Sasha Baron Cohen and The Dictator

Sasha Baron Cohen as The Dictator – still shocking and journalistically integral after all these years…??

Comedian and actor Sasha Baron Cohen became famous around 2004 with Da Ali G Show, an HBO mockumentary series with a fresh new style of satire. Ali G was one of Baron Cohen’s many idiot journalist characters who would host flunky panel discussions and conduct awkward press junket style interviews with political officials and other media heavyweights. It was beautiful – Newt Gingrich was forced to spell out his name letter by letter before his interview started, Sam Donaldson seemingly caught on to the gag and joked around a bit, and Buzz Aldrin was duped into awkwardly answering the question of moon people’s opinion of the earthling public.

Pat Buchanan fist-bumps Sasha Baron Cohen as Ali G on Da Ali G Show

Baron Cohen is also a scholar and frequently authors social commentary in his work. An alumni of the University of Cambridge, he has somehow been able to casually reveal racial bigotry in people he encounters while in-character. He is also an observant Jew and has fashioned some of his work to address public indifference toward antisemitism.

Because Baron Cohen’s most recent brainchild, the hugely anticipated and VERY clever exploitative documentary film, Borat, made such a terrific splash, I was REALLY excited for his new film, The Dictator. In this one, Baron Cohen basically plays a character similar Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. As Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, Baron Cohen portrays a fun-loving autocrat of some unpleasant fictional country in North Africa who lives like a king, hangs out with hot female bodyguards and casually commands members of his loyal entourage to execute people, or sometimes livestock, he encounters day-by-day. During a visit to the United States, Aladeen’s identity is compromised and he finds himself having to make his way through New York City with the aid of an uber-liberal hippie played by Anna Faris (Scary Movie, The House Bunny).

The sexy female bodyguards in The Dictator are inspired by Muammar Gaddafi’s real-life entourage

Almost immediately as The Dictator starts, you can detect a style of humor similar to that of an Adam Sandler or Wayans Bros comedy. Not exactly what I was hoping for. Baron Cohen doesn’t exactly shine as an actor in this one, especially when he performs the dreaded playing-more-than-one-character-and-eventually-talking-to-himself. The Dictator has some unimpressive gross-out humor, and despite a few references to his still-alive buddy, Osama Bin Laden, pretty lacking in clever international-affairs related jokes.

Here’s the thing about this economic recession we’re trudging through – Hollywood is still required to “put out.” That means, “hey guys, we need to write something and make it into a movie.” I’ve heard rumors that The Hangover Part II was released in theaters just a few short months after it finished shooting. So I sort of understand the circumstances of a lackluster movie like this. I think its a shame that Sasha Baron Cohen has to be one of the guys who isn’t able to produce something like the other popular comedies of the past couple of years, but I KNOW he isn’t done yet, and assuming I’m right about the impact that the economic recession is having on the entertainment industry, I’ll be eager to see what he’ll be planning next.

Final thought: the best parts of The Dictator are in the previews, but don’t worry, you’ll still probably laugh. Just don’t take my comments lightly, and perhaps wait for a DVD release.

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Sarah Palin is Born Again in the Reality TV Universe

I contend that in the United States, both politics and the television industry process and portray public figures in the same manner. As a television junkie and stubborn political apathetic, I’m awkwardly comforted by the TLC network’s most recent reality television event, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”, whose commercial promos boast, “No lobbyists…only one agenda: family“.

It’s pretty much what it sounds like; Palin deals with family issues and goes hunting, adding her trademark commentary along the way. She mentions the “Alaskan spirit”, comments on families and community, commands “no boys upstairs” to sixteen-year-old daughter Willow, and assists daughter Bristol in reloading her shotgun during a hazy skeet shoot while spurring, “don’t retreat; just reload”.

Palin, the former governor of Alaska, likely began harvesting national attention after a 2008 interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow in which she readily declared a somewhat oblivious take on the vice presidential position for which she was then a nominee. Palin would also become known for her unwavering stance against abortion, support for creationism being taught in public schools and her hesitant, nervous replies to some questions presented by CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric during a televised interview event in the same year.

Between politics and reality television, the right place for Sarah Palin’s celebrity is clear as day. Palin, whose politics I am incidentally not a fan of, seems to have been MADE for reality television, and with “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” I feel the planets aligning. Her efforts in wildlife population control are well placed and well presented in the show‘s context, as is her passion for family life (especially her youngest son, Trig, who has down syndrome). It should be noted, however, to quote Alec Baldwin, that I am happy to know her finger is not “near the nuclear button”.

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Woody Woodpecker Had Most Memorable Routine

When I was a kid my grandparents in rural Wisconsin had an obligatory collection of toys and other kid-friendly stimuli, including a video collection of old cartoons from the 1940s and 50s. After dinner at family reunions, as the paternals poured their coffee and talked grown folks’ business, my younger brother and I would obediently sit with our cousins in front of the television set (whose up-to-dateness quietly surprised us) and lend our attention to Popeye, Superman and Woody Woodpecker. This was my introduction to that era of animated programs, and of course I took it all for granted: the jazzy orchestral arrangements, the pioneering originality of the quirky characters, but most of all, Woody Woodpecker’s signature laugh which reprised itself in the opening melody of his theme music. Now, folks, is it me or do they just not make ‘em like that anymore?

Cartoon voices have always been an interest of mine, so this weekend I took a train to New York City for a voice-over seminar hosted by Bob Bergen, a prestigious name in the industry, probably best known for being heard frequently as the voice of Porky Pig. In his one man show, “So, Here’s the Deal”, Bergen shares the story of how his childhood aspiration of voicing Porky Pig began to materialize after having “cracked the code” of his familiar stutter. For anybody who’s ever tried to mimic the familiar character’s sign off (“Ibbity-ibbity-ibbity-that‘s all, folks!”), this should sound like the beginning of a VERY inspirational story.

Bergen opened up on his experience as a professional voice actor; the ups and downs of his journey, balancing egoism with making mortgage payments, etc, and graciously took questions from the seminar’s attendees. I was eager to impress him with my musings on Woody Woodpecker (who was originally voiced by Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and regarded one of the most influential voice actors ever known) and asked if he agreed that the originality of such characters had declined since the 1950s. He attempted to debunk my implication by replying, “Buddy, I got one word for ya; ‘D’oh!’” Bob also referenced SpongeBob SquarePants’ signature laugh and proceeded to explain how since the days of Woody Woodpecker, children’s cartoons broadcasting had entered a sort of accelerating state of growth, even in the past twenty years. I didn’t realize this until Bergen pointed it out to me, but there aren’t really any cartoons exclusive to Saturday mornings anymore. Now, there are entire networks dedicated to kids’ programming, including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Sprout and Disney XD. Bergen seemed to imply that, simply put, these days the whole thing is just plain bigger and so it may be slightly more difficult to identify that diamond in the rough which was the essence of characters like Woody Woodpecker. Of course, given the growth of digital television in the past twenty years as a whole, I felt like this should have been sort of obvious to me.

*If I may digress a bit, Disney XD currently airs reruns of the post-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creature-superhero cartoon, Gargoyles. This show featured winged, century-spanning flying beasts which sat atop New York City skyscrapers by day entombed in stone and, as the sun went down, uproariously burst free to fight crime by night. The gargoyles’ leader, Goliath, was voiced by Keith David, another truly awesome voice actor who also lent his voice to Todd MacFarlane’s demonic heretic Spawn in the HBO animated series of the same name, Sergeant Foley in the recent sensational videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and also appeared in the live-action films Crash and They Live. I grew up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose metal-clad and samurai derived villain, The Shredder, was voiced by…you might want to sit down for this…are you ready?? James Avery, or perhaps better known as Uncle Phil, Will Smith’s thunderously authoritative parental figure on the NBC sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Having been a card-carrying Ninja Turtles kid myself, to say that I freaked when I found this out would be a travesty of an understatement.*

Anyway, back to Woody Woodpecker: probably my favorite thing about the essence of The Woody Woodpecker Show is the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the jazz orchestra which provided Woody’s theme music sort of acclaimed his trademark laugh by mimicking it in the theme’s opening melody. Having been raised by my father, a professional musician and enormous Count Basie fan, I am inclined to find this fusion between Woody’s laugh and the orchestra composer’s musical…ahem-transcription-of it particularly endearing. I also recently stumbled upon What’s Opera, Doc?, the classic Merrie Melodies episode in which Viking Elmer Fudd pursues the cross dressing, blonde-hair-braided Bugs Bunny in a Richard Wagner opera parody. I’ll never forget Elmer Fudd tearfully carrying away the limp body of his would-be lover Bugs, who right before the end of the segment momentarily lifts his head to address the audience and say, “What’d you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” Recently, after having seen this one for the first time in probably something like twenty years, I found myself uttering commentary which eerily reminded myself of my parents. Now, having grown up (somewhat) and observing these cartoons from the career oriented adult’s perspective, I must disclose said commentary as I declare that, folks, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

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Reviewed: [REC (2007)

REC – *****

Directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza

Starring Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano

REC is a Spanish shaky-cam (hereinafter referred to as “found footage” because I like that description better) horror film presented through the camera lens of a two person documentary team who are prompted to film a “do-or-die” conceived chronicle of what happens inside a five-story apartment building which is spontaneously quarantined by the military for reasons pertaining to a biological outbreak.

This is the scariest film I have ever seen. I would be very conservative about who I recommend this one to.  Everything, and I mean everything, looks like it is actually happening: the actors convey a superbly convincing sense of urgency and the events are carried out in an eerily realistic fashion and at an unpredictable pace. When the building tenants panic as they are sealed off from the outside, they immediately become silent when an authoritative voice from the other side gives directions via loudspeaker, one of them being to “remain calm”; this was where I really began to feel like I was trapped in the building with them.

The camera is “rolling” throughout this introduction of events, and at one point, Angela is heard commanding her partner to “film everything” so that the world will know what happened in case nobody makes it out; a likeable display of journalistic vigilance which, more effectively, sends a forboding chill down the spine. Angela then proceeds to interview the 15-or-so people engaged in the story who’s actors also convincingly become choked up as they are asked to review the events they have witnessed so far.

Early on in the film, a character sustains a near-fatal injury which for me was a very paralyzing actualization of this film’s graphic realism. I won’t spoil the details, but I have to share how baffled I became imagining how the filmmakers achieved the realistic feel of this particular sequence without actually maiming the guy. It was a nun’s ruler striking me on the wrist, stiffening my spine (and keeping it that way through the rest of the film) as I thought to myself, “Whoah, so THIS is the kind of movie it’s gonna be, huh?” It was a very concrete point-of-no return which I will always remember.

At this, I’m frustrated with further attempting to describe this film because I simply can’t do it better justice than by stating that it just plain looks completely real. Furthermore, the reason that the documentarian characters chose for filming the events made perfect sense and provided an EXCELLENT opportunitiy for this “found footage” film to augment itself as such.  No, I’ve never witnessed any chaotic disarray like what went on in that apartment building, but just let me say this; walking away after the end credits, wide-eyed, shaking my head and exhaling while making the “O” shape with my mouth, I was very, VERY thankful for that.

I’ll admit that the performance of the cast’s child actor seems like it could have been better directed, and I suppose I should also admit that it will probably be a little while longer before most of us can consider this “fake documentary” style of film to be considered traditional. All that aside, this could be a perfect film. Until REC, my impression of these “found footage” films was relatively mediocre: The Blair Witch Project scared me, but something about it didn’t tickle my personal sense of aesthetics; Cloverfield entertained me, but I had difficulty accepting it as much more than an excuse for a notorious TV/film producer (J.J. Abrams) to burn money. REC sucked me in and spat me out, presenting the biggest psychological challenge I’ve ever experienced while watching a film and left me begging for more. (Okay, so maybe I’m not setting my expectations very high for the sequel, REC2.) If you aren’t one of those types who is “bad with scary movies” or suffers from PTSD, for goodness sakes, SEE THIS MOVIE!!!!

(P.S.: If you haven’t seen REC but have seen it’s less-than-stellar American remake, Quarantine, my condolences are with you, but I still recommend this one…you could be saved!)

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