Saturday, June 25, 2016

Free State of Jones (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Free State of Jones

For those that want a minimalist history lesson  in broad shapes, here you have it in "Free State of Jones" as directed by Gary Ross. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a freedom fighter in the Reconstruction Era of The Civil War. After his nephew,  (actor Jacob Lofland, McConaughey's co-star in "Mud") dies in a battle, Newton who bares a resemblance to Jesus, gets a spark of an idea to desert against the desperate tyrants of the Confederacy and form his own company.

McConaughey, for his part, is solid in this role excluding the fact that he is often wild eyed and sweating. One can take a bit of comfort in the fact that he has drama in his voice and his rolling southern drawl does have power, albeit comic at times. But suffice to say, this film is generalized and bland having the feel of an illustrated history book.

We have usual stock characters here: a hateful, nonchalant colonel (Lawrence Turner) who talks like Colonel Sanders and his pompous lieutenant (Bill Tangredi). Most of the film highlights the grimy Knight fretting and yes, sweating. He quotes the Bible in grave tones. There is one good combat scene that thrills, but then the narrative snaps back to a gnarled McConaughey proclaming what is good and correct with dialogue out of a John Ford western.

The stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw is McConaughey's spouse in the film but weirdly, her role is too lightly drawn. Rachel Knight is pushed to the background and all but shoved aside with the exception of a gun and a baby. Her character begs for rounder treatment.

There is a side story about Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) a relative being denied marriage as a mixed race child in the year 1950, but this sideline is hodgepodge and loosely thrown, involving lawyers, bibles and census forms, all of it given soapily.

Granted, it is fun to hate the Confederacy during a battle and there is a haunting montage that recognizes the cinematic offensiveness of 1915's "Birth of a Nation" but for the most part the epic of Newton Knight is watered down to a stick figure who is always right and over-confident, a grimy golden He-man, a Mississippi Messiah.

I declare, a little goes a long way.

Write Ian at

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Week of June 24 - 30 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers Seven Films, Big and Small
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Now that Tropic Cinema is allowed to show big first-run films as well as smaller indies, you'll find even more variety on its screens.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” is a CGI-laden sequel to the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster about an alien invasion. Those buggers that Will Smith defeated in the first flick are back again, swarming the skies like locusts. However, Will is not around to save the world in this one. IGN Movies describes it as “a silly, cheesy, spectacle-driven blockbuster with heart.” And Empire Magazine declares, “You’ll enjoy yourself enough that you won’t even miss Will Smith.”

“Love & Friendship” is based on a little-read Jane Austen novel about a manipulating woman looking for a husband for herself and her daughter. Kate Beckinsale is perfectly cast as conniving Lady Susan. Toronto Sun calls this period piece “quick, clever and delightful.” And St. Louis Post Dispatch finds it to be a “comic romp that fans of the classic English author will love.”

Although directed by Rebecca Miller, “Maggie’s Plan” might easily be mistaken for a Woody Allen film. SSG Syndicate notes, “Acerbic and idiosyncratic, it’s tartly erudite to the extreme.” And It’s Just Movies observes, “Greta Gerwig co-stars with New York City in this tame location driven rom-com.”

“Weiner” is a documentary about former Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose political career crashed when he got caught sexting naughty photos of himself. Mountain Xpress says, “Yeah, you almost certainly know how this is going to play out, but that doesn’t keep the film from being compelling and even fascinating.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it “the must-see nonfiction film of the year.”

“Dark Horse” is the true story about a group of working class Brits who take on the uppercrust task of breeding a racehorse. Salt Lake Tribune describes it as “an inspirational sports story, loaded with eccentric characters, dramatic twists, and a rousing, emotional trajectory.” Detroit News calls it “a galloping victory.” And Seattle Times challenges, “Oh, just try to resist this one.”

“Nice Guys” stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as mismatched detectives investigating the death of a porn star.  New York Magazine describes it as “just slick enough to keep from falling apart, just brutal enough to keep from seeming inconsequential.” And El Pais calls it “an exercise in cynicism and cool.”

“Free State of Jones” gives us Matthew McConaughey as a defiant Southern farmer who leads an armed rebellion against the Confederate Army. Hollywood Reporter sees it as “a compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period ….” And San Francisco Chronicle concludes, “It’s a good film, absorbing from beginning to end, but it’s also important.”

Big films, big stars; little films, little stars. Tropic has them all.

Independence Day: Resurgence (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Independence Day:  Resurgence” Marks Return of Aliens
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’d think those alien buggers would get the message. You can’t invade the earth and win. We’ve proved it in movie after movie.

One in particular stands out as testimony to that fact: “Independence Day,” that 1996 patriotic epic in which a fighter pilot (Will Smith) and the US president (Bill Pullman) lead a counterattack against alien invaders on July 4th -- roughly the same date that the movie opened.

Being that this was a summer blockbuster, Jeff Goldblum was a member of the cast. He was considered “good luck” for such films.

Of course, we kicked those aliens’ little green butts.

Now, two decades after that first invasion, the aliens are back in a new movie called “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

Several familiar faces from that first movie -- Bill Pullman, Vivica A. Fox, Brent Spiner, and Judd Hirsch -- are back. Along with Jeff Goldblum, needless to say.

For continuity, Jessie Usher will play the Will Smith character’s stepson. The studio wouldn’t pony up the $50 million Smith demanded for two more movies in the series. So they killed him off in a crash while test-piloting an alien hybrid fighter. Bummer.

Both movies are the brainchild of director Roland Emmerich and his sometimes collaborator Dean Devlin. Together, they have given us such megahits as “Godzilla,” “Stargate,” and not-so-big-a-hit “Eight Legged Freaks.”

This week “Independence Day: Resurgence” is carrying the battle to the Tropic Cinema.

As President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) patriotically says, “Today, you will once again be fighting for our freedom...”

Aliens or ISIS, movies like this make us want to defiantly declare (to quote Pullman’s character), “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our ...” … well, you know.

Maggie's Plan (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Maggie’s Plan” Goes Comically Awry
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 Everybody is calling “Maggie’s Plan” a Woody Allen wannabe.

Sure, it’s about a neurotic New York woman who encounters a number of comic mishaps with intellectual overtones. But, in fact, it’s a belabored labor of love by director-writer Rebecca Miller. Not need to bring Woody Allen into this. She has the creative genes, being the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Rebecca Miller’s last film was a 2009 comedy called “The Secret Lives of Pippa Lee.” I remember interviewing her via Skype, she chatting nervously, with her husband Daniel Day-Lewis sitting just out of camera range. She seemed very serious about being funny.

“Maggie’s Plan” is a screwball comedy, one of those female-dominant farces with fast-paced dialogue and plenty of plot twists where everything seems to go wrong in a funny way.

Here, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a control freak who wants a child but can’t find the man of her dreams, so she beseeches an old school chum (Travis Fimmel), a math genius who is now a -- wait for it! -- pickle maker, to provide her with the sperm. However, things go awry when she falls for a brainy college professor (Ethan Hawke), who happens to be married to an even brainer wife (Julianne Moore, using a silly Danish accent).

The message is, be careful what you wish for. Three years later, she’s married to the deadbeat prof and saddled with both her and his children.

Thus comes the story’s biggest plot twist, when Maggie decides her hubby is not Mr. Right and she must formulate a new plan to reunite him with his ex-wife.

Ms. Miller strains a bit to be funny line-after-line. And Greta Gerwig is essentially repeating all those roles -- the ineffectual woman confused by relationships -- that won her the title of “indie darling.” Julianne Moore surprises us by turning a daft part into a screen-stealing performance.

“Maggie’s Plan” is playing at Tropic Cinema.

Rebecca Miller’s New York-centric film may not be as good as a good Woody Allen. But -- wannabe or not -- it’s much better than a bad Woody Allen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nice Guys (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Nice Guys

In the 1980s and early 90s, comedy films were king and this was true of the buddy cop genre, specifically the "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Lethal Weapon" series. As the years passed, these films gave way to big screen epics, most notably big screen adventure or science fiction films. The movie screen became less like a window and more like a virtual realm.

Well, it is 2016 and who says you can't travel back in time? You certainly will when watching Shane Black's "The Nice Guys" a retro cop comedy very much in the style of Richard Donner or Joel Schumacher. The film is lively, colorful and irreverent with action that is truly nonstop. For those that say this is really nothing new. Fair enough. But the jokes are so deadpan and direct that you will laugh in spite of it all.

Jack (Russell Crowe) is a nonchalant hired gun who throttles people for money whether they deserve it or not. Holland (Ryan Gosling) is a passive detective who just takes his clients money without following up on solid leads. Add to this the fact that he is lazy and accident prone and you have quite a mixture of traits.

Jack is protecting stalkers from young teens while Holland is basically feeling sorry for himself. The two men meet up in a violent encounter of a missing girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who is enmeshed in a mystery involving porn. After a scuffle, the two agree to join efforts to find the girl or at least to get to the heart of things.

The fun of the film is merely the fact that Gosling and Crowe are playing against type and have the looseness necessary to make fun of their formidable onscreen personas. Holland looks like an actor from a stag film with a long drooping mustache, while Jack is a caricature of Mel Gibson.

The pair get into many scrapes and misadventures mostly due to the fact that neither of them are quick enough.

Gosling is perfect as a terrified Lou Costello. He even shrieks at a very high pitch. Crowe will have you laughing as well, given that his character is so overconfident and in control that it renders him silly. Angourie Rice as Holland's daughter nearly steals the film. Rice plays a good-natured pre-teen girl with a glibly  acidic tongue.

While the narrative is directly taken from many films with good and bad clearly defined, the humor is right out of Jerry Zucker's "Airplane!" The two ne'er do wells take themselves far too seriously and consequently accomplish very little.

The swift direction by Black (the writer of Lethal Weapon) turns this film into something conceptual and almost arty in an odd way.

"The Nice Guys" is a Pop Art time capsule in the way that films once were with jarring noise, clashing color and snarky, homicidal villains. Actor Matt Bomer is John Boy, a laconic and sinister loon from "The Matrix" era. For dessert, there is one scene that dizzily recalls both "Lethal Weapon" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" which defies description.

Be sure to leave your logical senses behind and allow yourself to experience all of the bone-crunching bonhomie with a pair of shifty guys.

"The Nice Guys" takes you back for a beating and doesn't disappoint.

Write Ian at

Viva (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


There have been many films about the courage to be yourself despite parental pressures and societal norms from "Billy Elliott" (male ballet) "Priscilla, Queen of the  Desert", "To Wong Foo" (female impersonators) and "The Full Monty" (male strippers) just to name a few.

In "Viva" by the Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnacht, Jesus, a young boy (Hector Medina) yearns to be a drag performer in the slums of Havana.

As Jesus, the actor Medina is first rate. His alternately inquisitive and spacey expressions tell all there is to know. This is a boy who wants to be placed in another world: one of drama, pathos, color and light. Instead, he is immersed in the brown gray crumbling dwellings of Havana where the rain pours from rusty pummelled roofs tinted in ochre and brown.

He has no money and spends his time wandering from place to place drifting in record stores to buy used records.

One gets a very visceral feeling from this youngster who glides from place to place, a detached observer, a camera, recording all he sees while immersed in endless, incomprehensible macho noise.

If that were all the film contained, it would have been enough: a picaresque journey of characters and sensations, all while a young boy practices and performs in the confined and repressed air of an unvarnished Cuba.

Instead we get Angel, (Jorge Perugorria) a boxer and Jesus' physically violent father who pays a visit and decides to stay with him after he hits him.

Angel is as sullen, grouchy and as belligerent as you would expect and doesn't have much to say. He shuffles about and barks. Angel tries to rule with an iron hand and shadowboxes, but he is clearly past his prime.

All this in under the rainy ceiling of clouds containing all the dinginess that is Cuba.

The only brightness that Jesus looks forward to are his meetings with Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia) an older drag performer, who inspires him on stage.

Jesus has a neighbor-acquaintance Cecilia (Laura Aleman) who pressures him to use his bed for her date and then turns nasty.

Just when Jesus feels a bit of sun, (onstage as well as outside), clouds once more darken the sky.

Claustrophobia returns.

What was once pensive and thoughtful becomes heavy with needless melodrama and formulaic episodes with loud voices: an over the hill boxer, the caring theatrical mentor and the sassy friend. We half expect Jesus to yell "Leave me alone! Don't push me!"

And he all but does.

When his father nudges Viva on the chin as if to say "There you go kid!" we expect it.

The film would have been better served if it had dispensed with these predictable scenes and just stayed with Jesus, merely recording what he observes.

Less is more.

Surrealistically, there is one short montage showing a body being made for burial paired with Viva putting on makeup for a show as if the boy is reclaiming cosmetics, transforming them in a new positive condition. Although morbid, it proves poignant. If only there were more of these notes rather than a slide into formula.

"Viva" is a mixed bag. Hector Medina is enigmatic and entrancing, but placed up against his charmless father, it all becomes too much of a dark comparsa between father and son.

Write Ian at

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Weiner (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The provocatively titled documentary "Weiner" by  directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, focuses on the Democrat firebrand Anthony Weiner and his life in the midst of a texting scandal that imperiled a previously shining political career. Weiner was a seven-term congressman from New York City. He was forceful, feisty and full of voltage, never failing to take republicans to task on issues like funding health care for citizens who were near the 9-11 attack site and national parks.

In the film he refuses to yield to the floor. Sweaty with his neck pulsing, he shouts and is ready for a fight.  People love him and he quickly becomes a daring darling on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" championing progressive issues. Then, seemingly out of the blue, a young woman posts a Twitter photo of Anthony Weiner's bulging underwear.

The public is shocked.

At first Weiner denies the photo, only to announce his intention to resign during the Summer of 2011. The picture of his penis under wraps was, in fact, genuine. Given the nature of his indiscretion, not to mention his own unfortunate name, the congressman became the target of jokes and derision by many, despite his attempts to earnestly debate issues that face everyday people.

Enter his wife Huma Abedin, right hand to Hillary Clinton, who gets Anthony to run for mayor of the city in 2013.

This is a sympathetic and compelling study of the human being as well as the politician. While it is true that Anthony Weiner made a mistake in a phone sex scandal involving numerous women while lying, amounting to a betrayal of public trust, the film clearly shows him as a sincere political person who cares about issues.

Weiner stays awake at night writing speeches and going to donors, only to be pulled back into a second scandal as more information is released. The pull of sex and desire is a vortex to him. After each revelation of unsavory news, the congressman seems dumbstruck, as if waking to a horrid dream.

Still, Anthony Weiner goes on.

The best segments of the film feature him rightly fighting a Republican on the congressional floor, as well as verbally fighting someone who hurls invective against his wife Huma at a New York deli. At such moments, your hand will cheer. He can and does do the right thing.

Though Weiner might is a flawed politician, he is also joyful and impassioned. Jokes aside, by no means is he a cold fish. In one moment Anthony Weiner hits the gay pride parade, at the next, he flies the Israel flag, swinging it wildly about his head, his electricity and cheer undaunted. People kiss him, while others hug him. But yet again, the congressman is forced to scurry and evade the eyes of cyber-mistress, Sydney Leathers, dressed in voluptual red.

Despite all sincerity and intent, Weiner, the man, has a sexual Achilles' heel that ultimately threatens to turn him into a tabloid figure.

Interestingly however, "Weiner" the film highlights Huma Abedin as his wife who clearly has the power to either bring about his salvation or leave him behind.

Write Ian at