Tag: Christopher Morris

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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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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