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 cafés 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.

Write Ian at

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Week of April 11 to April 17 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Follows Up on Tenth Anniversary With Great Lineup

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Having just celebrated its fabulous Tenth Anniversary, Tropic Cinema continues the theater’s tradition of screening great films. This week it features Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a film eagerly anticipated by many of the Tropic’s cinephile members.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” stylishly tells the story of an amorous concierge named Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby-boy sidekick (Tony Revolori) as they search for an alibi to prove Gustave didn’t kill an elderly matron (Tilda Swinton). The Miami Herald says, “The movie is a flume ride through the imagination of one of the most creative minds making movies today, and the pleasure curls your toes.” And opines, “A stylistic and thematic progression, it’s Anderson's most complex, nuanced effort, and his bawdiest, perhaps funniest, screenplay yet. It may be his masterpiece.”

We agree.

Also opening this week is “Rob the Mob,’ a comedy about two petty criminals (Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda) trying to go straight, but they get drawn into the drama of a landmark trial of a Mafia hit man (Gary Pastore). New York Post calls it “a hilarious mob comedy with virtually no violence, though it’s based on a tabloid-ready true story that did not end at all happily.” And describes it as “breezy, sleazy, and sometimes intense.”

Still playing is “Bad Words,” the Jason Bateman comedy about a grown man who enters a spelling be on a technicality. Chicago Reader describes it as “Trashy, ribald laughs in the Bad Santa vein, this marks Bateman's directorial debut; I’'s not much to look at, but at least he has the nerve to push the insolence, profanity, and brutal insult humor to its absolute limits.” And The Globe and Mail says, “The laughs in this film are all mean-spirited or just frat-boy gross.”

Another holdover is “Le Week-End,” a bittersweet romance about a sixtysomething British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) who returns to Paris to celebrate a Thirtieth Webbing Anniversary. But all their years of bickering have taken its toll on the relationship. Denton Record Chronicle calls it “funny, original and compelling…” while Arizona Republic says, “Director Roger Michell (‘Notting Hill’) has the good sense to step back and let Broadbent and Duncan work their magic ... They don't disappoint.”

And director Lars von Trier is back with another controversial film, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” (and yes, there’s a Volume II to come). As sort of a slutty Scheherazade, a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her sexually obsessed story to a guy (Stellan Skarsgård) who rescues her from a bad situation. Detroit News says, “It's funny, it's lewd, it's disturbing, it's odd, it's extremely graphic, it's brutal. And if you can handle all that, it's pretty good.” And the New Yorker concludes that it’s “a pornographic work of art-obsessive, repetitive, at times remarkably eccentric, but never simple-minded or dull.”

Not a dull lineup this week at the Tropic!

Grand Budapest Hotel (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Grand Budapest Hotel”
Welcomes Your Visit

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Have you ever been to Budapest? I haven’t either … but Wes Anderson’s new movie offers a parallel universe you can visit for the price of a movie ticket at the Tropic Cinema.

Like “Moonrise Kingdom,” this is a highly stylized world where we meet the marionettes in Anderson’s latest well-staged puppet play. This time he calls it “The Grand Budapest Hotel” -- not to be confused with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Grand Hotel,” or even “Hotel California.”

Our movie Trip Advisor takes us to a down-on-its-luck hotel located in the Republic of Zubrowka, a tiny European nation that is on the brink of war. Here we encounter the story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the Grand Budapest Hotel’s concierge, a suave man who gives “exceptional service” to the elderly ladies who stay there.

One of them is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a paramour who croaks after spending the night with Gustave. Turns out, she’s bequeathed him a valuable painting known as “Boy With Apple.” This enrages her greedy son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody), who frames Gustave for his mother’s death.

A lobby boy (that is, a bellhop) named Zero (Tony Revolori) helps the amorous concierge escape from prison, but a fearsome assassin (Willem Dafoe) is on their trail. They trek to a monastery in search of a man who can provide Gustave with an alibi for the night of the supposed murder. From there they return to the Grand Budapest to recover the painting from its hiding spot, only to discover the identity of the hotel’s mysterious owner.

It’s a grand tale, staged for us by Wes Anderson’s repertoire of favorite players: Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, and Bob Balaban.

As a filmmaker Wes Anderson is settling into a highly personalized style. Like all his films, you will either love it or hate it. Me, I’d stay at Anderson’s hotel any time I get an invitation.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Bad Words (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Bad Words

Taking a page from Billy Bob Thornton's most irreverent comedies, actor Jason Bateman gives an entertaining directorial debut in "Bad Words".

Rather than bombard the screen with trite offense, the film keeps a fresh surprise until the end. Bateman's  direction is quick and light in its momentum, and the jokes crackle like fireworks gone mad.

Jason Bateman is terrific as the repellent and repelling forty- something Guy Trilby, who crashes spelling bees like a Grinch, winning competitions and robbing kids of their lexical loot.

Trilby is able to do this legitimately through a loophole given that he never finished the 8th grade in the usual time window, but no matter.

A creep is still a creep.

Bateman is the perfect prickly porcupine of a man: nearly bald, gray and  steel-eyed with barbs on his chin due to his five o clock shadow. He knows all the words before his baby faced competitors and one by one these sheepish spelldowners are down for the count.

Nothing is off limits and he is without mercy. If he can't out spell these  competitors, he pummels them with a free-associative insult that devastates by whimsy.

Trilby is the Alpha alphabetizer with a chip of rage on his shoulder that could make a drum of Chips Ahoy cookies.

Trilby revels in his Seussian snarks until he meets the open and inquisitive Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) who is fascinated by the adult. Trilby insults him with reckless impunity. Yet the wide eyed youngster refuses to leave. Out of curiosity and daring, this snide and don't- touch- me soul takes the kid out on the town. Trilby gets him to swear, eat unhealthily, dangerously tease adults and observe matters of the flesh. Chaitanya loves the nightlife but remains mostly unfazed throughout. He is a spelling champion after all and words are his toys. The most arresting and comical passages in the film evolve when the tables are turned with Trilby as the juvenile while the boy is the steadfast responsible adult.

Allison Janney and Phillip Baker Hall of Seinfeld "library cop" fame, give entertaining if predictable outings as a witchy director and a confused spelling bee head, respectively.

From start to finish "Bad Words" is a juicy sourball of joy, yet its most unique punch may well be its portrait of an incongruous friendship between a  spiny, cynical man and a boy more than willing to handle whatever this acrid adult can do to him and run.

Write Ian at

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

"Nymphomaniac, Volume 1"

Lars von Trier, the foremost provocateur of contemporary cinema  returns with "Nymphomaniac", an ambitious, heavily symbolic and fleshy epic (in two full length parts) that contains some of the richness of Kafka or Thomas Mann.

Once again, the hypnotic Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, an extremely tortured woman who confesses that she is insatiable in sexual appetite and has no morals. She hungers for sex like an unattainable toxic serum.

Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is the somewhat shy older man who finds Joe flattened, gorily twisted on the cobblestones and takes her home. She begins to tell her story to the older man---an enigma in his own right.

As Joe is bruised and scorched-looking with gray blue mottled skin, her progressively intense and somewhat bitter repartee recalls Regan and Father Karras from "The Exorcist", just a smidgen, especially with Gainsbourg's anemic face, her staring eyes and her brown-black hair hanging on her head like sable seaweed from a sick mermaid, as she bobs about on the bed, half limp, yet oddly energized.

Nature seems to cocoon Joe with inclement weather as the rain falls in a steady visible mist.

Seligman is both delighted and put off by Joe's Sadean adventures and he does become both a vicarious spectator and a humanist confidant as he takes in his visitor's story.

We learn that Joe gets more and more driven in what could be either a sick pursuit or a voyage to the limits of sexuality, although given the Gothic vaulted heaviness throughout, this does not seem a positive pursuit.

The priestly Seligman is fascinated that Joe's number of encounters corresponds to the Fibonacci number code, a mathematical constant that is found in various natural forms, from branches to nautilus shells.

There is something mystical afoot here, but as the film progresses, there is reason to suspect the demonic or at least the negative.

We see a younger Joe (Stacy Martin) become more and more aggressive: a pale, angry flowered hellion who is physically disgusted by weddings and turns violent. She grows older and uses men as drones or marionettes. She breaks up families causing the collapse of Mrs. H (Uma Thurman).  The sacrament of Love is defiled and cast aside with an anti-religious intensity. Joe toys with her first beau, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) in making him appear to have all the potency. If that is not enough, Joe  has sex in a hospital bed, after sitting with her terminal father (Christian Slater)

If this is too far out or indulgent for some, a clue might be that von Trier ---like the original Surrealists before him--- is fascinated by the ritual of sex and the boundaries of convention.

All of von Trier's eerie drear is well in force: from patters of snowy rain, witchy branches and stricken looks, to Beardsley engravings, gusting trees and grainy skies. Even with all the self-same visual icons and some over- the-top heavy metal Rammstein music, it all works. No one does a Walpurgis Night film better.

And it is a testament to the sorcery of the director and the mesmerizing Gainsbourg that after two hours of "Nymphomaniac" we are transfixed by this riddle of a woman possessed and lust for the second half's intrigue.

Write Ian at

Week of April 4 to April 10 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Comedy, Drama, Romance, Documentary, War --
Tropic Cinema Covers the Film Genres

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Jason Bateman is known for his dry comedic delivery. He often plays a put-upon everyman or the straight man in a comedy duo. In his recent movie “Identity Theft” he was both. However, in “Bad Words” -- Bateman’s new film that’s now showing at the Tropic Cinema -- he is neither. Perhaps that shift is because he got to direct himself in “Bad Words,” his first time actually helming a movie.

Yes, “Bad Words” is funny, the story of an irascible guy who finds a loophole that allows him to compete with the kids in a national spelling bee. Here he’s not exactly an everyman, nor a straight man, for he leads the film with laughs. New England Movies Weekly declares, “If you take this as, in a sense, a dirty fairy tale, it is absolutely hilarious.” And Detroit News adds, “This is twisted, funny stuff.”

Everybody’s bad-boy director, Lars von Trier (remember when he got into trouble for praising Hitler?) is back with another edgy film, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I.” Starring some of his favorite actors (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård), this is a racy story recounted by a self-declared loose woman to a man who rescued her from a dangerous situation. And as the title implies, there is a Vol. II to follow. Minneapolis Star Tribune observes, “Master of controversy Lars von Trier has baited his hook with the promise of lewd spectacle, but he reels us in for a philosophical sermon.” Paste Magazine calls it “a rigorous, riveting and surprisingly funny cogitation on sexual liberation, gender double standards, love, sociopathy and any number of the filmmaker's other obsessions.”

“Le Week-End” holds over, the tale of a British couple (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) who return to Paris for their 30th Anniversary. But the marriage has worn thin after three decades of bickering and bitterness. Washington Post describes it as “an alternately prickly and knowing tone poem to desire and disappointment whose light touch belies far deeper, darker human understandings.” And Chicago Sun-Times sees it as “a nuanced romance for grown-ups.”

“Tim’s Vermeer” continues its run, a document about Tim Jenison, a computer geek who tries to replicate the painting techniques of the Dutch master. This interesting exercise was produced by magicians Penn and Teller. Seattle Times tells us it “is about many things - art history, technology, painting technique, beauty - but ultimately it's a beguiling study of fascination.” And Philadelphia Inquirer calls it “film as forensics, bringing math and science to bear to solve an art-world mystery.” And Arizona Republic brands it “a movie for people who like to think, who like to ponder the big questions surrounding art and the act of creation.”

Still telling an important story about a team of soldier assigned to rescue stolen art from the Nazis, “The Monuments Men” stars George Clooney and a handful of his pals. A tad preachy at times, it recounts an important cultural mission we didn’t read much about in the history books. Urban Cinefile says, “It's a story with scale, texture and layers and whatever it lacks in grit and tension (required for a story based on fact) is compensated by chutzpah.” And QuickFlix concludes, “One day we'll discover George Clooney is actually a long-forgotten screen idol from Hollywood's golden age who became unstuck from time, and all of this will make total sense.”

Bateman to Clooney, Lars von Trier to Penn and Teller -- gotta admit the Tropic offers us variety.