Persepolis

Persepolis may be a landmark: the first ever feature-length animated autobiography. Based on graphic novels by Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, this Franco-American production (which Satrapi co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud) is international in scope, often enjoyable and perhaps even “truthful,” but limited in a way that is so fundamental that I could not assent to the “magic” that other reviewers have found in watching it.

The story spans something like fifteen years, beginning in 1978 when Satrapi would have been eight or nine. The autobiographer is voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and, when older, by Chiara Mastroianni—daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve, who also plays her mother in the movie. She’s the precocious scion of a left-leaning, bourgeois family in Tehran at a time of turmoil. When the dictatorial shah is overthrown, a nascent Westernized democracy is anticipated; instead, Iran drifts into a situation reminiscent of those famous lyrics by The Who: “Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss.”

Satrapi, an independent-minded teenager in a repressive, sexist culture, feels squashed and leaves the country for a Francophone lycée in Vienna. She falls in with a crowd of nihilist, anarchist hipsters; but they are only interested in Satrapi’s exoticism, and their intellectualism is depicted as baseless because they’ve never suffered.

Satrapi has and continues to. She ends up a vagrant with tuberculosis and decides to return home where religious oppression is back in swing and everyone acts as vapidly as the Europeans. She gets hitched to a man she loves (because it is the only acceptable way for them to publicly show affection to one another under the new regime), but only one scene later, her new hubby is watching Terminator on television and their relationship has fallen apart. Eventually, she returns to Europe—this time France—but, perhaps since this is a French film (and France Satrapi’s adopted home), that nation is spared criticism; her time there merely serves the movie as a teaser and a coda (both confined to the airport, no less).

Persepolis is, essentially, an outsider story; like so many artistic types—so many “misunderstood kids”—Satrapi can’t seem to fit in anywhere. But due to the nature of her eventful life, her tale balloons into an international put-down. Not only are her friends flimsy, but all the Viennese: her lovers, the nuns, and even the batty professor who takes her in. This film takes on the duplicitous philosophy that we as Westerners take for granted our enlightened mores and civil liberties, and yet are shallow and unable to relate to those who have suffered violent social and political upheaval. Our pat on the back turns into a jab at the eye.

Because of this, well-meaning Westerners may see the movie and feel a misguided sense of inferiority. One gets the feeling that Satrapi’s strife is what has made her unable to relate to those around her; she can’t befriend anybody because she’s on a higher plane. She tries to blend in, but her inability to do so is treated like a foregone conclusion. Despite her charming wit, she seems to still carry a Debbie Downer outlook like a ball and chain; her life’s been hard, yes, but of course it’ll be difficult for her to make genuine friends if she keeps using that as a wedge between her and everyone else.

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There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that hovers over you like a cloud; it has the immensity of an epic, the density of a biblical exegesis and the mood of a surreal horror picture. Its two and a half hours go by smoothly and yet the movie has something of an irregular heartbeat; it might be called a high-strung impressionist’s dream of American Gothic.

The thirty-year saga begins in 1898, at which time Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an amateur oilman operating a small derrick in a forbidding Southwestern desert, although, from the look of it, the scene may as well have been placed among the Iraqi ruins where Father Merrin unleashed the demon in The Exorcist. When, after much toil and the loss of at least one life, black gold finally manifests itself in the manmade well, it’s as though it’s coming to life—it sputters and seethes as if in a witch’s cauldron—and a grandiose climax on the soundtrack registers its birth as an evil portent. (The music here echoes that which played when Jack Torrance entered the haunted hotel bar in The Shining.)

Within a few years, Plainview becomes a shrewdly professional oil prospector. He moves into communities and, flashing his leathery smile, boasting of his “frank” manner and status as an old-fashioned family man (he has adopted a dead miner’s son, though claims that the boy, H.W., is his), swindles the townsfolk out of their land.

After receiving a tip from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), he slithers his way into Little Boston, California, and sets up a rig there. Even when the derrick goes ablaze—with an explosion that costs H.W. (Dillon Freasier) his hearing—Plainview is perfectly, maniacally happy; the earth is pregnant with a seemingly unlimited supply of oil, the lifeblood of the burgeoning American economy, as well as Plainview’s planned isolation from the rest of the human race. Put as simply as possible, the plot of There Will Be Blood is a stringing together of the oilman’s exploits at toppling everyone and everything around him in order to divorce himself from mankind.

Plainview has just what his name implies—a “competition” in him and a simple distaste for people—but the way the camera lingers on him suggests a deeper, stickier quality to his personality. I’m still trying to determine how much I like Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance; he has the uncanny ability to contort his jaw and control every furrow in his brow. It’s wildly theatrical and magnetic—as in Gangs of New York, where he came off as rather silly—and once again he’s topped it off with an absurd accent, something like a Tammany Hall caricature mixed with Sean Connery. Anderson doesn’t quite get it, either, but he loves to let Day-Lewis’ facial fluctuations fill the frame. Maybe it works because it’s such a grandiose, classical performance (mustachioed, he looks like a silent movie villain or Timothy Dalton from Hot Fuzz) and yet he touches on something behind the misanthropy and greed—as Plainview’s interspersed malice and tenderness in raising H.W. suggests. Because it’s so blatant, it’s a discomforting performance—it has the effect of when a friend says something offensive and you think initially that it’s a joke, but come to realize that he really means it. His wittiness and scariness are eerily inseparable.

Dano’s performance and role are equally oblique. His plaintive face looks even more like clay here than in Little Miss Sunshine and this nebulousness is both his menace and vulnerability. In Sunshine, Dano’s role as a psilosopher amounted to little more than stylized teen angst. When, here, as an evangelical preacher, he casts out a demon from a parishioner, Dano builds up a fury that’s eerily adolescent but nonetheless hypnotic to watch, reminiscent of both Gene Wilder and the somnambulist in Dr. Caligari. The character is either a phony or has the wrath of God on his side, and that spooks—more than spooks, infuriates—smug, satanic Plainview. Dano and Day-Lewis are most enjoyable together—their smarminess, deviousness and sheer energy complement one another (we are tickled by our inability to determine which character poses a greater threat to the other)—and when their dialogue overlaps, as it does in one scene, one can see Anderson tipping his hat to the late Robert Altman, to whom this film was dedicated.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild ride, but in the end, an unsubstantial one. The movie becomes slack when Raoul Duke/Hunter Thompson (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) go to Vegas for a second round; only bits and pieces match the zingy high of the first half, such as Thompson whipping his battered white Cadillac onto an airport runway, an ether walk (that Gilliam seems to have borrowed from his Monty Python days) and Thompson literally running into himself in San Francisco, 1965. The movie abandons the surreal social satire of the early scenes—the “electric snake” comes chiefly to mind—for not-so-subtle jabs at a square narc officer convention and muddled hoopla about the failure of the sixties and the American dream. This may be effective in the book, but in the movie the sixties spirit seems to have been squashed by meandering drug bingers like Gonzo and, to a lesser degree, Thompson. The fail-safe is that the movie is such a ripped quagmire that it seems to mean something, anyway—particularly if when you view the film, you’re going by its characters’ examples.

Regardless, the initial wackiness is as great as Brazil or 12 Monkeys and maybe even a little bit more disorienting; you literally stumble out of your seat when the movie’s done. And the actors are as willfully cartoonish as the direction. The movie’s decline is not ruinous; it’s merely a comparative letdown.

I Am Legend

The Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend has been filmed twice before: with Vincent Price (at the height of his Roger Corman affiliation) and Charlton Heston (mid-way between Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green) in the Will Smith role. It’s hard to beat that pedigree. I wanted to see the new one in hopes that it would fulfill the camp quota that the earlier flicks must; to my surprise, the 2007 film is hardly campy at all—it’s good in a good way.

One wouldn’t think that such results would come from a movie directed by the maker of Constantine and several pop-music videos, Francis Lawrence, or one penned by Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter of recent Ron Howard pictures. But, combined with the talents of a venerable sci-fi writer, these filmmakers balance schlock and safety so perfectly that those two specters are hardly evident. What the film does have is a successful conflation of diverse sources: Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, zombie movies, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.

The Cast Away element comes from it being a largely one-man show. It’s Will Smith as the last man “alive” in post-apocalyptic Manhattan, a virologist named Neville who spends his days fortifying himself against, and trying to cure, a wolf pack of subhuman zombies—victims of a pandemic caused by a cancer vaccine gone awry. His encounters with the “night-seekers,” who—of course—are allergic to the sun, are wonderfully suspenseful. But they’re all the better because you’re so attached to Neville that the thought of losing him is terrifying. This, of course, would not be possible if Will Smith didn’t give such a strong, endearing performance. He needs to hold up the movie and he does. To make his job easier, the story employs the old trick of giving him a loyal pooch, Sam. She’s a relic of Neville’s lost family (whose demise is revealed in flashbacks) and she’s the only thing he has to hold on to, the only reason he has to not break down and reveal his utter desperation and underlying pessimism.

His character and our empathy for him drive the movie, and Lawrence, surprisingly (but correctly), takes this for granted. The C.G. rendering of an abandoned New York is remarkable, but, after the beginning, it’s hardly dwelled on. We become unerringly accustomed to it like Neville has. In fact, the film opens with him hunting deer through Times Square—which is probably a wee bit too forested (it’s only 2012, after all)—but the perversity of the situation is apparent. As much as Neville likes to pretend it’s not, we learn more and more that the world we know is gone—and it’s chilling. The acute isolation—and its effect on the psyche—is more Twilight Zone than horror movie. (Unsurprisingly, Matheson wrote several episodes of that show, and is one of its best-known alumni.)

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