Saturday, April 16, 2011

“We’ve got people playing stringed instruments; it’s the end of days, brother.”

Once again, Brad and I have teamed up for another Blog-Off, so be sure to check out Brad's review/essay when you're finished here.

Christopher Morris' Four Lions initially caught my attention for two reasons. The more innocuous reason being that it is the first film distributed (Stateside, at least) by the Alamo Drafthouse's new distribution arm, Drafthouse Films. The second, potentially nocuous reason is that it is a farcical British comedy about a group of inept would-be London suicide bombers. I don't know how this film was received in its native England, but it's the kind of movie that would have generated plenty of controversy, had it gotten a little more mainstream attention that is.

Before getting into any kind of discussion about the merits of making such a comedy, I just want to say a few things about the movie itself. Overall, I think Four Lions is a great film. I think it primarily succeeds in its ability to handle tone, particularly its ability to gradually shift from a light-hearted farce to a grim dark comedy over 97 minutes. For the first 30 or so minutes, Four Lions is a black comedy almost in theory only. The suicide bombing aspect could have been easily switched out for any other harebrained scheme, and the movie would have only lost its nominal edginess. It is a fleet, fast-paced, British comedy, reminiscent of the excellent In the Loop. But just as it lulls the audience into almost forgetting that they are watching a group of potential suicide bombers, the movie begins introducing darker elements that proceed to progressively ground the movie in more realism. Its near-slapstick buffoonery slowly gives way to a grim, dark, and utterly audacious black comedy by the film's end. It's wonderfully executed, at times laugh out loud funny, and generally a bold success.

That being said, I would be remiss if I didn't at least try and address the issue of making a comedy about suicide bombers. Should a movie be made about suicide bombers? I'm of the mind that nothing is categorically off limits for comedy. Just, the more sensitive the subject, the more onus the filmmakers bear for justifying using such a topic as a basis for humor. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, his 1940 lampooning of Hitler, gets referenced lot when discussing Four Lions as an example of a film that uses humor to address serious social and political topics. Generally, simply being funny can be enough for me, but the addition of some kind of social or personal insight will all but earn my seal of approval. I'm not terribly sensitive about a lot of topics, but it certainly is not a given that people can pull this off (Louis C.K., one of my favorite comedians, tends to walk this line but not always necessarily on the right side of it, in my opinion).

Does Four Lions justify its existence as a comedy regarding suicide bombers? I would argue yes, with one caveat. It is funny and ultimately treats its subject matter with appropriate reverence by the end. What it does not do, that some viewers may wish it would, is really explore more in-depth facets of suicide bombing. Whether that be what drives an individual to attempt such an act, what underlying social ills give rise to a culture featuring such behavior, or what the human consequences of suicide bombing actually are, Four Lions doesn't concern itself with delving too deeply into these issues. This may earn it some accusations of simple sensationalism, but personally I would disagree. It earns its place by virtue of being funny enough, while fully acknowledging what it's dealing with as the film progresses. I don't think it provides any scathing personal or social insight into suicide bombing, though. Some have argued that the movie is saying that suicide bombing is born of a dangerous mix of misguided passion and blatant idiocy, but within the insular world of the movie, almost everyone is an idiot, suicide bomber or not.

In writing about this, I realized that Four Lions prompted a lot more thoughts than I initially thought it would. Rather than make this any longer than it already is, I'll just say that Four Lions is destined to be a cult classic. It seems to have avoided a fair amount of controversy by virtue of flying more or less under the radar, but it's the rare film that seemed to have avoided its potential detractors and landed in the laps of its intended audience. An audience that I can only imagine will grow via word-of-mouth over time.

[NOTE: In writing this, I may have googled some very suspicious phrases. If I happen to disappear in the near future, please inform the US Federal Government of my undying patriotism.]

Saturday, April 9, 2011

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Warning: reading this post may kill you. Or at least turn you into an unsightly black smear on your wall. Beware…

Over the past couple of years, I've taken to listening to more and more podcasts (mostly of the film variety, with Battleship Pretension probably being my favorite). As listening to podcasts has increasingly become part of my daily routine, I've caught myself almost referring to podcast hosts as "friends" or "people I know" when talking to real-live people. I have yet to actually verbalize that mistake, but it's been on the tip of my tongue more than I care to admit. The immersion into online life is a massive contemporary issue, and one that becomes increasingly important by the day. It's no wonder, then, that movies like Catfish gain (relatively) large amounts of attention. All the more impressive is a decade-old film that elegantly, prophetically, and terrifyingly explores what the online world can potentially do to us as social animals.

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 film Pulse is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the J-Horror genre. And although it may be the best that I've seen, it is hardly a traditional horror film. The plot consists two parallel stories; one follows a young woman, Michi, whose friends and coworkers start to mysteriously kill themselves or simply disappear, while the other follows a college student, Ryosuke, as his first experience with the internet drags him into a dark world littered with ghosts seeping through into our world via the internet. Ultimately, their paths cross, as the epidemic spreads throughout Tokyo, Japan, and the rest of the world.

Pulse initially presents itself as a typical, though excellent, Japanese ghost movie. Characters start dying almost immediately, replaced not with corpses, but with dirty black smears hidden inside rooms sealed off with red tape. As Michi, Ryosuke, and their respective friends investigate, they stumble upon unsettling videos of the dead and missing online, as well as terrifying apparitions that appear from within the sealed rooms. Through the first 30-45 minutes, Pulse is a tense and terrifying horror movie about the ghosts in various machines. The ghosts themselves are nerve-wracking and otherworldly; Kurosawa's use of slow motion and blurry focus creates a simple but utterly terrifying effect. But what elevates Pulse beyond a well-executed horror film is its abandonment of the horror genre at about the 45 minute mark, at which point it veers away from horror and into a bleak philosophical meditation on isolation, loneliness, and the fear of death.

As I watched Pulse, I remember being thoroughly confused by it. It was going in directions that seemed so out of place with its own first half. After watching it, I wasn't sure what to make of it. My initial reaction wasn't so much that I liked it, but more of a general "what was that?" After a day or two, though, everything had seeped into my brain, rattled around a bit, and I realized how thoroughly impressed I was with it. It is dark, bleak, and more than a little confusing, but it's ultimately a fantastic movie about the dangers of the replacement of real life social interactions with digital facsimiles. It grimly warns of the dangers of our ever increasing need for interconnectedness being taken over by less and less nourishing replacements. Our reliance on easily accessible replacements ultimately breeds a desperate feeling of loneliness and isolation, instilling a fear that drives more attempts to feel connected, but that simply erode social ties even more.

Part of what is so impressive about Pulse is its ability to seemingly have increasing relevance as the years go by. Made during the nascent years of the internet's takeover of mainstream life, its horrific vision of what our reliance on technology does to individuals seems amazingly prophetic (albeit somewhat dated, especially when it comes to Ryosuke and his initial ventures into the computer world). Unlike many sci-fi and horror stories warning of an overreliance on technology, Pulse sets its sights not on technology's takeover of human function, but its takeover and erosion of the interconnectedness of human existence. Ten years old and I struggle to think of a film more geared toward the (admittedly paranoid and overly grim) concerns and issues of our evolving social lives than Pulse.

I recently had an exchange with a college friend via Facebook. Among other things, we both lamented that our college friendships seem to have withered over the past few years. We were both surprised and disheartened by this, both of us assuming that our various friendships were too important and meaningful than to just evaporate over time. I made a passing mention that maybe Facebook provides a bare minimum of connection that no one makes the effort to really, truly keep in touch. The fact that our friends' lives are so easily accessible online removes all motivation to actually keep in contact. I'm sad to say, I think I (and Kurosawa) may have been right.

[On a related and depressing side note, I passed up the opportunity to attend a leisure suit party last night, in which the leisure suits were actually provided for you, in order to sit in my apartment alone with my cat and work. Probably best not to take my advice when it comes to maintaining some semblance of a human social life. Consider me your bleak, ghastly Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The (not really) annual OM BlogMix or: How a good of a mix can I make in 5 hours?

While drinking my coffee this morning, I realized that today was the fourth anniversary of my very first Octopus Motor post. There once was a time when I would post a special annual OM anniversary mix every year to mark the occasion (see, for real). Seeing as I actually remembered in time this year, I thought I'd give it another go. Because I decided this this morning, I couldn't really get started until I got home from work and it needed to be posted by midnight in order to be dated correctly. So how good of a mix can I crank out in roughly 5 hours? For the answer, join me, won't you, in this self-congratulatory, pointless (but hopefully fun) bit of wankery.

Scissor – Liars (Sisterworld, 2010)

I've written about Liars plenty already (they were even on the first anniversary OM BlogMix), so I won't belabor the point. I love Liars. Even though Liars and Sisterworld were both somewhat underwhelming compared to their first three albums, "Scissor" is a fantastic song that does a pretty admirable job of encapsulating everything there is to love about Liars. It's gentle, brutal, sparse, heavy, and, above all, weird and unpredictable. All in the span of about 3 ½ minutes.

Everyone Choose Sides – The Wrens (Meadowlands, 2003)

I remember buying this album, listening to it and thinking, "eh, that was OK, I guess…" I also remember putting the album on months later and immediately replaying it as soon as it ended. I guess it took a while to grow on me, but Meadowlands is easily one of my favorite albums front-to-back. Stylistically it might not venture too far from typical indie rock, but what the Wrens do, they do just so goddamned well.

Common People – Pulp (Different Class, 1995)

I have to admit, Pulp has always been one of those bands that I heard about but never actually heard. Up until recently when I got my hands on a copy of Different Class, they were always just one of those bands that I knew was a big deal without ever actually hearing them or knowing anything about them. I can't offer my verdict on whether or not Pulp are as worthwhile as I've been lead to believe, but Different Class is solid, and "Common People" is certainly one of the highlights.

Rid of Me – PJ Harvey (Rid of Me, 1993)

PJ Harvey is a woman who I find to be both incredibly sexy and absolutely terrifying. Rid of Me is an album filled with brutalizing songs filled with bitterness, anger, resentment, and heartbreak, all propelled by Steve Albini's razor sharp, stark production. The entire album drips sex, but not the sexy kind. The kind that will leave everyone bruised, bloodied, and filled with regrets. (Plus, it features the greatest song ever about a woman bragging about how big her dick is.)

In the Shadow of the Horns – Darkthrone (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1991)

As one of the preeminent members of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, Darkthrone has earned their place among bands like Emperor, Mayhem, and Enslaved in the pantheon of extreme metal. Darkthrone's music has always been more straightforward than their peers, but never any less unrelenting. They've definitely earned their legendary status with absolute classics like A Blaze in the Northern Sky.

Lux Aeterna – Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream OST, 2000)

Clint Mansell seems to have left pop music behind for good to focus solely on film scores, which is without a doubt a good thing. There's a reason that this song keeps getting reappropriated for excessively dramatic trailers over and over again. As the center piece of the score for the devastating (and excessively melodramatic) Requiem for a Dream, "Lux Aeterna" is a simply a stirring, powerful (and yes, dramatic) piece of music.

Jah War – The Bug, feat. Flowdan (London Zoo, 2008)

Confession: I don't like reggae music. At all. But I love the reggae-infused house music on The Bug's London Zoo. I love its grit, its bleakness, its dark paranoia. It's a suffocating and exhilarating album, and no songs fill me with the excitement and unease that permeate the entire thing quite like "Jah War." This was definitely the song that served as the gateway for me to appreciate the entire thing.

Secrets of Sumerian Sphynxology – Melechesh (Sphynx, 2004)

Originally hailing from Israel, Melechesh is the world's only (as far as I know) self-described "Mesopotamian metal" band. Over the past decade or so, Melechesh have proven themselves to be one of the most technically proficient and interesting metal bands around today. There's plenty to say about them, but I'll just leave it at the fact that they're phenomenal. ("Secrets of Sumerian Sphynxology" may be a great song, but it's certainly not my favorite. Just my favorite song title.)

The Mercy Seat – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Tender Prey, 1988)

Nick Cave (and the Bad Seeds) excels in his specialized heady mix of gothic, organ-grinding, post-punk, Americana, murder ballads with "The Mercy Seat." While his music is often infused with a drier than dirt wry wit, "The Mercy Seat" is unrelentingly bleak, and is one of Cave's best. A couple years ago, Amazon had a massive sale on Nick Cave mp3s. I have no idea why they did that, but that was an awesome day.

A Horse Called Golgotha – Baroness (Blue Record, 2009)

Apparently there's a kick-ass metal scene in the steamy, Spanish moss festooned town of Savannah, GA that I've only just discovered. Baroness and Black Tusk both play with an urgent driving force, combined with a certain sludgy, swampy, Southern-ness. Black Tusk may be more straight forward metal, with Baroness having a bit of a prog-y psychedelic bent to a lot of their music, but both bands hold their own in representing a (hopefully) growing Southern metal scene.

Squeeze Me Macaroni – Mr. Bungle (Mr. Bungle, 1991)

Just because I have to have at least one Mike Patton song in every mix. This was just about the least weird Mr. Bungle song I could find.

Odessa – Caribou (Swim, 2010)

I listened to this song exactly once before I put it in this mix. Yup, that's just how good it is.

B.O.B. – Outkast (Stankonia, 2000)

I don't really have much to say about "B.O.B." I'm guessing everyone has heard it before, and I'm guessing everyone loves it. As a matter of fact, I'm also guessing everyone loves Outkast just as a general rule.

Atlas – Battles (Mirrored, 2007)

An improbable supergroup of sorts featuring members of Helmet, Tomahawk, Don Caballero, and Storm & Stress, Battles is a mindblowingly good experimental instrumental band. Mirrored came my way in a massive music swap with a friend of mine over a year ago. It has not ceased to be in my go-to rotation of music ever since. (Life tip: Battles makes for excellent music for over-caffeinated all night work marathons.)

Center of the Universe – Built to Spill (Keep it like a Secret, 1999)

I remember being at a party a few years ago, talking to a guy from Boise. I had just found out that a band I liked was from Boise and couldn't remember who it was. The guy kept insisting that it was Built to Spill, to which I repeatedly responded, "no, it wasn't Built to Spill…who was it?" Turns out he was totally right, it was Built to Spill, and I wasted like 20 minutes of that guy's life debating him about it. There's really no point to this story. Built to Spill is pretty great, and Keep it like a Secret is a great album.

We Belong – Pat Benatar (Tropico, 1984)

I like Pat Benatar. I like this song. And I wanted to end on an uplifting note. You're welcome.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

“This is what it’s all about. Beer, sun, and naked honeys making out underwater!”

It has been over nine months since I posted here. Children have been conceived and born since the OM was last up and running. It's been a sad, sad state of affairs around these parts. But thankfully, as he has done in the past, my brother Brad has resurrected the OM with a tempting offer of yet another OMvBLDPFMBoSD. On the table this time around? Piranha 3D, now in glorious 2D in my living room! So after you're done reading my (much more insightful and better written) take, be sure to check out Brad's.

Spring Break has descended on the small, usually sleepy Lake Victoria, overrunning the town with bikini-clad coeds and shirtless meatheads partying and boozing. A good orgiastic time was had by all. The end. Oh wait, not so fast. It seems a local earthquake has cracked open the lake bottom, opening a fissure into an enormous, previously isolated and self-contained underground lake, releasing countless vicious prehistoric piranhas intent on feasting upon the hordes of oblivious revelers. Then a good orgiastic time is had by all.

Director Alexandre Aja built his reputation as part of the vanguard of extreme French horror (e.g., Inside, Frontier(s), and most notoriously Martyrs) with his 2003 film Haute Tension (a film whose merits Brad and I adamantly disagreed about). Although Piranha is Aja's 3rd English language film, after his The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors remakes, it is a marked tonal departure from his previous movies. Rather than the oppressively grim, nihilism of his previous movies, Piranha was clearly always meant to be campy, exploitative trash, more intent on having visceral fun than hammering the audience with dehumanizing brutality. Piranha is replete with near constant nudity and exaggerated, pretty silly, albeit still very graphic, violence.

Overall, Piranha is almost exactly what I was expecting it to be, but it was still a bit disappointing. My initial reaction was somewhat reminiscent of my reaction to Hostel, though I liked Piranha much more. I think there's an inherent problem with trying to make an intentionally campy exploitation movie. Sometimes a film, by pure accident, slips from the realm of bad to stupidly and entertainingly insane. But attempts to recreate that phenomenon on purpose usually rob the subsequent film of an earnestness that is often a necessary and organic part of its appeal. Essentially, too much self-awareness can doom a project like Piranha. Although Piranha is definitely not "doomed" by self-awareness, it is hobbled by it. For whatever reason, I didn't care for the Richard Dreyfuss cameo at the beginning, and a scene in which Ving Rhames uses a boat motor as a weapon was more a rip-off than wink towards Dead Alive. Christopher Lloyd's appearance as a manic marine biologist was great fun, though.

Speaking of the cast, Piranha sports a pretty impressive roster. It's always great to see Elizabeth Shue, here as Lake Victoria's sheriff (she seriously needs to get more and better work; she was easily the best part of Leaving Las Vegas, outshining Nicholas Cage's Oscar-winning but painfully one-note performance). Adam Scott is an actor on the ascent that I always like seeing, and he's good here as a seismologist/general man of action. Jerry O'Connell appears as a Joe Francis (of Girls Gone Wild and general terrible human being fame) surrogate, and while I don't much care for O'Connell, his admittedly one-dimensional performance is played to the nines and a lot of fun. Everyone seems very game for the very over-top silliness of the movie. Including a cameo by Eli Roth as the host of a wet T-shirt contest, that's really only worth mentioning to point out that at one point he calls a woman's breasts her "Danny DeVitos."

All that being said, Piranha is an entertaining, trashy good time. For all of its problems, Piranha does succeed in its essential mission, to cram as much sex, violence, and superficial fun into a lean 88 minutes as humanly possible. The aforementioned violence varies greatly in quality, entirely dependent on whether Aja is utilizing CGI (which is embarrassingly bad) or practical effects (which are extremely gory and overall pretty impressive). Especially during the central set-piece of the movie, a pretty astoundingly prolonged scene of the piranhas' attack on the party-goers. For instance, an initially great effect (that loses a lot of its impact due to its repeated use) is when someone is attacked in the water and then pulled out to reveal their limbs have been reduced to skinny, bloody bones, held together by a minimal amount of flesh. (The first few times this happens, it's a great use of practical special effects and an effective reveal. After a while, all it did was remind me of that old Titannica sketch from Mr. Show.) Piranha does its job of providing a number of memorable kills, such as an attack victim splitting in half as she is being carried out of the lake by two cops and (in my opinion the most cringe inducing) a woman getting her hair tangled in a boat propeller. And I have to admit, the very strange extended nude underwater ballet scene was something I have never seen before. Made all the stranger by characters' constant insistence that it was "so hot."

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the 3D elements. Piranha was filmed in 2D and post-converted (as opposed to having been filmed with 3D cameras a la Avatar), but was always planned to be 3D. And the "it's coming right at me" moments are pretty obvious to pick out. There are a lot of piranhas that turn and snap at the camera, a couple of scenes of fast moving piranha-vision, and at least one moment of a girl puking directly at the camera. Probably the most notorious moment in Piranha is Jerry O'Connell's death, in which the piranhas devour the lower half of his body, including "taking [his] penis." Cut to a shot of a piranha swimming up to you and regurgitating said half-digested penis. I'm sure seeing this movie in the theaters in 3D would have amped up its trashy appeal, but I'm not sure that it would have been worth all the extra money.

Overall, Piranha 3D gave me pretty much exactly what I was looking for. While it wasn't overly satisfying, it still provided a pretty substanceless good time. This is very much the cinematic equivalent of junk food, plenty of empty calories with absolutely no nutritional value.

[EDIT: In true OM fashion, this has been up for less than an hour, and I've already had to fix a couple of typos.]