November 8, 2010

Four Lions, Despicable Me, The Prestige, Scoop, Gentlemen Broncos

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010): We were never lucky enough to see Chris Morris’ TV work in New Zealand, only the local shows that the likes of Brass Eye and The Day Today heavily influenced (Eating Media Lunch most obviously) and that earlier scarcity may be one of the reasons local critics – and American critics – have generally been more enthusiastic and less jaded about Morris’ feature film debut, the Jihadist comedy Four Lions, than British ones. Ben Walters at Sight and Sound liked it but much of the British press response has been surprisingly tepid (it could also have something to do with relative distance from the events it sends up). In any case, from way over here, the film is brave, funny and insightful. Morris’ comic-subversive view, expressed in a statement in the June 2010 Sight and Sound, is that “terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams” -- or, he could have said, the core casts of sitcoms (the leader, the zealot, the doofus, and so on). Four Lions is more or less a sitcom rendering of a terror attack not dissimilar to the 2005 London bombings – with four men travelling to London from a northern city, just as the July 7 bombers did. The inevitable this-is-like-that description is that just as This is Spinal Tap is to, say, The Song Remains the Same, so Four Lions is to Paradise Now or The Road to Guantanamo. And that’s not glib: in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now there was a lot of business about the bombers needing to get their martyrdom videos just right, an acknowledgement that the media strategy is inseparable from the bombing strategy. Thus, Four Lions opens with botched takes and re-takes of martyrdom videos, then a cut to one of the terrorists – Omar, the smartest – explaining to his wife that this is the blooper reel (the irony of modernity-hating terrorists frequently seeing themselves as stars of their own movies, video games and even Disney stories is a recurring satiric target). Three years of post-July 7 research apparently convinced Morris that “terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks” – note that you would get much the same ideology/berk ratio if you made a film of, say, Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist – and while it’s refreshing to see terrorists treated less as criminal masterminds, rebels with a cause or the “horrorists” that Martin Amis has nightmares about (Morris, of course, was famous for this hilarious takedown of Amis’ terror obsessions, where the relatively serious point made was that even Jihadists can be satirised), you also suspect that, three years of research or not, the end result could never have been much different. Send-ups are what Morris does.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, 2010): The CGI 3D Despicable Me takes the villain’s perspective – Gru is voiced by Steve Carell as though he were auditioning for a Bela Lugosi biopic – and while the debt to Up, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and probably a dozen other profitable kids’ movies from the past decade is apparent, there is some genuine strangeness and even personality here too. If post-Shrek kids’ films are the Hollywood machine at its most cynical and generic, all I can say is: I’ve seen worse.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) and Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006): It’s been said that Christopher Nolan’s real interest is in complicated experiments in cinematic time and storytelling and that only by marrying those experiments to traditional Hollywood ideas about motivation (a heist in Inception, a murder mystery in Memento, a romantic triangle in The Prestige) can his experimentalism be funded. Perhaps. In The Prestige, adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, and overall a more satisfying film than Inception, there are the same deepening layers of story – that sense of both going back in cinematic time and sinking into it, here through voice-over storytelling by one character (played by Nolan regular Michael Caine); then within that story, diary-based storytelling, and within that again, further diary-based storytelling (diaries read by another Nolan regular, Christian Bale, and a novice, Hugh Jackman). In its wilful complexity and visual richness – a field of lightbulbs and a field of top hats are beautiful and initially inscrutable images that are returned to repeatedly until they are explained (another Nolan trick), there are opulently recreated scenes in 19th century theatres – the Nolan film it most resembles is again Inception. The same hermetic gravity, the same fatalism, the same complete seriousness about both its loopy premise – magic, this time – and the rules the story creates and then must follow.
Bale and Jackman play magicians working in parallel, trying to outdo each other as they perfect the ultimate trick, which involves dematerialising and rematerialising on stage. Nolan refuses to take the supernatural at face value and, again like Inception, much of his story's complexity is in the “how” of these tricks and their psychic and/or physical cost. But it’s also metaphorical, surely – in both films, the entire story is really a complicated trick played on the audience by Nolan as magician or conman (same thing). The film’s era – the late 19th century, heading into the 20th – was also the birth of cinema and Bale and Jackman’s magicians are risking everything to fool audiences in ways that, within years, would be relatively easy and entirely painless for showmen like Nolan’s predecessors.
Scarlett Johansson plays the assistant that both magicians fight over. How to explain that in the same year, Woody Allen also made a London-set film about magic starring both Jackman and Johansson? In Scoop, Allen casts himself as the magician and reminds us of why he has (wisely) farmed most of his comic acting out lately. Allen is easily the worst thing about this flaccid, often ridiculous film, his second London movie after the unusually watchable philosophical thriller Match Point (in which Johansson appeared but not Allen; there was a charismatic performance from an unscrupulous Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The plot of Scoop depends on Johansson’s wannabe journalist finding herself at one of the creaky performances of Allen’s semi-senile illusionist (below: here's one he prepared (40 years) earlier). Pulled out of the audience and into a trick, she steps instead into a netherworld in which a recently deceased investigative journalist gives her a hot tip for a career-making story. And then things really get unlikely. But this is what you note: while The Prestige spends two or more hours straining to work out a balance between new frontiers of science – personified by the maverick Nikola Tesla (in a real coup, David Bowie) -- and the supernatural, Allen simply takes communication between the afterlife and this place here for granted. In every way, Scoop feels like The Prestige’s absurd comic double.

Gentlemen Broncos (Jared Hess, 2009): Single-minded auteurs? No-one could ever accuse Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) of not pursuing his personal visions as far as they take him and never mind the consequences. Which is admirable even if you note that his set-ups are better than his storytelling and at less than 90 minutes, Gentlemen Broncos still drags. But the first 20 or so of those minutes roll out easily: Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is an awkward – what else? – teenager working through his absent-dad and weird-mom issues in an elaborate, homemade sci-fi series, The Yeast Lords, which is then plagiarised by a washed-up, pompous fantasy author desperate for a new idea (very nicely played by Jemaine Clement, below, said to be speaking in the voice of James Mason’s Captain Nemo). At the same time, two clueless local film-makers adapt Yeast Lords, so we get to see three versions of Purvis’ berserk, sub-Dune space opera running simultaneously. Too much? Maybe. Call it an affectionate but often uncomfortable treatment of the kitsch end of sci-fi fandom or the comedy of outsider embarrassment minus the hipsterism of Hess’ more feted contemporaries – people like Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. Crucial difference: where Jonze gets Karen O to soundtrack his childhood-symbolism daydream (Where the Wild Things Are), Hess plunders the worst of meaningful FM rock: Zager and Evans, Kansas, Scorpions. Did you ever think you would hear “Wind of Change” by Scorpions as though someone actually meant it?