Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Toronto Film Festival '07: Day One

Movie Of The Day: Persepolis (dir. Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)

Early in this adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's internationally best-selling comic book memoir, Satrapi's uncle tells the pre-teen Marji the story of his 9-year imprisonment under the orders of the Shah of Iran–not to scare her, but because it's part of their family history, and he believes things like that shouldn't be forgotten. Like a lot of people, I was charmed by Satrapi's comics because of just that sense of specificity. The book series–and now this movie, which animates Satrapi's illustrations smoothly and even elegantly–describes Satrapi's girlhood in Iran and beyond, from the Shah's deposing to the rise of a fundamentalist Islamic state, which prompted her parents to send her to school in Vienna. Throughout, Satrapi makes it clear that this happened to her, and to her family. She's not an everywoman, even though her experiences will be relatable to anyone who grew up where she did, or even anyone who's suffered being a teenager anywhere in the world.

Those who want to see Persepolis as a political tract could interpret Satrapi's story two opposite ways: as an argument that Iran should be left alone, because good people live there who are working to forge a truly democratic state, or as an argument that Iran needs outside intervention to help those good people achieve their goals. Neither of those messages are implicit in the movie. Persepolis is more about Satrapi's own struggles with what freedom means, especially once she's safely tucked away in Europe, and falling to pieces over bad boyfriend choices instead of whether the cops are going to haul her in for wearing lipstick. It's a very personal and even profound story, and even though the movie loses some of the digressive, impressionistic structure that made the books so charming, it adds a sense of comic whimsy that a single drawing can't exactly replicate. Persepolis is a crowd-pleaser, and a model for how graphic novels can be filmed. At the least, someone should sic Satrapi's collaborator Vincent Paronnaud on Maus straight away. (A-)

Also Playing:

The Orphanage (dir. J.A. Bayona): Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez deliver a legitimately chilling ghost story, set in a beachfront Spanish mansion that was once an orphanage–and that a young couple and their imaginative adopted son are looking to turn into a boarding school. The Orphanage sags a little at times, mainly because the filmmakers over-explain the premise, and the film suffers–albeit slightly–from some familiar horror movie gimmicks, including the well-worn "kid who sees things that others don't" bit. But the story is rich and involving, the creep-outs are skin-crawlingly effective, and the ending is pretty devastating. Guillermo Del Toro produced, and his gothic Spanish flavor abounds.(B+)

Lust, Caution (dir. Ang Lee): This WWII-era espionage drama puts everything it's supposed to on the screen, from the mixed emotions that Chinese resistance agent Tang Wei feels for her brutish lover Tony Leung (a collaborator with the Japanese) to the westernized milieu that makes '40s Hong Kong and Shanghai such a strange place to be. Lust, Caution's images are sumptuous, its performances strong, and its plot points carefully strung. And yet the movie just kind of lays there, sucked-dry in ways that are hard to account for. This is a smart movie, but not an especially emotional one. Even the already notorious explicit sex scenes feel more calculated than organic. Call this one a noble misfire from a usually reliable auteur–though I wouldn't be surprised if some people really go for it.(B-)

Control (dir. Anton Corbijn): I've now seen three films that deal with Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis' life and death: Control, 24 Hour Party People, and a DVD-exclusive documentary. None of them have been able to solve the Curtis riddle in a dramatically satisfying way. Control sports gorgeous black-and-white imagery from first-time feature director (and long-time rock photographer) Corbijn, and it contains a riveting lead performance by Sam Riley, who inhabits Curtis' misery fully on and off stage. And the music, well…Joy Division's meager output remains unparalleled in rock history for its concision and harrowing emotion. But ultimately, Curtis was just an ordinary guy touched by extraordinary grace, and as much as Corbijn tries to emphasize Curtis' broken marriage, struggles with epilepsy, and dreary Manchester existence–in scenes that drag on, endlessly and miserably–he never quite connects the dots between one lad's mundane sorrow and the profoundly melancholy music he made. Control isn't a bad film by any means, but given my expectations–and given how exciting it can be when the band starts to play–it's a major disappointment.(B-)

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

The yearly TIFF dilemma: Whether to focus on just-about-to-be-released "buzz" films–the ones that most of the major media outlets will be chatting about, and that a lot of you readers want to read about–or the may-not-come-out-until-2008-if-ever films. Today was mostly films from column A, but I'm going to try to mix it up as I go along. One of the main reasons to come here is to make new discoveries, not just confirm the known.


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