Friday, July 29, 2011

Film Review: The Devil's Double

We all know the name Saddam Hussein. The name reminds my generation of a conflict that has engulfed much of the world for almost half of our lives. For others, it brings back memories of not only this war but also another in the early 90s. Much less known is the name Uday Hussein, Saddam’s eldest son. However, some say that Uday was just as dangerous, a veritable psychopath who played with anyone he chose. Uday became notorious for brutally punishing his friends, girlfriends, and even athletes who failed to perform. People closest to him report watching him rape and maim women on multiple occasions.

Enter Latif Yahia. Due to his resemblance to the President’s son, the Iraqi soldier was chosen to be Uday’s body double. As such, Latif had to melt into Uday’s life, not only bearing witness to Uday’s psychotic behavior without the power to stop it, but also becoming Uday in the public sphere. The new film The Devil’s Double, directed by Lee Tamahori, starring Dominic Cooper, and based on Latif’s book by the same name, tells the story of Latif’s life as Uday’s “twin brother.”

You may remember Cooper from Mamma Mia (2008) and The History Boys (2006). In this film, he plays three roles: Latif, Uday, and Latif pretending to be Uday, which is another character all together. For Cooper, this role was a huge jump from his past roles of brooding bad boy or jet-skiing golden boy, so I was skeptical at first. However, from the opening credits, it was clear that Cooper had risen to the challenge and that this would be a career-making performance. His portrayal of Latif is accomplished; his portrayal of Uday is outstanding.

One of the first scenes depicts Latif being delivered to Uday at his palace. The two stand face to face, one laughing manically like a hyena, the other staring soberly in disbelief. From there, Latif is jailed, beaten, forced to get plastic surgery, and made to relinquish all rights to his former identity. Much of what happens in the film seems over the top and extremely exaggerated. Uday disembowels his father’s friend at a party. The next morning, his henchmen dump the strangled body of a 14-year-old girl he had picked up as she was walking home from school. Later, he rapes and beats a woman on her wedding day, shaming her so greatly that she jumps off the balcony, dying on the patio in the middle of her waiting wedding reception.

These things may seem exaggerated, but, in fact, Uday’s actions are toned down for the movie. In the film, Latif survives two assassination attempts on Uday. In actually, he survived more than ten. In an interview with Latif after Uday’s death, he says that he once watched Uday mutilate a woman until she was a “hunk of meat.” Sadly the horrors in the movie pale in comparison to reality.

The world into which this film takes you is terrifying. In many films in which the content is foreign to Americans, the director must establish the rules of the environment, so that the audience can understand the gravity of what is happening. In this film, Lee Tamahori establishes that there are no rules, and that is why Latif’s world is so terrifying; accountability for Uday is virtually nonexistent with no safe haven for those he wishes to harm.

Latif’s is an amazing story and Tamahori’s is a wonderful film. Go see for yourself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Genre Mash-ups

In any film analysis class, you learn about genres. Indeed, most people can discern different genres without ever having taken a single film theory class. There is comedy, drama, action, science fiction, etc. Each genre adheres to specific cinematic canon. For instance, horror movies are darkly lit, often use shadows, and always have those pesky noises on the porch that need to be investigated. For more details, see the Scream series and/or (preferably and) the short film above. In that same film class, you also learn about the genre mash-up which, in my text book, has a more a sophisticated and less Glee-inspired name, but, alas and alack, my textbook is in my room and I am on a Boltbus. Genre mash-ups, as I am sure you have guessed, are films that synthesize two or more genres and create a new type of movie. This is why we have been graced with the rom-com and the action/thriller. This is why Murder on the Orient Express + I Love You, Man = Guy Ritchie's bromantic mystery dramedy Sherlock Holmes.

I have been pondering this concept of the genre mash-up since I saw the fascinating Takers. I have finally written about it because it seems that there are a lot of new genre mash-ups coming out. The genre mash-up originated because using just one genre got tired. Now, that has happened again, and new mash-ups are being born. Of course, the most obvious never-before-seen mash-up is Jon Favreau's upcoming Cowboys and Aliens. I am not, however, going to discuss this movie because it seems extremely clear-cut: Tombstone + Independence Day = Cowboys and Aliens. I am not passing judgement before I see it because it may seem dumb, but it is new and I have faith in Jon Favreau. I'm just waiting to see if the genres mix like water and oil or water and Crystal Lite.

Other upcoming genre mash-ups include The Myth of the American Sleepover and John Carter. The Myth of the American Sleepover is a neo-John Hughes tale of adolescent trails in love and friendship, although it seems not to have any sing-alongs or adventures through air ducts. Indeed, it seems to capture the Hughes-esque insight into the American teenagers, but apply it to real teenagers -- ones that do not cut school to galavant around Chicago or get picked up in red convertibles. As such, and indieWIRE article called it John Hughes by way of Cashier du Cinema. Sounds good to me.

John Carter is even more puzzling. Like the surge in comic book hero movies, there has also been a surge in movies based on ancient warriors of the Greek or Roman persuasion, starting with Troy and followed by Clash of the Titans, The Prince of Persia (aight, not Greek or Roman, but you get me), and added to by the upcoming Conan the Barbarian and Immortals. So, when I started the John Carter trailer, I was understandably disappointed. You see this guy lying in the desert, then deck out in Spartacus-type clothes (so very little clothes). But then, this poignant bluesy music chimes in. It seems that there are aspects of time and/or dimension travel with Conan-type heroism and alien activity somewhere in there. To say I am intrigued is an understatement. I don't think I have seen so many genres mixed since Star Wars, and I think its very interesting that they made this movie (with was based on a book) in the midst of the hero-with-sword cycle.

The final film I want to talk about is Takers, the film that started this whole thing. CAUTION: SPOILERS. So, you may remember Takers; you may not. It was that heist film with Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Jay Hernandez, Zoe Saldana, that girlfriend-beater, that singer, and that guy with the amazing eyes. Anyway, pretty awesome cast, so why don't you remember it? Because it was a bona fide genre mash-up and, by the end, you're like WTF was that?! It was, first and foremost a heist film. It goes how many heist films go -- successful heist, unwelcomed crew member returns, greed, unsuccessful heist, sadness. In heist films, we expect to see some creative crime, and a variety of face coverings (president masks, nun masks, ski masks, etc), but bank robbers and the like are supposed to be the good criminals, so there is seldom outright brutal violence.

And yet, it did have violence, in a very action movie sort of a way. By that, I mean that there are random fighting scenes after which you say "that could have been solved by talking calmly." There are also hints of a buddy cop movie, since much of the film is devoted to the cops investigating the robberies, which is odd becasue the cops actually knew very little about the criminals and vice versa, so there was no Pacino/DeNiro frenemy situation like in Heat, just a good cop/bad cop team dealing with their own personal crap whilst in the middle of an investigation.

Finally, and this is the oddest part, the last genre added to Takers was one seldom used in films -- that of the Greek Tragedy. I comes out of no where. Of course, the seeds of hubris are there early, but still the extent of WTFness is unexpected. One guy betrays all the others, killing another in the crossfire. Then the two brothers -- GF Beater and Green Eyes -- return to their nightclub only to find it sacked and Green Eyes' girlfriend shot for no reason other than to hurt him. Finally they vow that they would never go back to jail and run out of the club and are riddled with police bullets. Of the remaining two, one is shot and the other is driving him to the airport, though we are left to wonder how two fugitives, one bleeding on the car seat would get through security. Little did they know that the brothers would not make the rendezvous. So no one -- not even the cops -- comes out alive and well. Tragedy.

Though they may be confusing and cumbersome, genre mash-ups can also be very interesting and compelling. Some of them work well; others flounder. But it's always a respectable attempt at trying something new. Perhaps this is that answer to the doldrums of modern Hollywood. At any rate, I greatly anticipate the new mash-ups the summer has to offer.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The End of Childhood...

At midnight, the final Harry Potter movie comes out in theaters. I saw the first one when I was 11, the same age as Harry when he figured out he had magical powers. I saw it in the small dingy theater in my hometown which closed not long thereafter. It was so shabby that I could see my own silhouette on the screen, as could everyone else in the front row. But that didn't take away from the magic of the film. I was enraptured and from the very first minute, I was hooked. Ever since then, I have look forward to the books and movies every year. Though I am not as fanatic as some people, I do consider myself to have grown up with Harry Potter, is friends, and the actors that play these enchanting characters.

Obviously, I saw each movie at midnight. It was like a reference point for a whole year of life. I saw the first one on a girl scout trip with my two best childhood friends. Now, I saw the last one in an advanced screening for my internship and I will see it again in Toronto with two members of my college family. Over the years, I have gone to midnight shows with all different friends, who had different boyfriends (never me, since I am learned in the art of repelling men), while in the midst of different fights and tensions. Much of the magic of my childhood was due to Harry Potter, but, at some point, all childhoods have to end.

My friend and I decided that exiting the HP7p2 theater means crossing the threshold into adulthood. To be kind, we also decided that we would consider the June 15th showing as the "real" one, after which we have to be "real" people. I doubt that, when I first heard that tinkering music, I thought that these stories would stay with me as they have. Although I'm sad to say goodbye, I am happy to have had them.

Thanks for the magic.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

There May Be Hope Afterall

A friend of mine recently suggested that I start watching the FOX show Raising Hope, which just ended it's first season. I was resistant because I didn't know much about the show and I bear an unreasonable dislike for Martha Plimpton. You'll find I bear a number of unreasonable dislikes, but I must say, my snap judgments are always negotiable. My unsubstantiated dislike of Ms. Plimpton made a quick 180 after watching the pilot episode of Raising Hope. I very much enjoyed her. In fact, the entire show is delightful! It is funny and fresh with characters that are interesting, likable, and accessible (and you know how I feel about accessibility). And! One of the unique characters on this show is played by Cloris Leachman -- and who doesn't love Cloris Leachman?! So basically -- watch Raising Hope! It's not going to challenge you intellectually or having you coming up with Dharma conspiracy theories, but it is some good family fare, a great supper time alternative to Family Guy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I Think I Hated That Movie

Over the past month, I have found myself walking out of several movie theaters with my final commentary on the film being "I think I hated that." The most vivid instances of this disdain were after seeing The Tree of Life, Green Lantern, and the recent Hanks/Roberts collab, Larry Crowne. Unfortunately, these were all movies that I had to pay for (whereas many, I see for free through the internship). My mom suggested that it may be karma evening the scales. Whatever it is, I don't like it.

1. THE TREE OF LIFE -- I saw The Tree of Life shortly after is came out in Philadelphia. I had no real idea what to expect because it had done so well at Cannes, but, from watching the trailers, I could not figure out what the film was about. Then I learned that the reason for that was that the film is hardly about anything. It was artsy to the extreme. There were metaphors, whispered lines, and Sean Penn really earning his money by sitting in chairs and looking out windows. I must say that it was a beautiful film. It showed the full capabilities of film and utilized a new storytelling style. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, should be crowned king of cinematographers. The film is very high art, which makes it extremely inaccessible to most people, which explains the "ugh" reaction from half the audience. I didn't really feel for any of the characters, which severely lessened my investment in the film. Further, Malick suggested a whole bunch of metaphors that he never wrapped up or connected to the other storyline. For these reasons, I appreciated The Tree of Life, but strongly disliked it.

2. GREEN LANTERN -- I disliked The Tree of Life becasue it was high art, an acquired taste, you might say. Green Lantern, I disliked for it's lack of taste. For one thing, I severely dislike Blake Lively, in no small part because of her annoying blonde leggy-ness. However, my adoration for Ryan Reynolds outweighs said ill-feelings. Though Reynolds was delightful, the film in general was just "too." Too many special effects, especially when it seemed that Reynolds was doing a "head-in-the-hole" picture becasue his suit and the background were both computer generated, too much make-up on Peter Sarsgaard, making him look laughable rather than menacing (although he did the maniacal act well), too many hokey morals, like when fear is literally ruining the world and courage is the only solution, and finally, too many butt and boob centric (and work inappropriate) outfits for Lively. Although the same could be said for Reynolds, since the studio could have saved millions on special effects by simply painting Reynold's abs green. I know that this common fare for super hero movies, but so many comic adaptations -- particularly X-men and Batman -- have added a little something extra. I wish this had too.

3. LARRY CROWNE -- In the credits for Larry Crowne, I learned that (1) Tom Hanks directed it and (2) Nia Vardalos co-wrote it. I took these as good signs since I enjoy That Thing You Do and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and it's always nice to see mentor-protegee type teams staying together. But then the movie sucked. The only thing I liked from it was the scenes of the Vespa-gang, which I thought was cute. However, the rest of it was kind of horrible. Almost every character was annoying, most of all Julia Roberts and GuGu Mbatha-Raw. Even Hanks, who was fairly likable, wasn't someone you'd want to be friends with in real life. Further, the entire film was completely improbable, from the 24/7 yard sale hosted by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson (the best characters in the movie), to Wilmer Valderrama feeling threatened by Tom Hanks, to the Hanks-Roberts coupling even though they had zero chemistry and no more than three conversations. This movie will probably fade and finally disappear forever, which would probably be better everyone.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eureka, Fez, Eureka!

Yesterday, I started watching the Sci-Fi show Eureka. For a long time, I tried to avoid anything on the SyFy channel so as to keep the last shred of cool that I had intact. But, I finally caved and while I cannot see myself watching Stargate any time soon, Eureka was a pleasant surprise. If you enjoy shows like Pushing Daisies, Chuck, or Buffy, I would strongly suggest checking it out. Three seasons are on Netflix.