Monday 31 May 2010

In passing: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Given his fascination with contemporary art, it's perhaps apt that Dennis Hopper - who died of prostate cancer yesterday, aged 74 - should have shared a name with one of the foremost American painters of his time. You sense, however, that the canvasses of Edward Hopper would be altogether too serene for this most restless of talents - that Hopper, D. would have found himself more at home within the world of Banksy's "Nighthawks" and then, such was the reporting of the actor-writer-director's off-screen antics, we'd all know which side of the glass he'd have been on. Hopper's passing marks the severing of yet another link between two very distinct movie worlds: between old Hollywood and new Hollywood, Easy Rider and Speed, studio contracts and straight-to-video fodder, the Method and the madness.

After a number of TV appearances, Hopper made his movie debut in the role of "Goon" in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, and though he would claim that watching James Dean at work (both here and in the later Giant) would be the formative experience of his professional life, the bulk of his career from the late 1970s onwards would be devoted to playing variations on the goon theme. Hopper would typically be cast as middle-to-low-ranking thugs or heavies - albeit thugs or heavies who, while never too far away from the most horrific violence, were possessed of a manic, mocking, cultured spring in their step: think of his prophet-photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979), equally snapping at and riffing on the carnage around him, and in doing so providing the perfect warm-up act for Brando.

In the 1980s, Hopper essayed a string of variably monstrous, sometimes Oedipal father figures, incarnating the dark side of Reagan's America: the dad in Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), surrogate father to that film's cast of outsiders and mavericks; savage and brilliant as hyperventilating gangster Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986), certain scenes from which remain all but unwatchable to this day; quietly chilling (and affecting) the same year in Tim Hunter's underrated River's Edge, as a murderer offered up as the moral centre of that zeitgeist-bucking teen-oriented drama just for having actually felt something when he killed.

If I feel obliged to mention he also played King Koopa in the ill-fated Super Mario Bros. movie, it's only to highlight how wayward and frustrating Hopper could sometimes be in his choices; his best performances came in patches, sudden spells of clarity after long nights of drink-muddled wrong-headedness. There was a revival in the early 90s, as the trend for neo-noir and Tarantinian thrillers took hold - he was there, atypically avuncular and supportive in True Romance (1993); catching the tone of John Dahl's knowing Red Rock West (1993); back to something like his taunting best in 1994's Speed - and one final flourish in the early Noughties, emerging as Victor Drazen, very worst of the very worst, in the final hours of the superior first series of TV's 24.

Parallel to all this was the fitful directorial career, equally cursed and blessed by Hopper's restlessness. I remain unconvinced on Easy Rider's merits: sure, it looked and sounded good, there can be no denying it tapped successfully into the '68 generation's dopey sense of martyrdom, and it forced studio bosses to get on board with its underlying program of rebellious youth, but - as David Thomson correctly pointed out - this latter means we now have to sit through one or more 12A-rated movie a week painfully and obviously targeting the disposable income of brain-dead adolescents. (Put it this way: no Easy Rider, no The Losers.) Better was 1971's The Last Movie, where the finished feature very nearly managed to rival the stories emanating from behind the camera.

The very intriguing (and sadly out of circulation) Out of the Blue (1980) was both a product of, and touchstone for, an independent Hollywood: Hopper cast Linda Manz, the girl from Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, as his onscreen daughter; in so doing, he inspired Harmony Korine to cast Manz as the mother in his later Gummo. Yet 1990's Catchfire (a.k.a. Backtrack), with Jodie Foster, fizzled out under the Alan Smithee pseudonym; and the same year's (better) The Hot Spot and 1994's (much worse) Chasers felt like exercises in leering over the nubile forms of Jennifer Connelly and Baywatch alumna Erika Eleniak respectively; try as he might, the director could never quite leave the rogue in him on the roadside.

In recent times, the Hopper legend of drink-and-drug-fuelled excess - he simply went missing for four years in the 1970s - was picked over in such retro-artefacts as Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and the fun Aussie film Not Quite Hollywood. There was tabloid tittle-tattle involving his later wives, and a fair amount of lazy, DVD-destined dross, much of which can now be gleaned running on ITV4 in the wee hours, should you be so inclined. Offset against all this was Hopper's smart, informed appearances in such artworld documentaries as Sketches of Frank Gehry and The Cool School, about the Californian pop art scene of the 50s and 60s. Behind the mayhem, there was a trained and discerning eye that always made Hopper fun to watch; there'll be a gallery opening somewhere beyond the stars tonight, and the host will be weighing up whether to serve white wine or water.

"Sex and the City 2": a deeper penetration

[This review is a longer version of that published in The Scotsman on May 28, 2010, available here:]

And yea, their contractual wrangles and personality clashes having been resolveth, the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse did ride again. With the exception of one xenophobia-enabling fiesta in Mexico, 2008's first SATC feature confined its extended-hen-party ghastliness to domestic soil. This sequel embarks in a form of Sex tourism, eventually dispatching the girls and their Louis Vuitton cases to Abu Dhabi, where you wouldn't be surprised if their sniggering permissiveness (here's Samantha, sucking suggestively on a hookah pipe!) and karaoke renditions of "I Am Woman" led to calls for a jihad on certain fashion houses, or thoughts Sharia law might just have got some things right after all.

The running time, alas, remains almost exactly the same. Around half an hour of Sex and the City 2 is devoted to needless close-ups of watches and stiletto heels, as though the film were determined to replicate for its target audience the experience of flicking through a catalogue filled with items they'll never be able to afford. Writer-director Michael Patrick King makes one concession to any blokes obliged to tag along at this stage: the presence of a persistently braless Alice Eve - a promising TV and theatre actress in the UK, an itinerant pair of breasts (cf. last year's Crossing Over) in the States - as Charlotte's cartwheel-turning, insecurity-fostering Irish nanny.

Elsewhere, seguing from heavenly civil-partnership rites - cameos from Liza Minnelli and Garland impersonator Mario Cantone gilding an already altogether fabulous lily - to Carrie and Charlotte's domestic hells confirms this as a franchise that's gay- and fabric-friendly, yet deeply uncomfortable around anything conventionally straight. In the Carrie-verse, heterosexual sex has grown turgid and hard work. The thrusting of Samantha's latest stud ("I lay concrete," he growls; "That sounds promising," she coos; and we wonder how, exactly? Is Samantha's vagina so like a cement mixer, or one of those pelican's beaks they used for the purpose on The Flintstones?) is intercut with shots of a dog humping a pillow and the sound of Charlotte's baby screaming blue murder - hardly a context of erotic bliss.

It's from this backdrop, however, that a potential saviour emerges: Chris Noth's dependable and debonair Mr. Big, practically a nobody in the first film, whose sudden resistance to Carrie's superficial lifestyle appears not merely sane, but worthy of a whole new White Rose Movement. Not that King cares to recognise this. It's a sure sign a film's value system is all out of whack when Big can be vilified for daring to buy a modest flatscreen TV (SATC2's one essential purchase) in order that he and his lover can snuggle up in bed and watch old movies together. "A piece of jewellery would have been nice," is Carrie's reasoning, to which the entire multiplex - male/female, gay and straight - exclaims as one: you bitch.

It's only upon reflection you realise what King is doing in going after the man of Carrie's dreams: turning him into an analogue for all those supposedly spoilsport boyfriends and husbands who'd rather stay at home with their feet up on the couch than jump in the back of a pink limo and head down the Odeon. Once more, with its revenue streams coming under renewed attack, we find Hollywood attempting to make television the enemy - which seems doubly peculiar in a film so rooted in televisual discourse. As shrill, culture-trashing paeans to globalisation go, Carrie 2 proves marginally less enervating than its predecessor, but widescreen has killed any real or sustainable intimacy between these characters. Given the prevailing crassness, the scenes of sisterly bonding ring predominantly false, and Ms. Bradshaw herself seems more self-involved than ever beneath her expensively ludicrous rags.

There remains one glimmer of hope. At an after-party to which Carrie has dragged her man, we observe Big engaged in conversation with a glowing Penelope Cruz, and I'd like to believe that, while Carrie was off fretting boringly about her exes in the UAE, Big was offering Ms. Cruz an access-all-areas tour of his erstwhile girlfriend's walk-in wardrobe space. Otherwise, we finish back where this franchise started, with some light cross-promotion for the Time-Warner back catalogue: Carrie hailing a cab in Abu Dhabi by channeling Claudette Colbert's It Happened One Night thigh-flashing, in order to snuggle up before Cary Grant on Big's newly installed flatscreen. (See, told you it was worth it.) If Sex and the City 2 fails to satisfy its core audience, it's because it makes the one deviation those classics, or any other romantic fantasy worth its salt, would never allow: the hero ends up with the wrong dame.

Sex and the City 2 is on general release.

Friday 28 May 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 21-23, 2010:

1 (new) StreetDance (PG) ** [above]
2 (new) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
3 (1) Robin Hood (12A) **
4 (2) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
5 (new) Kites (12A) **
6 (6) Four Lions (15) **
7 (3) A Nightmare on Elm Street (18)
8 (4) Hot Tub Time Machine (15) ***
9 (new) The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (18) **
10 (7) The Back-Up Plan (12A)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Vincere
2. Lebanon
3. The Time That Remains
4. [REC]2
5. Heartless

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (4) The Road (15) ***
2 (1) Avatar (12) ***
3 (3) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
4 (new) Precious (15) *****
5 (new) Up in the Air (15) ****
6 (6) Harry Brown (18) **
7 (5) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
8 (8) 2012 (12) ***
9 (new) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
10 (2) Nowhere Boy (15) ****


My top five:
1. Precious
2. Up in the Air
3. Lion's Den
4. The Unloved
5. Departures

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. North By North-West (Tuesday, C4, 12.20pm)
2. Mary Poppins (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 1.05pm)
3. The Shootist (Saturday, five, 3.35pm)
4. Spider-Man (Sunday, five, 8pm)
5. Camp (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 3.05am)

Turn it on again: "[REC]2"

Emerging in UK cinemas in early 2008, the Spanish horror pic [REC] had TV cameras following a fire crew into a Barcelona apartment block where the residents were busy developing rabid tendencies; a genre-savvy effort that shuttled its players up and down between levels, like avatars in a computer game, it was enough, at least, to catch the eye of Sony Pictures' Screen Gems division, who remade it (more or less shot-for-shot) as Quarantine within the year. If the original drew on The Blair Witch Project and Doom for its inspiration, then this sequel, again directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, models itself on Aliens by way of CSI, picking up where the first film left off by sending a crack SWAT team into the same building to investigate an incident scene that proves anything but secure.

Though [REC]2 suffers from the law of diminishing returns, rather cursory characterisation (none of the SWAT team has the breakout potential of Aliens' Private Hudson) and some shameless demographic-courting (with the introduction of a group of teenagers who just so happen to have found their way into a building we'd previously been told was completely sealed), tinkering with the concept fixes a glitch that hampered the effectiveness of the original. In [REC], we watched the mounting horror through the detached, third-person perspective of a documentary crew - and thus saw other people getting freaked out, from a vaguely reassuring distance. The action in [REC]2, however, is relayed via the SWAT team's helmet-cams, putting us closer to the carnage, and (in several instances) right there in the middle of it.

Essentially, the franchise has undergone an upgrade, and [REC]2's formal games with cameras (the continual switching on and off, the image dropout, the frames-within-frames) are more sophisticated and dynamic than those effectuated in Blair Witch; it's a conceit that could only be pulled off in the age of digital technology and projection. Even when our heroes are clambering through heading ducts or stumbling around in night vision, the images sent back to us are pin-sharp - except when a lens is smashed, obliging the narrative to double back on itself in a similar fashion to last year's standout Spanish offering Timecrimes. "Record everything," somebody shouts in the maelstrom, "That's fundamental!" No surprise the last character standing is the one with the closest relationship to the recording device, and arguably the emptiest vessel of all.

In [REC]2, the camera becomes a tool for excavating the history of a building, its inhabitants, and the horror genre itself: one of our guides this time out is a doughty priest, landed with the bearing and gravitas of Max von Sydow in The Exorcist, whose mission to contain the mess left behind by his superiors (and keep at least one of the zombified inhabitants alive, in order to extract their blood for an antidote) sets him in direct conflict with the soldiers (whose orders are to shoot on sight) and the surviving civilians (whose aim is to get out unbitten). The theme of mismanagement by the Catholic church is just one way the film attempts to open itself out beyond the boundaries of genre; you sense Bunuel - not to mention any passing etymologist - would appreciate the name given to the little girl revealed here as the source of the infection: Tristana.

[REC]2 opens nationwide today.

The observer: "The Time That Remains"

It's been over a year now since Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains (subtitle: Chronicle of a Present Absentee) premiered to some acclaim at Cannes, and you can see why its distributors thought it might struggle to find a foothold among UK audiences: its themes at first appear less universal than region-specific, and then very much personal. We open with the director himself sitting in the back of a cab heading we know not where; when flashflooding obliges the driver to make a U-turn, so too Suleiman begins to rewind in his head.

The bulk of the film, set out in a series of comic vignettes, is a history of the Suleiman family, from the Israeli invasion of their hometown Nazareth in 1947 to the present day. Sketches introduce us to the key characters within this household: the debonair, gunrunning father Fu'ad; his loving, nurturing wife; Aunt Olga, with her dodgy eyes and increasingly dotty mind; the family's alcoholic neighbour, whose idea of downtime is to douse his body with petrol and threaten to set himself alight; and little Elia himself, a precocious, inquisitive tyke with a head already firmly in the clouds, who's taken aside by his headmaster at one point for outing America as a colonialist force in class.

As a filmmaker, Suleiman has retained something of the dreamer and the joker about him: suggesting the invasion and subsequent occupation of the West Bank was an absurd and ill-founded (if deadly) endeavour, he keeps his camera at the same distance from the action as the cinema's slapstick pioneers, and thus presents us with history as pratfalls and sight gags. One woman rushes in to greet the invaders effusively, and is promptly shot for her troubles; a Palestinian dresses up his wife as a hitchhiking Israeli soldier to satisfy a fetish, only to see her picked up by another car; a resident of latter-day Nazareth takes a call on his mobile, oblivious to the tank parked directly behind him.

Such droll, deadpan follies are an acquired comic taste, and the lack of political and historical context Suleiman provides may be an issue for those of us with little to no grounding in Middle Eastern history. There is a kerfuffle over something over something called "bulgur" ("bulgur for taboule", the subtitles attempt to clarify), a substance of which I'd genuinely never heard. And in the absence of the expected onscreen graphics explaining when exactly these events are unfolding, we're left to parse subtle changes in decor and costume in a bid to spot the time shifts. Once you've negotiated these hurdles, however, the film proves ineffably human, displaying real warmth in its characterisation. Fu'ad has something of the Fantastic Mr. Fox about him: sporty, crafty, fine-haired, forever one step ahead of the authorities.

The Time That Remains is one of those rare films that gets better as it goes along, in part because Suleiman has such a lovely, thoughtful way of describing time, and of reconciling his past and present selves. At one point, Suleiman's camera watches (at a distance) the teenage Elia watching (from his own safe distance) the scuffles between Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces on the streets below, showing signs of the detached observer he was to become; this teenage Elia delivers the Arab papers to the three men entrenched outside the local pub, and - in a later incarnation - we find Suleiman occupying one of these seats himself, watching the young men of the world striding by. Those distributors need not have worried unduly: the moral of Suleiman's film, dedicated to the director's parents and with a cherishable remix of "Stayin' Alive" over the end credits, is that it happens to us all.

The Time That Remains opens at selected cinemas today.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

On DVD: "Departures" and "The Unloved"

Given the American Academy’s spotty record when it comes to picking the Best Foreign Language Film, eyebrows were understandably raised at last year’s Oscars when unknown Japanese entry Departures triumphed over the likes of Waltz with Bashir and The Class. Did the voters get it right? If I say maybe, that’s only to underline the esteem in which I hold the other nominees: while Takita Yôjirô’s drama can’t claim to be as contemporary or incendiary as its rivals, it stands as every bit as human, if not more so. You reach the end credits with an urgent need to ring your parents, or hug your children.

Yôjirô’s protagonist, cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Matoki), has retreated to his hometown after his orchestra is disbanded due to falling audiences. Answering a situations-vacant looking for someone to “assist with departures”, Daigo thinks he’s getting into the travel business; the opening, however, is for a trainee mortician. The musician brings discipline and nimble fingers to the position, gaining a new-found appreciation of life in return: he’s suddenly unable to look at the chopped chicken his wife sets down for dinner, and - conversely - finds himself transfixed by the sight of salmon swimming upstream.

Not for the first time, a Japanese film is steeped in ritual: in this case, that of nokanshi, the art of cleansing and redressing corpses, as performed “live” before the funeral party. Sometimes this ceremony is cathartic, reducing one stern-faced husband to tears; sometimes it’s tragicomic, as when Daigo discovers the young woman in front of him is, anatomically at least, male. The film stresses its hero’s politeness and formality, but never quite lapses into conservatism: it grasps how susceptible we are to change, even as it sets out how connected we remain to the people around us.

Cynics might say Departures typifies the Academy’s tendency to laud films its constituents could imagine themselves making (or remaking) over anything truly challenging. Yet the considerable emotional pull here resides not in Yôjirô’s grandiose flourishes - one montage shows Daigo fiddling away on a mountaintop, like an extra in a BA commercial - but in its quiet compilation of warm, intimate, recognisable moments: a son setting down his cello in his absent father’s spike marks, say, or a husband trying to creep out to work on a winter’s morning without waking his wife - only for the latter to get up anyway, just to see him off.

Samantha Morton's directorial debut The Unloved - screened on Channel 4 in January 2009, and now taking a DVD bow after a theatrical run at the ICA earlier this year - is a haunting, semi-autobiographical account of life in the care system, and the tragedy of one broken home. Events are viewed from the perspective of 11-year-old Lucy (Molly Windsor), a quiet, introverted girl whom we first see being violently abused by her father (Robert Carlyle). Removed by the authorities after a school social worker discovers her physical scars, Lucy is thrown into the fractious, bewildering chaos of a Nottingham care home. A guide of sorts emerges in the form of Lauren (Lauren Socha), but though this surrogate big sister is convinced she has all the answers, it's Lucy who spots there's something amiss about Lauren's relationship with one of the carers.

We'd perhaps expect an intuitive intelligence such as Morton to be good with actors, and in this, she's chosen her recruits from Nottingham's The Television Workshop wisely indeed: she gets a heartbreaking performance from Windsor, who displays much the same spacey fragility as her director in her younger days; a hilariously tough and real-seeming turn from Socha; and a just plain hilarious one from Christopher Russell as the girls' housemate Connor, an irrepressible ginger tyke forever finding some new form of mischief with which to keep himself occupied.

Less expected - and here's where The Unloved reveals itself as more than mere television - is the attention given to the look, and the emotional textures, of the film. Morton's model appears to be the charged, subjective, sometimes magical realism of her Morvern Callar director Lynne Ramsay: the film's sense-memory knows what it is as a young girl to ride the top deck of a double-decker bus, to lie on hallway carpets staring up at the ceiling, to explore one's hometown at dawn, before anybody else has got up, or had the chance to notice someone's gone missing.

The imagery can seem forced or inorganic - Fish Tank's vision of kids slumped in front of My Super Sweet 16 feels more instantly credible than the sight of Lauren and Lucy snuggling up to watch L'Atalante - but there's a wealth of directorial patience and sensitivity to be discovered here; Morton has a particular way with rooms that don't seem empty so much as devoid of love. Compared to the raw, rough-edged, punchily instinctual Precious, with which it came to share listings space back in January, The Unloved's treatment of its abused heroine is altogether considered and poetic, but it's no less compassionate for that: few films have so successfully evoked the places victims of abuse go with their feet and in their heads.

Departures and The Unloved are available on DVD now.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

"Sex and the City 2" (The Scotsman 28/05/10)

Sex and the City 2 (15) **
Directed by: Michael Patrick King
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon

And yea, their contractual wrangles and personality clashes having been resolveth, the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse did ride again. With the exception of one xenophobia-enabling fiesta in Mexico, 2008’s debut SATC feature limited its hen-night ghastliness to domestic soil. This sequel engages in a form of Sex tourism, eventually dispatching the girls and their Louis Vuitton cases to Abu Dhabi, where you wouldn’t be surprised if their sniggering permissiveness (here’s Samantha, slurping suggestively upon a hookah pipe!) leads to calls for a jihad on certain fashion houses, or thoughts Sharia law might have got some things right all along.

Segueing from heavenly civil-partnership rites - where cameos from Liza Minnelli and Garland impersonator Mario Cantone gild an already somewhat fabulous lily - into Carrie and Charlotte’s domestic hells confirms this franchise as gay- and fabric-friendly, but deeply uncomfortable around anything conventionally straight: we’re invited to boo Chris Noth’s Mr. Big for wanting to snuggle up and watch old movies in bed. As shrill, culture-trashing paeans to globalisation go, Carrie 2 enervates less than its predecessor, but widescreen has killed any real or sustainable intimacy between these characters: Parker’s heroine appears more self-involved than ever beneath those expensively ludicrous rags.

Saturday 22 May 2010

From the archives: "Sex and the City"

[In what I hesitate to describe as anticipation of the sequel, which opens next Friday.]

I should, before anything else, register a conflict of (dis)interest: I saw about seven minutes of the pilot of the TV Sex and the City before switching off, thus sparing myself six seasons' worth of twitter about handbags, orgasms and penis size. Of all the HBO shows over the past decade that deserved one last, feature-length hurrah to tie up their few remaining loose ends - and you think of Oz, The Sopranos maybe, Deadwood especially - it's dismaying to think we should have ended up with this. Fans of the show should feel free to disregard everything that follows - for no other film this year will pander so wilfully to a pre-existing audience; the experience of watching it is like going over to a friend's house to watch several hours of a SATC boxset - but it struck me as useful, amongst all the puff and PR hype (the film is "a classic", according to Radio One DJ Edith Bowman), to put across an opposing point of view. After all, if four million people watch the show in the UK, that still leaves over fifty million of us who don't.

First of all, I can see why women might be drawn to the movie Sex and the City: aside from its upbeat, unequivocally escapist celebration of a particular lifestyle, the franchise would appear to be founded on female friendships that are almost incredibly forgiving and unbitchy. Each of the four characters can learn something from the other three; they can take turns to lean on one another when shoulders, padded or otherwise, are required. Fans will surely warm to a long sequence at the heart of the film where Carrie is coaxed out of a romantic depression by Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. (This show of feminine solidarity is only slightly undermined by the persistent rumours coming off set, and the four actresses' apparent unwillingness to be photographed together when they're not being paid for it.)

It concerns me not whether the show's women are drag queens, gay men in disguise, as has been mooted (it's a franchise that strives to make a virtue out of the business of people in closets), nor does it bother me unduly that the male characters (even the Mister Rights) are, to a man, impossibly dull and colourless. At the start of the film, Carrie is engaged to a construction worker, by the looks of things, and Samantha engaged with a vapid blonde stripper. (There are your closeted gay characters, right there: the straight men in Sex and the City could, with a little more spark about them, form their own Village People tribute act.)

The problem is this: none of it is remotely cinematic. The "film", such as it is, is shot like a TV show, written like a TV show (sketches, linked mainly by Carrie's voiceover; a liability in a two-hour-plus work, particularly one where everything stops an hour and forty-five minutes in so the characters can sit down and watch a fashion show), and performed like a TV show. Of course, if you're a fan of that TV show, again, none of this will matter, but I was reminded of Homer's comment in last year's The Simpsons Movie, which at least tried to fill the bigger screen with its camera perspectives and jokes of scale: "I can't believe there are suckers who would pay to see this when they can see it for free at home."

Even the costumes that were reportedly such a part of the show's appeal aren't made noticeably more flamboyant by the upgrade to the multiplex, though they come with cameos from fashion-world hangers-on, who prove in the main so anonymous they have to shamble on clasping their own monogrammed luggage in the hope of being recognised. (Thank you, "Andre Leon Talley", whoever the heck you are.) This is a curious oversight, as almost every other scene ends with somebody buying something: a dress, an engagement ring, an apartment. The film has a credit card statement where its heart should be; its moral, ultimately, is that money can't buy you love, but it can get you a whole lot else besides.

The bigger question here is whether we need this sort of thing during the moment of the deepest recession the West has faced for several decades, at a time when the majority of viewers are finding it increasingly hard to find two brass farthings (current market value: half a farthing each) to rub together. (The film is comical in its avoidance of consumer realities: we see Carrie has a copy of New York magazine, its headline "When Will The Real Estate Bubble Burst?", on her coffee table, but it's to Vogue, and an article on herself, she reaches for.) The romantic comedy has always been aspirational as a genre, but Sex and the City goes beyond that to become genuinely, alarmingly grasping and avaricious: it promotes a lifestyle only a Hollywood megastar like Sarah Jessica Parker could afford, encourages Christian Lacroix spending on a Primark budget.

I tried to find something to like about the film, some supporting turn, some moment in the dialogue, anything either funny or sexy, but I came up with nothing. In this money-grubbing context, a clip of Judy Garland singing "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis just looks like cross-promotion for the Time-Warner back catalogue, while Charlotte's cute-as-a-button, adopted Asian daughter appeared to be being touted, somewhat less than adorably, as this season's must-have accessory for uptown girls, a Third World brooch, as previously seen on the lapels of Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

It's on dodgy ground indeed whenever it leaves the boutiques behind. To deal with the franchise's whiteness, Carrie hires as her secretary Jennifer Hudson, really cashing in on her Dreamgirls cachet by getting to take dictation for an hour or so; she gets a handbag for her troubles, which may or may not be a step up from forty acres and a mule. And we're supposed to find it charming when all Charlotte's fears about the filthiness of Mexico are proved right with a loud case of the squits. Ah, poo gags and throwaway racism: together at last. This, then, is what a million-dollar movie budget gets you these days: gaudy, tasteless, glossily pernicious, pro-Botox, pro-waxing propaganda, a projection of women at their most synthetic. I just don't buy it.

Mike McCahill
May 28, 2008.

* Read the best printed review of the film yet - with the single greatest headline of any review this year, if not this decade - here:

Friday 21 May 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 14-16, 2010:

1 (new) Robin Hood (12A) **
2 (1) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
3 (3) A Nightmare on Elm Street (18)
4 (4) Hot Tub Time Machine (15) ***
5 (2) Furry Vengeance (PG)
6 (6) Four Lions (15) **
7 (5) The Back-Up Plan (12A)
8 (7) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
9 (8) The Last Song (PG) *
10 (9) Date Night (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Vincere
2. Lebanon
3. Heartless [above]
4. American: the Bill Hicks Story
5. Eyes Wide Open

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Avatar (12) ***
2 (9) Nowhere Boy (15) ****
3 (2) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
4 (new) The Road (15) ***
5 (3) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
6 (4) Harry Brown (18) **
7 (new) 44 Inch Chest (18) ***
8 (6) 2012 (12) ***
9 (new) Where the Wild Things Are (PG) ***
10 (7) An Education (12) ***


My top five:
1. Precious
2. Up in the Air
3. Lion's Den
4. The Unloved
5. Departures

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Untouchables (Sunday, C4, 10.35pm)
2. The Terminator (Sunday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
3. A Night to Remember (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)
4. Eyes Wide Shut (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. High Plains Drifter (Thursday, five, 9pm)

Saturday 15 May 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 7-9, 2010:

1 (1) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
2 (new) Furry Vengeance (PG)
3 (new) A Nightmare on Elm Street (18)
4 (new) Hot Tub Time Machine (15) ***
5 (new) The Back-Up Plan (12A)
6 (new) Four Lions (15) **
7 (2) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
8 (4) The Last Song (PG) *
9 (3) Date Night (15) ***
10 (5) Clash of the Titans (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Vincere
2. Lebanon
3. American: the Bill Hicks Story [above]
4. Eyes Wide Open
5. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Avatar (12) ***
2 (2) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
3 (3) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
4 (4) Harry Brown (18) **
5 (new) sex&drugs&rock&roll (15) ***
6 (7) 2012 (12) ***
7 (6) An Education (15) ***
8 (8) Up (U) ***
9 (new) Nowhere Boy(15) ****
10 (5) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **


My top five:
1. The Unloved
2. Departures
3. Nowhere Boy
4. Mugabe and the White African
5. It's Complicated

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
2. Rebel Without a Cause (Sunday, five, 12.25pm)
3. Red Rock West (Saturday, ITV1, 11.20pm)
4. The Breakfast Club (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. American Graffiti (Friday, ITV1, 2.25am)

Reading through the glen: On "Robin Hood"

In one of its earliest gestations, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood project was called Nottingham, and was all set to feature Russell Crowe in a dual role as both the fabled outlaw and the Sheriff of Nottingham - a bold conceit that might just have offered a historical take on the yin-yang crime-and-punishment games of Michael Mann's Heat.

Presumably it was the moneymen who nixed Nottingham as too conceptual for a planned summer-season release; yet while the stolidly traditional Robin Hood thankfully shies well clear of synergistic Bryan Adams songs, it could badly do with something extra: a little more Errol Flynn zip or Alan Rickman nostril, maybe, or some of the mischief either Dick (Robin and Marian) Lester or Tony (Maid Marian and Her Merry Men) Robinson brought to their own Sherwood Forests. In its ideal state, Robin Hood exists as a series of bulging ring binders lining the shelves of the Scott production office; everything it does, it does for the record.

We're back in 1199, and Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart, is at the forefront of an assault on another French castle; the booty successfully plundered, our hero ends up in the stocks for voicing concerns as to the holy mission they've been engaged on. (What a zeitgeisty script conference it must have been that day.) Cut to: the Tower of London, where King John (Oscar Isaac) is plundering some French booty of his own, having shut his good wife out of the marital bedchamber to romp with a pouting Gallic princess (Lea Seydoux). The battlelines are thus apparently drawn: where our Robin is all barrack-tent bonhomie and loyalty to his boys, John is licentious, dubiously patriotic, and oddly prone to walking round butt-naked in front of his own mother.

It's to the credit of Brian Helgeland's screenplay that the film never quite gives into this mainstream Manicheanism: it turns away from the antagonism between Robin and the authorities (Matthew Macfadyen's Sheriff is reduced to the standing of a bit player, waiting around helplessly on the sidelines even as his house is razed to the ground) in favour of a study of shifting allegiances (Robin and John end up fighting on the same side). Again, as has so often been the case in Scott's recent output, the film's real subject is power-broking, the sort of social interaction a producer-director might understand better than most.

Scott, once more, devotes himself to the logistics of the thing, getting to do with catapults and battering rams what his Body of Lies did with cellphones and satellites. Casting the never-smiling Cate Blanchett as a more womanly Marian than has previously been filmed - the widow of one of Robin's comrades-in-arms, she's obliged to do all her farm's milking and mucking-out herself - reveals the extent of the film's determination to get things right, or at least vaguely accurate: somewhere in the background of every scene, each encounter, lies a hundred or more hours of research into such topics as the precise components of 12th century mead, the kind of bawdy songs an itinerant soldier might trill, and the correct temperature of tar to toss off a castle's ramparts onto marauders below.

Somewhere closer to the foreground, alas, sits a nagging tone of pedantry: this is Sealed Knot filmmaking, never too far away from a flagon of Real Ale and the warm, wafting fuzz of masculine body odour. Scott has been down this route before, in 2005's Crusader chore Kingdom of Heaven, and we may yet get an even longer director's cut of Robin Hood on DVD; for Crowe, who extends to the title role his now-customary jovial approachability, it's something of a return to the meticulous period recreation of Peter Weir's Master and Commander. Here, though, all the fascination resides off-screen: in the history books Scott, Helgeland and Crowe must have devoured in pre-production, rather than the camera's passage through new and undiscovered worlds.

For a film notionally striking the sparks of rebellion, Robin Hood feels terribly pre-ordained, lacking in either spontaneity or the rabble-rousing this actor-director combo got up to in Gladiator a decade ago now. We get nondescript Merry Men, their roles downgraded in this telling to tagalong footnotes; as the King, the shouty and beardy Isaac mostly suggests Rufus Sewell was busy; and there's a token role for Max von Sydow - The Seventh Seal's knight errant - as Marian's shambling father. When a major studio release invokes Bergman in this fashion, you can be sure it's aiming for seriousness of a sort, but Robin Hood is so determined not to take any liberties or shortcuts through its chosen forest that it comes to seem entrenched and reactionary in its outlook: a movie desperate to avoid those anoraks who so delighted into pointing out the historical and geographic gaffes in 1991's character-defining Prince of Thieves.

Scott - baseball cap pulled on tight, cigar clamped between his teeth, like any other military commander of yore - knows exactly where we are, as the authentic period maps dividing up the action are so keen to demonstrate; when he turns his attention to the bigger picture, as in the pitched coastal battles of the final half-hour, his film achieves a rare combination of scale and integrity. Yet as we enter blockbuster season, I don't think it's too much to want to see more action and less working. I arrived at Robin Hood wanting to see the arrows fly, but this most grounded of event movies - an object lesson in the dangers that can follow with printing the truth over the legend - feels overly preoccupied with sourcing the correct bark and flints.

Robin Hood is on general release.

In the tank: "Lebanon"

Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, last year's Venice Golden Lion winner, is a combat movie that engages a familiar low-budget conceit - limiting the action to one confined space - before transcending it; as in the German submarine drama Das Boot, we're invited to peer inside what is literally a war machine, and observe at close-quarters the scared and shellshocked human operators residing within. It's 1982, and we're deep inside the bowels of a tank codenamed Rhino on the first morning of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. The inexperienced crew are obliged to rub along with one another and their own mounting doubts and fears, weighing heavy on their shoulders like the film of oil atop the water sloshing around at their feet; soon, after their opening mission goes awry, the tank's roster is extended to include the corpse of a fallen comrade, and a Syrian prisoner, caught taking a potshot at their bows.

Between bookending shots of the tank at repose in a sunflower field - what looks like an idyll at the start of the film, and a West Bank Valhalla by the end - the only other time the outside world is observed is through the tank's viewfinder. The choice might suggest an element of distancing - Maoz, a former tank gunner, is reflecting upon his own past here - were it not that what we see is wholly magnified; the viewfinder, in this instance, becomes an analogue for the camera, a clanking mechanical tool obliged to seek out new perspectives on a crazy, bloodstained world. Panning over and zooming in on the carnage, the viewfinder shows us scared faces, discarded trinkets, bodies blown apart; a bereaved madonna being stripped bare by one Israeli soldier after her dress catches fire in the chaos.

These images are as scattered, random and disturbing as repressed memories - live-action equivalents to the animated nightmares of Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, again the result of a soldier-turned-filmmaker using the occasion of his first film to declare: this is what I saw. The viewfinder in Lebanon never blinks; it can only turn away from the horrors it witnesses at the slowest of speeds. Such close-quarters filmmaking requires a certain level of technical expertise, and Maoz proves every bit as attentive to the telling sounds of battle as to its horrendous sights, from the distant booms and anonymous screams that stand for the carnage being wreaked outside to the recurrent tinkle of the tank crew relieving themselves into the nearest available jerry-can. (As ever, the human bladder counts among the earliest casualties of war.)

This new wave of conciliatory Israeli filmmaking - taking in Bashir, and Joseph Cedar's Beaufort - has been accused in certain quarters of boo-hooing; that they are the work of directors who have taken lives, or witnessed lives being taken, and now cannot wash their hands of the blood. Certainly, Lebanon offers some special pleading on behalf of these boyish, confused soldiers - at the expense of their dogmatic commanding officer (Zohar Strauss), who sanctions the use of illegal phosphorous, and of the so-called Christian Phalangists, who smile, and in smiling, threaten the worst. In Waltz with Bashir, Folman's agony - and the potential source of his redemption - lay in the fact his troop merely provided the illumination for the Phalangists to go about their murderous business; there, as here, we may feel that a "just following orders" defence is being entered into the cinematic record.

Again, though, the overwhelming sense is that a real and lasting trauma is being, if not dispelled entirely, then at least worked through: the most telling set-piece in the second half occurs during an impasse, when a senior officer recounts the story of how a lover once held him to her breast and encouraged him to cry his fears away. (When, at the anecdote's conclusion, a younger soldier pipes up with "you gave me a hard-on with that story", he is, in his naivety, altogether missing the point.) "Man is steel, the tank is only iron," runs the legend inscribed into the very heart of the tank - the kind of maxim beloved of warmongers everywhere, yet which Maoz here goes out of his way to prove self-deluding nonsense; the unflinching gaze of this potent, impressively handled first feature pierces your armour, and gets right under your skin.

Lebanon is on release in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

"Vincere": lust for glory

Here's a new way of getting at a dictator: go through their nearest and dearest. Marco Bellocchio's new historical drama Vincere observes Benito Mussolini's rise to power through the eyes (and other organs) of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Benito groupie turned stalker turned mistress turned spurned lover. The pair first cross paths in Trento in 1907, where Ida shelters Mussolini the aspirant politico (Filippo Timi) from a police baton charge and ends up with his (or somebody else's) blood on her hands. Seven years later, she hastily hands him her number during a demonstration and invites him back to her place. In the resultant tryst - held, with just the right level of symbolic significance, on the night war breaks out in Central Europe - the young Duce appears not to be looking at his lover, but out towards the future: it's the very definition of a powerfuck.

I should point out there is more sex in Vincere than perhaps you'd expect of a political biopic: say what you like about these fascists, they sure were horny. (Maybe it was the uniforms.) Emerging naked onto the balcony following his initial conquest of Ida, imagining the screaming hordes below, the trajectory Mussolini is set to follow becomes nakedly apparent, but there's equally a hint of destructive craziness in his lover's eyes: we see exactly how Ida's attracted to this strutting martinet, and where she's heading, too. Soon, she's selling all her possessions (including most of her clothes, natch) to fund her man's rabble-rousing newspaper. Turned on by reports of Benny's prowess in a duel, she throws himself at him once more - only to be turfed out of his office by Il Duce's associates. His wife and child have turned up at the front door. Uh-oh.

Vincere is operatic farce, played out on an underlit stage: the screen is flooded not with light but pools of darkness, from which the key players emerge - and into which they can, we soon learn, be disappeared. Bellocchio's theme is control: having become a threat to Benito's prospects, Ida is placed under house arrest and obliged to marry an alkaline bank manager, in the hope he will neutralise her more hysterical outpourings; the son she conceived with the leader is packed off to a remote tower (suggesting Mussolini was not so very different from some of the kings he wanted to overthrow), where he's told by one of the nuns "remember, everything we do is for your own good" - the watchwords of the fascist state.

Everything about the film is bold and declamatory, from the title (helpfully translated on screen as "WIN!") down through the fractured editing style that juxtaposes dramatised scenes with original newsreel footage. Bellocchio insists upon a formal violence to match the violence of the times: he pulls no punches. Mezzogiorno, a very beautiful and striking actress, is here shot to look pale and tired, as though - for one reason or another - she hasn't slept for decades; nevertheless, her Ida becomes as heroic as she was tragic: a Sophie Scholl figure, trailing marbles rather than pamphlets, who - during an assassination attempt on Mussolini's life - came this close to altering the course of history forever.

The director's eye for images and imagemaking remains as sharp as ever. That duel takes place against a backdrop of dark, satanic mills belching toxic smoke into the sky; in a military hospital-cum-church-cum-installation space, the wounded Benito projects himself into a silent film version of the Passion; Ida, meanwhile, finds a sorry form of catharsis watching Chaplin being separated from his charge in The Kid. The stylistic boldness isn't so far removed from Paolo Sorrentino's recent Andreotti hypothesis Il Divo, though here - as befits a film about control - it's been applied with far greater shrewdness. However wild its flourishes get, the newsreel grounds Vincere in reality; unlike Sorrentino's film, you couldn't ever mistake it for a pop video.

In this way, the film grasps the centrality of images (and the cinema, in particular) to the fascist project; it takes a propaganda tool, and turns it against those who once wielded it so dramatically. Towards the end, we see footage of the real Mussolini in such pomp - his jutting jaw and puffed-out chest screaming arrogance; the supreme ham, il ultimo windbag - you can't quite believe Bellocchio hasn't staged it himself. (In a further jolting touch, this clip is being watched by Benito Jr., now fully grown and played by the same actor we've watched as Benito - and who appears to be dating a young woman played, in a split-second appearance, by Mezzogiorno: a clever aside on how easily history can come to repeat itself.) Is Italian cinema now ready to address the country's past head-on, as German cinema has done so brilliantly of late? At the very least, Vincere provides us with all the ammunition one might need for a spin-off magazine or television series: anyone for Fascists' Wives?

Vincere opens nationwide from Friday.

Friday 7 May 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 30-May 2, 2010:

1 (new) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
2 (3) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
3 (1) Date Night (15) ***
4 (new) The Last Song (PG) *
5 (2) Clash of the Titans (12A) **
6 (4) Dear John (12A) **
7 (6) The Ghost (15) **
8 (5) Kick-Ass (15) *
9 (8) Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang (U) ***
10 (new) Housefull (12A)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. The Manchurian Candidate
3. Cleo from 5 to 7
4. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
5. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Avatar (12) ***
2 (3) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
3 (2) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
4 (4) Harry Brown (18) **
5 (7) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **
6 (8) An Education (12) ***
7 (6) 2012 (12) ***
8 (10) Up (U) ***
9 (5) The Box (15) ***
10 (re) The Hurt Locker (15) ***


My top five:
1. Departures
2. Nowhere Boy
3. Mugabe and the White African
4. Adoration
5. 44 Inch Chest

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Dirty Harry (Monday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. in the company of men (Friday, BBC2, 2.10am)
3. Charley Varrick (Friday, ITV1, 12.50am)
4. True Crime (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. Melinda and Melinda (Monday, C4, 1.15am)

Tuesday 4 May 2010

"Four Lions": a squib

Arriving in UK cinemas mere weeks after the similarly Islamo-themed, similarly middling The Infidel, the curiously anticlimactic Four Lions offers further evidence that, faced with the wearying whys and wherefores of the British film industry, our sharpest comic minds feel obliged to defang themselves to get their projects into production. Even the famously uncompromising Chris Morris, even when backed by the envelope-pushing folk at Warp Films, appears to have reined himself in and toned himself down for this timid comedy about amateur suicide bombers: a small-screen response to a major global issue, it sometimes seems less concerned about potential fatwas than it does about recouping its producers' investment, or whether anybody is likely to turn out to see it.

The set-up, certainly, is promising: a contingent of young males attempt to wage holy war from a grimy flat above a dry cleaners in Sheffield. In ascending order of idiocy, these are: Omar (Riz Ahmed), a family man who does at least appear to have read the Koran at some stage, yet whose first recourse in any given situation is to pick a fight with whoever's around; his brother Waj (Kayvan Novak), the kind of dipstick who signs up for a cause just so he can arse around with replica firearms; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), whose idea of a disguise, when buying peroxide in bulk, is to adopt the bearing and accent of an IRA man; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the cell's extremist white handler, who once tried to establish the Islamic Republic of Tinsley, and who plans to undermine Western civilisation by bombing a mosque. (As he phrases it, with typical twisted logic, "You cannot win an argument simply by being right.")

The characters' essential stupidity thus swiftly established, we soon come to gather that a 102-minute feature cannot be sustained on stupidity alone. The Morris project Four Lions most closely resembles is the maligned sitcom Nathan Barley, with bearded zealots in the place of ironically coiffed new-media twats, and no Dan Ashcroft on hand to provide a more moderate or varied line of buffoonery. It would come as no surprise if Four Lions fell foul of the same classification problem that befell those viewers who went into Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's Cemetery Junction expecting a laugh-out-loud comedy. In the final draft of this script, there exist traces of a serious, severe drama tackling the corruption of true faith by popular culture, but it's a fine line between dramatising or satirising this process, and merely pandering to your media-savvy target audience. (Nathan Barley would love Four Lions.)

Omar recounts his and Waj's (mis)adventures at training camp - during which they wipe out their own instructors - as a bedtime story co-opting the plot of The Lion King; when Waj finally gets his hands on some explosives, his instinct is to film himself performing Jackassy pranks with trace amounts; even when surrounded by the police (conferred with the television-derived nickname "Dibble"), the latter's primary concern is which phone network an aspirant terrorist should be on. The four lions, we quickly grasp, are more motivated by images (and images of fundamentalists, hence the bandying-around of the derogatory slang "TV Paki"; they're following in the smoking footsteps of shoe bomber Richard Reid) than any 'pure' notion of jihad, which explains the proliferation of cameras and videophones kept about their persons.

Verite camerawork - extreme zooms, night-vision photography, surveillance imagery - constitutes Morris's one formal concession to the new medium. It's the screenplay - written by the director with Peep Show's Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain - that underwhelms, lacking much in the way of character development, narrative urgency or (most disappointingly) the linguistic fireworks we've come to expect from Morris: the lads' insults ("twazzock", "flippin' bastards") could come from any pootling Britcom. The film is careful not to tar an entire religion with the same extremist brush, and yet too careful: as though Morris had spent all his energies on research, and had nothing left when it came to writing good, honest, funny gags. (Omar and co. are nowhere near as amusing as the DIY jihadists of the animated BBC3 series Monkey Dust, who found themselves unable to complete their holy mission when their planned bombing campaign clashed with the Stars in their Eyes final.)

What recognisable comedy there is in Four Lions is broad, dashed-off slapstick: when the bombs go off, you half-expect characters to re-emerge Wile E. Coyote-style, with their faces blackened and their hair sticking up on end. As they are, these bloodless (and, narratively, barely noted) bombings offer nothing of the insinuating horror Morris generated in Jam; elsewhere, using Toploader's "Dancing in the Moonlight" as a signifier of dickheadedness has surely been done to death now (Morris uses it twice, just in case we didn't get it first time round) ; and as for the finale, which requires the cast to don fancy dress, and marks the non-awaited revival of Bernie Clifton's ostrich outfit for laughs, you're left wondering: is this the Chris Morris we're witnessing at work here?

Compare Four Lions to the work of another arch provocateur tackling religious extremism head-on - Bruno Dumont's forthcoming drama Hadewijch, which really does leave you shaken, and wondering which direction society is heading in - and Morris's satirical vision here comes to seem unexpectedly reassuring: would that all suicide bombers were this bumbling and ineffectual. Maybe it's Warp's usual, slapdash way with these kinds of lowish-budget experiments, maybe it's the involvement of former C4 head of comedy Iain Morris (no relation) as a script consultant, but Four Lions looks more than anything else like the sort of patchy sitcom pilot that might have passed into oblivion from Channel 4's Comedy Lab strand, under a milder, apter title - Silly Bombers, maybe, or perhaps just Jihad's Army.

Four Lions opens nationwide on Friday.