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The Dictator: Banned & Unrated Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

The Dictator (2012) movie poster The Dictator

Theatrical Release: May 16, 2012 / Running Time: 83 Minutes (Theatrical), 98 Minutes (Unrated) / Rating: R (Theatrical), Unrated

Director: Larry Charles / Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer / Songs List

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen (Admiral General Aladeen/Allison Burgers, Efawadh), Anna Faris (Zoey), Jason Mantzoukas (Nadal), Ben Kingsley (Tamir Mafraad), Adeel Akhtar (Maroush), Fred Armisen (Waiter/Minister), Bobby Lee (Mr. Lao), Chris Elliott (Mr. Ogden), Kathryn Hahn (Pregnant Woman), Seth Morris (Pregnant Woman's Husband), Kevin Corrigan (Slade), Megan Fox (Herself), Chris Parnell (News Anchor), Jessica St. Clair (Denise), Sean T. Krishman (Waiter / Cereal-Loving Soldier), J.B. Smoove (Funeral Usher), Fred Melamed (Head Nuclear Scientist), Aasif Mandvi (Doctor), Rizwan Maji (Patient), Jon Glaser (Obnoxious Customer), Ian Roberts (NYC Cop) / Uncredited Cast: John C. Reilly (Mr. Clayton), Garry Shandling (Health Inspector), Edward Norton (Himself), Gad Elmaleh (Wadiyan Protestor) / Unrated Version Cast: Busty Heart a/k/a/ Susan Sykes (Etra - Virgin Guard), Larry King (Himself)

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It is possible to both love and hate an actor. I know this because it accurately describes my feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen. Before Baron Cohen won worldwide fame for his outrageous movies and antics, he starred in the UK television comedy "Da Ali G Show."
The subsequent American version, produced by HBO, has become one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I have Da Compleet Seereez DVD and have revisited it more frequently than just about any other DVD I own. After that, Baron Cohen made Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, an unlikely blockbuster that made its writer/star a household name and Academy Award nominee. I'll always remember walking into the middle of Borat to kill time between two movie showings, being treated to what had to be the movie's most offensive parts and being puzzled by the predominantly older crowd lapping it up. I later saw the movie in its entirety, which confirmed some suspicions, and wasn't crazy about it.

The Borat of the 2006 film is one of three characters that got their start on "Da Ali G Show", but much of the humor was lost in the leap from largely improvised five-minute television sketches with unsuspecting targets to a partly scripted, line-blurring feature film. The narrative Baron Cohen and his co-writers decided upon was basically: expose typical Americans for their ignorance by capturing their candid reactions to an obviously ludicrous and inappropriate foreigner. With his follow-up film, 2009's Brüno, Baron Cohen committed the same error to an even larger degree. Here, he took his flamboyant Austrian reporter away from comically skewering the shallowness of the fashion world and towards drawing more uncomfortable Middle American reactions to his over-the-top shenanigans. Somewhere in his creative process, Baron Cohen decided that making viewers cringe was just as good as making them laugh. The Brüno DVD that I got for review not only doesn't get watched, it gets stored in the big box of DVDs that are up for the taking by any visitor.

And so we come to Baron Cohen's latest film as writer, The Dictator. Following his funny turn in one of last year's very best movies, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Baron Cohen appeared to return to his old tricks with this vehicle, arriving in the unmistakable mold of Borat and Brüno, complete with in-character publicity. There were differences, however. This larger-than-life antihero, Admiral General Aladeen of the Middle East's fictional Republic of Wadiya, was an original, never-before-seen character. And this film was fully scripted; any chance of fooling an unknowing public with guerilla improvisation had passed; Baron Cohen was much too recognizable for such shenanigans, not that his long bushy beard would allow him to blend in otherwise.

Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) stands proudly in a room designed to his specifications. Shorn of his beard and relieved of his power, Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) finds work at an open-minded Brooklyn co-op, where his stern tactics are put to use.

Interestingly, though all of the marketing -- including a costumed Oscar red carpet "urn" spill on Ryan Seacrest -- focused on General Aladeen, the film only briefly features the title character as advertised. Aladeen rules Wadiya as a tyrant, requesting with a throat-slitting gesture the execution of anyone that rubs him the wrong way. This dictatorial style breeds criticism and assassination attempts he skirts with body doubles. Aladeen's uncle and advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley, further displaying a questionable taste in comedy) is actually behind some of the assassination plots and once a suitable new double -- in the simpleton farmer Efawdh (also Baron Cohen) -- is found to replace a mistakenly slain one, Tamir sets the gears in motions to turn Wadiya into a democracy, a change that somehow will form lucrative alliances with the world's wealthy oil companies.

In New York City to respond to the United Nations' concerns over his nation's burgeoning nuclear weapon program, Aladeen is abducted and prepared to meet his end. Alas, he narrowly and secretly escapes from a warehouse fire. Tamir immediately replaces the ruler with the idiot double, leaving the now beardless real Aladeen to be mistaken for a lunatic. The dictator meets one of his numerous American protestors in the alternative feminist Zoey (Anna Faris), who, mistaking him for a dissident, hires him to work in her co-op, where he assumes the name "Allison Burgers."

With his racist, sexist views hardly hidden, Aladeen tries to fit in at his new job. He also discovers one of his top nuclear scientists Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) still alive against his execution orders and part of a movement in New York's Little Wadiya district to oust Aladeen. As Tamir's plan becomes clear, Aladeen plots to reclaim his identity in time to tear up his country's sham proposed democratic constitution. But he also falls for Zoey, hairy armpits and all.

Zoey (Anna Faris) is touched by the efficient makeover "Allison" gives her workplace. Azamat duties are filled by nuclear scientist turned Mac Genius Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas).

Baron Cohen does very little here to bridge the gap between the hilarious genius of "Da Ali G Show" and the well below average feature film writer he's been in recent years. I guess he deserves some credit for creating his first original character in over a decade, but Aladeen is not a far cry from Borat, another offensive foreigner with absurd dreams and barbaric opinions.
Even with improvisation and the pretense of journalism largely off the table, the comedian still wishes to tell essentially the same story, sending his troublemaker to America to challenge and ridicule us. Much of Baron Cohen's talent and "Ali G"'s success lies in the actor's tremendous ability to remain in character and resist laughter. With a standard script and a cast comprised entirely of recognizable actors, that exciting unpredictability is gone, leaving us merely with Baron Cohen's already tired brand of satire and juvenile sexual crudeness.

Baron Cohen has once again teamed up with accomplished talent. Larry Charles remains the actor's go-to director since replacing Todd Phillips on Borat. Like Charles, Baron Cohen's three co-writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer all have worked at length on "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." They may not be very well suited to feature films; the same three were the only ones credited with the screenplay for the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat movie. Any comic ideas they have had get drowned out by Baron Cohen's unflappable belief in bold characters, random pop culture references (e.g. Menudo, blink-and-miss Edward Norton cameo), and cheerful delivery of ignorant, hateful rhetoric. The star has a very curious modus operandi, which is to give American audiences comedies that are genuinely critical of American values. The low point of this film comes when Aladeen uses a captive UN audience to make a case for dictatorships, as he spouts out benefits of such a government with examples blatantly taken from America (the wealthy 1%, "rig elections", etc.). It's tough to believe that the same man who not much earlier was discovering masturbation is passing judgment on U.S. policies not merely for a laugh.

If The Dictator was funny, Baron Cohen could do anything he liked, from political commentary to his now obligatory penis gag. But there really isn't one heartily amusing moment to be found. There are a few witty bits, such as when Aladeen tries to spontaneously invent pseudonyms from words on signs around him or even when a subtitled in-flight foreign conversation about Porsche 911s breeds understandable fear. But they are never that sharply executed and for every one of those near-hits, there are several misses. Efforts to tie them together in a coherent narrative are futile and the results are on the order of You Don't Mess with the Zohan, what I consider the low point of Adam Sandler's career, despite it having the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating out of all his signature comedies from the past seven years. The Dictator likewise fared better with my fellow critics than I can understand, although it is the lowest-rated Baron Cohen vehicle to date and the first classified "rotten."

Taking Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) for a dissident, bleeding heart liberal Zoey (Anna Faris) gives him a ride on her Vespa.

Though the envelope-pushing nature of both Borat and Brüno made unrated versions logical, The Dictator actually becomes the first Baron Cohen vehicle treated to such an extended cut on home video. DVD and Blu-ray present the film in both its short R-rated theatrical cut (where end credits begin just 75 minutes in) and a "Banned* & Unrated" edit running 15˝ minutes longer. (The "Banned" part is asterisked to denote that the theatrical cut was banned in Malaysia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Borat's native Kazakhstan.)

There are some noteworthy threads added here, including John C. Reilly's Arab-hating assassin recommending Broadway's Billy Elliot musical (and following up on it), a bizarre fight scene in which Aladeen is beat up by a virgin guard's (Susan Sykes, a.k.a. "Busty Heart") giant fake breasts, and an extended version of J.B. Smoove's funeral home scene. There are also some brief extensions and alterations here and there. While the movie gains runtime and some of the additions are mildly diverting, as usual, the extended cut on the whole is no stronger than the theatrical one.

The Dictator (Banned & Unrated Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy) combo pack cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Blu-ray - Theatrical Cut only: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese, DVS)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese; BD-Only: English SDH; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 21, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP), Amazon.com-exclusive Aladeen Packaging ($44.99 SRP), and Amazon Instant Video: Unrated, R-Rated

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Dictator's 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation boasts perfect picture quality when it wants to. On rare occasion, it pillarboxes "television" clips or believably degrades "old" footage. But most of the time, the video is just as sharp and pristine as a $65 million 2012 studio film ought to be.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack makes prominent use of foreign language covers of pop songs like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts", Dolly Parton's "9 to 5", and Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." The music sometimes blares enough to have you reaching for the remote, but the film's other sound elements remain crisp, audible, and clear throughout. Three dubs and a descriptive video service track are offered, but only on the theatrical cut.

In this unused alternate ending, Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) waxes upon his movie's Oscar chances. Isla Fisher gets to lick money and dance in Aladeen's (her husband Sacha Baron Cohen) music video for "Your Money Is On the Dresser."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Beyond the two cuts of the film, the Blu-ray includes just three bonus features, each in HD.

First and longest is a collection of fifteen deleted and extended scenes (33:43). Some but not all of these are also added to the unrated extended cut, which also has some brief unique bits that do not appear here.
Still, this section does better than most at sparing you an unrated cut viewing. Among the sequences not reinserted in the unrated cut: Aladeen's father's (Erick Avari) dying moments, a waiter's (Eugene Mirman) chase, an eventful visit to a New York zoo, and a closing audience address. It's not really any better or worse than what's in the movie.

Next comes the award-winning short music video for Aladeen's "Your Money Is On The Dresser" (1:35), which features Mrs. Baron Cohen, Australian actress Isla Fisher, in a performance for which she ought to be very proud.

Finally, Larry King interviews General Aladeen (2:49) about his red carpet encounter with Ryan Seacrest, his anti-Israel view, and Wadiya's nuclear weapons. It's moderately amusing and briefly excerpted in the unrated cut.

Larry King may be off television, but he's on Blu-ray in this brief bonus interview, a portion of which makes it into the unrated cut of the film. The Dictator's proud official portrait is the menu backdrop on DVD and Blu-ray.

Though there is no good reason for it, the DVD here is a barebones version as opposed to the one sold on its own, which apparently includes both edits and at least some of the Blu-ray's deleted and extended scenes. The version here contains no extras and only the theatrical cut of the film. The disc hasn't been stripped down to make room for digital copy files or to stay under DVD capacity, so your guess is as good as mine as to why Paramount bothered authoring it to lessen this combo pack's value.

With an Internet connection and the enclosed insert's unique code, this set will hook you up with an UltraViolet stream and downloadable digital copy of the film. The links are not yet active, so there's no way to know for sure if it is the theatrical or unrated cut you'd get.

The Blu-ray disc opens trying to stream trailers. I twice got partway into a promo for EPIX before it skipped and jumped me to the menu. The DVD has files actually on disc, allowing it to more smoothly promote Anchorman: The Legend Continues, the Indiana Jones Blu-ray Collection, and EPIX. Its Previews listing plays trailers for Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol before repeating the others. Even though they contained some unique footage and unused jokes, The Dictator's own trailers and TV ads are absent from both disc.

On both discs, the menu plays music over the poster portrait. The Blu-ray does not resume playback, but does support adding bookmarks on both edits. The eco-friendly keepcase is topped by an embossed slipcover that repeats the artwork below with some minor differences.

Wadiyan dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) proudly rides down a Manhattan street on the back of a camel.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Dictator is a slight improvement over Brüno, but still a disappointing comedy that is well below what Sacha Baron Cohen has proven himself capable of. Though it doesn't rely exclusively on shock value,
this scripted Prince and the Pauper-esque tale still just isn't very funny. Maybe its star is better suited for comedic supporting roles in others' films than in these vehicles of his own design. I have little hope of ever enjoying the films he writes in the way that I enjoy his television show.

Those who liked The Dictator should be content with Paramount's Blu-ray combo pack. Picture and sound are great, the inclusion of both cuts of the movie is welcome, and the forty minutes of extras are no more painful than the film. Nonetheless, I can't in good faith recommend this to anyone. Those who took to Baron Cohen's movies are probably already tired of his narrow shtick, particularly in its move to traditional scripting. Meanwhile, those who haven't been tickled by either Borat or Brüno are highly unlikely to change their tune here.

Buy The Dictator from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + DC / Combo in Aladeen Packaging / DVD / Instant Video: Unrated / R-Rated

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The Love GuruThe Foot Fist WayTim and Eric's Billion Dollar MovieScarfaceA Thousand WordsJack and Jill
Portlandia: Season OneStep BrothersThe League: The Complete Season OneCedar Rapids
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The Dictator Songs List (in order of use): Amir Diab - "Wala Ala Baloh", Jalala Hamdaoui and Driver - "Ila Nzour Nebra", "Breaking News", Naufalle (Aiwa) Al Wahab - "The Next Episode", Ali Hassan Kuban - "Habibi", Grizzly Bear - "Two Weeks", MC Rai - "Everybody Hurts", Khaled - "Wahrane Wahrane", Michelle J. Nasser - "9 to 5", Jalal Hamdaoui & Cheb Rayan - "Goulou L'Mama", Nikki Leonti - "A Moment Like This", Lipps, Inc. - "Funkytown", Tomoyasu Hotei - "Battle Without Honor or Humanity", Sacha Baron Cohen - "Ebony & Ivory", Sacha Baron Cohen - "Splish Splash", Mohamed Amer - "Let's Get It On", Squad Massi - "Raoui", Hossam Ramzy - "The Pearl in My Heart", Erran Baron Cohen featuring Omar Fadel - "The Song of Admiral General Sergeant Aladeen" Erran Baron Cohen featuring Jules Brookes - "Money's on the Dresser"

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Reviewed August 19, 2012.



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