Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More reality than fiction

Source: The Hindu

The better films of last year were heavily influenced by the real world.

All worth a watch: (Clockwise from top left) “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “Persepolis”, “The Namesake”, “Kite Runner”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Superbad”.
Even as I wrote this, the Golden Globes were conducted off the red carpet this year. With the writers’ strike casting a shadow of gloom over the awards season in Hollywood. it is perhaps just as well that documentary makers Michael Moore or Al Gore have no horses in the running for the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards this year.

Nonetheless, reality continues to inform fiction in the movies. This probably explains why the influence of the volatile situation in West Asia has weighed heavily on world cinema this past year. As the U.S. continues to be mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no clear way out of a seemingly impossible political and logistical impasse, the West is taking a closer look at West Asia; far closer than the “battle of civilisations” paradigm under which the conflict has been framed so far.

West Asia and the West

In Mike Nichols’ and Aaron Sorkin’s “Charlie Wilson’s war”, a colourful Democratic congressman from Texas, egged on by Joanne Herring, a charming Houston society diva and honorary consul for Pakistan, takes on the invading Red Army in Afghanistan by arming the dispossessed Mujahideen with over a billion dollars in anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

For a film this sensational, the treatment is astonishingly even-handed. Tom Hanks’ Charlie Wilson and Julia Roberts’ Herring are no war-profiteers; they are convinced they are doing thing for the right ideals — to do right by the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The Russian invasion into Afghanistan also forms the backdrop to the first half of “The Kite Runner”, adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name; as the Reds come marching into Kabul, the young protagonist Amir and his father are exiled from his childhood home to suburban California. In the second half, Amir goes back to Kabul to find the city that he knew desolate, depopulated and ruled by the beard-police who patrol the streets enforcing Sharia. Even though political turmoil is essential to the plot, it is impossible to view “The Kite Runner” as mere political commentary. It is ultimately about two boys – Amir and his kite-runner friend Hassan – in Kabul; and about friendship, betrayed and redeemed.

The other surprise from West Asia, comes to English speaking audiences via France. Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is, like “The Kite Runner”, a personal journey of a child who sees authoritarianism replace relative individual freedom in her homeland, and who is forced into exile in the West. In “Persepolis”, which is quite unashamedly political, Satrapi uses the head-scarf, which has been political tinder in French schools over the past two years, as a metaphor of the struggle between religion and individual freedom in rapidly polarising Iran during the Islamic revolution.

High school laughs

Two of my favourite films screened this past year were psychological comedies about high school and coming of age. Both “Juno” and ‘Superbad” are more complex than the high school farce of “American Pie” or the cloying love stories of the 1980s. For one, neither film is constructed around that most hallowed of high school rituals in the U.S., the “Prom”, which no one outside North America really cares about.

“Superbad” is a semi-autobiographical look at the hormone-charged high school experience of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the script and directed it. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Fogell — the coolest nerd since Napoleon Dynamite — who attempts to buy alcohol from a store with a fake identity card in the name of one McLovin (no first name) from Hawaii, and is hauled into a riotous adventure with a couple of reckless cops played by Rogen and Goldberg in cameo roles. The film contains more smutty dialogue and bawdy anatomical humour than any other film this century, and so is unlikely to pass the censor board in India.

“Juno”, which has earned Diablo Cody a Golden Globe nomination for best original screenplay, tackles the tough subject of childhood pregnancy with much-needed forthrightness and irreverence by steering clear of the morality debate in any form and making it personal. “Juno” is solely about one girl, the boy she likes and her parents and friends. When asked how she is allowed to stay out late, Juno replies with complete nonchalance: “I am already pregnant, what other shenanigans do you think I can get into?”

Both “Superbad” and “Juno” are about individual experiences in familiar situations. Their characters are not cardboard cut-outs of jock, nerd, geek, popular kids, Goths and other Hollywood stereotypes, but are individuals in their own right. They get into trouble, but refuse to play victims. They are the part of the vast anti-stereotype of real teenagers in the West, or anywhere in the world where the West has influenced social and cultural mores. One may well argue that the American high-school movie, not unlike high-schoolers the world over, has matured.

From books to films

“Atonement” captures the mood of the Ian McEwan’s original novel with surprising tenderness. A lot of the credit for that should go to the leads, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, whose tightly restrained performances set the tone for the film. As inevitably with novels that turn into film, it is hard to agree if some parts need to be kept to lend the film that certain atmosphere, or if they must be edited to speed the story along; descriptions and background plots rarely do as well on film as they do in a novel. “Atonement” loses its edge towards the middle but recovers from it brilliantly towards the climax.

The same could be said about “The Namesake.” Tabu executes a nuanced performance as Ashima Ganguli, overshadowing Kal Penn’s interpretation of Gogol, the film’s namesake. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction may be broadly, and perhaps not entirely accurately, classified as ‘immigrant fiction’. She writes about the “otherness” that Indian-Americans, first or second generation, feel in their newly adopted country. That remains at the forefront in Mira Nair’s treatment of the film. In one scene Ashima can be seen dragging a cart full of groceries through a snowy footpath; she is the only pedestrian on the street. Americans drive, only foreign graduate students need trudge through snow for provisions.

Action thrillers and crime capers balance out dramas in the Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations lists this year. If your impression of rural Texas is dominated by grainy footage of President Bush on CNN, pottering around with a scythe in his ranch, as mine has been for a while, let the Coen brothers show you how it’s done, real cowboy style. “No Country for Old Men” is a fast-paced action thriller, with the lingering threat of imminent violence that audiences love. But the Coen brothers elevate the genre. Breathtaking shots of the West Texas desert with calm saturated blues and desert neutrals form the backdrop to the ceaseless manhunt that is the subject of the film.

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