Saturday, September 28, 2013

Film Review : Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis weaves a rich tapestry of family stories and personal angst against the backdrop of war-torn Iran. In a genre dominated by 3D animation powerhouses like Shrek and Toy Story, Marjane Satrapi’s deliberate choice of a low-tech animation techniques and a mostly black-and-white execution allows the human story to unfold.

The result of a collaboration between Satrapi and her creative partner, Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels by the same name.The story opens on a depiction of Satrapi’s halcyon youth. The only child of radical parents, she blossomed in a home environment that was sociable and relaxed. Occasionally stories of persecution and torture at the hands of the ruling regime at the time would intrude on this enviable private life, but were dismissed in the belief that the repressive regime was only temporary. Soon the individual incidents of repression (and public opposition to the acts) snowball into the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Iranian society undergoes massive change – the new laws and watchful eyes of the citizen ‘Guardians of the Revolution’ become so invasive that the Satrapi family’s radical behaviour at home starts to collide with public expectations. Satrapi’s independence and forthrightness, encouraged by her radical parents and grandmother pre-revolution, sees her expelled from numerous schools in Tehran. Her parents, concerned for her safety, send her to attend high school in Vienna.

In Vienna Satrapi tries to assimilate but is caught in the crossfire between Iranian and Western cultures. She makes friends, but misses the intimacy of her family and is betrayed by her first love. She can’t find a stable home and moves through a series of beds and houses, eventually ending up on the street. Despite her objections to the oppressive public regime at home, she returns to Iran to be with her family. She readjusts to Iranian culture and gets married, and is exposed to an entirely new set of problems.

Iranian-born Satrapi wrote and drew Persepolis as a way of processing her identity as an Iranian woman, to write a love letter to her family and to reconcile the dichotomy of the public and private lives in which she grew up. She also wanted to humanise the monoculture stereotype that the media perpetuates about Iran. On her Persepolis website she writes ‘If Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, terrorists or the ‘Axis of Evil’, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something.’

Technically Satrapi opted for traditional hand-drawn animation techniques because she felt that using modern 3D techniques would bring a mechanical, automated feel to what is a story about people – their feelings, faults and dreams. The simplified style allows the audience to focus on the story rather than being distracted by constructed and detailed scenes. Televised depictions of conflict end to sensationalise the events, but in Persepolis it is the lack of sensationalism that allows the human narrative to be told.

Stylistically Persepolis takes cues from the post-war film schools of Italian neo-realism and German expressionism with simple interior sets and candid street scenes. As an artist, first in Iran and later in Paris, Satrapi became obsessed with the German and Italian films and felt that they depicted the sense of hope felt by people who had lived through war.

Persepolis’ message changed with the adaptation of the original text to film. The internationally-awarded film takes Satrapi’s tender narrative to a global stage, with Hollywood actors like Sean Penn and Iggy Pop contributing as voice-overs in the US version. While the graphic novel was the work of Satrapi alone, the film is a collaboration, translating the original text into one that is more internationally palatable.
In the animated work, key events in Satrapi’s emotional history are condensed in the interests of keeping the narrative moving at the pace at which a film audience expects. Her emotional response to the stories she heard of family friends being tortured and killed is trivialized in the film by depicting her direct translation of the stories into playground games, bypassing Satrapi’s intense emotional response that is shown in the graphic novel. As a medium that requires a two-way dialogue, the graphic novel treats both the author and reader’s emotional responses with respect. The animation, for all its motion and speed, operates emotionally much like a still photograph - a snapshot of her reactions, depicting highlights or main events but little of the feeling that gives the graphic novel such rich texture.  

Satrapi’s goal in the creation of Persepolis, as both a graphic novel then a film, was to dilute the mono-culture stereotype of modern Iran. Both texts achieve this, but take the audience on different journeys. Persepolis feels like such a big story that while the film skims the surface, the novel takes us well and truly behind the veil.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Film review: Life Lessons (1989)

Scorsese sets the scene with a rocking soundtrack lead by ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and puts us in the mood to stay up late, drink lots of whisky and smoke until our fingers turn yellow. Welcome to the paint-splattered world of Life Lessons.

One of three short stories told in the 1989 film ‘New York Stories’, Life Lessons immerses us in the world of an artist riding high on the adrenalin of the eleventh hour with just three weeks to go until his exhibition opens. 

Nick Nolte is superbly cast as Lionel Dobie, a tortured if successful, middle-aged painter. Rosanna Arquette plays Paulette – a precocious, 22 year old, aspiring artist who looks for her future in Lionel’s bed and his warehouse loft. The two fight to lead the sexual agenda against a backdrop of 1980’s New York, a landscape of shoulder pads, cocktails in martini glasses and performance art spaces in disused railway tunnels.

Fans of Steve Buscemi will find it a treat to see the bug-eyed, buck-toothed actor playing a floppy-haired cad who makes a game of Paulette’s affections and enrages Dobie.

The drama centres around a power play. Lionel tells Paulette “I indulge in love and I indulge in my stuff and they feed off each other”. He unapologetically uses his angst-ridden and frustrated relationship with her as fuel for his messy and Pollock-inspired masterpieces. She uses him for free rent and, hopefully, lessons in art. She begs for his advice, mewling ‘Am I any good? Will I ever be any good?’ but she never picks up a paintbrush in the time this drama plays out. Paulette wallows in self-doubt while Lionel ploughs through it.

Lionel persists with equal vigour in both his quest for Paulette and his creative work. At one point Scorsese focuses on Nolte looking up at an object, a potent, unwavering gaze, filled with lust and a calm, formidable energy. We don’t know whether he’s looking at his artwork or his muse. 

In one of his ‘life lesson’ lectures, Lionel tells Paulette that he is a lion – a metaphor also suggested by his rough, greying beard and mane of silvering blonde hair. His behaviour echoes that of the savannah cat – capable of gentleness, or cunning and in equal turns fiercely territorial and utterly vicious. He holds his prey in his gaze and the future of the frolicking, long-legged Paulette is as unclear to the audience as it is to her.

Scorsese captures the panic and confusion of the young Paulette as she tries to make sense of her situation and Lionel's life lessons. We feel empathy for her search for truth, but also frustration that she can’t see what the audience can.

The story is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. The femme fatales in both stories challenge their heroes to childish and potentially dangerous dares in order to prove their love. The Gambler story also extends into the plot of Life Lessons – both pieces follow a hero’s quest to secure the object of his affections. Both stories unfold amongst the upper class of society – the New York art scene no less depraved than the Russian aristocracy.

The influence of The Gambler in Life Lessons is not only evident in the driving themes of sex and compulsive gambling, but also in key scenes which serve to drive the narrative forward. Paulette dares Lionel to kiss a policeman, Dostoyevsky’s Polina asks Alexei to insult a baroness. The Russian protagonist fixates inappropriately on his lover’s foot, Lionel fetishises the gold-chained ankle of his modern-day muse – tilting the power balance even further out of his control. Screenwriter Richard Price drew inspiration not only from the 1972 translation of the original Dostoyevsky text, but also from the accompanying diary of Dostoyevsky’s lover, Polina Suslova that included a short story ‘The Stranger and her Lover’. It was this edition of the Russian classic that compelled Scorsese to interpret the friction between the lovers.

In signature Scorsese-style the music soundtrack is another character within the film. Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ accompanies Dobie’s energetic painting sessions. Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ opens, closes and plays at intervals in Life Lessons, while ‘Conquistador’ is the hidden narrator to pivotal scenes of sexual conquest and macho showdowns. The choice of songs by artists who were at their most popular in the year that Paulette was born places the ownership of the narrative unequivocally in Dobie’s court.

It’s not clear until the closing scene whether Lionel is the teacher or the student, but in telling his story Scorsese reminds the audience that the game of love and passion are always a gamble.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Film Review : Now You See Me (2013)


A magician’s audience can choose between two options. Either suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. Or try to outwit the smartest guy in the room. My money is on the first option that requires you not to think too much – and it seems that’s what the makers of Now You See Me are banking on.

Now You See Me is an elaborate chase caper spanning New York, Las Vegas and New Orleans. Four magicians (Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg) lead an FBI Agent (Mark Ruffalo) and his Interpol offsider (Mélanie Laurent) through a maze of stadium-scale magic tricks which involve Robin Hood-style theft from banks, giving to the needy and climaxing each time in a shower of paper currency. Their exploits are funded by an indulgent patron (Michael Caine) and followed by a TV exposé producer (Morgan Freeman).

The magicians are inappropriately titled ‘The Four Horseman’ – a name that might work well on promotional flyers but falls flat when no apocalypse is forthcoming. What is most disappointing about Now You See Me is that it promises magic, yet delivers none.

Stereotypes abound. Charming french Interpol agent, Alma Dray (Laurent), is bound up in her beige-coloured, spy-cliché trench coat for much of the action. She even wears Chanel-inspired stripes on her days off. Trés Chic.

The combined talents of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are assigned to small roles which amount to glorified cameo appearances. It feels very much that they were brought in to broaden the appeal of Now You See Me to an older audience at the box office.

It’s a visual pleasure to see the attractive ‘four horseman’ outwit their pursuers against the sequinned backdrop of stage-show magic. Unfortunately it’s all glitter and no substance.

Dialogue like ‘Time is a luxury I don’t have right now’ barked by Ruffalo, fills the script with clichéd cop-talk typical of any cat and mouse-type chase tale.

Overall Now You See Me has an arrogant street magician’s tone. The condescending catch-phrase ‘The closer you look, the less you see’, plastered over the promotional posters and sprinkled partonisingly into the dialogue, infers that the clues are obvious. When the twist is revealed it feels more like an unwanted Christmas gift than a bolt of enlightenment.

The story itself would be better suited to a graphic novel where the characters and themes could be more deeply explored. However, a graphic novel won’t help sell candy bar treats to packed movie-houses on a Friday night. The absence of gore, sex scenes or genuine intrigue make Now You See Me a perfectly inoffensive ‘date night’ film. I suspect that was the filmmaker’s intent all along.