Sunday, July 27, 2014

And So It Goes (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

And So It Goes

As fate would have it, this month marks the 25th anniversary of a little 'platform' sleeper with a Greenwich Village word of mouth that is now part of our kosher cinema history. The film is "When Harry Met Sally".

It is well deserved.

The film had a daring deceptively simple structure. This was a smallish neighborhood borough film about two quirky quasi-neurotic people phobic in romance but uniquely finding desire for each other in the process. The film was cosy without being clunky with enough meaning and fun in its dialogue to actually speak about these characters (Billy Crystal's Harry Burns and Meg Ryan's Sally Bright) as  real people with unique and anxiously-charmed wishes and apprehensions.

The film snuck up on most of us and established Rob Reiner (an already provocative director with Stand by Me) as a consistently thoughtful and respected artist.

Furthermore, " When Harry Met Sally" paved the way for a New York sensibility to arrive to TV through "Seinfeld", a show whose long ago transmissions are still felt and seen today.

Now in 2014, here is "And So It Goes", a film that might have had all of the best intentions and has been anticipated from every baby boomer from the five boroughs and beyond, hoping to give some visual Viagra to the quirky but poignant cosmopolitan Rom-Com genre that has made Reiner and director James L. Brooks famous.

The film is also written by Mark Andrus (As Good as It Gets).

Oren Little (Michael Douglas) is a seersucker sourpuss realtor in Connecticut who stomps about in loafers.

Oren is used to getting his way.

When the camera moves on him, he is about to show his house for sale and is charmlessly insensitive if not outright rude to a black and hispanic couple.

No one really likes Oren but fellow peer Claire, (Frances Sternhagen) has a playful affection for him, given his veteran status.

Oren mopes around his family cottage, Little Shangri-La and is a snarky nuisance. His chief annoyance is a meaty Rottweiler who enjoys pooping on his lawn.

Enter the estranged and wet noodle son Luke (Scott Shepard), an insipid ex addict who is somehow implicated in a financial scam, and  about to go to the slammer.

Luke haphazardly (and inauthentically)  hands off his daughter Sarah (a cute Sterling Jerins) to his grouch dad, even though they have zero contact.

Leah, an empathetic widow and neighbor (Diane Keaton) falls for Sarah and reluctantly agrees to temporarily help Oren shoulder the load.

Leah is a mediocre singer at a cafe who ludicrously sobs at the drop of a fedora hat, waves her arms and wears silly Cyndi Lauper type outfits for no particular reason.

What follows are some milquetoast entanglements and tepid antics regarding Oren wanting to sell his house while being a good Grand and falling for the introspective but wild underneath, Leah.

A breezy romance is well and good, (goodness knows Reiner has earned his whimsical cred) but nothing much happens here.

Oren sputters and mutters, rolling his eyes with a now trademark Michael Douglas smirk. Oren is a soft-shoe patina of  the more evocative Jack Nicholson, James L Brooks-ish roles of the angry alpha man.

One scene with Sarah's addicted mother plays as sappy melodrama with a buggy mom all but going thunk on the sidewalk when Sarah comes to the lower tenement apartment.

Not one character (with the minor exception of Sarah) is fleshed out in a meaningful or real way. Douglas is such an obvious blend  of Nicholson and his own Gekko incarnation that he reads as a bland saltine figure.

Keaton is a worldly but weepy widow who largely emotes onstage but none of it is very compelling as Keaton's role also, too self consciously echoes other Brooks outings.

Rob Reiner is reduced to an amorous patsy who has a pratfall in the mode of Laurel & Hardy. This irrational silliness, combined with an unfunny baby delivery which feels dashed and inserted for quick smirks, doesn't play very brightly.

If "When Harry Met Sally" is a delicious  pastrami at Katz's Deli,  "And So It Goes" makes a  "meh" tempeh of pastoral comforts, sure to please only the most steadfast of urbanite Reiner fans.

Write Ian at

Friday, July 25, 2014

Week of July 25 to July 31 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Six ‘Holdover’ Films at the Tropic Cinema -- Some New to You!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Remember that long-ago slogan one of the television networks used to promote its summer reruns? “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

Well, I’d say the same thing about this week’s movie lineup at the Tropic Cinema. Most of this week’s films are holdovers from the week before … but if you haven’t seen one of these movies yet, it’s new to you.

“Begin Again” begins again this week, telling the story of a British songwriting duo (Keira Knightley and Adam Levine) who come to New York only to break up. As you might expect in a musical rom-com, Greta (Knightley) is discovered by a down-and-out music producer (Mark Ruffalo) and gets her big breakthrough. The New Yorker tells us it’s “another sappy but engaging musical fable from the Irish writer and director John Carney, who made ‘Once.’" But as adds, “The wholesome, hopeful, let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm may sound hokey but it's actually infectiously joyful.”

“Jersey Boys” delivers plenty of music too. This biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons traces their history from Jersey streets to the heights of success and down again. Not surprisingly, Atlantic City Weekly opines, “The movie is a rollercoaster ride that soars on the wings of the incredible music and then crashes into the mob element.” But as Laramie Movie Scope points out, “Fortunately, the music is very good and John Lloyd Young (who plays Frankie Valli) is a fine singer.”

“Maleficent” gives us the Snow White fairy tale from the other viewpoint -- that of the wicked enchantress (Angelina Jolie). Richard Roeper describes it as “admittedly great-looking, sometimes creepy.” And Christian Science Monitor tells us, “Disney was smart enough to cast Jolie. She has a genuinely heroic presence.”

“Snowpiercer” is a futuristic fairy tale, in a sense. Survivors of an end-of-the-world ice age ride a supertrain that’s compartmentalized by haves and have-nots. Chicago Sun-Times says, “The future is miserably dystopian as usual in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, but at least it's thoughtful, stylishly crafted, high-speed misery that keeps on hurtling relentlessly forward -- even though there's nowhere to go.” And Cinema Crazed calls it “a thought provoking science fiction masterpiece...”

“22 Jump Street” is the sequel to (you guessed it) “21 Jump Street,” an action comedy about two undercover policemen who pass themselves off as students. Channing Tatum plays the jock cop and Jonah Hill is the nerdy one. Dark Horizon observes that “the jokes are fresh and more often than not manage to produce some big laughs,” while Herald Sun concludes, “All you really need to know is that it's the cleverest sequel to a dumb movie of all time.”

And returning after its one-night stand as a New York Film Critics selection is “And So It Goes.” This geriatric rom-com pits an acerbic real estate broker (Michael Douglas) against a widowed singer (Diane Keaton) in this battle of the sexes from director Rob Reiner. Slant Magazine snipes, “It pairs Diane Keaton with Michael Douglas to simulate the sort of second-chance AARP romance that's intended to stimulate grizzled audiences who see one movie in theaters every three or four years.” But Hollywood Reporter reports that “the picture wins you over.”

All in all -- a great collection of “return engagements.” Make sure you don’t miss them.

Child of God (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

James Franco
Gets Attention With
“Child of God”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Actor James Franco is often referred to is a modern-day Renaissance Man. True, he acts, directs, producers, hosts the Academy Awards (well, sort of), does multimedia performance art, and writes books.

As you might expect, he’s better at some things than others.

But the 36-year-old actor is smart like a fox. He keeps his name before the public. And so we forget his flubs as soon as they are replaced by successes.

Recently, he seems to be stepping back a tad. For instance, going back to school.

He says, “I’ve been perceived as this guy yelling, ‘Hey, look at me. I want attention.’ I’m not going to school to get articles written about me. I’m just going to school. But the fact that I’m going to school or that someone takes a picture of me sleeping is like, ‘We’re gonna jump on that and criticize him for his antics.’ What antics? I write. I make movies. I’m going to school. I hosted the Oscars. I take these projects seriously.”

When he does something, he does it in a big way: He moved to New York to simultaneously attend graduate school at Columbia University’s MFA writing program, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and an MFA program for poetry at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. And after getting his MFA at Columbia, he enrolled as a PhD student in English at Yale and has audited classes at Rhode Island School of Design.

Busy guy, he’s also stepped back a tad on a couple of his film projects, merely taking a secondary role rather than starring. While producing Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” (based on his short story collection), he merely took the role of a licentious soccer coach. And in “Child of God” -- a film he directed -- he only plays a supporting role as Jerry.

As the most recent offering from the New York Film Critics series, “Child of God” will be showing next Wednesday night at the Tropic Cinema. As always with NYFC, you’re previewing the film ahead of its scheduled release date.

“Child of God” is based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, the reclusive novelist who gave us “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Road,” and “No Country for Old Men.” He won a Pulitzer for “The Road,” and the movie based on “No Country for Old Men” snagged four Academy Awards. McCarthy has hopes for James Franco’s version of “Child of God.”

In it, a protagonist named Lester Ballard is this so-called child of God, a 27-year-old squatter living in an abandoned house in rural Tennessee hill country. When his domicile is auctioned off, he’s reduced to sharing a shack with the body of a dead girl he finds in a car.

Sort of like a latter-day Carl von Cosel of Key West’s “Undying Love” infamy.

After the shack burns down, this necrophiliac pattern continues for Ballard (portrayed by Scott Haze). Only now he helps matters along by killing young women for this bizarre companionship.

The idea is that Lester Ballard is a child of God (and therefore worthy of our attention) because he’s “much like yourself perhaps.”

Gee, I hope not.

“It is pretty crazy,” admits James Franco. “It’s not that I, in my own life, find dead bodies particularly sexy or anything like that, but in a film, it allows you, in a very extreme way, to deal with a character whose imagination has gone to a crazy place.”

A recent celebrity roast on Comedy Central left the following impressions of James Franco. In his own words: “So if I look at that, it’s that people maybe think I’m gay (not true), they didn’t like my performance at the Oscars (true), and they think I’m very into myself (true enough) … and I squint a lot (well, yeah).”

How does he explain his publicity mongering? “Attention seems to be the name of the game when it comes to social networking,” he grins. “It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.”

Ergo, James Franco is a powerful force in Hollywood.

22 Jump Street (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Count on “22 Jump Street”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The producers of “22 Jump Street” obviously have a high opinion of the movie’s potential audience: That they can count over 20. Proof of this theory? The original movie was titled “21 Jump Street” (after the TV show it’s based on), and by making this one “22 Jump Street” they have cleverly signaled that it’s a sequel.

Simple math.

While neither of these two movies feature Johnny Depp (he starred in the TV show), the producers make do with hunky Channing Tatum and funny Jonah Hill. They are supposed to be undercover cops posing as students. In the first outing they pass as a couple of mature-looking high school kids; in the second they’re pretending to be college boys.

“22 Jump Street” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Forget the TV show. It was a serious police procedural crime drama. These new versions are what we like to call action comedies -- a combination of bullets and jokes.

Channing Tatum gets to show us he’s funnier than you’d think. And Jonah Hill gets to pretend he’s a fearless he-man. Both are a bit of a stretch.

In the first movie, Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill) are an underachieving jock and a nerdy bookworm who team up at police academy. Assigned to infiltrate the local high school, they take on an unruly motorcycle gang.

Second time around is even funnier. Jenko and Schmidt move across the street (to 22 Jump Street -- get it?), where their old captain (played by Ice Cube in both movies) assigns them to go undercover again. They’re looking for a drug dealer known as Ghost (Peter Stormare), a baddie who’s peddling a deadly concoction known as WHYPHY to college kids.

Spoiler alert: They get him.

At the end of the movie, the two doofuses are being asked to infiltrate a med school. But stay on for the credits: it gets better. They are shown infiltrating a culinary school, a dance academy, a flight school, a seminary, and a space camp (“2121 Jump Street,” it’s called). We’re told these are movie spinoffs. We even get an animated series, video games, and toys.

But that’s all pretend.

While the “21 Jump Street” TV show ran for 103 episodes, this movie franchise might be good for one more sequel.

“23 Jump Street” anyone?

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Attack of the B’s with
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we all know, a B movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture not intended for art houses. So what’s one doing at the Tropic Cinema?

Well, Saturday mornings in July have been devoted to Attack of the B’s. And what better example of a B movie than “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”?

This 1964 cult classic has it all: Kris Kringle, invaders from outer space, and a diatribe against watching mind-rotting television. (Okay, maybe we’d throw in Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum if there’s ever a remake.)

“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” regularly finds itself on the list of the worst films ever made. Matter of fact, it was included in the book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”

For those of you who like this sort of silliness, we have Mom Martian and King Martian worrying that their children watch too much Earth TV, particularly KID-TV’s interview with Santa Claus at the North Pole. An elder named Chochem (a Yiddish word meaning “genius”) advises them to provide the kids with a Santa Claus of their own … so Momar and Kimar decide to abduct Earth’s jolly old elf. Who better to play Santa Claus than Santa Claus?

Easier said than done, given the number of fake Santas standing on the street corners on this neighboring planet. And even more of a challenge when a Martian villain named Volder sets out to thwart their plan of coming up with a Martian Santa.

We admit it’s all pretty dumb. But it’s a perfect selection to top of a month-long series of B-movies. We like to call them Killer B’s.

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

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