21 October, 2010

The Day of the Lion

So here's the thing.

I was listening to Kim Hill a couple of months ago when she was interviewing one of the main people behind The Onion. During the interview, the fake newspaper's post-9/11 issue was mentioned as a key point in raising the profile of the website. There was a lot of hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of that attack about how this event entirely changed not just the world but humanity itself. Reputable magazines were publishing articles about how this was the "death of irony" or some such rubbish, that the world had changed irrevocably and that our flippant and cynical attitudes had come crashing down with the towers. It was all rubbish of course, and The Onion sought to demonstrate that. With articles like "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell," "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake" or "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," The Onion attacked the monsters that launched the attack, while also placing the attack in a wider history of religious intolerance, pointed out the ridiculous nature of much of the subsequent outpouring of patriotic expression, and examined the attacks in the context of a culture that consumes such attacks for entertainment. It even mocked the prevailing "death of irony" sentiments. And all the while it remained sensitive to the truth of the matter, targeting the jokes at the events around the attacks, but always aware that the tragic deaths of thousands of real people in a terrorist attack is not a laughing matter.

Of course 9/11 was a significant world-changing event - nearly a decade later we are living in a world that is much more sensitive to the risk of terrorism, and certainly there have been a number of horrifying and tragic terrorist attacks since then. But these days, you're just as likely to hear about the hilarious misadventures of unsuccessful terrorists. There was the shoe bomber (whose bomb didn't explode because his sweat dampened the wick), or the underpants bomber (the joke of which really doesn't need any more explaining). There was also the guy who left an ineptly-manufactured bomb in a car in Times Square - the bomb didn't go off, it was discovered, and police identified the attempted terrorist by his keys which he had accidentally locked in the car. Or there was the guy who planned to kill a Government minister from Saudi Arabia but succeeded only in blowing himself up with a bomb shoved up his anus. And there's something almost comforting about such stories. We see 9/11, or the 7/7 London attack, or some bomb going off in a nightclub somewhere, and it's horrific; you get an impression of coolly-planned operations efficiently executed. So it's a relief to hear these stories about the other guys and be able to laugh, knowing that terrorists apparently are still human, and some of them are just as stupid and bad at their jobs as the rest of us.

It's in this context that Four Lions (see the trailer here) works so well. The core idea, a group of British Muslim jihadists plan a terrorist attack, doesn't seem that promising an idea for a comedy, and I've even had some people questioning the taste of basing a comedy around such a horrific concept. But the success of a comedy lies in the quality of the humour within, not the core concept (After all, a surgical hospital in a war zone doesn't sound like a promising comedy either, yet M*A*S*H is one of the defining TV comedies of last century.) And who cares about whether it's seen as tasteless to make a comedy about terrorism? It's like Mel Brooks once said, "Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance." If we treat these people, be it Hitler or your local jihadist, and what they do as something so big and terrible that they can only be treated seriously, then they have power over us. But if we hold them up to mockery and ridicule, that cuts them down to a manageable level. It says that we're not frightened of them, they have no hold over us, and they're worthy of nothing but our laughter.

And there's a lot of laughter generated by this film. It's always a little difficult to describe comedies, since the success of the film ultimately rests on the quality of the jokes. And the quality of jokes on display in Four Lions is very high - in fact, this is easily the funniest comedy I've seen since In the Loop at last year's festival. But how does someone gets across just how funny it is to watch a bearded man describe disguising himself as a lady to purchase vast quantities of chemicals, or watch someone record a terrorist video while holding a tiny replica machine gun, or hear Barry lay out his plan to bomb a mosque in order to radicalise the moderate Muslim population. There's the fake suicide bombing, or the exploding birds, or the unsuccessful use of a rocket launcher. This is one of those films where the comedy just keeps giving; where you discuss the film with your friends, and every time someone mentions this scene or that, it reminds you of yet another hilarious scene or line that had slipped your mind.

A recent Onion News Network video exclaimed "Al-Qaeda Calls Off Attack On Nation's Capitol To Spare Life Of 'Twilight' Author," and the film takes a similar joy at exploring the uneasy way religious fanaticism mixes with western lifestyles among those living in the West. In one of the film's best moments, on their way to conduct their attack, the group find themselves cheerfully singing along to "Dancing In The Moonlight," Barry looking at the group in horror at their wholehearted embracing of the worst of Western pop culture and their inability to treat their upcoming mission with the seriousness it deserves. In another great scene, the uncertainties of Western architecture are debated in the context of prohibitions on being in the same room as a woman with an uncovered head; it's funnier than it sounds, especially when the water pistols come out.

The characters in the film are perhaps a little shallow - by the end of the film, I really only felt that Omar (the leader, and most level-headed of the group) and Barry (the most radical of the group, seemingly out of defensiveness due to his status as a Muslim convert) were well-fleshed-out characters. The remaining characters, while all getting their own very funny moments, simply aren't that developed as characters.

It's to the film's credit that it does follow through with the premise. It's a slight spoiler to say that the characters do end up dead, mostly blowing themselves up in the execution of their plan. There's no last-minute decision not to do it because this is wrong; for the most part the characters generally remain committed to their goal, even while the absolute pointlessness of their actions is illustrated. And I don't want you thinking the film adopts a simple "aren't terrorists stupid" approach. The film actually thinks everyone is stupid. (By the end of the film, when the final body count is tallied up, there's more than one person dead due to the incompetence or bad decisions of the people supposed to protect us.) It's just that, when the terrorists are the main characters, we get more opportunity to see their idiocies.

But it seems that less-than-competent terrorists is not strictly a post-9/11 phenomenon. In one surprisingly funny moment early in Carlos (see the trailer here), a couple of terrorists twice try to fire a rocket-launcher at an Israeli airliner, both times hitting other planes instead. Working with people with such poor ability, famed real-life terrorist Carlos (later nicknamed Carlos the Jackal) several times finds himself needing to act quickly to fix problems created by others. And Carlos himself isn't exactly perfect in his planning - his otherwise seamlessly-executed attack on an OPEC meeting ultimately fell apart because of one small miscalculation in his planning.

Carlos is quite an impressive achievement. Originally made for French television, the biopic runs for 5½ hours, spread out over three parts. It certainly makes for a long day in the cinema, but it seems much shorter than it actually is. (By comparison, I really liked last year's Che, but it really did feel 4½ hours long. Carlos, even at an hour longer, felt much shorter than that experience.) Each part has a very clear focus - the first looks at the rise in prominence of Carlos, and ends with the terrorist leading a group on their way to attack the OPEC meeting. That attack occupies a significant portion of the second film, before focusing on how that attack made Carlos possibly the most prominent terrorist of the time. And then the third film finds an older Carlos settled down to a degree, in a long-term relationship, trying to stay ahead and protect himself as the number of friendly nations slowly reduces, until finally he is captured and imprisoned for a couple of impulsive murders committed back in Part One.

While the whole film is excellent - exciting, involving, gripping - easily the most phenomenal section of the film lies in the OPEC attack. Running about an hour, it is easily one of the best suspense sequences I have seen in a long time. Every moment is filled with the threat of possible violence - Carlos by this point has been established as someone who will kill without a second thought, and he openly tells certain people "you will die." The raid is a success, but as Carlos takes his hostages onto the plane to fly to Iraq, he's frustrated to learn that the DC7 he's ordered doesn't have sufficient range to make it to that destination, even if they do refuel. It prompts hours of frustration, the plane and its hostages frozen while Carlos wavers in indecision. It's a phenomenal sequence, suspenseful and tense. And it really illustrates how a long running-time can be used well. There's no need to hurry the sequence, there's time to make clear every part of the operation, while being able to replicate the sense of being in that room or that plane, just waiting for something to happen, with the constant threat of imminent violence hanging over their heads. It's truly masterful. I read that a shorter 2½ hour cut of the film has been made for general release, and I shudder at the thought. While you could perhaps trim a half-hour from the final part if you had to (as Carlos stagnates and loses much of his drive, the film does run the risk of doing so as well), on the whole there is so little slack in the film that a shorter cut could only be damaged, and I can't imagine a heavily-edited version of the OPEC raid in particular having anywhere near the intended impact.

The film is also careful to remind us that it's not possible for someone like Carlos to operate without significant backing. There are scenes where the man meets with various recognisable presidents or prime ministers or leaders in various countries, who casually agree to accommodate and shelter Carlos; as long as he refrains from attacking them, they don't really care what he does to anyone else. And I think we all understand that there have been certain states that have, at times, given some level of support or backing to the activities of people such as Carlos, but there is something shocking to actually see such scenes play out in front of the viewer.

In the lead role, Édgar Ramírez gives an extraordinary performance. As a young man, he's all fire and passion for the cause, cold-blooded to his enemies, and full of fury at anyone with any less commitment to the fight, with an charisma that's so strong it seems natural that people would gravitate to this man and do anything to maintain his approval. As a result, it's a shock to see the Carlos of the final part, overweight and lethargic, holding to his ideals in a theoretical way only, having become one of those half-hearted pseudo-radicals that the young Carlos would have railed against. Much as we may hate the young Carlos, so callous with the lives of anyone that stands in his way, it's sad to see that fiery charisma gone, and replaced with an air of self-preservation. The character changes dramatically over the course of the story, and Ramírez skilfully navigates these character changes; convincingly determined in his youthful idealism, and in his later form subtly listless in his awareness that he has changed from one of the world's most notorious criminals to a forgotten and historic footnote.

Inevitably most people that see this film will either see the cut-down version (which you should avoid, since I can see no possible way it can work), or the complete version at home on DVD (since I assume big screen prospects for a film that occupies six hours of screen real estate are obviously limited). And since the film was originally made for television, no doubt it works very well on the small screen. But if you do get a chance to catch a cinema screening of the complete Carlos, do not miss it. Certainly I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to watch the film in cinemas. But however you get to see it, it's well worth your time. One of the highlights of my film year.

05 October, 2010

Playing scrabble and eating petits-fours

So here's the thing.

Back in 2004, I was watching the Oscars as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was sweeping every category it was nominated for. One of those categories was for Best Song, for "Into The West" performed by Annie Lennox. And I think we all knew that it would win, although going into the show I preferred "There's a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", the song from Christopher Guest's folk-music-mockumentary A Mighty Wind. And that was my favourite song of the year, until Lady Haden-Guest came out to introduce a song from some animated film that I'd only vaguely heard of. For the next two minutes, I watched this. My reactions were probably the same as most people watching the song - I started at "This is a really cool song," quickly progressed to "Are they playing a bicycle?" before becoming "Is that a vacuum cleaner?" and finally "That is my favourite song of the year, and I really need to see that film."

Several months later, The Triplets of Belleville played at the film festival. And watching the film, I was delighted to discover that that song was the most normal thing about the film. For a start, the film's story is insane - a cyclist is abducted during the Tour De France race, so the kid's grandmother follows him on a pedal boat across the ocean to America, where she enlists three ageing singing stars to help rescue her grandson from an illegal underground gambling operation run by the mafia. The film is effectively free of dialogue, which seems give the animators free reign to use their art to carefully develop their characters as expressive actors. The highly stylised character design is often grotesque, but never not fascinating to watch. And the humour in the film manages somehow to simultaneously be absurd and farcical, yet nice, gentle, and honest. It's just a genuinely fascinating film, and one that I love to revisit.

The film was very clearly and openly inspired by the great French comic actor/director Jacques Tati, whose own films also minimised dialogue in favour of elaborate visual comedy. (Indeed, in one scene the triplets are seen watching Tati's Jour de Fête.) So I was understandably excited to find that this year's festival featured The Illusionist (see the trailer here), a new film from Sylvain Chomet based on an unproduced script by Tati.

The film follows Tatischeff, a stage illusionist in an era where the appeal of such entertainments is waning in favour of rock bands. Finding himself performing to ever decreasing crowds, or largely ignored as garden party entertainment, he eventually goes to perform in a small Scottish village. There he meets a largely-ignored young girl, who's never seen a stage magician before, and so believes that he really can do magic - a view that's reinforced after he buys her a new pair of shoes and gives it to her by performing a piece of magic. When he leaves the village, the girl follows him. This sweet father-daughter-style relationship develops between the two, with Tatischeff desperately trying to preserve that sense of magic, taking on extra jobs for which he is entirely unsuited to pay for the gifts he buys for her, while at the same time trying to hide his constant absence as he runs to one job or another.

When you have a movie that is based on a script by one of the great film comedians, and that is made by the man who created a hilarious film like Belleville, you expect it to be funny. And it is, absolutely, genuinely hilarious. There are great comic sequences - a particular highlight comes when Tatischeff believes Sophie has made a stew out of his white rabbit - as well as many simple funny jokes, and even some nice subtle jokes slipped into the image without comment. (I look forward to the Blu-Ray, if only to be able to examine the image for every joke.) But what is striking about the film is just how sad it really is. There's a tone of melancholy and sorrow infused into the film. And I think the reasons for that goes back to Tati's motivation in writing the film. It's generally believed that the script was written as an expression of regret by Tati for being so focused on his career that he missed much of his daughter Sophie's growing up (although Tati's first, illegitimate daughter claims that it was about his regret at abandoning her as a baby). Regardless of who Tati wrote it for, that sense of sadness is palpable in the film, with Tati seemingly trying to present himself as the father he wished he had been. To some degree, with that knowledge, it almost feels intrusive to watch the film, as though we're watching something too personal, too intimate, for public consumption.

What also hits you about the film is the incredible sense of nostalgia infused throughout it. Tatischeff is not portrayed as a great magician - he's actually pretty middling, with a fairly clichéd performance (he actually has a rabbit in his hat) - but still it's sad to see the simple pleasures of his show being rejected. Early in the film, we see Tatischeff patiently waiting while a grotesque Beatles/Stones amalgam band perform for hordes of screaming fans, who don't stay for his performance. And it's heartbreakingly sad, because it seems to mark a point where this unique and inventive artform went out of fashion. A few years ago, there were a couple of period films about stage magicians that both came out at about the same time, The Prestige and another film called The Illusionist. Watching those films, it was startling to realise just how big the general audience was for magicians was 100 years ago. These days, of course, the typical magician is relegated to a children's entertainer, and the only people who ever get a wider audience are EXXTREME magicians like David Blaine or Criss Angel, people who are more tiresome than magical. To many, maybe even most adults,stage magic is just kid's stuff, and that sense of wonder that comes with watching a good magic show, of questioning "how'd he do that?" almost seems to be lost.

It almost seems fitting that this paean to an "childish" art form should be presented as an animated film - after all, animation itself is an art form that was once intended to entertain all ages, but is today mostly regarded as kid's fare. Which is a shame, because animation really can be beautiful, and the animation work in the film is simply extraordinary. The character-design fluctuates wildly, from a very naturalistic look for some characters (the design of Tatischeff in particular is as close to a replication of Tati himself as animation could achieve) through to a more exaggerated look (similar to the look of the characters in Belleville) for some supporting characters. Yet the varying looks of the characters all seem to work well together in the film, and never feel incongruous. But the really great thing about the animation is this beautifully designed and detailed world they inhabit. Much as I love the Pixar films, and think some of their films (with Ratatouille as an obvious example) feature some stunning design work, there is something about looking at a traditionally-animated film and being able to see the careful intricacies in the hand-drawn detail that is quite breathtaking. (Again, the Blu-Ray will be an essential purchase.)

The Illusionist is not the film I though it would be, but in a good way. This is not the film that you might expect from a combination of the efforts of the creators of Mr Hulot's Holiday and The Triplets of Belleville. It's not as funny as that combination might lead you to expect, but it is deeper, richer, and a more moving experience, and one that stays in the memory.