August 12, 2011. Temperatures Rising. Movies reviewed: Devil’s Double, The Help, Rise of the Planet Of The Apes, Final Destination, Gun to the Head

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

It’s getting into high August, and there are tons of movies playing now, so let me just dive right in and tell you about a few of them. I’m talking about two stories about servants who have good reason not to like their bosses, one where an employee is forced to challenge his boss or die, one where a whole class could challenge the people in power, and one where a group of people attempt to challenge… fate itself.

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

It’s the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq war, when Latif, a scruffy, young soldier from a good family in Bagdad, is brought into a palatial mansion. He’s asked whether he wants to work for Uday, Saddam Hussein’s son. Well, not exactly asked: He’s told. If he says no, he, his family and friends will all be tortured and killed. If he says yes, though, he will move into this luxurious palace, wear tailored suits and Rolex watches, drink champagne, drive sportscars, have his pick of the most beautiful women, and hang out at the most exclusive nightclubs in Iraq.

What’s the catch? He’s a near exact double of Uday in height, weight, body-type, and facial features. So he’ll be taking his place at public appearances with the constant risk of being shot at by assassins. So, the movie, (partially based on Latif’s memoir) shows his bizarre double life… as a professional double. This is a violent, scarface-y story with shootouts, coke sniffing, disco dancing, and backstage intrigue.

It’s also a chance for an actor to be or the screen about 140% of the time in the dual roles – when Dominic Cooper isn’t playing the humble, honest Yatif, he’s acting as the profligate, decadent and cruel Uday, and often both at the same time. He does it well enough that the audience immediately knows whether it’s the conceited, aggressive, strutting, whiny-voiced Uday, or Yatif imitating him. They walk differently, think differently and have a different look in their eyes.

Can Yatif find a way out of this crazy life? And can he and his secret love – one of Uday’s mistresses – escape the country?

This is quite a violent movie. And while it paints a generally negative view of a whole country, and gives an inaccurate view of women’s status in Baathist Iraq,  it can be enjoyed as an apolitical drama and as an actor’s tour de force.

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

Smart but frowsy Skeeter (Emma Stone) comes home from University to the high-society of heavily segregated Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. She wants to get herself a job as a writer, see her old debutante friends, and take care of her mother who’s dying of cancer. But she soon sees the world is changing, and is disgusted by how black servants are treated by their rich white employers: demeaned, disrespected, badly paid. They essentially raise the white kids from birth, but rarely get to spend time with their own children.

When Skeeter’s friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the reigning top woman in her set, attempts to pass a bylaw making it illegal for blacks even to use a bathroom inside the homes where they work all day, Skeeter decides something must be done.

She befriends Aibilene (Viola Davis) and asks her to tell her own inside story about life in the south. When another maid, Minnie (a comical Octavia Spencer) — known for her cooking skills — joins her project, it looks like their stories might be published as a book.

This is a richly plotted, multi-charactered, story about life in the deep south, and the subtle and overt racism in every aspect of the lives of the people who lived in this era. This isn’t a movie about KKK lynchings or good ol’ boys with rifles. It gives a calmer view of the segregated, Jim Crow days, right when the civil rights movement was taking off. It’s also a richly moving women’s story – not a chick flick — with terrific acting all around, especially Viola Davis, and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a suddenly rich blonde bombshell from dirt poor origins who seeks help from Minnie. It also has great actresses like Cicily Tyson, Cissie Spacek and Alison Janney in the side roles.

Only quibble? Though some of the black characters slip in and out of dialect, the younger white women’s accents don’t sound much like they would have in Mississippi in the 1960s. But The Help is definitely worth seeing if you like complicated dramas, family secrets, frequent plot turns and funny surprises.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Will (James Franco) is a scientist who works for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation who is developing a new medicine that can repair brain functions. They test it on chimpanzees, and he takes home a newborn one when his mother dies in the lab. But he soon discover his ape, Caesar, is special: he’s somehow inherited the new brain skills his mother had gained from the drug testing, and he’s quickly getting better and better. He learns art, sign language, and better motor skills than any human. Will and Caroline (Frieda Pinto) treat him almost like a son… except for the collar and leash they force him to wear outside. But when Caesar tries to rescue Will’s senile father (John Lithgow) from a mean neighbour, he is taken away by the authorities and thrown into an animal shelter that looks more like a federal prison run by cruel guards.

There he interacts with his own kind and discovers he’s not a human but an ape. Caesar has to decide who he can trust and whether he should wait for his former human father to rescue him or strike out on his own.

This is a really enjoyable movie, with fantastic camera work, a great story, and — though largely animated – believable characters with sympathetic faces. (I’m talking the apes here.) Which is why I was surprised at how awful the CGI’s were in some scenes – jerky toy monkey’s bounding up trees like a bad outtake from a third-rate videogame intro – and how excellent in others. In any case, if you want a fun exciting story, this is the one to see. A thousand times better than the awful Planet of the Apes remake.

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

A group of eight coworkers on their way to a retreat, manage to escape from an enormous collapsing bridge when one of them, Sam, has a premonition and gets them away in time. But they soon discover they were destined to perish, so are being killed off, one by one, in a series of gruesome Rube Goldberg-esque accidents. Who will live and who will die? And will they succeed in cheating death a second time?

What can I say – this is one of my favourite genres of horror movies: bloody gore but without an identifiable villain. Instead, the danger is everywhere — in a leaky pipe, a dropped match, a speck of dust or a misplaced screw. A restaurant kitchen is filled with potentially dangerous flames, knives, and shish kebab skewers. Ordinary life is fraught with danger!

The lines stink, the characters are predictable, the music is corny, and the acting ranges from humorous to forgettable, to excruciatingly awful. But the special effects are flawless, and the pace is just right. It pulls you forward with stress, fear and tension, then lets you back down again, never knowing for sure whether the next shot is a real danger or just a red herring. And the 3D, especially in the multi-leveled scenes on the bridge and on a factory floor, is amazing. This is a great, super-cheezy “B” or “C” summer movie.

It also has the best non-trailer trailer ever, that shows what Final Destination would look like if it were a pop music video recorded on the set of Saved by the Bell — complete with laugh track.

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

Trevor (Tygh Runyan) gets away from his own dinner party (complete with creepy, Japanophile swinger guests wearing sleazy kimonos) to pick up a bottle of white wine and talk to his drug dealer cousin, Darren (Paul Anthony). He just wants to give him a bit of help, but he’s soon dragged into this underworld of strip bars, guns and lines of coke. He has to deal with a fickle small-town drug potentate, his deranged guard, and his sexually adventurous, skeezy girlfriend. Can Trevor outsmart the gangsters, rescue his sleazy cousin, and ever get back home to his wife? Or will everything fall apart?

This is a funny very low-budget Canadian thriller. Though not perfect, it has great characters, and some manic — but not hammy — performances, especially Paul Anthony channelling the spirit of Don Knotts, dressed as a Vancouver hood.

Devil’s Double and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes are now playing, check your local listings, The Help just opened in Toronto, and Final Destination and Gun to the Head open tonight in Toronto (Friday, Aug 12, 2011). Also look out for You Are Here, opening today at the TIFF Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining

Strangers in a Strange Land: Alice in Wonderland, The Green Zone, Cooking with Stella

To provide adventure, mystery or comedy, directors often turn to far-away locations to add a bit of novelty to their films. The hero often starts out as a stranger in a weird place, a fish out of water, but over the course of the movie, she learns to adapt, fit in, fall in love, become friends… or else escapes out of that strange hell-hole she found herself in. In a good movie set abroad, you get to see some things you never would otherwise, maybe get to know some local characters — not just the hero from back home — and, ideally, hear them speak in a language the viewer can understand, or at least one with subtitles.

A bad movie of this type (like the popular and critically acclaimed “Lost in Translation”) just uses the locals as scenery, their lines untranslated, leaving the viewer in the dark as to their real characters. It’s ideal for conveying fear or alienation, but good for little else.

Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” tells a new version of the well-known story, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. His version is a different take on Lewis Carroll’s book, or, you could say, a remake of the original Disney cartoon.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now an extremely rich, young woman in Victorian England, not a little girl, who is at a garden party at her palatial estate. When she has to make a big decision, with hundreds of people watching, she decides instead to chase a white rabbit down his hole. There she finds herself in Wonderland, or “Underland”, where she discovers friends and enemies all of whom seem to know her, but aren’t sure she’s the real Alice (I’m not sure either).

Her friends — the Dormouse, the March Hare, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat — tell her she must find the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky, snicker-snack, on a specific day. Her enemies, the fractious, dictatorial Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) who likes to yell “Off with their heads!” and her suitor, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) are busy looking for Alice, not knowing it even when they see her. Alice herself gradually shifts from being a naïve passive character, to a Joan of Arc-style heroine.

Some parts of this movie were a lot of fun, and there were some neat images added to it – the deck of cards that made up the Queen of Hearts’ army were much stronger and scarier — more metallic, less paper-y — than the original drawings by John Tenniel.

But so much of the original Alice depended on its caricatures, fun plays on words, puzzles, symbols, and poem and song parodies, which were largely dumped in this version. The one poem used, The Jabberwocky, was given too much prominence, with its unusual nonsense vocabulary (like “frabjous day”) repeated way too often in the story line. I suppose they wanted it to make sense – to small children, I guess.

I wasn’t that taken by this movie. The costumes and the design were impressive, and it had a great cast, but that’s not enough to keep me rapt. I think this version was made for small children, and has minimal appeal to adults.

Its biggest problem is that a lot of the absurdity and irony of the original is gone. Caricatures might work as political cartoons on paper, but not on the much more real move screen. When I was a kid, I liked the poems like “You are old Father William”, and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” because they were cruelly funny. That’s all been neatly scrubbed away and Disneyfied, replaced with a hard-line literalness, no irony, few twists, and fewer hints of psychedelia than even the old Disney cartoon. If the book was The Simpsons, this movie is The Flintstones.

“Green Zone”, directed by Paul Greengrass, is a movie about the reasons given by the US to justify the war in Iraq, and how one American soldier tries to uncover the truth.

Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a soldier in Iraq in 2004, is in charge of a team in Baghdad looking for weapons of mass destruction – the “WMDs” that were the reason US and Britain gave for invading that country. But his searches are turning up nothing. He thinks the intelligence they’re using is faulty. But whenever he questions it within the military he’s told there is no problem with the information, and to follow his orders and shut up. Then a local man (Khalid Abdalla) gives Miller some potentially significant news about former Iraqi government officials.

With the help of his new-found friend (“Call me Freddy”), Miller breaks up a meeting in progress, and briefly glimpses one of the men, Al Rawi, whose picture was on the “most wanted“ deck of cards that were actually issued by the US government during this war.

Miller, frustrated, turns to the CIA, as represented by a tubby, middle-aged agent named Brown. Brown casually tosses him a million dollars in cash in a knapsack to pass on to persons of interest. Meanwhile, other American officials are doing what they can to stymie his plans. Who will come out on top? What’s the secret? Is the embedded journalist, a Judith Miller-type character, reliable? Are there any WMDs at all? And what is Al Rawi’s secret information?

Green Zone is a fast-moving war flick about the big issue of US culpability for invading Iraq, as investigated by Matt Damon’s everyman soldier, and the Iraqi contact he works with. While not an anti-war movie – it depends on guns, explosions, helicopters, chases and shootouts for its eye-candy – it is clearly against the US excuses for invading Iraq. US culpability is rarely seen in mainstream movies.

The Director, Paul Greengrass, likes jiggly hand-held camera shots, and a documentary-style. To lend authenticity, he liberally borrows scenes from movies like the fantastic 2004 documentary “Gunner Palace”, which had GI’s sunbathing by swimming pools in half-destroyed Baghdad mansions. So a lot of the movie is interesting to watch. And as a shootout-mystery-thriller, Green Zone’s not bad either.

Cooking with Stella”, Canadian Director Dilap Mehta’s first film, is about another set of people in a distant place. Maya and Michael, a Canadian diplomatic couple placed in New Delhi (played by Donald McKellar and Lisa Ray) are settling in at the High Commission.

Michael (who’s character was based on the real-life chef at Rideau Hall in Ottawa), finds himself with not much to do in New Delhi. So he tries to get their servant and cook, Stella, a Christian Indian woman known for her skill in the kitchen, to become his guru, and introduce him to Indian cooking. Luckily, the movie is more than a cooking show. It’s actually a sort of an upstairs-downstairs look at clueless expat Canadians and their wily, crooked servants who take advantage of them at the drop of a hat.

The Canadians are really side characters – Don McKellar is there more as the straight man than the comic. The main plot involves Stella (played by the very funny Seema Biswas) and the gambling, drinking, black marketeering, and paybacks that are her daily bread and butter in her little subcultural fiefdom within the embassy. When an innocent new nanny, Tannu, threatens to upset Stella’s world with her honesty, she realizes she needs a new plan. Her goals become larger and even more nefarious, but end up with Stella being kidnapped. What will become of her?

The movie is a cute, small film, with a fairly low budget, and a first-time director, so — judging by those criteria — it’s enjoyable and not bad. There’s a bit of Bollywood parody scenes, some colourful views of an outdoor food market, some funny dialogue. (It also has some painfully lame gags involving driving on the wrong side of the road, and some obvious joke set-ups) It’s loaded with lots of Canadian references — Group of Seven and Norval Morisseau pictures on the walls; a Welcome / Bienvenue sign on a foreboding embassy fence – but it concentrates less on the strangers in the strange land, more on the interesting local characters.

Actually, I liked the scenes that reminded me of Mira Nair’s movie “Monsoon Wedding”, also a comedy about the inter-linked worlds of families and their servants in India. The blah, Canadian-focused scenes were what dragged this movie down a bit and made it palatable but bland. But see it for great, funny Indian characters in a Canadian movie.

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