Note: a number of films from HCE carry an official release date of 21.10; none, however, are going into a wide release at this time. These include the Kristin Stewart-Dakota Fanning rock´n´roll drama The Runaways, Michael Winterbottom’s controversial The Killer Inside Me, Scott Hicks’ The Boys are Back, starring Clive Owen, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, and the film reviewed below, Four Lions. These films are screening in one-off showings at Aero, Oko, and other cinemas around the Czech Republic in the coming weeks.
Also opening: Despicable Me (showtimes | IMDb), a 3D animated film featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, and Russell Brand. It’s screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, but you can catch it in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům. Check back this weekend for a review.
And: Občanský průkaz (Identity Card, showtimes), a Czech comedy from director Ondřej Trojan. You can catch it with English subtitles at Cinestar Anděl’s Gold Class.
An audacious and original premise leads to some uproariously funny moments in Christopher Morris´ Four Lions, but an inconsistent tone and sometimes-unconvincing portrayal of the subject matter left me with mixed feelings about the film as a whole. Still, it´s undeniably entertaining and absolutely worthwhile: this is something we haven´t seen before, and are unlikely to see again in the future.
The premise: a group of British jihadists plots a major terrorist act. The twist: they´re a bunch of bumbling Three Stooges-like idiots (or more precisely, they´re about as intelligent as the gang in It´s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the leader of the group; his #2 man Waj (Kayvan Novak) is a complete dolt who seems to lack even the most basic common sense. Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white working-class Brit, would like to see himself as the leader while making ill-advised public appearances (“hide in plain sight”), while Hassan (Arsher Ali) pulls satiric stunts and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) wears a cardboard box over his head while making a terrorist video. Together, they plot to destroy a drugstore? A mosque? The internet? The specifics still need to be worked out
Now, instead of devolving into a full-on comedy that derives laughs from watching the terrorists blow themselves up, director Morris presents everything disarmingly straight-faced; the characters may be dumb, but everything surrounding them is deadly real. The best comparison would be to a Christopher Guest film (This is Spinal Tap), or to Kubrick´s Dr. Strangelove, which the director shot in a matter-of-fact style while letting the ridiculous nature of the situation speak for itself.
The tone of Four Lions keeps wavering between light comedy and serious terrorist drama, and never quite finds a solid middle ground. We build up an emotional connection to the characters that Morris doesn´t really know what to do with; I got the impression through most of the film that the characters didn´t really take all the terrorism so seriously, but no, there they are at the end with explosives strapped to their chests (disguised, mind you, as an ostrich, a Honey Monster, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and an upside-down clown.)
More problematic for me was the presentation of the characters and the reasons (or lack thereof) for their actions. Take Omar: he´s a young, loving father who seems to enjoy the spoils of capitalism, a progressive Muslim who treats his wife as an equal (his brother, on the other hand, won´t sit down in the same room as his wife). So why does Omar want to become a suicide bomber? There´s simply no explanation offered – he´s a terrorist, and that´s that. There are a number of points to be satirized here, including the perception of all Muslims as potential terrorists, but none that would make the character convincing, or the story cohesive.
Four Lions is director Morris´ debut feature, but in England he´s a well-known satirist, writer, actor (The IT Crowd), and “media terrorist” who produced Brass Eye and The Day Today. While those familiar with his work may come away from Four Lions disappointed, others should find a wealth of rich material: this is risky and provocative comedy, and while it may not gel as a whole, it´s hilarious often enough to make up for it.
Note: beware thick British accents and liberal use of slang, which can sometimes lead to indecipherable dialogue, particularly for non-native speakers.