Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dean Deblois' "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a lively, extraordinarily detailed and thoughtful sequel that doesn't pander to kids.

Here again we have the Luke Skywalkeresque young viking Hiccup, (Jay Baruchel) who lives in the idyllic village of Berk, a colorful place in symbiotic bliss with all dragons. In the manner of Avatar's planet Pandora, days upon days pass undisturbed, until our protagonist , atop his beloved cute but sometimes eerie friend Toothless (part vampire bat, part dog from The NeverEnding Story)  ventures into foreign territory and discovers a ruined fort.

Hiccup unwittingly ignites the greed of Eret (Kit Harington) who blames the young man for the devastation and worse, seeks to capture all of the dragons he can manage, to prove his devotion to the teeth-gnashing ogre Drago (Djimon Hounsou).

Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is instantly apprehensive fearing a war. He wants a preemptive. The son, urges pacifism, determined to change this minion's mind.

The animation is fluid and first rate (humorously echoing both "Avatar" and Keebler elves) while the story, being a metaphor for terrorism, first strikes and old guilts going  unfinished, is very emotional and perhaps fit for only the most precocious of Tweens.

Drago, looking a cross between a vulture and Al Pacino in "Scarface" is a bit scary as is a huge dragon under an Evil spell that resembles a leviathan from The Book of Revelation.

As jolting as this might be for small kids,it is colorfully compelling in its attention to detail and the patience it has to tell a story.

There is a poignant and somewhat formidable reunion between mother and son that keeps you guessing.

Mom (voiced by Cate Blanchett) is far from ordinary, wearing wondrous garb reminiscent of a Kokopelli.

Above all, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a complete realm with its own culture, symbology and ritual. And as it is so facile in its often rapid fire imagery, you might miss the rich detail. This is a universe ruled by the mystical world of dragons. Despite the animation, its environment seems no less tangible or abstract than our own.

Sequels to most films usually possess less artful magic than their predecessor. "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is, I'll soothsay, a resonant and charmed exception to the rule.

Write Ian at redtv_2005@yahoo.com

Monday, July 21, 2014

22 Jump Street (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

22 Jump Street

This sequel to "21 Jump Street" directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) features many gags in the key of the first outing with Schmidt (Jonah Hill) acting the awkward but resourceful non-athletic guy. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is Schmidt's opposite: the good looking but clueless Lunk.

During the first twenty minutes, it is very easy to give a hee ha ho hum as Schmidt and Jenko fall off a truck and are attacked by a giant octopus and then they grimly impersonate gang members.

The first chapter covered much of these same ground with these two in their first routine, trying to act cool in their geeky "adult student" ruse.

The couple is again set up with the all too serious Dickson (Ice Cube) with a mission to track down a drug dealer, this time at a university.

Right away, most of the students know what's up, but decide to humor these pasty patsies.

A pair of comical twins (Kenny and Keith Lucas) are very funny, who speak and do everything in anticipation of one another.

Jenko and Schmidt giggle, mug and wring hands. Jenko falls in with a dense but well-meaning block of blond named Zook (Wyatt Russell), a football star. Schmidt finds a girlfriend in the sparkling art major, Maya (Amber Stevens).

As things progress, Jenko gets to like the high praise he receives with football and hints to Schmidt that he wants to stop working closely, if at all. Schmidt feels rebuffed and hurt as if the two were lovers. This is the main joke and drive of the film through all of the neon Spring Break silliness and it works very well, because Hill and Tatum play it so straight.

Jonah Hill has an odd, soft and corny nervousness that makes his Persona and he yet again uses it to Apatow affect. It is actually conceivable that Schmidt  misses his nonchalant but square partner.

Yet it is comedienne Jillian Bell who steals the show as Mercedes, a snarky and acidic roommate, fond of firearms and brutality while being girly. An absurdist "kissing fight" between Bell and Hill had me laughing the most.

No surprise since her character has the best lines.

The film boasts a dozen cameos from Queen Latifah, Patton Oswalt, Rob Riggle and Bill Hader (SNL), but most of them are stiff. There is a funny bit during the end credits with Seth Rogen being taken for Jonah Hill and I wish there were more of these.

While fans of the first film might see what's coming before the next bullet hits, it is the awkward partnership / boyfriend subplot that saves this sequel from being a canned laugh.

Granted much of "22 Jump Street" feels prefab, especially at the beginning with noise, neon, bullets and bling all going splat, but Schmidt, in yearning for his Bro Jenko, create an offhand chemistry that is almost a statement on self conscious feelings and homophobia.

Write Ian at redtv_2005@yahoo.com

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Life Itself (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Life Itself

Roger Ebert is probably the single person most responsible for bringing the culture of film debate from the the academic realm to the masses. Before Ebert, cinema culture and argument was thought an elitist and snobby art form, inaccessible to the workaday public.

Through his congenial enthusiasm for film and his vibrant weekly show which was co-chaired with critic Gene Siskel, Ebert made film opinions fun and even necessary. At once, both an ingredient and a mirror of life.

"In Life Itself," a documentary by Steve James, (Prefontaine, Hoop Dreams) we get a solid texture of Roger Ebert, the person, including his wishes, his wanderings, his Shangri-las and his fears.

Eschewing a linear path, the film is a kaleidoscope of Ebert's life in totality. We see him first in a hospital bed as he fights complications from cancer of the jaw. Ebert can neither speak, drink or eat--- a difficult toxin to  accept and a harsh twist of fate for such a glib and verbally flexible man who won the Pulitzer Prize. But rather than wallow, he types away. As he describes it, he was surrounded by words all of his life. Language is Ebert's  constellation and it always will be. In this new beginning, nothing has changed.

It is Roger Ebert's new chair, connected to his words like an umbilical cord that bring him back as a young man working the sports beat for The News-Gazette as he burned the midnight oil.

In 1963, he became Editor-in-Chief  for The Daily Illini, writing a scathing and eloquent lament for the horrendous bombing death of four Birmingham girls at the hands of white supremacists. During the Kennedy Assassination, Roger literally "stopped the presses" as there was a cartoon of a rooster holding a gun adjacent to the murder of JFK spread.

Ebert became a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and he gained a following for being energetic, honest and brutal, but not acidic, if a film asked for it.

He went to bars, sought the company of hookers, held court, fearlessly bragged and drank more, even to the point of collapse.

Later Ebert would join AA. And he was one of the first to be vocal about his alcoholism.

Language could never steer him wrong.

Ebert met the soft porn wizard, Russ Meyer,  became bamboozled by big breasts and wrote a screenplay.

In 1975, PBS approached him to do a tv show. It became Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Roger looked like a hedgehog in big round glasses and heavy sweater, while Gene came across as a pedantic know-it-all, as far away from the average person as he was tall. Yet both of them made film accessible and, better yet, entertaining.

The cinema salon, untethered by education or degrees was now in the suburban living room.

The most fun in "Life Itself" comes from the verbal combat between Roger and Gene. Roger despises Gene's more hard line opinions, while Gene calls him an "asshole". They disagree on many films from "Full Metal Jacket" to "Blue Velvet."

It is fun to watch such cellulose burn with Siskel leaping from his chair and Ebert percolating in snarls of fury.

The film hints that Ebert may have been jealous of Siskel's more outwardly prolific life (e.g. family and acceptance in The Playboy Mansion).

But who knows. As Ebert is an inspiration to a once coke-addicted Scorsese, and a life affirming beacon to Werner Herzog, I think Roger had him beat.

While there is little mention of the bawdy Ebert who no doubt worked closely with Russ Meyer and The Sex Pistols and no mention of the young one who got interested in film through reading Mad Magazine, "Life Itself" is wonderful in showing Ebert as he is.

Above all else it shows a comprehensive and human cinematic mind racing against time to meet the next article.

Roger is spurred on by the voluptual love and full falsetto romance (and who wouldn't be) of Chaz Ebert and their film savvy children.

While some of the medically intimate details make hard viewing, coupled with Chaz's flowing tears, "Life Itself" does not dwell in sadness.

Roger Ebert, in a parallel to the physicist Stephen Hawking, has given a quantum leap bringing the often esoteric language of cinema with coherence to nearly everyone worldwide.

This is enough of a gift, but a more lasting one, remains Ebert's belief that the cinema is a emotive motion-filled and transcendent experience, necessary in creating channels of empathy along with the forging of roots to better ourselves as thinking people, brave in whatever obsessions we might have.

Write Ian at redtv_2005@yahoo.com

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snowpiercer (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Snowpiercer

One can imagine Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) pulsing with manic manga energy, his head covered with ink-black shooting stars as he traveled to his favorite comic book store absolutely possessed by a graphic novel about an apocalyptic train entitled Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrande and Jean-Marc Rochette.

"Snowpiercer" is the result, produced by the master of Korean suspense Park Chan-wook.

In a very Orwellian tale reminiscent of  "The Hunger Games,, there is an environmental experiment to combat global warming that goes horribly wrong. Most of humanity perishes frozen to death without food, except those who are sequestered in a huge rattling train. The poor are at the tail end of the perpetual machine while the upper classes reside in their own mobile suites at the front.

We spend our time with the impoverished. All is dark, dirty and smelly, in keeping with so many dystopian stories.

There is a big, strapping idealistic young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) a nervous mom (Octavia Spencer) and Gilliam, an aging man of wisdom who has seen it all (played by John Hurt, of course). All of these people are caterwauling in cacophony. Some hobble and wince,  bleeding badly, screaming, maimed, and barely able to stand. Babies are hidden in big coffee cans and shoved aside. Some seem lucky enough to eat and scarf up an excremental jello made from a mash of roaches. A man's arm is sadistically thrust through a porthole in a brutal yank that wrenches the extremity all but loose from the body.

This is a bit overzealous and  absurd and after thirty five minutes one might want to leap from the movie seat as the eye has little to go on.

But just as squeamishness begins, a shrewish, over the top prime minister enters (Tilda Swinton) to liven things up. This minister is nothing less than a Ralph Steadman illustration in three dimensions, horrible and hissy in her hatred, yet comically apoplectic. Her silver-brown eyes roll and stare in fury. Swinton is a snarling, rabid schoolmarm with steroids.

Curtis decides to lead a revolt. After all, the goon guards have guns with no shells. The train is alternately plunged in darkness and plied with torches, all resulting in a bloodbath that doesn't add much to the story.

The gang moves through different areas of the train with the chattering minister as hostage.

The upper classes are ensconced in a perpetual smorgasbord of variety. There is a glassed in aquarium that functions as a residential sushi bar. Some of the residents laze forever in smoking jackets and leather settees. Others preen before sunlit cosmetic counters while a Winter Death impassively waits outside.

In the film's most eerie chapter, sugary faced children merrily express their disgust for the poor in a few Sesame Street-type sing alongs, while sitting in brightly toned classrooms.

The gang's only hope is a zombie-like locksmith brought back from the dead, Namgoong  (Song Kang-ho). who wants drugs.

Despite "Snowpiercer" being bloody, excessively rich in grunting and far fetched, it is also poetic and decadent. The verdant green groves of the elitists, punch across the blinding whiteness of snow like haiku.

A megalomaniac with no neck who bears a generic resemblance to many politicians, makes an anxious villain. And for good measure there is a stentorian Ed Harris who effects a man  behind a  gate persona, appearing as Hugh Hefner in a smoking jacket.

Director Park Chan-wook (Lady Vengeance) definitely leaves his mark as the producer of this film, especially as it has a crafty, psychic siren, Yona (Go Ah-sung) in its ultimate center.

If you can wait out the squishes, squirms and squirts from an ax battle (that would make Mel Gibson turn red) and a jetting or too of blood in a dark orgy of ultraviolence, the smooth, rhythmic transitions from one scene to the next, combined with the images of a gray purgatory and an opiate heaven make "Snowpiercer" a  matinee that  folds upon the eye like disparate origami, in forms that are sometimes predictable and jarring in tone while still others are scarily festive with a giddy sarcasm.

Write Ian at redtv_2005@yahoo.com

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Week of July 18 to July 24 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

The Crowded Screens at the Tropic Cinema -- We Love It!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

How many movies can you squeeze onto four movie screens? This week the answer to that puzzle is seven, nearly two per theater at the Tropic Cinema.

These seven films showing at the Tropic range from holdovers to second runs to brand new offerings.

If you haven’t heard Keira Knightley sing, there’s still time. Director John Carney’s “Begin Again” is holding over. This musical traces a Brit songwriter’s lovelorn visit to New York City. Film Racket calls it “a light and dancing comedy about fresh starts.” And ChristyLemire.com adds, “The wholesome, hopeful, let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm may sound hokey but it's actually infectiously joyful.”

Also holding over is another tuneful movie, “Jersey Boys.” Clint Eastwood directed this biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. All of those doo-wop song you love are here in this film based on the Broadway play. Total Film calls it “a solid watch that seeks to deepen the emotion of the jukebox musical.” And The Standard gives it “an extra star for its excellent songs.”

You also have another chance to see “Maleficent,” the Snow White fairy tale seen from the viewpoint of the wicked enchantress. And Angelina Jolie makes such a beautiful witch. Irish Independent says, “It's a spectacular thing, the sets and shots matching Jolie's remarkable face.” And TheDivaReview.com advises you to “watch Angelina Jolie devour of the scenery in the role she was born for. The camp factor alone is worth the price of admission.”

Another fanciful ride is “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the animated sequel to that story about the Viking boy who befriends a flying, fire-breathing dragon. SFX Magazine says, “Bigger, braver and even more visually rewarding than the original, it’s an ambitious attempt to extend the scope of its predecessor without sacrificing the charm, humor and excitement that made that so appealing.” And Contactmusic.com opines that it’s “quite possibly the best action-adventure movie of the year.” High praise indeed.

“22 Jump Street” is another sequel about those sophomoric undercover cops played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Chicago Reader exudes, “This sequel to the hit action comedy ‘21 Jump Street’ is better all around: the pacing is more consistent, the sight gags more imaginative, the self-referential jokes sharper.” And SSG Syndicate calls it “subversively satisfying.”

End-of-the-Word sci-fi is found in “Snowpiercer,” the dystopian tale about a supertrain that carries the survivors of a global warming disaster on an endless journey. New Yorker pronounces it as being “Violent, often absurd, but full of brilliant surprises.” Newsday describes it as “a summer movie with a social conscience.” And Three Movie Buffs call it “one of the few surprises of the summer and one that deserves a much wider audience.”

Last but not least (as they say) is “Life Itself,” a documentary that allows us to better know the late film critic Roger Ebert. He was a man who knew how to get the most out of life itself. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “a story that is by turns personal, funny, painful, and transcendent.” CinemaDope finds it “fascinating, engaging, and life-affirming ‒ without being in the least mawkish.” And Us Weekly concludes, “As this riveting documentary proves, two thumbs up made up only a small part of the total man.”

Seven films, count ‘em. That’s many pleasurable hours in a darkened theater letting your imagination enjoy the feast.

srhoades@aol.com

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Is an Age-Old Viking Tale

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If you plan to train a dragon, you’d better know what kind you have. Eastern dragons (Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Vietnam, etc.) tend to resemble big snakes, while Western dragons (European, Greek, Slavic, etc.) often have wings. Many breathe fire like a reptilian flamethrower.

The name itself entered the language in the early 13th Century. It comes from the Latin “draco,” meaning “huge serpent.”

No, Godzilla is not considered a dragon.

Dragons appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 1800 BC), a Babylonian poem that is considered the first great work of literature. A dragon is also featured in Beowulf (circa 975 BC), the Scandinavian tale of a hero who defeats a monster but is later killed by a … well, you know.

The DreamWorks animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon” tells the adventures of a young Viking named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, son of Stoick the Vast, leader of the Viking island of Berk. He finds and trains a dragon he calls toothless. It’s one of those flying dragons.

Now there’s a sequel -- playing at the Tropic Cinema --  titled “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” In it, we have the further adventures of Hiccup and Toothless. As director Dean DeBlois describes it: “At the end of last film, all these Vikings who were previously somewhat landlocked are now on the backs of dragons so the entire Northern Hemisphere opens up to them. And with that Hiccup’s curiosity increases, the map expands and inevitably they are going to come across new dragons and new cultures.”

Seems that an insane conqueror called Drago Bludvist is amassing an army of dragons. In pursuit of Draco, Hiccup encounters his long lost mother. They face Draco and his Bewilderbeast, (an alpha dragon that controls others of its species, including Toothless). Before it’s over, the boy is forced to become a man, assuming his role as leader of the Vikings.

Yes, it involves lots of flying dragons, battles, and a Viking funeral.

Comedian Jay Baruchel does the voice of Hiccup. Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett give us the voices of Hiccup’s mom and dad. Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig round out the cast. Djimon Hounsou is the evil dragon hunter Drago Bludvist.

There’s a third entry in the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise scheduled for 2016.

srhoades@aol.com


Snowpiecer (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Snowpiercer”
Dig Deep For
Sci-Fi Message

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What if you crossed “The Polar Express” with “The Hunger Games”? Maybe threw in the social commentary of Orwell’s “1984.” You’d get the new apocalyptic action thriller called “Snowpiercer.”

If you’re a sci-fi fan with an ability for suspension of disbelief, you’re going to love it. If you’re a grounded action fan who demands a logical plot, you’ll grumble at the surreal-like fantasy with plot holes large enough to drive a train through.

“Snowpiercer” -- currently getting up steam at the Tropic Cinema -- is about a train that’s carrying the last remnants of humanity after a failed global warming cure brings on an ice age that wipes out life as we know it.

Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jean-Marc Rochette, it’s a bleak film as brought to the screen by Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

A Noah’s ark supertrain transverses the globe, powered by a perpetual-motion engine, carrying the survivors in this snowbound doomsday story. After running for 17 straight years, a strict social class system has been imposed on the train’s passengers, the poor in the rear cars, the train’s inventor Wilford (Ed Harris) and his upper-class cronies upfront next to the engine. (Read: A cinematic microcosm of society.) Turns out, the people in the front of the train can’t survive without the children of the back, and those in the back can’t survive without the food from the front, a “perfect” symbiotic relationship.

The story has a young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who is trying to get past all the security guards in order to reach the front section of the train where Wilford lives in luxury. Curtis’s quest is part of a proposed revolution, an uprising of the have-nots. Lots of social commentary here, designed to keep moviegoers talking about “Snowpiercer” for years to come -- maybe even until 2031, the year in which the movie is set.

This is Bong’s first English-language film, so forgive the script faux pas. But he’s good a delivering action scenes, such as the bloody episode with ax-wielding guards going at it the attacking rebels.

The train is populated by many well-known actors -- from John Hurt to Octavia Spencer -- as well as some of Bong’s favorite compatriots -- Kang-ho Song to Ah-sung Ko. Alison Pill is a scene-stealer. And you won’t recognize Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for John C. Reilly.

Enumerating all the plot holes would require too many spoilers. So suspend your disbelief and take a ride on the Snowpiercer if you like end-of-the-world thrillers.

srhoades@aol.com