Film reviews: Taxi Tehran | The Last Witch Hunter | Under Milk Wood

IRANIAN filmmaker Jafar Panahi gets behind the wheel of a cab to show he won’t give in to state persecution, writes Alistair Harkness. Also reviewed is the Vin Diesel and Rose Leslie-starring The Last Witch Hunter
Taxi TehranTaxi Tehran
Taxi Tehran

Taxi Tehran (15) | Directed by: Jafar Panahi | Rating: ****

Having been arrested, imprisoned, sentenced to six years under house arrest and banned from making movies for 20 years, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s continued ability to not only create films, but get them out into the world at presumably great personal risk, is one of the more inspiring examples of why movies continue to matter in the digital age.

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Beginning with 2011’s fictionalised video diary This is Not a Film and continuing with 2013’s Closed Curtain, Panahi certainly hasn’t let the governmental restrictions on his movements silence him or bring to an end what was shaping up to be a major career on the world cinema scene.

For his third feature since his arrest, he gets even bolder, taking advantage of the diminished security around him to drive a yellow taxi in Tehran while filming himself and his passengers using a dashboard-mounted digital camera. He explains the presence of the camera to his first passengers – a man and a woman – as a security device, which prompts a debate about crime and punishment punctuated by the man berating Panahi for his terrible driving skills. “You’re not a real cab driver,” he tells Panahi. But are these real passengers? The film refuses to say definitively, serving up instead a playful mix of documentary and fiction.

Some of his passengers are presented as old friends, others – like the dealer in black-market DVDs who insists he supplied him with a copy of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – recognise him and question whether they’re in a film. Still others – like the two elderly women carrying goldfish – don’t have a clue about his identity and mainly object to being ejected from the car so Panahi can pick up his 11-year-old niece.

As it happens, his niece becomes his sidekick for the remainder of the film. Charged with making a short film for school, she talks to her uncle about the rules she’s been given for making a distributable film, rules that include avoiding “sordid realism” – a stipulation that makes her uncle chuckle knowingly (such things are part of the reason he was arrested in the first place). Taxi Tehran doesn’t offer much sordid realism of its own, but Panahi’s light-hearted banter and his interactions with his niece and his multiple fares – whether real or staged – give a valuable insight into life lived under a constant veil of political and religious oppression. More than anything it shows how digital technology can be used to turn even the smallest space into a haven for creative freedom and artistic expression.

The final shot may symbolise the temporary nature of such solutions, but the preceding film reminds us why they’re important.

Outcast (12A) | Directed by: Nick Powell | Starring: Nicolas Cage, Hayden Christensen, Andy On | Rating: *

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“You’re not the man you once were,” says Hayden Christensen to Nicolas Cage early on in this cheap-looking Crusades actioner. “None of us are,” comes the beleaguered reply. With this exchange – delivered by both actors in bizarre English accents – Cage seems to have given up the pretence of trying to maintain his legacy: even by the standards of his tax-bill-clearing choices of late, Outcast is a howler and the nadir of Cage’s career. Cast as a crazy warrior who reteams with Christensen’s opium-addicted knight to aid the mild-mannered heir to the Chinese throne after he and his sister are banished by their power-hungry sibling, it’s so bad even Cage completists will struggle to reach the end. Abysmal.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution (15) | Directed by: Stanley Nelson | Rating: ****

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An exhaustive account of the revolutionary black power political movement that sprung up in Oakland, California in the late 1960s, Stanley Nelson’s film mixes rare archival footage with penetrating interviews to explore the successes, failures, myths and realities of the Black Panthers. Naturally it zeroes in on the controversies surrounding their decision to carry firearms – something that led to unusual spectacle of the Republicans (spearheaded by Ronald Reagan) actively seeking gun control – but the film’s scope is much broader and Nelson does a good job of interrogating the movement’s ideological inconsistencies, its gender divisions and the police brutality endured by its members, as well as exploring the effects of the FBI’s determination to destroy Panthers and the Liberal Left’s attempts to co-opt them.

The Last Witch Hunter (12A) | Directed by: Breck Eisner | Starring: Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie | Rating: *

After the failure of The Chronicles of Riddick, one might think Vin Diesel would have given up trying to launch another fantasy saga with its own dense mythology, but no: here he is again with another honking heap of humourless hokum. He plays Kaulder, the witch hunter of the title. Cursed with immortality 800 years previously, he now finds himself living in modern-day New York where he works for the Catholic church as a sort of peace envoy, regularly dispatched around the globe to maintain the truce that apparently exists between humans and the witches who live in secret among us. It’s spectacularly dull nonsense, with Michael Caine – on hand as Kaulder’s handler – delivering reams of tedious exposition.

Under Milk Wood (15) | Directed by: Kevin Allen | Starring: Rhys Ifans, Charlotte Church, Llyr Ifans, Julian Lewis | Rating: **

Released to coincide with Dylan Thomas’s birthday (and the end of the year-long centenary celebrations), this adaptation of his radio play is an eclectic, sometimes trippy take on the Welsh poet’s playful send-up of his home country. Set in the fictional village of Llareggub (try reading it backwards), the story is essentially a plotless series of vignettes, linked together as a sort of fever dream of filth, fornication and surreal humour. Though the experience is boosted by Rhys Ifans clearly relishing the chance to wrap his tonsils round Dylan’s bawdy language as both the narrator and the mournful Captain Cat, for all director Kevin Allen’s visual invention, this does feel more like an elaborate gallery installation than a film. Sustained engagement will likely depend on a prior fondness for the play.