Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

jafar-panahis-taxi-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

jafar-panahi-in-taxi-tehran

Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com; http://www.imdb.com

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Release: Friday, November 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour

Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour 

In Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour’s first film only two things are certain: you will meet a girl, and you will see her walking home alone at night. Outside the realm of the obvious exists a strange and ominous atmosphere laden with unpredictability and breathtaking creativity, an environment that challenges viewers’ preconceived notions of what vampires can and cannot do or be.

In the film you’ll see a vampire skateboarding. You’ll also see her seeking out wayward men for their tasty blood supply. I think it’s clear which of the actions hew closer to traditional vampiric values; yet for all of its clever subversiveness this isn’t a movie aching with the pain of vampiric immortality, it’s the kind of love story mainstream Hollywood time and again harps on using beautiful looking people to sell the sensation of kissing born out of true love, but the catch is this one’s brilliantly disguised in layers of velvety texture and genre-blurring style. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t really much without its own chador, but my goodness, what a stylish cover it is.

Perhaps it’s too dismissive paralleling Amirpour’s art with Tinseltown’s preference for Happily Ever After. The denouement left me wanting, but I now find myself overcome with the striking visual imagery and subdued performances that, when coalescing in earnest, recall an era of Hollywood production well before my time — a shot of the nameless girl (hello, Sheila Vand) applying make-up in her humble abode evokes a Middle Eastern Audrey Hepburn in all her ethereal beauty. But the longer I sat there, ever more entranced by the contrasts in the film’s gorgeous grayscale the more I realized the sum total of the production mattered less than its more memorable passages.

Girl is just as much about grappling with loneliness and/or failed romance — Bad City is one strange place, its population of night-prowling prostitutes reminds one of the inescapable hopelessness of Basin City — as it is concerned with identity. The titular girl more often than not manifests as a specter of death as she stalks a brutish thug who she witnesses abusing a hooker in a vehicle he has just stolen from the film’s second lead, Arash (Arash Marandi). Our introduction to the girl is foreboding, but in the aftermath of a forthcoming scene in which the thug assumes he is successful in seducing her, we get a glimpse of the vigilantism that is to come. Her physical appearance — one that is borderline iconic already — causes prejudice as we’re never fully certain what she is capable of. We pick up a pattern though. She seems to prey upon men, and not just any man she comes across.

Ostensibly Bad City’s guardian . . . vampire, she’s more interested in ridding the town of its evildoers — if you do see other people in the frame there’s a good chance they belong to the mass grave of bodies in a shallow ravine. It’s not until she comes across Arash, cloaked in a Dracula cape and false fanged teeth (who also happens to be tripping balls on ecstasy having just stumbled out of a Halloween party), that we get a better handle on how Amirpour means to go about depicting a less civilized society, one plagued by moral turpitude and antiquated views on gender roles. The long, flowing headdress manifests as traditional garb worn by Muslim women and phantasms alike, even if the association with the latter is more approximation than traditional visual manifestation (capes typically do not fully engulf a vampire’s body head-to-toe, yet that’s what’s demanded of most Middle Eastern women).

When found in her apartment bathing in the throbbing pulses of some kind of new wave music (I’m not cool enough to be able to tell you exactly what or who it is), sans her enigmatic exterior, the girl becomes, in some ways, even more mysterious. She seems a perfectly ordinary teenaged girl, one with a fascination for pop culture and presumably a desire to be anywhere but where she currently is. Arash, the good boy, starts hanging out with her more often, intrigued by her aloofness. Though she barely speaks, even in the company of someone who actually seems to care about whether or not she’s freezing cold, mutual attraction is evident. Love, as it is portrayed in many a big-budget Hollywood production, is thick and syrupy yet it enables our principals to get over things they otherwise couldn’t. If there’s a flaw in Amirpour’s auspicious debut, it’s the realization that love apparently does conquer all. The conclusion is far less interesting than what has preceded it — minus Masuka the cat, that was great casting —  and feels too safe. Too routine for a production so firmly rooted in unorthodoxy.

Girl marks an exciting beginning for an up-and-coming director and effectively establishes yet another intriguing take on the vampire legend. Last year Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive struck a chord with audiences, providing an absorbing and amusing take on the curse of immortality. Highly atmospheric and memorably performed, that film invited audiences in to its obscure yet wholly believable world of hipster vampires. That audience clearly had Amirpour in attendance. Eerie, enigmatic and unforgettable, her painstakingly off-beat creation is superlative ‘style over substance’ filmmaking.

Recommendation: Unlike any film I’ve seen before, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is quite the experience, yet its methodical pace, limited dialogue (spoken in Farsi with English subtitles), and borderline erratic genre shifting could prove too much for some viewers. Girl is more an art form and less a story you can . . . uh, sink your teeth into; it’s eerie, haunting, mesmerizing and oh-so-slightly amusing all at once. I’d say it’s worth a look for those in search of something off the beaten path. And it’s right there for you on Netflix. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com