Friday, February 08, 2008

Double feature: Cassandra's Dream & Persepolis

Am I writing up anything Japanese soon? No.

Then I guess this is as good a place to grumble about how I have no idea if I can get tickets to the Sox & A's games in Japan at the end of March. It's all overseas stuff, right? I'd really like to, but I can't find an English language site that makes it easy, or a Japanese site I can translate.

-- sigh --

Cassandra's Dream

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Woody Allen is a bitter old man, and has been for a while. As a young man, he looked at the world around him and laughed at the absurdity, but for the past decade or two his movies have all seemed to be about people being slapped down for daring to dream above their station. It's a bleak world-view, and Cassandra's Dream is the latest expression of it.

This year's poor fools are brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell); as the film opens, they're buying a boat that stretches their budget. Ian is smart but stuck managing the business of their father's restaurant due to Dad's ill health; Terry is a mechanic with a gambling problem. A run of good luck for Terry pays for the boat, but soon his luck changes. Ian, meanwhile, is misrepresenting himself to a pretty actress (Hayley Atwell). How can Terry get out of debt and Ian invest in the California resort he's planning? Well, they do have a rich uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who just happens to need a favor: If Martin Burns (Philip Davis) testifies in an investigation into Howard's business dealings, he'll be ruined. If only some desperate men could remove him.

That's not a bad story, and Cassandra's Dream isn't a bad movie. It's also not a very active movie; it spends a long first act setting up a situation where Ian and Terry need money and much of the rest on hand-wringing. A good chunk of the film's second half is Terry saying he doesn't feel good about this and Ian replying they have no choice, getting progressively louder and more insistent as the film continues. The mechanics of the story are rather straightforward, making for a rather mild thriller.

It does work better as a character piece. None of the characters are exactly complicated, but the cast pours everything they can into their roles. Colin Farrell makes for a likable working stiff; his Terry is a flawed character who manages to avoid becoming too much an object of pity or disdain. McGregor doesn't get to play quite so broad a range of emotions, but does convey the feeling of being trapped, if often in a box of his own making. Wilkinson's Howard is a more desperate devil than usually makes these deals, but he's pretty good; we believe he's vulnerable to Burns's accusations but also powerful enough to have Terry and Ian cowed. Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins are nice complements as Kate and Angela, the women in their lives. John Benfield and Clare Higgins are an appropriately abrasive team as their parents, who strongly disagree on the subject of Howard.

That's all to be expected; if Woody Allen has had one consistent skill over the years, it's getting good performances out of his cast. It's the writing that comes up short here. A trailer for this movie comes very close to telling the whole story, and as good as the cast is at making the characters feel like real people, they're real people whose trajectories are all too predictable. The details we see often aren't that interesting, either - when we see Terry lose at poker or Ian grow jealous of Angela, it's just what they do, rather than a case where the way they do it gives us some insight into their particular characters. And maybe I've grown too sensitive to (and not fond of) Allen's recently-recurrent theme of being happy with what you have and where you are, but he hammers it pretty incessantly.

None of this really makes Cassandra's Dream a bad movie, but it's far from an exceptional one. Woody Allen is in a rut, and I really wish he could get out of it.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with three other reviews


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

In recent years, Persepolis has been sliding into the spot that Maus used to occupy: The socially-relevant graphic novel that makes inroads into the mainstream and is used as an example of how the medium is good for more than just adolescent fantasies. Creator Majrane Satrapi has been given the chance to do the same thing with animation, and she's done quite the job of it.

The film is a memoir of Marjane's early life. She was a small child in Iran when the Shah was deposed, and although her liberal, intellectual family is initially optimistic when some political prisoners are released, things soon get worse under the Islamic government than they had been before. Eventually, her parents send Marjane to school in Europe, but she has trouble there, too. Eventually she returns to Iran, and though she mostly stays out of trouble, she still feels penned in by the limits on a woman's freedom there.

Fans of graphic fiction have long grumbled about how movie studios continually made things more difficult on themselves than necessary when they choose to adapt these works - why make so many changes when you can buy a complete set of storyboards for twenty bucks at the bookstore? Persepolis is a compelling argument in favor of that argument; this movie's images come straight from the printed page with Satrapi's clean, simple character designs intact. Though she shares screenplay and directorial credit with Vincent Paronnaud, it's a remarkably unfiltered adaptation.

It is an adaptation; part of what makes Persepolis such an enjoyable movie is how Satrapi and Paronnaud use movement so well. As a child, Marjane is a bundle of energy who loves Bruce Lee, and she zips about the screen, her eyes in motion even when the rest of her is standing still. The older Marjane is often stiff and slumped, moving slowly and in a straight line as she buckles under the pressure to conform. As much as the film's roots as a comic are obvious in its design, episodic structure, and frequent use of narration to span gaps in the narrative, it feels like a movie.

I adore the way Satrapi presents her child-self; even as the film contrasts the serious, dire doings in the adult world with her innocence, Marjane's not a cutesy, idealized kid. She's kind of a brat, actually, and just because she doesn't know the significance of what's going on around her doesn't mean she doesn't occasionally absorb the worst of it. Marjane starts out as a great cartoon character, with a great voice (provided by Gabrielle Lopes Benites) to match; that Satrapi and Paronnaud manage to adroitly grow her into more, while occasionally still finding a way for that impishness to emerge from the more elegant teenager and adult voiced by Chiara Mastroianni.

The movie divides clearly into three acts - childhood in Iran, adolescence in Europe, and womanhood back in Iran. I must admit to preferring the two in Iran; Marjane's father, mother, grandmother, and uncle Anouche are all delightful characters, and it's fascinating and tragic to watch them deal with life under the Shi'ite regime, expected to become different people practically overnight and forced to hide who they are. The European middle of the film does an interesting job of pointing out how the Western world can be not so much different as a mirror image - Marjane will feel compelled to discount her Persian identity and present herself as French, and the supposedly more sophisticated and intellectual people there will fail Marjane just as much as the zealots at home will - but it does lack any supporting characters who linger in our minds when they pass out of Marjane's life. In some ways, though, that just does a better job of making Marjane a stranger in a strange land, whether she's at home or abroad.

Persepolis probably could have been adapted as live action, but I'm glad it hasn't been. Satrapi can inject whimsy into a terrible situation because she and her partners can control every single thing we see on the screen. That kind of ability to handle every detail pays off in spades.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

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