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Posts Tagged ‘Riz Ahmed’

From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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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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