God bless him for giving us something, no matter how absurd, to talk about besides how many backflips Jean Dujardin will have Uggie execute upon winning their fifth Oscar. Here's hoping he ignores the no-fun rule and causes a scene so outrageous and uncomfortable that he attempts to ride off the red carpet on Jonah Hill's back as security gives chase.
[UPDATE: The Academy has given in and will allow in-costume shenanigans. How weird that they decided extra publicity might be a good thing! But they played this totally wrong. They obviously should have staged a red carpet "crash" and surfed the buzz-waves of speculation about whether or not they were in on the stunt for days. Oh, well, back to talking about Uggie stunts on Monday.]
This morning, we mused about which Oscar attendee might become the victim of an act of promotional terrorism in which Sacha Baron Cohen, decked out in full Dictator regalia, whips off a pair of breakaway pants and rubs his autocratic posterior into the face of an unsuspecting victim, as the thought seems to be keeping Academy producers awake at night. (Meryl Streep, don't let your guard down!) But then we looked out the window of Grantland HQ to discover (well, notice, it's not like this kind of slow-revealing thing can sneak up on you) the three hundred-foot portraits being painted on the side of downtown L.A.'s Hotel Figueroa. So, yeah: Maybe we'd better worry about our own faces. His ass is coming for us.
Oscars drama! Deadline is reporting that Sacha Baron Cohen — who co-stars in Hugo, which is up for Best Picture — had his tickets to this Sunday's Academy Awards pulled. Apparently, the Academy learned Cohen was planning on arriving on the red carpet in costume as his character from his upcoming Middle Eastern autocrat satire The Dictator, and got peeved. Later in the day, facing blowback from their stodgy ways, they publicly reversed course, saying Baron Cohen was not banned from the ceremony, but that they were holding out on hooking up the tix until they got assurances he would not get dressed up for the event. As an Oscars spokesperson told Deadline, “We would hope that every studio knows that this is a bad idea. The Red Carpet is not about stunting.” (Side note: Who is this slang-literate Oscars spokesperson? Young Buck?)
Sacha Baron Cohen is currently on screen with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, but he hasn’t starred in a movie since 2009’s Bruno, the third installment in his Ali G Show character trilogy. The flick wasn’t without its merits -- it pulled in $138 million worldwide; it introduced us to the helicopter penis trick – but it never came close to the all-encompassing cultural permeation of Borat. Sensibly, then, with his next big production The Dictator, Baron Cohen has returned to that which he does best: a campy middle eastern accent! If Borat had stumbled into premiership, and was given intensive grooming and manners classes from Muammar Qaddafi, you’d have this latest crazed-rogue-dictator character. (The movie was also inspired by Zabibah and the King, an allegorical romance novel allegedly written by Saddam Hussein). It’s a perfect no-brainer concept for Baron Cohen to go H.A.M., and there’s obviously plenty of fodder to mine: in one scene, Baron Cohen pays Megan Fox for sex with a handful of jewels (“What is this, a ruby? What do I look like, a Kardashian?”); in another, he shoots people while running a competitive 100 meter dash. (And extra points must be awarded for the trailer's use of Jay-Z’s always-excellent “Beware of the Boys” remix). It might ultimately land with all the depth of an SNL-sketch-adaptation but, for now, let’s hope it’s aggressive enough to piss off Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.