Monthly Archives: September 2010

Film Review: ‘Four Lions’ (2010)

IMDb / Ben Walters (Sight & Sound) / Kim Newman (Empire)
Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Simon Blackwell & Chris Morris
Directed by Chris Morris

Rating: E

Four Lions, from the mind of Brass Eye/The Day Today genius Chris Morris, is that rarest of cinema commodities: something different. Earlier this year a film about a man sewing people’s mouths to other people’s anuses was released, and among seasoned viewers barely a bored eyebrow was raised; another, whose content contains purportedly the most controversial rape scene in film history, is upcoming and anticipated largely with detached groans and eye-rolls. But here is Four Lions, here is a film that is genuinely fresh. Rather than aiming solely for the gutter – which it hits in esteemed fashion with some of the most erudite dick and fart jokes in years – it also reaches for the stars, skewering almost everyone in its satirical sights and eliciting tears of laughter and pathos in the process.

Omar (Riz Ahmed, in a hopefully star-making performance) is the leader of a tiny stand-alone cell of British-born-and-based mujahideen, planning their entry into heaven by way of martyrdom as they blow themselves up at… a Boots chemist’s, perhaps? Well, they haven’t quite decided where yet. His brethren are Waj (Kayvan Novak), an imbecile whose idea of Firdaus is a ride at Alton Towers theme park; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an Englishman convert to Islam in desperate need of a sense of humour; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a camera-shy, softly spoken guy unsure of the mission, and also a very poor impressionist; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a wannabe rapper convinced of the worthiness of suicide bombing by Barry’s unusual methods of indoctrination. While this sorry lot look on paper like a typical motley crew in another stupid buddy comedy, they are elevated by a combination of sharp writing and excellent, naturalistic performances.

Indeed, one of the major elements that sets Four Lions apart is that emphasis on keeping it real. A clash of so many varied ideas could all so easily spiral out of control, but while the overall premise and events of the plot are almost all completely absurd, an insistence on a documentary feel grounds the film throughout. Omar and his band are shot in a mixture of sharp zooms, medium close-ups and detached long shots, and their performances overall seem improvised (although given how neatly each scene fits together, they probably weren’t). Most of the music – with the notable exception of Hassan and Waj’s hilarious rhymes, and the repeated use of a terrible pop classic – is simple Arabic-sounding tones and used only in rare cases during scene transitions, allowing the characterisations and dialogue of these lovable idiots to shine.

The key to the film, however, is in the scenes with Omar’s family, and one imagines this is where many viewers will lose interest and/or respect. His disapproving older brother, sweet and supportive wife and doting son could all come out of a season of EastEnders (and the actress who plays his wife is presently, as it happens, acting in EastEnders)… but this is precisely the point. The spectre of terrorism and terrorists, so puffed-up and sensationalised in the news media, is brought crashing to earth in a comparison with the preposterous unreality of a soap opera. At the same time, folks who watch soap operas on a regular basis probably swallow most of what popular news media throws at them, from nukes in Iraq to the inherent perversion of Britain’s footballers; Morris grasps the opportunity to bring that greatest fear of the day as close to home as possible, and show that, you know, these guys maybe aren’t all that different from us. There is an outstanding scene between Omar and his wife at the hospital where she works, a showcase for both the superb script and note-perfect performers that sums up the entire film before you can even realise it.

As for the jokes, there are often several classics in a given scene, and they cover the gamut – encompassing ridiculously rabid anti-Semitism, making fun of English and Asian accents, brutal slapstick, and of course the above-mentioned toilet humour (which, in a clever twist, is often in Urdu). Alongside all this are the innumerable perceptive lines that are at once amusing and disheartening, or in some cases deeply moving. One can only imagine that the process of writing was arduous: first to think of something funny, then to put it into a character’s voice, then to make it work within the framework of a scene, and finally to fit all this into the fabric of the film as a whole. Rather than trying to select some of the finer gems, it’s probably better to simply allow you to experience them fresh as you watch the film – much of their greatness is in their delivery, particularly by the fantastically poker-faced Barry. Anyway, if I tried we’d be here all night. It’s the kind of film where if you see it with friends, you start quoting it to each other immediately upon exiting the cinema and continue for days, months and quite likely years afterwards.

At bottom, it’s simply extraordinary that a comedy film about a group of suicide bombers was made at all, let alone one so expertly crafted. When it ended, I felt a rare sense of exhiliration – at having been completely enveloped in the film’s world, at having laughed myself silly, and at having witnessed something so brilliantly subversive it might even one day deserve comparison with that great master of absurdist cinema, Buñuel. I can only hope that Morris, a renowned near-recluse and non-participant in the modern media circus, suddenly starts to take pleasure in being highly productive, and we don’t have to wait another ten years for his next slice of Zeitgeist-distilling greatness.

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“Writing helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words”

Rock on beach in Abel Tasman National Park

David Cain is the author of Raptitude.com, a blog about ‘getting better at being human’. His posts are a combination of truths he feels he has discovered about the nature of humanity, and/or the world, and experiments he undertakes – and their outcomes – in trying to improve his skillset for life.

He also wrote a travel diary about his experiences travelling in New Zealand which is here. The photos in the post were taken by David in NZ.

I discovered Raptitude.com at a particularly low point in my life and while I wouldn’t give David all the credit for turning it around, his well-composed, clear and unpretentious words provided me with plenty of inspiration. He himself has experienced darkness and appears to write from a deep yet continually developing understanding gained through those dark times, and is dedicating his greatest efforts to something as simple and meaningful as sharing what he knows.

David’s following grows daily into the high tens of thousands, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions.

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Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging?

I was a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog for a long time, and one day I read a post in his archives about his favorite blogs. One of them was Problogger.net, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I visited, read a few of the posts and a few of the comments, and realized there was a whole culture of blogging out there, with its own history and social structure. It wasn’t unlike the music scene; there were up-and-comers, has-beens, wannabes, hacks, big shots and legends. Everyone was doing their own thing, and talking about what others were doing. I wanted to be part of that. So I got started.

I keep blogging because I love doing it, and I feel like I have something to say that can help people create more ease in their lives. Another side-effect of writing is that it helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words. I am now too accustomed to this to stop.

Do you keep a personal journal/diary as well as your blog? If so, how much is one an extension of the other?

No I don’t keep a journal. I have tried, but every time I do I think, “Who’s going to read this? Not me.”

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

Every year we had to write short stories in grade school. It was one of the few parts of school I loved.

Tree and ocean at Napier

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

The surf at sunrise. I really need to move closer to the ocean.

What were the circumstances in which you first came to read Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Good question… I came across a quote of his, in the Crypto-Quote puzzle in the newspaper I think. I forgot about him but remember being amused that his middle name was “Waldo.” I pictured Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” Later on I was reading a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who mentioned Henry David Thoreau. I read a bit of Thoreau and soon learned that Emerson had been his mentor. I finally looked up Emerson, found his essay, “Self-Reliance” online, and loved it.

How much of an effect has travelling had on your belief system(s)?

I think it has left me with fewer beliefs… fewer foregone conclusions about people. It’s left me more curious, more open, more forgiving and more grateful. It has also rearranged my priorities in life. I now feel it is very important for me to travel a lot, which means I can’t settle for a typical 9-5 lifestyle for long. I can’t be happy with two weeks’ vacation a year. Or even four or eight. I need to see the world in a big way, and I’m not waiting for another lifetime to do it in.

Sandstorm on Farewell Spit

You frequently discuss the effect of habit (and addiction) on today’s society. How large a role does habit-forming play in your life now?

Well I’m currently doing an experiment where I’m trying to install five little habits at once, and it’s going well so far. Habit change is hard and I’m not particularly good at it. I have never had terrible habits that I was desperate to change, which means I have never developed a lot of strong habit-changing skills. But I am always working on something, and when I look back I see I have made a lot of progress.

Habits and addictions are by far the greatest determinants of a person’s quality of life, so I will never stop working on them.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not one above all others, but I’m particularly proud of Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, Who You Really Are, and How to Be Right All the Time.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would like to visit France, and I’d like to visit Thailand again.

Sunset at Napier

Do you believe in God?

Tricky question. My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean I think God doesn’t exist. I just think the conventional concept of God — the God as characterized by churches — is way out to lunch, like not even close to meaningful, and I don’t think there’s any merit to it. The idea that God has emotions or desires, or resembles a person or a thinking mind in any way strikes me as completely asinine.

So when people ask me that question I say no. What the word God means to me is not something I can explain fully here, but let’s say it has something to do with a higher intelligence that human beings can have access to, yet are habitually oblivious to. Beliefs, more than anything, are what get in the way. So believing in God doesn’t make sense to me. Once it’s a belief — a mental image or a mental position — it’s not God.

Clearly there is some order behind the universe that we don’t yet fully understand. Even hard-minded empiricists must agree with that. God, to me, is that order, or is an aspect of that order. It seems to be intelligent. Einstein would agree.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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The Audacity Of Pride: Your Commonwealth Games

You don’t have to look far into the horizon of the mass media or the blogosphere to understand the size and darkness of the cloud hanging over next month’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Over here, a Reuters reporter asks how Delhi’s poor will benefit from the Games and finds no good answers; there, an IBNLive staffer suggests that the big winner will be corruption. Indeed, my colleague Vivek Dehejia has roundly denounced the CWG and gone as far as to say that he hopes that they fail. In the midst of all this bad press, there must be something good to say, somewhere, about something. Right?

…read more at The NRI…

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Imprints: Four Lions; Erykah Badu & dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip

Four Lions (dir. Chris Morris, 2010): I have never seen a film like this before. It feels like an entirely new kind of satire – very smart, provocative, and extremely funny. Hard to see me finding any better new films than this before the year’s out. Somewhere between highly recommended and essential.

Erykah Badu – Worldwide Underground: Saw the Badu light when I watched Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and this is a fantastic (if somewhat poorly sequenced) album. She’s like a superhuman, so otherworldly. ‘I Want You’ is a phenomenal track, and Lenny Kravitz’s guitar at the end is RAD. Recommended.

dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip – Logic of Chance: Another solid offering from this beats merchant/spoken word duo. It’s not as good overall as their previous Angles, but it has I think their best track so far in ‘Five Minutes’, and definitely their most catchy – and probably the most enjoyable three minutes of pop all year – in ‘Cauliflower’.

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“feeling the power and force, yet utter lightness, of our deep interconnectedness”

Sign on the road to Mitzpeh Ramon, Israel (used with permission)

Katie Schuessler is the author of the road less traveled, a blog of her experiences travelling and volunteering in Palestine, Israel, India and Japan.  The majority of her posts are from her time spent in Palestine and give a sense of the culture, landscape and people of a place that most of us only know about from news reports, as well as giving an inside look at human rights issues.

She is also a photographer, and all of the images in this post (except the peace portrait) are taken from the vast archive posted on her site.  Click each one for larger size.

I discovered her blog in an odd way: looking at referrers to this site, I followed one and found it was a spam page with all Kerala-related links.  Her blog was listed directly below mine as she was writing about her travels in Kerala at the time, and after clicking on it I wound up spending an hour reading through the archives.  Perhaps this chance path speaks to the interconnectedness she mentions below.

Passionate and personal, her entries have a considered-yet-raw quality about them that implies an immediate clarity of her surroundings, and a well-honed belief system that nevertheless remains open to change.

***

BHM: Why did you start blogging?

KS: i started my blog specifically because i wanted people to see what was happening in the west bank through personal stories and photos, and the whole thing kind of took off from there. it was great to publish my photos and writing while traveling, and nice to give my friends and family an easy way to see what i was up to.

BHM: You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘the road less traveled’ as an extension of that journal?

KS: i’ve often contemplated blogging etiquette; what sorts of things are acceptable to a broad audience, and what sorts of things does one keep to oneself?  my paper journal holds much more personal information about my experiences, ideas, and even art that i may never post, whereas the blog is only peripherally personal.  i’d say the two complement each other quite nicely, but if anything, the paper journal is an extension of the blog.

BHM: Can you elaborate a little on that last sentence (‘if anything, the paper journal is an extension of the blog’)?

KS: i think there are some thoughts and perceptions of mine that don’t belong on the web. for instance, when i wrote about my roommate snoring like a tuba, it felt a bit too personal and i kind of regretted it. i do think there is a time and place for such intimate expressions, and for me they manifest in my paper journal. even though my posts get pretty personal — talking about breakups, life revelations and identity crises — i never get into the gritty day-to-day details like what i ate for breakfast or who i’m spending time with on a given day. i don’t really have stringent rules about what i can and can’t post, but i hope to maintain a certain professionalism and thoughtfulness on the road less traveled that is positively absent in my paper journal.

Woman forcibly evicted from her home in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine (used with permission)

BHM: Describe something that is beautiful to you.

KS: there is something remarkable about laying in savasana (‘corpse pose,’ usually the last posture of any yoga asana practice) and feeling each cell of my body vibrating with the postures i’ve just done.  from there, i like to visualize how each cell makes up my body as a whole.  then i think about how more cells make up all the people and objects around me, and how we are all part of one larger cell.  then i think of how this larger cell is part of the whole community surrounding us, which is made of similar cells comprising yet another big cell.  this process continues to expand until i’m seeing the whole earth as one cell and feeling the power and force, yet utter lightness, of our deep interconnectedness.  it’s beautiful.

BHM: What is your first memory of taking photographs?

KS: my parents gave me my first ‘real’ camera for my sixteenth birthday.  it was a pentax k-1000.  i spent a long time photographing flowers around the front yard of their house.  focusing the manual lens was a magical experience. prior to that i had photographed with a point-and-shoot but there is absolutely no comparsion with using a manual camera.  it gave me a whole new way of experiencing the world visually.  later, when i went to pick up that first roll of film from the processor, i realized that i hadn’t loaded it properly and it was completely blank.

BHM: Did you display photographs publicly anywhere before you started your blog?

KS: yes, but not for quite some time.  most recently i had a solo exhibition at the public library in tucson, arizona, but that was in may of 2008.  it was a portrait project where i asked those who i photographed to write about peace between israel and palestine onto each of their respective photographs.

Moshe (used with permission)

BHM: I found your blog through an ad site about Kerala that also linked to mine, but I added it to my bookmarks largely because of the Palestine posts. Did your experience there have an effect on your belief system?

KS: before i left for palestine, i felt that i understood the situation.  because i grew up jewish, i had the israeli and zionist perspective pretty well-covered.  to learn more about palestine, i read books, magazines, and lots of online news.  but unfortunately nothing could have prepared me for the reality of being there.  there is no book that can describe what it’s like to live in a refugee camp under constant military surveillance.  there is no magazine article that can (or that is willing to, perhaps) describe what it’s like to pass through checkpoints on a daily basis and be subjected to regular interrogation. it seems to me that there is a slow, agonizing process of trying to break people down via constant degradation — whether it’s unfair distribution of water, a refusal to grant permits to travel, housing demolition, regular raids, arrests, and murders, or even just simple, constant military presence.  what’s remarkable is, the people living under that illegal occupation have such open hearts.  if any part of my belief system has changed as a result of this experience, it’s that i have more faith in the strength of the human spirit.  on the flip side of that, i am more puzzled than ever by the cruelty and out-of-handedness of humans making war.

BHM: Off the top of your head, which photo that you’ve posted on your blog holds most meaning for you?

KS: this is a tough question.  the first photo that springs to mind is of a boy in mysore, india.  he was part of a group of kids who i was visiting to drop off some photos.  the kids were going nuts for the gora and the camera.  somehow, amidst the chaos and silliness and posing, he gave me his full self, full of childlike innocence but also the maturity of someone who has seen a lot.  it’s meaningful to me to have been able to catch that moment.

Boy in Mysore (used with permission)

BHM: Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

KS: i think it’s the two posts (here and here) about water rights in the west bank.  it’s a fascinating subject to me, and at the crux of the human rights deprivations happening there.  i learned so much when i researched for that post, and felt that it was very important for people to learn about.  there is no arguing about water — it’s vital for everyone.

BHM: Name two countries: one you’d love to visit, and one you’d love to visit again.

KS: i’m on an africa kick right now, but it’s hard to narrow it down to just one country.  i’d probably start in east africa: somalia, kenya, uganda, ethiopia…and i would like to do another trip to palestine and india (if they’re on the same ticket, does it count as one?).

Palestinian children in volunteer-run photography class (used with permission)

BHM: A simple question for last: do you believe in God?

KS: yes, i believe in god.  not in the sense of a man with a white beard and heaven and hell.  but in the sense of a guiding creative force of the universe.  and a trust in the earth.  and a belief in our innate interconnectedness as inhabitants of this planet.  and a sense of the power each of us holds to make a positive difference in our lives and the lives of others.  this is divinity.

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This is the inaugural post for Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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Indian English Class (aka Doing The Needful)

do the needful at the earliest – Anyone who deals with Indian businesspeople or outsourcing will be familiar with this one. According to Wikipedia, it’s a remnant of early-to-mid-20th Century British English that has died out in the native speakers but lives on in this and a couple of other colonies. Search for it in Google, with quotes, and the first few results are humorous Western perspectives of the phrase, but then you have another 260,000 results of people actually posting that phrase on the internet. Add ‘kindly’ in front and the field narrows to a paltry 103,000. I can only hope that in each case, the needful was indeed done. At the earliest. (Earliest what?)

…read the full article at The NRI…

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A Dog’s Life

Marley probably didn’t have the most auspicious start to life. She started out a stray pup, destined to be separated from her mother and to wander Varkala’s cliff in search of charity from tourists dining at Western-style restaurants and cafés. She would have had limited success at this, essentially a cuteness competition with the other puppies and dogs hanging around the area, until she grew big enough to be ready to have pups of her own. At that time, the restaurant and shop owners would have hounded her out, condemning her to a life of trotting and sleeping around Varkala’s streets, maybe venturing out to the cliff or beach from time to time, running in packs with other strays, and probably not living very long purely because she wasn’t blessed with genes that would make her grow big and strong.

…read more at The NRI…

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