Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interstellar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Christopher Nolan of the popular "Dark Knight" films hits us again with a punchy, existential outer space epic that is one part cowboy film and one part enigmatic voyage.
Astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot and farmer, coping with the spoils of his land. While the location is never explicitly identified, it is safe to say that it somewhere Midwest.  The main crop, after all, is corn.

 All is not the Emerald City however; the field is under a blight. Nolan consulted documentarian Ken Burns (The Dust Bowl) in creating these details and in its interpretation of a menacing Nature, Nolan's "Interstellar" is nothing short of marvelous. 

Cooper cannot make ends meet and his family is becoming ill. Despite this being the age of the iPad, we may as well be in the realm of Dorothy Gale's sepia Kansas. This gives the film a striking and evocative edge. Nostalgic, poignant and emotional, the visuals quote directly from a diverse film history.

When seeing a drone, Cooper flips out and runs for the fields. His daughter Murphy (McKenzie Foy) thinks she sleeps with a poltergeist, as books and toys fly off the shelves occasionally. In the manner of an M. Night Shyamalan film, Cooper becomes obsessed and drives to NORAD. Murphy hops on board. Cooper approaches the fence. There is a jolting buzz and a blinding terrible white light. But our hero, Coop, is fine. As it turns out, he is being briefed by NASA and asked to participate in a mission: Earth is becoming extinct and another planet must be found suitable for human residency.

Although the film evokes E.T.,  2001, and 3:10 to Yuma with its suspenseful tension and Western style climaxes, the philosophical puzzles are uniquely Christopher Nolan. 

McConaughey is terrific as the bronze space traveler as torn apart from being a single dad as he is from G force.

Another highlight is the forceful battle of life and death between Cooper and the egotistical Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) all set on the wastes of a hostile ice planet, which in reality, is set in Iceland .

"Interstellar" in the mode of a 21st century cliffhanger will never fail to keep you guessing. Yes, the casting of Anne Hathaway is reminiscent of a certain Sigourney Weaver heroine and certain set pieces imitate the "Alien" franchise but Nolan still has enough sleight of hand in his quantum thrills to make it both contemplative and tense. The sight of a single huge wave, Lucifer horned like a leviathan is a sensation, and the last of "Interstellar" sneaks up on us with an unexpected punch, making a fitting retro "Twilight Zone" episode, while also speaking of our primal human impulse of love and the perils of loss.

Write Ian at

Wild (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) gives us another collaged and stream of consciousness trip in "Wild." Both the book and the film are based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, detailing her life on the Pacific Crest Trail as she journeyed up it in the effort to re-assemble and re-assert her being.

Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed as a pale, hatchet-like hiker who is both worried and fearless. Every gesture, every motion she makes brings pain, and in this incarnation Witherspoon is an indigenous, ambulatory Christ figure, her blood mixed with the thorny berries that she picks from a tree.
Strayed is driven, each individual act is a hindrance or an obstacle. Her pack, named Monster, is gargantuan. Like a huge man-hand, it presses upon her, squashing her into a blonde thimble. If that is not enough, her foot is a bloody pulp, blistering and scorched.

Still, she carries on.

Through it all, her mother (Laura Dern) sustains her, a spirit of memory.

True to form, director Vallee delivers wondrous poetic verve, at times almost reaching the anxiety of a phantasmagoria. Strayed is both driven and pursued by the element of blood. The blood of a unfortunately killed horse, the blood jabbed from a needle during her drug addiction, and the blood of her mother, dream-drenched by guilt. A hiker she is, but she is also a dream walker, half vodoo princess, half day-of-the-dead observer and participant.

The film is subversive in the fact that even under a heroin haze, Strayed remains in control and powerful with her quest clearly in place. The men in the film, from Cheryl's ex Paul (Thomas Sadowski ), to fellow hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and farmer Frank (W. Earl Brown) are either passive, neutral or generic. And if the men are not in retrograde they are quickly stripped of desire under Cheryl's gaze as in the case of the hopeful ranger (Brian Van Holt) or the predatory and wolfish T.J. (Charles Baker). This is a film where women are made for power and men are either meek, mundane or seen as abusive.

The omnipotence of feminine power comes to the fore.

Vallee gives a tribute provocatively as well: in  one scene, a fox appears, fixing Strayed with a piercing but questioning look. Given the heavy snow and the dark pointed woods, this moment is right out of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist."

The film can also be seen as a more benign and naturalist version of "Gone Girl." Like Amy, Cheryl is constantly patronized, though all the while, she alone has a plan in her head. Mystery is paramount and just as in Gillian Flynn's story, the men here remain stumped and mystified by Cheryl's resilience in a desert terrain.

"Wild" creates a rich satisfying prism of a woman walking between the shades. It is Reese Witherspoon's strongest film, and under Vallee's direction her fun-loving debutante persona all but disappears.

Write Ian at

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Week of December 19 - 25 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Bridges Time and Space With Six Great Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From the vastness of interstellar space to the intimate mystery of a missing wife, Tropic Cinema stretches time and space with six films this week.
Aptly titled "Interstellar" is an epic sci-fi thriller from "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan. In it, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway go into space and cross through a wormhole in the fabric of time in search of a new home for dying earth. Richard Roeper describes it as "One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen." And MediaMike concurs, "A remarkable achievement in filmmaking that will have you on the edge of your seat."

Surprisingly, "The Theory of Everything" is not about wormholes and interstellar black holes. Rather, it’s the study of a young genius in love, before health issue alter his life. Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife-to-be Jane (Felicity Jones) find romance at Cambridge amid his theories about time and space … and love. Newsday says, "This is rich material for the film’s lead actors, and both are superb." Miami Herald adds, "Redmayne makes you forget you’re watching an actor put himself through punishing contortions."

"Gone Girl" returns by popular demand, a taut mystery about a husband (Ben Affleck) suspected of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). Directed by David Fincher, it’s one of the best films of the year. The Atlantic says, "What Fincher does better than almost anyone is create moody, meticulously crafted thrillers that straddle the divide between genre and art." And Antagony & Ecstasy calls it "something close to a mechanically flawless thriller."

Brand-new is "Wild," the story of a woman (Reese Witherspoon) making a thousand-mile trek up the Pacific Coast in search of herself. Denver Post says, "Not since June Carter Cash in ‘Walk the Line’ has Witherspoon been so present to a character. Her Cheryl is funny and messy, wounded but not without survival instincts." And Las Vegas Weekly adds, "The flashbacks intertwine beautifully with the present-day scenes, and Witherspoon's performance is full of vulnerability and regret."

"Birdman" continues to amaze audiences, with Michael Keaton playing a movie star very much like himself, trying to redeem himself with a Broadway play after starring in comic-book blockbusters. US Weekly observes, "The brazenly off-kilter comedy offers a blistering look at how an industry rat race can decimate a man's self-worth." And Tri-City Herald gushes, "Michael Keaton is a solid lock for the year’s best male actor, his supporting cast is incredible and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s play-like film is a must-see."

And "St. Vincent" is a great character study from Bill Murray, playing it straight as a crusty curmudgeon who agrees to babysit the hapless kid who moves in next door. A saint-like performance. Urban Cinephile observes, "Let’s face it: who else could make a heavy-drinking, gambling, cursing man with a pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend and squashed-face Persian cat so likeable?" And Empire Magazine calls it "Murray’s finest, funniest, meatiest performance since ‘Lost In Translation’ …"

Wild (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Reese Witherspoon Does Walkabout In "Wild"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

We often talk about Hollywood stars who can "carry" a movie. Well, Reese Witherspoon has joined those ranks.

Being the only person on screen for long stretches of "Wild," Witherspoon will either hold your attention or lose you. Fortunately, her gritty, honest performance latches onto you like mud that’s difficult to wash off.

Witherspoon -- once the dainty princess in those "Legally Blonde" movies -- proves she can carry a backpack too.
Following a bad divorce and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed (played by Witherspoon) decides to take a thousand-mile trek along the Pacific Coast National Scenic Trail, walking from the California desert to Oregon all by herself.

"Wild" is playing at the Tropic Cinema if you want to join her on this arduous journey of self-discovery.

Based on a book by Cheryl Strayed, "Wild" falls somewhere between "a grief memoir and a travelogue." This solitary walkabout is fueled by a bit of advice from her late mother about "putting yourself in the way of beauty."

In the movie, Reese Witherspoon does just that, presenting a panting, sweaty, unglamorous hiker confronting a panorama of scenic wonder -- majestic mountains, snow-covered vistas, lakes, verdant forests, ribbons of highway, rock-strewn trails.

Fact is, a person’s troubles do get kinda dwarfed when put against the vast backdrop of Mother Nature.

In the wilderness, a torn toenail takes on greater significance than her once-upon-a-time sex life. Needless to say, the men she encounters along the way are somewhat taken aback to see a lone woman hiking in the wilderness.

Cheryl’s journey is punctuated with free-associative memories about her childhood, her disintegrating marriage, her relationships, offering up more of a mosaic of her life than a connect-the-dots plotline. Her mother (played by Laura Dern) appears almost as a magical apparition in her on-the-trail memories.

Closely following the book’s structure, director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") begins the story smack in the middle of the journey. Surprisingly, the film’s complicated flashback structure works, letting us share the solitary thoughts of this world-weary traveler as clearly as if we were rattling around inside her head.

Cheryl Strayed, we discover, is not seeking redemption by this monk-like pilgrimage. Rather, she’s looking for self-acceptance. Learning to live with herself.

That’s a good goal for all of us.

As an actress, Reese Witherspoon seems to have found it.




Interstellar (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Christopher Nolan Gets Spacey With "Interstellar"
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Director Christopher Nolan (the "Dark Knight" trilogy) must have read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as binge-watching Morgan Freeman’s "Through the Wormhole" TV documentary, before sitting down with his brother Jonathan to co-write the screenplay for his latest movie, a science fiction blockbuster called "Interstellar."

The epic storyline is built around several principles of relativity such as distant simultaneity and time dilation. These mind-bending concepts are old hat to any nerdy kid who grew up reading Analog Science Fiction Magazine, but it is -- ahem -- relatively new for moviegoers to see these premises in a big-screen, state-of-the-art, special-effects production told with the "merchant of awe" verve of Christopher Nolan.

"Interstellar" is now awing audiences at Tropic Cinema.

In it, we have Matthew McConaughey taking on the Buzz Lightyear role of a man who goes into interstellar space to save life on earth.

"We’re not meant to save the world," Michael Caine corrects him. "We’re meant to leave it."

McConaughey starts off the movie as an engineer turned Texas farmer trying to survive a dystopian dust bowl caused by a plague that killed off all the livestock on earth. One day he and his daughter stumble upon a crashed space probe and while returning it to a decimated NASA base near Los Angeles he gets shanghaied into manning an interstellar space mission, flying through a wormhole in search of a new planet to which people on dying earth can migrate. 
Well, sure enough, he and co-pilot Ann Hathaway find one, an icy landscape that looks very much like the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland. But will our duo ever make it back to earth in time to save its inhabitants?

Okay, I know this is starting to sound like a Buck Rogers space opera, but Nolan swears he was influenced more by "2001: A Space Odyssey." He says he was going for the same sort of scientific accuracy with "Interstellar."
As the New York Times once put it, "Nolan’s movies require this thick quotient of reality to support his looping plots…"

Just to make sure the film got it right, Nolan hired theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant for the film. A former Caltech professor, Thorne says, "For the depictions of the wormholes and the black hole … I worked out the equations that would enable tracing of light rays as they traveled through a wormhole or around a black hole -- so what you see is based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity."

Told you.

Nolan also invited former astronaut Marsha Ivins onto the set to double-check his lost-in-space accuracy.

But "Interstellar" still comes back to Stanley Kubrick’s "2001," a film Nolan’s father took him to see when he was 7. He started making his own little movies with a borrowed Super 8 camera soon after that. 
Nolan says, "Someone, an adult, once told me that the meaning of ‘2001’ was that going into outer space is like going deep into yourself. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. In fact I have no idea what ‘2001’ is really about. But I tried to make a film now that would be like that, a quest film like ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’ "

This balancing act is how Christopher Nolan’s films manage to become both mainstream blockbusters and objects of cult appeal.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear White People (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Dear White People

In style and content, Justin Simien's "Dear White People" speaks about the daring and influence of Spike Lee as much as addresses Obama's intent for harmony. In big bold images akin to a graphic novel, the director places his audience within the pastoral yet claustrophobic realm of Winchester College, an Ivy League institution.

With dry tones reminiscent of Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," college radio host Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) presents a biting show titled "Dear White People" and a newsletter  "Ebony and Ivy."  As a protest, she  runs for head of her residence, wanting to make the hall exclusively for black students.

This sets off an acidic war with Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner) an  aloof and narcissistic boy, the son of the college president.

Coco (Teyona Parris) is the princess-like student who wants to uphold stratification and keep the status quo of Winchester just as it is.

Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is the bookish outsider with a wild Afro who is approached to get the story on the racial tension through these hallowed halls.

No one gets off easy in this film. Every character presents a ruse, a masquerade or a mania, and the film empties its ammunition upon every persona and type. All of the characters bite and jab  one another with the exception of Lionel, who is a walker on the fringe. Every person becomes embroiled in a nest of scorpions.

Sly is the concoction reserved for Obama whose complacency and hopes are well lampooned: his positivity is jabbed upon in Samantha's film "The Re-Birth of a Nation" showing people in white face makeup, disappointed in the Obama Dream.

The most corrosive accents are engineered for Spike Lee's oeuvre as his charged characters are satirized by turning  obsessive and narrow in intent. There are still shots of silent men in rigid impassivity as if in parody of and tribute to "Do The Right Thing".

A party scene presents  racism with an appropriate stinging sleaziness, showing humans locked in their own stereotypical prisons of cartoons, ill-realism and coercion. With Obama in office or not, racism rears its filthy anemic head under the All Hallows' Eve of inappropriate kitsch, and Money, its green-eyed cousin, waits to brand itself and consume every person regardless of  his or her persona or spirit.

Write Ian at

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Week of December 12 - 18 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Seven Films Fill Tropic Cinema’s Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Seven Film keep the four screens at the Tropic Cinema flickering! And they offer a wide variety of stories -- all of them must-sees.
Back by popular demand is "Gone Girl," one of the best thrillers of the year. This is the one where a husband (Ben Affleck) is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike), based on the diary that’s discovered after she goes missing. But you can count on plenty of twists and turns. Spectrum calls it "a dark, disturbing walk down the aisle of matrimonial madness, and an unforgettable one at that." Movie Dearest tells us it’s "the best, most satisfying mystery/psychological thriller in a long time." And 2UE promises that it "lives up to the hype."

"Force Majeure" is another look at family dynamics, as a Swedish family gets caught in an avalanche while having lunch in a ski lodge in the French Alps. Laramie Movie Scope describes it as "an emotionally powerful film about the struggles of people to deal with the restrictions and limitations of traditional male and female roles in modern marriage." And Oregonian says, "The laughter it provokes may be uneasy, but the ultimate emotional impact is quite real."

"The Theory of Everything" starts off as the tale of a young genius in love, but it takes a darker turn when he comes down with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This, of course, is a biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane (well played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones). Detroit News sees it as "intimate scenes from a very specific and challenging marriage, warts, black holes and all." And St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it "a brainy bio that exerts a gravitational pull on the heartstrings."

"St. Vincent" is a character study about a gnarly misanthrope (played perfectly by Bill Murray) who babysits his neighbor’s kid with questionable results. says, "Bill Murray shines in this story of a cynical grump whose life is changed by his friendship with a bright young kid." And Times observes, "Bill Murray eases into the role of cantankerous curmudgeon Vincent like it’s a pair of threadbare old board shorts that he’s had since the mid-1980s."

"Birdman" is a different kind of character study, one with a dash of the surreal. A washed-up actor (played close to the bone by Michael Keaton) tries to resuscitate his career with a Broadway play. Film Comment says, "What this extraordinary work does best is drop us into the mind of an actor beset by insecurities, vanity-project hubris, and that inner critic who simply won’t shut up, whisking us up into a dazzling, dizzyingly subjective whirlwind." And New Yorker sees it as "a white elephant of a movie that conceals a mouse of timid wisdom."

"Dear White People" hold up a satiric mirror to race relations, looking at how four black college students handle their oh-so-white classmates. What are they willing do to fit in? ScreenRant describes it as "a strong debut for a newcomer director, who tackles sensitive racial and cultural topics with wit, sensitivity, and thoughtful commentary." And Globe and Mail calls it "‘Do the Right Thing’ for the Obama generation…"

"Citizenfour" is a different kind of film, a documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Love him or hate him, you’ll learn about what he uncovered straight from his lips to your ears. Film Threat declares, "What an astonishing, immeasurably important historical document this is -- on top of being a lock for the Best Documentary Oscar." And Toronto Star says, "It’s one of the most riveting films you’ll see this year." Amen.

Seven films, that’s only seeing one movie a day. You can do it.