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Josh Reviews The Dictator

In his new film The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the deranged dictator of the made-up country of Wadiya.  Aladeen has unparalleled levels of wealth and power, but a power-striggle with his trusted uncle and advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) leaves him stranded like a homeless bum on the streets of New York.  He’s befriended by a hippie named Zoey (Anna Faris).  Will she be able to help him regain his throne?  Does she want to?

It’s hard to imagine Sacha Baron Cohen being able to continue making films like Borat or Bruno indefinitely.  He’s too well known now, I think, to be able to take people by surprise and get honest reactions from them in the same way.  But I’ve never been that worried about seeing Mr. Baron Cohen move into more scripted fare.  Two of my very favorite performances of his came in scripted movies:  Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Hugo.

With his new film The Dictator being a more traditionally-scripted comedy, I was eager to see how Mr. Cohen did as the star of this more conventionally-made film.  (Though I wonder how scripted the movie truly was.  Seeing as how the script is credited to three of the key creative minds behind the plotted-but-not-scripted Curb Your Enthusiasm, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, I’d imagine the script for The Dictator left a lot of room for improvisation.)

However, despite the involvement of those three very funny writers (who also worked on Seinfeld) and another Seinfeld vet, director Larry Charles (who also directed Borat and Bruno as well as Religulous),  The Dictator never succeeds quite as much as I had hoped.

It is very funny at times, no doubt.  There are some absolutely laugh-out-loud moments.  The sequence in which Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen)and his partner Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) take a helicopter tour of New York City and absolutely freak out the midwestern couple with them is a riot.  And I adored the scenes late in the film when we see how Aladeen has used his skills as a fascist dictator to remodel Zoey’s hippie grocery into a far more efficient store.  (I really laughed when you first hear one of the employees refer to him as “Supreme Grocer.”)

My favorite moment in the movie is hard to describe on paper.  OK, it takes place in Kathryn Hahn’s uterus.  I will say no more!

But the film is all over the place.  I usually admire films that are ferocious about pursuing jokes.  There definitely are some great movies that don’t really concern themselves with plot, but rather focus on just moving from the funniest possible line or moment to the next.  … [continued]

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Click here for part one of my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, numbers fifteen through eleven, and here for part two, featuring numbers ten through six. Buckle up, now, as it’s time for the home stretch, the best of the best (at least in my humble opinion) of 2011!

5.  Young Adult Juno writer and director Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman re-team for a deliciously dark comedy about a twisted, pretty-much irredeemably terrible young woman named Mavis Gary (a magnificent Charlize Theron) who returns to the small hometown she left years before, in an attempt to win back her old jock boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). He’s married with a young baby, but so what?  During her week back in town, Mavis bumps into another high school classmate, the nerdy, disabled Matt (Patton Oswalt). The two strike up a weird sort-of friendship, and the way the arc of that pairing avoids any of the typical movie cliche ways that those sorts of relationships usually unfold on-screen is only one way in which this movie is unremittingly awesome.  The running gag about the way Mavis wakes up each morning, the terrific chemistry between Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt, and that pitch-perfect ending are just a few others.  A phenomenal film.  (Click here for my full review.)

4.   The Adventures of TintinShould anyone be surprised that the team-up of cinematic titans Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson produced gold?  This deliriously joyful, madcap adventure is non-stop pulpy fun from start-to-finish.  The film just zips on by, one incredible sequence after another, with Mr. Spielberg showing us once again how he is an absolute master at staging an action scene and assembling a crowd-pleasing adventure film.  The animation is gorgeous, the voice-work is impeccable (highlighted by another brilliant performance by the great Andy Serkis — I also praised his work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when I wrote about that film earlier on this list), and when the closing credits ran I couldn’t believe the film was over already.  This one is going to get a lot of play in my household in the coming years, of that I have no doubt.  I can’t wait for the sequel, in which Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Jackson will apparently switch roles (so that Mr. Spielberg will produce the film and Mr. Jackson will direct).  (Click here for my full review.)

3.  BridesmaidsKirsten Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, working with brilliant comedy director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks of Geeks), producer Judd Apatow, and a tremendous cast of women, hit every note exactly perfectly in this comedic home-run.  The film is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hugo (3-D)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name I think of when I think about family-friendly adventure films, but with Hugo, the master proves once and again his incredible control of the medium of film, no matter the genre.  Hugo is a breathtaking work of genius, and I found myself enraptured by the film’s propulsive energy and the exuberant love for film and, indeed, for all works of art, that pores out of every frame of the movie.

The Hugo in Hugo (adapted from from The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, which was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick) is a young boy living in the walls of a Paris train-station in the 1930’s.  His parents are dead, and the uncle who adopted him is a drunkard who eventually abandoned him.  But not before teaching young Hugo how to mind all of the clocks in the station, a task which Hugo has secretly continued to do.  All the while he has scrounged tools and supplies to work on repairing a broken automata (an elaborate wind-up figure), which he and his father were working on together before his father’s death.  When Hugo is caught, mid-theft, by the crochety old man who runs a small toy booth in the station, Hugo agrees to work for him to repay what he has stolen.  He is quickly befriended by the intelligent, well-read young girl, Isabelle, in the man’s care.  The bond between Hugo and Isabelle grows as they start to realize that the old man, whom she refers to as Papa Georges, hides secrets of his own, including a possible connection to Hugo’s automata.

In my first paragraph I described Hugo as a family-friendly film, but don’t take that to mean that the film is childish or simplistic.  Quite the contrary, I found Hugo to be richly layered and nuanced.  There is fun adventure to be had as the tale unfolds, but also great sadness and melancholy.  (If you’re looking for something to compare it to, in tone, I would direct you to Pixar’s Up.)

Right from the opening frames, the film is gorgeous.  Mr. Scorsese uses visual effects with extraordinary aplomb.  The opening shots juxtapose the gorgeous city-scape of 1930’s Paris with the complex gears and inner mechanisms of a clock, and the sequence is thrilling and clever.  The environment of the city, and of the city-within-the-city that the train station represents, is brought to fully-realized, teeming life.  I don’t know where the beautiful costumes and sets end and the computer-generated effects begin, and that’s just the way I like it.  Every frame of the film is packed with fascinating imagery — if my eye ever wandered from the main action, there was always … [continued]