(On Cable TV, October 2016) There are two movies competing for attention Grimsby, and one of them is far better than the other. There’s the somewhat energetic spy thriller, featuring Mark Strong doing what he does best as a no-nonsense special operative trying to stop a terrorist plot. That part of the movie is directed with glee and energy by Louis Leterrier (a veteran when it comes to special-effects-heavy spectacle), goes by smoothly even as it doesn’t reinvent the genre. But then there’s the other movie, the crude gross-out comedy that focuses on Sacha Baron Cohen usual brand of comic vulgarity. Racing to the bottom of offensiveness, Grimsby features … well, I’m not going to describe it if it’s going to either disturb or intrigue you. Suffice to say that as the film uses the spy-movie framework for lowbrow gags, Grimsby becomes increasingly dispiriting. If there’s a case to be made about wasted time, money and effort in the service of something that makes the world worse for existing … yes, this is a serious contender for worst-movie-of-the-year status. Or would be if it wasn’t for the few sequences that manage to shake off its particularly revolting humour in favour of some solid action beats. Oh well; at least the movie was a box-office failure, mitigating the risks that we’ll ever see a sequel.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) A quick trawl through these reviews will reveal that when it comes to movie musicals, I’m a very forgiving reviewer. I have embraced the musical in its post-Moulin Rouge era and a few disappointments aside, I’m usually fond of the genre. So imagine my surprise when I found myself annoyed, bored and exasperated by Les Misérables, surely one of the most instantly recognizable examples of the genre to come down the Broadway-to-Hollywood route. I groaned when I realized that Les Misérables would not only be wall-to-wall singing, but that nearly every song would sound the same and drag on forever. More than once, I left the living room for errands and came back minutes later to characters expressing the same emotion. For all of its nice cinematography and convicting re-creation of a troubled period in French history, Les Misérables plods on for more than an excruciating two hours and a half, on a musical register than barely varies from one song to the next. Perhaps my powers of concentration are gone; maybe I’m just picky when I should be forgiving. And it’s not as if the actors are slacking, given how many of them do well with parts that exceed their signing range. Seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and a thoroughly unglamorous Helena Bonham Carter voice their miserable condition is interesting as in we-haven’t-seen-this-too-many-times-before, but they can’t make the pace move more quickly, or change the film’s intention to make nearly every line of dialogue sung. (Still, I note that the most memorable performance comes from musical-cast-member Samantha Barks, who makes the most out of a limited role as Éponine) Les Misérables is lavish filmmaking on the highest level –but it’s annoying for idiosyncratic reasons that I can’t fully articulate. Upon reflection, through, it occurs to me that I’m fonder of original-movie-musicals rather than straight-up adaptations of existing Broadway shows. Let’s keep the musicals on Broadway, and use the cinema screen for something that fully exploits cinema as a medium.
(On-demand, August 2012) After the very-loosely-scripted antics of Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen is back in a more traditional comedy mold with The Dictator, which follows an arrogant tyrant forced to confront New York City’s harsher realities. Plot is the least of the film’s concerns, though, as it showcases Cohen’s character work and does its best to subvert most of the usual movie-comedy conventions. Don’t expect the dictator protagonist to have a pro-democracy change of heart, don’t expect the heroine to break out of her androgyny, and certainly don’t expect the movie to play nice, because it delights in being as offensive as it can be. There’s something to offend everyone here, but The Dictator at least manages to get a few laughs out of the results. It’s a very uneven film, with humor as worldly-sophisticated as it can be gross-vulgar, scenes that drag on far after they’ve made their point, or recurring gags that clearly aren’t as funny as the filmmakers intended. Some of the targets are easy (including an on-the-nose moment in which parallels are made in-between the USA and dictatorships), “eww” is not a synonym for “ha-ha”, and some of the grosser writing felt lazy. But it works often enough that even the unfunny stuff is bulldozed away by the next rounds of laughs. Cohen is, even in a scripted setting, as fully committed to his role, and he seems to be setting an example for the other actors trying their best to keep up. It’s almost always funny seeing actors like Ben Kingsley in those kinds of dumb comedies, not to mention a quick appearance from Edward Norton. Still, even with the laughter, there’s a lot of slack in The Dictator’s comedy engine, and it’s those kinds of dull moments, leavened by vulgarity, that would make anyone with for a bit more discipline from Cohen or director Larry Charles. If anything, The Dictator shows that Cohen’s brand of comic offensiveness can be sustained on a script… but it would be better if it was just a bit more controlled.
(On DVD, January 2011) I had very mixed feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous Borat: I’m not a fan of humiliation humour, and I was impressed more by the concept of the film than its execution. But maybe that’s why I liked Brüno quite a bit better: The formula seems sharper, the targets more deserving (Ron Paul? Heck yeah!) and the execution more confident. Going from the European fashion circuit to Hollywood provides Cohen with numerous sources of inspired teasing, and confronting unsuspecting victims with a cliché of flamboyant homosexuality leads to more interesting reactions than Borat’s anti-Semitic foreigner. (An alternate title for the film could be “Brüno and the repressed.”) Cohen’s willingness to perform as Brüno is awe-inspiring: he throws himself in the role with daredevil abandon and doesn’t let anything scare him from getting his laughs. The mixture of improvisation/documentary set-pieces within a larger scripted ensemble works well, and the climax of the film seems just a bit more satisfying than the previous one. Certainly, Brüno is never dull, often daring and generally successful at what it tries to do. The DVD is deservedly unrated, with enough full frontal male nudity to surprise even jaded viewers: viewers who want to be offended will be fulfilled.
(In theaters, February 2007) Niiice. Well, maybe not: Like all humiliation comedies, Borat‘s laughs are tempered by the realization that the people acting foolishly may very well be us on a bad day or in an absurd situation. The concept itself is pure genius, allowing a mixture of high-concept comedy with improvised reactions… and a justification for a camera recording it all. But the execution usually aims for squirms and pained smiles. Interestingly enough, the film’s biggest laughs sometime come from strictly conventional comedy routines (the bits with the chicken or the naked fighting, for instance) more than the grand explorations of the American psyche, which eventually become not much more than a gonzo documentary. There’s a lot to admire here, but not that much to laugh about.