Sunday, May 31, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Clouds of Sils Maria

Some films fly in the face of convention and become character studies filled with nervous tension. Instead of highlighting action and consequence, these films illustrate pathos through speech. Desire, fear and paranoia are frequent themes. Over past years at the Tropic, the offbeat films "Force Majuere", and "Locke" were some excellent examples.

And "Clouds of Sils Maria," directed by Oliver Assayas, can now be added to this singular but splendid group, for those of us that like our mysteries many sided.

Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, an iconic actress who is losing her punch, coasting a bit on past roles. She yearns to do something unexpected and daring. Maria takes a trip to Zurich to accept an award in honor of her friend and director Wilhelm Melchior. The director tells her that he wishes to make a sequel of her early groundbreaking theatrical hit titled "Maloja Snake," made when Maria was young, with her playing the seducer now twenty years later. Suddenly, Melchior, who was terminally ill, dies of a presumed heart attack.

Maria is at a loss. She is soon approached by a young enfant terrible director, perhaps in the mode of Lars von Trier, who wants to try the sequel with Maria now in the role of the aging victim rather than the evil seductress.

Enders is shaky and uncertain but tentatively agrees, thinking that it will be a tribute to her late friend.

The amorally scandalous young actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz)  is set to co-star as Ender's  tormentor and unrequited love.

The main pull of the film becomes Maria's anxiety poised against her own ultra-confident and jaded assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who jabs at Maria about her age and past accomplishments.

Each day the the two go on mountain hikes to exhausting locations where they stop and rehearse the play's key scenes. Under Valentine's judgmental gaze no amount of effort is ever quite good enough.


Maria begins to wither.

These discords are further enhanced by the landscape itself which feels saturated by an odd sort of supernaturalism that has an eerie yet passive quality.

Who or what is the primary threat in this film? Is it Maria? Valentine? Jo-Ann? The earth of Sils Maria or all of these elements. Much in the way of a novel in motion, the film merely presents segments of conversation and incident and we are left to draw our own conclusions. Events unfold without any intentional meaning or import and no one person is likely to interpret the film in the same way, very much, I imagine, like an individual life. While there are no overt trembling moments, there is more than a bit of disturbance. One imagines Maria Enders going in the direction of Carole from "Repulsion".

But rather than go the route of a mainstream thriller, "Clouds of Sils Maria" is quite unsettling enough in its illustration of one existence fraught with biting serpents that become both real and imaginary at once.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Welcome to Me (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Welcome to Me

With "Welcome to Me" helmed by Shira Piven, Kristen Wiig (SNL, Bridesmaids) takes a dark cue from Jim Carrey ala "The Truman Show" in her role as Alice, a fanciful but disturbingly narcissistic fan of talk shows and Oprah Winfrey.

Alice, a former employee of an animal shelter is a shut in, who struggles with emotional instability. Her apartment is filled with dusty VHS tapes of Oprah dispensing bright wisdom.

One day she stops her medication and buys tons of lottery tickets. Over pudding she watches and waits. Then it happens.

Alice wins.

Instead of jumping up and down in ecstasy. She decides right then and there to change her life.

She moves to Vegas and visits a health salesman who runs a show highlighting magic algae.

Alice has a strangely distant but spontaneous way of remarking on things that hooks the producer Rich (James Marsden) more because of her oddness than from meaning or importance.

A little encouragement goes a long way.

Alice buys her own talk show. The producer is forced to humor the weird, young woman.

In a fine performance, Wiig does well in portraying the off-putting rants and quirks of Alice. She is not a bad person, but for lack of a better word she is a bit vague, clumsy and grating in her obvious foolery. She yells screams and dopily twirls about the room. Alice doesn't seem to have a center. For reasons that are hard to fathom she mispronounces commonly used words like "carbohydrates" and "neuter".

In her total and complete otherworldliness, Kirsten Wiig is a bit like the singular Andy Kaufman at times. Watchable and bizarre as she is, she falls on the floor an awful lot in sexual gyrations, seemingly for no reason and speaks about menstruation, child abuse and stolen makeup. Her dialogue is so sudden and rife with non-sequiturs that it becomes hard to make sense of it all.

Stranger still, there is a long bit about on-air dog castrations that is queasy and  difficult to laugh about.

There have been other Alice-like roles. Jim Carrey has done several curious and far out performances highlighting insular personalities like the inwardly tortured Joel Barish in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and the abstract Truman Burbank in "The Truman Show," who was also obsessive. There was Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's "The King of Comedy." And who can forget the iconic portrayal of Chauncey Gardiner as delivered by Peter Sellers in "Being There." These characters all had dysfunction and comedy at their core but also an added depth and variation, vital to keep us watching, however outrageous the events.

In this film, however, all of Alice's sobbing and caterwauling evolves into silly noise with little logic or heart. I didn't laugh once.

As unfunny and flat as the film plays , Kristen Wiig deserves some spooky praise in her portrayal of such an odd bird.

The acting talents of Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh appear as a psychiatrist and a network head respectively, albeit in stock performances. Leigh is haggard and Robbins is passive.

While it is at first compelling that Alice Klieg is spacey and out of touch, there is scarcely little novelty in Wiig's performance aside from being egocentric and crazed. From TV mania to her badly burned boobs and some on-camera neutering of dogs, it doesn't seem to mean all that much. Unfortunately, one will get more yucks to the stomach than any belly laughs.

As a method acting exercise, Alice Klieg is of interest, but as a character driven feature, "Welcome to Me" is all silliness and hurry offering little invitation for laughs.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, May 29, 2015

Week of May 29 - June 4 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview
 
Tropic Cinema Blends New Films With Worthy Holdovers
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

New films keep coming out faster than we can see some already in theaters. Tropic does an admirable job of blending new with already-there fare.

New this week is “Welcome to Me,” a great tribute to narcissism. Kristen Wiig plays Alice, a wacky woman who wins the lottery and uses the money to buy her own TV talk show, imagining herself an Oprah-like personality. Chicago Sun-Times observes, “It's a tricky business playing someone who is
mentally ill and perhaps should be confined for observation, especially in a dark comedy. Wiig manages to make Alice funny as hell, endearing, sad, and sometimes a little frightening.” And Globe and Mail adds that it’s “an unsettling comedy, and I mean that in the best possible way.”

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared” is a Swedish comedy about, well, a hundred-year-old man who skips out on his birthday party and runs off with a suitcase of ill-gotten money. As Variety puts it, “Like a cross between Forrest Gump and a Jonathan Winters character, this Swedish centenarian bumbles his way through international events.” And SSG Syndicate calls it “irreverent and filled with slapstick … an absurdist comic fable.”

Nominated for an Academy Award, “Clouds of Sils Maria” gives us Maria (Juliette Binoche), an actress at the peak of her career who is asked to perform a revival of the play that made her famous
some twenty years earlier. But is she being humiliated by this role-switching maneuver? Sky Movies says, “Binoche is reliably good but it’s Kristen Stewart who genuinely surprises, delivering a sexually-charged portrait of a girl who’s youthfully vulnerable at one moment and a whipsmart mobile-phone juggling fixer the next.” And Guardian notes, “It’s mature, complex and talky -- Bergmanesque.”

Moving to Tropic Screens is “The Age of Adaline,” a strange tale about a woman (Blake Lively) who does not age. Daily Telegraph calls it “a quaintly disarming fairy tale.” And Times says, “This magical-realist meditation on mortality is untroubled by logic….”

Holding over is “Far From Madding Crowd,” a steamy version of Thomas Hardy’s novel about a country heiress who loves unwisely.  Salt Lake Tribune says, “Carey Mulligan breathes life into Bathsheba, in a performance that highlights the character's passion without treating her like a flighty, immature girl.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune tells us, “It’s beautifully old and atmospheric without feeling dated.”

Still proving it’s worth, “Woman in Gold” holds over too. Here a woman (Dame Helen Mirren) sues the Austrian government for the return of a painting stolen by the Nazis. The Mercury describes it as “one of those films that might not challenge you too much with an artful story, but still appeals on some deeper emotional level.” And Sydney Morning News sums up: “It’s an underdog story tailor-made for the movies, devoid of surprises but touching all the same.”

Almost like a wedding with something old, something new, something etc.

srhoades@aol.com

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The 100-Year-Old Man” Takes a Walkabout Through History
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Take a deep breath and say the lengthy title of this Swedish comedy out loud and you’ll have its plot synopsis: “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.”
Based on a same-named book by Jonas Jonasson, this is the story of a hundraåringen (Swedish for a century-old man) who has a series of misadventures after skipping out of his retirement home rather than face the humdrum of his 100th birthday party.
Did I mention he finds a suitcase filled with money and gets chased by both the police and a gang of drug dealers? And that lots of people get killed?
Along the way we get a glimpse of his implausible life. He has dined with Harry S Truman, partied with Stalin, helped Oppenheimer invent the atomic bomb, and hung out with Einstein’s not-so-smart twin brother.
 
Think: Forrest Gump.
 
Written and directed by Felix Herngren, this is essentially a road movie. With lots of explosions. Lots of black humor. Colorful, over-the-top characters. And it’s knee-slapping funny.
 
“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” is currently showing at the Tropic Cinema.
 
Interestingly, the mumbling old centenarian is played by a 50-year-old actor (Robert Gustafsson, known as “the funniest man in Sweden”). It took a lot of makeup to age him. All told, Gustafsson estimates that he spent the equivalent of three full weeks getting his prosthetics and old-age makeup applied during the filming.
 
But the question remains, what sets a 100-year-old man off on such a madcap journey? Is he simply blundering through life? Is he a metaphor for Sweden’s history of neutrality? Does he always go wandering when life gets too boring? Or is our Grump-y old man simply telling us that it’s never too late to start over…?
srhoades@aol.com
 
 

The Age of Adaline (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
“The Age of Adaline” Stops the Clocks
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
I just celebrated a birthday (don’t ask), but I’m not as old as the eponymous title character in “The Age of Adaline.” Adaline Bowman is 107.
People say I look younger than my actual chronology, but Adaline has me beat there too. She’s stuck at the age of 29.
 
Unlike Benjamin Button who aged backward or Dorian Gray whose youth depended on a spooky painting, our girl Adaline (played by Blake Lively) does not change her age at all. Having died in
frigid water when her automobile ran off the road, and being revived a la Frankenstein by a lightning strike, she is cursed with perpetual youth.
Before you protest that this doesn’t sound so bad, think about what it would mean as your loved ones grow old and die while you remain wrinkle-free. C’mon, you know you’d be upset.
 
Yes, this is a problem movie vampires share, eternity without growing older. But Adaline isn’t a fanged bloodsucker; merely a freak of nature.
 
Forced to go on the run when the FBI shows interest in her condition, Adaline faces numerous social challenges. How do you explain to a cop who pulls you over that you really are the 40-year-old woman on your driver’s license when you look so young? How do you convince an old beau (Harrison Ford) that you’re the “daughter” of the woman he once loved? How do you deal with your own daughter (Ellen Burstyn) when she becomes older than you? How do you deal with a new love (Michiel Huisman) when you’re pretty sure you’ll outlive him and all his Trivial-Pursuit-playing friends?
 
This is a problem even Dear Abby couldn’t solve. But screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz manage to solve it with a little help from director Lee Toland Krieger.
 
This time-out-of-joint movie is a nice way to waste 112 minutes if you’ve got the time to spare.
 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Merchants of Doubt (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Merchants of Doubt

Robert Kenner's new documentary has enough villains to fill a Marvel comic storyline. Each stuffed shirt is a man most should love to hate. Consider noted conservative Fred Singer, a rocket expert who worked during the cold war, who denies that global warming exists but then backtracked to say that it may exist but man has little to do with it.

Then there is Marc Marano, a snarky frat boy type who personally attacks reputable scientists with death threats and happily says that he would continue to do it. "I get them a lot myself too," Marano chuckles as if playing a game.

As incredible and hard to fathom as this may seem,"Merchants of Doubt" is no Avenger epic.

Sadly it is all too real.

Many corporations from Phillip Morris to the Koch brothers have hired so called "experts" to speak pseudo-scientifically and dismiss physical reality, going against (according to the film) some 900 statements on the man-made cause of global warming.

To further combat science, these men gathered signatures from the science community and acquired a document of some fifteen hundred signatures.

But there was only one problem. Most of the signatures on the statement were not men of science at all, but fraudulent names, including Dr. Charles Darwin, Geri Halliwell (the singer Ginger Spice) and Michael J. Fox, the actor.

According to Marc Marano, the goal was not accuracy in investigation but only to plant doubt in the mainstream.

The most damaging aspect of this push is that it paints people of the scientific and environmental community as anti American communists, socialists and "those against democracy."

To paint science in this way, not to mention the intellect, creates a toxic and insidious poison.

Albeit disturbing, Robert Kenner makes it all palatable with entertaining segments, including a moment from The Twilight Zone depicting a parallel world, and bits from the illusionist Jamy Ian Swiss.

To see this gallery of rogues is to be stupefied. Many of them change hats, at once working for a climate think tank and then the tobacco industry. All that matters is one kernel of doubt as if from genetically modified corn.

Encouraging though it is to see that conservative bedrocks Bob Inglis, John McCain and Newt Gingrich have now embraced the validity of science, much like the tobacco industry has, in finally admitting the danger of cigarettes and the knowing addiction of nicotine.

Politically and culturally, according to Bob Ingles, the heart of this fight is a "fear of change" As the senator asks, "what do we do when our culture is wrong?"

As if in answer, perhaps it is appropriate to recall the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson who once said that "science is true whether you believe in it or not."    

The final sting at the end of "Merchants of Doubt" is that Gingrich, McCain and John Boehner while at first concurring with the reality of science, now say that they "don't know".

As Naomi Oreskes (on whose book the film is based) says, "we can imagine that these men will arrive at science like the tobacco industry did...it took fifty years...with the environment we don't have fifty years..."

Suffice to say, it is earnest that if we do not take the real conservative choice and change our cultural orbit, all of us on this planet will be much worse than watermelons, we will most certainly be cooked to death, regardless of our right or left polarities.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Monday, May 25, 2015

IRIS (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Iris

In  "Iris" by the master filmmaker Albert Maysles, we are put directly into the life of Iris Apfel, the iconic designer.

To gaze at her famous aquarium-sized glasses is to see a sorceress buzzing with creativity.

With her slender frame shellacked with huge layers of beads and fabric she transforms herself into her own mixed media piece, a voluminous sail of dreams, clashing in texture and tone, from classic to kitsch. In her textile work accented with beads, bars, bangles and baubles, she creates her own personal language that even seems to comment on our hyper-intensive video age in its unabashed riots of color, jagged lines and exotic fabrics.

Each wardrobe that Apfel concocts is a dizzying feast, challenging notions of taste and boundaries. The vibrations of hue and value attack and dance upon Iris' stubborn frame and she often seems to melt into a huge throbbing screen entirely made of cloth necklaces and curios---a prismatic samurai in heavy pink lipstick.

For Iris, to create is to breathe and every ambulatory assemblage is a banner repelling sickness or death.

The famed director Maysles has a light touch here, instead of showing large chunks of Iris' existence, he offers small impressionistic daubs of images, like swatches of moving fabric, and little by little a complete picture appears of Iris in the moment.

She recalls as a child being obsessed by a brooch, held by a "threadbare yet elegant man."

It was her first purchase.

As we watch her origins, she crisscrosses the globe as co-creator of the firm Old World Weavers. She fearlessly goes far and wide, a kind of Indiana Jones of the textile realm, collecting and sampling and reproducing with spontaneity and variety as her only spiritual talismans. She is put in charge of The White House design and decor for nine presidents. Apparently there was conflict with Jackie-O, but Iris remains mum.

She evolves into a pop art figure, a brand name that becomes instantly recognizable through her over-large black framed glasses.

Iris is a dreamlike figure, a benevolent Cruella De Vil, who smiles at peace and is no less than a walking silver screen who projects her self made imaginations on to her own person.

In shape and tone, "Iris" the film, echoes "Bill Cunningham, New York" in its slice of life approach. As Cunningham races to catch his next fashion shoot as quick as Clark Kent, Iris Apfel can be seen as his siren seamstress, creating Cunningham's Superman-blue suit and painting his bicycle, all the better to capture a rapidly disappearing New York, lost to Disney aesthetics. Iris and Bill are joined at the collar as two fashion heroes who actively lament and combat the uniform march of gentrification.

As with Cunningham, Iris Apfel remains steadfast, fixed and stubborn, still searching and reaching for that yet undiscovered fabric floating along a sea of toneless hues. "I'm not a pretty person. I don't like pretty. I'm against most people, I guess, but I don't care."

Equipped with a shield of indifference, Iris drifts through the various realms of Gotham City like her blue cloaked spiritual cousin Bill Cunningham. All the better to capture the next flash of vivid color amidst the ubiquitous urban hues of black and gray.

"Iris" (Albert Maysles last film) does a wonderful job in illuminating Apfel's eclectic quest.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Vinterberg, a contemporary of Lars von Trier,  directs a new version of "Far from the Madding Crowd" and does it with swiftness and style. This one is true to the spirit of Thomas Hardy in showing humanity imperiled by a seething and unforgiving world where Nature is nonetheless depicted as abundant and rich.

Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, a fiery and direct head of a farm with wild and whipping hair, not to mention leather riding boots.

Bathsheba bears a striking resemblance in aura to Katniss of "The Hunger Games" and it is too much of a coincidence that the two share an almost identical last name. Both heroines are outspoken and strive to control.

But here we are in the arable universe of Dorset in 1870 of course. Bathsheba encounters Gabriel Oak, excellently played by Matthias Schoenaerts of the disturbingly powerful film "Bullhead". When giving her a gift of a lamb, Gabriel asks for Bathsheba's hand in marriage.

She refuses.

Gabriel, the silent type, sublimates his desire and takes to the crops, raking,pruning, baking and bleeding. The hard earth matches the brown weariness that shows on his face.

One day while working she is confronted by the wealthy William Boldman (Michael Sheen) who asks of marriage himself.

Again, Bathsheba refuses.

Vinterberg perfectly captures the unsparing and sharp circumstances that can befall any and every Thomas Hardy protagonist. Mulligan is as fierce and hard as cast iron but we also see the sadness on her face. Her tears show as mere frost. Bathsheba is never one to pine.

A standout performance is given by Tom Sturridge as Frank Troy, the repressed soldier with a sociopathic streak whom she does marry. At once feline, loutish, obsessed by honor in combat, yet oddly ineffectual, Sturridge nearly steals the show.

The tone of the film is flawless in showing Miss Everdene batted about by the selfish folly of men like a molten fireball, while still holding to her self sufficient code. After each pitfall, after Man bares his worst face, the natural world recharges itself showing its green tapestry, as if to restore Everdene's faith in all things human. Such notes are very true to the Hardy canon.

A touch of Lars von Trier is present too. When Gabriel loses his sheep to a rogue dog, the flock leaps to their doom: the bloody bodies spell a kind of ovine alphabet in their positions of death, foretelling of trials to come. This shot could have been taken right from von Trier's "Antichrist".

Aside from all orchestral swells, the score is apropos to the genre and narrative. But above all, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a authentic and satisfying addition to the many cinematic interpretations of Thomas Hardy in showing one woman continually bitten by the hardness of Male Nature.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Age of Adaline (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Age of Adaline

This "Twilight Zone" melodrama directed by Lee Toland Krieger, stars Blake Lively in the title role of Adaline, a young librarian who never ages due to a strange happenstance.

Adaline is a young sparkling girl born in 1908 in San Francisco. She is charming and vivacious much like others. One day, during an idyll in the park, she meets Clarence, (Peter J. Gray) a strapping engineer.

The two marry then Clarence dies in an accident.

During her grief, Adaline takes a night drive and goes over a guardrail, due to poor visibility. The film goes into considerable detail explaining that Adaline's DNA is changed because of freezing water and some electrical charges. No, it doesn't make much sense, but the cinematography has such a fluid escapist quality that the farfetchedness ceases to matter here.

Suffice to say, Adaline is stuck at age 29, yet otherwise unscathed.

The film does well in showing a bit of haunt and danger. Because of her condition, Adaline can trust little. Men in particular seem to threaten her as menacing dark shapes while the deliberate plodding march of time seems to mock her with merriment each New Year's Eve.

The film also has a eerie narrator in Hugh Ross reminiscent of Rod Serling.

It is only in the performance of Blake Lively that the film falters, for we are given little emotional information as to the heroine's character or life. How does Adaline feel? Does she really lament anything? Throughout the film, her face is invariably passive and neutral, seeming merely to pass thru each decade like water in a transparent glass. We know she cares for her dog, but Lively's robotic gestures give even this scene the lightest charge.

That being said, there is a bit of humor in her role. At one point she says, "I met

Bing Crosby....( after a beat) someone who was Bing Crosby-like". Then in another scene when her beau mentions the 1930s, she says. "That was an amazing time...I imagine."

For the most part though, the woman Adaline seems a cypher,  an automaton  brought to sudden animation only when feeling danger and having to flee.

A welcome exception is Harrison Ford as William, an old lover. Ford brings energy and a genuine sense of displacement in what could well have been a stand-in role. In a few scenes, he has an urgency and wildness that recall his outings in "Mosquito Coast" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

Ellen Burstyn also makes a solid appearance as Adaline's aging daughter.

"The Age of Adaline" could have been a satisfying matinee fantasy if it retained some of its dark magic in its depiction of gray men in suits applying nocturnal pressure. Instead whatever apprehension it has gives way to a sort of travelogue through the decades, highlighting fashion and the most minimal of relationships.

Through it all, Adaline gazes into a mirror, her face as empty as glass as audible remarks float around her. Displaying vacuousness is fine, but when we are given little else it becomes mere window dressing in the style of Robert Zemeckis.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, May 22, 2015

Week of May 22 to May 28 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Four New Films, Three Repeats Crowd Tropic Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Tropic Cinema makes up for hosting only four films last week by upping the number to seven this week, squeezing them into its non-stop movie schedule.

“Far From the Madding Crowd” is a sultry new version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel about Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) who has three unsuitable suitors. Newsday calls it a “sturdy adaptatation of Hardy, with some fine work by Mulligan.” And ReelReviews says, “Carey Mulligan is an inspired choice to play Bathsheba … She’s cool and confident; we come to respect her strength and appreciate that she doesn’t need a man to be complete.”

 “5 Flights Up” is a snapshot of an elderly couple (Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton) who are considering selling their Brooklyn walkup apartment. The New York Times says,  “The lead performances are so perfectly in sync that Alex and Ruth really feel like an old married couple who know each other’s foibles and cherish every tic.” And Los Angeles Times observes, “What a pleasure to see a simple, finely tuned dramedy about real adults with real emotions in a real-life situation.”

 “Woman in Gold” recounts the true story about a determined woman (Helen Mirren) and her young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) who sue the Austrian government for a painting stolen by the Nazis. St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the film works “large because of the odd-couple chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds.” And Globe and mail notes that “Director Simon Curtis milks the predictable drama, thrills and heartache of the Holocaust-era story….”

 “Iris” is a doc about a dotty old fasionista that will enthrall you. Toronto Star observes, “Flamboyantly fashionable and filter-free, 93 year-old Iris Apfel is a delightfully quirky muse for legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles’s final solo film.” And Philadelphia Inquirer says, “Iris is a kick, whether or not you care a whit about the world this character is moving through.”

“Ex Machina” ranks as one of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies, right up there with “Metropolis.” Here, a tech genius (Oscar Isaac) invents an artificial woman (Alicia Vikander) that seduces a nerd (Domhnall Gleeson) into believing she’s real. Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it a “tense tale of artificial love so intelligently crafted and edgy that I adored it.” And Detroit News says the film “takes its time, wrestling with questions of responsibility, morality and compassion…”

 “The Age of Adaline” is a Dorian Gray story about a 106-year-old woman (Blake Lively), albeit one trapped in the body of a 29-year-old beauty. New Yorker notes that “the conceit endows Lively’s regal air of distracted superiority with an intermittent pathos. And Newark Star-Ledger say, “Ford -- after so many years of grumpily picking up paychecks -- seems delighted to be acting again, andin a real movie.” And

“Merchants of Doubt” is a documentary by Robert Kenner designed to expose the American propaganda mill.  Newsday terms it a “compelling expose of professional propagandists, though the movie itself is not agenda-free.” And San Francisco Chronicle concludes, “When (and before) the end credits roll, you will probably feel a sense of outrage -- and helplessness.”

Seven films -- count ‘em. All supremely watchable.

srhoades@aol.com

Far From the Madding Crowd (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Far From the Madding Crowd”
Finally Gets Hardy’s Novel Right

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1967, when I was the film critic for the Florida Times-Union, I reviewed the movie “Far From the Madding Crowd,” an epic starring Julie Christie. MGM sent me a nice letter thanking me for my kind words. I was particularly taken by the sweeping cinematography of the Dorset countryside, the haughty beauty of Christie, and the intense courtship with her three suitors (Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch) in this three-hour widescreen Cinemascope extravaganza.

Now it falls my lot to review a new movie version of “Far From the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan.

If I could only find a copy of that old review and repeat the words.

Based on the classic Thomas Hardy novel, we have the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong country heiress who attracts the attentions of an impoverished sheep farmer, a dashing cavalryman, and a prosperous landowner.

This time around the flawed suitors are played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, and Michael Sheen -- offering somewhat less star-power gravitas than the original cast.

However, Carey Mulligan holds her own as our romantic heroine. While possessing less of Christie’s insouciant vulnerability, the petite actress brings instead a wild passion to Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene.

First published in 1874, “Far From the Madding Crowd” was Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel -- and his first literary success.

The title comes from a poem by Thomas Gray. Here the word “madding” (not “maddening” as people mistakenly say) means “frenzied.” However, Hardy uses the title ironically, because the quiet Wessex countryside of his novel is anything but calm.

The turbulent plot is well known to serious readers:  Bathsheba Everdene unwisely marries Sergeant Frank Troy, even though he has impregnated another woman. When he appears to have committed suicide, she becomes engaged to marry her neighbor William Buttonwood. But Troy turns up at the engagement party and Buttonwood shoots him dead, for which he is hauled off to prison. Finally realizing what she wants is a man of quiet strength, Bathsheba weds her longtime friend Gabriel Oak.

“Far From the Madding Crowd” is currently breaking hearts at Tropic Cinema

This is the fourth film version. Director Thomas Vinterberg finally gets Hardy’s story right, avoiding the imprecise narrative focus of John Schlesinger’s 1967 film. The two other versions can be ignored, a 1915 silent and a 1998 TV movie.

And while Vinterberg didn’t have Schlesinger’s “dream cast” to work with, his film nevertheless is charged with erotic energy … like a brooding storm hovering over the rolling English countryside.

srhoades@aol.com

Saturday, May 16, 2015

5 Flights Up (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

5 Flights Up

Richard Loncraine's "5 Flights Up" has charm but its narrative goes up an all too steady and predictable incline. Morgan Freeman is Alex, a passionate painter who loves the idea of a Brooklyn before gentrification, and Diane Keaton is his wife Ruth. The couple is disturbed by Ruth's niece Lily, a supercharged and all business minded realtor (Cynthia Nixon) who urges them to sell their fifth floor apartment.

Freeman handles his role well with snappy lines and poignant lament, and he is at his best when he utters dry quips about a changing Brooklyn and the hyper pace of life.

Keaton is adequate too, yet her Ruth is very similar to past roles from "Annie Hall" on up. Her frets and anxieties are nothing new.

Still, the worry of Ruth and the calmness of Alex make a believable contrast. The more vibrant scenes are in flashback with a charismatic Alex (Korey Jackson) and a fetching Ruth (Claire van der Bloom) in the throes of romance. Although these vignettes are influenced a bit from "Titanic", these young actors give the scenes charge and sweetness, showing an idealist painter obsessively concerned about shared experiences with his beloved.

There is a subplot involving their aging dog Dorothy, a symbol of their relationship. Dorothy gets sick and Ruth is faced with the dog's potential disability.

Throughout the film, potential buyers run thru the apartment giving nasty acidic comments. Lily becomes forceful and annoying.

The nostalgic segments are energized enough without the melodrama of the dog Dorothy or the apartment market value and so much back and forth becomes metallic and noisy.

Sterling Jerins is engaging as a cute and  spirited little girl Zoe.

Near the end of the film, when Alex shows the fire of a young man, fizzles out like a diluted egg cream. The pulse that was building up and over, from floor after floor goes flat by Morgan Freeman's Hallmark card words, topped by a dog whose adamant expression matches that of his owner's.

"5 Flights Up" is enough of a trip in showing the wilds of young romance contrasted with the haunt of an older couple. The melodrama of apartment hunting, a senior dog and a shrewish niece merely takes some superfluous steps that carry very little.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com
Sent from my iPhone

Friday, May 15, 2015

Week of May 15 - 21 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers a Diverse Quartet of Films
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From a sentimental vignette to a courtroom drama to a sci-fi thriller to a nature film, Tropic Cinema has a variety to choose from this week. And with only four films, you can easily see them all.
 
New this week is "5 Flights Up," a film that features Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as an older couple who have lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for 40 years and are now thinking about selling. Don’t expect it to go easy. Los Angeles Time says, "What a pleasure to see a simple, finely tuned dramedy about real adults with real emotions in a real-life situation." And Newsday calls it "A couple of pros, playing attractive characters in an amiable yet topical story." But the Examiner asks, "Are Freeman and Keaton charming enough that anybody would want to watch them rifle through Classifieds and house hunt for 90 minutes?" The answer is yes.

Based on a true story, "Woman in Gold" finds Maria Altman (Dame Helen Mirren) suing the Austrian government for the return Klimt’s famous painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" that was stolen from her family by the Nazis. She aided in this pursuit by a hotshot young lawyer named E. Randal Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). MediaMikes says, "Sharply directed by Simon Curtis, the film is an intriguing mystery as, little by little, more and more information comes across the viewer's desk." And Laramie Movie Scope adds, "There is suspense, drama and emotion in this story. Reynolds and Mirren give great performances with good supporting performances by Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes and Allan Corduner."

A thinking man’s -- and woman’s -- sci-fi film, "Ex Machina" debates the use of artificial intelligence. We encounter a reclusive tech genius (Oscar Isaac) who asks a geeky subordinate (Domhnall Gleeson) to test a seductive android (Alicia Vikander). Before you can say, "Danger, Will Robinson!" the story takes a sinister turn. That’s why Lyles Movie Files sees it as "a spellbinding character study mystery made even more fascinating by the thought that its premise is far closer to becoming reality than most of its sci-fi peers." Q Network Film Desk says the film "works because it gradually shifts the terms of the narrative and thematic structure, forcing us to reevaluate what we thought we knew and seriously question the fundamental essence of humanity." And The Age opines, "Ultimately it’s a horror movie where the monsters are men."

Who wouldn’t love "Monkey Kingdom"? It’s more fun than, well, a barrel of monkeys. This new documentary from DisneyNature follows a family of toque macaques (cute reddish-brown monkeys) in Sri Lanka as they vie for territory. SSG Syndicate describes it as an "engaging live-action eco-documentary, combining education with entertainment." And Reeling Review concludes, "The filmmakers bring us to places and creatures we would never see otherwise, so we get education along with the entertainment."
 
Go on, buy your tickets. All four films should be on your list.

srhoades@aol.com



 

5 Flights Up (Rhoades)


Front Row at the Movies
 
"5 Flights Up" Provides Ups and Downs
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My son Kevin and his partner Clarisse live in Brooklyn, but they’re thinking about moving. They love it there, but want to explore someplace new. However, selling the apartment may turn out to be an emotional challenge.

I suggested they go see "5 Flights Up," a movie that hits pretty close to home. 

The Brooklynites in this story are a tad older, but the sentiments are similar. Here you meet Alex (Morgan Freeman) and Ruth (Diane Keaton), a happy couple, he an artist, she a retired schoolteacher.
They bought their 5th
floor walkup years ago when prices were low. Now they’re thinking about selling, buying something nicer. Why not?
 
"The neighborhood’s changed now. It’s … cooler. Full of hipsters," says Alex.

So they talk to their pushy niece (Cynthia Nixon), who happens to be a real estate agent. That sets off a series of frustrating events. Their patience is tried by the crowd of potential buyers that show up for open houses. People who yak on about what they would do with this apartment. Nosy characters who pry into their life. A kid who like to click switches. As well as a little girl wise beyond her years, reminding Alex of when he met Ruth.

Meanwhile they must look for a new place to live. You’ll smile when they find an ad that sounds perfect … but turns out to be the very apartment they’re selling.

There are subplots that involve a possible Uzbekistan terrorist in a jackknifed truck on the Williamsburg Bridge and a terrier on its way to the vet. "She doesn’t know where she is and she doesn’t know where she’s going," Ruth says of the sick dog. "Like us," nods her husband.

Plus you get gauzy flashbacks of Alex and Ruth as a young, courageous inter-racial couple (well played by Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom) first moving into the spacious Brooklyn walkup.

"5 Flights Up" is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Will you like it? With Freeman and Keaton, you can count on the acting being great. But the storyline goes nowhere in particular, content to offer a vignette of the emotional ups and downs of selling an apartment that’s been a happy home for 40 years. If you want to share the warm, fuzzy memories of a likeable couple, and be reminded of your past moves, take the stairs and climb "5 Flights Up."

srhoades@aol.com


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Monkey Kingdom (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Monkey Kingdom

Aha! Earth Day has recently come upon us and to mark the season, here is another gorgeously filmed edition of Disneynature. This one is "Monkey Kingdom". Once again we are in a magically tinged but altogether real land where animals rightly take center stage and humans are almost forgotten.

We are plunged right in the verdant greens of Sri Lanka and as if to satisfy our ocular appetites, the color and detail is as rich as an Indian miniature from the Rajput school.

We are shown a group of macaques that like some human societies have a caste system.

The Disney camera zeroes in on Maya, who is held in a lower caste restriction, (that is confined to the lower tree branches and exposed to harsh nature) by Raja and the selfish "sisters" who have vain and spiteful red complexions.

Maya is a simian Cinderella who yearns for the highest peaks of Castle Rock where she can bask in luxury and be forever groomed. But she is vexed by the power above her. Enter Kumar, a Romeo, or as Tina Fey says in a line that would be otherwise corny: "one hunky monkey".

After a war, Maya is forced to vacate as she now has a baby Kip with Nosferatu ears.

Maya, full of pluck and a warrior mom spirit goes on her own.

If the story seems boringly humanoid and predictably mundane it isn't, thanks to the hyper-realistic cinematography and some self deprecating and quirky voiceover work by Tina Fey who imbues Maya's struggle with her own persona of a resilient woman not above taboo.

Highlights are a monkey invasion of a human residence as they steal bread, sugar, squash and eggs during a birthday party and then climb a cell tower and short out communications.

"Terrifying!" exclaims Fey, siding with the leaping macaques. There are precious echoes of "Planet of the Apes".

True to form, the humans are seen as lethargic and clueless, with senses to primitive to react.

To see a yellow and black monitor lizard is to witness a Devil in paradise and we can almost hear the occult voice of a Jeremy Irons.

The real surprise is in the simple watching of these primates that are somehow infused with a electric charisma as compelling as rock stars or eccentric celebrities. And the "sister macaques" are as vain and malevolent as a thousand Wicked Queens: their faces painted and pained in a boiling red as much from vanity and privilege as from malice.

While the haunting and gothically charged song from Lorde (heard in the trailer) would have done better than the obvious theme from The Monkees in showing the macaques furtive and tribal existence, it is well taken that the film is for younger viewers.

The conjuring trick of "Monkey Kingdom" is that it makes no assumptions or talks down to our human selves. Instead, with dazzle and wit, it forces us to recognize our own individual Simian that hunches within most sentient hearts.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dior and I (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Dior and I

The most arresting aspect about the documentary "Dior and I" by editor- turned-director Frederic Tcheng is its emphasis of the legendary designer that floats like a poltergeist, both in shadow and above the famous fashion house. It is 2015 and the Dior house needs a shot in the arm.

Enter Raf Simons, a stubbled man in black who is all business. Deep in the bowels of Paris, whispering is heard. It is said that Simons is a "minimalist" who brought back the slender black suit, a kind of cyberspace chic. There are those who talk but for the most part  Simons is fawned over and welcomed as a Steve Jobs of haute couture. As he says, it is the future that he romanticizes, not the past.

Simons looks to the stars, or more specifically to build a collection on the moon.

The Dior, with its white coated premieres, approach cloth like scientists and that is precisely what they are: technicians, engineers of female curves and blossoming design.

Most of the men and women who design are driven and obsessive always under the gun of the clock: fingers tracing and rolling---painting with stitches and force.

At the center of this stress is the newly hired Simons who is voraciously visual but who apparently doesn't physically draw a line, but rather builds detailed files on the Dior's Mac computer.  Simons never sleeps. He frets, scratches and dreams.

In the film, he is a walking magic marker, a man of felt and graphite who draws invisibly and prints mental pictures.

At night, the lights flicker and the aura of Christian Dior emanates through every window and each fold and crease of cloth. The documentary masterfully shows Dior as an Orwellian phantom taking shape from a pale dress. Anxious and wistful passages from his memoir are heard in which Dior regrets treating someone harshly.

These are some of the film's best segments.

Day breaks and Raf Simons visits Dior's house. Simons admits that he can't bear to read Dior's memoir. He wants a new brush technique applied to the fabric that will be taken from the paintings of Sterling Ruby. He is vexed by every turn it seems, and Simons grows increasingly tense. Is Christian Dior a saboteur spirit, or a friendly magnetic field?

Perhaps his afterlife is both.

Simons emerges as a tireless worker in private and a wallflower in public. At the day  of the show, he is a candle of nerves and breaks down.

Simons refuses to go the full length of the catwalk.

Above all else, the skill of  "Dior and I" is in making the exclusive world of fashion accessible to all. Raf Simons is a master manipulator of both people and the natural world of flora, but he is never brutish or mean and we end up rooting for him, as an underdog, not to mention the superhuman seamstresses and premieres.

A final scene showing Weinstein and Sharon Stone gazing at the models as if they were bejeweled morsels of filet mignon is marvelous, as touching as it is disturbing.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, May 8, 2015

Week of May 8 - 14 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

This Week’s Tropic Cinema Films Explore Past, Present, And Future

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From monkeys to machines, lost paintings to haute couture, this week’s film lineup at the Tropic doesn’t fail to entertain and enlighten.
 
Disney’s "Monkey Kingdom" is a delightful nature film about a family of toque macaques living among the antique temples in Sri Lanka. You will watch in fascination as a macaque dubbed Maya rises through the ranks when the tribe is threatened by neighboring monkeys. New York Magazine observes, "This may be an unabashed, Disneyfied version of nature. But it's also fun, touching, and expertly assembled." And Newark Star-Ledger tells us it’s "an enjoyable documentary, with some painless lessons. And a good heart, too ..."

"Ex Machina" is a sci-fi film for the thinking man … woman … and android. A technology genus (Oscar Isaac) invents a human-like robot and brings in an underling (Domhnall Gleeson) to apply the
Turing Test, a method for assessing artificial intelligence. But the android named Ava (Alicia Vikander) is both sexy and very clever. Urban Cinefile declares, "Borrowing body parts from the age old horror/sci-fi workbook, director-writer Alex Garland makes a female Frankenstein movie (sort of) and interrogates the pursuit of A.I. in the process." And Laramie Movie Scope says, "Unlike most science fiction films, this one has smart characters, a smart plot and smart dialog. It also has romance, murder and suspense. This is a suspenseful, disturbing and thought-provoking film."

"Woman In Gold" mixes past and present in this true story about Maria Altman (Helen Mirren), a woman who sues the Austrian government for the return of a golden painting of her aunt that had been seized by the Nazis. Her determined young attorney (Ryan Reynolds) accompanies her to Vienna. MediaMikes notes, "Sharply directed by Simon Curtis, the film is an intriguing mystery as, little by little, more and more information comes across the viewer's desk." And St. Louis Post-Dispatch praises "the odd-couple chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds."

The documentary "Dior And I" takes you behind the scenes at the famous fashion house, while introducing Raf Simons as its new artistic director. Cinemalogue.com observes, "Simons is a fascinating central figure, even if the straightforward approach seems determined not to ruffle any
feathers." Seattle Times adds, "We get to know the people -- mostly women, but a few men -- whose hands create these intricate, beautiful garments." And Oregonian concludes, "All that effort just to make a dress still seems a bit silly, but the passion and integrity of those involved are hard not to take seriously."

Dramas and documentaries, how can you say no to these varied and intriguing films?

srhoades@aol.com



 

 

 

 

NYFCS: Every Secret Thing (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
 
NYFCS Advance Screening:  "Every Secret Thing" Tries to Keep Its Secrets

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Moviegoers aren’t just into instant gratification these days. Rather than waiting in line for a film’s scheduled opening, we’re jumping the gun by going to test screenings, attending premieres and festivals, and catching advance showings.

Tropic Cinema offers that with its participation in the New York Film Critics Series, monthly advance showings of films accompanied by interviews with stars and directors.

NYFCS Producer Mark Ehrenkranz picks the films. Then he turns it over to Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers to conduct the après film interviews.

This Tuesday is the latest NYFCS offering, a suspenseful crime film titled "Every Secret Thing."
 
A police detective (Elizabeth Banks) is despondent over having failed to save a missing infant seven years earlier from two young monsters (Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald), and is now
worried that tragedy may strike again when another youngster disappears on the day this dangerous duo is released from prison.

The mother of one of the girls (Diane Lane) offers the solution to this whodunit. There are lots of plot twists, flashbacks, deus-ex-machina gimmicks, and unreliable narration that require Lane to explain what’s happened.

A pet project of actress-turned-producer Frances McDormand, she bought the option to Laura Lippman’s same-named book, hired Nicole Holofcener ("Enough Said") to write the screenplay, and tapped Amy Berg ("Deliver Us From Evil") to direct.

Mostly a female cast, the sex scenes have a LGBT bent. Little Dakota Fanning has grown up. The twist ending depends on this cinematic permissiveness.

But if you catch this advance screening at the Tropic, don’t reveal the ending. McDormand and Company have worked real hard to fool the audience, so let them try.

srhoades@aol.com
 









































































 

 


 

Monkey Kingdom (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Disney Takes Us To Another World In "Monkey Kingdom"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Walt Disney has given us True-Life Adventure films since 1948 when it focused on Alaska’s "Seal Island." Moviegoers had never before encountered anything quite this "real" on the screen. It won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

Many Disney nature films and educational shorts followed.

In 2008 Disney revamped its approach to nature documentaries by launching an independent film label called DisneyNature. Although based in France, its reach is worldwide.

For instance, DisneyNature’s first presentation was titled "Earth." Another was "Oceans." Others have ranged from "African Cats" to "Bears." Eight films so far.

That’s including its latest entry, "Monkey Kingdom" This simian celebration is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, "Monkey Kingdom" introduces us to a family of toque macaques (Macaca sinica), a reddish-brown monkey endemic to Sri Lanka.

Torque macaques are recognizable by the swirl of hair atop their heads, a look similar to that of Moe in The Three Stooges. This gives each of them a cartoonish persona that serves well in a Disneyesque documentary.

"Monkey Kingdom" takes its name from the troops of macaque that run loose about Sri Lanka’s Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, a collection of ancient Buddhist temples that you saw as backdrop in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Here we meet Maya, a toque macaque who wants to see her son Kip advance within the social strata of her extended family. She must use her smarts to make this happen while at the same time dealing with the invasion of a neighboring monkey tribe.

We also meet family leader Raja, a trio of females known as the Sisterhood, and a newcomer named Kumar. Yes, we’re amazed by the distinct personalities found among these macaques, as if they came out of central casting.

Aside from the spoon-fed lesson in natural history, "Monkey Kingdom" also serves as a fascinating travelogue featuring Polonnaruwa’s ruined temples and abandoned towers and overgrown stone structures.
 
A highlight is footage of monkeys swimming underwater. And a look at the complex social hierarch of the macaques. "For Maya, she’s kind of like any female human, if you like, trying to do the best for her kid," says co-director Mark Linfield. "But she’s got the weight of macaque society pressing on her as well … she had to use her street smarts to get out of this sort of social straitjacket that she was in."

Narrators for these DisneyNature films have included such notables as James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Samuel L. Jackson, and Meryl Streep. The "Monkey Kingdom" voice over is adeptly handled by Tina Fey.
 
Why did Tina Fey agree to do a movie about monkeys? "I always try to pick things by, ‘Is this a movie I would want to see?’ " she tells us. "It’s nice to do stuff that your kids can see, but also I would totally skip out of work to go see this on my own."

srhoades@aol.com

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.

Write ianfree1@yahoo.com

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 ianfree1@yahoo.com