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.]