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TIFF '07 - Day Two: Here Come the Terrorists!

So far, in my three days here, I have seem some crazy stuff go down in Toronto at the film festival: I sat next to Marilyn Manson (at the world premiere of In Bloom), I saw literally every inch of Viggo Mortensen’s naked body thanks to David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (which has nothing at all to do with the stellar review I plan on giving it), and then I saw a bicyclist get hit by one of the city’s hundreds of scary taxi drivers (he is fine, don’t worry!). Then a woman that I am pretty sure was a prostitute or a stripper (maybe both) told me that I didn’t “sound like an American” while we were both waiting on a shady corner for a streetcar. Is it weird that I took it as a compliment?

Oh, and I have now seen ten films in three days. In the theater. This would be overwhelming for even the most hardcore festival fan, with or without seeing Viggo’s religion. More on that (and the flat-out brilliance of Eastern Promises) tomorrow, though; along with some insights into Helen Hunt’s surprisingly assured directorial debut Then She Found Me, the hopelessly mediocre The Jane Austen Book Club, and Vadim Perelman’s curious, strong In Bloom, starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood.

For now, let’s do a little globe-trotting over to the Middle East:

Persepolis (dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrap, 2007)

Co-directors Vincent Paronnaud and artist Marjane Satrapi deliver the goods with this hand-drawn adaptation of Satrapi’s spectacular autobiographical graphic novels. Persepolis is like no other animated film I have seen: it is fiercely intelligent, provocative, and devastatingly funny.

At a crucial moment towards the end of the film, the character of Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) has a bit of a breakdown over the way Westerners perceive her: as some sort of murderous, vacant savage. Through its entirety, the film continually raises questions about the phobias people have towards matters they know nothing about. It dares to suggest that these fears are often based largely on what they are learning from a media spinning out of control horror stories about Iranian people. What Satrapi implores viewers to do is to learn some of the real stories.

In telling this story, the author turned director is able to tell the stories of many other fallen countrymen who gave their lives for what they believed in; in addition to inviting the audience to see what war is like through the eyes of a young, rebellious woman growing up with it every day.

From the very second the sumptuous black and white opening sequence begins to roll, the moving images mirror (but don’t replicate) the graphic novel’s smart sensibilities beautifully –- in being able to use movement, Satrapi’s once flat renderings leap to full-blooded glory.

The young Marjane says to her Grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) that under her (non-existent) authority “old women won’t suffer”; and it is her intuition that something big is about to happen combined with her precocious, lofty ideals that make her so endearing as a character. Satrapi is also able to make a statement with this part of the film, essentially saying that children are much more perceptive of things going on in the world than they are usually given credit for; especially during times of war and of violence. Sometimes parents (perhaps rightfully) try to keep them a bit too sheltered, but in her case, this first-hand experience has translated into vital contemporary art.

Satrapi makes it clear from the get-go that the film and the graphic novels are two separate entities. There are stunning, simple details scattered throughout each frame of the film that could only be imagined on the page. Architecture, menacing shadows, and landscapes all twist and wiggle around magically in the clean black, white, and gray tone on tone motif.

The film succeeds on two distinct levels: as a literary adaptation and as an accomplishment in the field of animation. There is no shying away from violence here as the Islamic Revolution begins in Teheran and Iraq begins to bomb them –- in particular the scenes of warfare are stunningly realized with white flashes and blurs that stand in for mortar fire and explosions providing a stark contrast to the inky black landscape.

Then, the film disarms its viewers again with a funny, almost absurd scene where Marjane and her grandmother sit at the movies, watching Godzilla, and the old woman makes the young girl cover her eyes during a grisly scene with the monster –- even though she sees violence and gore daily in her reality.

Persepolis is a brave, fresh look at one woman’s cultural hybridity. Satrapi is a true revolutionary and artist and her groundbreaking graphic novel is the first that can be officially credited as the first ever produced by an Iranian. Satrapi challenges, toys with, and finally shreds any misconceptions her readers may have had about women of Middle Eastern descent, in particular Iranian women.

Satrapi portrays herself (and other female Iranian characters) in diverse, stereotype-challenging ways: some refuse to wear the hijab (the traditional Muslim head covering that was mandated for all women by the religious regime), some drink wine and smoke cigarettes with men (!), others (like Satrapi) crack wise in the face of extreme adversity and danger.

In a time where many Americans still believe that women of Middle Eastern backgrounds are mere puppets controlled by aggressive men, Satrapi dares to explore this particularly untrue sentiment with an authority and a candor that few possess: as a woman who has lived in Iran during two regimes (one authoritarian and anti-female, the other slightly more relaxed and progressive), who was also formally educated in Vienna and calls Paris home, Satrapi is a unique blend of east and west.

Her attitudes towards the hijab are just as bold as her writing, and she avoids the choosing of political or religious sides wisely. Ever the cheerleader for exploring individualism, these stances are born of a true punk aesthetic that celebrates revolt against authority in general.

Rendition (dir. Gavin Hood, 2007)

Rendition

Immediately, director Gavin Hood (an Oscar winner for Tsotsi) sets Rendition up for failure by borrowing a little bit too shamelessly from the many better films it wants so desperately to be.

You’ll see a little bit of Traffic in there, a whole lot of Syriana, every cool camera angle Fernando Meirelles has used, and more than a dash of the television show 24. Point is, we’ve all seen this story told before, in more imaginative ways, the only thing that separates this one from the pack is a hoity-toity pedigree: Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Alan Arkin, and Peter Sarsgaard all speak in important hushed tones with clenched jaws and a far away look in their eyes. This is the kind of acting that is both obvious and disappointing when you consider what these performers have accomplished in the past roles.

The multiple characters, and multiple storylines, and the overall disorienting editing of the picture (combined with an overbearing score) starts off disorganized and doesn’t recover until the film’s final ten minutes. Structurally, this is a mess. In trying to weave together so many ideas and half-baked liberal sentiments into one mediocre film, Hood falters.

First we meet Isabella (Witherspoon), a Midwestern, perky soccer mom type (someone is a casting genius with this one!) who is waiting for her Egyptian born husband Anwar (Omar Metwally) to come home from a business trip in South Africa.

Quickly after this, we meet Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal) in an unnamed Muslim country working for the CIA in the midst of a suicide bombing attack on a town square. Freeman is a bit of an alcoholic ladies man who is too cool for school in his shiny aviators with his perfect stubble. It seems that with each role since he played gay in Brokeback Mountain the actor keeps on distancing himself from sensitive guy parts while trying to keep up some sort of ridiculous action hero posturing (which makes me long for the salad days of his sweet work in Donnie Darko). We get it, Jake, you are heterosexual!

The American government has decided that Anwar will be blamed for the bombing (because all scientists who aren’t white are apparently fare game after 9/11), and takes him immediately into custody, and into an interrogation room. As referenced in the title, “rendition” refers to the extraordinary circumstances in which the government can take a suspected terrorist into custody with no real evidence.

Fast-forward a few more frames and you get the darty Corrine (Streep, fidgety as ever, rehashing her role in The Manchurian Candidate), a grizzled CIA dragon lady with a decidedly off-kilter sense of the word patriotism.

Luckily for Isabella, she went to college with an employee (Sarsgaard) of a powerful senator (Arkin) who has ties to the even more powerful Corrine – who gives the “ok” for Anwar to be tortured; even though she insists it is a mere “exchange of information”.

There is another subplot that involves a character known as “Fawal”, a high ranking government officer, and his family, but not one source I checked listed the names for any of the Middle Eastern actors in this integral sequence, which is a damn shame because they give the best performances in the film. “Fawal”s daughter runs away with her boyfriend, who unbeknownst to everyone is training for Jihad and is in cahoots with some really nasty terrorists who want her papa dead.

Just because you get a boat load of Hollywood talent and a topic that may be perceived as “politically hot” does not mean your film will be good. Each actor has a good moment, but there are no fully-formed characters -- aside from the man who plays “Fawal”, and maybe a little bit from Witherspoon (in an unusual follow-up to her Oscar win for Walk the Line) and Streep, who can wring a character’s nuance out of thin air at this point. Gyllenhaal is especially wasted in such a thinly-written, uninteresting part.

Rendition wants to be really important and wield its pedigree like a mighty axe, but it barely passes for entertaining. This is the kind of filmmaking that makes Hollywood feel better about themselves but really accomplishes nothing except a lot of self-congratulating. Why make something woefully mediocre when you have the chance to do something innovative? In this respect, Rendition comes off like a global version of the disastrous 2005 release Crash, and that is not a compliment.

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