Friday, December 10, 2010


Two opening here in the Valley today:
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie plays Elise, a mystery woman who, because of her romantic connection to a master criminal, is under the gaze of Scotland Yard & Interpol. She receives a note from the wanted man telling her to board a certain train from Paris to Venice & pick out a fellow passenger of his height & build.

The guy she settles on, & aggressively seduces, is played by Johnny Depp, here sporting, in lieu of some whimsical characterization, the flat American accent of a math teacher from Wisconsin, with bedraggled hair & beard & a water-vapor cigarette. He’s like a European’s idea of the perfect patsy—a nice, well-meaning but basically clueless American, down to his hilarious name: “Frank Tupelo.”

Before long Scotland Yard has intelligence on Frank: He lost his wife in a car accident three years earlier. He seems quite ready to get on with his life, though—he has no objection to Elise’s attentions, even though they result in him being chased around Venice both by the authorities, led by Paul Bettany, & by the thugs of a menacing Brit gangster (Steven Berkoff).

Something about the poster for The Tourist led me to expect a heavy existential drama of the Visconti sort, & I confess I wasn’t disappointed to find, instead, an international thriller of the kind that James Stewart or Cary Grant used to star in for Hitchcock in the ‘50s. The film, directed by impressively named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck from a script he wrote with Christopher McQuarrie & Julian Fellowes (it’s a knockoff of a 2005 French thriller called Anthony Zimmer), is silly from the start, & grows sillier still in its later stretches—around the time that Elise meets Frank, decked out in white, at a fancy ball.

But as usual, Depp gives the movie interest, playing his regular-guy role to the hammy hilt. He’s played a Hitchcockian everyman-in-over-his-head before, in the slightly underrated 1995 thriller Nick of Time. But he puts on a much broader show here as Frank Tupelo—he drops malapropisms, he keeps speaking Spanish to Italians, & he can hold up his end of a bantering conversation with a beautiful woman on a train, but only with visible effort, which rather defeats the purpose. In the real world, he’d be a pretty bright, resourceful fellow, but by the standards of sophisticated romantic thrillers, he’s a bit of an oaf.

Four Lions: This English film is a comedy about Jihadism. It is, to be clear, a broad, knockabout farce concerning the efforts of a handful of self-styled Sheffield Jihadists to plan an act of terrorism. It’s freakin’ hilarious, too.

Directed & co-written by the acclaimed satirist Chris Morris, the film follows four numbskulls as they squabble & blunder their way toward a mission that they can’t quite agree on. Anglo convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who has the numbest skull and the biggest mouth, actually favors the idea of blowing up a mosque, in order to provoke an uprising of the faithful. This plan is not endorsed by Omar (Riz Ahmed) the group’s theoretical leader & least obviously imbecilic member. He eventually hatches a plot targeting the London Marathon.

Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is trying to train crows to carry bombs on suicide missions. Barry’s recruit Hassan (Asher Ali) favors rap & public gestures which he calls “jihad of the mind.” The brainless Waj (Kayvan Novak) just wants to please his pal Omar.

Although the ineptitude & bluster of these men is often laugh-out-loud funny—or maybe because it is—Four Lions is also often highly unsettling, especially when it gives us a look at the mundane side of their lives. It’s chilling when Omar sits around discussing his upcoming martyrdom with his pretty, supportive wife (Preeya Kalidas) & adoring little son as if it was a small business opportunity, or when he tells the boy a bedtime story mixing his own bungled adventures with The Lion King.

Moments like these feel plausibly realistic, & indeed Morris notes that he & the other writers based the script on years of research into the everyday lives of his subjects. But as the movie heads into its homestretch, it grows grimmer & more gruesome, though no less antic. Morris allows the characters to be nagged by their consciences—it would be hard for us to take an interest in them if he didn’t—but he doesn’t let us off the hook by making these guys weekend warriors whose plots are just talk. The film doesn’t go easy on the police or the British government, either. The power of Four Lions is that it manages to be one of the funniest films of the year, & one of the saddest, at exactly the same time.

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