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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Film Review – Black Panther

No significant spoilers in this review

I just saw the latest offering in the Marvel stable in IMAX 3D – Black Panther. Alongside Moon Knight and Hank Pym (who both suffer from inner demons), I’ve found the challenges of Black Panther one of the most interesting in the Marvel comics universe. Chiefly, his turmoil as he struggles with the duties of a king and his own personal values as a person and responsibilities to the world as a whole.

Black Panther from Captain America: Civil War. Source: Marvel.com

This is explored deftly in the new film, which gives us a socio-political quandary right at the beginning – can the isolated secret technology-rich African nation of Wakanda accept responsibility to the rest of the world (and its own continent) and open up, using its resources to help other peoples? It’s a real-life problem that many countries face, and is rendered more stark by the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is surrounded by poor neighbours.

Map and Location of Wakanda. Source: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #12 (December 1983).

This is a great popcorn film, full of well-choreographed action sequences, stunning costumes and beautiful cinematography and computer-generated imagery. In particular, the combination of these during the fights in water at a cliff-edge were pure eye candy. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed looking at a film so much, and the key feature here is the balance: there is never too much to see on the screen, but just enough for one to appreciate. I would highly recommend watching this film on an IMAX rather than standard screen, although the 3D elements of the film weren’t particularly crucial to the experience.

Cliff Edge water fight scene. Source: Nerdist.com, Marvel.com

The performances in the film were decent, though not perfect. Chadwick Boseman was very good as T’Challa, as were Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as his warrior queen and general respectively. I didn’t quite find Letitia Wright’s Shuri as convincing, but that may be personal taste as she is a good actress in other films I’ve seen. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi was outstanding, and this actor is quickly showing the range in his performances – from an excellent Black Mirror episode, to Sicario, to Get Out and now this performance laiden with subtleties. He’s come a looooong way since playing a pretty stereotyped London Nigerian parking attendant in Harry and Paul. I’ve loved Martin Freeman since his role in the UK’s Office but I found his Everett Ross performance a bit ham-fisted. Andy Serkis was outstandingly over the top as Ulysses Klaue and you can’t help to think he is wasted in his many motion capture roles, I want to see him on-screen! He reminded me of Sharlto Copley in District 9 except even more unhinged. Michael B Jordan as the thuggist Killmonger didn’t do it for me as a principal antagonist – I never felt invested in the character and why he turned out as he did, and was left thinking “What if Daniel Kaluuya had played this role…”. But this is a minor gripe given the variety of great performances throughout the cast.

Cast of Black Panther. Source: www.facebook.com/MarvelCinematicUniverse

My only other criticism of the film was that the humour wasn’t as up-there as I thought it would be – there was a particularly weak joke about “sneakers” which I’m sure was intended to be funny but the cinema was silent. This could be because I had been spoilt by Taika Waititi’s outstanding Thor:Ragnarok which had me in stitches from the beginning to the end. But the themes in this film are, perhaps, such that comedy isn’t really an important element to the story, whereas the third Thor outing had invested itself in being a comedy showpiece, which is executed expertly. In any case, I can’t complain as both films, and indeed so many of the recent Marvel Cinematic offerings, were pure entertainment. Indeed, this studio is struggling to put a foot wrong, with the exception of the absolutely awful Inhumans series.

I would thoroughly recommend this film as a piece of entertainment with some interesting questions throughout.

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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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