Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Four Lions (2010)


Plot summary: centres on a group of frustrated Muslim men in Sheffield who're plotting a suicide bomb attack to coincide with the London Marathon.

Chris Morris, writer and director of Four Lions, is best known for his satirical comedy shows, such as The Day Today and Brass Eye, which deftly deconstructed news broadcasting, issues-based and general British televising to hilarious affect. They dealt with a number of controversial subjects ranging from drug use all the way through to paedophilia in such a way as to demonstrate how badly they’d be misrepresented and exaggerated by the media. With Four Lions, a comedy about suicide bombers, Morris presents himself with his biggest challenge yet and I have to admit, I was unsure as to whether even he could pull the concept off in a tasteful and constructive manner. As such, I feel relieved to say that Four Lions is a side-splittingly funny, surprisingly moving and above all, extremely important film.

You may be asking yourself how anything about a group of British jihadists could be considered funny, and rightly so (provided you haven’t seen the film’s trailer of course). In making Four Lions, Morris seems to have taken a leaf out of Charlie Chaplin’s book as he channels the spirit of The Great Dictator thorough the film. He turns fear into laughter, to see these men as fools rather than people to be afraid of, and it works perfectly. There are far more failed attempts at suicide bombing, especially in Britain, than there are successes and Morris himself describes the film as portraying the, “Dad’s Army side to terrorism". In Four Lions our motley crew of would-be bombers are completely and utterly inept and although it doesn’t always feel right to do so their blundering ‘antics’ (planting bombs on crows, running through the streets whilst trying not to drop explosives) will have you laughing from start to finish.

There’s a lot more to the film that just slapstick routines and laughing at buffoons though as it’s not just about what these characters are doing – but why. Barry is a white Muslim terrorist, a funny enough concept as it is, who wants to blow his own faith’s mosques up in order to, “stir shit up”. Waj, who is a little slow to say the least, is simply copying his brother’s behaviour as he shouts hilarious lines such as, “Fuck Mini Babybels!” to join in. Meanwhile Fessal is a part of the group because otherwise he’d be, “eating newspaper instead”. These men (save for the main character, Omar) have no real clue as to what they’re fighting for and why and provide the source of much of the film’s hilarity (not to mention social commentary). These characters would be nothing, however, if it were not for the brilliant cast Morris has assembled to play them. They excel as standalone actors but also share a collective comic timing and ability to play off of one another which becomes one of the films greatest pleasures.

The films portray of various people connected to the bombers (police, politicians, bewildered co-workers and oblivious neighbours) is also one of its comedic strong points. Towards the end of the film this reaches jet-black levels of hilarity as a duo of police snipers argue over the difference between a Wookie and the Honey Monster whilst taking pot-shots at runners in the London Marathon. Thankfully Morris is also careful not to take aim at the underlying ideology or religious beliefs that drive these men (except for a rather funny swipe at their sexist attitudes) and knows exactly when to reign in the laughs to show the horrific consequences of their actions. Four Lions is a surprising film, not just because it manages to make suicide bombers funny, but because it’s also genuinely moving. Morris’s script, and the actors themselves, really sell these characters to you as three-dimensional people, instead of the usual perceived stereotypes of suicide bombers. As a result, while you’re never meant to agree with what they’re doing, you really engage with them on an emotional level.

You’ll care about what happens to these characters and some scenes may actually tug on your heart strings a little. The fact that Morris has shown little capability for human drama on this level in the past, and that he is able to balance it so well with the comedy, makes it all the more impressive. At other times Four Lions is also a downright disturbing film. The scenes of Omar’s home life in particular are some of the weirdest and disturbing moments of cinema this writer has ever witnessed. Whether it be Omar’s son getting excited at the prospect of his father’s ‘martyrdom’ or Omar altering the plot of The Lion King in order to brainwash his child, it’s truly chilling stuff. Omar’s discussions with his wife about his plans might as well be about a family holiday they’re that blasé. Many will undoubtedly misinterpret these scenes as Morris trying to make you feel sorry or side with Omar but it’s the other way around; these moments reveal him to be a thoroughly untrustworthy, manipulative and irresponsible human being.

My only real criticism of the film is that there is slightly too much broad humour present. Whilst there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with slapstick and laughing at moronic characters, I would have liked to have seen a little less of this and slightly more of the intelligent and intellectually challenging comedy Morris is known for. Similarly, a lot of Morris’s humour often came from the visual style of his television work and, save for a few moments, Four Lions is devoid of such techniques. That said, the film differs from his previous work in that focuses on human drama so perhaps a heavier visual style would have undercut this. Despite these minor grievances the film still stands as one of those rare beasts; an independent film with an important message that has mass appeal. Four Lions is brave, entertaining and essential cinema at it's best.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)



Plot Summary: A re-imagining of the horror icon Freddy Krueger, a serial-killer who wields a glove with four blades embedded in the fingers and kills people in their dreams, resulting in their real death in reality.

Another month, another horror remake. This time it’s Wes Craven’s turn as his 1984 slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (NOES for short), gets the remake treatment by director Samuel Bayer and Michael Bay’s infamous production company, Platinum Dunes. I have to admit, I’ve never been a massive fan of the NOES franchise. The idea, that a serial killer could appear and kill you in your dreams, is a unique and frightening one but the series’ comedic tone always put me off. Bayer addresses this problem in the 2010 version of NOES, but completely fails in almost every of other aspect of horror film-making. NOES is a boring, over long mess of a film which seems to favour unnecessary gore and swearing over suspense or character development.

NOES’s biggest sin is by far lack of character development. After the initial kill sequence at the beginning of the film we’re introduced to a number of teenage characters during a in such quick succession that it’s almost as if we’re meant to have known them our entire lives. After this scene the film doesn’t properly slow down to flesh out these characters as real people with three-dimensional personalities and a consequence we don’t care whether they live or die. Instead, they’re reduced to stereotypes; the aggressive jock, preppy cheerleader, the arty loser etc. Horror films need to make a connection between the audience and the potential victims on screen because otherwise we can’t see ourselves in their shoes and in turn, feel fearful for them.

This issue is not helped in the slightest by the fact that the script and acting is terrible throughout, sometimes laughably so. The dialogue uttered by the teenagers sounds as if it were written by someone who no longer has any grasp of what it was like being a teenager and instead is content to turn to clichés and an abundance of swearing for inspiration. In one of the more hilarious pieces of dialogue Nancy explains to Quentin why she never went out with him, “I was always so unpopular and you were, you know...” The acting is similarly melodramatic and unconvincing. This is especially true in the case of Kris’s mother, Nora, who’s delivery of lines such as, “It’s ok honey, it’s over” during a funeral is so unenthused you can almost see her reaching for the cheque.

The pacing of NOES is also less than impressive as there are several plot points that go on for far too long and that don’t go anywhere of any consequence. From the beginning of the film you’re meant to believe that Kris is the main character, only for her to be killed off at about forty minutes into the film. Bayer is clearly trying to pull a Psycho on his audience here but it falls flat as Kris is so boring we don’t care what becomes of her. It’s a shameful waste of twenty minutes running time which could have been spent on some much needed character development. Later on there are a couple of scenes in which the two remaining leads decide that they made Freddy’s crimes up, and that they have inadvertently killed an innocent man. Fifteen minutes later they find the scene of Freddy’s crimes and swiftly change their minds. It’s a pointless twist in the story that does nothing but make the film unnecessarily long.

In fact, the best way to utilise this wasted time would have to actually build up a semblance of atmosphere or suspense. NOES runs at such a fast pace (in part due to the ‘micro-naps’ idea) that it doesn’t have time to set up a sense of unease or tension. This results in the film’s ‘horror’ consisting of two things. Firstly jump scares which, yes, do what they say on the tin but don’t provide any lasting impact and get old extremely quickly. Secondly, an over-use of gratuitous violent special effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love gore as much as the next twenty two year-old male, but it has to be built up to in order to be satisfying or even taken remotely seriously. In NOES you can tell this splatter hungry effects are being used as a shortcut to shock rather than horrify.

There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the portrayal of Freddy. Purists may scoff at the idea of anyone other than Robert Englund playing Krueger but the fact is that Jackie Earle Haley makes for an inspired and menacing replacement. We’ve already seen Haley play deranged lunatics before in the likes of Shutter Island and Watchmen but with Krueger he becomes a truly malevolent force to be reckoned with. His voice is just the right side of Christian Bale’s Batman growl and the way he twitches his knife fingers is truly creepy.

The best part of Haley’s Freddy is that, as previously mentioned, he’s not played for laughs. Sure, he gets plenty of one liners but (for the most part) they’re not overtly comedic as to underplay the horrific tone of the film. Nevertheless there is one fairly troubling trait the screenwriters have brought to their new version of the character, and that’s the handling of his paedophilic tendencies. I’m not against the idea that Freddy was a paedophile instead of a child killer (personally I’d always read that into the character anyway) but it’s his quips towards the end of the film that I take particular issue with. Lines such as, “How's this for a wet dream?” and, “Your mouth says no but your body say yes” boarder on the distasteful.

Some of the nightmare sequences are also well presented and fittingly surreal. The editing between worlds, snowing bedrooms and hallways full of tar all look the part and recall what made the original so brilliantly twisted. That said other scenes, such as when Freddy is coming out of wall or a classroom turning to ash, have been created with some frankly appalling CGI which looks embarrassingly bad. NOES is also a well shot film. Whilst it may not break from the stylistic rule book the film-makers have gone for a grimy, downtrodden look which complements the subject well. In the end though, neither Haley nor a handful of well executed scenes can save NOES from being exactly what it is; a truly sad excuse for a horror film.

Final Verdict: 2/10

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)


Plot Summary: Billionaire Tony Stark must contend with deadly issues involving the government, his own friends, as well as new enemies due to his superhero alter ego Iron Man.

Before 2008, who really knew about one of Marvel’s minor characters, ‘Iron Man’? Who even knew of the director, Jon Favreau? Very few, that’s who. Even Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t broken into the Hollywood big league yet. The release of Iron Man changed all of this, earning almost $600 million at the international box office, as well as being critically lauded and making overnight stars of everyone involved. Although when the inevitable cries for a sequel were heard, things quickly became troubled.

Favreau’s unlikely to return as director, oh no, he’s back. Terrence Howard has been fired; he’s to be replaced by Don Cheadle. Emily Blunt’s been cast, oh wait, she’s off the project. With all the issues over whom gets paid what, production schedules and casting, it’s a minor miracle that Iron Man 2 even saw the light of day at all. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 has come out at the other end of the tunnel retaining all the wit and exuberance of the original and is overall a worthy, if not spectacular, successor to Iron Man.

The film opens with, somewhat strangely, the worst scene in the entire film; the introduction of Vanko tending to his terminally ill father in Russia. This scene is filled with so much over-the-top Russian stereotyping (Vanko drinking vodka from the bottle in a snow drenched, crummy apartment building) and hammy acting (Mickey Rourke’s Darth Vader moment) that it’s embarrassingly bad. After this false start, however, the film picks up its feet and begins proper as we’re dropped headfirst into the Stark Expo along to the blisteringly energetic sounds of AC/DC.

The original Iron Man wouldn’t have been nearly as good if it were not for the characterisation of Stark as a man with an egotistical, eccentric yet brilliant mind and Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect fit to embody such a mind. The enthusiasm and maddening determination Downey brought to Tony Stark made the film and it’s no different this time around. Just as before his performance in Iron Man 2 is ridiculously enjoyable to watch, and this is not meant as a criticism, but so much so that he’s probably responsible for at least half of the films overall entertainment value. That said, the new additions to the cast are themselves particularly impressive.

Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, outdoes his predecessor by miles. Not just because his character is given more narrative prominence but because Cheadle is the all-round better actor; bringing a greater sense of authority and, when needed, comedic charm to the character. Mickey Rourke (save for the aforementioned emotional outburst) brings just the right amount of weird to his villainous Vanko and manages to deliver some of the best lines in the film. Meanwhile Sam Rockwell excels as the tragically comic Hammer, a man desperate to outdo Stark but without the means necessary, and Scarlett Johansson delivers a surprisingly kick-ass (not to mention easy on the eyes) turn as Tony’s new assistant, Natalie Rushman.

Favreau hasn’t lost his knack for fun, kinetic action sequences either. The director has always injected his fight scenes with a sense of humour and these moments elevate IRON MAN 2 from just being men in robot suits smacking one another. It’s the films first outburst of flames, during Stark’s eleventh hour decision to compete at Monaco, which really stands out though. Whiplash enters the course on foot, tearing up race cars left and right with a thoroughly frightening sense of determination, all shot in brilliantly realised slow-motion. It’s during this moment that we most fear for Stark and it’s a truly breathtaking piece of cinema. Scarlett Johansson also gets in on the action later on when she infiltrates Hammer’s facility. We watch as she effortlessly cuts through security guards one by one, like a hot knife through butter. It’s an impressively choreographed and memorable sequence which will surely leave audiences with their jaws resting firmly on the floor.

The special effects are also well worth a mention. The CGI in Iron Man was definitely up to the task but there were a few rough moments which unfortunately took you out of the moment. With Iron Man 2 this is not the case whatsoever. The technical and visual achievements in this sequel are some of best to date and make every scrape, blow and explosion that bit more believable. This is not to say that the film relies solely on its visuals as the script is as sharp as ever. Stark’s witty banter with his detractors continues to be a highlight of the Iron Man franchise as Stark goes toe to toe against Senator Stern and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson gets a lot more screen time round and the film is all the better for it) in two particularly hilarious scenes.

Pacing, on the other hand, is not the films strongest point. The narrative is propelled well to begin with but after Whiplash’s first attack on Stark the film becomes a little muddled, scattershot and dare I say it, boring. At the mid-point in the movie there are several plot points developing simultaneously, none of which are exceptionally interesting or well developed, and it almost feels as if you’re just waiting for the climactic battle sequence to begin. When it does arrive it’s highly enjoyable but, and just like the first film, is over far too quickly.

This leads me to my next criticism; lack of threat. There is one point, and one point only, in which the audience are under any real doubts as to whether Stark will make it out alive and that’s near the beginning. After that the film becomes very predictable as you realise that none of Iron Man’s opponents are going to put him in any tangible danger whatsoever. However, both these issues are forgiveable in the face of the larger picture, that of a fun, amusing and exciting slice of blockbuster superhero cinema.

Final Verdict 8/10