dir. Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
An adaptation of the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a visually entrancing film. Drawn in big swaths of black and white and embellished with thin curls of cigarette smoke and cascades of jasmine flowers, the film reminds us that animation doesn't have to be Pixar glossy to work. The hand-drawn aesthetic of Persepolis is exactly right for a traumatic, political bildungsroman about growing up in revolutionary Iran.
Marjane is a little girl in late-'70s Tehran, who, having been thoroughly indoctrinated by her teachers, loves her grandmother and the Shah in almost equal measure. Her horrified parents and Communist uncle soon set her straight, and little Marjane learns that adults aren't always right. Then comes the Islamic revolution, heralding an Iran in which pop music and makeup can get you in serious trouble: Marjane promptly conceives a passion for Iron Maiden. Up until this point, Persepolis is awesome. But once Marjane leaves for Europe, the 95-minute running time starts to bear down and the story splinters into a series of vignettes. Still, it's worth it for the visuals.
As a side note, I know this was mainly a play for the best foreign language film Oscar—which stalled when the short list was released last week, minus Persepolis—but I'm thrilled that American audiences are able to see this film in the original French. The scene where the rebellious teen protagonist warbles "Eye of the Tiger" in broken English couldn't possibly be dubbed without sacrificing its outrageous charm. ANNIE WAGNER
Read Annie Wagner’s interview with Marjane Satrapi here.
Grace Is Gone
dir. James C. Strouse
It's John Cusack. He's sitting on the couch. He's just been told that his wife, the mother of his two daughters, was killed fighting in Iraq, and that he will be assigned a Casualty Assistant Officer. This should be a recipe for maximum sympathy. Then you notice cake makeup piled high on Cusack's face—especially thick and grotesque around the eyes. You aren't trying to be a jerk, but the impression hits hard: He's faking.
The whole movie is a fake, charming though it may be in the scenes that feature blissfully ignorant 8-year-old Dawn, played by Gracie Bednarczyk, who could be forgiven for not realizing she's in a sad movie. For the first 80 minutes, Dawn and her sister are not told that their mother is dead. Their father Stan (Cusack) takes them on a carpe-diem road trip that involves driving the girls getting their every wish granted (playhouse, ear piercing). It then climaxes in an exuberant day at the Florida theme park Enchanted Gardens.
Enchanted Gardens looks chintzy. Also chintzy: every room of the family home, fetishistically assembled in a series of unpopulated and depressing domestic landscapes. This is pitiable Red America, scream the filmmakers. Stan voted for Bush. He drives an American SUV with a yellow ribbon sticker on the back and works hourly at The Home Store.
More feature films should be about the everyday, regular-guy agonies of Iraq and Afghanistan. But this one is cowardly. When Stan finally tells the girls that their mother is dead, the sound fades out on the dialogue as the girls break down. If this film were intended as an allegory for—and an antidote to—our national denial, as some critics have suggested, then the movie would begin here, not end, with the volume up. JEN GRAVES
dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
The studiously insipid imagery, the ersatz "promise" rings—abstinence-only education was way past due for a camp takedown. What's brilliant about the vagina dentate–themed Teeth, which kicks off with an abstinence rally led by the dewy Dawn (Jess Weixler), is that the conventions of the horror genre put you temporarily on the side of the virginity hoarders. You want the pretty young blonde to go all the way, but, ugh, you really don't. Dawn believes that young women giveth something special to the first person they sleep with. At least in her case, though, the young woman taketh away. Cue the first in a series of graphically dismembered penises.
Dawn is a sincere yet charismatic teen who lives in the ominous shadow of a nuclear plant. At school, she's mocked by boys who know she spends her free time preaching chastity to adoring preteens. Finally, she meets a young man who seems different from all the rest. They go swimming near a notorious makeout spot, and he maneuvers her into a dank cave. He pushes her too far, and snap! The grossout comedy begins.
Before the cooter chomping starts in earnest, Teeth is fantastic—thanks mostly to the wide-eyed Weixler, who seems to set the just-this-side-of-earnest tone for the entire production. After the first severing, though, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein has to up the ante, and Dawn encounters more and more repellent—and less and less credible—sexual predators. Teeth quickly turns ridiculous, but it's all good clean fun. Bring the boyfriend! ANNIE WAGNER
How She Move
dir. Ian Iqbal Rashid
Step was originally developed by and is still strongly associated with black fraternities and sororities—so at first it's a little weird to see the dance form used as a signifier for the authenticity of the projects. Raya (Rutina Wesley) attends the fancy Seaton Academy, but when her junkie sister dies, her immigrant parents can't afford to keep her there. So she slinks back home to Toronto's Jane and Finch corridor, where she clashes with a childhood friend (Tre Armstrong), who promptly challenges her to a step-off. Raya slowly regains the trust of her peers and attracts the attention of a hottie with a gap between his teeth—all the while studying up for a big scholarship exam.
The only reason to watch How She Move is the elaborate, thrilling dance routines at the climactic competition. The plot stutters badly and the screenplay doesn't try very hard to develop the characters, but there are a few saving graces. Canadian-Caribbean accents make the standard culture-clash storyline feel almost novel. And Raya's mother may be there just to hold Raya back and then suddenly and inexplicably relent, but the slight, sympathetic Melanie Nicholls-King makes that formula seem somehow sweet. ANNIE WAGNER