Short Ends and Leader

Cohen Cashes In: 'The Dictator' (Blu-ray)

(I)nstead of milking the obvious, Cohen goes for outside the box targets, and almost always hits his mark.

The Dictator

Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Kingsley, Megan Fox, Bobby Lee
Rated: R
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-05-16 (General release)
UK date: 2012-05-16 (General release)

Filmmaking is not a truly 'collaborative' process. One person can make all the difference. Oh sure, the actors all bring something, and the screenwriters add in the necessary narrative drive and character arcs. The behind the lens crew create the worlds, populate them with appropriate sets and costumes, and deliver the dynamic that will come to make the movie's look. Even the director (sometimes a visionary, oft times a mere journeymen) can guide the project toward its proper ends. Still, one voice can come along and truly 'dictate' everything. Said spokesman can be a studio suit, a selection of damning focus group questionnaires, or in the case of the latest installment in ambush/insult comedy from Britain's leading agent provocateur, a pop phenom.

After taking the planet by storm with his fake documentary assaults (Borat, and Bruno), the celebrated Sasha Baron Cohen has decided to go the standard storied laugher route. Unlike his previous collaborations with Larry Charles, his latest collection of non-PC gags, The Dictator (now out on Blu-ray and DVD), uses a typical fish out of water narrative to offer up sharp political satire, slams against the pro-Peace vegan activist rabble, and the standard selection of penis, vagina, and/or other bodily fluids/function jokes. When it initially hit theaters early in the Summer of 2012, many in the Cohen fan camp were disappointed. They hoped to see more of the measured madman making Jane and Joe Sixpack look beyond stupid.

Instead, they got a scattered yet still very viable class in comedy. Cohen uses every aspect of the genre at his disposal to tell the story of Admiral General Aladeen the power-mad ruler of the tiny African nation of Wadiya. A harsh tyrant with a quick temper and a backward way towards treating his people, he is currently under investigation by the UN for war crimes as well as a secret nuclear arms program. At the behest of the world and the advice of his loyal uncle (Ben Kingsley) - the rightful heir to the throne, by the way - he plans a trip to Manhattan to address the charges.

Once there, he becomes part of a plot to overthrow and kill him. Soon, sans his signature beard, Aladeen in adrift in Manhattan, unable to survive without his collection of servants and Yes Men. Running into an activist health food store owner (Anna Faris) who wants Wadiya punished, he finds work...and a way to get revenge. With the help of an exiled dissident nuclear scientist from his homeland (Jason Mantzoukas), he will thwart his uncle's plans, which involve licensing out the country's rich oil supplies to the highest bidder. Naturally, things don't go quite as planned.

Cohen clearly believes in the "all or nothing" approach to humor. We get slapstick, scatology, entendres, ripped from the headlines observations, stereotyping, racial profiling, bad taste, brilliance, and above all, a true portrait of power gone gonzo...and goofy...and giddy. This is especially true in the new unrated and uncensored version you find on home video (the theatrical cut is also available on the same disc). Sequences that felt rushed before are now extended, giving them more play and import, as when an opening news report on Aladeen looks over his complicated, controversial life.

We also get an extended bit with a large breasted assassin, much more of the over the top birth sequence, and more Nuclear Nadal (Mr. Mantzoukas almost steals the film from Cohen). As said before, with this revamp, the film feels a bit more languid, less haphazard and hurried. This is a good thing, since it allows our star to explore more of his character's changing mindset and telling targets.

But there is more here than a bully learning his lesson. Cohen clearly wants to explore the connection between fascism and the current state of the Western world. He takes down China as well as other multinational controlled countries. Elsewhere, during a last act press conference, Aladeen satirizes the present state of the US in such a ballsy manner that you'll hardly miss the message. He also attacks that most sacred of cows, 9/11, in a similarly sly fashion. Without going directly into the policies within the Middle East, The Dictator also provides a glimpse into the subtextual stakes involved. Oil is briefly mentioned, as is a hatred of a certain Jewish State. Yet instead of milking the obvious, Cohen goes for outside the box targets, and almost always hits his mark.

As mentioned throughout this review, his co-stars certainly help. Mantzoukas is indeed a revelation. Instead of playing an Andy Kaufman like level of lost foreigner, he is articulate, intelligent, confrontational, and always ready to tear down his former boss's bravado. With a single line reading - or word ("Really?") he reduces the despot into the weak-willed wannabe he truly is. Faris is also fascinating as the common hairy armpitted Earth girl cliche. Her performance is so open and honest that we really don't mind that Cohen and company are mocking her organic obviousness at every turn. We expect body image and grooming jokes. The Dictator takes this material to truly dizzying heights. Also, be on the lookout for a couple of clever cameos. The trailer gave one away, while another is a smile-inducing shocker.

Perhaps the best thing about The Dictator, however, is the ditching of the whole 'fiction in the real world' mentality. We don't have to sit back, uncomfortable, as unwilling participants in Cohen's comedy make fools of themselves. Instead of aiming for the prejudice or stupidity of his unsuspecting marks, this movie goes back to the typical film comedy formula, and comes up a winner. If you want to see more of what made Cohen a household name initially, The Dictator will disappoint you. If you want to see where his career may be going in the future, this fine, funny entertainment will offer up some hilarious hints. He is truly the singular voice behind his anarchic comic approach.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.