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“Four Lions,” Reviewed

“Four Lions,” Reviewed (photo)

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This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

“Four Lions,” the slippery first feature from British comedian/provocateur/fearless satirist Chris Morris, is going to win the above title by default. Few films indeed are willing to combine terrorism and comedy — I’ve always entertained a soft spot for the train wreck that is Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” just for trying.

So, infinite points to “Four Lions” for the sheer audacity of its premise, which is made to enrage — four would-be jihadists living in northern England bumble their inept way through ideology, training camp, bomb-making and actual attempted acts of terrorism. But here’s the thing: “Four Lions” isn’t always a comedy, per se — there are parts that are very funny, but just as many parts that linger on, deliberately and uncomfortably treading the outskirts of a joke without ever getting to it, as if taking audiences to task for thinking themselves worldly enough to want to find laughs in this movie.

The cell is made up of Omar (Riz Ahmed), the smartest and most competent member (though the bar’s set awfully low); Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the blustering Walter Sobchak-esque rage-filled convert who often challenges Omar’s place; Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), the stupid one; Waj (Kayvan Novak), the even stupider one; and latecomer Hassan (Arsher Ali), who’s a bit of a dilettante.

The start of the film offers the intriguing read that, for these men, jihadi culture offers the same kind of appeal as gangster rap — a sense of rebellion, purpose, masculinity and overall bad-assery. They’re not particularly devout — in contrast to Omar’s much-mocked brother.

When they talk about their motivations, what comes out is a garble of “Western this” and “chain store that,” which is hardly reflected in how they live their lives (the bedtime story Omar tells his son is the plot of “The Lion King”). Mostly, they like the self-importance, and they like posing with guns — they meet in a shabby apartment above a shop and try to shoot appropriately threatening videos of themselves.

Things change when Omar and Waj, thanks to a family connection, are sent to Pakistan for actual training, something they’re hilariously unsuited for — a stunt involving a rocket thrower, the film’s comic highlight and one of its best revisited jokes, gets them sent back to the UK, where an embarrassed Omar lies that they returned with a mission to take action. They make preparations, power struggles within the group ensue, and the future of the boys’ suicide bombing mission gets called into question — oh no!

Oh, wait.

As there’s increasing fallout from the plan, “Four Lions” seems less willing to try to wring laughs out of what’s happening, and instead turns to needling the genre to which the film technically belongs — the “Full Monty”esque dramedy about how a group of losers succeeds in an unlikely field against all odds. Take the scene in which Omar, having left the cell, discouraged, gets cheered up by his smiling wife, the film’s most problematic character by a mile. She tells him he was much more fun when he was trying to blow things up, and that he should go back there and show them who’s boss. There’s no punchline; it’s played straight, a mirror of a dozen similar scenes that we’ve seen in movies before, only in this case she’s given him the go-ahead to presumably kill as many people as possible while in the process of leaving her alone to raise their child.

What does it mean? The world of the film is realistic even as the guys tend towards cartoonishly bungling, which makes a scene like that one extraordinarily difficult to pin down. And even more so is the end sequence, a tragedy played out in the madcap trappings of crowds, costumes, cellphone mishandlings and chases through cafes.

If I had to lay it out, I’d say “Four Lions” is intended to be, not a jihad satire, but a satire of the idea of a jihad satire, of the belief that humor of even the edgiest variety can effectively be troweled on to any topic to make it accessible, to humanize or defang it.

Or maybe I’m overreaching. What I am certain of is that “Four Lions”, comedy or not, is a genuine odd duck of a film.

“Four Lions” opens in limited release November 5th.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.