Because Toronto’s more movie obsessed than a Quentin Tarantino screenplay (yuk yuk), Torontoist brings you In Revue, a weekly roundup of new releases.
This week, Nic Cage tears it all down. And in 3D. Illustration by Chloe Cushman/Torontoist.
What a week, friends! How often do you read this recurring film review column thingy and find that the average rating of the films reviewed is four out of a possible five stars? How often do you even read this thingy at all?! If you are a new reader, you tuned in on a great week. Unspooling in Toronto this week, we’ve got an excellent satire about Islamic fanatics, and a just-as-excellent carsploitation flick starring Nic Cage. And if that doesn’t sound like your mug of Trappist ale, there’s also a rather good film about, well, Trappists.
Drive Angry 3D
Barrelling out of the gates at the crest of the nouveau-exploitation wave that has brought us Black Dynamite, Machete, and soon, Hobo With a Shotgun, Drive Angry 3D scores big for not trying to be so clever about its whole shtick. Granted, the film is about an avenging grandpa (Nicolas Cage)—labelled in the opening voiceover as a “baddass motherfucker who thinks he’s better than everyone”—literally driving a car out of a hell in order to save his newborn granddaughter from being sacrificed by a Satanist huckster (Billy Burke). But, in characteristic Cage style, it never winks. It never says, “Hey look at me! I’m a hip send-up of trashy movies! Ain’t I cool! Hey look out! There’s a three-dee scythe blade coming atcha!” Even Cage’s character’s name, John Milton (get it?), is played totally straight.
After breaking out of the eternal clinker, Milton hooks up with a headstrong waitress (a wonderful Amber Heard) and her vintage Dodge Charger, ornamented with “DRVAGRY” vanity plates and “I BRAKE 4 PUSSY” bumper sticker. The two likely allies blaze a sadistic trail towards the refreshingly one-dimensional bad guy poised to kill Milton’s kin. Playing it somewhere between his roles as Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider, Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart, and his ever-expanding meta-role as “Nic Cage,” Cage hashes through the film with straight-legged cool. His explosions into twitchy mania and pump-action carnage are made all the more rewarding by virtue of their contrast with his usual dopey composure. And as an emissary of Satan tasked with dragging Milton back to hell, William Fichtner struts all over Cage, his clipped delivery and supernatural magnetism proving the film’s most welcome touch.
Lussier (who also helmed the excellent remake My Bloody Valentine 3D) wrings all the cheesy, cheap thrills he can out of the extra dimension, proving that 3D filmmaking is best exploited not for fashioning a sense of depth or awe, but for hucking a bunch of stuff towards a popcorn-munching audience gleefully awaiting it.
Drive Angry feels like it unfolds in a hermetic universe inside a chalky bead of cocaine congested under some guy’s nicotine-yellowed, overgrown fingernail. It’s a symphony of sleaze, trash, and bonus dimensions, its tastelessness deepening frame after frame. Indebted in equal parts to the aesthetics of pinball machines, embroidered leather jackets, and shitty lower back tattoos, it oozes grime, gore, and cheap sex from every one of its greasy pores. So yes—it is truly excellent.
Drive Angry 3D opens Friday, February 25, in wide release. Click here for showtimes.
Political satire’s an unruly beast. Poking fun at sensitive issues that involve actual human beings, no matter how stupid you may find them, is hard to do without coming off nastily superior (Bill Maher, Dennis Miller), smug (Jon Stewart), or just stupidly apolitical (South Park). So poking fun at one of the more sensitive issues in global politics—Islamic fundamentalism—requires a good deal of nuance, as well as a swinging set of brass balls. With Four Lions, his first foray into feature filmmaking, Chris Morris arrives equipped with both.
Known for his send-ups of current affairs programs (The Day Today) and sensationalist magazine news shows (Brass Eye), as well as for his tendency to openly court controversy, there’s likely no one better-armed to make a darkly comic satire about a cadre of bungling Muslim terrorists. Much of the comedy emerges out of the conflicts between de facto leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an outspoken convert to Islam eager to bomb a mosque—a harebrained scheme to “radicalize the moderates” that Omar fittingly compares to punching yourself in the head during a fist fight. The comic back-and-forth is hilariously sharp, as is its prodding of terrorism’s banal, committee-based processes.
Morris offers an impressively dispassionate approach to the controversial subject matter. Unlike Brass Eye, where he appeared content to take the piss out all sides of a subject, Four Lions presents its ragtag group of would-be jihadists with careful depth. While they’re in some ways caricatured—especially the frothing Barry and the dim-witted Waj (Kayvan Novak)—they’re far from boogeyman fanatics. Four Lions is, at its core, a film about confusion: about the uncertainty of Islam’s place in the Western world, and the muddled motivations of Muslim radicals.
It’s hard at times to shake the suspicion that Morris is just trying valiantly to remain incendiary. But it’s even harder to ignore the impressive level of sophistication (comic, emotional, and intellectual) that Morris brings to a satire which, in less capable hands, could have wound up little more than mishmash of lazy Islamophobia and jokes about suicide bombings. In other words, a South Park episode.
Four Lions opens Friday, February 25, for a limited engagement at the Royal (608 College Street). Click here for showtimes.
Of Gods and Men
In 1996, a group of seven French Trappist monks holed themselves up in their Algerian monastery, refusing to leave when a raging civil war encroached upon their community. Xavier Beauvois tackles the true story of these brothers of the cloth with a chastity and piousness befitting both the gravity of their situation and the depth of their beliefs. As led by Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monks watch as the situation around them worsens, tending to the wounded and debating their decision to remain in the area with convincing intellectual and religious rigour.
As a spellbinding story of selflessness, witness, and faith thoroughly tested, Of Gods and Men is exceptional. It’s the accompanying religious window-dressing (specifically, all the Gregorian chanting) that makes it seem like something more. Maybe it’s just the Aronofsky aftertaste skunking up our palates, but it’s hard not to regard a climactic “Last Supper” scene—in which Beauvois’ camera languorously frames the conflicted expressions of the monks as a ditty from Swan Lake pumps over the soundtrack—as a little bit bombastic, and more than a little bit saccharine. Likewise, one should be careful not to present the hushed recitation of Benedictine dogma, no matter how apropos, as inherently prophetic.
Doubtless, Beauvois is a cleric of the cinema, not of Roman Catholicism. But his film nonetheless permits a zealously unblinking acceptance of the idea that its characters are martyring themselves in service of larger, more devout, power—a proposition that some viewers may find spurious.
Of Gods and Men opened Thursday, February 24, for a limited engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West). Click here for showtimes.