8/21/12: The Dictator, Disneynature: Chimpanzee, Bernie, One in the Chamber, Virginia, Hide Away
The Dictator (R/NR, 2012, Paramount)
Though initial appearances probably suggest otherwise, “The Dictator” isn’t another attempt by Sacha Baron Cohen to fool unsuspecting citizens of the public into thinking he’s a real dictator from a real country. Rather, this is the purely dramatized story of Wadiyan Admiral General Aladeen, who visits New York to ward off sanctions from an unhappy United Nations and ends up with a whole mess of much bigger problems for his trouble. Though it’s always a treat to watch Cohen put one over on folks who don’t know better and don’t know how to respond, it’s just as fun (an maybe more so) to see him dress up and face off against actors who can dish it right back to him. What it lacks in amazing cringeworthiness, “The Dictator” redeems in pure, sharply funny comedy and some of the best throwaway lines in a movie this year. And if you’d like to cringe, don’t worry: “The Dictator” gives Cohen license to pull stunts even he couldn’t reasonably pull when his target isn’t in on the joke. Some of the gags are stupid, others hysterical, but as always, nothing here — from those stunts to the wonderfully funny offhand remarks made about some very touchy global issues — is for the easily offended. Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Kingsley and Anna Faris star, while John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell (among others) pull first-rate cameo duty.
Extras: Unrated (98 minutes) and theatrical (83 minutes) versions, deleted/extended scenes.
Disneynature: Chimpanzee (G, 2012, Disneynature)
Meet Oscar. He’s a young chimpanzee, he’s learning to navigate his way through the jungle by emulating his mom, and while he doesn’t yet know it, he soon will face off against what indisputably is his coming-of-age moment. He also has no idea his name is Oscar — which, almost unarguably, it isn’t. Though the footage and its depiction of Oscar’s formative months are authentic, “Chimpanzee” applies some creative license by framing it inside a storyline that, among other things, gives its chimpanzee stars names they don’t know they have. The effect never taints the honesty of the footage, because “Chimpanzee” doesn’t do anything grievous like give the chimps faux dialogue or other human traits. What it does do is soften the edges. Amongst a genre that’s famously unafraid to show nature’s harsh side, “Chimpanzee” earns its G rating and (mostly) strives to maintain an upbeat mood. That alone is enough for nature documentary purists to scoff. But there’s plenty of room in this genre for this approach so long as creative license doesn’t distort what is shown on screen. No such distortion happens here, and the footage this crew captures is absolutely magnificent. Tim Allen narrates.
Extras: Seven part making-of feature, PSAs, music video.
Bernie (PG-13, 2011, Millennium Entertainment)
Though overwhelmingly carried by its main cast, the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) — a funeral director by trade, but a community fixture and then some to the small Texas town that adores him — pulls in a handful of that town’s residents to give it a partial mockumentary feel. But in case the opening-scene declaration that “Bernie” is based on a true story doesn’t give it away, here’s the fun wrinkle: Those folks aren’t actors, and if it seems like their recollections — of Bernie, the weird relationship he formed with a newly-minted widow (Shirley MacLaine) everybody else loathed, and the stunning consequence of that relationship — would form a good documentary, it’s because that’s exactly what they’re doing. The aforementioned effects of the aforementioned relationship are best left unspoiled for those who don’t know the details, but the effects of those effects turn “Bernie’s” second half into a great study about the power of charisma and its ability to bend the laws of perception. “Bernie” already is a treat before any of that happens, though, because Bernie — and Black’s absolutely delightful portrayal of him — is every bit as charismatic as advertised. MacLaine, meanwhile, turns in stellar work of her own as the most complicated foil a man as tangled as Bernie could ever expect to meet. Though polite, quaint and frequently funny, “Bernie” covertly wages a stubborn struggle between good and evil that plays out on multiple levels and in multiple forms. Who wins? The score is closer than it should be, and you might be surprised where your rooting interest lies. Matthew McConaughey also stars.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.
One in the Chamber (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
It effectively doesn’t matter why two crime families are waging war above Prague’s busy streets, and “One in the Chamber” only half-attempts to pretend otherwise. Rather, what matters here is that the emotionally tormented hit man (Cuba Gooding Jr. as Ray) one family hired to wipe out the other family didn’t quite complete the job. So a feared, renowned but surprisingly jovial replacement (Dolph Lundgren as The Wolf) has been tapped to finish the assignment. And where does that leave Ray? No spoilers, but it’s an interesting twist, and it’s the first of a few wrinkles that makes “Chamber” a much more enjoyable movie than its cheeseball title and generic crime family feud would imply. Gradually, “Chamber” lets the family squabble away in favor of a story about the mercenaries whose only concern is a paycheck, and even Ray’s sad sack self has some compelling layers to his makeup. But the indisputable star here is The Wolf — a terrifying, calculated killer who nonetheless has a weakness for festive Hawaiian shirts, the occasional soliloquy and a Rottweiler puppy who cheerfully accompanies him to his assignments. Lundgren’s fans already know about his criminally underrated charisma, and he puts it to perfect use here — not so ebulliently as to defy logic and turn “Chamber” into a comedy, but enough to make his story (and Ray’s, contagiously, once they cross paths) a whole lot more engaging than that of your typical hit men.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
Virginia (R, 2010, Entertainment One)
Movies sometimes defy classification for good reason, and sometimes they do it for all the wrong reasons. “Virginia,” meanwhile, takes such a wide turn around classification that even discerning whether it’s a good or bad thing becomes complicated. In outline form, it’s simple enough: Sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris) is running for state senator, but he’s also hiding a double-decade affair with Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), whose son (Harrison Gilbertson), while recognizant of the affair, takes a genuine liking to Dick’s daughter (Emma Roberts). But that outline makes it clear we’ve got a potential mess on our hands, and common sense suggests the “potential” part of this mess is about to give way to reality. And wow, does it ever. “Virginia” treats its quandary with all the grace of a kindergartner describing his or her summer vacation after eating a bowl of sugar. It’s a completely serious drama except when it’s a totally wacky comedy, but only when it isn’t a caper. Side characters run wild, and they bring subplots and quirks that may or may not go anywhere. The main storyline, meanwhile, distracts itself entirely too easily to feel like the rock on which all this incoherence can comfortably lean. Maddening? Yes, maddening. But “Virginia” is aggravating only because it’s (somewhat) entertaining in spite of itself and has a tendency to do something sweet at just the moment you’re ready to give up on it. Are fleeting episodes of lucidity and sweetness enough to make it worth seeing? Probably not. But perhaps. Or perhaps not. It truly is anybody’s guess. Toby Jones and Carrie Preston also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
Hide Away (PG-13, 2011, Flatiron Film Company)
On more than one occasion, a character in “Hide Away” remarks that the two best days of a sailor’s life are the days he or she buys a boat and sells that boat. But little that’s said is shown through the journey of an unnamed businessman (Josh Lucas), who pours himself into a docked and dilapidated boat following an incident involving his family that gradually reveals itself later on. “Away” is a pretty film, and it’s one content to overwhelmingly let setting and expression speak on the script’s behalf. The potential downside to that approach, of course, is being left with 88 minutes of nothing much really happening. “Away” doesn’t drift quite that hard, but it definitely drifts, and when we arrive at the point where we’re supposed to bask in the effects of our businessman’s new surroundings and all they’ve brought him, the cumulative weight of what we’ve seen doesn’t match what we’re told we’re seeing. It doesn’t help that the businessman’s new friends spend a significant chunk of their dialogue quoting the wisdom of others instead of imparting some of their own. If that’s a play on “Away’s” part for poignance by way of proxy, it’s a hollow misplay. Ayelet Zurer and James Cromwell also star.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features, interviews.