Monday, May 4, 2015

Desert Dancer (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Desert Dancer

The story of Afshin Ghaffarian is a compelling and visceral story. As a young boy in Iran, he was driven to perform using the bodily instrument of dance to express himself. In his birth country, free-style dance was forbidden, though not technically illegal. Still, to practice it was to risk punishment and possible jail time, under the shuttering eyes of the morality police.

To the delight of his classmates at school, Afshin danced in great sweeps only to be called from school and shamed. Later, he was hounded by fundamentalists, beaten and stomped on.

His every gesture was then churned into  motion that he incorporated into his kinetic art.

Like Antonin Artaud before him, Afshin uses his body as antenna to transmit the fear around him and filter it anew.

Richard Raymond's "Desert Dancer" is the film version of Ghaffarian's efforts to be an artist under Iran's  very real oppression.

Actor Reece Ritchie (The Lovely Bones) is Afshin as a young man at Tehran University, surrounded by the vibrancy of paint, graffiti and loud music.

Ritchie's portrayal is well intentioned but aside from spinning, twirling and moonwalking in long scrolls of movement, we never get a sense of his uniqueness as a person or his individual character. It is well established that he is talented and driven as a dancer, but aside from that, he is uniform, bland and insipid. Aside from dance related dialogue, he says precious little.

What makes Afshin tick? What are his quirks and foibles?

Instead, there is a plodding story as Afshin tries to assemble (what else?) a dance group. Despite its Iranian location, the film goes the conventional route of other dance related films in its message of standing up against the system from "Footloose" to "Flashdance" with the same, heavy handed, all too obvious slogans in the mode of "To Dance is to Live."

After so many versions of this, shouldn't there be a more complex approach?

When a gang-leader attacks Ghaffarian, and says "I'll find you, Afshin Ghaffarian!", he all but twirls a black mustache.

The country of Iran too, shows little uniqueness aside from a sea of green with crowds chanting for the candidate Mousavi. The election of 2009 is interesting all by itself but we are given only a bit of window dressing. Aside from chanting, how does the election affect the dancers personally in terms of feeling. Again we don't really know and Afshin seems only to skate around the edges of what is a very tumultuous result, although he does get beaten.

Elaheh (Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire), is Ghaffarian's dance partner. She dances well but who in a moment of struggle turns to heroin. Her withdrawl scenes lack emotion and she is far from convincing as the addict artist. Aha, here is Elaheh, stumbling over a dinner table and she looks fresh from a modeling shoot. Why not turn that into a routine?

The dance numbers though no doubt earnest and serious, play as laughable comedy. In one scene, Afshin and Elaheh are in the dunes writhing and spiraling in torment. Suddenly from out of the blue, Ardavan (Tom Cullen) appears scampering like twinkletoes on the balls of his feet. He symbolizes a threatening and violent policeman, yet the effect is so overdone in its treatment that it comes across as Monty Python or Elmer Fudd. In another dance segment, Pinto walks her fingers across her arms in the manner of a first grader doing a "Here's the church \ There's the steeple" trick.

The last straw of "Desert Dancer" occurs when an entire crowd makes a V for victory sign in identification with Afshin. Afshin Ghaffarian's art deserves a more novel treatment that doesn't stoop, hand wring our senses or preach with syrup and sentiment. That this film is filled with such overt mawkishness is a missed opportunity.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ex Machina (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Ex Machina

Author Alex Garland (The Beach) delivers a directorial debut with "Ex Machina," a vivid and thoughtful meditation on the science of Artificial Intelligence, the simulation of empathy through electronic means.

In addition to being a slick 1970s type thriller, it is more importantly, a commentary on what it is to be human.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a myopic computer programmer, suddenly wins a lottery, and gets a chance to work with the genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) , hard at work in an undisclosed location. Caleb is taken by a black helicopter to a verdant green mountain area, the unmapped Eden. After much walking, the young man spies a cinderblock fortress, which goes deeper and deeper under the rock.

Caleb meets an eerie person in Nathan. While at first he is quiet and unassuming, Nathan reveals himself to be hyperactive, obsessive and judgmental, brimming with a barely contained aggression, compulsively punching a bag.

Caleb's task is to conduct a test on a new android Ava (Alicia Vikander) and to report his studies.

The film has a quiet and easy motion, offering us little details like crumbs, sneakily and objectively, rather than spilling the beans. This gives us the rare ability to reflect upon each scene and every disturbing space.

In tone and flavor, "Ex Machina" borrows from many sources: the fictions of J.G. Ballard, and the classics "2001," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Island of Dr.  Moreau" for starters, but this does not cheapen the film, for the story has distinctive  spirit, coupled with a melancholy, yet quirky character that is uniquely individual.

Oscar Isaac is wonderful as a poignant and intimidating man of vision. Dark and hirsute, his character is a kind of ape in cyberspace. He is a man of total instinct, an iron ball of muscle and hair.

The concepts and revelations are striking enough, but the film excels even more in its production of a complete and insulated world, of a mind at war with Creation.

Tribal death masks hang on a wall, perhaps as trophies or perhaps as fetishes to the ego of Nathan himself as a half beast, half Steve Jobs inventor. In the kitchen, a picture of the premier Surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire is visible. In the study, a painting by Jackson Pollock hangs on the wall. Nathan is a man deeply unhappy with how the human realm works and he pines to remake it. Then as if by the touch of an iPad, he changes into a sexist Hugh Hefner, marooned on a libidinous neon isle, without import or meaning.

Ava yearns to be considered a person, although crafted by a bestial megalomaniac. Her lithe and curving body makes a sensual serpent. Even her bright blue tubing appears to pulse in seduction.

The first half of the film is designed to hook us in the manner of a Frankenstein Creepshow, while the latter segments pack the most punch, causing us to ponder as much as wince with some retro era scares.

This is a Passion Play for our century, illustrating the beginnings of a Life anew.

Regardless of the era or level of technology, the moral of "Ex Machina" seems to be that to be human is ultimately to be selfish.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Woman in Gold (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Woman in Gold

Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) directs this blandly-told historic tale about a woman who wishes to recover a masterpiece  that the Nazis (and by extension the Austrian government ) has stolen from her.

Dress shop owner Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) is obsessed with a world famous portrait of her Aunt Adele painted by Gustav Klimt. The painting is a delicious vision. To many it is known as The Woman in Gold. Oriental in style, yet oddly space age, the iconic painting puts me in mind of a voluptuous vampire fossilized in candy. Coincidentally, the man who commissioned the painting was the Czech sugar magnate, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Mrs. Altmann is driven by the memory of her Aunt who died of meningitis in 1925. Upon Adele's death, the portrait became her body and presence and Altmann lived with the portrait for over ten years. In 1938, the gestapo came in, raided the Bloch-Bauer residence and took the painting without a word.

During a funeral for her sister, Altmann gets the contact information of Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) a young lawyer green around the ears. Schoenberg knows nothing about art restitution but he reluctantly agrees to research the subject.

Soon, he is hooked, as much from Maria's spirited resolve as the complex case.

The pair (by chance it seems) gets insider information from the reporter Hubertus Czernan (Daniel Bruhl) who has all of the useful answers.

While the film has a serialized feel of a Sherlock Holmes story or a TV court drama, with many scenes showing Ryan Reynolds rushing  and huffing breathlessly about, Helen Mirren gives the film a well needed gold shot in the arm with her pithy one liners in the mode of a "Saving Mr. Banks".

A chase scene plays tepidly. The officers are neither lively nor formidable but just merely present. Their most terrifying action is in the nonchalant removal of a Holbein and a diamond choker.

Katie Holmes is anemic as Randol's wife, but a good antidote is the stuffy and immovable Toman (Justus von Dohnanyi) as a Belvedere Museum representative. And, in what might be the weirdest moment in the film, Richard Reid plays Ronald Lauder, spaced out and staring in the manner of a David Cronenberg character.

Reynolds is not quite convincing as an impassioned lawyer, as his quizzical and flat expression seldom changes. He does show some juice when angry, but the chemistry between him and Mirren feels half-hearted.

Yet just when things go by the book as in many legal dramas with meetings, late night revelations over the computer and calls in the wee hours, Mirren saves the film with her haunt and possible attraction to her aunt who rises from the pools of her dark eyes to become a wanting in amber.

Though "Woman in Gold" remains conventional with some frequently seen trappings, fans of Helen Mirren will be well sated with her cool repostes. Her delivery has a vibrant  charm and it is through Mirren's expression alone that we feel the winding and sylph-like spirit of Aunt Adele and sense her knowing smile.

Write Ian at

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Week of May 1 - 7 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Variety is the Spice at Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From sci-fi to historic drama, from fairy tale to true crime, the Tropic screens are ablaze with variety this week.
Take the clash of science fiction with today’s science: We’ve seen the theme of androids and artificial intelligence in movies going back to 1927’s "Metropolis." Steven Spielberg addressed it straight-on in "A.I." and we encountered a really smart phone in "Her." Now we have "Ex Machina," a movie depicting an erotic encounter between man and machine. Here a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) applies the Turing Test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android built by his Steve Job-like boss (Oscar Isaac). The Miami Herald tells us that director-writer Alex Garland’s "primary concern is his flesh-and-blood characters, even though they are not nearly as showy (or beautiful) as his main attraction, the vulnerable, delicate girl with a heart of steel and wires." And Denver Post calls it "a methodically absorbing sci-fi drama."

Turning to history, "Woman In Gold" gives us iron-willed Maria Altmann (Dame Helen Mirren), an Austrian woman determined to recover a Gustav Klimt painting of her dear aunt that was stolen by the Nazis. And with the help of her young attorney (Ryan Reynolds) she takes on the Austrian government. Grantland says, "Sometimes you know a movie is going to work in about the first three scenes. This one really works." Young Folks adds, "We will surely remember the beauty with which the past comes alive right before Maria’s eyes."

"While We’re Young" introduces us to two couples (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) whose age differences may imply other differences as they become BFF’s … maybe. East Bay Express calls it "a routine middle-age-crazy sitcom for over-educated urbanites." But Winnipeg Free Press sees it as "a smart, observational comedy on the millennial iteration of the generation gap."

"True Story" is in fact based on a true story: A disgraced New York Times reporter (Jonah Hill) whose identify gets stolen by a charismatic murderer (James Franco). Paste Magazine says it "attempts to tackle issues of reportorial and moral integrity -- just how far someone will go to convince him or herself that the end justifies the means …" And Common Sense Media calls it a "gripping, disturbing drama based on real murders."

Another true story, "Desert Dancer" tells of Iranian choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian (played by Reece Ritchie) who defied social custom to join an underground dance troupe in Tehran. Chicago Sun-Times notes, "director Richard Raymond keeps the story moving …" And says, "Unsurprisingly, dancing is the highlight …"

Back in fantasy land, Disney presents a live-action version of "Cinderella," the classic fairy tale of a young woman (Lily James) hoping her prince will save her from scullery drudgery and a wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett). 3AW declares, "Disney’s first-class, straight-faced, irony-free, live-action remake of its own 1950 animated classic is a delightful explosion of color, costumes, virtue and snarling . . . a truly beautiful film." And The Arts Desk observes, "Cate Blanchett steals her stepdaughter Cinders’s show."

What great choices!

Desert Dancer (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies 

"Desert Dancer" Whirls on Screen

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
You think Kevin Bacon had it bad in "Footloose"? Try dancing in Iran. Last year six young Iranian men and women who were videotaped dancing to Pharrell Williams’ "Happy" were given suspended jail terms and 91 lashes each.

Happy indeed!

The Islamic revolution of 1979 brought an end to professional dancing and ballet in Iran. Dancing was seen as a great sin, immoral, perverse, and corrupting.

"Although many Iranians dance at private parties, especially weddings, the ruling clerical establishment frowns on such behavior, especially when it involves the mingling of the sexes," says BBC journalist Jim Muir.

But there’s a long Persian tradition of dance. And the new generation is willing to break the rules.

To wit, there’s a new film aptly titled "Desert Dancer" that gives us the partly true story of Afshin Ghaffarian, a self-taught dancer and choreographer who risked his life to form a dance company in Iran. The group learned dance moves from watching videos of Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly and Rudolf Nureyev, even though such videos are banned.

"Desert Dancer" is currently whirling across screens at the Tropic Cinema.

As the film tells it, "Dancing is not illegal, it’s just not allowed."

"The dance is not banned in Iran, even though I may have contributed to the fact that you could have this impression," says the real-life Afshin Ghaffarian. "There is dancing everywhere, it is danced at weddings, it is private dance, even in official circles. The attitude to dance in the official Iran, however, demonstrated by the fact that you cannot call it a dance. Man hiding it behind other word terms. For example, my form of dance is called ‘physical theater.’ Hip-hop is called aerobics. Classical ballet, you can learn in Tehran, is ‘Rhythmic Gymnastics,’ i.e. sports. All of these things there are, they are just called differently."

In the film, Afshin (portrayed by English actor Reece Ritchie) forms a romantic bond with another dancer, a beautiful ballerina named Elaheh (Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire"). They practice in the desert (hence the film’s title), offering us a sensuous pas de deux.

In real life, Afshin Ghaffarian defected after a 2009 performance in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. Five years later he returned to Iran.

Woman In Gold (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

In "Woman In Gold" Helen Mirren Glitters Brightly

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
In 1907 Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of a patron of the arts named Adele Bloch-Bauer. Commissioned by Adele's husband, it was a 54" x 54" canvas in gold and oil. Klimt took three years to complete it.

Adele died in 1925 and when the Nazis took over Austria they confiscated the painting. It wound up in the Austrian State Gallery.
Adele’s niece sued the Austrian government for restitution of this and five other paintings. She was aided in her quest by an American lawyer. This is the basis for a new movie called "Woman in Gold" showing at Tropic Cinema.

In it, a determined young lawyer named E. Randal Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds in a serious role at last) helps Maria Altman (Dame Helen Mirren, of course) retrieve this famous painting. It’s a courtroom drama with an international flavor.

Others in the cast include Katie Holms, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Frances Fisher, Charles Dance, and Jonathan Pryce -- with Antje Traue as Adele, and Moritz Bleibtreu as Gustav Klimt.

The script was penned with the real-life Randal Schoenberg’s help.
Although a hold-your-attention film, it has a few shortcomings. All the Austrian gallery owners and their lawyers are made out to be "heel-clicking Nazis in all but name and uniform." Ryan Reynolds is too goy for the role of a Jewish descendant from two Austrian composers. And director Simon Curtis is sometimes heavy handed in his retelling of this historical pastiche.

But Mirren is magnificent in this feel-good tale of social injustice set right.

Ex Machina (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Ex Machina" Tests Your Artificial Intelligence

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Stephen Hawking warns, "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."


Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.

Which brings us to a new sci-fi film titled "Ex Machina," currently screening at the Tropic Cinema. Directed by novelist Alex Garland, it pits humans against androids powered by A.I.

As it happens, Alan Turing (the subject of "The Imitation Game") was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. The Turing Test is named in his honor. It examines artificial intelligence in a computer, its methodology based on whether you can distinguish the machine from another human being by a series of questions put to both.

In essence, "Ex Machina" is a 108-minute exploration of the Turing Test. Here, a bright young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is tapped by his reclusive boss (Oscar Isaac) to test an android prototype named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

The testing gets complicated when the programmer realizes that her artificial intelligence includes a penchant for sexuality. Can he remain objective when faced with her seductive charm?
Power outages allow him to communicate in private with Ava. Should he believe her when she warns him not to trust his boss? Should he help her escape the confines of the secluded mountain hideaway?
Or is he the one being tested?

Writing about "Ex Machina," New Scientist Magazine said, "It is a rare thing to see a movie about science that takes no prisoners intellectually..."

What should we make of today’s scientific advancement in artificial intelligence? Prof Hawking says to be careful.

Should I unplug Seri on my iPhone?