Posts Tagged ‘Chris Morris’

The actor, writer, director and much else Chris Morris surely landed himself a place on the worth-keeping-an-eye-on list of any sensible person many, many years ago, following his work on On the Hour, The Day Today, Brass Eye, Jam, and much else – this is before we even get to his 2009 movie Four Lions, a film which takes some of the most dubious subject matter imaginable and still manages to be thoughtful, touching, and above all very funny. Suffice to say that expectations were high for his new film, The Day Shall Come. It should not come as a great surprise that the new film has been written, directed, and co-produced by Morris himself; he’s that sort of perfectionist – nor should it really be a shock that much of the film was apparently made in secret in the Dominican Republic, given that Morris was briefly something of a hate-figure for the British tabloid press.

Not on the poster but still the biggest performer in the film (in terms of profile if not actual stature) is Anna Kendrick, who plays FBI agent Kendra Glack. Based out of Miami, Glack is predominantly concerned with a peculiar string of operations where the FBI, for reasons of publicity and political expediency, engages in what is obviously entrapment of a string of nobodies, encouraging them to commit terror-related offenses so they can then swoop in and heroically arrest them at the last minute. No-one on the team seems minded to question the deeply compromised nature of their activities.

Next up on the task force’s list of targets is Moses Al Shabazz (Marchant Davis), who may be a cult leader, might be a preacher, is definitely a psychiatric patient who’s stopped taking his meds, but certainly isn’t any kind of threat to the fabric of society (no matter how fondly he thinks of himself as one). Moses lives in a commune/mission/farm in the middle of the Miami projects, practising a bizarre syncretic religion venerating an amalgamation of Jesus, Allah, ‘Black Santa’ and General Toussaint L’Ouverture. At first he seems a hapless, delusional figure, but one of the points the film makes (if perhaps not strongly enough) is that he has, in a small way, been a force for social good, persuading a number of young men to give up their gang lifestyle and guns and join his ‘movement’; he is also clearly a loving husband and father.

Still, farming in inner-city Miami is not exactly booming and the commune is forced to live off discarded food scavenged from local fast food restaurants, while there is also the issue of paying the rent on the mission building. And thus Moses falls into the orbit of the FBI and its network of collaborators and informants. Completely against his principles and the wishes of his wife (Danielle Brooks), Moses finds himself urged to engage in all kinds of dubious dealings – accepting guns from fictitious IS-supporting sheikhs, acting as middle-man in sales of nuclear material, and so on, in exchange for rent money for his home. But can he actually go through with it? And if he does, are the authorities competent enough to actually arrest their man?

You can definitely see the similarities between The Day Shall Come and Four Lions – Moses and his followers are the same kind of hapless fantasists as the earlier film’s wannabe jihadist martyrs – but I regret to say that it seems to me that the new film falls considerably short of the same standards. To be honest, it’s the first thing I can remember Morris being responsible for which is actually sub-par, in the sense that you can kind of see what it’s trying to do, but it’s also very clear that it’s just not succeeding.

You can see the film comes from a serious place, wanting to explore and expose the absurd workings of the American justice system, and doubtless also touch on issues of race and prejudice in modern America. But the thing is the film is also obviously attempting to function as a genuine comedy as well. There’s nothing wrong with doing comedy about serious issues, especially if you’re a satirist (which is probably one of the things Morris has on his passport), but with any kind of comedy the bottom line is that you have to be funny. That’s the entry fee, the sine qua non of the form. The Day Shall Come is just not consistently funny enough to work on those terms. There are certainly some amusing moments, and you can make out the kind of absurdist, Kafkaesque satire it probably wants to be – but, and these are words I never really expected to be typing, Morris seems to be trying a bit too hard to court a mainstream audience, including various sight-gags and other obvious bits of business, presumably to compensate for the fact that much of the plot is relatively complex and serious. It’s okay to be funny about serious issues; many great films have been the result. But far too often The Day Shall Come is just self-consciously silly, and the resulting tonal mismatch really does the film no favours at all.

It’s also a problem that the film never quite takes off as a piece of cinema, either – obviously, there is a developing storyline which builds up to a proper climax, but this always feels rather more like a string of comedy sketches of varying quality. For a film about such American issues, it always feels curiously British in sensibility, regardless of the fact the only British performer prominent in it is Kayvan Novak. It also feels like a film which is concerned with issues which would have felt much more urgent ten or fifteen years ago – if you want to do satire about the US government now, well, good luck in finding a way to be more depressingly absurd than reality: the inner workings of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security really feel like quite small potatoes.

Still, Morris clearly feels quite passionate about this, even if it’s hard to share his commitment to it. I’m struggling to find very positive things to say, obviously, but the film does manage to hold together as a narrative and you can glimpse the clever, absurd film he was looking to create. I should also say that Anna Kendrick is obviously working immensely hard to lift the material she has been given. Passion and hard work can only take you so far, though. It’s a little difficult to work out what exactly has gone wrong with The Day Shall Come, beyond the fact that it’s just not funny or clever enough, but go wrong it certainly has.

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Sometimes you hear about the concept of a movie and instinctively think ‘That’s an appalling idea, it can’t possibly work,’ despite all evidence to the contrary: doing a heart-warming musical romance about the Nazi anschluss, or making a silent film in Academy format nearly a century after the form was made obselete both sound highly dubious undertakings, but the films in question did all right for themselves.

There’s something different about the pitch for Chris Morris’ Four Lions which still causes you to catch your breath: throughout his career as a writer and director, Morris has been a provocateur at least as much as an actual comedian, but the idea of doing a comedy about suicide bombers… it’s like suggesting doing a comedy about cot death or ethnic cleansing; you wonder how they can possibly have even thought of the idea. Still, I suppose that’s why we have words like visionary in the language, to describe people who aren’t afraid to have ideas like that.

This film, the blackest kind of farce imaginable, tells the everyday story of a group of radicalised Muslims living in the north of England. Their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), and his friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) go off to Pakistan to attend an al-Qaeda training camp: but this does not go well and they are forced to fly home under something of a cloud. Omar decides to reassert his authority over the group, and assuage some of the uncertainty he himself feels, by planning and executing a suicide bombing attack against a spectacular target in the UK itself.

So, as you can see, it doesn’t sound like a barrel of fun. But this is, barely credibly, an extremely funny film, but also a rigorously intelligent and profoundly humane one. Discussing it with a colleague, he expressed a certain disappointment that the comedy here is not as lacerating as in some of Chris Morris’ other work: but getting the tone right must have been immensely difficult, as simply ridiculing the wannabe terrorists would just be simplistic.

There is a definite element of Dad’s Army in how the group is portrayed – Omar’s personal tragedy is that his followers are all idiots. In addition to Waj, who is just very, very thick, Omar’s group includes Hassan (Arsher Ali), a clueless poseur, Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), whose plan is to train crows to fly into buildings while wearing little exploding waistcoats, and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam who, in addition to having some rather peculiar issues of his own, seems somewhat conflicted (his barely-rationalised masterplan involves bombing a mosque). All of these are very funny characters, extremely well written and portrayed, with Lindsay particularly good.

But the wider tragedy of the film, and what makes it so genuinely involving and actually quite affecting, is that Omar himself is not an idiot. The easy pitch is that ‘Four Lions is a comedy about suicide bombers’ – and it is, but it’s also an attempt to figure out why it is that an intelligent young man would be willing to do something like that. Whatever true subversiveness Four Lions possesses lies not in its jokes about suicide bombing per se (there are hardly any) nor in its swipes against the government’s response to terrorism, but in its presentation of Omar not as some frothing jihadi psychopath but a genuinely likeable guy, saddled with a gang of morons. He’s not a comedy caricature or stooge like the other characters, but someone much more plausible.

As a result the humour of some of his scenes only registers intellectually, particularly those where we see him with his wife and son. Both of them fully support him in his plans for violent martyrdom. ‘You were a lot more fun when you were going to blow yourself up,’ says his wife (Preeya Kalidas) when his resolve falters and his mood darkens – but she herself is saying it as a joke. Suicide has become so devalued for these people, such a fact of life – and yet in many ways they seem so normal. In a further brilliant stroke, Morris introduces Omar’s brother, an (on the face of it) much more strictly observant Muslim, who utterly disapproves of what Omar is planning – but Omar comes across as the more likeable and ‘normal’ person by far.

Morris deftly skips between thought-provoking scenes like these and much broader comic material for most of the film, and as a result can get away with some breathtakingly audacious changes of tone: the genuinely moving scene where Omar goes to say goodbye to his wife is followed by one of the film’s most outrageous moments of black comedy, the group singing along to pop songs on the radio while en route to commit a terrorist atrocity.

Obviously I should not say too much about the climax of this film, except to say that – as one would expect – the laughs dry up, and events collapse into chaos and confusion on every level, from the authorities’ response to the attitudes of the bombers themselves. You could perhaps argue that Morris goes too far in his presentation of Omar here, giving him a decency and humanity genuine suicide bombers must be lacking – but the end of the film feels logical and natural, the final bomb detonation and the accompanying suicide not a moment of triumph but one of despair and defeat.

There aren’t many films that seem to get better every time I watch them, but with its incredibly assured handling of its subject matter and its perfectly-judged mixture of farce, tragedy, emotion and thoughtfulness, Four Lions is one of them. If it ultimately fails to get to the heart of its subject – why exactly would someone genuinely decide that blowing themselves up is their best option? – then this is only because such decisions are made somewhere beyond the realm of logic and reason – and to go there is to go beyond not just the limits of comedy, but in some way the limits of humanity itself.

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