Monday, April 21, 2014

The Known Unknown (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Unknown Known

Famed documentarian Errol Morris strikes again with "The Unknown Known" an unusual and quirky portrait of the notorious former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld. 
The first shot of the film is of an infinite navy blue sea with a foreboding score by Danny Elfman. Perhaps this points to Rumsfeld being the captain of his own warship, or maybe it points to Rumsfeld's subconscious as the waves of guilt and circumstance wash over him.
Whatever the case, here he is, in the flesh or at least under Errol's unblinking eye. The director offers his usual flair, giving us segmented Kubrickian shots of Rumsfeld's eye, forehead, chin and lips. 
Indeed one of the first looks we have of this man is unflinching and almost grotesque in intensity. This is an Andy Warhol screen test done on All Hallows' Eve. 
The camera is the true hero of the film and Morris knows how to make his subject nervous by confronting him without displacing his Eye. Rumsfeld smiles nervously, his reptilian grin portraying an all-is-okay-or-it-better-be-shield. Over the magnification of Morris' lens, Rumsfeld's shiny gesture resembles a Jack O'lantern.
The film highlights many of Rumsfeld's memos, of which there are thousands as individual as snowflakes. We learn that Rumsfeld obsessed over many "what if" terrorist scenarios and that he also sought the most productive way to manipulate the insurgency threat, by looking up words like "torture" and "warfare," not to mention both the Pentagon and the Oxford definitions of the word "insurgency." His much reported statements about "unknown knowns" and "known unknowns" and also the "things you think you know that you don't know," are a living embodiment of George Orwell come to life for the 21st century.
Suffice to say, he doesn't give much up. There are no apologies given  and no regrets. Although he does admit to writing a critique of interrogation writing that he "stands 8 to 10 hours a day...why  is the (prisoner) standing, limited to four hours?"
During Abu Ghraib, he said he was unaware. Then the pictures came with an undeniable proof and Rumsfeld knew the battle with Al Qaeda was in crisis. 
He tried to resign but the administration wouldn't have it. In 2006, Rumsfeld got his wish. 
Under usual conditions, Morris makes people cringe and reveal. Rumsfeld however is the exception.
He stands by his admission of weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq saying in short that there could very well have been present ("I just don't know"). He states that even if there were no weapons it might not have avoided war anyway. 
More than a bit of Rumsfeld's Grinch is opened here. The smiles become like exclamation points and they are put on too late.
Rumsfeld is moved to tears telling of his talk with the injured at Walter Reed. There is a heart here, but such tears are like condensation on glass or intemperate steel. The emotion, although genuine, feels loose and ill fitting poised as it is against Guantanamo and the sad horror of Abu Ghraib.
A good third of the film is spent detailing the genesis of Rumsfeld from Nixon to Gerald Ford with movements as slick as an anchovy. We get the definitive vibration that he threw George H.W. Bush under a diplomatic bus with some coziness regarding Ronald Reagan, but explicit details are opaque.
Such turnings by Rumsfeld are reminiscent of the espionage documentary "The Man Nobody Knew" but before he becomes a total cypher, his memos on torture become a swirling and oily abyss of a guilty alphabet as visualized on film. Rather than a vacuum of a man, Rumsfeld is a chromium figure of war: coldly calm, transmitting silver beads rather than sweat. An insular force.
We see Rumsfeld at his most blackly humored when he flashes a lingering, unapologetic and disturbing smile. Abracadabra, at last, here is the shark-eyed man that most have loved to hate with fingernails of sardonyx.  
Errol Morris has  lifted the curtain once again without pretense and this is what makes "The Unknown Known" such an intriguing film.

Write Ian at

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Under the Skin (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Under the Skin

Just when you thought it was safe to go on a date, here is "Under the Skin", a new film by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). The film based on a novel by Michel Faber is tense and minimal which  makes for some enigmatic viewing to say the least.

An anonymous woman  (Scarlett Johansson) falls to earth by some kind of device out of a Kubrick film. This machine or orifice is round, porcelain white and eye-like. It emits some kind of communication and mimics a solar eclipse, but the who what and where answers are unclear and poetically opaque.

At any rate, we have a femme fatale landing in rural Scotland complete with fishnet stockings and little else.

This is not a creature that likes a wardrobe.

She is taken by a faceless biker  to some dim location.

Abruptly, she walks through a shopping mall, watching various women preen, primp, gobble and shop vacuously. This is executed well with some cinematography reminiscent of a George Romero zombie flick.

Then we see the alien woman driving a truck. She asks strangers the way to the post office and then offers them a lift. Most often they take her up on it. This straight talker (although  not much for idle chatter) seems taken by jock types but she is acutely short on charm.

She takes one hapless hunk into a dark room of indeterminate spatial dimensions and sets to work undressing, dialogue not included. Despite this woman having a body to envy, it is no sexy affair. The men turn gray and/or sink into a viscous pit of no return. These homicidal hijinks are done in a stark dance of pushing and pulling and walking away in the manner of a panther.

This is no dungeon or inner space that you would want to visit.

In one jolting scene, a man is sucked dry and dedicated while his face remains inflated and puffed like a grotesque balloon. While this is  startling echoing something of M.C. Escher, it has little lasting impact.

The alien Johansson emerges into the light and she resumes her endless route to the M8 or the post office.

She goes forth indiscriminately picking out her men, mostly (though not all ) are self centered, clueless and sexist.

In the book, apparently more information is revealed. This woman is an extraterrestrial and these men are used for food sources in factories.

But in the film, explanations are scarce.

The best parts of this story involve Scarlett Johansson's bemused or passive expressions as one man after another chatters incessantly and nonsensically about his athleticism or domestic dilemmas. As they ramble on, Johansson becomes more and more non-plussed, Although she offers some feigned gesture of interest.

This is where the film earns most of it keep, hovering somewhere between "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and any treatment by David Cronenberg.

By the end of "Under the Skin" we might want a little more mystery ---or a little less--- but suffice to say that the last image of the film ( with snow covering the camera ) is the most stirring second of all pointing to a Nature that is unconcerned and unmoved, without a care for any paranormal predicament.

Write Ian at redtv_2005@yahoo.ocm

The Lunchbox (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Lunchbox

The debut film from Ritesh Batra "The Lunchbox" is a retro throwback to the American films of the 40s and 50's (not to mention Bollywood) in many ways. Yet using such description also limits the film. "The Lunchbox" is stirring, snappy and citric in suspense, certain to keep one guessing at every turn, or in this case with every bite.

Illa (Nimrat Kaur) is an under-appreciated wife. She concocts fragrant and delicious dishes in the hopes of rekindling her husband's heart. The terra cotta and tense husband Rajiv (Nakul Vaid) is self-absorbed and passive to a fault.

By a chance error, Saajan, a melancholic bureaucrat (Bollywood veteran, Irrfan Khan) receives the lunch intended for Rajiv. The small repast doesn't have the predictable mush of cauliflower and Saajan is taken aback. Illa is triumphant, thinking that she has scored a goal into her frosty hubby's heart.

To her surprise, Rajiv merely says the food was fine.

Spurred on by her reclusive yet romantic aunt (only heard as a voice offscreen) Illa creates another salivary seduction.

One that proves spicy.

Saajan responds to the introduction, simply writing that the meal upset his stomach and that he was moved to eat a banana.

A rapid friendship unfolds, driven at first by glib and pithy notes. Wanting to experience fire, Illa puts her mettle into the lusty lunches. In this way, through the tongue and hand, she is appreciated.

Meeting is not an issue. However the two become more and more curious in their short correspondence. Saajan looks forward to the gustatory meetings which are a break from cheerless work and not least, an oasis from the haunt of his deceased wife. The cuisine also extends Saajan horizons, opening up his constrictive Mumbai and making his crushing transit commutes bearable.

These salivary sojourns also make Saajan a more tolerant person. While eating, he is more receptive to the obsequious and needy Shaihk (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). This somewhat taxing and torturing coworker becomes a loyal confidante.

A bubbling satisfaction arises from the subtle and precise performance of Irrfan Khan. He is terrific to watch as we see him melt and change from a stoic cypher---a man who always stands---to a pensive and gentle epicure, lusting for sensation and exile with his victualing vixen that he has yet to meet.

This story pushes and pulls. Mumbai is manic with people, boredom and apprehension.

Lunch remains the colorful respite, in contrast to a routine that stays invariably gray with business and rain.The stainless steel lunch boxes are sealed artillery shells, compartments of possibility or a deck of stacked Tarot cards that point to another life.

Ritesh knows his cinema history. What starts as pure romance, cracks and even curdles, fermenting to an uncertainty and wish-fulfillment, both jittery and heartfelt.

Though the medium of a shared meal, these two pedestrian  characters are put into the realm of a joy that has been much celebrated, used up, thrown, and taken for granted.

The zest of "The Lunchbox" is in whether these two will carry their delectable desire all the way or become blocked and thwarted, either by Ganesh or by their personal "hungry ghosts" and remain simply a mere missive to one another.

Write Ian at

Friday, April 18, 2014

Week of April 18 to April 24 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema’s Movies Are Food for Thought

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Movies often remind me of other movies. Maybe you’ll agree, maybe not. But here’s what this week’s lineup at the Tropic Cinema made me think of:

You will want to add “The Lunchbox” to your list of favorite food movies, for it is about … well, a lunchbox. This Indian film is really about romance, an affection that grows from handwritten notes passed back-and-forth in a mis-delivered lunchbox. Think: “Shop Around the Corner,” swapping love letters with a sight-unseen suitor. Detroit News says, “All meals should be this satisfying.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it “a feast of delights, one of the best stories about the connection between food and love the movies have ever seen.”

If you’re more in the mood for noir you can catch “Rob the Mob,” a crime drama about a Queens couple (Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda) who stick up Mafia social clubs because nobody carries a gun there. But robbing the mob is not the healthiest hobby you can come up with. Think: “True Romance.” The San Francisco Chronicle notes the film’s “unexpected sweetness and vulnerability.” And We Got This Covered describes it as “a deceptively complex mafia epic and as a wildly entertaining, Bonnie and Clyde-esque romance.”

For the more serious viewer is “The Unknown Known,” a documentary by legendary filmmaker Errol Morris that takes its name from an enigmatic comment by Donald Rumsfeld. This profile covers the former US Secretary of Defense’s career from his early days as a congressman to the invasion of Iraq. Think: “The Fog of War.” Newsday observes, “Morris doesn't ‘break’ Rumsfeld, as some think he did McNamara. He has held a mirror up to the man, and found no reflection.” And Seattle Times sees it as “a portrait of a wartime leader determined to avoid, at any cost, an honest perspective.”

“Under the Skin” is a sci-fi thriller with Scarlett Johansson as a sexy alien who preys on men. Yes, the film has deeper meanings than a pretty beast sucking out men’s innards, but that’s enough to hook me. Think: “Species.” Austin Chronicle calls it “a cinematic happening near-guaranteed to get under your skin and into your head for far longer than is comfortable.” And Boston Herald concurs, “Sexy beast, indeed.”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the much-anticipated Wes Anderson film about a suave hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who gives personal attention to elderly blonde guests. When one dies (Tilda Swinton), he finds himself accused of murder by her greedy son (Adrien Brody). A stylistic comedy featuring Anderson’s usual repertoire company. Think: “Moonrise Kingdom” meets “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” ABC Radio calls it “a fairytale for adults.” 2UE That Movie Show finds it to be “a work of visceral, madcap comedic genius.” And Denver Post dubs it “elegantly zany.”

What wonderful variety -- don’t you think?

The Lunchbox (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Lunchbox”
Serves Up a Hit

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friend David’s wife packs his lunch most days. She even includes little love notes. I think it’s sweet.

In India, it’s common for wives to prepare lunches for their husbands. But rather than husbands carrying lunchboxes to work, the pails are delivered to them by a complex courier system.

It’s not surprising that a lunchbox occasionally goes astray.

But what happens when said wife and the not-her-husband recipient start corresponding through little notes?

“The Lunchbox” -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is what we call an epistolary film. One that’s based on communications through letters. Literally, it means “I sent a message.”

Think: “Letters From Juliet.” Or “Shop Around the Corner.”

In this debut film by Ritesh Batra, we’re introduced the dabbawalas of Mumbai, couriers who pick up lunchboxes of hot food from workers’ homes and deliver them to their workplaces using an intricate network of bicycles and railway trains.

Here, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is determined to rekindle her husband’s affection, following that old adage of the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. So she prepares him a delicious lunch … but it goes astray.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is the unintended recipient, sparking a series of back-and-forth notes as their affection grows.

Ritesh Batra started out to make a documentary about Indian dabbawalas, but after hearing their stories the project morphed into a feature film. Dumping the documentary, Batra began penning a screenplay, working out details in various film festival writing labs.

After Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur signed on, the first-time director was able to raise $1.7 million to make this bittersweet romance.

“The Lunchbox” premiered at Cannes, where it received a standing ovation as well as winning the coveted Viewers Choice Award. Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film at 95%.

It’s enough to make moviegoers croon, Hooray for Bollywood.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rob the Mob (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Rob the Mob

Films about the mafia have been done to death, as countless as rounds from an automatic weapon. There have been kingpins of every strata , stripe and fashion, although it is usually of the linen, seersucker or sharkskin variety.

We have seen many faces of granite from Al Capone and Vito Corleone, to Tony Montana, Henry Hill, Jimmie Burke and multiple others.

With such a dizzying cast of characters (both real and imagined) it is easy to feel cinematically stuffed and over-stimulated.

Despite this satiation, there is reason to crave still more with Raymond De Felitta's (City Island) refreshing "Rob the Mob" about a young Bonnie & Clyde couple who robbed from organized crime clubs in the early 1990s.

Director De Felitta, a jazz pianist, starts this story with an impressionistic flair. We see a dirty and rumbling city covered with spastic graffiti as subway cars bend and roll through the boroughs. The police flash their sirens and wave their nightsticks as a famous Deelite song "Groove Is in the Heart" plays. Rather than formidable and grim, De Felitta's tone is playful, upbeat and quaint, even cozy.

Giuliani should be so lucky.

Tommy Uva (Michael Pitt, Funny Games) scampers across town robbing neighborhood flower shops. Each time he is chagrined when girlfriend Rosie (Nina Arianda) tells Tommy she loves him. It's bad luck.

Tommy and Rosie go to jail but months later they get released with Rosie getting a job at a collection agency. She has adequate success, and even more, by coquettishly flirting with smarmy boss (Griffin Dunne).

But all is not well in Queens.

 Tommy has a chip on his shoulder. He is as restless as a rat without refuse to chew. He replays episodes of the past in his mind where the mafia abuses his father, now deceased.

After dropping in on the John Gotti trial and learning that their caf├ęs don't carry heat, Tommy gets an idea that blinds like neon: why not burglarize the mob?

He convinces Rosie, puts an Uzi in the freezer and gets to work.

With a hoodie and a single automatic, he enters these one room hovels, little more than coffee shops and the groups are caught unawares.

The surprise here, is that these gangsters are shown as mere men. There is nothing intimidating about them. There are no steel toed shoes, no Armani suits, no fish-eyed looks or brass knuckles. These men are often unkempt, sleepy or distracted. In the intimacy of these lounges, all of these men are someone's kindly grandfather or uncle. You won't find any Scorsese intimidation here. The wise guys are caught without their packages and we see the humility of their humanness---a rare thing in gangster films.

Tommy empties the drawers (and the pants) of each made man, manages to get away and experiences a stronger surge of endorphins with every encounter.

Reporter Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano) gets a tip about the couple and begins to write. Rosie gets intoxicated by fame and agrees to an interview. The two turn Queens, New York silver with talk.

Such gossip would rival Warhol.

There are some deft touches here such as family head Big Al (Andy Garcia) fingerpainting messages in his marinara sauce. Or a shaky octogenarian hand desperately reaching for the weapon---all too late.

But the highlight is Nina Arianda who plays Rosie as an infectious quasi pop-art Betty Boop, yet she is completely authentic. Michael Pitt is also rock solid as the edgy Tommy who has a magnetic charge and some punkish discontent reminiscent of a young Robert Blake but free of imitation.

The most eerie poetry in the "Rob the Mob" is saved for last, as Rosie and Tommy caress like big shots in Gotham City. They pop champagne and smoke stogies, verbally eschewing The Gottis while clearly simulating them. The grilled Italian sausages that sizzle and dance along with the gated mansions that stand impassive and imposing are both monuments to a time of a city long absent and funereal vaults that foretell and seal these naive lovers' fate.

Write Ian at

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Indie charmer Wes Anderson delivers the expected quirky goods with "The Grand Budapest Hotel", a picaresque adventure loosely based on the writings of beloved Austrian  author Stefan Zweig, who entertained in abundance with his novels, and yet, sadly, committed suicide in 1942, due largely to the rise of intolerance and Nazism.

Everything about this madcap yarn with dark chocolate around the edges is rendered with a miniaturist's detail and spun in confectioners' sugar.

A Zweig-ish author (Jude Law) is fascinated by a twinkly-eyed solitary man (F. Murray Abraham). The writer has the chance to interview him and the mysterious man tells his story.

The man is in actuality, the older version of a bellhop named Zero. (played by a jumpy Tony Revolori)

The man tells the story of a renaissance man Gustav H, (Ralph Fiennes) a Roald Dahl cad and the concierge of The Grand Budapest hotel which is an infinite universe unto itself: a kaleidoscopic Xanadu in its 1930s heyday, full of eccentric beings and beasts.

Gustav seduces the luxurious octogenarian Madame D. (Tilda Swinton)

A while later, she turns up dead without warning and Gustav takes to the home of his beloved, as a will is read.

Jeff Goldblum appears as Kovacs, a deputy sent to administer an inheritance of one famous painting to Gustav, but these wishes are blocked by Dmitri, (Adrien Brody) an authoritarian maniac. Gustav is charged with murder and in an elaborate Hal Roach style sequence, our daring player escapes and steals the oil painting. Dmitri dispatches Jopling (Willem Dafoe) a sable clad hitman with an underbite and fangs to retrieve the painting and kill in the meantime. Dafoe with his pale, creased and  long-chinned face is half vampire, half buffoon. His character wears a leather jacket with buttons that sound like gunfire and he has ringed knuckles studded with silver skulls.

The action satisfyingly whizzes by onscreen while the characters are full of all the wild verve and circumstance that we have come to expect in a Wes Anderson film. Some of the characters do seem a retread of "Moonrise Kingdom" (particularly Edward Norton as an anal inspector) and a few others verbally repeat signs or slogans that they see along the way, an Anderson trademark.

But although we might see these hallmarks and gags a mile away minutes before they occur, we are still swept away by this master's speed and space, his energy and his obsessive details.

Just the hotel alone, cloaked in snowy icing and shellacked by interior geometric carpet can be thought of as a meditation on Tin-Tin's Herge or a playful tribute to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". This plus a magnum of motley caricatures, make "The Grand Budapest Hotel" an engaging and fizzy tour.

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