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Monday, August 24, 2015

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)


Written and directed by Randy Moore

Roy Abramsohn:  Jim
Elena Schumer:  Emily
Katelynn Rodriguez:  Sara
Jack Dalton:  Elliot


I'm starting with a clip from a completely different movie, but there's a reason for it (other than that watching a song and dance number filmed on top of a moving train is awesome). Think about all the preparation and logistics that had to go into filming that song and dance. Every time you see the train from a distance, that's a camera crew that set up and waited for the train to go by (with everyone going through the routine in synch each time). Every time you see the closer shots that's everybody in the scene dancing on a moving train with a camera crew jammed into the same space with them. I'm sure they just dubbed the song in later and assembled the sequence out of whatever footage was successfully shot (I'm especially impressed with the actor dancing while the train goes through a canyon so narrow that he could reach out and slap both walls with his hands if he wanted to). That might have been a few weeks' worth of prep and shooting time, especially if the weather was uncooperative, and the whole thing could have been stalled or shut down if anyone important got a cinder in the eye while dancing behind the smokestack.

I'm asking you, dear reader, to think about all those complications because all that happened when the filmmakers had permission from a railroad and a train company to shoot that production number. Today's film was even more mind-bogglingly difficult to pull off, because it's a horror movie shot at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks. Without permission. I mean, Larry Cohen shooting some footage of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City without bothering to get permits is one thing, but this is an entire narrative film written and performed in a huge public place. Under the noses of the paranoiacally thorough Disney security staff, no less. Reportedly, the editing and effects work was done in Korea in order for the footage to literally be on the other side of the planet from Disney rather than risk someone in California hearing about the movie in an editing studio, and word getting back to Disney's lawyers before the movie was completed.

The only reason the filmmakers weren't sued into a rudimentary paste is that the House of Mouse apparently realizes that the movie got made and there's nothing they can do about it now. Letting it go into theaters for an extremely limited engagement and thence to DVD and Netflix, it was and is an obscurity notable almost entirely for the story behind its production rather than for its own merits. If the filmmakers got sued, the press coverage would guarantee that a billion people worldwide would know about the movie--and probably a large slice of that crowd would want to see it, which is the exact opposite of what Disney's lawyers and board members would like to happen.

The film currently enjoys a one-star rating on Netflix; it's really not as bad as all that but I did find it to be a disjointed mess, probably because there was only a single take available for any given scene and because anything that didn't get filmed or wasn't usable (it must be hard to screen dailies and make adjustments when you're shooting a guerilla production in the Magic Kingdom) would just not be there to plug any holes in the narrative. My guess is that several storylines were written and enough usable footage from some of each one was combined to make the finished movie.

The finished movie starts with an unbelievable thorough disclaimer stating that nobody working in any capacity for Walt Disney Entertainment had anything at all to do with the production of the film. Then we gets a point-of-view shot of riders on the Thunder Mountain Railroad (a roller coaster) and various snippets of performers doing their thing in the theme park. The geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth towers above people walking through the park. The various actors and filmmakers' names go by while syrupy stringed music plays on the soundtrack.

And then--and I have no idea how this got done during the actual shooting of the film--one of the roller-coaster riders gets his head knocked off by an obstacle. Which is probably how family man and vacationer Jim feels, getting notice via cell phone that he's being fired on the morning of his last day at Disney World. Luckily for everyone else in the family, they didn't hear any of this because Jim was out on his hotel-room balcony. The guy letting him know he doesn't have a job any more wishes him the best of luck and also recommends one of the rides at EPCOT before hanging up and Jim takes a look down to the parking lot, probably contemplating chucking it all at the happiest place on Earth. To cap it all off, Jim's son Elliot locks the balcony door from the inside and goes back to bed.

In the hotel corridor, Jim and his wife Emily have a conversation about how neither one disciplines their kids particularly well (Jim's too soft on his daughter Sara and his wife tries to get Elliot to apologize for locking his old man out of the hotel room; he refuses, point-blank). Jim's wife also wants to know why he was out on the balcony taking a phone call in his boxer shorts, but he dodges the question and instead says he just wants to have one nice day since it's the end of the vacation. There's plenty of people sneezing and coughing at the monorail station, which probably means a dreary ride back home with sick kids and / or parents. On the train, a pair of giggly young French teenagers on vacation catch Jim's eye (and the camera leers over them in a positively unseemly manner).

It occurs to me that every single shot in the film needed the camera crew standing in place to watch Jim and his family walk by; when it's something as simple as just getting off of one monorail and waiting for the next one, that's not too complicated, but anything done at a distance had to be horrifically difficult. According to Randy Moore, every shot had to be planned out weeks in advance if not months, so that the sun would be at a particular spot in the sky for lighting and for the logistics of making sure the cast and crew were in the right places at the right time without attracting attention from the park security. The film was shot in black and white so that differences in light levels and background colors wouldn't be as noticeable. Also, black and white can be creepier than color, so there's that (check out Carnival of Souls for some more footage of a theme park rendered creepy through monochrome).

The family goes on a couple of rides, with Jim reassuring Sara that witches aren't real; the animatronic one on the Snow White ride is just pretend. On the Winnie the Pooh ride, Jim moves in for a kiss and Emily isn't having any of it; she's embarrassed to be smooching by their children while neither Sara not Elliot seem to notice the argument going on behind them at all. Jim moves into Sullen Mode, and then it's time for the "It's a Small World After All" ride. Interestingly enough, the rides are shown in considerable detail during the film, but the iconic song is stripped out here and the audio replaced with a children's chorus singing "La la la la la la la" over and over and over and over. Which is probably already enough to make someone twitchy, but Jim starts seeing the faces on the dolls and scenery in the ride turn evil while he's looking at them (courtesy of some digital effects trickery). Then the music goes slow, out-of-tune and TOTALLY FIENDISH and Jim hallucinates Emily saying she hates him and that he's not really Elliot's father.

Then things get weird.

Jim takes his son to the line for the Buzz Lightyear ride (the ride name survives the legal thrashing the movie must have gotten before release) while Emily takes Sara on the spinning teacups (those two French teenagers happen to also be on the teacups, for what that's worth). Emily and Sara get to go on several rides while the two males in the family get stuck near a screaming baby and are still in line waiting for a single three-minute ride. Jim is visibly thinking about that wish for one last good day on his vacation. The Buzz Lightyear ride gets shut down just as Jim and Elliot are about to board their space ranger ride car thingy and Jim's snapping point gets just a little bit closer.

Then he spots the French girls and decides to follow them to whatever ride they're going on--which turns out to be the mainstay of theme parks the whole world 'round, the Gas Powered Cars That Go Really Slow. Jim does a horrifying creepy-uncle stare at the girls as they share a banana and then it's time for the ride. His feverish daydream of riding in the car with either or both of the French girls gets interrupted when Elliot bonks into their stopped car. Jim winds up with a stunned-buffalo look on his face when he and Elliot follow the two French girls to the Tiki Room show (including a column of water shot to look incredibly phallic; Jim needs to cut his caffeine dose considerably). This is another sequence where the song that the various props were singing gets redubbed into nonsense syllables. I'm going to guess that you can't get sued for copying someone else's intellectual property if you replace it with sounds that aren't from any language.

Jim steers his son onto the People Mover tram ride ("Dad, why are we following those girls?" "What girls?" "Bonjour!" "Those girls!"). Jim tries to dodge the questions of why the girls are always in front of them and whether they're pretty, and then reveals his dissatisfaction with his marriage when Elliot asks if his mother is also pretty. Once they're done with the People Mover Jim continues to stalk the girls, who are (via some rather unconvincing green-screen) going to Space Mountain. Elliot says that's a big-kid ride and doesn't want to go on it. He also ignores a phone call from his wife to pursue two barely pubescent girls from another country and winds up physically carrying Elliot to a trash can when it turns out that the roller coaster was, in fact, too intense for his son. Then he's got to act apologetic when Emily asks where the heck he's been for the last hour, since she and Sara have been waiting for them--and when Emily notices the puke on her son's shirt she reads her husband the public-places-approved riot act. Notice I said "act" apologetic. Jim ain't sorry about anything other than not being able to perv on the two kids he's been following.

Emily takes Elliot back to the hotel to lie down and rest after his whoopsie, repeating "Fine" to her husband enough that people who never learned English can tell that it's not actually fine. Jim wanders around to take in the sights with Sara, and worryingly enough mimes killing himself at a light-gun shooting gallery in the Old West section of the park. He seems to relax a little bit while goofing around with his daughter, but as soon as he sees those French girls again he's after them like a dog after a squirrel. Jim winds up looking for the girls to the extent that he almost loses sight of Sara, following her into a cave on an island full of disorienting closeups and spooky echoes. A passing jerk kid runs into Sara and knocks her down when she runs around outside and Jim can't find her at first--he snarls at the other kid's father (who turns out to be wearing a neck brace and confined to a mobility scooter--and they take off for a first aid station.

The first-aid nurse offers plenty of encouragement for Sara, congratulating her on being brave at the park while Jim tries to sneak a peak down her uniform shirt. The nurse also asks if either Jim or Sara have been coughing or experiencing any other "cat flu" symptoms, since the park is crawling with children and they're the most vulnerable. Jim isn't the only one with a barely functioning veneer of normalcy--the nurse sounds like she's going to break down sobbing as she mentions the cat flu, and actually does a second or so after Jim and Sara leave. Jim takes a load off and eats an eight buck turkey leg while Sara goofs around (via more greenscreen) with some other kids. The random woman next to Jim on the park bench tells him his "turkey" leg is actuall emu meat. Jim says he wouldn't have bought it if he knew it was emu (but keeps eating, cause he's already paid for it).

The random woman stretches and poses next to Jim and he inhales a bit of his turkey leg when he gets a good look at her chest. She then goes into a weird monologue about how the actresses playing the various Disney princesses are paid to go around hugging perfect strangers and the medallion on her necklace keeps glittering in a way that movies have taught me to interpret as "this thing is hypnotizing the person looking at it" (though probably her chest is doing most of the work with Jim). During this sequence the woman starts speaking directly into Jim's mind (or he's progressing further along his path to the land of Completely Bananacakes). There's a sudden jump cut to the woman on top of Jim in the bedroom of the "Presidential Suite"; he's tied to the bed and she's telling him not to make so much noise or they'll wake the kids.

Jim makes his exit while the woman tells him that the various theme-park princesses are also call girls for rich Asian businessmen. Apparently it's the authentic costumes that make it worth every penny. Jim stumbles out, numb and full of self-loathing, as he collects Sara and goes back to the hotel (he has a key card to his room and to the mysterious woman's one as well, and I bet that's going to haunt him later). Emily and Elliot are at the pool, relaxing, and Sara joins them right before Jim hops into the water as well. Jim got a hand-blown glass Dumbo bell for his wife, but it turns out she wanted Minnie Mouse (and she's obviously dealing with some stress of her own from the way she tears into him for it before dropping a "never mind" and moving on). Then Emily gripes at her husband for not knowing to reapply sunscreen before your kid goes swimming (and I start to wonder if the whole movie is being shown from Jim's point of view so he's interpreting Emily's words more angrily than she's actually saying them--he's lied enough to his family that he might be a completely unreliable narrator as a POV character).

You know who was another unreliable narrator? Humbert Humbert. And I mention him because the French tourist girls are at the pool now, taking off their street clothes and hopping in the pool (they are wearing swimsuits, of course). Jim abandons Elliot to go swim towards them, the bastard. At least one of them is visibly creeped out by the middle-aged American guy approaching them. Emily hassles him for not watching Elliot (and seems to notice that he's weeping in the pool; Jim denies that he's crying rather than blame the chlorine).

Before going to EPCOT, Jim enjoys a tasty Heineken on the hotel balcony before dropping the bottle by accident and missing a piece of glass when tidying up (he's also barefoot; this ends poorly). Later, in the hotel gift shop he flips though a French phrase-book; his wife notices that he was doing that rather than buying antibiotics for Sara's scraped knee. It's one more stress on the family before going to the next theme park and checking out the laser light show and fireworks. Jim doesn't help anything when he notices the guy on the mobility scooter whose son pushed Sara down earlier in the day. Emily notices that he's acting weird and paranoid ("What's he doing here?" is not a rational question to ask at a theme park--the guy's here to do theme park things). Emily takes some pictures of the kids while Jim enjoys the fact that EPCOT sells alcoholic drinks in the park.

Jim winds up enjoying the boozohol just a little too much, drinking from a stein about half the size of his head at the park's German restaurant--on top of the drinks he already had while walking around. He probably thinks he's being charming at this point and the princesses are good enough actresses to get him out of the shot when he tries to crowd in without letting him know what they really think. Then, inevitably, a trio of Asian businessmen show up to get their photos with three princesses, to Jim's stunned horror. He hits the lime margarita booth in Simulated Mexico; I have the feeling that Emily is going to have quite a talk with him later re:  his behavior and appetite for alcohol. He throws up repeatedly on the Mexico City canal ride (sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Jim's mouth is out of frame each time so the filmmakers just had to dub in the sounds of him hurling into the ride's waterway rather than show it).

After a brief interlude where Jim puts antiseptic goop on his bloody toe in the men's room (and Emily sees one of the French girls turn into a leering ghoul for a few seconds, which suggests that Jim isn't completely losing his mind), the guy on the scooter exits a bathroom stall and wonders what the heck happened to Jim's toe and whether or not Sara's doing okay. Jim manages to slip and fall in the bathroom while avoiding the scooter-riding man. Emily tries to tell Jim that she noticed some of the weirdness that he's been seeing all day, but also calls him out for cruising after the two French girls as well. This is another scene done via greenscreen (probably because people getting in a fight in public could get a Disney park security response); during it, Emily asks Jim who was on the phone that morning when he was out on the balcony. Since he doesn't have any other choice, Jim tells her the truth--that he got downsized over the phone while he was on vacation. That's the cherry on top of the shit sundae for Emily's day and she declares everyone's going back to the hotel. Everyone's frustrations come to a head when Sara wants to get a stuffed toy and Emily slaps her. Emily and Elliot go back to the hotel; Jim and Sara stick around to go on a ride and then catch the fireworks.

While on the ride (the same one that the H.R. guy recommended at the start of the film), Jim starts to see topless women on the filmed scenery, telepathically promising him that he'll be their slave very soon. When he leaves the ride, the two French girls, inevitably, are there. Although this time they'd have to be following him in order to get there at the same time. Jim hallucinates one of them giving Sara a kiss on each cheek, and then walking off with him. He then has a vision of Spaceship Earth breaking free of its supports and rolling down the EPCOT plaza and shakes it off. Then the same girl from his hallucination walks up to Jim and asks him (in English) to come with them. She says something bad will happen if Jim won't go with them and spits in his face when he refuses. She then walks off to rejoin her friends (the other French girl and two guys that have been accompanying them without any dialogue). Looking around after getting gobbed on, Jim realizes that he can't see Sara any more and looks for her in a panic. Two EPCOT staffers find him, confirm that he's Jim White, and then taser him with a stun gun that looks like a marital aid (in keeping with Jim's focus on his id for most of the film, they nail him in the groin with it).

There then follows a five-second intermission, after which Jim wakes up handcuffed to a rotating chair in a circular chamber in the sub-basement of Spaceship Earth. A scientist in a white lab coat tells Jim that he's the first outsider to be allowed into this chamber, then tells him that the Disney corporation (the name gets bleeped the one time it's mentioned in the film, which is interesting) doesn't know he's there either. As shards of glass fall down on Jim's head to enclose it in a miniature replica of the Spaceship Earth design the scientist says that Jim's father took him to the park when he was a child and does some kind of brain scan on him. The scientist tells Jim that his boss--during the phone call where Jim found out he had been fired--was supposed to tell him to take Elliot to the "Land Pavillion" after going on a ride. This didn't happen, of course, and the scientist leaves since Jim's still shackled to the chair and can't get out.

But Jim still has the tube of antiseptic in his pocket and squirts it onto the control panel for the brain scan chamber in a sequence that makes a visual pun referencing the Siemens corporation, sponsor of the Spaceship Earth attraction. Jim zaps the scientist with a conveniently located stun gun; when an automatic door shuts on the scientist's neck he is revealed to be a robot. Jim escapes back into the park (empty now, with everyone still there watching fireworks) and searches for his daughter while the air strobes with light and sparks. He trips over the scooter owned by that one guy who has been around the park as well and goes for the dude's throat before regaining a sense of clarity and not being a twitchy jerk. Well, not about that. He has visions of the woman he had sex with earlier giving Sara a glass of champagne and goes to her hotel suite (he's still got the key card) and finds the woman dressed like an evil queen and her son in a dress and wig as well. Sara's in the suite's bedroom dressed like Sleeping Beauty in sneakers and Jim wakes her with a fairy-tale approved kiss. The evil queen says she always brings kids back after taking them to the suite, and that some parents don't even notice their absence.

Using her hypno-medallion, she tries to get Jim to remember whether or not he saw someone get their head taken off on the Thunder Mountain roller coaster. She also says she used to be a princess at the park, spending her days being lovely and hugging strangers. Which she apparently did too well, breaking a child's neck during a hug. Turns out permanently smiling and being happy forever isn't good for anyone. Jim flees after his daughter breaks the medallion (and the evil queen makes sure to give her a balloon to commemorate her trip to the park). Back at the hotel, Emily and Elliot are sleeping and Jim gets Sara ready for her own bedtime.

Jim's peace of mind lasts a short time before he wakes up with his bowels in a total uproar and then coughs up several hairballs into the toilet--turns out the nurse was worried about "cat flu" for a reason. Jim eats a handful of Vitamin C tablets and his son sees him drooling blood in the bathroom, then closes the door on him.

The next morning the park stands ready to open again and Emily finds her husband dead, grinning and staring at nothing in the bathroom, his pupils catlike. A Disney sanitation team (each member wearing a jumpsuit and white Mickey Mouse gloves) seals his corpse in a biohazard-level body bag and telepathically overrides Elliot's memories (or something) before leaving. The hotel room gets completely sanitized before the next family arrives and the workers make time for a tasty cigarette, and the whole weird system gets cranked up for the next day. And another Jim (or another guy played by the same actor) arrives at the hotel for another vacation.

Well.

The film held together better than I remember from the previous time I saw it, but there's really not a heck of a lot of there there. Once the viewer gets past the admittedly impressive guerrilla filmmaking and the transgressive value of a horror movie made in the Magic Kingdom the movie spins its wheels until it ends; there's lots of different fairy-tale and Disney things that show up but I'm not certain, the second time watching it, whether or not it was all in Jim's mind somehow or if it really happened (Emily hallucinating would seem to suggest that at least some of the narrative really took place). And I can't say I'm interested enough to watch it a third time and piece things together.

I can certainly admire the skill and craft that went into making the movie under the rodent nose of the Disney corporation, but there's just not enough to the narrative itself to make the movie completely worthwhile.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

These Final Hours (2013)


Written and directed by Zak Hilditch

Nathan Philips:  James
Angourie Rice:  Rose
Jessica de Gouw:  Zoe
Kathryn Beck:  Vicky

Miracle Mile just came out on blu-ray, with scads of extra features and plenty of reviews that are hopefully going to convince some people to check it out; it's shamefully obscure. Perhaps because, unlike most American films about the end of the world, there isn't a last-second reprieve. While I would love to jump on the bandwagon and tell people about a film that is a diamond in the rough, that was the seventh film I reviewed here at the Checkpoint, back when I was still intending to only look at Cold War era science fiction, action or fantasy movies.

But just because I was two years too early to tell you about that movie doesn't mean I can't do some commentary about a somewhat similar film today. And that brings us to the Australian production These Final Hours. What's it about? It's about the last hours that human civilization is going to exist following an asteroid strike on Earth; by an accident of timing and geography, Australia is the last part of the globe that will be overrun by the impact wavefront, which could probably be best described as a tsunami of fire. Why Australia? Well, the short answer is if they got hit first all the characters would just be charred skeletons lying in the blasted wasteland that used to be a slightly less-blasted wasteland. I prefer to imagine that New York City, as it does in all the American disaster movies, got hit first. And since the deep impact in this film works out more like an actual Armageddon-level event than a movie plot, all the American characters are dead before the opening credits roll.

In fact, air raid sirens (the "everyone's going to die" audio signal of choice for the discerning cinema fan since 1955) play over the production logos before the film proper even starts. While the movie keeps telling us who made it, staticky audio from someone calling "Control" and saying everyone's gone and then an overlapping cavalcade of answering machine and voice mail messages of people trying to contact a loved one while they can. The first image in the actual film is a fireball streaking through the morning sky with a mustard-gas-colored tail streaming behind it. The last thing in the audio collage, fittingly enough, is a series of people saying "I love you".

Love isn't exactly on James' mind once he hears the news; he's having sex for the last time with one of his girlfriends. He leaves her to go back to his home (I don't know Australian skylines well enough to tell you which city is burning down on the horizon, but he appears to live in the suburbs of one of the larger urban areas). I didn't spot the Sydney Opera House, but that doesn't mean anything. While James is drinking whiskey straight from the bottle (and driving--which seems excessive, but it's the end of the world so if he crashes he'll just be checking out a few hours before everyone else). A radio DJ lets us know that it's Perth destroying itself in a spasm of apocalyptic fear and rage, and that something slammed into the North Atlantic ten minutes ago; the shockwaves and firestorms are going to exterminate all life on the planet. The timeline's a little shaky here (James did a few lines of coke and has drunk at least half a bottle of light brown liquor and the editing reflects his mental state), but the news has apparently spread. Somewhere during the drive it becomes apparent that the east coast of North America and the west coast of Africa are both scoured clean of life. It is a matter of time (half a day, to be precise) before the same thing happens to Australia.

Some people have retreated into denial (a caller on the radio says if people move inland and avoid the coasts, they'll be okay; great, what do you plan to eat or drink once you've lived through the end of the world?) and others have taken to the streets to destroy cars or other people, have sex, or kill themselves. In a flashback to him bailing on Zoe, we get the first line from James and it's a far cry from the super-tough machismo that tends to dominate apocalyptic movies:  "We're already fucking dead. It's gonna fucking hurt,". James looks like he wants to break down sobbing when he says it, too--this isn't the heroic introduction of an uber-tough alpha male who can survive in the wasteland; it's someone who just realized they're about to hit their breaking point and trying not to succumb to despairing insanity quite yet.

James says he doesn't want to feel the end when it comes; he wants to die drunk, high, and completely insensible when the shockwave hits him. He gets Zoe's blessing to leave and go to a friend's party--and Zoe's crying when she says she knows he's going to be having sex with his other girlfriend. But James leaves anyway, and gets relieved of his car when a drunk shirtless guy with a machete dives into the passenger's seat at a shopping-trolley roadblock and demands a ride so he can do some "errands", the first one of which is murdering his father with that machete for beating him as a kid.

James sprints off without his car keys (the guy with the blade has them) and winds up trying not to make any noise underneath an SUV when the maniac stalks him. Someone else enters that guy's field of vision and he runs off to start murdering them instead. A passing van looks like it might be at least a way for James to get a ride to where he needs to go, but it turns out to have three people inside it who go into a house in this part of Dante's Subdivision. A huge lardy muscular dude, a skinny dude, and a ten year old blonde girl who's screaming that she wants her dad. When the trio goes inside the house, James gets ready to steal the van but can't quite bring himself to abandon the girl to a horrific fate. Good thing there's a hammer amongst the stuff in the van, and the house isn't locked.

James almost gets taken out by each of the rapists in turn (the huge guy, unsurprisingly, is a much bigger challenge). Once the giant guy decides to switch to negotiation rather than fighting ("There's enough here for both of us") James bashes him on the head and rescues the girl. The film's also realistic enough about James' capabilities both physically and emotionally that he throws up after getting out of the creeps' house and openly doesn't care about helping the girl find her father before everything goes away forever.

Turns out the girl is going to "Auntie Janice's"; at least that's the plan. Her father burned their house down rather than let squatters live in it (not everyone's going full-tilt homicidally insane but nobody's wrapped too tightly right now, it would appear) and she got separated from him when he looked for more petrol (one assumes his car went dry; maybe it would have been better to pour more gas in the Family Truckster and less on the living room carpet). The girl says her family is supposed to meet up in Roleystone, but there's barely any gas in the van's tanks and James has other plans for the day.

As a compromise between leaving the kid to fend for herself and driving over to Roleystone, James goes back to the ice rink where the family station wagon is parked (and the girl's father hasn't returned yet; odds are he's not ever coming back). When James gets tired of waiting for her father, he says he's got to move on and offers to drop the girl off at his sister's place so she can be looked after. James thinks that's at least safer than where he's going; his sister's got three kids and she'll probably not mind taking in a stray for the last few hours of life on Earth. He actually puts the stolen van in gear and starts driving off before the girl decides to go with that plan rather than stick around waiting for her father at the ice rink parking lot. When they get back on the road, the girl gives her name--it's Rose, not that James asked about it--and James responds with his.

When they get to his sister's house, there doesn't appear to be anyone home. James lets himself in through the back gate (whatever James has been doing to screw up his life, it appears his sister Stacey did all right; it's a large two-story house with a pool in the back and plenty of kids' toys). Inside there's a Christmas tree with opened presents underneath it but upstairs something's wrong. James finds the body of his sister in the shower with the water running (which had been going on long enough for some water to overflow the stall and drip down the stairs--James send Rose out to the pool while he figured out what was going on; obviously, nothing good happened there and he didn't want to inflict it on an innocent kid). While James tries to figure out what to do next he spots three white crosses with kids' names on them in the back garden; apparently his sister assisted with three suicides before killing herself.

James is shaken enough that he wants to ditch Rose at the murder/suicide house and drive off in his sister's car. She catches him before he can do that and winds up accompanying him to the party that he's been wanting to get to for the last few hours. While James makes the drive, we get a flashback to him and Zoe before he abandoned her; he recommends that she does something to numb herself before the end (booze, drugs, pills, or any other mood obliterator). It turns out she's been avoiding intoxicants because she's pregnant. With James' child. His response is to ask what difference that makes on the last day of human existence on Earth--I cannot honestly imagine an American movie with such a bastard as the protagonist. Although, to be fair, he's under an  unprecedented amount of stress and I'm guessing that his life hasn't been rough enough to teach him much in the way of empathy or kindness yet.

On the drive to the party, Rose improvises a bandage for a wound that James got while avoiding the machete lunatic at the start of the film and explains that she's worried that when everyone dies she's going to Hell (she prayed for a bullying classmate to die, and the child eventually developed a terminal case of leukemia). James is at least human enough that he tries to set Rose's mind at ease and say that God doesn't listen to those kinds of prayers. He isn't cruel enough to point out that everyone all over the world is going to be praying for the same thing over the course of that day and none of them are getting what they want.

At a local library, James sees a couple and their kids going inside. He tries to fob Rose off on them and belatedly realizes that the husband is a cop in uniform and he's brought his family in there with a gun. He and Rose leave but the husband asks to talk to James about something. And he's got the gun, so James decides to listen. Turns out the cop can't quite bring himself to murder his children to save them the fear and pain that's coming in several hours, so he asks James to do it instead. There's four bullets in the gun, and the police officer explains that he wants to read a picture book to his two kids and then have James shoot them in the back of the head before they realize anything's out of the ordinary. Then it's up to James to kill the parents. James refuses, and the officer asks for absolution instead. James does find the ability to forgive the man, and they walk out to continue their journey towards the end-of-days celebration.

James arrives at the party to find that everyone else has already arrived; the voice on the other walkie-talkie that serves as a doorbell and intercom says his (other) girlfriend Vicky is irritated because he took so long to get there. Rose takes his hand before they go into the gated mini-mansion; it can't be easy for a ten year old to walk past a TRESPASSERS WILL BLEED BEFORE THEY DIE sign. It's telling that everyone at the party calls him Jimmy when they see him come in; getting drunk and high at the end of the world is a situation where even Miss Manners would allow for a certain amount of informality.

Rose is visibly frightened by the crowd of bellowing, topless, dancing, intoxicated young lads and lasses. That's all bad enough, as is the ear-damagingly loud music, but it turns out that there's a Russian Roulette competition going on near the pool; mobs of chanting yahoos stoke the competitors' emotions, cheering for each victory and cheering even louder for each spray of blood against an Australian flag hung up as a backdrop (single gunshots at random intervals punctuate the scene, which lets the viewer know that the game is still going on and people are occasionally losing). Steering Rose through this bacchanal seems to give James a little bit of a glimpse at what his life looks like from the outside, though he's still fixated on finding Vicky. When he goes inside his friend's house and sees the orgy going on it's yet another thing Rose doesn't really know how to deal with ("I don't think anyone here will take me to Auntie Janice's"). Two of James' friends greet him, happy to see him, but neither one pauses while having sex. Also, maybe it's just a function of Australian ratings law, but as far as I can tell everything going on in the fuck pit is heterosexual. I would have hoped that someone's inhibitions would drop if there were only six hours left for them to worry about their friends calling them queer.

Jimmy hands a bowl of chips over to Rose (since she's hungry) and goes looking for Vicky; seconds after he walks off from her, Rose gets snagged by a woman who calls her Mandy and says not to be scared. This woman's too bright and chipper to be anything but coked up (or on meth, I guess) and the only person who has even the most cursory interest in taking care of the prepubescent girl in the house just wandered off. James intervenes but he's still only doing the absolute bare minimum to protect Rose; when Vicky sees him and jumps him for a prolonged kiss it looks like the kid's going to be on her own very shortly. Vicky and James tell Rose to hop in the pool for a quick swim; James goes inside to do a couple lines of coke and screw his other girlfriend. You can't hear any of the party from inside the bedroom, which seems more an artistic choice than anything (James is in savagely deep denial right now, and he has been the entire time he's been trying to get to the party).

The stress turns out to be more than James can handle; he stays soft while Vicky tries a couple of things that turn out not to work and then suggests that James take care of her while there's still time. Instead, James tells Vicky about finding his sister's body and the deaths of Stacey's three kids; Vicky doesn't even see the point to hearing about that kind of thing. Watching the realization play over Nathan Philips' face here is pretty wonderful--he's just gotten a stiff dose of his own medicine, and he doesn't like the taste at all. Vicky doesn't notice how shattered her guy feels (either the drugs or her own personality or both are preventing this); she decides to give James a look at the survival bunker her brother Freddie dug under the garage. Obviously he had to have started long before the world got the bad news, but he's sure got a doom bunker now. I found it interesting that all three of the main adult characters have diminutive, juvenile versions of their names--Jimmy, Vicky and Freddie instead of James, Victoria and Frederick. It might well be a comment on the essential childishness of getting stoned and drunk all the time (which appears to be a hobby shared by all three characters).

While Vicky and James are checking out the underground lair, Rose gets cornered in the pool by the woman who called her Mandy. The woman gives her a tablet to make her feel less stressed and afraid, pretty much forcing Rose to consume it (and making an empty promise to drive Rose to Auntie Janice's place as a final effort).

Down under the garage, Vicky shows off a recently constructed dingy greenish-lit bunker, which looks to be maybe twenty feet by thirty, to her boyfriend. She shows off the bunk beds, cardboard boxes of supplies and hand-cranked record player (which at least shows that Freddie realizes there won't be electricity in the post-apocalyptic world). James tries to get Vicky to realize what an empty fantasy survival would be, and ironically he uses the same phrasing with her that he did with Zoe. "We're all fucking dead" sums it up pretty succinctly. Vicky, impervious to reason, wonders why he's being so mean, and also says Jimmy could have stayed with his other girlfriend on the beach. This leads to a screaming tirade against her boyfriend and then a sobbing, screaming breakdown where Vicky says she doesn't want to die. For the first time since we've seen him, James tries to comfort someone else and admits how terrified he is of the coming inevitable doom.

And he says that he knows now that he can't just ignore what's coming and get blotto before the world ends; he's going to get Rose back to her father because that's where she belongs; Vicky asks where James belongs and he says it's somewhere else. It took him quite a while to get there, but he realized what he needs to do as a human being. Vicky cries again at the thought of facing extinction without her guy, and just when things look like they couldn't get any worse Freddie comes down the ladder with a gun (and wearing only a leopard-print banana hammock). He wants to know why his sister is crying, and James lets him have it for giving Vicky the false hope about survival in the underground shelter.

Out in the pool, Rose is enjoying the Ecstasy she's taken; the confetti in the air looks magical and the music's dulled to a cool throb rather than an eardrum-rattling shriek. But something goes wrong with her system and the pill; when James gets out there she's throwing up, burning and feverish. That's bad enough, but with the woman who keeps calling her Mandy accusing James of kidnapping her daughter and Freddie showing up waving a gun around and calling James a killjoy things just keep getting worse. The woman keeps telling Freddie to shoot James so she can get her "daughter" back; Vicky shows up, gently takes the gun out of her brother's hands and drills the woman in the forehead (there's some laughter at this from the background, but everyone in the frame realizes how awful things have become).

Vicky tells James to get out of there, and it turns out to be a good thing that he got there as late as he did because his car was the last one in. On the bad side, water is the one drink nobody has at the party so the fever and dehydration are going to do a real number on Rose. James steals a cab while the driver is out for a shirtless inebriated piss and goes to his mother's place, hoping that some kind of assistance will be there for Rose. James' mother is stunned into silence when she sees who's come back to see her. There's obviously plenty of bad words and pain between the two of them, and James gets hostile when called out on his total lack of concern for his mom. But when his mom asks if he's seen his sister, he tells her he didn't go over there rather than hurt her feelings. After all, he's only got to lie to her for another four or five hours, max, and then that issue (and every other one) is completely moot. But when his mom gripes about how thoughtless it was to not meet her at the door James improvises a story about going in and finding a note saying the family had fled--at least he's avoiding devastating his mother with the truth.

He asks to borrow his mother's car, or at least drain the petrol tank, and she tears into him as only a spite-filled parent can, asking what he's going to prove by trying to help this girl he doesn't even know. Then she tells him the car was stolen ("When?" "Does it matter?"), and they both have a bitter, quiet laugh about the vagaries of fate. It's probably significant that James' mother has a wine glass and a cigarette in her hands pretty much the entire time she's on screen, by the way. Her son might be a brainless yob who's trying to get rid of as many brain cells as he can by any means necessary, but he does appear to have picked up those tendencies honestly. James collects a couple of jerry cans partly filled with petrol and prepares to reunite Rose with her father. His goodbye with his mother is as strained and pinched as one would expect, but both James and his mom realize that he's actually doing the right thing, and judging from his friends, that's got to be a new experience from him.

On the drive to Auntie Janice's, Rose apologizes for getting James into trouble with his friends and he tells her that nothing that happened at the party was her fault; their conversation in the cab during this drive is much more like a father and daughter (or maybe an uncle and a daughter), and James has visibly softened around the edges now that he's gone through his panicked phase and is trying to do something positive as his final actions on Earth. They make it without incident to Auntie Janice's, but it turns out that everyone decided to check out together without Rose when it became obvious that she wasn't going to get back with her family. James is the one who discovers the bodies and he won't let Rose see them. He winds up carrying her away bodily as she screams for him to put her down, which is exactly what he saw someone else do the first time they crossed each other's paths. Instead of showing Rose a clearing full of dead bodies he wraps her father's corpse in a sheet and brings it out to lie next to a pond and lets Rose make whatever peace she can with the knowledge that her father is gone. In a movie full of screaming and panic, her quieter-by-comparison reaction is devastating.

Rose refuses to leave her father because he wanted to be with his daughter when the world ended; she grows up in a hell of a hurry to stay by his side and wait for the apocalypse. James goes away on his own to find Zoe, with only a tiny window of time left out of the half a day he knew was left. But before he goes, he does tell Rose that if the world wasn't ending he would have been a father some day. Rose tells him there's still time to see his other girlfriend, and gives him the benediction he needs to go and do that (it's one thing to fight lunatics with a hammer or face down a coked-up girlfriend with a gun, but trying to atone is harder and scarier than everything else James has had to do that final, awful day put together). And it's telling that the biggest tear-jerking scene in the film is the one where James is finally going out to do the right thing (in a stolen taxicab, because he's not that good a person underneath it all). But maybe he's good enough, and that's really all that matters.

One last mishap when he's driving (an overheated radiator that sets the engine on fire) means that James has to run as fast as he can for as long as he can in order to get to Zoe, who was waiting alone for the end of the world. And the filmmakers who gave us this very Australian end of the world weren't quite cruel enough gods to have him fail. The final thing he sees (and that Zoe sees) is the strangely beautiful wave of flames streaking towards them on the beach, as wide as the horizon and spitting cinders and sparks ahead of it. They stand together and are swallowed by the fire and darkness. It took him until the last seconds of his life but he finally did right by someone that he didn't realize that he loved. And again, my emotions get worked like a speed bag because characters being sad doesn't make my tear ducts vent anywhere near as much as it does when they choose to be good. The screen fades to white, just as it did for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and that's as solid a declaration of optimism as you can find. If the director wanted you to feel nothing mattered and everything was gone, surely the movie would have cut to black.

There's got to be a dissertation out there comparing different cultures' end-of-the-world cinematic visions. There's a low-key Canadian film called Last Night that will show up on the Checkpoint sooner or later (it's the movie I first saw with Sandra Oh in it). America has made dozens of "we stopped the thing from happening" movies that threaten Armageddon while Australia gave us the assless-chaps-and-hot-rods postapocalyptic genre. And the hero of this film really can't be called that until maybe fifteen minutes from the end of the movie. Up until that time he's a scared boy trying not to think about the horrible things staring him down (regardless of his physical age). It's an ironic and touching moment that he turns out to want to be there for Zoe and his child because he finally realizes how much that matters, and when there's nothing else left it's the final sparks of humanity that make it so essential to stand against the darkness.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Four Lions (2010)


Written by Chris Morris & Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong; additional writing by Simon Blackwell
Directed by Chris Morris

Riz Ahmed:  Omar
Arsher Ali:  Hassan
Nigel Lindsay:  Barry
Kayvan Novak:  Waj
Adeel Akhtar:  Faisal

With Benedict Cumberbatch as a hostage negotiator (watch my hits go up now that I've mentioned him!)

How the hell did a comedy about wannabe suicide bombers get greenlit? Well, it didn't, the first two times the director / writer tried to get it made. Chris Morris talked to terrorism experts and law enforcement personnel as well as imams and ordinary everyday Muslims for three years while doing intensive research; if you're going to be making a comedy about such a hot-button topic you'd want to make the best-informed one you possibly could, I hope. After being turned down for funding twice and attempting a pre-Kickstarter crowdfunding effort, Film 4 gave Morris the go-ahead and he was able to make the film the way he wanted. It was reportedly screened for a Guantanamo Bay detainee (who was released without being charged in 2005 after three years of abuse and extrajudicial incarceration), who said there wasn't anything in it that would offend British Muslims. Certainly that's in the film's favor--or even "favour". It was barely given a release in the States, having been one of the first Drafthouse Films that made its way to movie screens; I got my copy in a $1.95 bin at a Dollar General.

The first thing the viewer sees is grainy video footage of a Middle Eastern looking man sitting crosslegged in front of a woven wall hanging, but the first thing they hear is the person shooting the video complaining about how that guy is sitting and mentioning that the camcorder battery is fading fast. A reverse shot reveals that four guys are sitting around in an apartment shooting their Jihadist video, not in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. Waj, the one who appears on the video, is dim enough that when he goes over to look at the viewfinder, he's surprised that he can't see himself sitting down on the other side of the room. He gets coaxed back to his position and tries to strike a threatening pose, holding a toy AK-47 that's far too small to look anything but ridiculous in the video. Barry, the director (and the only white guy in the group), thinks it looks too stupid to tape while Waj suggests moving a lot closer to the camera and holding the replica gun out in front of him to "bigger it".

Another jump cut reveals the ringleader of the group, Omar, at a bright sunlit kitchen table showing the video outtakes to his wife and son; the picture of normality and happy domesticity other than the laptop playing a video about how the Western world needs to burn. Waj interrupts the message of doom and destruction to explain that even McDonalds serves a proper halal value meal and at a reasonable price. Omar's eventual verdict after watching several takes:  "They're all bloopers". (Omar's brother Faisal, another dimwit, put a box over his head because "images" are forbidden so he gives his speech muffled by cardboard and unable to see anything). It turns out that Omar and his brother are planning to go to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan to carry the global jihad to English shores. Omar just hopes that Faisal doesn't wind up running around the camp with a cardboard box over his dome. A look of distress and concern over Omar's face at how stupid he's going to look at the terrorist training camp leads into the opening credits.

Omar turns out to work as an overnight security guard at a mall; his days appear to be filled by two things:  looking at the endless blank spaces of the camera feeds as people clean the floors and listening to the endless descriptions of what his workmate had to eat over the weekend and how many kilometers the guy walked once he ate. Having once heard a coworker go on for ten solid minutes about the kinds of salads you used to be able to get at a restaurant that had been closed for decades, I can honestly sympathize with Omar's desire to blow things up. After getting an email from his "uncle" about whether or not he's going to make it to a "wedding" being held the next day, Omar suddenly asks for two weeks off. He tells his boss that it's an emergency ("What, an emergency wedding?") and gets cleared to move on to the next phase of his plan.

Back at the flat, Faisal, Barry and Waj are discussing whether or not satellite surveillance can see you when you're underground, and discuss methods of avoiding being seen (it's not enough to just take the battery out of your mobile phone). According to Barry, eating the SIM card in your phone is the only sure way to disable tracking and surveillance. Omar says that won't stop tracking (after everyone's eaten their SIM cards, of course) and tells everyone the good news that he's going to Pakistan for jihadist training. Barry wants to know why he didn't get the call--Omar says it's because he has an uncle in Pakistan, and Barry has one in Foulkston. Barry says he's primed and ready to go at any time, but Omar is hoping to do something more impressive than just blowing yourself up in a drugstore by yourself. Omar wants a four-pronged attack and massive casualties.

Yes, it's still a comedy. All the testosterone-poisoned insults thrown about wouldn't be out of place in a Judd Apatow flick. It's all about masculinity and the desire to be an effective person (for whatever definition of "effective" these four tools or the workmates of the 40 year old virgin would use). Barry says he's the "invisible Jihadi" here, while Omar thinks (more accurately) that he's a loose cannon--apparently to commemorate the 9/11 attacks the "invisible" guy baked a World Trade Center themed cake and left it at a synagogue as his part of the global struggle. If your life choices are so bad they make the news, you're not actually invisible. Barry gets even angrier and says he was hiding in plain sight. The camera switches to an outside view of the flat while Barry makes this claim; is this Morris' way of saying the characters are already under surveillance?

On the ride to the airport, Barry says he's already bought a ticket to Pakistan, so he's going with them whether Omar wants him to or not. Omar asks a question in Urdu, which the convert doesn't understand a single word of. The talks break down when Barry pulls over to the side of the road and eats the ignition key of his beater car--if he can't go to a terrorist training camp on another continent, nobody else can either. Omar and the others haul Barry out of the car, tie him up and throw him in the trunk while the white guy continues to list all the highly inaccurate things that will happen to the others in Camp X-Ray ("They're gonna pump you full of Viagra and make you fuck a dog!", etc.)--turns out Omar knows how to hotwire a car, so they don't actually need Barry driving to make their departure time. Faisal remains behind in the UK, hopefully keeping Barry from doing anything too stupid, and also taking care of his father (who is apparently slipping into dementia--seeing things that don't exist and making grand sweeping statements about what should be forbidden under his incredibly strict fundamentalist interpretations of Islam).

Over in Pakistan, Omar's uncle is less than impressed by Waj (the first thing he says on screen is "Is he as dumb as he looks?"; Omar says no but his friend has brought a "prayer bear" plush toy that recites sacred words--in English, no less--when you shake it. I'm starting to think that all four of the protagonists combined might make one competent jihadist, but that on their own each one is a disaster in their own unique ways. The elder warrior digs through Waj's luggage, asks (in English) if Omar is ready to kill his brother to serve the struggle, and (in Urdu) says if either of the pair screws anything up he'll stick them in the camp sewers, mouths jammed open. And then, of course, "peace unto you" before getting back in the car and taking them to the camp (although not before Omar and Waj have a scene where they declare they'd kill each other for the struggle, which reassures both of them about their place in the global jihadist network after it takes place).

As they arrive at the camp, Waj and Omar are late for morning prayers and Waj makes a really great first impression when he tries to face the wrong way (he doesn't realize that Mecca's in the same place but he's somewhere else on the globe). When one of the actual mujaheddin sees a drone in the sky everyone bolts and gets under cover; Omar picks up a Stinger and offers to shoot the plane down but 1) it's too far away to hit and 2) that would alert the US military to exactly where the training camp is.

Speaking of training camps, back in Sheffield, Barry is on a university panel about Islam and moderation where he vociferously objects to the use of the term "training camps" by another panelist right after he says it (and, in the way of belligerent assholes everywhere, immediately denies that he said that). That "low profile" is working out well, yeah? Barry's idiocies get overshadowed by someone in the audience who says as long as Western society is going to treat him like a suicide bomber he might as well be one--he goes on a hip-hop rant about how righteous his struggle is, reveals his suicide belt and sets it off (it is just little party firecrackers). Barry salutes him as campus security takes the guy out of the lecture hall. The new guy turns out to be named Hassan and Barry waits around to meet the guy--and it turns out that Barry's particular flavour of asshole masculinity works pretty well when trolling for new recruits. Sure, Hassan just met Barry two minutes ago, but he wants to impress the man (even after Barry says that people playing stringed instruments is a sign of the End Times; religion aside, Barry'd fit right in with a lot of the Rapture panic sellers in the States).

Back in Pakistan, Waj is firing an AK-47 in the air, talking shit to Omar about how authentic he looks now. This is bad enough to the real jihadists, but it turns out that taking a cell phone picture of it is even stupider--the authentic terrorists know that cell phone signals will reveal their position to the military, which probably means a drone with a Hellfire missile is being prepped to kill them all. The Pakistani mujaheddin say that Omar and Waj are staying behind to do maintenance on the equipment when everyone else goes to meet an emir and get funding for the struggle the next day, and then says the two "fucking Mr. Beans" are getting sent back to the UK before they get everyone killed.

Back in the green and pleasant land, Barry and Faisal (and Hassan) check out their stockpile of liquid bleach, which Faisal has been stockpiling for three solid years--he says the clerks at the wholesaler never figured out he's been buying so much more of it than anyone would need by disguising his voice different ways every time he goes there. Because nothing's less suspicious than the same person doing silly voices over and over while buying bomb-making chemicals. From the same store. For three years. It's even worse when Faisal says the other voice is his "I.R.A. voice"; Barry points out that he's disguising himself as a terrorist to cover up his terrorist activities. The viewer actually feels embarrassment and shame for poor Faisal at his incredibly dire disguise techniques--it's amazing how much sympathy the film generates for these four (now five) idiots even though they're planning to kill people in the name of a struggle they barely comprehend. They're all as English as tea time and cricket, incidentally--Waj keeps using the epithet "Paki" when he's actually in Pakistan talking to Pakistanis.

And speaking of Pakistan, Omar and Waj are enjoying a little recrimination time (Waj, realizing that everything is God's will, starts to worry that him being an utter fuckup is also God's will and thinks he might be doomed to hell as one of God's mistakes). Omar doesn't think it's as bad as all that, but he sure isn't happy that he's missing the meeting with an emir. When a drone comes up on the camp Omar picks up a Stinger tube (and doesn't notice the FRONT END stenciled on one side, or the arrow pointing in the direction of the rocket that's going to come out of the weapon). He fires it backwards and the missile lands exactly where the Pakistani jihadists were meeting with the emir; during the retaliatory fire Omar and Waj barely escape with their lives.

Back in the "safe house" in Sheffield, Faisal describes his plan to train bomb-carrying crows to go to "those towers full of Jews and slags"; Barry thinks things have gone past the trained-crow stage at this point. Barry's plan is to attack a mosque as a false flag operation, which will cause all the righteous Muslims to rise up against their "attackers" and lead to a holy war in the UK. When Faisal asks if Omar's okay with this (and Hassan asks who Omar is), the audience hears Barry give himself a field promotion; apparently, in the Gospel According to Barry the Jihadist Omar is one of his underlings, who got sent to Pakistan for field training. Barry's also an insane hardliner who says that Faisal's father is a Jew for having bought produce from Israel--which means it's all right to kill the old man if he happens to be at the service when the false flag attack goes down.

Barry might be an asshole and a bigot, but he's not utterly stupid. When Omar and Waj return with no luggage and only a couple days after they set out for Pakistan, he knows something went wrong. Omar bluffs through it, claiming that they have an emir funding their plan and that they've been given a green light to go forward with their plot. Omar is less than impressed with Hassan, and certainly doesn't like being on camcorder as he walks to Barry's piece of shit car. Hassan claims to have been tested by Barry (the "test" involves a bean and his genitals, for some reason; the reaction shot from Waj and Omar is pretty choice when they hear about it). Hassan says he can get a van from his rich father and as Barry's car fails to start. The recently returned leader of the cell bows to reality (Omar:  "He's either in or I've got to kill him, haven't I?" Barry:  "I knew you'd like him.").

After his return, Omar winds up telling a bedtime story to his son in which he conflates his accidental rocket-blasting of his fellow jihadis with characters from The Lion King, and while working his way through the story also tries to convince himself that it's the right thing to do not to tell anyone else in his cell how badly he screwed things up in Pakistan. It goes pretty poorly. But the next day he tells the other four terrorist conspirators that he's talked to the "emir"--using a kid's message site called Party Puffin; it's like using Neomail to plan abortion clinic bombings--and their next phase is getting all the stockpiled bleach to the safe house where they can boil it down into bomb paste. Omar's less than thrilled with the mosque-bombing plan ("Let's all staple-gun pigs to our foreheads!") and vetoes it. Other suggestions are things like bombing a chain drugstore for selling condoms.

Barry keeps voting for mosque-bombing, and gets talked into punching himself in the face as hard as he can to show how effective it can be to attack your own side to get the adrenaline flowing. Actually, he just really hurts himself and does not go mental enough to win the fight. Also, he takes the well-deserved mockery pretty badly when it turns out that bloodying your own nose is not very inspiring. Will he come to his senses and rejoin his friends in time to help murder dozens or hundreds of innocent strangers? Also, damn, the movie makes you actually care about the answer to this question as long as you concentrate on the five goofballs who are hanging out together and not thinking about what they're eventually planning to do.

Barry gets stuck hauling the big goofy animal costumes up into the "safe house" flat while Hassan and Waj play loud music and pretend to be a band as their cover story. Barry figures a noise complaint and a suspicious copper would end their plan before it can even begin, Barry also directs the others to shake their heads really fast as an anti-surveillance technique--they'll come out blurry in the photos. I'm sure that doesn't look suspicious at all to anyone reviewing security footage in the common area of the block of flats. Omar gives Waj and Hassan the sensible advice that in no way will come back to haunt everyone:  The next time Barry gives them an order, don't carry it out.

A new character gets introduced here--Alice is the next-flat neighbor; she's also slow and spacey when she talks, so she's possibly incredibly stoned or just as dimwitted as, say, Waj. She sees everyone taking the animal costumes out of the van but it doesn't look suspicious to her at this point; it's just a bunch of friends hauling bulky stuff up to the second story and stowing it in someone's apartment. Barry's up there making a jihadist tape about bombing the mosque to strike at the Western world (Hassan points out several flaws with his reasoning, especially the part where an Islamic terrorist can't take credit for the mosque bombing if they want ordinary Muslims to be radicalized by the attack).

Back at Omar's house, his brother Ahmed drops by to try and talk some sense into him (and the voice of reason comes from an imam so devout and pacifist that he won't be in the same room as Omar's wife because she's a woman, and who doesn't like the idea of Omar's son playing with a water pistol). Unfortunately, nobody's particularly willing to listen to reason and there's a squirt gun fight where Ahmed drops his pacifist tendencies because nobody likes being made fun of and being squirted with water. This scene also paradoxically shows how modernistic Omar is (he's wearing exercise clothes) and doesn't have a four-inch beard like he's supposed to in order to show he's devout. And he very obviously loves his wife, who might be wearing a headscarf but isn't stuck in her own tiny cupboard of a room like she's "supposed" to be according to implied interpretations of scripture.

Later, at Barry's flat, the first batch of rendered-down bleach explosive works (they test it, in the manner of young idiots everywhere, by having one person hold a tiny bead of it on their hand and someone else lights it. The video they're taking for posterity could be the jihadist version of Jackass). This scene also demonstrates for the audience how unstable to explosive goop is--either setting it on fire or striking it sharply makes it detonate. And it looks like Faisal might be having second thoughts about this whole "strap a bunch of home-brewed explosive gel to yourself and detonate it as an act of war" plan. The next time we see him, he's off on his own trying to rig up a bomb to a crow; the second piece of exposition gets dropped here; the bombs are going to be detonated via a cell phone signal. The crow bomb goes off before Faisal can make the call, leading to a cloud of feathers on the wind as well as what appear to be a series of surveillance shots of Faisal's reaction, scrolled through with the sound effect of a keyboard key being pressed. We the audience don't get to see who's taken the shots or looking through them at this point, though.

Barry, left to his own devices while Omar is at work, blows up Omar's microwave with a test batch of explosives, using a fireworks display as cover. This scene is shown through night-vision camera effects and all five of the main characters have been accounted for when the screen goes green and grainy. When everyone gets back to the flat (with Barry picking an argument with Omar over whether the ringleader said "my jihad" or "our jihad" while complaining that he should have been there for the microwave getting blown up), it turns out that Hassan has invited Alice over to dance around and listen to some kind of remix of "Dancing in the Moonlight". With all the chemicals, electronic wires, bolts (the cheapest shrapnel they could find), and costumes out in the open in the flat. Omar says it's time for Alice to take off, and she accuses the group of being a group of secret homosexuals, which shows that Waj isn't the only one capable of putting two and two together and coming up with "tree frog". Alice is also homophobic enough to just say she isn't everyone's friend any more and takes off.

Hassan gets assigned the cover-maintaining job of killing Alice (the only weapons in the flat are Barry's pocket knife and a fork Faisal brings out of the kitchen). But that just turns out to be a way to rattle Hassan about what a stupid security risk he took; Omar declares that instead of committing a murder that would instantly be traced back to the flat it's time to move the incredibly unstable explosives off to somewhere else. This leads to everyone jammed into Barry's car with jars and bags of stuff that will blow up if it gets bumped too hard and Barry driving like an asshole on a bumpy road. The car's engine craps out partway through the trip (Barry blames Jewish parts for his shoddy repair), and everyone takes shopping bags full of horrifically unstable explosives out so they can walk the rest of the way. A jogger that Omar knows happens by and tosses them a temporarily forgotten bag after one of those I AM TOTALLY NOT ACTING SUSPICIOUS! conversations; thankfully, Hassan has good enough reflexes to catch it but everyone shrieks in panic. He also passes off everyone's running posture as "squat jogs", a method of training the thighs for marathon running. His jogger friend tries it out as he leaves, of course. Half the joke about the encounters with the white English characters seems to be that if they were just more paranoid and racist, they'd notice the plot and be able to call the police to stop it.

Everyone's in Barry's decrepit back garden other than Omar, who's catching up as fast as he can and Faisal, who's running like mad to get there with the last load of explosives. The four other terrorists cheer him on as he hops a fence and runs through a sheep paddock, at least until he slips, falls, and goes down with the inevitable result. By the time Omar gets there Hassan has gathered up his fallen comrade's mortal remains in a trash bag and Barry's trying to put a brave face on things by claiming the sheep that was also blown up was a blow from Faisal to disrupt the food supply of an enemy nation. Omar's had it, declaring that Faisal isn't the first martyr of the ultimate jihad, but rather a stupid dickhead who got himself killed through carelessness. Perhaps seeing what an incredibly bad idea this has always been, Omar decides that the mission is off. Everyone being who they are, this degenerates into an argument between Barry and Hassan about who killed Faisal more through negligence and fearmongering. And once Omar asks if it's true about Faisal's martyrdom, Barry's quick to take credit for his death. Waj decides to take a little credit too, and says that they have to blow up the internet in Faisal's memory.

That's the absolute last straw for Omar, who tells everyone off and stomps out in the rain to coincidentally run into Ahmed playing football in the rain with a few other imams. Everyone's carrying umbrellas, because they're smart enough not to get wet. This probably means something. Omar almost lets himself be vulnerable enough to ask his brother for help, but can't quite bring himself to do it in the end. And he winds up on that puffin-themed chat site, apologizing to Waj later that night. Waj might be too handicapped to finish even the kids' books about Islam that are the only way he's been taught about his faith, but he isn't self-loathing enough to stick around and listen to Omar again, even on an arctic-bird based children's website. He's just been dismissed by all three puffins representing the remaining jihadists when his wife shows up to ask what he's doing with his laptop at the kitchen table in the middle of the night.

When Omar tells his wife about Faisal's death, she says it must have been part of the divine plan. Omar cannot bring himself to believe that God's paying attention to a bunch of idiots like his co-conspirators. But eventually he realizes that if he's not in charge, Barry will be and that'll be the end of everything. And Omar still plans to kill himself as a strike in the global jihad (which is weird, because he seems to be the most level-headed one of the group by far). He just doesn't want to do it for nothing. The conversation wakes up Omar's son, who also approves of dear old Dad's imminent martyrdom and says the classically sick line "He'll be in heaven before his head hits the ceiling". I am utterly unable to resolve the paradox between Omar's loving, stable home life and his perpetual desire to kill himself in a way that will murder innocent people as a ticket to heaven. The closest I can come is by quoting a Johnny Cash lyric:  "You're so heavenly minded you're no Earthly good".

A news report the next day mentions the head of an Asian man that fell out of a tree and almost hit a man's dog while they were out for a morning walk. The incident happened far enough away from Faisal's death that things won't immediately be traced back to the conspirators but they'll have to move fast. It turns out the London Marathon is the next day, and his coworker Matt, the guy who jogged past them back before Faisal blew himself into kebab chunks, is running it in a goofy costume (like many other competitors). Suddenly all the pieces are together, at least for Omar. There will be huge crowds of spectators, live news coverage and a perfect way to disguise the bombing gear by wearing goofy animal suits.

But nobody's willing to listen to him, at least partially because he hurt their feelings. Omar apologizes sincerely to his friends, and Barry tells him you can't win an argument just by being nice. Or right. I'm not sure about that last one, and neither is Waj. Scenes of the four jihadists mending their bridges with each other are intercut with shots of dozens of police in heavy SWAT gear crowding around the block of flats in nightvision shots. Just as the decision is made to bomb the marathon and Omar declares the group to be the four lions of the title, the cops burst in and smash down the door...of Ahmed's study group (and the small cupboard room with the women segregated inside, of course). And the most dangerous thing anyone in there has on them is a plastic water pistol, of course. When Omar stops by the hospital where his wife works, he manages to tell her that the plan is going ahead in the most transparent code imaginable, literally under the noses of two police who were questioning her about the last time she saw Ahmed. It turns out that Omar's actually a really good jihadist.

There's a massive police presence at the marathon starting point, and the four terrorists are late to arrive so they're just off behind an aqueduct stuffing their funny-animal costumes with bombs and psyching themselves up for the last thing any of them are planning to do. Waj, as always, is the one who wants to do the right thing. It's too bad he's listening to Omar and Barry about what that is. His heart says that indiscriminate killing is wrong, and they shouldn't do it. And at this last point where they could back out, everyone tries to talk the poor bastard into going along with their plan. Just after committing everybody to the suicide bombing, a cop shows up and politely offers instructions on where the foursome should have parked. He also says they're going to die running in their costumes, which everyone agrees is quite likely, but as Omar says--it's all for a good cause.

Hassan panics and decides he isn't ready to die after all, which turns out to be terrible news for him and that helpful cop because Barry has the cell phone that can send a detonation signal to everyone's gear. Scratch one jihadist and one policeman, and suddenly this pitch-black comedy isn't so amusing any more. And the remaining three suicide bombers are now ready to go. One last argument between Barry and Omar leads the mastermind behind the entire plot to realize that he's just murdering a simple man, and his friend, to score points in a religion. He runs after Waj to try and stop things, with Barry in close pursuit and a crowd of police in less close but still fervent pursuit.

The streets are packed gutter to gutter with running Londoners when Omar sneaks into the throng; Waj gets intercepted by police and runs into a kebab shop and reveals to the police that he's got a bomb in his ostrich-riding cowboy suit. He orders the shop owner to close the security shutters and now he's got several hostages inside, but can't get out. Worse yet, the police know two of the costumes (Omar's in a big fuzzy orange bear suit referred to as a "honey monster" that I don't recognize because I don't watch British TV, but the police know to kill whoever's in a bear suit). Barry's still a wild card, fittingly enough.

Oh, and it turns out that some random other guy in a Chewbacca costume looks like a bear from behind, which is really too bad for him when the police snipers shoot first and then ask if a Wookiee is a bear later. One of the arguing snipers gives a sadly relevant to America in 2015 justification for taking out the wrong costumed runner:  "Well, it must be the target, I just shot it".

Back in the kebab shop, it turns out that everyone trapped inside are Muslim, so if Waj sets off his bomb he's only going to be killing people nominally on his side. Which means he's actually carrying out Barry's plan, and Barry's an asshole. Tragically, Waj isn't smart enough to realize that himself and just tells everyone that if Omar was there he'd be able to explain the necessity of their deaths much better than he can. Just after he says that, Omar--who ducked out of the race and is hiding in a cafe in full costume--calls him up to try and call the whole thing off, because even now it isn't too late to stop what they've set in motion. Waj lets all the hostages go but one on Omar's orders, but when the mastermind tries to explain how he took advantage of Waj and set him off on a horrible path, things go surreal--Waj feels so good about joining the jihad that he can't be talked out of his path. He also takes a picture of his face and sends it to Omar to prove that he isn't feeling confused. That's probably the most sensible thing he's done all movie.

Unfortunately, Barry shows up just in time to snag Omar's phone, kick him in the bollocks, eat the SIM card so Omar can't talk to Waj any more, and run. Or rather, start to run, gag on the piece of plastic he ate, and inadvertently start choking. A random guy in the cafe knows the Heimlich maneuver, but he doesn't know that the guy in the ninja turtle costume is wearing impact-sensitive explosives around his midsection. Barry's last thought is probably worrying that he doesn't get credit for killing someone in jihad because they set off the bomb by accident, not him.

The movie, dark as it is, leaves nothing but smoke and costume shreds on the ground after this blast (or after Hassan got taken out, for that matter). The subject matter is pitch-black for humor, but leaving a five-foot-wide slick of blood and organs would push things just too far over the top to be funny. After all, Wile E. Coyote just got charred instead of mutilated every time he had a mishap with nitroglycerin.

While Omar tries to escape from the horrible situation he's in, a hostage negotiator calls Waj to try and see if he can't save one more life and shut down the plan. Too bad for him (and everyone) that Waj didn't have any demands and can't think of any on the spot. Even worse for everyone involved that Waj's explanation for why he's doing this make perfect sense to him and the viewer, but none at all to the hostage negotiator. Also, that negotiator is dogshit at his job, and manages to offend Waj while trying to talk about girls rather than make sense of Waj's talk about theme parks with no queue and rubber dinghy rapids. Waj hangs up on the guy. Omar borrows a phone from Matt the coworker (in a bunny suit, late for the marathon as well) and gets in touch with Waj just in time to hear the police shoot the wrong man to rags (when both people in a hostage situation are Middle Eastern, I guess you shoot the one facing the door and hope it's the right guy). Waj, terminally confused, sets off his bomb and manages to kill the most enemies for his jihad than any of the conspirators so far.

And there's nothing left for Omar to live for now, but he still isn't a murderer. He is the most wanted man in London and knows that it's just a matter of minutes, if not seconds, until he's captured. So he goes out on his own terms, destroying an empty chemist's and himself. Nobody learns anything. Nobody knows what inspired the plot, and everyone who had more than half a dozen lines in the film is dead. The grimmest, sickest joke of the film is still waiting to be sprung on all the remaining characters. One of the themes of Chris Morris' comedy work on television is the utter wrongheaded way the news media can be trusted to interpret things; the credits play over the official response to everything that happened, after the fact, and nothing at all is understood by anyone speaking into a microphone. It's an ending more out of George Romero than Monty Python, but given the subject matter I can understand not wanting to let the audience off the hook with any kind of catharsis at the end.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Full Battle Rattle (2008)


Produced, directed and photographed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss

The images are familiar from a thousand movies and television reports--the sun rises in the desert; the star and crescent on a mosque are backlit by the crimson sky. The town is empty; burned-out cars with Arabic graffiti and a few men in robes are out on the streets. A military convoy makes their way towards the city, kicking up a tail of dust that can be seen for miles. When they get to the town, the stutter of weapons firing and the screams of soldiers, enemy combatants and civilians caught in the middle fill the air. Blood runs in the streets and helicopters take the wounded away. It's chaos and havoc all around, caught by the cameramen who have come along to record the experience for an audience safe at home. The dead and injured lie where they have fallen.

The ice cream truck driving up at the end is a new one on me, though.

What the audience has just seen--without prologue, voiceover, or explanatory captions--is part of a hugely elaborate training exercise in the California desert. The U.S. Army has created a fake town meant to duplicate a small hamlet in Iraq, and was training American troops in a long-term roleplaying game to learn how to interact with the existing civilian power structure in that country with an eye towards reducing American casualties and building a strong, healthy relationship between the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and their foreign [CIRCLE ONE: invaders / liberators ]. I think this is an incredibly good plan; it's much better to get your soldiers' heads around the differences between the culture they know and the one they're trying to influence when you don't get killed in a firefight--you just have the military-grade laser tag vest beep at you to let you know you need to fall down.

As a post-firefight caption explains, the United States Army built a massive, elaborate training complex in the Mojave desert, far enough away from anyplace else in California that it's just desert out to the horizon (one assumes seeing a Burger King two miles away from "Medina Wasl" (which translates to "Junction City" in American) would spoil the illusion, and rightly so). There are thirteen simulated Iraqi villages in the thousand-square-mile facility. As the last part of their training before being deployed to Iraq, soldiers were sent through a several-week-long immersive session where the consequences of their actions were hopefully taught to them. After all, if you've gone through the fake version of events and seen things go well (or badly), you're likely to remember it when you're in the real deal and something similar occurs. I hope the training was useful--I supported the troops to the extent that I didn't actually want them in Iraq fighting a war of choice against an enemy that did not pose a threat to the United States, and which was a massive distraction from the actual conflict that should have been fought against the Saudi terrorists and their leaders who attacked America on 9/11.

This was a hugely unpopular view in 2003, but just look what happens after 12 years of failure and several trillion dollars getting shoveled into a burning money hole in the desert. Now it's pretty much assumed that the Iraq war was a hugely expensive boondoggle that made the world less safe, set the Middle East on fire for a generation and brought about the existence of ISIS. Some things that were obvious all along are no longer politically incorrect to say (such as "the people planning this war could fuck up a one car funeral, and their ideas should not be put into practice"). And remember, soldiers follow orders. If you're given an order to pull down the moon with a lasso made of dental floss, you'd best give it 110 percent and try it. The fact that the order was given by someone with no grasp on reality whatsoever and that a ten year old child could tell you it wouldn't work? Well, the people giving the orders don't care about anyone else's idea about "possible". They just want something done and their study group says it's possible to get the result they wanted, whether or not that's a task that could ever actually be accomplished.

Full Battle Rattle shows the story of one battalion going through the Medina Wasl training for their pre-deployment exercise. Shots of helicopters flying low over the desert and people (wearing the laser tag vests that were in the prologue, but not all that noticeable in the montage of footage) walk the streets. But the artifice is peeking out from the edges here, as it will in hundreds of different ways over the course of the film--the "stone" wall on one building is plastic molding, and one soldier is busy making sure it's all fit together properly before the war can start.

Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Kramer is the "Chief of Plans and Operations" for the Medina Wasl training session, which means he has the coolest job title in the world--official Dungeonmaster for the U.S. Army. He describes the Medina Wasl setting as "one big reality TV show", possibly under the assumption that anyone watching the movie knows about "Survivor", but drop the names Gary Gygax or Mark Rein*Hagen and you'll get a look like a dog that's just been shown a card trick. The Medina Wasl complex isn't just buildings, streets and goat pens--there are 1,600 actors portraying the various NPCs. They live on-site during the training exercises. Lt. Col. Kramer also lets the audience know that about 250 of those participants are Americans who speak Arabic; among the things the soldiers have to get used to is the constant presence of a language they don't know how to read, speak or understand.

Bassam Kalasho, "Iraqi Role Player #3214", is one of the people followed closely by the filmmakers to give a view of the trainers rather than the trainees. He's middle-aged, stock, a bit of a ham and has been performing in training sessions for years ("I've been the deputy mayor for three years. Don't get me wrong, I love what I'm doing. But after three years I want to be the mayor."). It's something he can do for his country and for the war effort, and it also seems to be a way for him to assuage his homesickness--it'd be horrifically unsafe for him to go back to Iraq (especially if it became known that he was helping train American soldiers for the occupation), but Medina Wasl is the next best thing. Other Iraqi NPCs mention the irony of them wearing traditional clothing rather than Western wear, and report their parents' bemusement that they had to come to America to dress like an "Iraqi".

Each "Iraqi" in Medina Wasl is assigned more than just clothing and language preferences--the simulation engineers take plenty of other variables into account and put together a briefing bulletin for each of the thousand-plus inhabitants of the town. Some of the people living in Medina Wasl are given a back story with relatives who fled the country; others might have a sibling, parent or child killed during the American occupation. Different characters are given Sunni, Shia, Christian or Kurdish background, which will come into play as the stresses of war work out among the various religious and ethnic groups. I'm betting one of the most important lessons from the simulations is that the soldiers not view the Iraqis as a monolithic group, and by doing thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes work the performance and training gains depth and breadth. The soldiers are going to need to know which Iraqis want them there, which are just trying to stay out of danger during the war, and which ones want them to leave. And of those ones that hate the occupiers, some are likely to be all bark and no bite, but some of them could be incredibly dangerous indeed.

The film skips from a person who created the dossiers on each Medina Wasl inhabitant to one of the actors prepping for his role; he's going to be playing an Iraqi police officer, so he's got a legit reason to be armed in the town (almost everyone else living in Medina Wasl wouldn't be able to say the same thing). After a quick scene of the cop reading his briefing packet there's a montage of several other performers going through their own backstories (Bassam, as the deputy mayor, notes that his character speaks fluent English). One rapid-fire sequence has each person reading whether they're Sunni or Shia--I can only imagine some of them are playing against their own actual religious beliefs.
And even in a sequence like this one where the artifice behind the project is most present, there's the performers' humanity and individuality peeking out (like the woman who utterly botches the pronunciation of "tyranny").

Fittingly enough, the filmmakers introduced the people who live in Medina Wasl first, and the soldiers who will be occupying it second. That's likely meant to lead the viewers to sympathize with the "Iraqi" people first because they met them first. That's especially valuable because 99% of the audience or more will naturally want the soldiers to prevail, and for things to go well for them. It's vitally important for the viewer to realize that there's a whole lot of other people who were already in town that are going to be affected by everything the military does. The officers in charge of the battalion get introduced in a group next; they're in a briefing discussing their role and what they're supposed to accomplish with their mission objectives. The filmmakers show their attitudes, warts and all--one man mentions "azza lazza lyka shit" when talking about crowd reactions to the American military presence, but his commanding officer nips that in the bud. Yes, the camera was on everyone and they knew they were being recorded, but I think that both people were sincere in their responses--the one guy who knows nothing about the situation and can't be bothered to learn and the guy overseeing him who wants everything to go well (and who knows that the way his officers treat the civilians is going to have a hell of a lot to do with whether or not Medina Wasl burns itself down in a riot after they take it over).

Forward Operation Base Detroit is the command center for the troops that will be going through the exercise for the next couple of weeks; it looks like it was made of shipping containers, tents, tarps and plywood. I imagine that it isn't that far off of what you'd be living in if you were shipped out to Iraq and not staying behind the walls of the Green Zone. It appears that they won't be billeting any of the troops in town; it's probably a lot safer for everyone to have them off in their own part of the desert.

The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McLaughlin, is a first-timer going through the massive live-action roleplaying training exercise. He's also the guy who told his subordinate to clean up his act verbally, and telling everyone to stay "polite, professional and vigilant" while going through the next two weeks of 24/7 performance and training. He looks more like a really good high school math teacher than a military officer, but part of the film's power is in showing the difference between perception and reality. His hot take on the Medina Wasl situation:  There are criminal gangs running the town; most of the ordinary people there just want to live their lives and go along to get along. Taking care of the underworld element that bosses everyone around would go a long way towards winning the hearts and minds of the "Iraqi" people living there. Lt. Col. Kramer gets a moment to speak here, mentioning that there are different problem sets for each training session, and different plotlines for each of the thirteen towns in the Mojave training center. According to him, some of the storylines are designed to have the town start out as pro-occupation and pro-American, which means the soldiers there are trying to keep from losing popular support rather than taking over and imposing their will on the populace. I imagine that's harder than just pounding a hamlet into rubble with artillery strikes.

Kramer also mentions that it's impossible to script every single word for every single actor; there's going to be plenty of improvisation on the ground and things are just going to happen depending on the choices and actions of the soldiers that are going through the two-week training exercise. We get to see people settling into their roles (the policeman from earlier looking at people gambling at a porch-front casino; a man getting his burnoose tied on correctly; someone writing a letter in Arabic). All those shots are done via low light or possible even available light in Medina Wasl; the six-person team of "Simulation Architects", by contrast, are sitting in a brightly-lit office with white boards on the wall and filing cabinets full of simulation events and plans. They've decided to go with a triggering event--Deputy Mayor Bassam Kalasho has a "son" who is going to be executed by militants. That, of course, is going to have far-reaching consequences for the next two weeks and the ways that the soldiers react to everything that happens as a result of the murder will naturally guide the way the rest of their training goes. The particular event is listed in the files as "Sectarian Violence 1-1C"; there are probably dozens of other events similar to this one that they could lead off with.

Horrifying as that is, the scene of acting advice from one of the soldiers working as simulation staff takes the edge off of it. (ProTip:  You're not allowed to break your fall with your arms when you fall down "dead" from a head shot, and the Army gets kind of whiny when you ask why you can't do that). But the people running the game have the last word, and "if you try any bullshit like that we'll do it like eighteen times" is a remarkably persuasive statement when you want naturalism out of your gunshot victim. The "jihadists" need coaching on how to pronounce "Allah akbar", incidentally. But they want to get it right just as much as anyone else.

I shouldn't be laughing, but the officer who's overseeing the "execution" also has to tell everyone that a single bullet to the head is sufficient to kill someone (especially for the trophy video their characters are making). They don't get to empty the clip of their blank-firing weapons at the poor sucker with his head in a trashbag. It's also probably the only time a jihadist propaganda video crew had to be reminded to turn their cell phones off before they started rolling on their snuff film. The officer is also quite openhanded with his praise after the video goes off without a hitch on the first take (and a couple of women eating frozen yogurt or something offer commentary on the sidelines).

The next morning, Lieutenant Ben Freeman (the guy who gave the English language the precious gift of the term "azza lazza lyka shit") is telling Lt. Col. McLaughlin what the day's events are supposed to be; he does not impress his superior officer all that much, especially when he describes the military presence in the town as "a little fuckin' Hi, how ya doin'?". Everyone--dozens of soldiers--mount up on their vehicles and prepare to roll into town. McLaughlin says that his role as commander is to make it possible for everyone in town to go about their daily lives without chaos or disruption; he's not there to singlehandedly win the war. He just wants to develop a good relationship with the people in Medina Wasl for the benefit of his troops and for everyone in town. And McLaughlin also appears to be quite a good leader; one of his men quotes him directly while in a Humvee driving towards their first scheduled encounter with Medina Wasl. And every time the camera shows the military convoy from a distance it sure looks real to me.

Back in town, there's an acting coach setting up the scene as the jeeps and Humvees approach, though, which is another way that reality is undercut by the artifice. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the crowd of "Iraqis" drinking coffee and ambling off to take their marks after the acting coach is done makes for another triumph of surreality in the film. Bassam gets his own acting coach, because his son's in-game death is what will be triggering the entire two week series of events. He's taking it pretty well, and I'm guessing that because he's been doing these training exercises for three years that the people running the simulations on the ground know him by now and they're giving him plum roles because they can count on him. Though he's still stuck being the deputy mayor. Maybe the guy playing the mayor has three and a half years' seniority.

When Lt. Col. McLaughlin arrives, he meets with the police chief for Medina Wasl and gets a list of grievances--they're pretty simple things so far; there are sewer problems in the city and the war has disrupted schooling. The students could use writing paper. McLaughlin is smart enough to know that the small problems can become big ones if they're not treated properly and from the outset of his mission, he's there to help. He also sees his troops at a fork in the road--if he makes the right choices, they'll understand that the American soldiers can provide security for the town. If things don't work out well, it'll mean that the criminal gangs running things in Medina Wasl will prove that they can break anything that the Americans build.

The first meeting with the Medina Wasl town council could have gone better--the commander of the American troops tries to make a little small talk with the mayor about raising their respective children when Bassam tells him about his son's murder just the day before. McLaughlin is shocked, and says he'll meet privately with the deputy mayor to extend offers of assistance. Another facet of the roleplaying environment gets revealed after the meeting; there's a fake "International News Network" reporter doing a live remote from Medina Wasl. The newscasts produced by I Can't Believe It's Not CNN will be tailored specifically to the simulation as it occurs. One assumes that anything involving death, fire, kidnapping or destruction will get plenty of play over the airwaves.

It's also very humanizing to introduce the INN reporter as he fucks up his report four times in a row. After that it's time for Bassam's son to be buried--men in the town carry a plywood coffin to the plot, and an imam says prayers over the casket. We in the audience get subtitles, but it's a fair bet no more than a handful of the soldiers understand any of what is being said. Lt. Freeman, back at FOB Detroit, talks to the camera and mentioning his sympathies to Bassam's plight (although he also says he's relieved that it was an Iraqi who killed the deputy mayor's son, because it would be "a whole another sack of shit to deal with" if the boy was killed by American forces. Freeman also starts to experience the dawning of empathy for the Iraqis (both fictitious and real, I hope) by saying "people are actually dying here". He's fallen for the illusion a hundred percent--according to the dungeonmaster, it usually takes around three days for people to forget that it's a training exercise.

Lt. Col. McLaughlin, for his part, thinks that by doing the right thing and doing right by the people in Medina Wasl, he and his troops are going to succeed completely.

Unfortunately for McLaughlin and his troops, they have to deal with insurgent forces. And the training sessions aren't just for the soldiers trying to keep order. The jihadists are played by American soldiers as well, on the theory that learning how to construct an ambush from the attacking side will teach soldiers how to defend against them as well. Sergeant Paul Greene is one of the main insurgents; he says he was deployed to Iraq twice already and at one point mentions that when he goes to Medina Wasl to train, it takes him a few days to stop hating all the Iraqis he's working with because it reminds him of  every bad thing that happened while fighting Over There. The insurgent base has its own scheduling whiteboard, incidentally, with "Attack on FOB 04:00" listed in one square. I imagine the real insurgents don't have office supplies like this. The worst part about being an insurgent, according to Greene, is that he has to get up so damned early to do an attack. And according to the officer in charge of that section of the simulation, Greene is going to get killed or captured while attacking; he can't suicide-bomb anything just to get out of the rest of the simulation.

Before the attack, the officer in charge of insurgent simulations does a few things that Al Qaeda probably didn't have to do; everyone has a MILES harness (the officer calls it "big, expensive Army laser tag") and everyone gets a randomly selected card from a deck of 100 possibilities so that when they get "shot" in the field they know what their wound is supposed to be (with a hundred possibilities, I imagine it ranges from "superficial graze" to "head blown apart"). The soldiers don't get to look at the card until they're "hit", so it's a surprise for everyone. The soldiers and civilians get the same type of cards (sooner or later there's going to be a firefight where an innocent person gets hit); not only are the simulations a training exercise for the soldiers and faux insurgents, but medics are expected to diagnose and fake-treat the wounded in the aftermath of each incident.

Right before the insurgent attack, Sgt. Greene apologizes for his inability to draw a decent map and then plans out the ambush ("The objective is to kill as many fuckin' people as possible"). Meanwhile, back at FOB Detroit, some of the men are getting lessons on Iraqi culture--at this particular session, they're learning that exchanging greetings three or four times before getting down to business is a way to show polite interest and familiarity. There's a great unsettling cut from the documentarians showing the cultural lesson to the night-vision view of the insurgents looking at the same thing from the same angle (I assume that the filmmakers got permission to use some of the training footage, and couldn't believe their luck when they saw how closely the shots matched).

The insurgents attack, taking the American forces by surprise; the panic from the responding soldiers sounds pretty unfeigned. The insurgents manage to get away after causing plenty of chaos and damage. The next phase of the training session is in the hospital tent, where the medics (and one chaplain) do their thing while treating some kind of medical-training CPR dummy hooked up to a life monitor and some of the "wounded" American soldiers. There's one officer smearing burn makeup and setting the wounds on the dummies (they have modules at various points on their limbs, torso, abdomen and head that can be removed and swapped out for 3-D plastic molded injuries); one assumes that the medics will be doing triage on the crash test dummies as part of their training as well. The medical instructor turns out to be the one who had the plastic wound pieces made--they're replicas of wounds he took pictures of in Afghanistan and Iraq; they're the best way he can think of to teach medics what they're going to be dealing with. He also mentions that even the plastic effects pieces were known to induce vomiting in soldiers who weren't expecting to see something like that.

Back at the American base, Lieutenant Freeman is lost in thought about the soldiers that are already out of the training exercise; some wounded, others "killed" in action. Nobody expected anything to happen that early in the game, and it winds up concentrating their minds on their mission in response. Even after the attack, Lt. Col. McLaughlin tries to impress on his officers that the insurgents are their enemy; the ordinary people don't want mortar attacks and grenades going off any more than the soldiers do. Which means it's time for an increased presence in town; it turns out frisking an imam doesn't make any friends. An explanation from Lt. Col. Kramer is intercut with scenes of the soldiers on patrol--the situation, at the start of the exercise, is neutral. The actions that the soldiers take can either make things better or make them worse. And it's important to get the various soldiers used to the idea that they should be trying to make friends and move softly rather than land on the town with both feet.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Greene is watching what I assume to be an Iraqi sitcom on a laptop courtesy of two of the actresses. Even insurgents have downtime. One of those roleplayers gives a little interview to the filmmakers about the guilt she feels training the army of occupation that's running her home country. On the other hand, the paychecks that she gets for helping train soldiers go to her parents, who are still living in the genuine Iraq halfway around the world. Another one of the cast members relates the harrowing and complicated journey that took eighteen months and which got him from Iraq to America. He's so understated and matter-of-fact about it, rattling off the names of towns and places that most of the viewers of this movie would never be able to find on a map, and then wrapping it up with "That's about it".

Al-Jazeera has a simulated presence in the town, as it turns out; there isn't just CNN with the serial numbers filed off doing news reports. I'm not sure why Al-Jazeera is referred to by name while the other network is not, and since neither filmmaker appears on camera or does any explanatory voiceovers it's going to remain a mystery. The reporter is doing a story on Iraqis killed at a checkpoint outside Medina Wasl; foreign or not, people mourn their lost. And Lt. Col. McLaughlin does indeed say that his soldiers are responsible for the "deaths" of innocent civilians. As part of a plan to defuse the situation, McLaughlin and his officers are going to meet with the Medina Wasl council and try to come up with a way to keep things peaceful.

Inside the meeting, the Medina Wasl movers and shakers are yelling at McLaughlin while outside his soldiers attract a mob of chanting pissed-off Iraqis. The lieutenant colonel tries to express sympathy to the grieving people, but they aren't buying it (and, naturally, McLaughlin's loyalty is to soldiers first and the people of Medina Wasl second). The talks inside break down when the people outside start pounding on the walls of the shipping container that serves as the council chambers. I don't honestly know whether or not it's horrible diplomacy for the Americans to disburse a blood money payment to the widows of the "slain" Iraqis or if that's actually a good idea, but the dismissiveness from the soldiers is what made things look so bad. The widow, of course, would rather have her husband than a fistful of dinars. At current exchange rates, the 2500-dinar payout would be $2.16; that's horrible.

The officer in charge of the civilian population gives an acting lesson to a white dude pretending to be one of the people in Medina Wasl next, thank goodness. I'm much happier watching the actors' studio than even the simulated grief of the widows and the mock anger of demonstrators outside the council building. His protip for the guy:  The American soldiers will have no idea if he's speaking Arabic or not, but if he says some kind of "falabala halajala" stuff they'll know that they don't understand it. He also gives the guy a crash course in Method acting to summon the right emotional state for his performance.

Lt. Freeman, talking to a reporter for INN (I almost put quotes around "reporter", but I realized that I'd do that for anyone working for CNN as well), expresses a little more empathy for the people who are chanting "GO HOME YANKEE" nearby, saying that he'd take a payout if a Russian invader shot his wife but that he wouldn't be satisfied with it. The reporter asks Freeman to name a country in the Middle East with a functioning democracy, and then tells the soldier that there aren't any. I'm not sure where the military found this dude, but it's interesting that one of the voices of futility comes from the mass media. I'm not sure if "find a soldier and try to bum him out about the mission" is on that guy's goal list or if it's an actual out-of-character conversation caught by the filmmakers.

The soldiers leave, to the cheers and derision of the crowd in Medina Wasl that wanted them to go. And in the Humvee, the soldiers who paid the widow for her husband's death all talk about how much they actually gave out; it turns out that none of them know what their budget was for weregeld payments, what the dollars-to-dinars exchange rate is, or even how much they actually gave to the widows--they eventually figure out that they've just burned through the entire death payment supply for the entire battalion. Guys, you gotta have more of a grip on things than this. I am certain that McLaughlin needs to know about this, but not sure at all that anyone will be telling him. For his part, the commander is fully aware that if they can't figure out how to make things work in the simulation it won't make anyone feel secure in the actual deployment.

Bassam tells a little of his story next, illustrated with shots of him as a younger man (often wearing eye-searing 70s fashions in photos that are thankfully black and white). He was wealthy in Iraq, "had fun all the time", which might mean any number of things, followed the Iraqi Air Force football club and wishes he could return just to see his friends again even for a single day. Another one of the Medina Wasl actors is helping her best friend--also on site--with a citizenship application. One of the simulation performers wants to go home if he can, while another wishes she could stay in the country where she works as a simulated Iraqi. The more you dig into that, the more layers of meaning you could find. It's like a fractal onion.

The actor who's playing the police chief has his own problems to deal with as well--he's facing deportation and has a court date for an appeal hearing coming up in the future. He gets a hall pass out of Medina Wasl in order to consult with a lawyer (and one of the filmmakers tags along to record what's going on in this meeting). Essentially, he gets a single chance to get a judge to agree that he should be allowed to stay in America. If he doesn't convince the system that he should remain in this country he'll be deported back to Iraq. Given that he already fled Iraq and that he's been working to train the occupying forces, his lifespan back in his homeland might be measurable in hours. His lawyer hopes that his work with the Army simulations might be the deciding factor in letting him stay, and I can't imagine a single viewer rooting for him to be sent back "home" to be murdered.

Incidentally, the police chief's absence in the simulation would make it similar to someone getting the flu and missing a gaming session for Dungeons & Dragons; their character just isn't around for a few adventures and shows up again the next time with no explanation.

Bassam's storyline is progressing while real life is working; his character has the name of one of his son's killers, and he wants to work with the American forces to find the guy, find out if he's really had anything to do with the murder, and punish him. But if he doesn't find a way to work with the troops, he's going to do things on his own and take care of business one way or the other (and there's a great moment where it turns out Bassam has done all the reading for his assignment and the officer setting the stage only skimmed it). But when he gets to FOB Detroit (driven by the police chief, returned to the scenario) and says he has information for Lt. Col. McLaughlin, he and the chief put in a meeting request and get ignored for hours. Whoever was supposed to pass word up the chain of command to the man in charge didn't do it, and when McLaughlin finally gets the news, Bassam has left and it's probably too late to talk to him or work with him.

The onscreen title for what happens next is labeled "Civil War", so you can guess how things are going to shake out. There's a moment where the soldier playing the insurgent who shot Bassam's son mentions that they're going to execute him in the street,  but that he gets a new character the following day and returns to the simulation. I guess the soldiers who were "killed" or "wounded" in action might come back as well, but the film never really explains if the insurgents are treated differently by the rules of fake warfare. It would make sense to have an infinite supply of jihadists and a finite one of American troops, if only because there are tens of millions of Iraqis and tens of thousands of occupying soldiers. That's not to say that every Iraqi is a jihadist who wants to drive the Yankees out of their country, but that they have a much larger pool of reserves to draw upon.

Bassam and his guys haul a couple people out of the jihadist headquarters, leaving behind the "dead" body of the man who knew his number was up. Then it's time for the staff of scenarists to add more fuel to the fire; whatever Sierra Victor One One Golf denotes (I'm assuming S.V. stands for Sectarian Violence), it doesn't bode well. A voiceover from the scenario builders says that the violence between Shia and Sunni people in Medina Wasl is scheduled for a full week (out of a two week program!). McLaughlin at least realizes that he has to get involved more, but he tells the council that they have to stop what's going on in the town.

The mayor and his assistants, understandably enough, tell the force commander that the Americans have better equipment and material than anyone in the town and that it'd really be helpful if they pitched in more. McLaughlin's response is to offer material help--a water treatment plant, sewage maintenance work, and a tray of fresh fruit as a literal peace offering (though it could not be less inspiring when he says "Share. Have some fruit." to the men of the town council). Things cool down a little after that, with the town government taking credit for bringing jobs and prosperity to Medina Wasl.

The next event listed onscreen is a Sunni-Shia wedding. With the overt violence blowing over, there's a chance for the different sects to work together. The various actors and actresses get a montage of getting ready for the big day (with the groom mentioning that it'll be his character's second wife; Medina Wasl is supposed to be in Iraq, not America, so that's a thing that can happen there). And more than one of the reenactors points out that they've all gotten to know each other over three years of two-week simulations so it really is somewhat of a family affair, even when nobody's getting married for real.

While the simulation continues, Nagi Moshi, the actor playing the police chief, gets support from somewhat of an unexpected source--one of the genuine soldiers has gotten involved with Moshi's case. He's written a letter to the judge, hoping to influence the final decision and let Moshi stay in the country, specifically referencing the work that Moshi has done with the Medina Wasl simulations and the mortal danger he would face if forcibly repatriated to Iraq. It's only a letter, yes, but it's also potentially a lifeline thrown to a man who would otherwise surely drown.

Lt. Col. McLaughlin, scheduling a groundbreaking ceremony for the sanitation projects, gets some unwelcome news from a subordinate--despite the better relations between the groups in Medina Wasl, the threat of violence is exactly as high as it's ever been. McLaughlin refuses to believe it, and he's the ranking officer, so under the military rules he's right (or at least everyone has to act like he is). The groundbreaking ceremony features secular, religious and military authority figures all digging the first symbolic shovels full of dirt. The media is on hand to record the ceremony for later broadcast and it's afterward, when the sniper starts shooting at everyone, that things start to fall apart.

The sniper attack was meant to draw the enlisted men outside into an open ground where they could be shot at while the authority figures in town (and Lt. Col. McLaughlin) found shelter inside. But that's exactly what the jihadists wanted, because one grenade tossed next to the building has the potention to wipe out the leadership of Medina Wasl (the "grenade" is just an inert prop, since setting off even a little flashbang in that area might actually hurt someone--war is hell, but simulated war requires that you treat the particpants as gently as possible).

All that's left to find out after the simulation is whether or not anyone learned anything from their experiences--I assume there are briefings and classroom sessions that the filmmakers were not allowed to attend, but a glimpse at McLaughlin's performance review notes reveal the number of killed and injured, and also contains the term "negligent discharge". I had to Google it; that's the official military-justice term for firing a weapon at the wrong time and through operator error. I'm assuming some of the casualties in the attack were from friendly fire. After we see McLaughlin reflecting on how badly he handled his command, there's one more element of the simulation that takes place--a faux funeral service for the soldiers killed in action, including a roll call that the missing soldiers can never answer. (And, because the artifice reveals itself here as well, it turns out that the simulated memorial service is also a training exercise for a chaplain, who gets told that he's reading the 23rd Psalm too quickly.)

On the final day of the simulation, the jihadists learn that they're going to be going back to Iraq for a one year long deployment. An order is an order and has to be obeyed, but none of them look particularly thrilled. Multiple soldiers wind up having to tell their wives via cell phone that they're leaving for another continent thanks to the timing of the announcement. There's some unfortunate juxtaposition of the "Iraqi" performers goofing around on their last day; they happen to be in the same courtyard as some of the soldiers who have to contact their loved ones and tell them they won't see them for half a year at best. Obviously, the actors don't know what just happened but that doesn't make the soldiers any happier.

There's a transfer-of-sovereignty ceremony on the final day, where the Iraqi military takes official control of the province where Medina Wasl is located; the cheering crowd and favorable news coverage makes it look like things are likely to work out, but the cut to the planning room for the scenario runners includes phrases about carrying out the assassination on schedule. Bassam winds up being the mayor after all, for the last two hours of the session.

That's just the end of the training exercise, though; life goes on for the soldiers that are going to be sent out to Iraq and for the performers who have day jobs and families that they've been away from for two weeks. And for Nagi Moshi, he finds out what the rest of his life is going to entail--either life in America or a return to a country he risked his life to escape. Let's just say that documentaries don't have to have a Hollywood ending, but this one does.

There's also a brief snippet of a speech from the Decider himself, and I didn't think there could be anything less inspiring than the "have some fruit" from Lt. Col. McLaughlin. However, the President at the time rises to the challenge, giving his announcement that the troops in Iraq will be reinforced with the "surge" of 2007, which at least meant that the war wouldn't be started and lost on his watch. Was it worth the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives lost? That's beyond the scope of this documentary, of course, and of this review, but at least when Medina Wasl got burned to the ground they could fix the damaged buildings and turn off the laser tag vests for an instant resurrection. If we're going to go into other places to enforce freedom, let's just try to make sure as many of our troops don't make preventable mistakes in the field so they can come home safely.

I support the troops enough to want them to come home alive, you see, and the easiest way to do that is not starting wars.