Saturday, December 8, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 6

Only about a month late, but this wraps them up!

St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 reviews for Nov. 17-18:

Title: Persepolis
Director: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Country: Iran
Score: 8.5
“Persepolis” was probably my most anticipated film from this year’s fest, considering that it had great Cannes buzz (it won the Jury prize), Iranian graphic novel roots, Catherine Deneuve voice-acting and black-and-white animation (of which I’m apparently one of very few fans). A local comic book store, Star Clipper, helped promote it, leading to a packed theater and a slightly younger crowd than the other films.

The film is an autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, an upper-middle class girl growing up in Iran in the 70’s and 80’s. Her experience with education, dating, music and politics is colored by the volatile backdrop, including the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war. Well-educated and independent, Marjane must decide between staying close to her family and homeland or leaving for freedom and security. The choice is not anywhere near as easy as it would seem. Several trips abroad only shift the attention from national conflicts to personal troubles like loneliness, depression, racism, identity-loss and poverty.

Traditionally, rambling war-torn coming-of-age stories are not really my cup of tea, but “Persepolis” has more to offer than most. The animation is merely the most obvious curveball, but it certainly helps lend a coat of polish to the material. The color scheme is primarily B&W, with some blue mixed in (the present-day framing material is in full color). It walks an interesting line between a cartoon look (large blocks of solid tone) and pen-and-ink detail. The look doesn’t try to be particularly exotic, instead it has the clean-cut edges and formal balance I associate with abstract modernism.

The medium is rarely used to break with reality, although the transition cuts are often quite clever and a couple loose history lessons are given where the character are intentionally moved like jerky marionettes. I think Satrapi was smart to keep the action fairly grounded, because it allows the audience to feel secure in the emotional sincerity.

Marjane Satrapi easily shoulders the central focus. It may be unfair for me to say, but I think the story benefits from her gender since it frees the film from what have gradually become clichés of the male, coming-of-age cycle. It also helps that her experiences have been so atypical, although her reactions, her choices and her dreams feel quite natural. The non-fiction source means that there is nothing symbolic, forced or structurally contrived (like a neat, happy ending or a steady progression). The dialogue sounds like things people might actually say, without being boring or deadpan; Satrapi has a talent for bringing out the humor and wisdom in her remembrances.

I found to “Persepolis” to be a solid, well-rounded movie that is likely to have very wide appeal. It has human interest, topical political issues and a strong visual style. I particularly liked the marionette sequences, a hilarious “Eye of the Tiger” training montage and the perfectly handled close-calls, that have just the right levels of tension and relief without too much tasteless audience manipulation.

Title: The Walker
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: US
Score: 6.0
I couldn’t help being disappointed with “The Walker,” a slow-burning political thriller starring Woody Harrelson as a D.C. female escort cavorting with the rich and influential. Perhaps I was expecting more from Schrader, who was easily one of the biggest names in the festival. There was also something lacking in the conspicuously famous cast (Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Willem Defoe, Moritz Bleibtreu), all doing their best to seem infinitely cultured, effete and cagey.

Harrelson is Carter Page the Third, a name previously worn by a plantation owner and a prominent, well-liked politician. #3 is somewhat of a disappointment to, apparently, every other person in the film. Page squanders his good-breeding by being a professionally homosexual female companion who provides gossip, fashion advice and a fourth for Bridge. He’s quite satisfied with his well-funded lifestyle until the illicit partner of one of his highly-ranked clients is murdered. Page winds up taking the wrap and going on the offensive, trying not to get buried along with the truth.

Harrelson is surprisingly good in the serious and often demanding role, though he spends far too much time on his meticulous Southern drawl. He does it well, but half an hour in I was wishing he would drop the faux refinement. The whole cast suffers from essentially the same problem, when they’re not pretending to possess some earth-shaking secret (most of them are actually just as clueless as the protagonist). The level of hype the film creates around the presumed conspiracy is totally disproportionate with the somewhat mundane and noncommittal revelation of the truth. The shaky ambiguity doesn’t cover up for the writer’s poor plotting and half-baked villain. One particularly bad moment involves a CEO personally sabotaging Page’s car. Why didn’t he send a henchman? Where did he learn henchmen skills like car sabotagery and assassination?

Schrader makes up for the otherwise meh script with his dialogue, which is really what he cares about anyway.Far, far too much time is spent regurgitating Schrader’s pet theme of flawed men living in their father’s shadow, but that’s really the worst of it. On the up side, there are lots of memorably articulate, cynical quotes about the political system, paranoia and power.

The killer lines are timed to coincide with Schrader’s best shots, visual counterparts to the ubiquitous, ominous insinuations. The art direction features a color-coordinated veneer of civility, set off by satin, brass and ornate wood. It’s a little overdone, as is the flipside: Page’s gay bars and his boyfriend’s painfully “shocking” art loft.

Overall, this film is probably best left to the hardcore political thriller junkies. There is too little payoff, either in rousing surprises or artistic standouts, for the casual fans.

Title: Fine Dead Girls
Director: Dalibor Matanic
Country: Croatia
Score: 8.0
A pair of unassuming lesbians moves into a new apartment building and finds themselves harassed by their disparate, self-righteous neighbors (especially the nosey landlady) in this dark Croatian message film. The social critique comes from the way the tenants turn up the heat on Iva and Marija merely because they have a same-sex relationship, when each of the victimizers has secrets of their own. Sharing the same roof are such other outsiders as a jingoistic foreigner, a man who looks after his dead wife, a mentally challenged boy, a prostitute and an abortionist.

“Fine Dead Girls” works much like “Delicatessen,” taking a group of quirky eccentrics and forcing them to interact uncomfortably in cramped quarters. “Fine Dead Girls” is noticeably less outrageous, but substantially more barbed in its indictment of people’s petty prejudices. Though the building isn’t haunted, much of the film feels like a horror movie because of the constant confinement, rising intensity and the inescapable approach of a deadly breaking point. Sadly, the film also shares that genre’s somewhat throwaway character typing, but at least here they serve double-purpose as symbols of Croatia’s marginalized populations. Alone, their personalities would be too single-stroke to be actually interesting, but their interplay in nonetheless the riveting.

The central story has a nice tragic arc, but it helps that there are plenty of subplots, often merely glimpses into the lives of the lesser tenants. In particular, the film opens with the arrival of a mysterious priest who makes a deal with the prostitute as part of his own secret agenda and the film ends with a kidnap-plot epilogue.

The god’s-eye-view overhead camerawork, emphasizes the smallness of the squabbling tenants. In fact, much of the tone and atmosphere comes from the thoughtful camera placement, helping to offset the general low-budget, no-frills feel. One of the director’s strengths is an ability to skirt around the constraints, using the single location to great effect.


Mad Dog said...

Oooh, some interesting movies in this bunch. I gotta make a mental note of Persepolis.

FilmWalrus said...

I'm glad your interested. I think you will like it, though don't expect the graphic novelty to change the fact that it is an autobiographical coming-of-age story. Pretty solid filmmaking, with some crossover to a medium ripe for expansion. It comes out in theaters on Christmas, I think.

Not that "Fine Dead Girls" will ever, ever, ever get distribution, but I'd probably say it wouldn't be particularly worth your while.