Friday Flicks August 23: “Jirga” & “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”

M.V. MoorheadAugust 23, 2019
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At Harkins Shea:

Jirga—A former Australian soldier (Sam Smith) returns to Afghanistan a few years after he accidentally killed a local civilian in a village raid. He’s haunted by the killing and wants to atone. It takes a while before he can even find somebody willing to drive him into the Taliban-controlled region of the village, but eventually—torturously—he arrives, and submits himself to the judgment of the Jirga, the local court of elders.

This cinema verité drama, shot guerrilla-style in Afghanistan by director Benjamin Gilmour and star Smith, with a supporting cast of Afghans recruited on location, is a bit of a marvel. The stunning, bleakly beautiful Afghan scenery (not at all dissimilar to parts of Arizona) gives the movie an epic scope, and Smith’s performance, and his rapport with the Afghan cast—particularly his quiet bonding with a compassionate driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad)—is unforced and naturalistic. The climactic stretch, when he revisits the scene of the incident and meets the family and neighbors of his victim, is devastating.

August 24 at 3:30 p.m. at FilmBar:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown—Those of us born in the ‘60s may remember being taken to this, the first Peanuts feature film, from 1969, and scripted by Charles M. Schultz. It’s a colorful, graphically clever recounting of a story arc from the strip, in which Charlie Brown manages to win his school spelling bee, and travels to the big city to compete in a National Bee.

Alongside this main plot, the film is a dark tale of addiction; Linus lends Charlie Brown his beloved security blanket for luck, but soon finds himself suffering an agony of withdrawal the likes of which William S. Burroughs never dreamed. It’s a musical, too; with an unmistakable jazzy score by Vince Guaraldi and songs by Rod McKuen (!) including the title number, sung by McKuen himself in a sort of Wayne-Newton-crossed-with-Brenda-Vaccaro tone. There’s also a rousing song about the “I-Before-E” rule that I still sometimes consult in memory.

Despite these eccentricities, this film, unlike 2015’s The Peanuts Movie, preserves its title character’s status as a mythic figure—a loser who strives mightily against his fate as a loser, and doesn’t overcome it. “Winning is great,” Schultz once observed, “but it isn’t funny.” The unflinching moral of Peanuts is that some people really are born losers, and that this sucks for them, but it doesn’t mean that their lives are without value.

This isn’t the sort of thing that the makers of a big-budget contemporary animated movie can embrace, but A Boy Named Charlie Brown had the guts to end on this note. After generations of triumph-of-the-underdog stories being standard in this genre, it would be interesting to see how it holds up with kid audiences today.

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