Persepolis (2007): A Masterpiece on Revolution, Family and Identity

Persepolis Poster

“Persepolis” is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. It captures Marjane Satrapi’s experiences of the Revolution in Iran and growing up abroad so powerfully while at the same time remaining a powerful story. The film is not as good as the graphic novel, which might have been due to time constraints, but it does captures the essence and the major arcs really well, as well as the important characters who were a part of Marjane’s life. Suffice to say, I really liked this film and will explain in more detail further down. The film itself is a French-Iranian animated film that takes inspiration and story from the Graphic Novel of the same name.

“Persepolis” was directed by Marjane Satrapi who also co-wrote the screenplay and of course the original novel. The other director was Vincent Parannaud who also co-wrote the screenplay. The producers were Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antione Robert and Kathleen Kennedy.

The story begins with an older Marjane waiting at the airport and remembering her childhood in Iran.  From here we have a flashback and see young Marjane’s childhood as the Revolution is occurring in Iran to overthrow the Shah. From here the story unfolds as her family is filled with hope and promise that soon turns to fear when the religious take over and begin instituting harsh laws. The story follows the rebellious Marjane and her story in Iran and her reasons for leaving and later returning. r

The Pros: The Premise – Marjane’s story is fascinating at it covers a country in transition (Iran during the Shah and after under the Ayatollah) and it’s from the perspective of a little girl all the way to adulthood. From this we get the experience of a new view of the west from her time in Austria and also of Iran after she returns as an adult. There is so much here that is amazing, just like the graphic novel and most of it exists in the premise, her story and autobiography.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is minimalist and is all the stronger for it as emotions are conveyed in perfect timing as the music matches up with the animation. Olivier Bernet is fantastic!

The Animation – The animation is all hand drawn and is some of the best animation I have ever seen. It looks like the graphic novel while still holding a unique style all it’s own. Even if the story wasn’t as great as it is, I would recommend this movie for the soundtrack and art alone.  Je Suis Bein Content, Pumpkin 3D and what they created in Perseprod Studio, who was behind the animation.

Revolution – We see prisoners freed at the fall of the Shah and the hope for a new tomorrow, and also the rise of the Ayatollah and how the revolution is lost in how a new oppressive regime arises. It’s powerfully executed through Marjane and her family’s eyes.

The Iran-Iraq War – We see the cost of war in this as Marjane returns to her old home and sees a hand of a person crushed beneath and building, the building her parents could have been in. The human cost is a constant reminder in this, from a childhood friend who lost the use of his arm and leg, to the fear of trying to change the current regime because the country is tired of war and fighting. War breaks people and nations. We also see the corruption of the Western nations who funded both sides in the conflict.

The Characters – Most of the named characters, especially Marjane’s family members have fascinating back-stories and characterizations. I’ll get into the reasons why next.

God – The best minor character who isn’t a family member is God who is portrayed as a great bearded man who talks to Marjane as Marjane is his prophet. He is a very Deistic God as he points out that the sufferings that were caused were humanity and not him. In that way he is there to comfort but never to do anything, beyond sending Marjane back from depression to face the world.

Uncle Anouche – Uncle Anouche is the communist who was arrested by the Shah when he tried to return to see his family again after hiding in the Soviet Union. He was in prison and tortured for 9 years and after being freed connects with Marjane and gives her hope of the world that could be. He’s the idealist which makes the rise of the Ayatollah and loss of an actual Republic all the sadder as he tries to justify it as “The common folk need religion, they’ll come around, this regime won’t be corrupt.” Only to find himself executed later. He represents the loss of freedom best as he was the one who was always struggling for it. Iggy Pop played him in the English version of the film and did a good job in the role. In the story he is the reminder of the work still to be done and the willingness to stand up to tyranny for liberty and freedom, which Marjane does on a few occasions.

Father – Sean Penn voices the Father, who at the core is the man also hoping for a brighter future, but also aware of the past and how his ancestor was executed for being a rival to the Shah before the British put the Shah in power. The Father is aware of both his own nation’s corruption and how the west has been a part of it…whether providing weapons to Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War or hoisting up the Shah. It is thanks to him that Marjane has skepticism in Europe, which is healthy. One of the themes is to always doubt and question.

Mother – Mother is voiced by Catherine Deneuve and is the voice of practicality. For her there isn’t’ time to resist oppression. The most a person can do is put their head down and get out if they can and have a chance to live elsewhere. She doesn’t like the status quo but feels powerless to stop it as she has lost family to both the Shah and the Ayatollah. This keeps her with so much sadness and why at the end she asks Marjane to leave Iran and never return until they are free. Her story is one of tragedy that she never truly gets to be with her daughter for any extended period of time, thanks to the oppression that she experiences.

Grandmother – Grandmother is one of the best characters in the film. She’s been divorced and remarried and expresses her perspective no matter who it may turn others off. She calls out Marjane for throwing a stranger under the bus so the police wouldn’t do anything to her, she reminds Marjane to stay true to herself and to live with integrity and she supports Marjane’s childhood dream of being a Prophet of God. She is one of the most revolutionary characters because she lost her husband to the Shah and about as far from Fundamentalist Muslim as you can get. She drinks, she has fun and she speaks truth to power. I completely get why Marjane idealizes her and I think she is a character worthy of that. The film ends with her death, again showing the tragedy and how oppression kept her from her hero and that in Grandmother’s lifetime she was never able to live in a free country. Gena Rowlands is fantastic!

Marjane – This is Marjane’s story and it is powerful as it explores all of her struggles. From her experiencing the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the Shah, to the rise of the Ayatollah’s fundamentalist religious regime and all the religious laws that were brought about to her experience in Europe where she lost her homes because of how she resisted and because of how lost she was in trying to find her identity as an Iranian and also as someone who had spent so much time growing up outside of Iran without her parents. “Persepolis” is her answer to that and in it we see first hand her finding and accepting all the different parts of her identity and in turn becoming whole even after losing her home (Iran), family and husband in a divorce. She is able to accept herself and grow and the film shows this beautifully. Chiara Mastroianni does a wonderful job as grown up Marjane while Amethyste Frezignac does a great job as her childhood self.

The Messages – The Messages are powerful in this film, just like the Graphic novel, with the strongest being “Be true to yourself.” There are also the themes of “Remember where you came from,” and that oppression everywhere is unjust.

Marjane leaves Iran again because Iran is not free and her parents are still trapped there at the end, but want her to go after everyone she has lost to the oppressive regime. This sadness is a call for reform…the ending has a broken people waiting for change who are tired of the fighting after the Iran-Iraq war and all the political dissidents the Ayatollah’s Regime has killed. No excuses are made for tyranny ever…whether it’s the Shah or the Ayatollah, the forms of oppression as witnessed through Marjane’s eyes are obvious and stark. Another theme is to always doubt and questions which Uncle Anouche died doing until the end.

This ties into the theme of resistance which we see Marjane do on multiple occasions…from the Hijab being a double standard since guys can where whatever they want, to the nuns who got on her case for eating alone or her European classmates gossiping about her behind her back and her calling them out. Resistance is a huge theme of this film.

Okay: The Punks – They are all nihilists and we don’t get to know them like we do in the graphic novel. One of them was also from the Middle East and she never made an appearance leaving only the Western Punks who just hang around and are there to show that apathy is pointless since that is all they are.

The Boyfriends and Husband – The boyfriends and husbands don’t really get explored. They are moments pretty much but we mostly see her reaction to things not working, we don’t get to know them as characters like in the novel.

The Cons: Things Left Out and New Additions – Biggest issue was how some character stories were left out and some reactions to breakups went on a little long.

The animation style is beautiful and dreamlike and the soundtrack contributes to that. I completely get why it was nominated for an Academy Award. This is a film that is timeless and shows such a rich perspective on identity, integrity, justice, war, oppression and family. All these are a part of Marjane and her experiences and she tells her story so beautifully here, even if it isn’t done as well as the Graphic Novel, which you should read by the way. Also, see this film too. Chances are you will learn so much watching this and experience a beautiful story with some of the best music and animation in any film.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10. Not perfect but a favorite by far.

Robot & Frank (2012): In Losing Finding Gain

 

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“Robot & Frank” was a meditative, powerful and touching film. It reminded me of “Big Hero 6” and “Up” (Two of my favorite animated films) in it’s themes and there were character arcs that took place. Not to mention it had a pretty amazing soundtrack. I’ll get into the details of what I mean on all of this in the assessment, but to suffice to say I was very impressed with this film.

The film was directed by Jake Shreier, written by Christopher D. Ford and produced by Lance Acord, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman-Bisbee and Galt Niederhoffer.

The premise is Frank (Frank Langella) is an ex-convicted thief suffering from dementia who is isolated from his family trying to live. His life is shaken up when his son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a robot who is designed to care for his well being. From here things unfold as the robot is able to steal which leads Frank to exploiting that fact as he finds his memory returning. This leads to trouble though as his family is still worried for him and the consequences of his actions past and present come forward. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The soundtrack – Francis and the Lights are amazing! There is a “Postal Service” feel to them and it adds a sense of wonder and intensity to the soundtrack as well as contributing to the reflective feel of the film. I definitely plan on checking more of their things out.

Madison – Liv Tyler plays Frank’s daughter in a minor role and she does a great job. She is away for most of it and only comes back when she feels things have gotten so bad with Frank and wants to be a part of her life. You get why she is the way she is given Frank wasn’t a good father. He was in prison for a lot of it and was the tough distant guy and still was for most of his time too. His was denial so her story was the quest for connection. We see her traveling all over the world when she’s talking to Frank and she’s part of a movement that objects to the use of robots (seeing them as slaves). Frank and his time with her and attachment to the robot proves her wrong though as she realizes how much it was helping him. He eventually pushes her away too but she returns after he finally gets help for his dementia.

Hunter – Hunter is the concerned son who went to Princeton and does everything not to be his father. He is a devoted dad who does things for his kids and does things for his father too. He’s the caregiver where Madison was more focused on herself. He finally speaks up at the end and calls out Frank for using him which is part of what forces Frank to make the choice in the end to get help. He is the most active person in the narrative besides Robot. James Marsden does fantastic!

Robot – Robot is like Baymax, he doesn’t have a soul or any sense of self. It has a function that it fulfills and seeks to fulfill it’s programming. The programming, like Baymax in “Big Hero 6” is to help Frank heal. It does this by helping him in heists initially which has consequences later as his memory gets erased in order to protect Frank from being found out by the cops. It’s a powerful scene as to Frank, Robot is a person while Robot does not see itself as one. This sadness is touching too as you see Frank looking at robots in the “Brain Center” with sadness because he knows his robot and the adventures with it are gone and he’ll never have another one again because of his questionable use of it.

Frank – Frank Langella is great as Frank the grizzled, apathetic ex-con who has a good heart. We see that when he does get back into robbing it’s to impress Jennifer the librarian and to screw over the people who were digitizing all the books. We also see him open up to her after Robot helps him be comfortable and heal, making his mind sharp. Sadly in his mind getting sharper he just pushes his kids away more and his actions as a thief risk losing any possibility of a relationship with Jennifer he discovers…and they do have the final consequence in the end where he has to wipe the memory of his friend Robot so he doesn’t go back to prison. This is sad as he loses his friend who had helped him heal…though it helps him gain his family again (Jennifer was his wife) even as he continues to lose his mind.

Jennifer – Susan Sarandon plays the librarian who we learn is Frank’s ex-wife. She is a great character as we learned she stayed with him until he’d completely forgotten her. He is able to remember her though after his adventures with robot. We see her mostly as trying to deal with the changing system of everything becoming digital and her assistant being a robot named Mr. Darcy. We don’t learn as much about her as I would have liked but she’s real to the fakeness around her…and the twist about her being Frank’s ex-wife and her still loving him is powerful.

Identity and Artificial Intelligence – Robot puts it pretty well when he expresses Frank is aware he exists and his thoughts but Robot only knows his programming and is aware that he was created and isn’t attached to it…in this identity is tied to the ego and investment in the self and caring about things. Robot only cares about what he’s programmed to care about and for this reason it is much harder for Frank to wipe his memory even though Robot wants him too so he will not suffer since he was designed so Frank would not suffer and be ill. Baymax in “Big Hero 6” is very similar as he also only follows his programming and does not have a self or identity beyond what he’s programmed to do in service to others. This view of robots I think is probably more realistic though maybe at some point humans will invent consciousness in Artificial Life, of course there are some sci. fi. films that deal with this, but that will be for another Sci. Fi. week.

Okay: The Police – The detective tries to be interesting but he isn’t as he in the end is just playing Frank to try and make him reveal where the things are. This was a shame as I wish we saw more of Frank’s relationship to them (be it disgust, or anything else) given his history with them.

The Cons: Jake – He is the hipster techie advancing the library to the digital age. The guy is an ass to everyone he meets, even his wife and there is nothing redeemable about this character. I disliked that given he could have been used as a foil and contrast to Frank, but instead we just a get a blanket buffoon who is mean to everyone.

This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites! How it handles Artificial Intelligence and the near future is believable and it has compelling characters (all of the main cast) as well as having a fantastic character arc for Frank and giving Robot a great approach to everything. We humanize Robot just like Frank does which gives consequences to everything Frank does…we understand why Frank stops and is sad about wiping Robot’s memory because we’ve come to care about Robot too. Robot doesn’t care though, which in a way makes it all the sadder..especially since it mirrors Frank’s loss of memory and him losing the life the people he loves has lead and only remembers their pasts. I highly recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. A little slow and the villain is uninteresting but still an extremely solid and amazing film. One of the best that explores the concept of Artificial Intelligence.

Birdman (2014): A Surreal Exploration of Meaning and Ego

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      I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of good and okay movies over Thanksgiving Week. Out of all those movies, “Birdman” wins hands down. It will probably be in my end of year Top 5 list, but we’ll see. December still lies ahead and there were some films that I saw before reviewing the blog that will be major competitors.

   “Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also was one of the producers and writers. The other writers were Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo and the other producers were John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W. Skotchdopole.

      The premise is Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an aging actor famous only for being Birdman trying to make it big on Broadway and be relevant again. From here the story unfolds as he wrestles with situations, his ego and characters and his possible magic powers as well as the character of Birdman who pressures him into actions. From here the story unfolds as things become undone. From here the story unfolds.

The review does contain SPOILERS.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack –  The music for this movie has a life of it’s own. There is a snare drum (and you see the drummer) at different points during the film and it does a good job of giving New York City life and creating tension. It makes everything organic and tense and draws you into the scene at hand.

Lesley – Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a character who has been working all her life to get on Broadway and is roommates with the selfish method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), when he attempts to rape her on stage she fights back and has her dreams come crashing down as the one who had helped her get to where she was betrayed her and didn’t own up to it. After she connects with Laura (Riggin’s girlfriend) and they share a kiss and appreciate each other as Laura reaches out on how Riggin had never showed the appreciation for her performances the way he did for Lesley. After she sets the boundaries with Mike she is a rock throughout the rest of the film and is able to comfort Riggin when he loses it after another bad Preview before opening night.

Jake – This is the best role I have seen Zach Galifianakis play. His character is driven and does all he can to pull the play together…from hiring Mike and doing what Mike wants no matter how outrageous and finding the money for different things the play needs…no matter how tight it gets. He comes through and his darker side is only revealed when he lies to Riggan to keep him afloat telling him they were sold out and that famous people showed up tonight to cast for movies and when he is celebrating the show’s success even though his best friend just shot off his nose and he hasn’t checked into his friend’s mental state. He was compelling to watch though.

Sylvia – Amy Ryan plays Sylvia…Riggan’s ex-Wife who he cheated on. Post divorce she is the only person he is honest with and opens up about Birdman being in his head pressuring him to do certain things. She listens to him but keeps him grounded and it looks like they are able to resolve things as he shows he cares and has learned and it happens organically too as she’s the adult in the room and he’s the one growing past his ego.

Sam – Sam is Riggan’ daughter and is played by Emma Stone. She plays a young woman out of rehab and she plays the part well. From the apathy and skeletalness, to using what she learned there (marking a napkin with dashes to represent time) she is there for her dad and admits he wasn’t a bad father after she talks to Mike about he was never there and realizes he wasn’t bad. She makes him relevant again and uses the popularity he receives on youtube after he gets caught outside the theatre in his underwear to boost him to relevant again as at the end she’s the one running his social media sites. They are friends at the end and she knows he found freedom as when she goes into the empty room and looks outside, she smiles.

Mike – Edward Norton plays a prick who is only real when he’s on stage and being someone else. We see this in how he plays a critic talking poetry and meaning…but than bashes everyone and during Truth or Dare has Sam spit on a bald guy’s head…as well as when he tries to rape his friend. I didn’t like this character. He was complex but he doesn’t even compare to Riggan in regards to how good he is. He is driven by ego, jealousy and want above all else. He only really cares about people after Riggan calls him out and fights him and after he loses Lesley. That is when he begins to learn and see beyond himself. He is devoted to the craft and that is part of what makes him interesting. If the script says his character is drunk, he was real liquor on stage, etc. I’m glad he grows but because of the scene with Lesley I could never like the guy.

Birdman – Birdman is Riggan’s ego and desire to matter. He is core Id and at one point during Birdman’s monologue near the end that gets Riggan to imagine he’s flying he’s describing that people want action, special affects and most of all him as Birdman taking the screen and soaring. He describes how they’ll make billions and outdo to “The Avengers.” It’s a messed up scene and you see just how twisted that part of Riggan is as it is the part where he believes he can move objects with his mind and where the show is just about him…not all those apart of it. Birdman is defeated though after Riggan faces death on the stage and shoots off his own nose leaving him in a Birdman mask of bandages that he takes off to reveal is bedraggled face but who is finally free of Birdman’s voice as Birdman sits silently on the toilet.

Riggan – Riggan drives the plot as he wrestling with his own self worth which gets shot down multiple times as the press only wants to talk about a possible “Birdman 4” or shoot him down for entering into their world (the critic who hates him for bringing Hollywood to Broadway). He is a flawed character and we see how his ego drives him as he dismisses those who try and help him like his girlfriend and how he isn’t able to connect to his daughter and ex-wife until he is at the bottom. Everything is about his popularity and power until he loses it all. It’s only after getting through losing it that he comes out flying and free from the voice of his ego and the outside pressures around him. It’s a powerful arc.

Messages – Riggan’s arc is growing past his ego and realizing it doesn’t matter. That he can be free if he chooses to be and what everyone wants to see is himself not the character as when he is truly himself on stage (he describes the play as a twisted version of himself but in the end accepts that darkness into himself) that he is able to survive and grow from it. He dies and is reborn without the beard and without Birdman’s voice in his head. We also see that art transcends all mediums as this film is a film and not a play so the critic’s point about Hollywood not being art is countered as the film represents the use of both mediums. Mike is also revealed to be a selfish hypocrite who can talk deep things but can’t live it in any meaningful way until the ones who have been through Hell (Sam and Riggan) pull him out of it. There are more as well, but these were the major ones.

Symbolism – Birdman is a dark bird representing the darker side of the ego I got from the film and the flight is only true flight when he lets go of that part of himself and is free. We also see the symbolism of the city which is loud, large and confining. Riggan and other character care trapped unless they are above it all from Sam, Mike to Riggan himself. These were some of major symbolic moments I caught.

Okay: Ambiguous Ending – The Ending is pretty ambiguous so I have mixed feelings about it. It implies he flies or is free after he blows off his nose based on his daughter’s reaction and the fact that Birdman is present but is not longer pressuring him to become Birdman again…but I would have liked it to be a little clearer. I get the symbolism of freedom and rebirth but when he had an imagination sequence where he was flying it was just that as the taxi driver is angry at not getting paid when he returns after getting drunk for opening night. This is my only issue, but it isn’t a con. It’s just not a pro.

     This film gets so much right that I can’t help but recommend it. It explores the ego, meaning and the different identity of individuals and groups and how they relate to each other…as well as that in relation to the art of the stage and life as a whole. It is powerful and one of the best movies of the year I’ve seen. If you have the chance to watch it, check it out. It is worth the money and time as it tells a story with a point and with amazingly compelling characters.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score is that ambiguous ending. I would have liked to get what Riggin was thinking but his silence may have lended for good acting…but no answers on what actually happened.