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What To Watch This Week: The Devil's Double, The Ark, Deliverance and Charley Varrick

by Richard Luck
9 August 2011

This week, Dominic Cooper recover his acting mojo, London Zoo finds itself on the brink of closure and Ned Beatty takes it like a man.

"Make mine a double."

This week, Dominic Cooper recover his acting mojo, London Zoo finds itself on the brink of closure and Ned Beatty takes it like a man.

The Devil’s Double: For a short while there, it looked like Dominic Cooper was going to become the next big thing in British film. A standout in both the stage and film versions of The History Boys and one of the few decent things about Starter For 10, the boy from Greenwich might have been a touch on the short side but he had charisma to burn. Then there was that rather wet supporting turn in the otherwise pretty decent The Duchess and that part in Mamma Mia! which no doubt paid a fortune but came at the price of his testicles. If it wasn’t for his good work in The Escapist and An Education, you could have been forgiven for thinking James Corden’s former housemate was but the latest in a long line of could-have-beens.

But now The Devil’s Double has arrived and all such doubts have disappeared. For in this fact-based story of the man hired to impersonate Saddam Hussein’s playboy son Uday, our man gives a performance that’s so over-the-top and entertaining, it can’t help but recall Al Pacino’s to-the-edge work in Scarface. Of course, this latest offering from the cross-dressing Kiwi Lee Tamahori doesn’t hit the same heights as Brian De Palma’s crime epic. It’s an engaging picture, though, featuring genuinely witty dialogue and a clutch of fine supporting turns. And while Cooper’s double performance could have come on like the worst sort of acting stunt, he’s so good you wouldn’t be surprised if he copped a nomination (or maybe two) when the BAFTAs come around next year.

The Devil’s Double

The Ark: In the early 1990s, a story broke in The Sunday Times that, having been open to public for almost 150 years, London Zoo might have to close in the face of mounting debts. Upon hearing this news, documentary filmmaker Molly Dineen (having scored major successes for the BBC with her films Home From The Hill and The Heart Of The Angel) headed off in the direction of Regent’s Park to record the rapidly-unfurling crisis.

The Ark, the four-part series that resulted from Dineen’s diligence, has now arrived on DVD courtesy of the BFI. That it knocks all modern TV documentaries into a cocked hat (or maybe a landfill site would be more fitting) goes without saying. What makes The Ark particularly special for this critic is that I was working at London Zoo at the time the film was made. Overjoyed to be employed at one of my very favourite places, the talk of closure was almost as tragic as the state the zoo had fallen into. To watch this remarkable show once again is to be instantly taken back to that time when university was still a pipe dream and the notion of a zoo-less London was very real indeed.

A collapsing institution, keepers interviewed just moments after being made redundant, the squeamishness some people have about keeping animals in captivity – The Ark might superficially appear drab, even depressing. This is a Molly Dineen film, however, and as such the emphasis is less on the dire circumstances than the people. And it’s a rare documentary filmmaker that can have encountered subjects as eloquent as the London Zoo keeping staff. The commitment to their charges is so impressive, it verges on the heroic. But it’s when they speak that Brian, Frank and Co truly captivate. Whether they’re discussing psychological torture techniques or the impoverished state of the nation, they never fail to impress.

Part two of the BFI‘s three-release Molly Dineen Collection, The Ark is a reminder of that wonderful time when documentaries weren’t reliant on re-enactments and sensationalism. Oh, and if you’re wondering about London Zoo, it’s still there and it’s in the very rudest of health. If you don’t believe me, pay it a visit – you won’t be disappointed

Deliverance (showing on Thursday August 12 on ITV at 2.45am): It was Jimmy Carr who asked why deaf people like to stay up so late and watch television (thought that was pretty good for him). You don’t have to be Evelyn Glennie or Pete Townshend to need an excuse to catch this John Boorman classic.

The film that put a whole generation of businessman off canoeing, Deliverance is based upon a quite superb book of the same name by the poet James Dickey (Dickey appears in the film as the no-nonsense local sheriff). Famous for its fine performances and infamous for that scene, some critics have interpreted the picture as a Vietnam War allegory with the sophisticated but frankly useless yuppies struggling to survive in a wilderness where the enemy is as savage as it is at one with the landscape. It’s an interesting notion that makes the convoluted manner in which Burt Reynolds and Co try and extricate themselves from their predicament comparable with Richard Nixon’s contemporaneous efforts to leave South-East Asia with American’s honour intact.

By the way, if you ever wondered what happened to Billy Redden, the idiosyncratic-looking chap who plays the banjo in the terrific opening scene, check out Tim Burton’s Little Fish. Not only does the film feature a cameo from the man in question but the kindness of the great Goth director saved Redden from a lifetime of washing dishes. “Tim was a real nice guy,” Redden would later tell the press. “A lot nicer than Burt Reynolds.”

Deliverance

Charley Varrick (showing on Saturday August 13 on ITV at 2.35am): Completing a great one-two for ITV, Charley Varrick is amongst the Coen brothers’ favourite films. Directed by the mighty Don Siegel, it’s a picture that could be considered the director’s finest had he not also made the original Invasion The Body Snatchers, The Killers, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry, The Shootist and countless other classics.

That most unlikely of leading men Walter Matthau stars as the titular anti-hero, a bank robber who mistakenly lifts a load of Mafia loot. Joe Don Baker, meanwhile, plays the enforcer entrusted with reacquainting the Cosa Nostra with their cash. Since he smokes a pipe and goes by the name of Molly, he’s not someone to trifle with. But Charley’s got some neat tricks up his sleeve including some of the coolest light aircraft skills ever captured on film.

Incidentally, if you enjoy Walter Matthau’s playing the hero of the piece, I urge you to track down Hopscotch in which the man with the face less lived in than vandalised plays a CIA agent bent on publishing his incendiary autobiography. A top comedy thriller, Hopscotch sees Walt receive marvellous support from Glenda Jackson. Oh yes, and he also gets to share the screen with Michael Cronin, aka Grange Hill’s Bullet Baxter.

Charley Varrick

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