Frank Perry’s Ladybug Ladybug feels dated in many ways, and not just because it is in black & white; it is a quintessential Cold War paranoia movie, from the era of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the only film of its era to make the threat of nuclear annihilation the subject of comedy. While those films are revered to this day, Ladybug Ladybug has fallen unfairly by the wayside, though its unique approach and hypnotic style are definitely worthy of viewing by a modern audience.
Written by Perry’s wife and frequent collaborator, Eleanor Perry, from a story by Lois Dickert, Ladybug Ladybug‘s title comes from the children’s rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” Based on a real incident, the film examines the course of events following a nuclear attack alarm at a small town elementary school. The alarm is a “code yellow,” which translates to “nuclear attack imminent within an hour.” After some panicked deliberation, the school’s principal, Mr. Calkins (William Daniels), decides to heed the alarm and send the children home. After this, the film follows one particular group of children as they are escorted home along a country road by a teacher, Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand, best known as Tony’s vindictive mother, Livia, on The Sopranos).
Interested in testing the limits of the moviegoing public? Make a comedy about terrorism. At least, that’s what Christopher Morris has done with his feature film debut, “Four Lions,” a movie that will no doubt stir up controversy if it ever finds a distributor brave enough to release it in theaters. A pitch-black satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove,” Morris has created a film so relevant to our current political climate that many will feel guilty just for watching it, let alone laughing at all the gut-wrenching humor along the way. For as risqué as the material may be, however, it’s impossible to deny that “Four Lions” is one of the funniest, most provocative comedies of the last decade – and one that has more to say than any of the numerous self-important war movies that Hollywood has been cranking out for years.
The film follows a group of wannabe suicide bombers from Britain who are so inept at being terrorists that they’re more dangerous to themselves than any potential target. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the most level-headed of the bunch, but when he’s kicked out of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan because of his dim-witted friend, Waj (Kayvan Novak), they return home to find that their partners in crime, Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and white Islamic convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), have recruited a fifth member (Arsher Ali) to the cause. Desperate to save face, Omar informs the others that they’ve been ordered to blow themselves up at the London marathon.
But for this team of bumbling idiots, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. When they’re not busy attaching bombs to crows, embarrassing themselves in jihad videos, or coming up with new methods of anti-surveillance, they’re bickering among themselves like old ladies. The power struggle between Omar and Barry provides the catalyst for most of these arguments, because while Barry might seem like the ideal person to be in charge, he has such radical ideas (like blowing up a mosque so that the peaceful Muslims rise up and join their fight) that it’s easy to see why he would fail as a leader.
The intensity of a character like Barry, however, is what ultimately makes “Four Lions” so successful, because Morris treats the material with such veracity that the jokes hit harder as a result. These guys might be complete imbeciles, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve managed to stockpile a dangerous amount of explosives capable of doing some serious damage. In fact, for all the comedy bred out of the film’s set-up, there are still quite a few unsettling moments scattered throughout, including a thrilling finale in the streets of London. Even more disturbing is the relationship between Omar and his family. His wife doesn’t only support what he’s doing, but seems to encourage it, while his son has become so familiar with the idea of jihad that his bedtime stories feature Simba and his fellow animal friends from “The Lion King” as suicide bombers.
It’s this kind of dark humor that makes “Four Lions” more of a tragicomedy than a satire, because even though the would-be terrorists can hardly be considered the heroes of the story, Morris makes them so likeable that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. We know their intentions aren’t good, but because we’ve become so used to laughing at their blunders throughout the course of the film, we never really identify them as much of a threat. That’s mostly thanks to a brilliant script (co-written by Morris and two of the writers responsible for last year’s scathing political satire, “In the Loop”), which takes the buddy comedy formula and applies it to a hot-button topic with great aplomb. “Four Lions” may not be the first of its kind – Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” also flirted with the concept of mixing terrorism and comedy – but where that movie proved that no subject was taboo, Christopher Morris’ film demonstrates that sometimes it’s easier to get people to pay attention when you’re making them laugh.
Once upon a time, the third Monday in February was designated as a day to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. These days, however, although it varies from state to state, it tends to be known less specifically as Presidents Day, which means that we can ostensibly celebrate everyone who’s ever been the President of the United States. Here at Premium Hollywood, we’d also like to extend that to those who’ve served as our nation’s commander-in-chief on television and the silver screen.
Now, granted, that’s a lot of people…more, in fact, than we could possibly give shout-outs to in a single piece. As such, we decided to pare it down to the same number of individuals as have held the highest office in our land since its inception. Forty-four folks is still nothing to sneeze at, but we’re betting that we’ll still end up having left out someone’s favorite son (or daughter). To paraphrase one of our real presidents, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. With that said, however, we still think we did a pretty solid job of picking the best candidates for the piece.
1. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), “Idiocracy”: Why are we leading off with President Camacho? Because, really, when you’ve got a fake President on your list who’s also a porn superstar and a five-time ultimate smackdown wrestling champion, why in God’s name would you wait any longer than necessary to trumpet his inclusion? Clearly, this man is the fake President to end all fake Presidents, and he’s #1 with a bullet. It’s all going to be downhill from here.
2. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), “The American President”: President Shepherd is a widower who pursues a relationship with an attractive lobbyist — Sydney Ellen Wade, played by Annette Bening — while at the same time attempting to win passage of a crime control bill. Although the film was mostly ignored by the Oscars, it racked up several Golden Globe nominations and has since found its way into the #75 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of America’s Greatest Love Stories. Plus, its screenwriter managed to find a good use for the excess material that he didn’t have room to fit into the script…but we’ll get to that in our next entry.
3. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), “The West Wing”: Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out already, “The American President” was written by Aaron Sorkin, which is why you may notice a resemblance between the mannerisms of Presidents Shepherd and Bartlet. Ironically, though, Sorkin had originally envisioned the series as revolving so much around the White House senior staff that viewers would rarely, if ever, see the president. Instead, what the nation got was an idealized leader, one who – in A Novel Approach to Politics, by Douglas A. Van Belle and Kenneth M. Mash – is referred to as the “most popular Democratic president in recent memory.” The book was written pre-Obama, mind you, but we’re pretty sure the title still stands.
4. President William Harrison Mitchell (Kevin Kline), “Dave”: Given the vaguely “The Prince and the Pauper”-esque premise of the film, which involes a guy who makes a few bucks on the side as a Presidential impersonator being asked to play the part for real when the actual President suffers an incapacitating stroke, there was every reason to believe that “Dave” would’ve been a trifle at best, but between Kline’s imminent likability and a fantastic supporting cast (Sigourney Weaver as the First Lady, Ben Kingsley as the Vice President, Frank Langella as Chief of Staff, and Charles Grodin as Dave’s accountant buddy, Murray), it often comes close to – even though it doesn’t quite reach – the heights of “The American President.”
5 – 8. President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), “Independence Day” / President Blake (Perry King) and President Becker (Kenneth Welsh), “The Day After Tomorrow” / President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), “2012”: As soon as you see the credit “directed by Roland Emmerich” on a disaster flick, you just know things are going to reach a point where the President of the United States is going to be brought into the discussion about whatever imminent danger may be about to thrust itself onto our planet.
There’s also a very good possibility that the ol’ rite of succession may come into play during the course of the film, such as it did in “The Day After Tomorrow,” when we lost President Blake after the blades of his helicopter froze. Say hello, President Becker! The same thing happened in “2012,” too, but we were so in awe of President Wilson’s selfless sacrifice – he stayed behind to help survivors in need, only to meet his death when the tidal wave struck the White House – that we’ve made an executive decision not to include Wilson’s successor, President Anheuser (Oliver Platt) in the list. Why? Because he’s a dick.
The definitive Emmerich-flick president, of course, is President Whitmore. During the course of “Independence Day,” he sees the White House blown up, loses his wife, fights off a psychic attack from an alien, and flies a goddamned jet fighter into battle to help save the day. Plus, he gives the most stirring speech this side of “Patton.” Hell, I’d vote for him.
As John F. Kennedy used to say, “success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.” One thing’s for sure, both generate a ton of ink.
* I’m still of two minds on this whole Twitter business in terms of whether or not it really speeds up what we used to call “word-of-mouth” on movies. It seems to me we’ve had texting for awhile now, though the proliferation of iPhone and other communication devices is a new factor and must be having an impact. Unlike texting, you don’t pay on a per-Tweet basis, so maybe. Steven Zeitchik, however, is more certain and guess which movie he thinks is the first to officially benefit. (If you haven’t already been spoiled at all on the not-ripped-from-the-history-books ending of “Inglourious Basterds, you might want to skip this one.)
* Tom O’Neil at “The Envelope” speculates on awards strategy for releasing “Basterds” now rather than closer to award season. To me, Weinstein’s decision to highlight the musical “Nine” over this seems more than self-evident. Assuming the film is not a complete turkey, that film’s Oscar chances should be better.
Quentin Tarantino‘s films are not Oscar-friendly. The older members of the Academy have traditionally leaned strongly towards a very traditional, essentially literary and middle-class, view of quality which is pretty much the antithesis of the Tarantino aesthetic. It’s only been through his widespread acclaim and a subtle loosening of old prejudices that his films have gotten the definitely limited Oscar recognition they have and, considering what some regard as a too lighthearted view of World War II horrors, I wouldn’t expect this one to be much different. Of course, with ten nomination slots for Best Picture, and the universal groundswell of acclaim for heretofore internationally unknown German actor Christoph Waltz, two or three nominations (including the semi-inevitable “Best Original Screenplay” nod) are almost a certainty.
If you want an example of the kind of old-school middle-brow snobbery that’s always stood in the way of Tarantino — and Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Don Siegel, Sergio Leone, etc. before him — Peter Bart provides it for you. Some commenters respond aptly.
* Paul Laster at Flavorwire has a revealing interview with production design husband-and-wife team David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco about “Inglourious Basterds,” the Jack Rabbit Slim’s set from “Pulp Fiction,” and other films. Considering that they also work with Wes Anderson, these two are crucial collaborators with our most talented masters of movie stylization working, and the current heirs to people like the great Ken Adam, the production design genius of “Dr. Strangelove” and “Goldfinger,” among many others. (H/t David Hudson@Twitter…okay, so maybe there is a Twitter effect on filmgeeks.)
Now is the time at Premium Hollywood vin ve dance.
I couldn’t help remembering George Kaufman’s famous definition of satire when reading Noah Forrest‘s post on the acclaimed political comedy, “In the Loop,” which opened last Friday in limited release. I’m a fan of all kinds of satire, but with the exception of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Network,” and a Robert Altman movie here and there, it’s rarely been a commercial success — though from the sound of it, I’m certainly hoping Armando Iannucci’s new film has decent luck.
Here’s a TV commercial for one movie that had almost no luck, Norman Lear’s “Cold Turkey.”
According to Wikipedia, the film was shelved for years by United Artists due to commercial worries. On the other hand, the film’s writer/producer/director wasn’t exactly intimidated and made a TV show that that touched a far hotter button than the cigarette industry. That did a little better, and lasted many Saturday nights.