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PERSEPOLIS (NR) In the tradition of great comic-book chronicles like Maus and some of the more personal cartoons of Robert Crumb, the animated feature Persepolis reflects modern life with a passion, wit and complexity rarely achieved in the more "legitimate" corners of literature and cinema. Director Marjane Satrapi adapts her own autobiographical graphic novels to relate a story beginning in Iran in the late '70s, just as the Islamic Revolution is gathering steam. Young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) would much rather be watching Bruce Lee movies than talking religion or politics, but when the country transforms into a theological police state, she finds that remaining on the sidelines is no longer possible. The movie cleverly contrasts the girl's oppressive new world with her love for decadent, disposable Western culture. And as the Islamo-Orwellian double-speak intensifies, so does our hero's lust for forbidden ABBA LPs and black market Iron Maiden cassettes. Persepolis doesn't preach, but it offers reams of pointed commentary in the richly drawn journey of its main character. The black-and-white animation is simple and cleanly stylized, almost looking like woodcuts in places, but these 2D images offer more depth than most stories you'll see at the multiplexes these days. Featuring the voices of Gabrielle Lopes, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux and Catherine Deneuve. 4 stars

THE SAVAGES (R) A tragicomedy about death, dissatisfaction and familial dysfunction, The Savages could easily have turned into the Sundance movie from hell. There's an estranged brother and sister who barely survived a childhood so awful they can't even speak of it. There's an emotionally distant father who becomes even more remote when creeping dementia turns him into a zombie writing on walls with his own feces. And pretty much everyone seems cut from that same depressed, sophisticated, self-absorbed cloth as the characters inhabiting, say, Margot at the Wedding or way too many other films that have been projected on walls in Park City, Utah, over the past few decades. And yet this latest movie from director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) transcends most of its own potential limitations, neatly sidestepping clichés through smart, unsentimental writing and tasteful direction. Most of all, The Savages succeeds through the knowing, nuanced performances of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who play siblings Wendy and Jon — aging escapees from Neverland who find themselves saddled with an incapacitated parent, even as their own houses are screaming to be put in order. Wendy and Jon transport their rapidly degenerating dad back East with them, where they anguish over making the nasty old coot comfortable, watching him slip away while allowing his impending death to open a floodgate of painful memories and ridiculous old habits. The understated approach and downbeat subject matter of The Savages requires a little patience, but the movie's aim is true. Also stars Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman and Cara Seymour. 3.5 stars

SEMI-PRO (PG-13) The latest in an apparently never-ending line of sports comedies from Will Ferrell. The subject this time is basketball. Also stars Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Will Arnett and Andy Richter. (Not Reviewed)

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (PG) Freddie Highmore fans will get more than their money's worth watching the young actor doing double duty as twin brothers Simon (the passive, buttoned-up one), and Jared (the rumpled, feisty one), who discover an all-powerful coveted by all manner of fantastical creatures. Some of these creatures are warm and fuzzy constructs, including a porcine Muppet voiced by Seth Rogen and a honey-sucking imp called Thimbletack (Martin Short) who looks like Ben Stein transformed into a 3-inch-tall version of The Hulk. But outside the house lurk swarms of nastier entities in the form of sharp-tooth-and-nailed goblins, commanded by a big-cheese ogre called Mulgrath (Nick Nolte). The special effects and action sequences are nothing to sneeze at, but what really distinguishes The Spiderwick Chronicles is flesh and blood. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the name John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Secret of Roan Inish) listed as one of the movie's screenwriters, and the touchy family dynamics underpinning the film are distinctly his. Also stars Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn and Joan Plowright. 3 stars 1/2

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (R) Loosely based on Uptown Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, this monumentally ambitious new opus from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) offers up chilly scenes from the life of proto-capitalist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a ruthlessly single-minded entrepreneur who makes a fortune raping the land during the early years of the 20th century. It's not always a pretty picture, but as captured by the camera of Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, the process takes on its own kind of dirty poetry. Far from some grand oil-empire epic á la Giant, Blood is essentially a spare, almost painfully introspective art film, more driven by details than narrative momentum or life-changing events, and with moments of heroic power compromised by stretches that feel clumsily confrontational, as if the director were more interested in breaking down walls than advancing his story. Anderson's dazzling, convoluted movie is simply too big a meal to digest at one sitting, and I can't wait to watch again to see where it leads next time. Also stars Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier. 4 stars

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