Saturday, December 3, 2011

Movie Reviews-The Devil's Double, Conan The Barbarian and more

The Devil's Double
I want it all!!!
I wasn't going to watch this movie. But I saw that it was directed by Lee Tamahori-who directed the sadly magnificent Once Were Warriors, and the noirish Mulholland Falls. So I decided to see what he would do with this story. It turned out to be a pretty good film-perhaps even one that could win some awards. This is true despite the fact that although all the people depicted are of non-European Middle Eastern descent, the lead actors/actresses are all of Western European descent. I assume that this was done for commercial considerations as we almost never see the opposite.

The film is based on the true story of a man, Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), who was unwillingly made a body double for Uday Hussein (Dominic Cooper again), the eldest son of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Whereas Saddam Hussein is shown as a cold callous man who mostly leaves citizens alone as long as they bow to his rule, Uday Hussein is depicted as a demented psychotic Freddie Mercury look-alike sybarite who views all of the Iraqi population, but especially the female half, as his personal slaves, who may be used and discarded as he sees fit.

It is is Latif's misfortune to be a war hero and thus come to Uday's attention. As there are many people trying to kill all of the Husseins, they have found it useful to have body doubles to trick people as to their true whereabouts and if need be draw fire. Uday has a serious Oedipus complex going on. He decides if Papa (Phillp Quast) can have a double he wants one too. So he has people make Latif an offer he dare not refuse. Latif does not refuse. 
Occasionally this is easy work as all you have to do is whatever Uday tells you to do, give speeches, laugh at his stupid jokes and learn how to move, look and sound like him. But the good days are rare as Uday is a persistent rapist and bully. He thinks it great fun to debauch the bride of a war hero on her wedding day. He is constantly trolling Baghdad for ever younger girls, who he intends to have. Their willingness or lack thereof is of small import to Uday. Uday is usually in a good mood and flashes a goofy bucktoothed grin even as he commits the worst atrocities. Uday enjoys ordering torture almost as much as he enjoys watching it. Latif finds it harder and harder to keep quiet about this evil, even as he enters the nightlife and is approached by Uday's number one girlfriend, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) from whom he has been warned away in the most imperious and explicit method possible. 

Latif has been shown the price of disobedience, as Uday makes it clear that Latif's family remains alive as long as Latif remains in Uday's good graces. Saddam does not like his son but he won't allow anyone else to harm him. This was a frightening film as one pondered what it would be like to live in a country run by out and out thugs. Ultimately violence becomes the only currency. And this film has plenty of it.

Conan the Barbarian
I am a Robert E. Howard fan. Chances were I was going to see this film no matter who starred as Conan. I thought it was a good thing that the actor Jason Momoa,  last seen as Khal Drogo in A Game of Thrones, would star as the famous Cimmerian. Momoa is multiracial while the fictional Conan is most definitely not but I didn't think that would make much difference, and it really didn't. Lines from actual Robert E. Howard stories were used. Momoa, while not a great actor, was able to convey Conan's battle skills, grim wit, and occasional brutal indifference.

So why didn't I like this movie more? It's hard to say. In part it's because the film doesn't really trust its source material enough to follow it. Robert E. Howard was a great story teller but this film is a sort of pastiche of many different Howard stories as well as the scriptwriter's ideas. It's all over the place. The script shoehorns the boy meets girl/boy and girl fight/boy and girl realize they're attracted to each other and do the do/ storyline into the film so ineptly that you can almost call out the changes yourself. I think rather than try to create an original story based on Howard's character, the film might have been better off if it had just fully adapted one of Howard's stories. Just my $0.02.

Anyway the storyline is that thousands of years before the rulers of Acheron created a magical mask which gave the wearer the power to conquer the world. However this mask must have had a warranty issue because the Acheronians were defeated and the mask disassembled. Portions of the mask were spread throughout the world so that no one group could ever try to conquer the world again. But there's always someone trying to iceskate uphill and in this world it's Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) who has been reassembling the mask in order that he might resurrect his wife, a sorceress of dread might, and yes indeed, rule the world. Yawn.

Zym attacks the Cimmerian village where the young Conan (Leo Howard) and his father Corin (Ron Perlman) the village chief and blacksmith reside. Now pre-teen Conan is already a fierce warrior-having singlehandedly slain several Picts (think Iroquois/Comanche) but against the force Zym has brought there is no chance of victory. In short order Zym finds the missing mask piece, massacres the village, kills Conan's Daddy, and leaves Conan for dead.

20 years go by and Conan has become a pirate, but evidently not one that believes in slavery. Right. Anyway his old nemesis Zym STILL hasn't been able to resurrect his sorceress wife and rule the world. And his creepy sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan in an over the top role) may not be too eager to bring back Mama as it is HEAVILY implied that she either wants to or has already replaced her mother in taking care of ALL of Zym's needs. Yeah. Those too. Anyway Zym finally got a response back from the evil mask warranty department. Evidently it's not enough to rebuild the mask to resurrect your wife and rule the world. You must also pour the blood of a pureblood descendant of Acheron onto the mask. So Zym goes back on the road terrorizing people and looking for a pureblood descendant. Marique helps him but she's more into just torturing people for kicks.

Thru a series of convenient accidents Conan picks up Zym's trail. He also finds the last pureblood descendant of Acheron, the topheavy Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who of course has no use for the brutish first. Various buttkickings, duels, poisonings and sacrifices ensue. Although Nichols and McGowan are obvious eye candy for men, Momoa shows some things ladies might like. This movie was just ok. I would have been disappointed if I had paid full price to see it in the theater. The film's action scenes are competently shot but nothing special. It has almost a video game feel to it if that makes any sense.


Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
There is a classic tradition of horror movies and stories which feature civilized people travelling to the backwoods where they run afoul of their uncouth countrymen: people who are unwashed, uneducated, hyperviolent, scarily cunning, and have familial relationships that are way too close. These stereotypes feature in both low class horror films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all of its descendants) as well as HP Lovecraft's pulp horror (The Lurking Fear) and may well date back to the legend of Sawney Bean or before. In our time, people who inhabit this filmic stereotype usually come from the rural South and drive pickup trucks.

The "horror" film Tucker and Dale... smartly opens with scenes which make us think this will be another movie about murderous Lynryrd Skynrd fans running amok. A college student group which includes all the normal types (the black guy, the nerd, the jock, the busty blonde, the smart girl and the black girl) is going camping in West Virginia. They run across two "redneck looking" characters in a pickup truck who eye them with malice and ask questions about where they're going. Fearing the worst, the students pile back into their SUV and burn rubber to their campsite where they congratulate themselves on escaping a testy situation and tell each other stories of a massacre that took place nearby 2 decades ago.

But the film takes a left turn from usual expectations. The two "redneck looking" men are Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) who are indeed "rednecks" but meant no harm whatsoever. The men have been friends since childhood and have just purchased a vacation cabin near where the college students are camping. Tucker is the smoother of the two men. The imposing and hirsute Dale is frightened to death of women and is about as dangerous as Paddington Bear. He only came over to try to talk to Allison (Katrina Bowden) because supposed ladies man Tucker told him he needed to get over his fears and enjoy life.

Later the two men are fishing when they notice the shapely Allison about to go skinny dipping. In their haste not to get detected watching her they startle Allison, who falls on rocks and knocks herself out. Dale saves the unconscious Allison from drowning. He and Tucker take her back to their cabin to recover. The students see this and think Allison is being kidnapped. They are sure of this when the solicitous but somewhat dim Dale leaves a message reading "We got your friend!".

This sets off a series of comedic yet bloody misunderstanding and misinterpretations. In the meantime as Allison comes to and talks to the shy but attentive Dale she realizes he might be just the man she's been looking for. This was a funny albeit violent film. Everyone reacts and responds to things from their point of view, which is quite rational. In a non preachy way the film shows the foolishness of allowing life to pass you by AND the silliness of stereotypes. Of course it does that in part by showing a kid fall into a woodchipper so your mileage may vary. I thought the film was a fun, silly way to spend some time.

King Arthur
Every generation puts its own take on the King Arthur legend. Some people are fascinated by Merlin's magic and inhuman origins. Others yearn for the sorcery and female leadership of Arthur's sisters Morgan LeFay and Morgause. Some fans love the doomed romance of Guinevere and Lancelot. And some people immerse themselves in the nasty Freudian undertones of Arthur's conception through rape and his eventual "death" at the hands of his incestuously born son, Mordred.

This film, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), fancies itself a legend retelling in a deliberately gritty and defiantly realistic fashion. There is no Lady of The Lake, quest for the Holy Grail, courtly love between beautiful maidens and honorable knights. There is no magic. There is no tragic love triangle with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Lancelot does not accidentally kill one of Gawaine's brothers and set off a war.

Instead Fuqua's film uses what some consider to be the true source material of the Arthurian legend: that of a Celtic/British King or warlord who fought against the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and won the Battle of Badon Hill.  The film alters some timing and facts but that's okay. I thought it was a decent flick. Of course I am the definition of a slavering fanboy when it comes to these sorts of movies so keep that in mind. Fuqua's film is less pageantry and spectacle and more The Magnificent Seven.

Roman power is waning in Britain. Rome is calling home its remaining troops to fight against barbarian invasions. The local Roman military leader, Artorious Castus (Clive Owen), is both a gentle religious man who follows the teachings of Christian Bishop Pelagius, believing that all men are brothers, and a harsh severe warrior, who is already legendary for his devotion to duty, battle skills and willingness to protect the weak. Arthur leads a brotherhood of knights-actually Russian steppe warriors-who have been sworn to him since childhood. They have battled Rome's enemies across the empire, but primarily in Britain where they have been the first line of defense against the indigenous rebel Picts (Woads). Arthur's mother was a Pict. His father was a Roman officer.

Now Arthur's knights have dwindled to a mere handful and their term of service-really indentured labor- is up. They are eager to return home; Arthur is willing to release them from their vows. But the Roman political leader coerces Arthur and his knights into mounting a rescue mission north of Hadrian's Wall to rescue a Roman family who is important to the Pope. This family is in the path of the Saxon invasion. What Arthur and his knights, boisterous bruiser Bors (Ray Winstone), pensive Tristan (Mads Mikkelson), silent, loyal and deadly Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), 2nd-in-command Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and underwritten Gawaine (Joel Edgerton) and Galahad (Hugh Dancy) discover there will make all of them but especially Arthur, rethink their reasons for being in Britain. They have to decide who deserves their loyalty-Rome OR each other and the British people.

The Anglo-Saxons, who were initially a raucous bunch of illegal immigrants, have found official response to their presence weak and have launched a full scale invasion of Britain, killing, looting and raping as they tiptoe through the tulips. (Fun fact: The Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasions of Briton were so wildly successful that by some measures most of today's indigenous Englishmen are more closely related to Germans, Dutch and Danish than to Welsh or Irish.)

Someday son, this will all be yours.
Just to make sure you know these are the bad guys, the Saxons all look like Hell's Angels or skinheads and mutter nasty ethnocentric slurs about the Britons. In fact their leader Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) is so bigoted that he stops a Saxon from raping a British woman, not out of any feminist or humane reasons but because he doesn't want any mixed blood children. Killing is okay; rape is not so good. Cerdic's son, second-in-command, heir and would be usurper Cynric (Til Schweiger) is just as brutal as his Daddy and doesn't share his scruples over rape. Cerdic has been hearing Arthur's name all over Britain and he wants a piece. Badly.

Arthur must decide if he can integrate both halves of himself-the Roman and the Celtic-and stand together with his previous enemies the Picts, led by Merlin (Stephen Dillane) and Guinevere (Keira Knightley) to fight the Saxon invaders.

I really liked the cinematography. Much of it was apparently shot outside and on location. A lot of it is dark but it always looks very very real. The battles are shot almost as if you are there. And it has tons of bada$$ lines, which are always very cool in these type of films. Owen does a great job of portraying a decent and majestic man caught up in the fall of the institutions he's always known. This film is full of action and moves very very quickly. You can feel the cold and smell the grime. Except for the aforementioned underwritten characters, you do care about the knights. King Arthur has some classic "I'm tired of running" and resultant "Last Stand" scenes.

With the possible exception of her upper-class (?) accent, Knightley turns in a passable performance as a deglamorized Guinevere. Often, women's roles in period films are ridiculously altered for modern sensibilities. That's not the case here. Knightley's Guinevere IS a very active participant in battles and a more than competent warrior BUT this is actually quite historically accurate. The Celts did indeed have fierce women warlords, Bouddica, being the most famous, who led resistance against foreign invaders. They also had goddesses of war, e.g. Morrigan, who in some scenes Knightley is channeling.
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