Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Week of Nov. 28 - Dec. 4 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

At Tropic Cinema the Drama of People Triumphs Over Time and Space

By Shirrel Rhoades

If you recently saw "Interstellar," you’ll be tempted to go buy a ticket to "The Theory of Everything" just to better understand the science behind the outer-space epic about Black Holes. But you’d be wrong. While the new film at the Tropic is certainly about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it doesn’t deal with Quantum Mechanics or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Instead, it focuses on Hawking’s love life before he got confined to a motorized wheelchair.
In "The Theory of Everything," Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking and Felicity Jones his first wife Jane in this love story set against a growing physical disability (Lou Gehrig's Disease). St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it "a brainy bio that exerts a gravitational pull on the heartstrings." And Miami Herald says it "keeps you focused on the soul of a man trapped inside a malfunctioning body."

"Birdman" brilliantly casts Michael Keaton (former star of those "Batman" movies) as a fading actor who starred as a superhero known as "Birdman." To resuscitate his fading career, he seeks to put on a Broadway play. Boston Globe calls the film "a jaw-dropping stylistic wow that spins, pirouettes, turns inside out, and miraculously stays aloft for two hours." And Detroit News says it "challenges, surprises and dazzles while still working at the edges of a frazzled mind."

"Whiplash" pits a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) against an overbearing music teacher (J.K. Simmons), a clash of artistic development in this high-voltage drama. Your Movies says "the final confrontation between gifted student and tyrannical teacher comes quickly, then ends on an equally sudden if just about perfect note." And ReelViews describes it as "brutal and horrific yet compelling."

"St. Vincent" finds the good in a grumpy old man (Bill Murray) who does a horrid job of babysitting the kid next door. Three Movie Buffs calls it "A showcase for Bill Murray." And concludes, "If there were a grumpy old man who lived next door to every latch-key kid in America, we'd have a lot more well-adjusted children in the world."

Space and time? Go have a good time at the movies.




The Theory of Everything (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"The Theory of Everything" Doesn’t Cover Everything

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Even if you’ve never read "A Brief History of Time," you know Stephen Hawking is a genius. After all, you’ve seen him making guest appearances in his motorized wheelchair on TV’s "The Big Bang Theory." He’s kinda the poster boy for theoretical physicists everywhere.
He was the first scientist to set forth a cosmology explained by a union of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
You might think people admire Stephen Hawking because he carries on despite being almost totally paralyzed by a motor neuron disorder related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease). But that’s not it. We admire him because he’s so darn smarter than we are. A Brainiac.

But as we learn in "The Theory of Everything" -- the new movie about Hawking that’s currently showing at the Tropic Cinema -- he doesn’t know any more about women than other guys.  
Don’t confuse this one with the 2007 documentary that’s also titled "Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything." Originally broadcast on TV’s Discovery Science as "Master of the Universe," that earlier documentary explored Hawking’s theories about the nature of the universe.

Instead, this new feature film explores the nature of his love life. That is, his early love life, just as he and his fiancé learn that he has ALS. Their romance worked out to some degree: they produced three children.

Jane Wilde was the literature student Hawking fell for while studying at Cambridge in the ‘60s. This biopic is based on her memoir titled "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen." It’s a sweet, courageous love story … if we put out of our mind that he’s now on Wife Number Two and Jane has gone on to remarry also.

In "The Theory of Everything," we have Eddie Redmayne playing the famous British-born scientist. You’ll remember Eddie as the enamored young man in "My Week with Marilyn" or as heroic Marius in "Les Misérables."

And Felicity Jones plays Jane. She’s been acclaimed for her roles as the mistress of Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman" and as the British exchange student in "Breathe In." But more of you will recognize her for her appearance in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."

"The Theory of Everything" doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Black Holes or Quantum Mechanics or space or time. Instead it focuses on the "science" of love, giving us the bad along with the good. Both Stephen and Jane are revealed to have flaws. No surprise there. We all do.

As directed by James Marsh (he won an Oscar for his documentary "Man on a Wire"), the film sometimes seems to forget the unique mind it’s chronicling, instead concentrating on a formulaic story about a relationship struggling under adverse medical circumstance.

Nonetheless, Eddie Redmayne gives the performance of his young career. Conforming to the twisted physicality and the recognizable tics, he captures his subject well. Oscar bait, to be sure.

As one wag described the film, it’s "A Beautiful Mind" meets "My Left Foot."
A nod must go to Benoît Delhomme’s gorgeous cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s resounding score. It manipulates us well, conjuring up a tear or two.

Word is, after viewing a rough-cut of the film, tears had to be wiped from Stephen Hawking’s eyes. The 72-year-old genius was pleased enough to allow the filmmakers to use his copyrighted computer-generated voice for the movie’s later lines.
Just how accurate is this depiction of perhaps the world’s greatest living scientist? After watching it, Stephen Hawking pronounced it "largely genuine

Whiplash (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Whiplash" Delivers Jazzy Mentor-Mentee Bash

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

We like being a fly on the wall. While we may not like intense face-to-face confrontations, observing them can be fascinating. Power struggles are much easier to take when you’re not the one being domineered.

"Whiplash" gives us a terrific (in both senses of the word) drama, the relationship between a prodigy jazz drummer and his overbearing teacher. It’s a talky movie in the sense of "The Lion In Winter" or "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf" … but it manages to be something of a thriller too. 
Here we meet Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) who falls under the influence of legendary Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the music maestro at prestigious Manhattan conservatory. At their first encounter, Fletcher is dismissive, making the boy think he’s missed his one chance to impress the teacher. But no so. Fletcher’s style is abusive mind games, pushing his students beyond their seeming ability.

To make its point, the movie uses the apocryphal story of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head one night when he messed up, the violent act pushing him to the breaking point at which he became Bird.

Director Damien Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench") uses this metaphor to pose the question of how far a teacher should go to unleash the greatness in a student. Without the violence of that cymbal, would Charlie Parker have gone on to make music history? Did it take more than the threat of failure to get through to him?

Fletcher throws furniture, calls his students names, brutally challenges them. He physically tortures Andrew, forcing him to repeat drum solos until his hands bleed. He drives his students. He believes that the too most discouraging words you can say to a student is "Good job."

Is he a monster … or a mentor?

"Whiplash" is still playing at the Tropic Cinema. 
Not-quite-30--year-old Damien Chazelle is a writer-turned-turned director who has a thing for music, particularly jazz. His first movie, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," was about a jazz trumpeter in search of a more outgoing lover. He wrote the screenplay for "Grand Piano." And he’s currently directing a film he wrote called "La La Land," the story of a jazz pianist (Miles Teller again) who falls for a young actress (Emma Watson) in Los Angeles.

"Whiplash" actually started off as a short film with J.K. Simons ("Juno," TV’s "The Closer") as a band teacher, before he remade it into a feature film.
There is an old saying that a mentor must eventually kill off his mentee when he’s no longer a pupil, but a threat. Or vice versa.

Here we get to be a fly on the wall.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Birdman (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The eccentric and semi-reclusive actor Michael Keaton gives a breakthrough performance as the one-time action star Riggan Thomson in Alajandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman". Riggan is a mainstream actor, attempting a Broadway run, with his adaptation of Raymond Carver's fiction. Thomson  is driven dyspeptic and ulcerated by low self esteem. Perhaps as a joking commentary of Keaton's own role as The Batman, Riggan attempts to dismiss his Pop history while at the same time wanting to protect his legacy. The actor is surrounded by mediocrity, from the egocentric method actor (Edward Norton) to his slacker daughter (Emma Stone) and his hen-pecking ex girl (Andrea Riseborough) and feels stifled. Enclosed within the corridors of the shabby but time honored theater, Riggan is a Minotaur lost in a maze. While the dialogue feels intentionally long winded and circular, Keaton is transformative as an acidic and fuming big bad wolf trapped in the exhausting fairy tale that is his life.

The acting is stellar, but where the film really succeeds is in its magical realism as menacing buildings threaten to overtake him, echoing the fantasies of Terry Gilliam. Riddled with self doubt, Riggan nonetheless has the aggressive yet fanciful ability of telekinesis, hurling objects against the wall in menace.

It is possible in watching the film to dispense with the plot, and just let the kaleidoscopic verve of the Hitchcockian cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki absorb your eye. Shot in one continuous take throughout the two hours, Lubezki shows us an inferno of Broadway, peopled with pale and eerie creatures reminiscent of Hieronomous Bosch.

The final piece d'resistance of "Birdman" is in giving Riggan something of the great Antonin Artaud in making the theater a violent and propulsive act.

Like a cartoony and surreal shaman, Riggan executes a Taoist pantomime, highlighting a double world that exists within our routine shadow play.

Write Ian at

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.