Couch Potato Briefing: Immigrants, Idiots and Crumbling Empires

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Here’s our latest installment of five rental films to watch this weekend to get you up to speed with our week in news. Compiled by Ishaan Tharoor and Tony Karon.


Carry On Up the Khyber

It’s a truth we’ve all read (and written about) for a while now: as grumpy as Washington may be with the Pakistanis for having let Osama bin Laden sit comfortably under their nose at least half a decade, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship will endure simply because it has to and because there’s no other choice. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t call out this tortured dance for what it is: a total farce. Carry On Up the Khyber, set among the 3rd Foot and Mouth, a fictional Pashtun-fighting colonial regiment, carries on in the best traditions of bawdy British comedy. You’ll cringe at the puns and the repeated jokes about wearing kilts without underwear, but you’ll cringe more when thinking about what an intractable mess the Af-Pak quagmire really is. -I.T.

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Pascali’s Island

Basil Pascali (Ben Kingsley) is a spy for the Ottoman Sultan on a Greek island in 1908, when he becomes involved in a tale of passion and betrayal involving a bohemian Englishwoman played by a younger Helen Mirren, and a dashing cad played by Charles Dance (did he ever play anything other than dashing cads?). Love, espionage and the pillaging of historic artifacts, amid the decay of the Ottoman Empire in its final years. So what does this have to do with the past week’s news? Not much, except for the depiction of Kingsley as an operative of an empire that, unbeknownst to him, is collapsing. He spends his days writing reports that nobody in Istanbul bothers to read any more. Osama bin Laden, too, was obsessively writing missives, we learned this week, and while his may have been read, the decline of his own “empire” meant that for the most part, there was precious little the recipients could do to implement them. – T.K.


El Norte

At a speech in El Paso, U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue of immigration reform, deeming it a “moral imperative” to resolve. Good luck convincing Washington on that. The critically-acclaimed 1983 film El Norte tells the story of a brother and sister fleeing political persecution in Guatemala for the relative safety of anonymous menial jobs in the “North.” Their escape is harrowing and journey across the Mexican-U.S. border — a crawl through a rat-infested drainage pipe — even worse. But nothing compares to the miseries and depravations of life as the undocumented in the U.S.- I.T.


Anne of the Thousand Days 

Nobody plays a monarch torn by his competing instincts and obligations quite like Richard Burton does in his florid Henry VIII opposite Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn, as she is seduced by the allure of power and his desire prompts him to break decisively with the Vatican as the source of legitimacy of the English crown. What’s that you say – the Royal Wedding was two weeks ago? Indeed, but that’s not the connection here: We learned this week that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, too, has been engaged in a bitter power struggle with his own clerical overlord, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. And like Henry VIII, Ahmadinejad isn’t so sure that he needs the backing of the clergy to legitimize his own throne. Heads will roll, even if only metaphorically.- T.K.


Dirty Pretty Things

A side effect of the conflict in Libya has been a dramatic refugee crisis, where hundreds of African migrants in the oil-rich North African state have desperately attempted to flee to Europe. By some accounts, more people may have died in the passage to Europe aboard crammed, ill-equipped dinghies than as a result of the bombs and bullets shot in anger during this Libyan civil war. And what will happen to those migrants who make it to Europe, past the dragnet of coastguard vessels and the howls of xenophobic political parties? Dirty Pretty Things provides a thrilling, tragic snapshot of what undocumented migrants from around the world can fall prey to in some of the world’s richest cities.- I.T.