Movie Tickets: “The Dictator,” “Bernie,” “Shanghai Express”
Our picks for the best in cinema over the next seven days.
Sacha Baron Cohen abandons the fiction/documentary hybrid of Borat and Brüno for his latest, The Dictator. He’s still playing an over-the-top parody of a foreign stereotype—in this case a megalomaniacal blend of Hussein/Qaddafi/Ahmadinejad—but the surrounding players are all fictional and scripted, as well, rather than embarrassingly real people being goaded into their worst behavior by Cohen’s character. After two television series and two previous features from Cohen, 2009’s Brüno showed that the joke was mostly played out. So for his first fully scripted satire, Cohen channels Chaplin and the Marx Brothers for silly political satire that’s still serious at its core. Of course, those Middle Eastern dictators are fish in a barrel, as ready-made for cartoonish spoofing as Hitler was for Chaplin in 1940. Cohen doesn’t satisfy himself with just that easy target, but also goes after Western interests that are perhaps more beholden to the quasi-dictatorial control of the dollar than they’d like to admit.
Raj Kapoor is one of the greats of Indian cinema, an actor and director who helped shape the entertainment factory that is modern Bollywood, and also a respected artist lauded just as much by critics and festival juries as by ticket buyers. Of course, Bollywood has never quite taken hold in the US the way it has in many other areas of the world, so this collection of films, presented at both the AFI and the Freer, will be new to most audiences, and an excellent introduction to an artist often overlooked here. This weekend, the AFI screens a brand new 35-millimeter print of My Name Is Joker, Kapoor’s 1970 epic failure, the life story of a circus clown that originally clocked in at five hours. The film has grown in status since its difficult original release, and numerous cuts of the film are out there; the AFI will be showing a comparatively briefer 199-minute version. In the film, Kapoor plays a variation of a character he’d cultivated over the years (not dissimilar to Charlie Chaplin’s “tramp”)—in this case Raju, a clown who follows in the show-business footsteps of his late father. The film traces Raju’s often tragic life from childhood to the end of his career.
True crime would seem to be a departure for director Richard Linklater, a director better known for philosophically talky dramas and pleasantly meandering comedies. But for his latest, which is earning him some excellent reviews, he’s taken a ripped-from-the-headlines approach to tell the story of Bernie Tiede, a Texas mortician who confessed to, and was convicted of, the murder of an elderly woman he had befriended and who had made him the beneficiary of her sizeable fortune. The odd twist of the story was that many in the community rallied behind Tiede, some unconvinced that he had done it, and many simply sympathetic with his having lost patience with a woman who was hated by many. Linklater turns the material into a black comedy, calling on two often-derided actors who have delivered some of their best work for the director in the past—Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey—to play Tiede and the district attorney trying to convict him. They’re joined by Shirley MacLaine as the unpopular victim.
The GI Film Festival’s mission is to share the military experience and celebrate the successes and sacrifices of service members through film. This year’s festival got underway earlier this week, and continues through the weekend with plenty of features, as well as collections of shorts and a workshop for aspiring filmmakers.
In conjunction with its “Twentieth Century Americans” exhibition, and in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, the National Portrait Gallery is showing a double feature of two classics on Saturday afternoon that both have ties to portraits currently hanging in the exhibit. One of those portraits is of Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American to become a movie star in the US. Wong was a popular supporting player, largely typecast in the 1920s silent era in Hollywood before she headed to Europe for more significant roles. Her success there allowed her to return to Hollywood, though she still struggled to break free of the stereotypical roles the studios wanted her for. One of her most talked-about roles is the one on display Saturday, as a courtesan in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, where she was technically in support of Marlene Dietrich, but is possibly the more memorable actor in the film.
That screening is followed by Hud, the 1963 Paul Newman-starring Oscar winner about a callous, self-involved modern cowboy whose attitudes and appetites clash with the more traditional values of the Texas ranching community that has produced him. Among the film’s Oscar wins was one for cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the great innovators of American cinematography, whose portrait also hangs in the gallery.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: The Grey
I went to see The Grey this past winter without many expectations: All I was hoping for, at best, was a guilty-pleasure action flick of the sort that’s become Liam Neeson’s specialty since Taken. I was surprised with what I got: a tense, ragged, ’70s-style existential survivalist thriller about a group of Alaskan roughnecks stranded in some of the most brutal conditions on earth and stalked by hungry wolves. The surprise wasn’t the plot—that was stated fairly clearly in the trailer, even if that trailer was a little heavy on emphasizing this as “that Liam Neeson wolfpunching movie.” The surprise was just how restrained it was, and how satisfying intellectually as well as viscerally. It’s not a masterpiece by any means—the CGI wolves leave a little to be desired when they’re not obscured by darkness and woods—but it’s still an excellent lonesome adventure story, helped by some fantastically bleak Alaskan landscapes and grainy, textured cinematography. You can read my full review over at NPR.
Special Features: Commentary with director Joe Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann, along with half a dozen deleted scenes.