If you’ve seen the coming attractions for The Dictator, the latest teaming of Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles, you’ve seen many of the best bits, and considering the film runs a scant 83 minutes—heck, you’ve seen almost the whole movie. Cohen’s General Aladeen is the avaricious, lascivious, supremely childish ruler of the fictional country of Wadiya.
Early in the film (perhaps a little too early-one would like to see more of what Aladeen thinks he is capable of), while visiting the U.S. on dictator business, Aladeen becomes the victim of an assassination plot gone awry, losing his signature beard before escaping and finding himself alone and unrecognizable on the mean streets of NYC. He subsequently finds an ally in Anna Faris’ activist/food coop owner, while hatching a plot to reclaim his throne with the help of Nadal (Jason Matzoukas), Wadiya’s former head of nuclear weapons—and someone Aladeen believed he had executed.
While The Dictator lacks the freewheeling, almost improvisational feel of Borat and Bruno, it also doesn’t have some of the more cringe-inducing moments that Bruno in particular, had in abundance. That’s not to say the film avoids tastelessness—there are some very funny moments involving a botched scheme to get some real hair for Aladeen’s beard (a wig simply won’t do) and Aladeen’s attempts to help a screaming mother give birth –after he is momentarily distracted by his cell phone. There is also a genuinely funny sequence involving a sightseeing trip in a helicopter (even if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s still pretty damn funny)—and the climax, where Aladeen speaks before the United Nations is pretty spot-on funny and savagely accurate. In the end, if Aladeen isn’t Cohen’s most sustained creation, he does manage to get some comic mileage out of both the buffoonish dictator and the even more imbecilic double who has been enlisted to take his place (by a nicely underplaying Ben Kingsley). Just don’t expect another Borat.
I missed the original network run of Dark Shadows, but I became a big fan of it in syndication, and while it wasn’t a perfect show by any means, it was a generally entertaining mix of horror, fantasy, soap opera, melodrama, romance—sometimes within the same scene, much less an episode (the only episodes that really turned me off were the ones focusing on the children—if you’re a fan, you know which ones I mean). The series also produced a couple of cinematic rip-offs (I mean spinoffs) which had their moments (particularly House of Dark Shadows) but might have left viewers wondering what the fuss was about. Johnny Depp’s inspired, soulful take on Jonathan Frid’s haunted vampire Barnabas Collins was more than enough to get me to see Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. From the atmospheric prologue to the (overdone) climax, Depp’s Collins is mournful, bemused, romantic, and given to bursts of melodramatic candor when confronted with the 1970’s lifestyle—or the machinations of Angelique (Eva Green, who comes close to stealing the movie). Burton’s Dark Shadows, abetted by a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith attempts to distill the essence of the series within 110 minutes—and perhaps leave room for more to come. Like the series, Dark Shadows is an uneven, stentorian clash of genres (and performance styles), so if you’re a horror purist, you might leave feeling a little unsatisfied. Some of the actors (Michelle Pfeiffer’s matron, Jackie Earle Haley’s creepy, subservient Willie, Helena Bonham Carter’s drunk doctor) are good but underused; the real blasts come from the confrontations between Barnabas and Angelique; they have so much chemistry together that it’s almost a shame that Barnabas pines for Josette (Bella Heathcotte). However to Depp’s credit, he makes us feel Barnabas’ anguish over both lost love and the curse that continues to haunt him. The late Jonathan Frid would be proud.