Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Film Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Ambrose W. Benkert

In such works as Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, director Mira Nair has shown herself to be a gifted filmmaker. She brings that sure touch to her latest work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid.

This is an uncommonly intelligent and honest film. Hamid could have compromised the film by making it more commercial, but she didn't. A substantial part of the film is in Urdu, the language of Pakistan. Showing a sympathetic Pakistani character in the aftermath of 9/11 may discomfort some viewers, while others may object to the rapacious capitalism practiced by the protagonist's investment bank.

The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani descent, in the pivotal role of Changez. Director Mira Nair begins the film as a character study that slowly morphs into a thriller in such an organic way that it doesn't feel contrived.

The film depicts the rise of Changez (Riz Ahmed), the ambitious son of a prominent Pakistani poet who graduates from Princeton before 9/11 and lands a job in New York as a financial analyst with a prestigious investment bank. His acerbic boss (Kiefer Sutherland) takes him under his wing, recognizing Changez's savvy and diligence. 

The attack on the World Trade Center occurs while Changez is on assignment in the Phillippines. Subjected to indignities and viewed with suspicion for simply being a young Muslim man, Changez still loves America but feels that America does not love him back. 

We next assignment see on assignment in Istanbul. Confronted with the dilemma of having to recommend closing a bookstore that happens to sell his father's poetry, Changez quits his job and returns to his native Lahore. He takes a position as a professor of finance at a local university. But when his American supervisor goes missing, Changez must choose between his native country and the one that provided his education and professional training. The film climaxes in a tense confrontation between Changez and a CIA agent (Liev Schreiber).

The only false note in this film is the contrived plot device that breaks up Changez's relationship with his onscreen girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson).

You're unlikely to see a better evocation of the dichotomy between Muslim and Western culture than The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This protagonist has a foot in each world and he's placed in the awjward position of having to choose between them. 

Edited by Julie A. Ashcraft
(c) 2013 Julie A. Ashcraft
All rights reserved. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen and It Can't Get Up

by Ambrose W. Benkert, Jr.

By featuring the White House as the battlefield, the makers of Olympus Has Fallen spin the film as a political thriller -- but it's nothing of the sort. In this film, humans are reduced to one-dimensional characters who fall flat in the thin plot while the constant bombardment of spectacular special effects, murder and mayhem manipulate the audience into reacting emotionally without a moment of contemplative thought. Olympus Has Fallen is as suspenseless as it is senseless, offering none of the foreshadowing characteristic of classic thrillers that allowed viewers the pleasure of imagining strategies to cope with the dilemmas presented onscreen.

In Olympus Has Fallen a delegation lead by the South Korean Prime Minister visits the White House. Unbeknownst to him, a North Korean operative -- "one of the most wanted terrorists in the world" -- has infiltrated his entourage. With the help of a rogue American Secret Service agent and fellow North Koreans, the terrorist takes the American President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs hostage. He demands that the United States withdraw its forces from Korea, withdraw the Seventh Fleet from the surrounding waters and give North Korea the USA nuclear weapons launch codes. They torture the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense in an effort to get the codes.

American Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler, sees the takeover as an opportunity to revive his career. Banning had been relieved of his duties protecting the President because of his failure to prevent the death of the First Lady when her car skidded off a bridge. Banning goes to the White House and essentially functions as a one-man commando squad for the remainder of the film.

To say that the film's political sophistication is of a junior high school level would be to insult junior high students. When the rogue agent played by Dylan McDermott is asked to explain his treachery, he murmurs something incoherent about globalization, and he asks how much the president spent on his last election --"$500 million?"  (Based on the 2012 election that would be cheap).  At this point you want to jump in and ask how turning the country over to the North Koreans would alleviate the effects of globalization, but that would involve logical thought, which is in short supply in Olympus Has Fallen

The leader of the North Koreans, played by Rick Yune, attempts to justify his actions by saying that America should know famine the way his homeland does. Any suggestion that the cult of personality developed by the various Kims who have ruled in Pyongyang bears some responsibility for their nation's suffering is wholly absent.

Most of the cast is wasted. Aaron Eckhart displayed a deft touch in such films as Thank You For Smoking and The Dark Knight. But in Olympus Has Fallen Eckhart is reduced to playing an American President who glares angrily at his tormentors and later receives a standing ovation from the press corps for his cliche-ridden speech about the greatness of America. The American Vice President (Phil Austin) is so underwritten that the character might as well not be in the film. After being beaten to a pulp, the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) semi-coherently recites the Pledge of Allegiance while she's dragged through the corpse-strewn corridors of the White House. Morgan Freeman plays the Speaker of the House who fulfills his Constitutional authority by taking over the duties of the President and Vice President, so he must decide whether to accede to the terrorists' demands. Freeman seems miscast since he's more a man of contemplation than a man of action -- and this is the ultimate action film.

In summary, Olympus Has Fallen is entertaining in the way that some video games are. The hi-tech weaponry and the special effects overload the visual senses and keep the pulse racing. I've rarely seen a film with this many dead bodies. The film is set in July, so one would expect the stench from the rotting corpses to be overpowering, even in the air-conditioned White House. This film exploits visceral thrills in a political setting, but it's more about gore and shock than political ideas.

Edited by Julie A. Ashcraft

(c) 2013 Julie A. Ashcraft
All rights reserved