Friday, August 28, 2015

Week of Aug, 28 - Sept. 3 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

From Thrills to Giggles, Sex to Song, Tropic Cinema Entertains Us!
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Tropic Cinema again covers wide ground, with films that raise goosebumps, tickles the funny bone, and mildly shock. A good assortment.

A dark psychological thriller, “The Gift” shows us a different side of Jason Bateman -- not his usual droll comedic persona. Here he’s a seemingly successful married man who bumps into an old high school acquaintance who might just have a score to settle. ReelViews warns that “the film has enough twists to keep the average viewer guessing.” And Mountain Xpress adds that it’s “a well-judged, slickly-made thriller that mostly eschews the trappings of the genre for more psychological unease and a disturbingly dark vision of the world.”

“Diary of a Teenage Girl” delivers a razzle-dazzle look into the lovelife of (as the title promises) a teenage girl. Bel Powley makes a spectacular debut as said teen. Boston Globe declares the dramedy “a breakthrough moment in the culture in that it depicts youthful female sexuality ... not just with the unapologetic frankness the boys usually get, but with an awareness of all the places a girl's urges will take her ...” Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it an “artful portrayal of adolescence from a girl's point of view.” And Seattle Times says it “hits exactly the right tone.”

“Minions 3D” offers an animated adventure for kids large and small, a prequel to “Despicable Me” in which those little yellow henchmen are looking for a villain to serve. Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) seems to fill the bill. Q Network Film Deck describes it as “enjoyable in all the right ways.” And Chicago Reader thinks the film has “gusto.”

Comedienne Amy Schumer teamed up with Judd Apatow for her first film, “Trainwreck.” Anything but, this fresh outing features a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em gal (Schumer) who doesn’t know how to handle it when she meets Mr. Right (Bill Hader). Cinemalogue.com calls it “a fresh spin on familiar territory that's freewheeling and insightful and full of love.” And amNewYork says, “It’s very funny and very smart, much like its creator.”

Meryl Streep proves she can handle any role you throw at her, this time as an aging rock singer with family problems in “Ricky and the Flash.” Sydney Morning Herald sees it as “likeable and surprisingly low-key,” while Herald Sun calls it “another deeply immersive performance from Streep that repeatedly lifts this bittersweet comedy-drama hybrid out of the doldrums.”

A wide assortment, f’sure. And entertaining, absolutely!

srhoades@aol.com

The Gift (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Gift” Is Non-Returnable
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Are there any old high school chums you’d just as soon forget? You know, some old acquaintance you don’t want popping up in the middle of  your nice quiet life to remind you of your shortcomings
in the past?

That’s the plot of “The Gift,” a psychological thriller that’s raising goosebumps at the Tropic Cinema.

Simon and his wife Kate (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are doing just fine, thank you very much, before Gordo the Weirdo (Joel Edgerton) shows up. The guy’s like chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe, impossible to get rid of. He keeps dropping by to give them gifts.

But something’s not right. Gordo’s stories don’t quite hold together. He’s a little off. Simon mocks him to Kate, then breaks off this renewed contact.

Yet Gordo seems to be lingering in the background. Kate is convinced he’s coming into their home in secret. She suspects him when her koi fish die and the family dog goes missing.

So Kate begins looking into Gordo’s past, talking to his old high school classmates. In the process, she discovers some disturbing things about her own husband. Is he not the man she thought he was? Did he deliberately fabricate lies about Gordo? Did he lie to get a new promotion? Is he the father she wants for the baby she’s expecting?

Or is Gordo a master of revenge, a clever manipulator out to even the score for old not-forgotten wrongs?

Or is Kate, still fragile from a previous miscarriage, simply letting her imagination run away with her? Delusional or paranoid?

My gift to you: I’m not telling.

But as Gordo says, “You may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.”

srhoades@aol.com

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Ricki and the Flash

Music is extremely important to Jonathan Demme. This shows time and time again in his wide and varied repertoire. He directed  concert films for both the Talking Heads and Neil Young. Music is also vital in bringing his fluid and wondrous film "Something Wild" (1986) to life in all of its glib and savvy freedom.

It remains a pity and a missed opportunity that this earlier feeling of spiritual wilderness and wonder is not found in "Ricki and the Flash" despite the usual likable and earnest efforts of Meryl Streep.

Streep plays Linda Rendazzo aka Ricki, an old rocker a bit in the style of Bonnie Raitt or Ronstadt  who (you guessed it) is down on her luck and plays her heart out, night after night in a worn honky-tonk bar for crumbs. Though the plot trappings are out of a Lifetime movie, Streep does have magnetism and an easy charm. While it is a stretch to see her decked out in the jewels of nightshade, and ringed from head to toe, she makes it.

The first frames of the film are greatly and almost magically helped by some swift camera motions and lively song choices. The songs are sung in Streep's actual voice and this is no small thing. The initial segment is full of motion and color in its depiction of motley hijinks with numerous barflies scampering about. Such moments are among the best in the film.

Out of the blue Ricki's ex Peter (Kevin Kline) calls to say that their daughter Julie (Meryl Streep's real life daughter, Mamie Gummer)  is in a crisis over a broken marriage. Ricki reluctantly travels to Peter's family to give support.

Fireworks commence, of course.

The problem is not the principal actors. It is just with so much melodrama and heavy hearts, the plot doesn't go anywhere very interesting.

Once more, as in so many family encounter films, we have the absent or lapsed mother wishing she could have made things better, but who was never there when it counted. As if on cue, there are routine shouts, unmade beds and guest rooms with an affectionate dog, no less.

Kevin Kline as the ex hubby, speaks with an elitist mumble as he has in so many other films. They are not convincing as a pair either then or now. He feels soporific and a bit dazed by the role. When he puts his head in Ricki's lap, nearly overcome by her boozy charms, it seems silly rather than poignant, like a bit from his previous Errol Flynn.

In nearly every scene, there is some kind of confrontation or showdown, from Peter and Peter's buoyant wife (Audra McDonald) to her sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) to Julie and even Ricki's boyfriend (music star Rick Springfield)

The handwringing drama gets thick and predictable and feels comical, instead of provoking any insights or new thoughts.

The light easeful tone and Ricki's  jabbing one liners do have spirit and Ricki does have some chemistry with Springfield, especially during the smooth and excellent music bits.

Yes, Ricki is a damaged lady with a good heart. All right, she laments not being a mother.  But aside from these moralizations, what is truly unique about her? We have had nearly identical stories from Cher's "Burlesque" to Pacino's  "Danny Collins" and Jeff Bridges "Crazy Heart".

Why not make a film simply about music and the musician without all the soupy drama? There is more than enough thrill in the songs alone and for a director who no doubt cares deeply about the chimerical qualities of the musical arts, we are led to expect more lively fare and not the same old strums.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Monday, August 24, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Infinitely Polar Bear

In echoing the comic style of Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) director Maya Forbes delivers an entertaining, yet stirring film, "Infinitely Polar Bear" about her father and his struggle. The film co-stars Forbes' daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky in a striking performance.

The energetic actor Mark Ruffalo is Cam, a sensitive and loving father from a wealthy family who happens to have Bipolar Disorder which is kept hidden from his kids, Amelia (Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).

When the mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana) decides to pursue her MBA, she asks Cam to take over the care of the kids while she takes classes in New York City.

Although just released from the hospital, Cam is thrilled to take over the chief duties, especially since he has hopes, as any husband would, that the family will heal from its crisis.

At first things go swimmingly, but then the daily routine, together with domestic stresses begin to take its toll on Cam.

He goes off his medication.

Although at times it does feel as though Ruffalo chews the scenery a bit and overacts during his outbursts, the film is strongly held together by the principal players, Ruffalo, Saldana, and the young actors Wolodarsky and Aufderheide.

The cult actor Kier Dullea from "2001" gives a surprise outing as Cam's concerned and sexist father.  But there is a more direct Kubrick reference in the film to see. In one scene, the daughters are shown at the end of a long hallway. The perspective is playfully appropriated from "The Shining." This makes the incidents both jolting and funny at once, increasing the impact.

Though the events are jarring, this is no noisy melodrama; the scenes are well balanced with many soft and telling images. We truly get a feel of the love in this family and Cam, despite his roaring quakes (Alas, the actor has played The Hulk), is no monster.

That said, the arguments are so concussive and abrupt that it feels like a dark comedy rather than a sensitive study of a family.

Just when one might think everything will fly off the rails as in a gross-out comedy however, pathos arrives to pull all into a proper tone, as when the errant dad returns to baleful eyes.

The best segments are when Cam is shown as a painfully conscientious father. He is unhinged and dangerously accelerating as if becoming a mad scientist. To the film's credit, one also clearly sees the charisma of Cam and the unyielding joy that his daughters have with him.

Solid as well is the agile way Cam is portrayed during confrontations. Obnoxious,  explosive and off-putting, yet with more than a bit of charm, Ruffalo has the perfect aura of light laced with lunacy. He also quite viscerally defends his wife with an authentic mania.  In this, the film succeeds punchily and well.

It is only at the film's final scene that the momentum slips. It could have been a more potent and heroic valentine without its heartstring knot.

Despite its garnish of icing, Ruffalo's charge is impossible to dismiss and in its display of a compassionate family under duress, the sentimental gush is minor. Greatly brought to satisfying heights through its cast, "Infinitely Polar Bear" is no routine or detached voyage.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The End of the Tour (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The End of the Tour

The writer David Foster Wallace dedicated himself to portraying a fractured and nervous kind of reality, one governed by television media and machines. His novel Infinite Jest, an opus of one thousand pages, was critically   praised but misunderstood by many, and left unread by more than a few.

Wallace, by most accounts, proved  uncompromising with his very person. He was self deprecating, harsh and critical. Such aspects come across, and then some, in "The End of the Tour" by director James Ponsoldt.

In the film, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jessie Eisenberg) is fed up with fluff articles and wants to do something big. Since Lipsky is a fan of Infinite Jest, he asks to do a piece on the author.
At the height of winter, Lipsky travels many miles to meet him in at a college town in central Illinois. A baggy clothed mushy man with stubble meets him in the snow. It is Wallace.

Though socially anxious, Wallace (Jason Segel) nonetheless makes an effort to be a good host. Tension begins. The author is suspicious of the reporter's zest, and Lipsky doesn't know how to go forward with the lit celebrity.

The two agree to dinner at a diner.

The pulse of this film is within the body of Jason Segel, who is primarily known for his comic roles. Rather than go for quirk, circumstance and odd laughs, Segel is quite interior, focused and intense. He captures wonderfully the rapid, yet stuttering and sometimes pained cadence that Wallace had in his few tv interviews. Within Segel's pointed and poignant verbose drips, the wordy essence of the actual Wallace is here as a ghost in the flesh.

The story is no mere situational drama. This film is one where we actually get a sense, through words and gestures, of what it might feel like to create in writing, with all of the pushing and pulling and self doubt.

Through many car trips, the evasive author brings his defenses down and a rapport develops.

There are comic moments as the unkempt author shuffles into a strait-laced and immaculate bookstore, or the moment when the two face a conservative and super- cheery driver (Joan Cusack).

The core of the film though exists between Segel and Eisenberg together who go through the full range of emotion, from curiosity and hero-worship, to anxiety, duplicity and betrayal, only to come back full circle again as in the full scope of a friendship.

Rather than a conventional road trip film, this is a road film of emotion. In the hesitant threads of Jason Segel's impassioned speech together with Eisenberg's shock and passivity, the film creates a present day version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" along with other character films of the 60s and 70s, when dialogue was king.

Rather than spilling the beans all at once, we learn of Wallace and Lipsky a bit at a time. The story unfolds like a mystery, as real life often does, given the variables of surprise and chance.

Above all, one truly gets a sensation of who these real life people were at the time. This is a rare thing.

While not a comic film, Segel, a former puppeteer, uses his big, lanky body to good effect in showing the spatial discomfort of this man. At the final scene, we see Segel's Wallace dance wildly in a church hall, as if to portray the author restless and relentless in the attempt to unspool himself from media's  shackles and invite a Dionysus to take hold of him.

The last scenes of the two men leaving are all the more pensive with melancholy, since we know that Wallace committed suicide, presumably gripped by doubt and depression.

Although, this is a very sad finality, "The End of the Tour" is not a sad film. It is a portrait of a friendship.

 Jessie Eisenberg is a kind of straight man, while Jason Segel is nothing less than a human marionette, bravely giving us a sample of David Foster Wallace as he once lived upon the earth---an inwardly spinning, often funny and exhaustive creature held together by the tangible and textured physicality of words.

Write Ian at Ianfree1@yahoo.com

The Stanford Prison Experiment (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who has never shied away from touchy subjects, including  religion (C.O.G) and phone sex (Easier with Practice), pushes even further, giving us "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Although it has elements of a period piece on the 1970s, the film, in style and content, especially with its muted brown and orange colors, bears a striking resemblance to "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a film about terror, manipulation and sexual violence.

In this true-story film we are put at Stanford in the 70s. A psychologist Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) is looking for students to participate in a study involving the acts of people in confining situations and the effects of mass behavior.

The first frames of the film show very clinical shots of a typewriter followed by ink presses and linotypes running multiple copies of an ad asking for candidates, along with bottles of india ink and rubber cement. All of the objects resemble evidence in a serial killer's lab. Although it primarily features inanimate things, it creates a most intriguing few minutes which make us wonder who the culprit is and his reasons for publishing the notice.

Zimbardo receives several student applicants who are screened and told they are to act as either prisoners or guards for fifteen dollars a day during a two week period in the university hall. Most of them prefer the option of prisoner. They are not told when the study will begin. The guards and inmates are determined by a flip of the coin.

Late one summer day, seemingly at random, the participants are arrested by actual police on made up charges and taken to a makeshift Stanford prison with real bars.

The prisoners are badgered and made to strip naked by the other student guards. Humiliations commence.

Though the events are horrifying and beyond fathoming, the most disquieting aspect is in the character of Dr. Zimbardo, who ardently believes that all trauma and stress can be absorbed by science and controlled. We watch him oscillate from confidence and exhilaration, to arrogance, worry and then panic.

He makes a Faustian bargain.

Actor Erza Miller ( The Perks of Being a Wallflower) gives a visceral and emotive performance as Daniel, the first student who attempts to escape.

Compelling too, is Michael Angarano as Christopher, a student guard who imitates a grotesque version of Strother Martin from "Cool Hand Luke".

As in the aforementioned film "Compliance," initial commonplace events warp into a dreamy incomprehension and one may indeed ponder the reptile that lies within us all, given specific circumstances. Sleep deprivation, terror and physical harm being only a few.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" has a sudden stark and dreamlike quality that echoes Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke and it is all the more upsetting because it occurred, lasting only four days due to the mental health of the participants and disrupting the stability of all parties involved.

A testament to the power of this film, I left the theater looking at passersby strangely, pondering their inner nature while trying see the paradisiacal sadist that just might dwell within.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, August 21, 2015

Week of August 21 - 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Gets High Marks for Movies About Highs and Lows
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week’s Tropic screenings feature emotional highs and lows. All infinitely interesting.

“The End of the Tour” is an intellectual treat, the reenactment of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s five-day parry-and-thrust interview with David Foster Wallace, the acclaimed author of “Infinite Jest.” Jesse Eisenberg spent time with Lipsky to get the portrayal just right, and Jason Segel nails Wallace (they even look alike). Journal and Courier calls it “a compelling character study of
young men with different outlooks on fame and celebrity.” And Fort Worth Weekly says it’s “the best movie I can remember about clinical depression. It isn’t depressing, though. Its overall effect is rather exhilarating.”

“Infinitely Polar Bear” gives us Mark Ruffalo as a manic-depressive who becomes the primary caregiver for his two daughters while his wife gets her MBA. Routine helps stabilize his bipolar
condition, but rambunctious daughters are all but his undoing. Detroit News notes, “Ruffalo is generally wonderful at finding the tone and mood of a character …” And Tulsa World sees it as “a welcome bit of personal storytelling in which the only thing at stake for this family is everything.”

“Ricki and the Flash” offers up Meryl Streep as an unconventional mom, an aging rock musician who must go back home to help her daughter who is suicidally distraught over an impending divorce. This musical dramedy features Mamie Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) as the estranged offspring. Reel Talk Movie Reviews says, “Meryl Streep’s amazing rock-and-roll performance makes this movie something very special indeed.” And ReelViews adds, “The movie is mature in the way it handles the regrets of absentee parents and the ways in which their children relate to them.”

“The Stamford Prison Experiment” recreates a college psych professor’s test in which students play the parts of prison guards and prisoners with unexpected results. Chicago Reader says, “Billy Crudup
gives a fine performance as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who engineered the whole thing and was then pulled into his own power trip.” And Philadelphia Inquirer concludes, “Watching these young men brutalize each other is troubling enough, but perhaps the film’s most interesting angle is how the experiment changes more than its subjects.”

“Minions” is a prequel about those little yellow cartoon characters that you met in “Despicable Me.” Here they look for a worthy villain to serve, coming up with dastardly Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Globe and Mail declares, “With its episodic stream of slapstick gags, ‘Minions’ has moments of piquant absurdity, but mostly its shrill-but-cutesy anarchy works as a visual sugar rush for the preschool set.” And Starburst decides it’s “almost complete nonsense, but it’s good natured, enjoyable nonsense nonetheless.”

And having the last laugh is “Trainwreck,” the Judd Apatow comedy about a commitment-phobic magazine writer (Amy Schumer) who meets Mr. Right. The Scotsman observes, “There’s little doubt that Schumer is a star in the making with a point of view and plenty to say.” Chicago Sun Times agrees, “Schumer's performance is a tour de force of razor-sharp comedic timing.” And Digital Spy calls it “a heartfelt, consistently funny film that deftly sidesteps its potential clichés at every turn.”

All in all, this selection of movies deserves high marks.

srhoades@aol.com