Tehran Taboo – Film Review

Tehran Taboo is released 5/10/2018 in UK Cinemas

Tehran Taboo, the debut film from Iranian writer-director Ali Soozandeh, is released today (5th October) in UK cinemas.  This rotoscope-animated film presents a hyper-stylised portrayal of Tehran with an emotional poignance that this technique of animation, when combined with an atmospheric and sometimes chilling soundtrack, can deliver in spades. Films like Waltz with Bashir, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly have already experimented successfully with this method of drawing and colouring over material.  Indeed, it appears to be tailor-made for this film which could of course not be made, nor released, in the country in which it is set.

Before watching the film, I was very interested in the director’s quote:

“I get a lot of positive feedback from Iranians living in Iran. The feedback from Iranians living outside Iran is rather negative. They are usually angry with the film. Because the film damages the image we present of ourselves to the West.”

Pari

Perhaps this reflects the fact that life for many in Iran is riddled by contradictions and hypocrisies, and the hyper-real portrayal in this film packs a visceral punch for those who live in the country, whereas those who have left Iran may choose to default to a more rosy-tinted nostalgic view.

Tehran Taboo starts with a bang. Immediately, you can tell why this film could not be made in Iran, as a taxi driver who claims he is “not Bill Gates” haggles with prostitute Pari whilst her mute son Elias is chewing bubble gum in back seat of a taxi. This sets the stall for a murky, often shocking, noir exploration of the idiosyncrasies in contemporary Tehran through multiple strands. One of these is a  young musician’s quest to “fix the virginity” of a girl he had a one-night-stand with at one of Tehran’s notorious underground raves, a week before the woman is supposedly due to get married to a faceless thug.

There are moments of dark humour, such as the protagonists’ search for an artificial hymen:

“This is the original model, 100% Chinese.  You know it’s good because the Westerners copied it”

Elias

Later Elias provides a funny moment when asked if he knew sign language and proceeds to mimic a highly offensive gesture he had just seen some children do.   The mute boy is the only totally innocent character in film drowning in various shades of grey, quietly observing the Machiavellianism and the tragedy around him.  Conversely, one of the film’s antagonists is an adipose cleric who sets up an arrangement for Pari to provide him intimate favours in exchange for allowing her to divorce her drug-addicted husband.  Themes of patriarchy and societal misogyny permeate throughout a film in which every man and woman has to look out for themselves, and everything and anyone can be bargained for. The separate narrative threads become progressively entwined during the course of the film, and the tight structure calls to mind films such as Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros.

Rotoscoping seems to accentuate emotional moments, and facial expressions are highly framed, such that even the most nuanced of eyebrow raises become much more obvious.  One of the lead characters is portrayed by Arash Marandi, the go-to guy for genre-hopping films set in Iran but filmed abroad such as Iranian Vampire-Western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and socio-political supernatural horror “Under the Shadow”.  In this film, his distinctive large and innocent eyes are emphasised to an aptly cartoonish intensity.

Pari speaking to her neighbour Sara

The background art is detailed and atmospheric, from the vistas of the never-ending sprawl of Tehran, to the vehicles and alleyways which are explored through the multi-layered narrative.  They are also very authentic, impressive given that the film has been made abroad.  Even if the bleak narrative itself does not necessarily beg for repeat viewing, the detailed and intricate backgrounds which are a very realistic portrayal of today’s Tehran, do.

Overall, the film is a stark and pessimistic portrayal of Tehran itself, which provides fascinating viewing for even those who have never even heard of Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami, let alone seen their films. Certain aspects of the film are slightly outdated, such as the morality police, less prominent now than is portrayed in the movie.  At times, the pace of the film’s consecutive punches renders the viewer overwhelmed, and I was begging for a little respite towards the end.  

Nevertheless, it remains an apposite metaphor for the ongoing psychological corrosion in the city’s collective psyche.  The film may not quite get the traction required to deliver the social change which is the aim of the film’s creator, but it is another seed on top of a mountain waiting to be sown. We can only wonder what Ali Soozandeh will do next.

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Isle of Dogs Review: A Ruff-around-the-edges treat for humans of all breeds

No Spoilers in this Review

Isle of Dogs is a surreal treat for humans of all breeds. Could this stop-motion dog-themed movie set in a future Japan be the flick to get the mercurial Wes Anderson some long-awaited mainstream adoration?

I saw this film at a Preview Screening at a local Picturehouse Cinema, the fantastic CinemaCity in Norwich.

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A cute canine cast – from Metro Weekly Full Link

Plot and Themes (No Spoilers)

The plot, as already outlined in the trailer, centres around a young boy called Atari who arrives on an island full of junk to find his lost dog Spots. It’s not a simple boy-and-dog story, however as Wes Anderson and his writing collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwarzmann have created a pacy critique on contemporary political lunacy set 20 years in the future. The underlying premise is that a disease called Dog Flu forces a Japanese provincial government to quarantine and remove all canines from the mainland. Atari ends up befriending a group of dogs on this Trash Island, including a lovingly characterised antihero called Chief, a stray voiced by Bryan Cranston. The rest of the story mixes broadish political commentary brush-strokes with heartstring-tugging momentsin a beautifully-realised world which left me itching to stay in my seat for another viewing.

The dogs speak American English, though the humans in Megasaki speak Japanese using simple expressions (and no subtitles) which are designed for the viewer to “get the gist of”. This is a fascinating idea which almost works, though there just doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. I do wonder whether Anderson could have predicted the social media uproar about stereotyping Japanese culture, however well-intentioned his homage appears to be.

Cultural appropriation aside, it is hard to avoid the word “quirky” when describing a Wes Anderson flick, and yes the film does have an eccentric narrative. But this is the closest I’ve ever felt emotionally engaged with a Wes Anderson film, where often I find his style and worldview a little too idiosyncratic to fully embrace the immersion his worlds entreat. In this offering, however, the emotional core of the film is studiously crafted, from the relationships between the human characters and between human and dog. There were a few sniffles in the theater.

Visuals
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A panorama of Megasaki – from It’s Nice That Full Link

The stop-motion visuals are, predictably, stunning to look at. Anderson brought over a sizeable portion of the visuals team from his first animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox to create a fictional Megasaki City using 240 sets and 130,000 stills. The result is a beautifully handmade-style film, and even the piles of garbage in Trash Island conjure a minimalist beauty. Together with more standard cartoon animated elements used for television clips and intriguing takes on classic Japanese artwork seen in various backdrops, this film really is gorgeous to look at.

As with Anderson’s previous work, everything on screen has been meticulously selected for inclusion. Even if the amount of content on the screen is often Spartan, there is still not enough time to take in all the little screen delights, so most viewers will be looking forward to DVD and Blu-Ray releases in order to ingest all the delicious treats that Wes Anderson throws.

Performances
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A typically stellar group of actors for Wes Anderson – From Foxsearchlight.com Full Link

This director knows a lot of people. The cast-list for Wes Anderson films can be farcically imposing, and this film is true to form. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton… you get the picture. Special praise must go to young Canadian Koyu Rankin for his performance as 12-year-old Atari. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the voices of the actors resonate through the animated characters they portray and each role appears to be hand-crafted for the voice talent.

Soundtrack

If I’ve made it clear that the first star of this film are the visuals, the second is the music. There are classic tracks from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel films, together with psychedelic rock and swing jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. These are the dressing for a stunning original score from Alexandre Desplat, who just won an Oscar for his work on The Shape of Water. If you’ve heard his name prior to that, he also won an Oscar with another Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Taiko Drumming provides the centrepiece for the score, although there are some whimsical forays into dreamlike electronic music and more jazzy interludes. It is a triumph

Quirks
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Pro-Dog protestors in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki – from technobuffalo.com Full link

The oddities in Wes Anderson films often provoke reactions similar to those toward a yeast extract spread. This film gave me moments of intense pleasure and annoyance, with the balance strongly in favour of the former. His labelling of items on the screen was pure pleasure for a cataloguing aficianado. As were the bizarre moments when characters wistfully looked into the distance. This happened once in the Fantastic Mr. Fox film when Mr.Fox suddenly stares at a wolf for no solid narrative reason. Why not? Similar scenes exist in this film, though not as indiscriminately.

Less successful was the reliance on sudden camera movements in the early parts of the film, whereby the only angle in which characters’ heads could move was 90 degrees, and usually in the direction of the viewer. It was the cinematic equivalent of the non-existent word überkook.

Overall
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Atari looks back at Rex, Boss and King – from thatericalper.com Full link

Anderson’s second animated offering is a cut above his first. It is a genuinely beautiful film which provides a lot of treats, though is ruff around the edges. The clumsy cultural tourism is outweighed by stunning visuals, fantastic performances and a beautiful soundtrack. Barring an upset, this ought to win the first Academy Award for Wes Anderson in 2019.

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Mark Kermode’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Dr Kermode’s Top 10 films are a highlight of the year for many Wittertainment fans. As usual, there is the odd smattering of unjust criticism, with some saying there should be a separate “top 10 arthouse” and a “top 10 multiplex” list. No, no there shouldn’t.

People have watched and listened to Mark Kermode for different reasons over the years, and they are all equally valid.

Some people just listen for the infectious banter between him and Simon Mayo, and are perhaps less interested in going to the cinema, that is fine.

Others want to know which of the week’s big releases is worth seeing from people whose opinion they can generally trust, that is also fine.

Others want to hear a good old Kermodian rant, also absolutely fine.

But some people have always tuned in to hear his opinions about films which are less well-marketed but no less good than action-packed multiplex offerings. He has been doing this for decades. I personally think there are enough places which review and advertise big releases and I know enough about them from reading a magazine or a paper.

I go to Mark to get his thoughts on films which I would not have otherwise heard of, but can be more enjoyable and impacting than Return of the Nostalgia Fest VIII. I don’t think there should be two separate lists. He is a film critic, and it is right that this is his top 10 list.

Thank you Mark Kermode. 

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