Thursday, July 2, 2015

Week of July 3 - 9 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Six Tropic Films for Us and Them
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week’s Tropic Cinema’s lineup seemingly follows the philosophy of two for us, one for them. Only this week it’s four indie films versus two mainstream movies -- six films in all. And let’s admit it, being movie lovers we’re both us and them.

First up is “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a life-affirming tale of two teen filmmakers who befriend a classmate diagnosed with leukemia. Yes, a sad theme, but this wonky little film is far from
being a downer. Examiner calls it “an emotional, powerful, and well written drama with a strong message, incredible writing, and powerful performances.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch proclaims it “a must-see -- and one of the best films of the year.”

Next up, “A Little Chaos” gives us a glimpse of the court of Louis XIV (actor/director Alan Rickman) where the landscaper (Matthias Schoenaerts) is falling for Sabine (Kate Winslet), the woman he hires to design a fountain at Versailles. Boston Herald says, “A 17th Century semi-historical romantic drama, the film has its pleasures. Winslet is lovely and resilient as its faux feminist heroine.” And Reeling Reviews calls it “a little fish in a big pond of summer blockbusters but it is a film worth seeing for its story, characters, especially Sabine, and period production.”

Then we have “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a sweet film starring Blythe Danner as a widow who wants more out of life than playing cards with her friends -- so she hangs out with the pool guy, tries speed-dating, and falls for a wealthy suitor (Sam Elliott). But how is that working out? Detroit News sees it as “a touching, funny and thoughtful film that trades in honesty rather than artifice.” Creative Loafing calls it “a confident feature angel-kissed with an enviable cast.” And Illinois Times says, “Danner delights.”

“Escobar: Paradise Lost” features Benicio Del Toro as a Colombian drug lord whose daughter is seeing a young American surfer. A dangerous match. Reel Talk Movie Reviews says, “In the role of Pablo Escobar, Benicio Del Toro exudes menace.” And Washington Post observes, “The suspense … in the film's final hour is genuine, and the action gripping.

Balancing off this quartet of indie films is “Spy,” a wacky comedy about a lowly CIA analyst (Melissa McCarthy) who goes undercover with two top agents (Jude Law and Jason Statham) to avert a global disaster. Movie Talk terms it “a rib-tickling espionage spoof that gives a confident female-centered spin to the traditionally ultra-masculine spy movie genre.” And Spectrum calls it “the year’s best comedy so far.”

The other big mainstream film is “Mad Max: Glory Road,” director George Miller’s return to a dystopian future where ISIS-like tribes are chasing Max (Tom Hardy in this new version) across the wasteland as he assists a woman (Charlize Theron) in rescuing a truckload of runaway brides. Seattle Weekly calls it “masterfully kinetic and often downright berserk.” And Spliced Personality tells us, “You stumble out of the theatre giddy about what films can do, transported by the breathtaking velocity in this battering ram of a picture that just goes, goes, goes and then keeps on going.”

All in all, four indies for us and two mainstream movies for … us too!

New York Film Critics Series: Boulevard (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

NYFCS Shows Robin Williams’ More Somber Side
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Notable as Robin Williams’ final film, “Boulevard” is getting a one-night advance screening this coming Tuesday night at the Tropic Cinema, the latest entry in the New York Film Critics Series.

Williams died last year, a suicide following a long bout of depression. But this film was already in the can.

One of America’s most popular comedians -- kind of a Jonathan Winters clone, to name his mentor -- he made the transition to serious actor.

I met Williams back in the ‘80s. He was a motor-mouth comic on speed dial, his spot-on impressions shifting every few seconds. He was unbelievably manic … and unbelievably funny.

However, as an actor he often took on serious roles. Aside from the self-impersonation he did in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” he had a hidden a dark side -- revealed in films like “One Hour Photo,” “Seize the Day,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Insomnia,” and “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.” He won an Oscar for playing a subdued shrink in “Good Will Hunting.”

Sure, he did the zany stuff too -- “Flubber,” the genie in “Aladdin,” a penguin in the “Happy Feet” movies, Teddy Roosevelt in those “Night at the Museum” movies, even “The Crazy Ones” on TV.

But like Pagliacci, Williams remained the archetypical “sad clown.”

“Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy,” noted Time Magazine when writing about Williams’ death.

“Boulevard” does little to dispel Robin Williams’ somber side. In it, he’s an older man trapped in a marriage of convenience, hiding a secret. As a weary banker, his life comes unglued when on an aimless drive down an unfamiliar street he meets a troubled young man named Leo (Roberto Aguire), forcing him to come to terms with who he really is.

Recent research by Oxford University suggests “the creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis -- both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” It concluded, “Comedians may use their act as a form of self-medication.”

Maybe “Boulevard” shows us Robin Williams was off his meds.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” Celebrates Life
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. But it sure isn’t good news. So how do you handle it when you befriend someone who has just been diagnosed with leukemia?

 Well, you could make a movie.

In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” that’s what Greg and his best friend Earl decide to do when Rachel comes into their lives.

The two Pittsburgh highschoolers are film buffs who entertain themselves by making low-budget movies in their spare time, often parodies of classic films. Take “400 Bros.,” for example.

So when Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (Ronald J. Cryler II) meet Rachel (Olivia Cooke) whose life expectancy is limited, they decide to make a film for her.

Before you say this sounds like a downer, think again. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” won both the US Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic and the Audience Award for US Drama at the Sundance Film Festival. Plus it got a standing ovation.

The film is both “darkly funny and realistically somber,” as one moviegoer put it.

Sure, all the expected high-school movie tropes are there -- from social cliques to teen angst. In addition to the trio in the title, we have Connie Britton and Nick Offerman as Greg’s awkward parents, Jon Bernthal as the archetypal cool teacher replete with tats, and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s wine-sipping mother. Even Hugh Jackman’s voice turns up on a talking Wolverine poster.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is currently celebrating life at the Tropic Cinema.

Will you like it? Depends.

An enthusiastic teenage moviegoer said, “Halfway through, I wanted to stand up and give it an ovation already. It is a brilliant film, made for those who grew up watching the cinema. I thought I was maybe delusional for thinking this could be one of my favorite films. Then, Variety said it would be a hallmark of my generation.”

Still another offered this succinct summation: “It was cool as beans.”

However, a more cynical film buff concluded, “It was better than a lot of movies targeted at teens but it’s probably not going to mean much to people older than 21.”

All of that aside, following the box-office success of “The Fault In Our Stars” -- the story of two cancer kids falling for each other -- you can count on this being a hit too. Die-hard fan of TFIOS may find it blasphemous for me to say this, but this quirky film is actually a superior cinematic experience. Kudos to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who up to now has cranked out silly TV shows. Good practice for this winning film debut about two guys and a dying girl.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Little Chaos (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

  A Little Chaos

 In "A Little Chaos" directed by actor Alan Rickman, there is a bare trace  of the melodramatic 'bodice ripper.'

We are in France during the 1600s and Kate Winslet plays Sabine De Barra, a landscaper hired to work on an the outdoor theater on the grounds of Versailles. She is haunted by the phantoms of her past, specifically the death of her young daughter. She lives for the Nature within her. She is so intense that ferns appear to spin in her eyes like Catherine Wheels. When she applies for the job, Sabine is already infamous as a woman who employs a kind of anarchy in her designs that have a respect for the whimsy of Nature.  From the very start, both men and women nip at her heels with whispers of derision.

Sabine is outspoken and individualistic, quite similar to the heroine in "Far From the Madding Crowd".

Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in the aforementioned Thomas Hardy film, plays the leonine master architect Le Notre, as a morose and taciturn man.

Overseeing it all is Alan Rickman himself in the role of King Louis XIV: a jaded and melancholy figure of royalty. He doesn't exactly inspire fear as he intends, but does look down his nose at others, so in this sense, he is aptly posed as a snooty, ineffectual king.

Rickman has one good scene with Winslet in solitude, appearing as a child who knows very little. He is usually all voice with no vigor and the film illustrates this well.

The cinematography too, by Ellen Kuras, is beautiful,  showing the entire garden in a full sweep as a scroll of Oriental tapestry. The garden itself is a moody living thing. Sometimes it is swamp-like and unruly, gray in sadness, but brought to potential, it dazzles in brilliance as if peppered by gold.

But as a romance, "A Little Chaos" stumbles along the path. The usually compelling Schoenaerts is an odd drip of a man, seeming to be on valerian root. His character almost flatlines. This is all the more curious given that the vivacious and driven Sabine is practically bursting at the seams. For such a high powered man, we learn little of Le Notre with the flowing sienna hair, except that he is endlessly badgered by his hissing wife (Helen McCrory).

Actor Stanley Tucci has a glorious and pleasing gallivant as Duke Phillippe d'Orleans. In his role, Tucci is glib, silly and perfectly puffed and powdered.

The film succeeds more as a portrait of the creation of Versailles itself, merely through the encapsulating camera and the soft depictions of the landscape that hit upon us in layers, almost as in watercolor.

And we also get a feel for Sabine herself as she lies along a huge arcing tree, the branches extending beyond her body to create a strange and wild voluptuous creature whose purpose is ahead of its time.

For the most part though, we get a lot of fretful and stern faces, anoxic, pained and held by whispers.

All that "A Little Chaos" needed was a shot of genuine mayhem to live up to its title. Visually, this is a verdant green feast, albeit blighted by a patch of ennui.

Write Ian at

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Escobar: Paradise Lost (Brockway)

Escobar: Paradise Lost 

There is a wonderful painting by Fernando Botero, showing the death of the druglord Pablo Escobar. In the painting Escobar sways above the rooftops like a supernatural being. Though he is earthy and formidable, he seems over-inflated and superciliously puffed up like a hot air balloon, full of ego and hyperbole. The gangster is swept up in a tango of bullets, one part elegance and one part violence. The portrait shows the desire of this man to become the lord of power while pining for a folk hero's status.

The film "Escobar: Paradise Lost" aims for this mythic, larger than life feeling but only partially succeeds.
Most of the story concerns a happy go lucky young Canadian, Nick (Josh Hutcherson) who falls in love with the vivacious Maria, Escobar's niece (Claudia Traisac) in a kind of Romeo & Juliet twist. While Hutcherson does quite well, he is a bit too blandly positive to be believable. Sure he is smitten by the intoxicating Maria: an infectious smile on legs, but he doesn't seem to sense the danger of Escobar until several months later.

This feels a bit far fetched.

The couple does have a winning chemistry. The amorous ambition of Nick twinned with the giddy delight of Maria, who has the charisma of a role by Natalie Wood vividly shows through.

This relationship is the highlight of the film.

The delight of our young lovers turns to darkness when Nick meets the imposing and granite faced Escobar (Benicio del Toro) He marches about and glares with scary eyes, even when he plays in the pool with his kids and it doesn't take long for the Big Chief to size up this Romeo, verde behind the ears.

There is one key scene where Escobar attempts to warm up to Nick by talking to him about love and the poetry in a song, but invariably del Toro gives his character one note: a menacing gloom. Periodically Escobar wears a bearded disguise and often it is in these moments when he feels the most plastic and grotesque, though this can also be thought of as an effect of the surreal.

Midway, the narrative goes formula as it strays away from its romantic tension and becomes more about Nick evading the Wrath of Escobar which hangs over everything in an all too solid emphasis, in its delineation of Bad Hombres.

Some well executed tension is to be found in a scene between Nick and a teenager (Micke Moreno) hired as a middleman with explosives.

The film is at its best in showing Nick caught in an incomprehensible culture of blood and bullets, racing for the girl he loves. But this plot line is dropped to follow him in peril.
Escobar feels too heavy, a black curled villain in india ink, underscored with exclamation points. Escobar the man doesn't give much to Nick other than MIGHT.

At the film's end, Escobar verbally insults a priest and del Toro's savage delivery, tells us more about this character in two minutes than in the entire film.

Escobar was most likely a person of menace and charisma as the work by Botero suggests. In "Escobar: Paradise Lost" however, we only get this man's weight and none of his wiles.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo. Com

Friday, June 26, 2015

Week of June 26 - July 2 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Time Is of the Essence at Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communication

Tropic Cinema is like a magnificent time machine, taking you backward and forward to differing periods with the flick of a projector switch.

Putting our time machine into gear and jumping back to the 17th Century, we encounter “A Little Chaos,” a period romance directed by actor Alan Rickman. He introduces us to the court of Louis XIV of France where a Parisian woman named Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is hired to design a fountain at Versailles but in the process falls for the King’s landscaper (Matthias Schoenaerts). Alan Rickman, of course, plays Louis XIV. New York Times proclaims, “Mr. Rickman has found in the Sun King a character worthy of his imperious, reptilian charisma.” And Chicago Reader agrees: “Alan Rickman was born to play the Sun King -- or any king, really.”

Edging the time machine’s dial forward a few notches, “Love & Mercy” allows us to dream of California in the 1960s when Brian Wilson was at the peak of his success with the Beach Boys. Then moving the controls another click we’re in the ‘80s when the schizoid musician finds himself under
the thumb of an unscrupulous shrink. Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively portray Wilson at these two stages of his life. Filmink comments on fledgling director Bill Pohlad’s “ability to weave these two very specific periods together, while also making them as detail-rich as possible.” And The Skinny calls it “that rarest of things: a music biopic that doesn’t just tell you about a tortured genius, it puts you in their head.”

A more immediate time zone is found in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a contemporary story of a widow (Blythe Danner) who decides to make new friends -- befriend the pool guy, try speed-dating, fall for a lanky millionaire (Sam Elliott). Detroit News calls it “a touching, funny and thoughtful film that trades in honesty rather than artifice.” And Fresno Bee describes it as “a beautiful and smart coming-of-old-age film.”

“Escobar: Paradise Lost” is an edge-of-your-seat romantic thriller about a surfer (Josh Hutcherson)
who discovers that his girlfriend’s uncle is none other than Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (wonderfully played by Benicio del Toro). Los Angeles Times says, “When you have the fortune of landing an actor like Del Toro, it's almost criminal to spend so much time watching the scales fall from an innocent's eyes when we could be watching a master actor convey quiet, sleepy-eyed, mumbling menace.” And Arizona Republic adds, “Taken on its own terms, this isn't a bad little movie.”

And finally our time machine jumps to a dystopian future with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” where we find Max (Tom Hardy) joining Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) for a non-stop shoot-‘em-up chase across the blighted wastelands. The Nation says, “Unlike action directors of the plodding sort, George Miller doesn’t ask you to understand the deliriously strange world into which he throws you headlong. He just wants to change the parts you recognize.” And the Patriot Ledger concludes, “It’s everything you want your summer blockbuster to be: loaded with insane action, hot actors and death-defying stunts.”

So strap yourself in for a great ride at the Tropic.

A Little Chaos (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Alan Rickman Adds “A Little Chaos” to Louis XIV’s Court
 Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Remember Severus Snape, a professor of the Dark Arts in all those “Harry Potter” movies? That role was played by Alan Rickman, a former member of the Royal 
Shakespeare Company. His breakout role came as Vicomte de Valmont in the 1982 stage production of “Les liaisons dangereuses.” 

Well, Rickman is up to his old magic again, this time both directing and starring in “A Little Chaos,” a period film set in the court of King Louis XIV of France. It’s currently holding court at Tropic Cinema.

Here, a Parisian woman named Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) applies to design a fountain for the gardens of Versailles. Despite her unlikely candidacy, she gets the assignment when landscaper André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) notices her moving a potted plant to a better location while waiting for her interview. He likes her non-traditionalist approach.

And, of course, he falls for her, no matter that he already has a wife at home (Helen McCrory).

Even though André’s wife has a lover on the side, she shows a tinge of jealousy and all but destroys Sabine’s Versailles project by unleashing a flood. But in O.J. fashion, she leaves a glove behind which André finds. It’s sort of like having a Get Out of Jail Free card.

If this landscaping disaster were not bad enough, Sabine is haunted by the memories of her dead daughter and husband. But you guessed it, André is there to lean on.

Meanwhile Sabine has gained favor with the King (Alan Rickman, of course) after mistaking him for a gardener. Turns out, he’s an all-right guy as far as royalty goes. 

Producer Zygi Kamasa proudly stated, “We are delighted to be working with the best of British actors and directors like Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman.” Ignoring that Matthias Schoenaerts is Belgian and Stanley Tucci (playing the King’s dandified brother) is American.

Rickman has a message to deliver. “The film is not just frills at the wrists and collars. It’s about people getting their hands dirty and building something in order to entertain the other world they serve. It’s about how one world maintains the other, often at the cost of women.

Kate Winslet elaborates. “I definitely felt that there were similarities between myself and Sabine. She’s overcome a lot of grief in her life and certain degrees of extreme hardship and I’ve had a bumpy ride in my personal life as well. I admire the fact that she could do that. She didn’t carry the grief with her or expect the world to pity her. She just picked herself up and carried on because she had to in order to survive.

Alan Rickman points out that Sabine de Barra is the only fictitious character in the film, all the others being based on historical people. “We play fast and loose with history anyway -- it’s a joke that a woman like Sabine could have existed at all. It would have been impossible. Hopefully telling a story that after a while you forget about period and think, wow, a totally male dominated world in which women are just decorative objects. What would be the modern parallels of that, perchance? And all sorts of other things about people with power, usually men.”