Saturday, October 22, 2016

Snowden (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Edward Snowden, the whistle blower, a hero to some and a villain to others, is featured in a film directed by Oliver Stone. In many ways it is a hi-tech response to his earlier epic "Born on the Fourth of July." In place of Ron Kovic, this is Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) an idealistic young man fueled by 9-11 patriotism, just as impassioned as Kovic had been before Vietnam.

But once more, fate intervenes.

Gordon-Levitt is excellentl and on key as the halting-voiced Snowden and he all but vanishes into this very real man. The film is uneven though in highlightling Snowden's time in the CIA with long flashbacks and cyberspace explanations, along with a bit of soap opera involving his longtime girlfriend Lindsay.

We find Snowden, bespeckled and struggling as an army officer. He fractures his leg while hurrying out of his bunk bed. He receives a medical discharge.

Snowden has an interview with CIA agent Corbin O' Brian (Rhys Ifans) who finds he has a knack for computer code and loves America. Snowden is hired monitoring code for the CIA. Better yet, he meets his online date Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) a spirited photographer. But when Snowden falls in with the glib Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) all is not liberty. Eyes are on the innocent as well as the guilty.

The main pull of the film is riveting, clearly showing Snowden distance himself from his peers, while still seeming an observer. Snowden suffers from seizures brought on by stress and grows fearful of the all seeing camera, our ubiquitous playmate. It is only the long CIA sequences that make  the film lag slightly with technical emphasis on codes, encryptions and clearances.

Nicolas Cage appears as a not- too-hammy professor with only his hair mussed. Melissa Leo gives an authentic delivery of filmmaker Laura Poitras while Tom Wilkinson is MacAskill, a Guardian reporter.

Ultimately, "Snowden" is all Joseph Gordon-Levitt. One does feel that Oliver Stone, the provocateur, is holding back. Yes, there are striking touches: a camera turns into a sun which transforms into the iris of an eye and Snowden's silhouette blurs into the elongated shape of an alien. (Thank God! Snowden the spaceman is here to save us) But aside from these moments, there are few flourishes.

Still, Gordon-Levitt gives Snowden life and by the time one sees the actual man, our 21st century Shelley, accompanied by a high octane song by the inimitable Peter Gabriel, it induces cheers. "Snowden" reveals a person of flesh and blood and after watching, one can well see him on the head of a Casascius Bitcoin, albeit in the future.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Week of October 21 - 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Deftly Mixes Fact and Fiction
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Three films based on true stories are followed by fiction and fantasy -- an interesting mix this week at the Tropic.

“Denial” tells about the celebrated libel trial between American writer Deborah E. Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) and bombastic British holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is the barrister who tirelessly defends her. Newsday observes, “Facts and opinions duke it out in this thought-provoking if slightly low-key drama based on true events.” And ReelViews adds, “It’s strangely refreshing to watch a courtroom drama where theatricality doesn’t trump meticulous examination and cross-examination.”

Another kind of defense followed Chesley Sullenberger’s decision to set disabled US Airways Flight 1549 down on the Hudson River. “Sully” gives us Tom Hanks as the hero pilot under a spotlight. Phantom Tollbooth notes, “Tom Hanks seems comfortable in the role, moustache and all.” And Matt’s Movie Reviews tells us this is “a film that shows how the system can work when the right time comes.”

Still another legal problem is faced by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the CIA computer whiz who revealed the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Detroit News opines, “If Snowden’s story wasn’t real, Stone would have made it up.” And The Arts Desk says, “Stone has fashioned the story into a tense, fast-moving drama which will leave you pondering over what’s really justifiable for the greater good.”

Unlike the above real-life stories, “The Girl on the Train” is an edge-of-the-seat fictional thriller. An alcoholic divorcee (Emily Blunt) spots suspicious goings-on as she rides the commuter train to and from NYC. Did she see someone abduct a woman? Deadline Hollywood Daily says, “Emily Blunt’s startlingly good lead performance makes this ‘train’ trip worthwhile for fans of the book and others who like mystery psychological thrillers.” And amNewYork concludes, “It’s acted with great passion and helmed with steadfast commitment to a glossy psychologized aesthetic.”

And “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” goes further afield, entering Tim Burton’s fantasyland. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) protects her mutant wards from a very bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson). New York Daily News declares, “Tim Burton is on macabre message in his latest offering -- an adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ popular trilogy.” And Excelsior calls it “a film full of amazing visuals.”

Here are five films that will definitely entertain, inform, and bend your imagination.

Denial (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Denial” Argues Truth of Holocaust
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I’ve never understood how anyone could deny the Holocaust while there are still living survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. Surely witnesses count for something.

Yet there are people who want to sweep history under the rug, as if Hitler were merely running a humanitarian camp for Jewish refugees.

“Denial” is a movie about such a man, British author David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) who sued American writer Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) over the issue. He claimed that she had libeled him in her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”

Under English defamation law, the accused must prove the accuser wrong, so Deborah and her publishers hired libel expert Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to defend her in court. In this true-life story, it was up to Rampton to prove that the Holocaust happened.

“Denial” is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Courtroom dramas have always been interesting fare for movies and plays (think: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Verdict,” “Inherit the Wind,” etc.) but this one engages on a different level. Rather than proving guilt or innocence or a theory, here Rampton had to validate a harrowing historical event.

In her book, Deborah Lipstadt wrote: “Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain's great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”

These statements were clearly defamatory, so Lipstadt’s only defense was to prove these statements to be true.

The lawsuit -- David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt -- is often referred to as “history on trial.” Despite the old saying that “history belongs to the victors,” in most cases it’s accurate.

Snowden (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Oliver Stone Introduces Us To “Snowden”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Traitor or hero -- you decide. But you can probably guess where director Oliver Stone comes out on this: His films include the anti-Vietnam “Platoon,” the greed-condemning “Wall Street,” the pro-conspiracy “JFK,” the presidential exposés “Nixon” and “W.” -- and now “Snowden.”

Just to remind you, Edward Snowden is the government data geek who in June 2013 leaked classified information to The Guardian about the NSA’s spying on US citizens.

In Oliver Stone’s hands, “Snowden” becomes a biographical political thriller. It is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Variety calls it “the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years.”

For two hours and 14 minutes suspend your opinions -- pro or con -- about Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who took refuge in Russia. Stone’s point in telling Snowden’s story has less to do with the thirtysomething fugitive than about governmental surveillance in today’s society.

Oliver Stone has been called “the reigning king of conspiratorial left-wing political thrillers.”

In Stone’s new film, we get to know Edward Snowden (calmly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a deep thinker who has worked for the CIA’s global communications division as well as being a cybersecurity consultant for various government contractors. Snowden didn’t start out as a radical crusader. In fact, in 2009 he posted on a blog saying that he believed leakers of classified information “should be shot in the balls.”

Early on, he was a quiet, unassuming patriot who joined the US Army Reserve following 9/11 but wasn’t physically up to the challenge. Being discharged after breaking his legs, he joined the CIA where he could carry on the good fight in the safety of cyberspace. He was sent to Switzerland under diplomatic cover to maintain the CIA’s computer network security there. He was handpicked to support the president at the 2008 NATO summit in Romania.

In 2009 he moved over to Dell Computers where he managed the CIA account. Later on, Snowden was assigned to Hawaii as lead technologist for the NSA’s information-sharing office. But when he started reading Top Secret documents about how the NSA was spying on American citizens, he was shocked. He says his breaking point was seeing NSA director James Clapper “directly lie under oath to Congress.”

The result: Snowden turned over up to 200,000 documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian. And provided a video interview with filmmaker Laura Poitras (the basis for her “Citizenfour” documentary) as he went on the run, first to Hong Kong, then to Russia.

This film is not as kaleidoscopic as some of Oliver Stone’s earlier works, although it does cut back and forth between the interview and events that led up to it -- while displaying some of Stone’s outraged passion by telling this story of a mild-mannered James Bourne.

In addition to a spot-on performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he donated his salary to the American Civil Liberties Union) as Snowden, we get Shailene Woodley as the girlfriend he met on a dating site called Geek-Mate … Zachary Quinto as intrepid journalist Glenn Greenwald … Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras … Tom Wilkinson as journalist Ewen MacAskill … Nicolas Cage as a CIA bigwig who befriends Snowden … and Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Infans, Parker Sawyers, Ben Chaplin, Scott Eastwood, and Joely Richardson in supporting roles. Plus an appearance by Edward Snowden himself.

The film’s message: The intelligence community, we learn, has the ability to enter any home through its computer or phone -- using either the webcam, or the screen itself. Scary stuff.

As for Snowden, he has stated, “I am neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sully (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Here is "Sully," Clint Eastwood's latest, and once again, (as in American Sniper's Chris Kyle) he gives his audience a portrait of small town Americana and a local hero. As a character study it is a good one. USAir pilot Captain "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) strives to cope with apocalyptic nightmares given his experience with a flock of geese  that caused a twin engine failure and an emergency landing in the Hudson River on January 15th 2009.

Sully is almost supernaturally cool under pressure. In the air nothing rattles him, but once grounded, nightmares decend upon him and everything is in question, even the bliss of his marriage to Lorraine (Laura Linney). The pilot has just saved all of the 155 souls on board a flight from New York to Charlotte, but what if the NTSB finds him negligent over some missed protocol or procedure? Did he really do the best of all possible actions?

Eastwood makes his Sully into a Kafkaesque and Libertarian Everyman as the air expert confronts the snide and nit-picking agents who are obsessed with bureaucracy. Although Eastwood takes political and poetic licence with his hero, this is a solid picture of a man who makes mistakes but does right. We see Sully in the Air Force flying a comprised craft to safety. He takes both criticism and praise in stride.

Despite his usual even keel, however,  there is a touch of Scottie Ferguson, the protagonist from Hitchcock's "Vertigo" within the air pilot. He is frequently nervous on solid ground and prone to dizzying visions of a plane falling from a great height and slicing into the business district. Like Scottie, Sully is modestly shy under the gaze of female worship and eager to take to the air once again so that the disabling fugues will cease. There is one such segment in which journalist Katie Couric turns almost demonic in her belittling criticism of the captain.

Just when the imps of guilt threaten to topple the stoic Sullenberger, his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) is ready with a light joke.

If you can take Eastwood's suspicion of government authority, "Sully" is a solid portrait, deftly handled by Hanks, who all but disapears behind the pale levels of this unassuming man.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The JT Leroy Story (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The JT LeRoy Story

Director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston, The Real Rocky) has always been edgy and provocative in delivering many true stories of the art world, and in "Author: The JT LeRoy Story," he does not disappoint.

In the mid-1990s, a young teen boy from West Virginia called a suicide hotline as an abuse survivor. He was contacted by a Doctor Owens. The boy Jeremiah gave his name as "Terminator" and was encouraged to write down his experiences and feelings to help heal. Hundreds of pages followed by fax in a gutzy outspoken style and Dr. Owens was very impressed. Jeremiah was then put in touch with the neo-Beat writer Dennis Cooper and the memoirist Mary Karr encouraged Terminator to submit to anthologies.

He was offered a book deal and hailed as the next William Burroughs for his frenetic accounts of prostitutes and hustlers. When pressed about gender, Terminator said he was mostly male, yet at times he admitted to being female.  The buzz about him increased.

After his books were selling, the boy known as Terminator became JT LeRoy, an androgenous bleach-blond girl or boy, played by Savannah Knoop in public.  Michael Pitt made out with LeRoy and Asia Argento dated her. She was a confidant of Billy Corrigan of Smashing Pumpkins. Filmmakers Gus Van Zant and Asia Argento  pursued her for movie rights. Tom Waits, Bono and Courtney Love were all head over heels for JT LeRoy.

Then at the height of fame, the inexplicable happened. LeRoy's very identity was questioned in New York magazine as a possible hoax. Though "Author: The JT LeRoy Story" has more twists and turns than "The Girl on the Train," it is vivid and startling, for the very fact that it shows the  world of celebrity so hungry for a fresh and arresting voice to champion.

 Feuerzeig, whose last film highlighted the unusual songwriter Daniel Johnston, is no stranger to eccentric people and one is definitely found here. Fans of Warhol and the amoralist Patricia Highsmith will be riveted.

 The last shot itself, accompanied by a Lou Reed song, showing the female LeRoy in sunglasses red lipstick and white blond hair, sums up all of the weird and hypnotic mystery that embodies this film.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Week of October 14 - 20 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Gives Us a Lineup of Interesting People
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

People real, fictional, historical, murderous, and odd are featured in the films playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Tom Hanks is an “everyman” who portrays good decent people by slipping into their skin. A recent example is “Sully,” the story of the heroic pilot who safely put his US Airways Flight 1549 down on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers. Even so, he was challenged by a review board for not diverting to an airport -- with no engines. The Nation notes, “This is pretty much the truth of New Yorkers’ feelings about the landing on the Hudson -- and Director Clint Eastwood brings them back with a crisp, unmannered efficiency of which few other moviemakers are capable.” And Japan Times surmises, “This is not blockbuster material but it’s a delight to spend time in the company of Eastwood and Hanks.”

“Author: The JT Leroy Story” goes behind the pseudonym. JodieGug2 tells us, “He wrote bestselling books, made numerous public appearances, became a Hollywood ‘it’ boy and befriended a slew of A-list celebrities, but author JT Leroy never actually existed. Laura Albert shocked the literary world and Hollywood alike when she revealed that she was the person behind the beloved and celebrated young author -- supposedly a HIV-positive transgender ex-prostitute who chronicled his troubled upbringing” And CineVue calls it “a work steeped in the ambiguity, opacity and unreliable narration of the masterful Italian auteur Jeff Feuerzeig.”

“The Birth of a Nation” takes us back to 1831 when a rebellion was led by a slave named Nat Turner. First-time filmmaker Nate Parker also takes the lead role as the man behind this momentous uprising. Cinemixtape says, “‘The Birth Of A Nation’ might well be a milestone of indie cinema; one that, on its own merits, is deserving of any awards attention that comes its way.” And calls it “a harrowing, human testament.”

Emily Blunt is “The Girl on the Train,” an ex-wife who can’t let go, at the same time spying on an idealized couple next door as the train rumbles by on her daily commute to NYC. And then the wife she’s been watching disappears. Whodunit? observes, “Emily Blunt is fabulous before the story embraces its inner 'Gone Girl’.” And tells us: “‘The Girl on the Train’ isn't going to blow your mind but there's enough in it to enjoy a tense trip with some pretty strong performances.”

Finishing off with fantasy, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children" gives us an odd collection of kids with strange powers. Rolling Stone says director Tim Burton is “repeating tricks from his greatest hits (think Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands). But stick with it just for those times when Burton flies high on his own peculiar genius.” And Globe and Mail concludes that the film is “supremely silly and filled with crater-sized plot holes, but it's a profoundly moving film, too - about trauma, about loneliness, about aging and family.”

People, people, people -- they fill the Tropic’s screen.