Incendies (2010, 130 minutes, Rated R, subtitled) 5 stars out of 5

Highly, highly recommended. Disturbing, timely, and extremely well done. One of the best movies I have seen in a while and one that won’t soon be forgotten.

The movie opens in Quebec, with the viewer introduced to twin brother and sister Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin). Their mother, Nawal (a Lebanese immigrant to Canada) has recently passed away and has left her dying wish in her will- that her children deliver sealed letters (which she’s posthumously provided) to their father and their brother who each reside in an unnamed country in the Middle East (assumed here on and prior in this review to be Lebanon, more on that below). Problem is they don’t know their father at all, having been under the impression he’s most likely dead, and they weren’t aware of their brother’s existence.  Simon bucks at the request, leaving Jeanne to travel on her own to Lebanon in search of her father and brother. Through flashbacks, we learn about Nawal’s (played by Lubna Azabal) story, and how and why it came to be that this would be her dying wish. Much of the movie takes place in what is presumably 1970s/1980s Lebanon, during the nasty civil war that took place there (in which Nawal ends up involved), taking the viewer to bleak settings like burned out orphanages and prisons where torture is rife and brutal.

I run the risk of spoiling the movie by stating much more. It packs a few disturbing gut punches, one of which that reaches a bit too far and starts to feel a little forced. The rest of the movie is so grounded that it worked for me still. That slight stretch, as well as some chronological squabbles a discerning viewer might pick up on, are the only things I can fault the movie on, and it makes up for it in other ways to keep it at a 5-star rating.

Also, it’s never specifically stated that the twins and their mom are Lebanese, nor is the country Lebanon ever named. It’s pretty clear that’s the country things unfold in however. In fact, a quick briefing on the basics of the Lebanese civil war would probably be useful for the viewer. Things will make more sense.

Watch it, but be forewarned that this is not lite viewing. Not overly violent, but powerful and disturbing subject matter.

5 out of 5 stars

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The Devil’s Double (2011, 109 minutes, Rated R) 2.5 out of 5 stars

Over-the-top presentation of a pretty interesting topic that ultimately falls way off the tracks in the final act.

Latif (Dominic Cooper) is a soldier in the Iraqi Army. Having just served his country well in the war against Iran, he’s tapped by Uday Hussein (also played by Cooper), to serve as Uday’s body double. The two grew up together and Uday is amazed at how much they look alike. Latif is no fan of Uday, and initially resists, but is persuaded by Uday with tactics that the world is now familiar with him having employed, namely torture and threatening families.

Before long, Latif has had some surgical procedures to make him look even more like Uday, and he’s living as Uday’s double, with access to all the luxuries, and enemies, that Uday possesses. How long can he put up with this assignment before he cracks though?

Interesting premise. It fails on a few fronts however. Uday Hussein, who was clearly an abhorrent person, is portrayed here as a cackling, sociopathic sexual deviant with a severe substance abuse issue thrown in for good measure. It felt over the top, even for the portrayal of someone as bad as he was. They also make him sort of funny, which left me feeling conflicted, for obvious reasons. Maybe that’s credit due to Cooper, who does a very good job of playing both Uday and Latif, though he relies a bit too much on a gap-tooth revealing smirk to distinguish the former.

The movie is based on a book supposedly penned by Latif, and therefore presumably all true. Events unfold in the last 3rd of the movie that feel impossibly fake however, and the final postscript is just awful. The violence is very over the top, laughably so in one particular scene. I really don’t need to see a CGI disembowelment. And on several occasions I felt like I was clearly watching something that was being filmed in California, or at least definitely not in Iraq. The cinematography also has a music-video feel to it for most of the movie, which felt like the wrong aesthetic.

That said, it is an interesting topic and is very watchable at times, mostly due to Cooper. He alone can’t overcome the many flaws of the movie though. Pretty skippable.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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Beginners (2010, 105 minutes, Rated R) 3.5 out of 5 stars

Pretty well done comedy/drama that isn’t breaking any new ground but is well presented, elevating it a bit above the average entry in the genre. The word is overused with these types of movie, but it’s definitely in the “quirky” category.

Told non-linearly, the movie features 38-year old Oliver (Ewan McGregor) both coming to grips with his father’s death from cancer, and trying to better understand the person he was. The catch here is that his father (played by Christopher Plummer) was 75 years old and just months removed from his wife, and Oliver’s mother, dying when he came out of the closet, and soon started living full time with his (much younger) boyfriend. As the movie progresses, through the use of flashbacks, the wife/mother character is fleshed out and we also see Oliver meet the uber-(at times annoyingly)-quirky actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent), who, like us all, has plenty of her own baggage. Add in a Jack Russell terrier who has his thoughts displayed as subtitles, Oliver’s funny side kick Elliot (Kai Lennox), a bit of navel-gazing romance, and some sad death scenes, and there you have it.

Like I said, pretty good, if not great. Does a good job of connecting emotionally with the viewer, is genuinely funny and sad at times, and has good acting. The last 20 minutes are pretty sad and engaging, but then the final conclusion a bit weak, I thought.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Red State (2011, 88 minutes, Rated R) 3 out of 5 stars

Inconsistent and ultimately mediocre genre-mishmash from Kevin Smith.

Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) are 3 high school buddies in an unnamed southern state. Early on we see a religious cult, The Five-Pointers (led by Abin Cooper (played by the underrated Michael Parks)), protesting at the funeral of a murdered gay man with the standard fare, signs with slogans such as “Anal penetration equals eternal damnation”- nice stuff like that. Travis, Jarod, and Billy-Ray are decidedly hetero however, and have been trolling personal ads on-line, leading to their discovery of a locally-based girl who is willing to meet and have sex with all 3 of them.

One night, they drive out to the location she gives them where they find, drumroll- a run-down trailer with a run-down, beer-swilling Melissa Leo waiting for them. Not quite what they were expecting based on the pictures in the ad, but they roll with it anyways. Once inside however, they find themselves drugged, and soon held captive in the Five-Pointers compound, where Cooper and his acolytes that make Rick Perry look like Barney Frank execute “sinners” during their masses.

Before long, a (slimmed-down) John Goodman-led team of ATF agents are on the scene to Waco the compound, leading to a loud, bloody, and chaotic last 30 minutes or so. Stephen Root, Kevin Pollack, Anna Gunn (very underused in this), Matt L. Jones (Badger from Breaking Bad), Patrick Fischler, Damian Young, and probably some other, “hey, I know that guy from…” actors show up along the way.

The first 20 minutes are pretty good, as are the last 5-10. The rest has good and bad segments, but nothing to elevate it to anything above mediocrity as a complete picture. Smith brings his inherently serial over-writing of dialogue throughout the movie as well, which gets grating. It’s also unclear exactly what he was trying to say with the social commentary. The end credits feature the actors and actresses grouped in thirds- Sex (the opening act), Religion (the middle), Politics (the end). What exactly he was trying to say about each comes off as at least somewhat muddled however.

I didn’t count, but this has to have set some sort of record for most f-bombs in the first 20 minutes of a movie. I wasn’t sure if it was because it was the “Sex” segment or just Smith’s already affirmed (based on his previous work) love for the word. Lastly, this is categorized as a horror movie on a lot of sites, and was promoted as such. It is definitely not one though. I’m sure the production studio wasn’t sure how to market it so went with that angle, but it’s not a horror movie at all really.

3 out of 5 stars

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The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009, 96 minutes, Rated R) 3.5 out of 5 stars

Decent little British suspense thriller. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it tries to do what it is well and it succeeds for the most part.

The movie opens quickly, with 2 men barricading and soundproofing the bedroom of an apartment, and then kidnapping a young women and tying her down inside it. There’s no dialogue until 7 minutes into the movie and none of any substance until 11 minutes in. It does a good job of grabbing you and setting the scene, and manages to maintain a fairly suspenseful tone throughout.

The 2 kidnappers met in jail, with the younger Danny (Martin Compston) the kinder of the 2 and the grizzled Vic (Eddie Marsan) very much the bad cop. Both Compston and Marsan are great in this, which they typically are when given good material. Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) is their victim, and Danny and Vic are holding her hostage until they can get a 2 million pound payment from her wealthy father (who Alice is estranged from).

As is typically the case though, things aren’t what they seem on the surface, and Danny, Vic, and Alice end up with secret allegiances and both intersecting and averse objectives as things unfold.

Pretty good. Again, nothing we haven’t seen before in other movies, but pulls it of skillfully and with intelligence. This was a 3 person show too- no other character is shown except for Danny, Vic, and Alice.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Tell No One (2006, 131 minutes, Rated R, subtitled) 3 out of 5 stars

Convoluted and fairly standard thriller/whodunit based on the Harlan Coben book of the same name.

Set in France, the movie stars Francois Cluzet (dude has to be related to Dustin Hoffman) as Alexendre Beck, a pediatriacian whose wife was murdered under shady circumstances 8 years ago. Beck was considered a suspect in the killing but was later exonerated and her death blamed on a serial killer. Alex again becomes a murder suspect when 2 fresh bodies are unearthed near the same place where his wife was killed. At the same time, he starts getting emails containing links to web videos that seem to indicate his wife might still be alive.

Add in a million other plot twists, which grew very tiresome to me by the end, and there you have it. The movie trips on itself more than once and throws so many curves, many not horribly believable, that by the end I just felt confused. Maybe I am dumb- the movie does have a, surprising (inexplicable?), 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

I wasn’t a fan though. Very skippable in my opinion- not horrible, but also not very good. Maybe I’ll like the certain-to-be-dumbed-down US remake (they always are) due to hit theaters in 2012. Though with the relatively-reliable (as a director only!) Ben Affleck at the helm, perhaps we’ll just see his improved-upon riff on this.

3 stars out of 5

Yup, that's a Godfather tattoo

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Terri (2011, 105 minutes, Rated R) 3.5 out of 5 stars

Fairly enjoyable if not a must-see.

Jacob Wysocki plays the titular Terri, an obese, awkward but kindhearted 15-year old trying to navigate the difficulties of both high school and a non-traditional family life. He struggles with each, leading the principal at his high school, Mr. Fitzgerald, (John C. Reilly) to take him under his wing. Mr. Fitzgerald is equally as awkward as Terri, and at times, Terri seems to help him as much as he helps Terri.

That’s about it. Like I said, nothing horribly new. Creed Bratton (Creed on The Office) plays Terri’s ill uncle who Terri acts as a caretaker for. Tim Heidecker (seen on this site’s header as Spagett from The Tim and Eric Show) is once again criminally underused (looking at you Bridesmaids) as a gym teacher who shows up in just one scene.

It’s touching at times, if not too cute at others, and you’ll chuckle here and there (not one of Reilly’s funnier roles, though he has his moments still), but pretty mediocre overall.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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