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Knight at the Movies: The Devil's Double; Cowboys & Aliens; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-08-03

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British actor Dominic Cooper—who first came to prominence in The History Boys and who has had memorable follow-up parts in Mamma Mia!, An Education and recently as the eccentric gadget inventor in Captain America: The First Avenger—now takes center stage in The Devil's Double. The movie is based on a true account of the life of Latif Yahia, who was forced to act as the double for Uday Hussein, the son of dictator Saddam Hussein.

The film is lurid and exploitative (and how!), which enthralls for a while while Cooper's dual performance as the crazed Uday and smoldering Latif is certainly laudable.

At the outset, director Lee Tamahori traps us inside the insular world of privilege and decadence inhabited by the Hussein regime. Latif, a onetime school acquaintance of Uday, is whisked to the palace through the desert in a luxury vehicle caravan. His resemblance to the bloodthirsty dictator's son makes him the perfect choice to act as a double for Uday—a role he is forced to accept at gunpoint. As the physical transformation is completed (he's given Uday's bunny teeth, sunken cheeks, elevator shoes while a gay houseboy picks out the designer wardrobe, etc.), Latif studies his new role. He quickly intuits that Uday—with his sunny, jokey facade, high-pitched laugh and propensity for typical "bad boy" pursuits (fast cars, women, drugs, nightlife)—is actually a dangerous psychopath.

Once Latif passes muster (even fooling Saddam), Uday celebrates by enlisting him in all his illicit pleasures and we get lots of scenes of decadent excess. (For example, Uday trolls for underage schoolgirls who he forces to have sex with him between copious toots of cocaine, as Latif looks on in disgust.) As the picture progresses and the events that brought down the Hussein regime are shown, Uday's behavior becomes more and more irrational. At one point, at yet another drunken, drug-filled party, Uday goes apeshit and violently kills Saddam's "best friend" as horrified revelers witness it. (The scene has strong shades of The Untouchables.)

Not long after, Tamahori gives us a variation on a scene out of Caligula—with Uday forcibly taking the bride of an Iraqi war hero. (She then jumps over the balcony to her death.) Although we are spared the actual rape, the point is clearly made. By now, the movie, bathed in shades of gold, has added blood-red as its complimentary color, and there's a lot more luridness to come. Long before the foregone conclusion, our interest in this murderous wacko and his moody doppelganger has evaporated and a subplot in which Latif becomes romantically involved with Uday's primary mistress is a dud that leads nowhere.

Cooper works hard at establishing the two distinct characters and must have had a ball playing Uday, contrasting him with the moody, complicated Latif. While the actor manages to imply a homoerotic undercurrent in his portrayal of Uday toward Latif (there's a lot of talk about Latif's bigger "equipment," for example) there's not much to the character beyond the standard power-crazed psycho Al Pacino gave us in Scarface.

For gay audiences, of course, there is an additional compensation that makes The Devil's Double worth checking out—a plethora of shots of Dominic's sculpted torso and shapely ass (or should I say "asses," as we glimpse both Uday and Latif together in the shower at one point).

The sculptured torso of Daniel Craig is also not a bad reason to take in Jon Favreau's likeable Cowboys & Aliens, a late entry in the summer blockbuster sweepstakes. The movie—which combines two movie genres, sci-fi and westerns—is a fun idea with just enough action, welcoming actors (Craig, Harrison Ford in a supporting role, the energetic Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and others), and big-budget effects to make it perfect Sunday matinee material.

Craig plays a man of mystery (the Clint Eastwood role) with amnesia whose memory slowly returns just as aliens invade the small frontier town that the local land baron (Ford) lords over along with his weak, havoc-wreaking son (Paul Dano). Olivia Wilde plays a beautiful (and also mysterious) woman who provides a pseudo-love interest for Craig and joins the search party determined to bring back the local citizenry kidnapped by the marauding ETs.

Ironically, given its simplistic kidnap/search-and-rescue plot, Cowboys & Aliens has a lot of fingers in the scriptwriting and producing pie. Surprisingly, this film-by-committee doesn't get in the way of it being a well-made studio product that should have plenty of mainstream appeal.

Film notes:

—Film event promoter Rusty Nails is back on Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Portage Theatre, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., with Terror in the Aisles 8. This year's horrorthon features a trio of rarely seen cult fright flicks (Sleepaway Camp, with its gender-bending twist; Tucker & Dell vs. Evil; and City of the Walking Dead). There are also a program of terror shorts and trailers; an appearance by Sleepaway Camp director Robert Hiltzik; vendor tables in the lobby; and a charity auction benefiting Vital Bridges. Doors open at 7 p.m. with the first screening at 7:30 p.m. Call 773-736-4050 or visit http://www.facebook.com/terrorintheaisles.

—Vital Bridges is also one of the recipients, along with the Queer Film Society, of some of the proceeds from the Camp Midnight matinee screening of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Sunday, Aug. 7, in honor of National Sisters Day at the Music Box Theatre, 3717 N. Southport Ave. There is a pre-show at 2 p.m. with costume contest, prizes and more followed by an interactive audience screening of the 1962 Bette Davis-Joan Crawford classic featuring live commentary. Visit www.musicboxtheatre.com .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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