May 16, 2010

Mini-Reviews: La Danse / Four Lions

DIR: Frederick Wiseman

Now 80, Frederick Wiseman is perhaps too old a dog to be learning new tricks, but his dedication to the direct cinema style of documentary that he helped found is actually rather refreshing at a time when a lot of documentaries do not document but rather instruct or preach.

Wiseman here sets us down in the world of the Paris Opera ballet as they travel through a season, developing and performing two performances, for even that much shape he makes us work, because there are no captions, no interviews, no narration to guide us through the events, we simply sit in on rehearsals and meetings, only slowly seeing the two productions come together, or clearly recognising that they are separate.

At two hours and thirty nine minutes La Danse has an epic feel about it, and yet it seldom feels long. Occasionally sequences outside the dance studios (a discussion with the dancers about new pension arrangements, for instance) can feel drawn out, but whenever we are watching the crafting of the dances, or indeed the finished pieces, this is a truly mesmerising film. Much observational documentary, especially in the age of youtube, isn’t especially artful, but Wiseman’s shot selection emphasises the beauty of what he’s filming, he stands back most of the time, letting the dancers whole bodies dominate his frames, and finding beautiful design in shots as well as in what he’s shooting.

The only real downside to the film is that we never get to know anyone in it, there is no sense of personal engagement at all, perhaps that’s appropriate though, like the people he’s depicting, Wiseman sacrifices everything else in the service of La Danse.

DIR: Chris Morris

British satirist Morris has always courted controversy, most notably with his Brasseye special, which brutally satirised the way the British media was covering the issue of paedophilia, but even for him the subject matter of Four Lions; a broad comedy about a group of inept British Muslims with aspirations to become suicide bombers, seems very near the knuckle. The tabloids were predictably outraged, and the Father of one of the victims of the London underground bombings has called for the film to be banned, once again, people are misunderstanding Morris.

Since September 11th the world’s media have been trying to scare us, and right wing press especially has leapt on any and every opportunity to portray Muslims in a negative light. At a time when we are still being primed to live in constant fear of terrorism, Four Lions is an ideal response. It’s a finely balanced film; an uproarious comedy about unspeakable evil, but impressively, though it extracts near constant guffaws from its audience, Four Lions doesn’t trivialise the issue. Indeed the end of the film, which is shocking and, paradoxically, also rather sad, confronts it head on.

The script, by Morris and Peep Show writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, leavens its serious issues with some very broad comedy. The terrorist cell we see here is composed largely of men who barely have a brain cell between them. There’s white British convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), Gormless Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), who does his martyrdom video with a box on his head, because images are haram. Then there’s Waj (Kayvan Novak), who thinks paradise will be short lines at Alton Towers, and endless rides on Rubber dinghy rapids. The only one with half a brain is Omar (Riz Ahmed), he’s probably the most frightening character, because beneath a friendly, sharp exterior there’s a scheming manipulator who really does want to die and kill ‘for allah’.

The playing is flawless, with Novak and Ahmed really standing out. Ahmed is especially good in some pretty upsetting scenes in which Omar explains jihad to his son, using the story of The Lion King. Yet, such is the strength of the performance, that you can’t quite hate Omar, especially when he has to say goodbye to his wife (an excellent and under-used Preeya Kalidas) in code. This undertone of drama is always there, always strongly felt, but the film is overwhelmingly, and hugely successfully, a comedy. It’s often absurd (which is surely Morris’ point) witness the many scenes in which Barry proposes his idea of a target for their bombing; the local mosque, or the several abortive attempts at martyrdom videos (“eh up y’ kaffir bastards”), or the many things that the group feel they should be fighting against (“Fuck mini babybels”).

Morris reserves his mocking for those who perpetrate these crimes, showing them largely as idiots duped into evil by liars. He never mocks the victims, though he does make a thinly veiled reference to the Jean Charles De Menezes shooting, with a policeman shouting “It must be the target, I’ve just shot it” into his radio.

Four Lions may rub some people the wrong way, the subject matter is unquestionably near the knuckle, but it’s a film that should only offend potential suicide bombers, and really, fuck them. Capably directed, this film marks out Chris Morris as a complex cinematic voice, but one who’ll make you bend double with laughter even as he makes you think.

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