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Friday, June 12, 2009

Starting off with a rave and a shrug.

As is the way of these things, what I consider to be the best film to hit South African screens so far this year was released well over a year ago in Europe and America and much like the best films of the last two years - Pan's Labyrinth and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - also happens to be in a foreign (i.e. not English) language. Most surprisingly, it's an animated film that has nothing whatsoever to do with those magic-makers at Pixar.

Persepolis is based on Marjane Sitrapi's auto-biographical graphic novels of the same name (that I haven't read, admittedly) and tells the story of a young woman growing up under the oppressive rule of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic regime that rose to power in the late 1970s. The film charts Marjane's growth from a vivacious, Bruce-Lee loving young girl to a headstrong, independant young woman and all points in between as Iran goes through its own revolutions and transformations.

What makes Persepolis such a spectacular piece of storytelling is that it never loses its focus on its wonderfully complex and all-too-human protagonist. The film could easily have gotten lost in its fascinating backdrop but viewing Iran's downward spiral from secular fascism to religious tyrany through the eyes of this thoroughly relatable and sympathetic "everywoman" give it a poignancy that it would never have had as a straight-on quasi-documentary. What could have been a film bogged down by a relentless onslought of horror and despair i
nstead became a film whose angst, misery and pathos is leavened by healthy doses of warmth, compassion, hope and an endless amount of laugh-out-loud humour.

It's a film that is finely directed, sharpy written and perfectly (voice) acted with beautiful hand-drawn animation that is simple yet imaginatively executed and, most of all, wonderfully expressive.

I'm sure that the very idea of watching a sub-titled animated film would send 90% of the two of you reading this screaming and running for the hills but I really can't recommend Persepolis enough.

On the other hand, we have X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that is the very definition of bland mediocritry. It has apparently been seen by absolutely everybody and, in spite of having been available as an illegal download weeks before the films hit cinemas, has set the Box Office charts on fire, thereby disproving that little piracy theory. I wish I could really tear into Wolverine but it's such a nothing of a film that there really isn't that much to really get fired up about.

In short,I have absolutely no idea why this film exists beyond your usual cynical, money-grabbing reasons. For the record, I really liked the first two X-Men films and despite my being underwhelmed by the third installment, I was hardly predisposed to not liking this. The problem is though that the entire story can be ascertained pretty much wholesale from the dialogue in X-Men 2 and the plot presents little in the way of any real surprises or revelations. Worse however, is the title character himself. While I do very much like Hugh Jackman in the role, the character simply isn't in any way interesting when taken out of a supporting role.

The only X-Men comic that has ever really wowed me was Buffy-creator, Joss Whedon's 25-issue run on Astonishing X-Men and one of the most impressive things about his run was that he understood that Wolverine works best when he is working against other characters, not when he is in the spotlight. Despite Wolverine's appearance as the lead-character in the previous films, he still was defined very much by how he interacted with his supporting players. In Origins he is very much in the spotlight and despite still having a great look to him, is a total bore of a character, exhibiting very little in the way of any real personality.

Add to that some dull action scenes (there really is no tension when everyone involved in a fight-scene is indestructable), ropey-at-best CGI and weak dialogue and you have a superhero flick that may not be as toe-curlingly bad as Catwoman but still refuses to truly take off.

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