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Sacha Baron Cohen trolls Rudy Giuliani yet again -- culminating a year of cinematic resistance

It was a big week for actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who received Golden Globe and SAG Award nods for both his role as Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev in Amazon's "Borat" sequel and his turn as Abbie Hoffman, the activist and comedian whom Cohen played in Netflix's "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Both movies also earned additional nominations in their category and for other cast members, with a total of 11 nods all together.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Naturally, the funnyman used this moment in the sun to troll Rudy Giuliani, America's Mayor and unexpected scene-stealer of "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."

"I'm so honored — and in the event that we don't win, I promise to hire Rudy Giuliani to contest the results," he said in a statement released in response to the Globe nominations.

Baron Cohen also acknowledged the actual breakout star of the "Borat" sequel (sorry, Rudy), in addition to the man behind "Chicago 7."

"These nominations are a tribute to the talented creative teams that led and supported both films from inception to this moment. I especially want to congratulate the visionary of 'Chicago 7,' Aaron Sorkin, and 'Borat's' Tutar, the incredible Maria Bakalova," he continued. "These two films are different, but they share a common theme — sometimes we have to protest injustice with our own farce."

That last line is revealing in how Baron Cohen's career has culminated in a confluence of cinematic resistance. On a surface level, the roles he played seem extremely different: a prankster who has no qualms about sprinting out of a luxury hotel in hot pink lingerie, and the real-life protester and founder of the Youth International Party. And while the films show Baron Cohen's range as both a comedian and a dramatic actor, they are unified by the use of humor as a way to actively subvert and challenge corruption.

As such, it shouldn't be a surprise that both movies released during 2020 and that Baron Cohen is now receiving his due. During a year marked, amid a global pandemic, by political chicanery and wild conspiracy theories that ultimately resulted in an attempted insurrection on the United States Capitol, he made the case for using or embodying absurdism to attack what's laughably reprehensible about our society.

That concept is partially what inspired the actor to pull his iconic gray suit out of the closet and resurrect the character of Borat in 2020's "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," in which his caricatured Kazakh reporter travels American with his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) on a bizarre mission. As Baron Cohen told the New York Times in October, he saw a huge change in American society from the first time he went to shoot "Borat" 15 years ago to the time he made the sequel.

"In 2005, you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices," he said. "Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists.'' When the president is "an overt racist, an overt fascist,'' he added, "it allows the rest of society to change their dialogue, too.

"My aim here was not to expose racism and anti-Semitism," he said of the sequel. "The aim is to make people laugh, but we reveal the dangerous slide to authoritarianism."

Over the course of the sequel's 90 minutes, Baron Cohen's Borat sneaks into CPAC dressed as Trump, hunkers down with some QAnon conspiracy theorists and brings us the now-infamous "shirt tuck" incident.

In a scene near the end of the film, Bakalova as Tutar goes undercover as a far-right journalist who scores an interview with Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, to supposedly discuss the administration's COVID-19 response. However, things devolve as Tutar flirts heavily with Guiliani, touching his knee several times.

Eventually, Tutar invites Giuliani into the hotel bedroom, in which hidden cameras catch Giuliani asking for her number, patting her backside and then lying back on the bed and putting his hand down his pants. Borat bursts into the room at that point to interrupt.

As Salon reported in October, Giuliani has maintained through several interviews that the scene was "doctored" footage.

"The Borat video is a complete fabrication. I was tucking in my shirt after taking off the recording equipment," Giuliani wrote in a tweet on Oct. 21. "At no time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar."

Baron Cohen responded, "If he sees that as appropriate, then heaven knows what he's intended to do with other women in hotel rooms with a glass of whiskey in his hand." As Salon's Roger Sollenberger reported, Giulliani had classified the scene as a political "hit job" "in retaliation for his recent smears on Democratic nominee Joe Biden's son, Hunter."

Although not quite as salacious, Baron Cohen's role in "The Trial of the Chicago 7" fulfilled a similar function thanks to Abbie Hoffman's real-life beliefs and actions. In an interview for the January cover story of "Variety," he discussed how he was always drawn to Hoffman because he understood the power of humor to attract supporters to the peace movement.

"He knew that by becoming a standup he would have a greater impact on the crowd, and his aim was to influence people, to get people to take immense risks to fight the war in Vietnam," says Baron Cohen. "He used humor to inspire followers, and he realized that absurdity was a way to undermine institutions that he thought were corrupt."

As Baron Cohen continues to inspire with his outrageous and outspoken ways, one can't help hope that he takes home at least one award for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," if only to hear Giuliani's name in the acceptance speech. Now that would be a great justice.

Here is a full list of Golden Globe nominations, and a full list of nominees for the Screen Actor Guild Awards.

Steven Mnuchin's wife Louise Linton plays a cannibalistic killer in trailer for her weird new film

The trailer for Louise Linton's new movie "Me You Madness" dropped on Thursday, and well, it's a lot.

I'm here to offer a description of a film that, while real, feels more like an insane game of GOP-adjacent "Mad Libs." "Me You Madness" stars Linton, the wife of former Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, as a sociopathic bisexual woman who, per IMDB, "hunts down and kills men with crossbows, martini glasses, and kitchen knives in order to eat them."

Catherine Black (Linton) is a 1980s Malibu hedge fund manager who is addicted to fashion, money and sex. "You may think that I'm a materialistic, narcissistic, self-absorbed misanthrope," Black muses in a voiceover in the trailer below. "I don't deny it."

Her life is an endless parade of stacks of cash, spin classes and metallic boots — that is until Tyler, played by infamous "Gossip Girl" star Ed Westwick, answers her ad for a roommate. Tyler, a petty criminal, thinks he's struck gold when he rolls up to her beachside mansion; Catherine thinks she's found her next meal. It's a love story for the modern ages (made all the weirder by the recent allegations that actor Armie Hammer allegedly identifies as "100% a cannibal").

Linton is not primarily known as an actress, though she's had several small roles in low-budget horror movies and on shows like "CSI: NY"; she did, however, write, direct and finance "Me You Madness" through her production company Stormchaser Films.

Rather, she rose to a certain level of infamy in 2017 when she Instagrammed a photo of herself and Mnuchin disembarking a military jet following a trip to Fort Knox. She added hashtags that nodded to her designer apparel #rolandmouret, #hermesscarf, #tomford and #valentino. A woman responded with the comment, "Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable," which incensed Linton.

"Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable!" Linton responded. "Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?"

Me You Madness - OFFICIAL TRAILERwww.youtube.com

Three months later, Linton accompanied her husband to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. Someone took a photo of her holding up a sheet of freshly printed dollar bills while wearing elbow-length black leather gloves. The image went viral — as did the frequent comparisons to Cruella de Vil — and cemented her status as a real-life cartoon villain.

With that in mind, perhaps Linton's lines in the trailer that detail her obsession with "the accumulation of money" are a self-aware nod to the public's perception of her? Perhaps. In interviews, Linton has expressed that the movie is an attempt to subvert the femme fatale steretotype, with a little "American Psycho" thrown in for good measure.

But according to the New York Times, the weirdest parts of the camp-fest aren't revealed in the trailer.

"In one sequence that plays like an MTV video, Catherine caresses frozen, severed male body parts while dancing to 'Let's Hear It for the Boy' in stiletto-heeled boots." writes Brooke Barnes. "There is a drug-fueled poolside orgy. Please, pretty please, stay around for the madly spinning nunchaku, thong leotard and choreographed 'tomayto-tomahto' conga."

"Me You Madness" debuts on demand on Friday, Feb. 12.

Behind Donald Trump's childish Diet Coke button

President Joe Biden had a busy first day in office. He halted construction on the border wall and re-established DACA protections. He rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and recommitted the United States to the World Health Organization. And, according to broadcast journalist Tom Newton Dunn, Biden removed Donald Trump's "Diet Coke button," which the former president used to request cold sodas on-demand.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"When @ShippersUnbound [Tim Shipman] and I interviewed Donald Trump in 2019, we became fascinated by what the little red button did," Dunn tweeted. "Eventually Trump pressed it, and a butler swiftly brought in a Diet Coke on a silver platter. It's gone now."

Throughout Trump's presidency, his obsessive love of the beverage was well-documented. In 2017, the Washington Post published that he reportedly drank a dozen cans of Diet Coke per day and, while the majority of Americans are just finding out about the Diet Coke button, that same year, Demetri Sevastopulo wrote for The Financial Times about how he noticed the red button on Trump's desk. He jokingly asked if it was the nuclear button, to which Trump replied, "No, no, everyone thinks it is. Everyone does get a little nervous when I press that button."

According to the Associated Press, the button has been a fixture "on the Resolute Desk that presidents have used for decades," though not for summoning diet soda. The fact that Trump appropriated for it for such use is, frankly, unsurprising. Its existence is a reminder for some of the most laughable parts of Trump's personality (and its removal seems to have been an almost a necessary exorcism).

While assigning goodness or inherent value to a food item can turn into an uncomfortable pseudo-classist exercise (like when the New York Times hosted a quiz where readers could guess whether refrigerators belonged to Biden voters or Trump voters based on their contents), there's a certain "Home Alone 2: Escape to New York" childishness inherent to slapping a button 12 times a day as a way to demand a Diet Coke on a silver platter.

It's a warped idea of what fanciness or indulgence denotes, which is both a perfect encapsulation of Trump's public persona and, in part, what led to Diet Coke's heyday in the '90s.

Consider the often-memed image of Trump and Melania standing, wax figure-like, in their $100 million New York penthouse. It's gaudy and gold-covered with columns, chandeliers and frescos reminiscent of a Cheesecake Factory dining room. That photograph is the visual definition of the adage, "You can't buy taste."

Trump's tastelessness was a glaring, omnipresent facet of his presidency. A photograph that feels strikingly similar was taken in 2019, when Trump invited the Clemson Tigers, that year's national college football champions, for a White House dinner, only to serve them a buffet of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and slices of Domino's pizza, a choice that many criticized as racist and classist. He stands beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with his arms outstretched over a mahogany table, stacked high with cardboard burger boxes and flimsy plastic packets of fast food sauces that were balanced inside pewter gravy boats.

"We went out and we ordered American fast food, paid for by me," he told reporters that night. "Lots of hamburgers, lots of pizza. Three hundred hamburgers. Many, many French fries."

It may seem odd that a well-documented fast food devotee (and former McDonald's and Pizza Hut spokesperson) like Trump would opt for Diet Coke instead of the real thing, but it's important to consider what the beverage likely meant to him.

In his essay "The Decline and Fall of Diet Coke and the Power Generation That Loved It," Nathan Heller asserts that while the Coca-Cola company tried to endear the beverage to "hip, scrappy youths, it became, enduringly, the beverage of the power generation that emerged across the Clinton years and cheered tie-less, outside-the-box, rule-bending thought in business and in life."

"During the late eighties and nineties, Diet Coke seemed less fussy, less patrician, less 'Frasier' than second-wave coffee," Heller wrote."It helped define a novel archetype of masculinity — the bootstraps kid who'd made it big, who was cool and modern, in a suit."

This is, despite the fact, that diet soda was traditionally marketed to women as a way to control weight. Emily Contois, the author of "Diners, Dudes and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture," wrote that while Coca-Cola went after male and female customers with Diet Coke, unlike their previous diet product Tab, they were largely unsuccessful.

"Men (and broader culture) seemed to deem the beverage derisively feminine in later decades," Contois wrote. "For example, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution an unidentified Coca-Cola executive declared that diet is a 'four-letter word' for men, or at least those aged 16–24."

When I emailed Contois to inquire as to why she thought President Trump, a leader who was deeply preoccupied with a limited and pugilistic view of masculinity, would drink Diet Coke, her answer was succinct.

"Trump seemed to believe that rules, of any sort, don't apply to him," she wrote via email. "That guided his food and beverage choices — from a dozen Diet Cokes a day to well-done steak with ketchup to copious fast food — and much of his presidency."

While it's impossible to know what exactly Diet Coke meant to Trump (though we know it was something he would request during tense conversations, like when he cried out for one while discussing purchasing the rights to a story about an alleged affair he had with ex-Playboy model Karen Mcdougall), the bizarre optics surrounding the revelation of the Diet Coke button is a fitting epilogue to his presidency. It's a reminder of a man who could have just used an office mini-fridge to satiate his cravings, but obviously liked the feeling of being able to summon a servant with a cold drink at the push of a button. While so many of his stump speeches were bolstered by ramblings about being a man of the people, his actions consistently contradicted that — even down to how he took his dozen daily sodas.

But the Trump era has concluded, and the Oval Office already looks different. Where a bust of Fred Trump used to preside over the office, there is now a statue of labor organizer Cesar Chavez; Trump's beige rug has been swapped out for a royal blue replacement, and a portrait of Andrew Jackson was taken down in favor of a painting of Benjamin Franklin. No word yet on whether the Resolute Desk button will be replaced — and if so, what pushing it will summon.

Zodiac's cipher codebreaker speaks out

Sam Blake, an Australian mathematician, first learned of the Zodiac Killer's unsolved ciphers — a series of encrypted messages — from a documentary in the 1990s. His interest marginally increased in 2007 after the release of David Fincher's "Zodiac," but it wasn't until last year that it completely was cemented while watching code-breaking expert David Oranchak's "Let's Crack Zodiac" YouTube series.

This article first appeared on Salon.

The series was dedicated to solving the codes the Northern California serial killer sent in letters to newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the ciphers, called the 408 cipher, was solved in 1969 by a schoolteacher and his wife, but it did not reveal the killer's identity; the additional three puzzles remained unsolved for over 51 years, despite advances in computer technology.

"[Oranchack] put together some really good videos where he did a deep dive into the analysis of the 408 cipher, then he did a couple of talks at the American Cryptogram Association on the unsolved 340 cipher," Blake said. "I really liked his approach, it was very analytical. And when I saw his presentation, I thought there were probably a couple of things I could suggest, to see if he'd tried before."

Blake's suggestions snowballed into him and Oranchak formally working together, along with Belgian programmer Jarl Van Eycke, to solve the cipher, which is organized as a grid of 63 unique, mysterious symbols.

Two weeks ago, they succeeded after spending a year using Van Eycke's code-breaking computer program and more than 650,000 variations written by Blake. The cipher roughly translates to say:

"I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME
THAT WASN'T ME ON THE TV SHOW
WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME
I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER
BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER
BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME
WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE
SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH
I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS
LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH"

On Dec. 11, the FBI verified the cipher had been solved by "private citizens."

"The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the FBI San Francisco division and our local law enforcement partners," the organization said in a statement. "The Zodiac Killer terrorized multiple communities across Northern California and even though decades went by, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes."

According to Blake, the 340 cipher was much more complex than the 408 cipher because of its organization. It not only required decoders to work out the key for the letters, but the direction that the letters ran as well.

"I've been asked before if I thought the Zodiac understood how much more difficult he made it by doing this and I doubt he did, because otherwise he wouldn't have put such contemporary material in the contents of the cipher," Blake said. "Like 'that wasn't me on the TV show,' that's something you would have probably wanted to come out sooner than 51 years about he wrote it in there."

There are a lot of theories about who the Zodiac is or was, and numerous online groups and subreddits dedicated to investigating and picking them apart. Blake believes that the enduring interest in the case is that he was very much "his own self-publicist."

"He didn't just send ciphers into newspapers," Blake said. "He sent multiple, multiple letters, communications, cards and drawings. Threats to blow up busses and all sorts of things. He really kept himself in the public eye doing that."

The mysterious nature of those ciphers, as well as the fact that the crimes remain unsolved, cemented the Zodiac Killer as a kind of dark pop culture symbol that has endured through the true crime boom. "Dirty Harry," which stars Clint Eastwood, is very loosely based on the Zodiac case and features a killer (Andrew Robinson) who calls himself "Scorpio." Fictional killers who send messages like the Zodiac ciphers have appeared in everything from "Criminal Minds" to the anime series "Death Note."

Just last year, FX aired "The Most Dangerous Animal of All," a four-part documentary series that explored Gary L. Stewart's search for his biological father, Earl Van Best Jr., only to uncover evidence that perhaps suggests his father was the Zodiac Killer.

Blake wouldn't classify himself as a huge fan of true crime, but he is interested in documentaries that detail the strides in science that are enabling investigators to catch series killers.

"For example, I really enjoyed watching different presentations given by Paul Holes about how they used familial DNA and genealogy to catch the Golden State Killer," Blake said. "I believe many cases have been solved using that technology which is amazing. My interest in them is more the methods of catching them than the actual underlying perpetrators."

There are still two Zodiac Killer ciphers that remain unsolved, called the Z13 and Z32 ciphers. The Z13, in particular, has fascinated researchers for over 50 years because it is immediately preceded by the phrase, "My name is . . ."

Blake said that he and his team are interested in turning their attention to those, and he's currently going to see if the university where he works would be willing to finance their research.

"At the moment, it's been sort of a side project," Blake said. "But now that we've had this success and it's looking like we're heading in the right direction in terms of solving these, I'd like to certainly devote more time to it."

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