The fine art of disguise

As per Peter Knegt, I understand the limited release of the really excellent, really edgy pitch-black comedy, Chris Morris’s “Four Lions,” went just okay this weekend. It certainly deserves better than that, though I’m guessing the marketing budget here is unusually low, as the film is being released by the brand new Alamo Drafthouse distribution division. Even though I missed the first 20 minutes when I saw it because of a film festival foul-up, I feel safe in saying it deserves to do at least as well as the similarly dark, biting, excellent, and moc-docky “In the Loop.”

Aside from the fact of the tough-sell in terms of making a comedy about a bunch of bumbling, all-too-human terrorists, part of the problem is that the trailer really doesn’t do the film any justice. This clip is great. However, trust me, there’s even better stuff in the film.

  

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Los Angeles Film Festival Recap: The Movies, part 1

Absent any actual movie news bombshells (not the quite possibly fake or misleading nuggets that you might have heard about), for the next day or so I’ll be posting with thoughts about the just completed Los Angeles Film Festival. There will be some kvetching later, but first I’m going to concentrate on the more positive aspect of the festival, which are the films themselves, even if most of them already screened at other festivals. I’ll be going in random order over what I saw, ignoring a few films I walked out on which may or may not be an accurate reflection of their quality.

* No one walked out on “Four Lions” which got an uproarious reaction from the crowd I saw it with and won the audience prize. It might well have been the best film I saw at the festival. However, I can’t be sure because I was very late to it and probably missed at least 15 or 20 minutes, which was partly my own fault/bad habit but mostly the result of…oh, yeah, I promised to save the kvetching for later.

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Getting back to “Four Lions,” it’s a very ballsy English ultra-black comedy about an Islamist terrorist cell in need of a bit more cells of the gray variety if it’s going to rack up the kind of body count every suicide bomber dreams of. It makes a fit companion piece to the equally dark and zany, and really quite similar in style and manner, “In the Loop.” It’s director, interestingly, is best known here as one of the stars of the popular BBC America series, “The IT Crowd,” Christopher Morris.

* “Animal Kingdom” is a sharp witted, muted Australian crime thriller and a cautionary tale about really bad surrogate parenting, made much worse when cops start pulling extra-judicial executions. (Has this been a common problem in Australia?)  Though there are definite but subtle echoes of “Goodfellas” and “Sexy Beast,” this film has a style and story all its own from talented first-timer David Michôd. Even so, it nearly lost me during its middle portion, it’s a bit too dour, even for the subject matter, and features a dull, annoying music score that strives way too hard to underline the seriousness of the story. Still, the seeds are being planted throughout for a last act that is character driven crime suspense of the best kind.

The film is anchored by three outstanding performances from three actors of varying ages who are essentially unknown here — Jacki Weaver, who is sweetly chilling as the underage grandmother hen of the group, hasn’t been seen in the States since she appeared in Peter Weir’s 1975 “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — but they won’t stay that way for long. The one known face in the film, Guy Pearce, is almost as good, playing essentially the Australian cousin of his morally compromised, not entirely likable cop from “L.A. Confidential.”

* “Monsters” — Ever wonder what would happen if an old fifties monster movie like the George Pal “War of the Worlds” decided to concentrate on characterization and its romantic subplot, and kind of let the rest of the story take care of itself? This mostly improvised film from effects guy/writer/director Gareth Edwards is actually a lot more like ur-rom-com “It Happened One Night” than the film it’s most frequently compared to, “District 9,” as it focuses on a tough-guy news photographer (Scoot McNairy) escorting the beautiful-but-engaged daughter of his media mogul boss (Whitney Able) across a Mexico plagued by giant squid monsters. It’s not nearly as funny as it sounds — it’s not really meant to be, nor is it as compelling as Newsweek critic-turned-programmer David Ansen was claiming, though there are some interesting political echoes.

It is, however, gorgeously imagined and, including the somewhat comically old-school squid monsters, something of a visual miracle considering what appears to have been a minimal budget. Nevertheless, Edwards concept of basically filming where he could and then trying to shoehorn those stolen locations into a storyline with entirely improvised dialogue, doesn’t even come close to flying dramatically. His shoehorning of effects worked better.

More to come.

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Movie news and stuff

Where to begin…

* Could the ultimate case of movie development hell finally be unraveling? We’re told that Ewan McGregor will star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

* Lionsgate may be on the block with all kinds of possible ramifications for hardworking and often underpaid workers there. However, just in case you were worried, they’ve got $16 million set aside for five executive golden parachutes if Carl Icahn’s attempt is successful. Whew!

* Anne Thompson discusses the people who didn’t show up at Cannes.  Somehow, she overlooked my absence.

* One of the people who isn’t showing up is living cinema legend/bad boy Jean-Luc Godard, who is citing the chaos in Greece as his reason. Yeah, I have only the vaguest possible idea what he means by that myself. Meanwhile, the Playlist’s Christopher Bell reviews a new documentary about the severed friendship between Godard and Francois Truffuat, who were respectively the Rolling Stones and the Beatles of midcentury French New Wave cinema and, alas, finds it lacking.

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* Marina Zenovich, the woman whose documentary many credit/blame with restarting the Roman Polanski mess — and, yes, that’s the “evil profligate dwarf” himself next to Godard, Truffaut as well as Claude Lelouche and Louis Malle in the picture above — will next be doing the film version of Mark Harris’s widely acclaimed book, Pictures at a Revolution, which looks at the remarkable five best picture nominees from 1968.

* Speaking of Polanski, Oy vey, Woody. (Via FilmDrunk whose headline repeats the obvious, but still hilarious, joke here.)

* Armando Iannucci, co-writer and director of the outstanding comedy about tragedy, “In the Loop,” has a new film with a preposition and a noun in the title set up.

* Cameron Crowe, who was on an amazing run of movies like “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous” until suddenly, he wasn’t, is getting back on the horse with a fact-based tale that involves all kinds of animals, possibly including horses. It does sound like a heck of a story.

* Nikki Finke thinks James Robinson should pay up before showing his face at Cannes.

It’s late. I’m tired and I want my turkey burger and an Old Fashioned. More to come later.

  

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SXSW 2010: Four Lions

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.

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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.

  

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Monday movie bits and pieces

Just another one of those days filled with sequels and other things no one really needs.

* Armando Iannucci, the “In the Loop” guy, on his screenwriting Oscar chances:

“Our puppy Bramble won last night’s puppy training course. This gives us the momentum we need going into the Oscars.”

* Movie bloggers seem to agree that Ian McShane of “Deadwood” fame can only help the next “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” while playing the legendary real-life pirate Blackbeard. Insert c-cks-cker joke here.

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* An English Jihadi comedy to screen at SXSW. Here’s hoping the documentary “American Grindhouse” covers its (huge) subject well, because I’ll want to see that one.

* Nikki Finke informs us Harvey Weinstein signed a DVD deal with Sony. I know, your world will never be the same. Just be grateful I don’t pass along all her news about whose at which agency now.

* Whilst promoting Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out,” Bruce Willis is telling people that there’ll be a “Die Hard 5” and that it’ll should go “worldwide.”

* What do you do when you find out your best friend’s wife is cheating on him? That’s the knotty question that’ll be examined in an upcoming Ron Howard comedy starring Vince Vaughn that just attracted Kevin James, as per Screencrave’s Krystal Clark. Intriguingly, the script is by a writer more associated with dramas.

* Speaking of Mr. Smith, AICN’s Merrick reveals that it appears that Seann William Scott will star in his upcoming hockey comedy. Merrick also has the Warren Zevon/Mitch Albom song it’s based on, “Hit Somebody.”

* Coming eventually, maybe: Leonardo DiCaprio in a “‘Mystic River’ meets ‘Taken‘ storyline.”

* Glenn Kenny on people who don’t know the man personally referring to a certain director as “Marty”:

My general policy with movie people is to address them as “Mr.” or “Ms.” until explicitly instructed otherwise. I’m not trying to lord it over anybody with this etiquette tip. I’m just saying that my mother raised me with some fucking manners…I’ve always loved the phrase “fucking manners,” haven’t you?

  

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