Friday, January 11, 2008

If This Is Your First Night at Fight Club, You Have to...DANCE!

Worst idea for anything ever?

David Fincher had a little chat with MTV where he mentioned doing a Fight Club musical. It doesn't look like he was joking. He wants to debut it on Broadway in 2009. That's the 10th Anniversary of the movie. Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, is reportedly on board. Trent Reznor is considering writing the music.

Oh, come on! Honestly...this is just ridiculous. I can't even make fun of this. The very idea of the Fight Club musical makes fun of itself. How depressing...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Top 15 Movies of 2007

I always wait until a bit into January before publishing my yearly Top Movies list. It's the only way to be sure I don't miss anything crucial, though I tend to end up missing crucial films regardless. Once again, if a foreign film opened in America in 2007, I consider it fair game. And even if it didn't, but I saw the film in 2007, it counts. Just so you know.

15. Hot Fuzz

There's a lot to like about Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's loving parody of overblown Hollywood action films, from the deliriously over-the-top violence to the bevy of sly, unexpected cameo appearances - but what I mainly remember all these months later is the fantastic, scenery-chewing supporting performance from Timothy Dalton. The precise quality that made him the worst James Bond EVER (and I'm including George Lazenby here) - the self-conscious smarm - makes him the ideal foil for Pegg's beyond-high-strung hero cop. It runs about 20 minutes too long and starts to wear out its welcome, but it is an homage to Michael Bay movies, after all, so perhaps it's not even overlong enough.

[Read the original review here]

14. Juno

I've heard several people - friends and film critics alike - refer to Juno MacGuff as an unrealistic portrayal of a teenage girl. Now, I agree that the sarcastic, snappy comments Diablo Cody has provided for actress Ellen Page on every page of the Juno script don't always seem to fit the gravity of the situation in which the character finds herself. But that's not the same as saying that the character herself doesn't seem realistic. I'd say Juno is one of the year's most compelling, genuinely human protagonists. Plenty of sharp teen girls have this kind of offbeat, smartalecky personality, if memory serves. Not every teen is the vapid sort you'd see in...well, in almost every other movie.

Also, I'd like to note that, in response to this idiotic argument raised in certain segments of the blogosphere, claiming Juno as a pro-life movie because she considers having an abortion and then doesn't go through with it, the movie is very clearly pro-choice. No one at any point states or even implies that the decision to have the baby is anyone's but Juno's - her parents, the baby's father, the State, NO ONE ELSE voices an opinion on the matter. To claim that a film in which a woman goes through with a pregnancy is automatically pro-life suggests that the pro-choice side roots for abortions. "Why aren't any girls in movies these days getting abortions? That's why I don't go to the theater any more! Too few abortions!"

[Read the original review here]

13. Rocket Science

Rocket Science is about a stutterer who joins the high school debate team to get closer to a girl, which is an extremely silly high-concept premise. That description makes it sound like the latest edition of those reprehensible direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels.

American Pie: Master Debators!
Oh, shit, I'm writing that down...No one steal that...

Instead, Rocket Science is a minor-key, extremely heartfelt and personal story about a likable kid who gets in way over his head and then decides to follow through anyway. (Granted, as a former awkward, shy teenager and high school debater, I probably found the movie more relatable than most will, but that doesn't make me doubt its quality as a motion picture).

[Read the original review here]

12. Eastern Promises

At first, I was a it disappointed with David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, which had easily been among my most anticipated 2007 films. I think it's because I'm used to Cronenberg films working on multiple levels at once - most of them are esoteric, cerebral films that function on a superficial level as genre exercises. Eastern Promises, on the other hand, is just a genre exercise. It doesn't really go any deeper than that. But it's an exceptionally well-made genre exercise, and it would spiteful to ignore its pleasures merely because of its limitations.

The script is unfortunately structured and takes some rather outlandish, unnecessary turns. The central character (an unusually stiff Naomi Watts) isn't particularly sympathetic and lacks proper motivation to embark on a dangerous journey through the Russian underworld. The film is kind of all over the place, and winds up telling several different, moderately interesting stories at once rather than a single, relentlessly gripping one.

But Cronenberg's eye and innate understanding of the mechanics of suspense are as sharp as ever, aided by Peter Suschitzky's claustrophobic cinematography. Together with a very brave Viggo Mortensen, they craft the year's most memorable fight scene, a virtuoso, single-take bit of savagery in a Russian steam bath. It's entirely possible Cronenberg made this entire movie just so he could shoot this scene.

[Read the original review here]

11. The Lives of Others

This was the first film from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and it's a surprisingly accomplished work for a debut, successful both as a thought-provoking allegory about free will and oppression and as a Hitchockian thrill machine. This is a story of a True Believer who gradually realizes he has been taken in by a grand, sinister lie, and the gradual awakening process is navigated delicately, without a lot of melodramatic speeches or heartfelt confessions, such as you'd get with a Hollywood version of the same story.

It has about 2 endings too many, but The Lives of Others has stuck with me all year, since I first saw it back in March.

[Read the original review here]

10. Rescue Dawn

Herzog's latest adventure film isn't as big or as personal as his standard fare. Like Eastern Promises, this finds a great and idiosyncratic filmmaker sublimating his usual techniques and just telling a story simply, on its own terms. Sure, it's still got some Herzoggian grandeur and fascination with man's struggle against the power of the natural world. Christian Bale and Steve Zahn play U.S. soldiers (based on two real guys) who escape a POW camp through the Vietnamese jungle, and when they're not in imminent danger of discovery by the enemy, they're falling victim to the perils of their unfamiliar surroundings.

But this movie is a true story (previously related by Herzog in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and obviously one that holds a lot of personal interest for Herzog himself, so instead of Aguirre 2, we get an old-fashioned survival story, gloriously shot and filled with some terrific, small moments.

[Read the original review here]

9. Ratatouille

Can Pixar continue improving on the quality of their animation in each successive film forever? Implicit in the concept of computer animation is that the computer gets smarter with every project. That's just technology. But eventually, it feels like these Pixar films are going to reach maximum gorgeous, colorful detail. In fact, the swarms of rats invading Parisian kitchens in Ratatouille may be too perfect-looking - I could see patrons avoiding some of the city's fine dining establishments after the realism of these kitchen sequences. It'd be difficult to eat a really amazing, authentic ratatouille for me now without imagining some rodent who sounds like Patton Oswalt preparing it with his grubby little hands just out of sight.

What's great about Pixar, and particularly Brad Bird's two films with the studio, is that the amazing technology works in service to warm, funny and smart storytelling. There's kind of an awkward, almost Randian quality to Bird's The Incredibles - it's a great, funny, visually-dazzling film with a peculiar, somewhat elitist moral compass. Ratatouille is not only charming but genuinely uplifting. Anyone not at least a bit touched by the conclusion of villainous food critic Anton Ego's storyline should just give up on movies're never going to get it...

8. Grindhouse

It's a real shame that Planet Terror and Death Proof have been split up on DVD and made into two separate films, as the entire experience of Grindhouse works better all put together. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, whether intentionally or not, took 180-degree, diametrically opposed approaches to the task of updating the Z-grade cinema that once ruled the questionable movie houses of New York's Times Square, and the sensory overload of seeing them together - along with some funny fake trailers - was half the fun.

Rodriguez, in Terror, used contemporary technology to essentially "replicate" the look of an old movie, but with a scale and a style that would not have ever been possible for a low-budget film in the '70s. His zombie horror film is essentially more-retro-than-retro; it looks more like we'd imagine an insane Late-Night UHF creature feature than a real Late-Night UHF creature feature.

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, on the other hand, inverts the formula, turning his movie into a lament for a dying era in cinema, when everything was fashioned by hand and a market still existed for movies made by amateur outsiders. (Like the real films of the era, Death Proof sags in the middle, filling time with pointless dialogue that doesn't really go anywhere. He's so committed to replicating a lost genre, he's actually willing to make his movie kind of boring for 20 minutes or so!)

He does everything he can, really, to actually make the movie like he's an exploitation director with no budget in the '70s, to limit what he can accomplish until the whiz-bang car chase conclusion. And when that conclusion comes, it's both a tearful goodbye to and a sendup of the grindhouse - he mocks the casual misogyny and perverse humor of these old movies while conceding that they have an authenticity that Grindhouse itself can't even touch.

[Read the original review here]

7. Black Book

Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is like some kind of miracle - a realistic, serious WWII film that's never maudlin, even when the story takes a tragic turn. This story of a Jewish spy (an amazing Carice van Houten) working for the Dutch Resistance is an adventure movie for adults, one that's too busy kicking ass for gauzy Hollywood pathos. In fact, the sadness of its characters and the seeming futility of their cause are brought into greater relief because the film's suspense is so relentless. We don't hear about their desperation; we come to feel it, as they do, with each close call and narrow escape. This is Verhoeven reinvigorated, working with some material that's worthy of his gifts, rather than this embarrassing Hollywood sci-fi bullshit he's been doing.

[Read the original review here]

6. Wristcutters: A Love Story

An intriguing premise executed perfectly, Wristcutters is what Defending Your Life would have been like if Albert Brooks could just get over himself for 10 minutes and make a real movie. I'd love for this movie to inspire a mini-trend in American independent film - the mundane fantasy film. This is the Mumblecore Lord of the Rings. The plot, in a nutshell: Zia (Patrick Fugit) thinks better of slitting his wrists over a girl when he discovers the afterlife is just like Earth, only a bit more overcast and dreary. Now, he's stuck in a city filled with other suicides, working a dead-end (literally!) pizza delivery job and afraid to try killing himself again for fear of where he might end up. When he hears word that his lost love has also killed herself, he sets out on one last road trip to find her.

Writer/director Goran Dukic (working from a story by Etgar Keret) has filled this entire world with memorable eccentrics: Tom Waits as Kneller, leader of a ragtag afterlife commune, and Will Arnett as the wannabe cult leader The Messiah are the recognizable faces, but Shea Whigham really steals the show as Eugene, Zia's partner in crime whose entire Russian family have all found themselves in the same disappointing eternity. A fantastic character (who, according to IMDb, is inspired by Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello and a friend of Dukic), Eugene bops around this odd world like he finds the afterlife refreshing, a break from his former life even though it's remarkably similar.

5. You, the Living

I wrote about this surreal, plotless Scandinavian dark comedy at length earlier this week when I saw it at the Palm Springs Film Festival. You can go read that review here. It's a breathtaking, haunting and atmospheric flight of imagination, unlike any movie I've ever seen other than Andersson's previous effort, 2000's similarly-brilliant Songs From the Second Floor. This guy is like David Lynch's jocular, perfectionist cousin.

4. Zodiac

Quite simply one of the best police procedurals ever made, this is not a film about the Zodiac investigation specifically, but about the nature of investigation itself. How an investigation quickly involves and even implicates those doing the investigating. The characters in the film stare a bit too long into the abyss of the Zodiac murders, and it sucks them in one by one, obsessing them with its endless string of facts and details and observations and contradictions.

It's hard to find fault with any of David Fincher's decisions here. The music is impeccably chosen, particularly Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which becomes the killer's theme music, classic hippie rock rendered ethereal and vaguely sinister. Harris Savides' digital cinematography - this is the first Hollywood film in history made without any film or video tape - is glossy and pristine; it resembles the films of the '70s, but if they had been shot with modern cameras. And everything is so detailed; accurate to the actual Zodiac crimes and making this entire world feel complete and lived-in on screen. Fincher went so far as to use CG blood, so that it would always look exactly right, and even shot some scenes in greenscreen, going back and artificially recreating '70s San Francisco in a computer because the real thing looks too different now. Amazing.

[Read the original review here]

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik's brooding Western is, without a doubt, the year's most underappreciated film. Roger Deakins shot both this film and the one at #2, because he's a genius, and he gives Jesse James the look of a fading photograph; awkward and uncanny and beautiful. It's a long movie, and really something of a slow-motion chase movie, with James pursuing enemies real and imagined, and Robert Ford pursuing James, desperate to share a bit of the legend's glory. It's also the first of three Westerns sitting atop my Top Films list this year, a definitely surprising and clearly unprecedented event. (Not only have I never found 3 Westerns at the top of my list of favorite films, I can't think of any year in which any one genre so dominated the year.)

[Read the original review here]

2. No Country for Old Men

After Ladykillers, I genuinely entertained the notion that the Coen Brothers were lost to us forever. I've put up with longer dry periods from other directors than the one-two punch of crap that was Intolerable Cruelty and the aforementioned Tom Hanks catastrophe...

But the Coens had been so good for so long, just churning out strange, unexpected, perfectly-realized classic after classic, one every few years since 1984's Blood Simple. Their career had almost come to feel like "Guitar Hero 3" - one split-second's miscalculation could throw off their rhythm, and the whole game would be ruined.

Fortunately, the Coen Brothers' filmography is nothing like "Guitar Hero 3" - or at least, me when I'm playing "Guitar Hero 3" - because No Country for Old Men is one of their greatest achievements, and it succeeds on the same strengths the Coens have been exploiting for years: Unbelievably clever dialogue (this is easily the year's best screenplay), an extrasensory skill at pacing and designing set pieces and an ability to coax career-best work from talented character actors.

Many were turned off by the film's abrupt, low-key and intentionally anticlimactic ending, and it's certainly not a conventional way to close out this story. So much of the film is about what we can't know and can't understand: What drives a man like Anton Chigurh? Where does the money come from and to whom does it belong and why are all these people willing to die for it? What is the nature of Llewelyn Moss, who seems alternately sympathetic and repugnant, or for that matter, Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff who doesn't maybe try as hard as he could to solve crimes any more? It seems only fitting that we'd be left with more questions than answers, that we'd forcibly change perspective the moment the pieces actually fall into place, and once again have to readjust our viewpoint on the film's violent events.

[Read the original review here]

1. There Will Be Blood

Not much of a surprise here. I've been raving about PT Anderson's latest and greatest for a while now to anyone within earshot, and have seen the film twice theatrically. It's a masterpiece - quite possibly the best American film of our present decade.

What makes it so good? Well, I have to tell you...I'm not 100% sure. I mean, I could go on here at length about the film's qualities: how Jonny Greenwood's spastic orchestral score compliments the unpredictable and hazardous work of drilling for oil or the way Daniel Day-Lewis can make a long, pregnant pause both FUNNY and TERRIFYING. I could spend at least a good paragraph on a single shot, in which Day-Lewis watches oil burn in the distance, his smudgy red face the only thing visible in a sea of blackness.

But I couldn't really tell you why the life story of a lonely, misanthropic, greedy alcoholic, an intense and provocative character study of a horrible man, effected me on such a deep level. Perhaps I sympathize with the angry atheist Daniel Plainview, forced to abide and respect the religious majority in order to get by while secretly disgusted by their self-righteous piety? Perhaps my love of historical films, Daniel Day-Lewis films and Paul Thomas Anderson films just collided in a Perfect Storm of Shit That Appeals to Lons?

Or maybe 2007 was just the right year for There Will Be Blood. A year when a movie about a desperate, empty sociopath, fueled by a bitter distaste for humanity and an insatiable lust for wealth, status and power, felt suddenly relevant.

[Read the original review here]

Also, This...

Michael Cera on the latest "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis." Face.

Failure Piles in Sadness Bowls

Patton Oswalt expands on his classic "KFC Famous Bowls" routine for The Onion AV Club in a review that includes lines like "The Famous Bowl hit my mouth like warm soda, slouched down my throat, and splayed itself across my stomach like a sun-stroked wino." Hilarity ensues.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Your ideas intrigue me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

People have been saying that Ron Paul is a racist since the beginnings of his candidacy, and it's well-known at this point that some of his supporters have ties to the white supremacist movement.

But now word is starting to get around that Paul's old newsletters frequently ran articles that were not only crude and bigoted, but also delusional conservative fantasies. The New Republic is running some excerpts from these old newsletters, with names like "The Ron Paul Report" and "Ron Paul's Freedom Report," and they're...well, they're really something. In addition to mocking and criticizing beloved civil rights figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the articles generally revel in the kind of conspiratorial nonsense you'd expect from homemade, far-right 1980's pamphlets.

Here's my favorite:

The October 1992 issue of the Political Report paraphrases an "ex-cop" who offers this strategy for protecting against "urban youth": "If you have to use a gun on a youth, you should leave the scene immediately, disposing of the wiped off gun as soon as possible. Such a gun cannot, of course, be registered to you, but one bought privately (through the classifieds, for example)."

So, Ron Paul allowed a publication bearing his name, and bearing no other writer's identification or byline, to run an instruction manual for disposing of the evidence after murdering "urban youth." Solid.

Paul's response to this New Republic report is actually kind of amazing. First, he denies being racist and says he admires Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Which is all well and good.

But then, he says this:

This story is old news and has been rehashed for over a decade. It's once again being resurrected for obvious political reasons on the day of the New Hampshire primary.

Okay, fine, it's old news. You have heard these criticisms before. That doesn't make them out-of-bounds in terms of a presidential campaign, does it? I'd agree there are some elements of a candidate's past that don't interest me. I for one don't really care how many wives they've had or whether or not they smoked pot as a teenager. I'm not even as concerned as most people about candidate's changing their positions over the years, so long as there seems to be a rational explanation for the switch.

But if you used run articles in a newsletter featuring your name in big print on the masthead insisting that Martin Luther King "seduced underage girls and boys"...I think you got some splaining to do. Even if it has been brought up before. You can get bored answering that's only fair.

Paul continues his excuse:

“When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product. For over a decade, I have publicly taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name.”

There's just kind of a big gap here. Why did he allow these "several" still unnamed writers to publish this sort of thing under his own name? Even if you believe he didn't know, at the time, what kind of things they were publishing, he obviously agrees that these were like-minded colleagues with whom he willingly entered into a contract. I mean, a former Congressman...he's just going to turn his name and reputation over to a bunch of strangers, allowing them to print whatever they please and sign it with his tacit approval?

Either we believe Paul actually does agree with these sentiments, or we decide that he's the sort of silly person who would trust a bunch of racist whackjob with his good name. It's not a good decision to have to make about a candidate...

Monday, January 07, 2008

Palm Springs International Film Festival: Day 2

Another day, another two movies...

In the Arms of My Enemy

That's the name provided in all the festival materials for this French revenge thriller, but the film itself included the title The Horse Thieves (Voleurs de chevaux), which strikes me as more accurate and appropriate. Set in an unnamed country in "The East" in 1810, the film jumps between two sets of brothers set on a collision course.

The first set, Jakub (Adrien Jolivet) and Vladimir (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), join the Cossack army and endure much hardship during their training. The second set, Roman (Grégoire Colin) and Elias (François-René Dupont), are the titular horse thieves, and the film opens with them pulling a daring heist against Jakub and Vladimir. These events will lead to a good deal of bloody conflict, and will take up the remainder of the film's running time.

Writer/director Micha Wald and his crew have realized the period with a stunning level of vivid detail. Attention has been paid to even the smallest aspects of these characters lives - how they would dress, where they would live, how they would heal their wounds, what they would drink, when they would be covered and shit and when they'd clean themselves up, etc. (In one scene, Roman locks Elias in a cabin, and you actually get a reasonable understanding of the design on the intricate wood and rope "lock" he uses on the door!)

Unfortunately, the characters and their stories have not apparently been given this level of attention. I didn't like Wald's technique of telling Jakub and Vladimir's story and then jumping back in time to follow Roman and Elias - cutting back and forth between them would have likely given the film a quicker pace and set up more dramatic tension between these two sets of brothers. As well, Wald has obviously made the two pairs mirror images of one another - both Roman and Jakub are the strong-willed tough guys, while their younger brothers are kindly weaklings who require constant supervision - and this gives the film a really repetitive sameness throughout. (The characters really are essentially interchangeable. Many of the more senior audience members actually seemed to confuse them with one another).

In fact, everyone in the universe of The Horse Thieves could be described as either a brute or a gentle soul. I wanted to get as much insight into the people populating Wald's film as I did into the engineering and interior design practices of the time, but alas, it was not to be.


Sergei Bodrov's Mongol follows the early life of Genghis Khan, from his boyhood to his first major military triumph. Though the film strikes me as essentially accurate history, relating true events in the life of the man then known as Temudjin, it has the feeling of an epic myth, almost like Mongolian Braveheart. Genghis Khan, a legendary figure, is treated as such by the movie - a real man, but also larger than life, someone who was understood as significant and mythic in his own time.

The glossy, sweeping cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov is reminiscent in ways of Lord of the Rings; the heroes navigate harsh but beautiful and ever-changing landscapes en route to one another or to their enemies, and we get a genuine sense for the setting of Upper Mongolia in the late 12th and early 13th centures almost immediately.

The very contemporary editing style of Valdís Óskarsdóttir and Zach Staenberg give the movie the feel of a modern, buzzy action movie. Battle scenes, infused with a generous amount of grit and blood spray, whip by, not giving the audience a clear idea about Temudjin's specific strategies so much as expressing the feeling of being a Mongol riding into war.

Mongol sees Khan's legacy as bringing law and order to Mongolia, and the theme of obeying or ignoring ancient customs runs underneath most of the central action. As the film opens, 9-year-old Temudjin is brought to a village to select a wife. His father is meant to bring him to a rival clan to select a bride, thus ending a decades-long rivalry, but the headstrong boy instead chooses the precocious Borte from a friendly clan nearby. This one fateful decision, a choice based on personal preference and not the strict guidelines for Mongol behavior, sets all the hardships of the remainder of the film in motion.

After growing up in exile, the older Temudjin (now played by Japanese star Tadanobu Asano) returns to find Borte and, along with old friend Jamukha (Honglei Sun), to fight the villains who forced him to leave his family years ago. This leads to even more struggles for power and violence that will eventually lead the young warrior to realize that his people will find peace only if they are united under a code of laws. (One that he alone can provide).

This narrative jumps around, sometimes chaotically, and many of the connecting details between incidents are ignored in favor of scenic vistas or the enhancement of the central love story between Tamudjin and Borte. This is not necessarily a bad thing, merely an artistic choice, and the key relationships do benefit from the added screen time they would not normally get in a period action film of this scope. However, some of the specific decisions made by Bodrov are questionable, particularly skipping what may be the most significant aspect of this story - how Tamudjin actually managed to unite all the warring, disparate clans of Mongols. We get no insight into his political machinations whatsoever - instead, we hear that he has done this in voice-over.

A nitpick, perhaps, but I was only bothered by the film's narrative gaps because I found it otherwise so compelling. This is just really BIG moviemaking pulled off with grace, sophistication and panache. If it ever opens Stateside theatrically, it's one to see in a movie theater with an audience.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Palm Springs International Film Festival: Day 1

Greetings from Rancho Mirage, California, where the only things more ancient and craggy than the towering desert mountains are the residents.

No, I kid the old Rancho Miragers...They're good people.

I'm in town for the first few days of the annual Palm Springs Film Festival, which boasts a tremendous selection of contemporary films from around the world. And it's a good thing the selection is tremendous, because it took 4.5 hours to drive here yesterday from LA.

After spending the early portion of my first day in town enjoying the best sightseeing the Greater Palm Springs Area has to offer ("Look, a Starbucks! And a store that sells items that change color in sunlight!"), I settled down for two rather terrific 2007 European films.


Based on the graphic novel/memoir by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a journey through the last 30 years of Iranian history seen from the perspective of a headstrong young girl. The film's expressive, stark black-and-white animation mirrors the style of Satrapi's book, visualizing her emotions, frustrations and dreams and detailing her encounters with arbitrary authority and cruel indifference, both at home and abroad.

The film works best as compelling, narrative history. Anyone not familiar with the fall of the Shah, the rise of the Ayatollah, the Iran/Iraq War, etc. will likely learn much from Persepolis, and those already vaguely aware of these events will appreciate the personal recollections of someone who was there, taking it all in first-hand.

The film tends to drift around a bit when recalling Marjane's personal struggles with romance and depression, which I think is a direct result of its relatively simple, sketchbook-inspired look. It's hard to make these characters too emotive or resonant with such simple line drawings, and the film overall seems much more comfortable creating fantasy montages and large-scale action-oriented sequences than more immediate character development or pathos. A sequence in which Marjane recalls a string of prior Viennese residences while leaping between rooftops is a standout.

I found it somewhat hard to concern myself with Marjane's Austrian friends, for example, who tended to blend together, but I was ceaselessly engaged by all the scenes in which she brushed up against the brutality of the ruling regime's footsoldiers.

This is not just an entertaining movie but also, I sense, an important one for Western audiences to see. We're so often presented very cut-and-dry, over-simplified versions of life under oppressive Middle Eastern governments; Satrapi's Tehran is far more nuanced, composed like the film in shades of gray. True, it's rulers are greedy, hypocritical and cruel, and Saddam's bombs rain down in the night obliterating once-beautiful neighborhoods, but the city and its residents are not without their charms. I particularly enjoyed the sequences featuring discreet late-night alcohol-fueled parties and hustlers selling Iron Maiden tapes on street corners. The harder you try to stamp out progress and to hinder merriment, the harder the people will work to obtain these precious commodities.

You, the Living

This is the second film I've seen by Swedish director Roy Andersson. 2000's Songs from the Second Floor is available on DVD in this country, and I highly recommend adding it to your Netflix queue immediately. But this year's You, the Living is even better, a surreal and darkly funny series of vignettes about despair, humiliation, failure and the desperation of modern life.

Neither Second Floor nor You, the Living have what could be considered "plots." Though it's not a perfect analogy, they're really the film equivalent of short story collections - motifs, characters, themes and ideas run throughout, but tucked away inside individual, beautifully conceived and immaculately realized shorts.

Much of You, the Living follows members of the Louisiana Brass Band as they perform, rehearse, make love and otherwise live their daily lives, and other various musicians drift in and out of the various sequences, but the focus here is entirely on Andersson's deft comic touch and the ceaselessly brilliant, washed-out cinematography of Gustav Danielsson. Seriously, this may be the best-looking film I've seen in 2007; using a relatively static palatte of icy blues and grays, Andersson and Danielsson have crafted a film that would be totally mesmerizing even without any kind of audio track. Andersson's camera is frequently motionless, setting up a single perspective on a scene and then finding ways to include all the requisite action within that one frame. So ingeniously composed are these sequences, pretty much any still shot could be taken from You, the Living and hung in an art gallery.

So what's it all about? Well, it's somewhat difficult to say. Much of the success of the film is in its ambiguity, how it sets up peculiar scenarios and then allows the viewer to interpret them as he or she pleases. The Film Festival program describes the film as showcasing "the human condition," which is about the most vague description anyone could even theoretically offer for a film.

The movie's more focused than that. It zeroes in on a few universal human foibles and exploits them for comedy and poignancy. Many sequences focus on fear - fear of humiliation, fear of loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of the imminent destruction of our world and everything in it.

Andersson's also fascinated by contradition, how people's attitudes and behavior can shift in an instant for no particular reason. In an early scene, a woman weeps and yells at her lover, telling him to scram because he doesn't understand her. As he walks away, she spins around and tells him she may come by his place later. Later, a father expresses disappointment with his mooching son, right before agreeing to send him more money. A hairdresser loses his temper with a customer and lashes out, before apologizing profusely and offering to fix his mistake. The movie seems to suggest that these individuals are not flighty or inconsistent purposefully; they are just bewildered and confused by life, particularly its mandatory social graces and customs. They don't seem to know how to behave at all, and thus make constant errors which then must be corrected. So, I guess, in a way, the movie is about the human condition, like pretty much all great films. I'm not sure what the plans are for releasing You, the Living properly Stateside, but if a DVD release is in the works, this is must see material.