Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has given us a spellbinding quasi-autobiography with "Whiplash", zeroing in on a young music student with heart, intensity and a squeamish sense of  detail.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is enrolled as a jazz drummer at a prestigious  New York school. His footsteps are hesitant and half hearted. Like Franz Kafka he is pale and timidly-toned, invariably looking over his shoulder, for the aggressive onslaught of sheet music that attack his eyes like a family of bats. Andrew is small and hunched despite his muscular form. The camera is often low to the ground. Andrew sees flies buzz about. Shiny saxophones and trumpets seem like lusty monsters that exhale asthmatically, needy and selfish. The soundproof walls transform into sheets of medieval iron. With these microscopic details that singularly make the film, we have echoes of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan".

The terrified and drooling Andrew crosses paths with the snarling and militant Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) Fletcher makes "Bad Santa" into Mister Rogers. He is uncompromising, violent and frenetically scary. He would be right at home in "Apocalypse Now".

An earnest and diligent pupil is no match for the beast that is Fletcher who just misses being dressed in the smoke of satan.

Enduring insult after insult to the point of collapse, Andrew drums on, sweating and puffy like a refugee from war.

In a few brilliant strokes like an angry Expressionist painting there are gobs of blood on cymbals. The student tapes his hands like Jake LaMotta before a fight. Andrew becomes a machine to the point of callously  dismissing his girlfriend Nicole  (Melissa Benoist)

As tense as this story is, there are moments of beauty. The drum set is as much of a sorcerer's conjuring box that pulses with valentine life as it is something to be feared and conquered.

The music itself is a force in this film which features Hank Levy's Whiplash and Ellington's Caravan.

While it at times it flirts with a malevolent toxicity and harshness that is very nearly grotesque, this is J.K. Simmons's best film to date. Just when you think Fletcher is about to grow permanent horns, he backs away and becomes human.

Andrew too is very, very vulnerable with a kind of Black Majick within as he becomes an absolute Judge Dredd of drumming, bloody and deliberate.

While such scenes veer into acidic comedy in the tradition of the gore soaked Amy in the recent "Gone Girl," with the kid just short of leaving his skin by his drum box, the moments of Andrew leaving an empty and dim hall, his shoulders whittled down in exhaustion recall the solitary of Edward Hopper or a painting of the ashcan school.

These painterly moments of melancholy and heroic motion is reason enough to guard your neck and see "Whiplash", despite a Grand Guignol shade of Buddy Rich.

Write Ian at

Friday, November 21, 2014

Week of November 21- 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers a Dark and Funny Brew

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

With three powerful new films, and one strong holdover, Tropic Cinema gets serious -- in the tone of its new films.
"Rosewater" is political satirist Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, and no, it’s not a comedy. Instead he gives us the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was held for 118 days in Tehran. Kaplan vs. Kaplan calls it "a compelling film that reveals much about the Iranian ideology, and the paranoia of its leaders." Schmoes Knows says it’s "an incredible experience." And Flick Fhilosopher adds, "Jon Stewart's first film is passionate and principled, as I expected, but also hopeful, almost serene, and even gently amusing, which I did not."

"Whiplash" is the dramatic story of a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who falls under the tutelage of an old master (J.K. Simmons) at a prestigious music school. Newsday describes it as "primarily two actors and a jazz score, but the result is a crackling good drama that feels almost like a thriller." And Tampa Bay Times calls it a "musical drama with a Hitchcock heart, a minor-key thriller set to a double time swing beat."

"Birdman" is a comedy, but a decidedly black one. A washed-up movie star (Michael Keaton) tries to revive his career by putting on a Broadway play. The pressure mounts and reality fades. The Miami Herald observes, "’Birdman’ takes advantage of every facet of Keaton's talent, from his knack for absurdist comedy to his seemingly effortless ability to tap into graceful profundity without making a big show of it." And the Toledo Blade says, "Regardless of his connection to the role, Keaton is transformative and mesmerizing, altering in moments almost every audience preconception."

Holding over is another dark comedy, "St. Vincent." An old curmudgeon (Bill Murray) takes on a babysitting job, dragging his young ward to inappropriate places such as the horse track and bars. He’s mean, but lovable (sort of). Ozus' World Movie Reviews notes "Bill Murray plays the grouchy old man as well as anybody in Hollywood." San Francisco Chronicle grouses, "One of these days, someone should make a movie about a really nasty old guy who, by the end of the story, is still a nasty old guy." And amNewYork concludes, "It's a chance for Murray to act the hell out of a juicy part."

Dark and funny -- a strong brew at the Tropic.


Birdman (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Birdman" Soars At the Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Michael Keaton starred in two "Batman" movies, and then dropped out of the franchise to do smaller films. That was over twenty years ago. Now he pops up in a black comedy titled "Birdman," which happens to be about "a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise."

Sounds like art imitating life.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" is currently spreading its wings at the Tropic Cinema.

With it, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu presents the cautionary tale of an actor struggling to remain relevant. Riggan Thomas (Keaton) hopes to revive his career by putting on a Broadway play.

Assisting him in this quest is his flamboyant producer (Zach Galifianakis) and bedraggled druggie daughter (Emma Stone). They gather up a cast that consists of his sexy girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), a newbie Broadway actress (Naomi Watts), and a puffed-up leading man (Edward Norton).

The conceit of this film is that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar-winner for "Gravity") filmed it in what appears to be one long continuous take. Like Hitchcock’s "Rope." At 119 minutes that’s a heckuva flight for "Birdman."

But the question remains, will Michael Keaton … uh, I mean, Riggan Thomas … succeed in resuscitating his flagging career?

Here, it’s a race between opening night and a meltdown, as we watch our Birdman slowly lose his grip on reality.

Will his "Super-Realism" -- as a New York Times theater critic dubs his unexpected, showstopper acting technique -- save the day. Or will it give flight to Birdman.

Rosewater (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
Jon Stewart Gets Serious with "Rosewater"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Jon Stewart is a comedian, but he tackles thorny political subjects on "The Daily Show." So it’s not too surprising that he chose to get serious for a moment, taking the summer off to direct a movie about BBC journalist Maziar Bahari’s 118-day detainment in Iran.

Maziar Bahari has been a frequent guest on Stewart’s TV show.

"Rosewater" -- the title of Stewart’s film -- is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

In 2009, Bahari was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, supposedly because of a satirical interview he gave on "The Daily Show" about Iran’s presidential election.

During his time in Evin Prison, he was tortured and interrogated. Usually blindfolded, the only distinguishing feature of his interrogator was the small of rosewater cologne. Hence, the film’s name.

Filmed in Jordan (as a stand-in for Tehran), "Rosewater" stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal ("A Little Bit of Heaven") as Bahari. Kim Bodnia is the character known as Rosewater.

Being this film is based on true events detailed in Maziar bahari’s memoir "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival," it’s no spoiler to tell you he was finally released following pressure from Newsweek Magazine, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and his pregnant fiancé.

For his release, he was required to pay $300,000 bail, provide a video confession, and promise to spy on a list of Western journalists for the Revolutionary Guard. When he renounced his confession after returning to London, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to thirteen-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and 74 lashes. Despite threats to bring him back to Iran "in a bag," he remains at large and cooperated with Stewart in the making of this movie.
Stewart’s use of news footage of a debate between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and one of his challengers, and video showing the violence against protestors of the contested election results, adds a sense of verisimilitude.
But he’s still a first-time director finding his way, despite a little coaching from the sidelines by Hollywood wunderkind J. J. Abrams ("Star Trek," etc.).

Nevertheless, Iran’s State TV has accused Jon Stewart (né Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) of using Zionist backing for the little $10-million movie. Note: "Rosewater" was fully financed by Oddlot Entertainment, which has given us such movies as "The Way Way Back," "Ender’s Game," and "Draft Day".

Stewart was also accused of being a "CIA superspy."
Good material for "The Daily Show."




Saturday, November 15, 2014

Week of November 17-20 After the Film Festival (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Lures You Back Into the Theater

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we recuperate from non-stop movies at the Key West Film Festival, Tropic Cinema gives us new reasons to go back into the theater. Although a shortened week, the lineup is noteworthy.

“St. Vincent” offers a pitch-perfect performance from Bill Murray as a grumpy old guy who takes the youngster next door to the racetrack, bars, and other questionable activities without knowledge of the boy’s mother (Melissa McCarthy). He gets rewarded with “sainthood.” Aisle Seat calls it “a funny, charming, feel-good movie that rises above a few clichés.” And amNewYork notes, “It’s a chance for Murray to act the hell out of a juicy part.”

Another not-so-nice character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal is “Nightcrawler.” A wannabe TV news cameraman, he becomes the ultimate immoral ambulance chaser in this indictment of the TV news industry. sums it up, “Crashes and crime scenes are his bread and butter. He is driven. He is innovative. He is happy. He is also a monster -- a fiend who preys on people at their weakest and worst moments.”

Catch “Gone Girl” is you haven’t already. This missing-wife story is one of the best movies of the year, with Ben Affleck as the husband under suspicion and Rosamund Pike as the wife who indicts him by her diary. Fan the Fire calls it “a dark and intelligent thriller.” And 2UE That Movie Show adds, “’Gone Girl’ lives up to the hype.”

A heartwarming courtroom movie is “The Judge,” with Robert Downey, Jr. as a slick big-city lawyer back in his hometown to defend his estranged father, the local judge, in a murder trial. Denver Post says, “There are a number of fine reasons to see the courtroom-meets-family melodrama The Judge. As you might suspect, two stand out: actors Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.” And Daily Star calls it “Downey Jr.’s meatiest role in years.”

“Fury” is a war movie starring Brad Pitt as a tank commander behind enemy lines in Germany. Lots of action here as he and his men stand their ground. New Yorker says it’s “literally visceral -- a kind of war horror film, which is, of course, what good combat films should be.” And ABC Radio Brisbane concludes, “Like other war films, ‘Fury’ covers the familiar themes of heroism, comradery and brutality. It's also tapping into our love of underdog stories.”

There you have it -- five good reasons to go back to the movies this week.

Fury (Rhoades)

“Fury” Is Really
About People –
Not Tanks

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

While I’m not a big fan of war movies – or war itself, for that matter –it is a subject that has, does, and will affect so many people’s lives. As William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.” But sometimes a war movie can be good entertainment.

“Fury” – the new Brad Pitt film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema – takes its name from a M4A3EB Sherman tank commanded by a hotshot sergeant and his 5-man crew.

In this World War II actioner, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt with a jarhead haircut) is a man who fought Nazis in Africa and is now pursuing then behind Germany lines, lumbering along in his old workhorse tank. When it gets disabled, and 300 German soldiers are approaching, including a bunch of heavier German tanks, Wardaddy decides to stand his ground.

There’s the expected dramatic interplay between Wardaddy and his crew, particular a younger recruit (Logan Lerman) who’s questioning his courage, but it’s the battles you came to see. Bomb blasts and the boom of that 75mm turret-mounted gun atop the Fury -- you’ll find it all in this war film written and directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”).

Also in the cast are Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Scott Eastwood (Clint’s son).

There’s a message here about courage under fire, but this unsentimental telling will entertain you with the sheer intensity of its battle scenes. 

Somehow it seems fitting that William Tecumseh Sherman had a tank named after him.

Nightcrawler (Rhoades)

Gyllenhaal Slithers
To the Screen in

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I knew a National Inquirer reporter who was so aggressive he once asked a car-accident victim, “How does it feel to be dying?”

That’s the state of ambulance-chasing journalism you encounter in “Nightcrawler,” the new Jake Gyllenhaal film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema. It’s a bleak, perhaps satiric look at a nocturnal low-life who reinvents himself as a freelance newsman, prowling nighttime Los Angeles with a camcorder in search of salable stories.

The local TV station’s graveyard-shift news editor (Rene Russo) wants blood. “The perfect story,” she says, “is a screaming woman with her throat cut running down a street in a good neighborhood.”

Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to oblige. He thinks nothing of dragging a body out of a crashed car so the wounds shine in the headlights. It makes for better television, right?

As an older, more seasoned cameraman (Bill Paxton) puts it, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Lou is ever the money-driven entrepreneur. He hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed) and trains him by reciting inane mantras from the self-help books he reads. To Lou, empathy is a false commodity. A triple homicide in the home up in the hills is merely an existential scene to be filmed for television news.

“Nightcrawler” is the directing debut of veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”). Here he’s telling us something about the voyeuristic nature of desensitized television audiences. And perhaps something about movie audiences too. After all, we’re sitting here watching this titillating cautionary tale, a postmodern version of “Broadcast News” and “Network.”

Jake Gyllenhaal lost weight for this role, transforming himself into a ghoulish nightcrawler, a vampirish figure who prefers the darkness. His twisted, twitchy persona will remind you of a Norman Bates with J-school ambitions, a man whose morality has withered for lack of daylight.

Yet there’s a certain manic vulnerability to his sociopathy.

At one point Lou stares at the backdrop of the LA skyline in the news studio. “On TV it looks so real,” he says, almost puzzled by the disparity between the unbridled quest for network ratings and immorality.