Monday, October 20, 2014

Men, Women & Children (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Men, Women & Children

Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is known for his heartfelt family portraits. His visuals are crisp and his situations are usually pointed and interesting. In his latest "Men, Women & Children," he tackles the ubiquity of smartphone text technology and its blight on suburban American families.

The film is visually striking with cinematography worthy of  "Gravity." The first shot of a NASA satellite approaching the edge of Saturn is stunning with each ring filling the screen. Provocative as well, is the matter of fact voiceover by Emma Thompson in the style of Epcot.

Plot wise however, we have a spineless assortment of characters that do a lot of mumbling and staring into various mobile devices. Adam Sandler  is Don, an unhappy father addicted to the idea of escorts and porn. Jennifer Gardner is an uptight mother from another family who watches her daughter's every move online with the mania of a religious zealot. Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) is Tim, a disaffected football prodigy who is addicted to role playing games, while Judy Greer plays a dominant mom who pushes her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) into Internet soft porn to achieve fame.

Out of the many characters, only Tim shows any tension or intrigue. Tim's nihilism and cosmic existentialism would be of interest if only the role (not to mention the others) had been fleshed out beyond stock characters like petty high schoolers behaving in petty selfishness.

We get it. Kids and their parents can be spaced out, isolated and rotten. This seems universal and well travelled cinematic terrain, which could be revisited, if the film had gone to intriguing places.

It doesn't.

Adam Sandler is a monotone blob of mayonaisse and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is predictably bothered and passive, until she joins an online dating service.

Much of the lithium melodrama goes on an even path with all of these young Caucasians getting into some gossipy Facebook dilemmas. What we see has been hunted and pecked at before, from the films "Palo Alto" and "Disconnect," with tones and emotions that are hacked from more refreshing ensemble films like "Short Cuts" and "Crash".

Every incident here seems stuck in retrograde. Not a single character has enough spunk for the audience to care, no role is mean, acidic, or all that terribly sad to illustrate  any sensory drama. In this story, all monitors display a gray "meh" of content.

A highlight is the slick cinematography by Eric Steelberg who depicts a teen's long nails as touchstones on a smartphone's glittering keyboard and the wood veneer of a door overwhelms our field of vision, analogous to Saturn's spacey, cappuccino-colored rings.

Men, Women & Children" cries out for some iconoclastic narrative in the manner of  a John Waters or a Michael Haneke. The perils of technology and its transformations in  our self expression are profound and worth talking about. But with such Saltine-driven people, it grows difficult to care.

One exception occurs when the voice of Emma Thompson intones about bondage, domination and the moment of orgasm in such prim and proper flat tones as if she were discussing the weather. Perhaps in time, this one weird moment will achieve a cult status.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

 A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson has done so many revenge pictures ala Nicolas Cage that he is easy to spoof. He has such an easily recognizable expression: the tired eyes as if filled with cake batter, the knitted brows, the pale granite face that looks like a headstone. His many characters possess an identical body, shambling with jagged lament.

In "A Walk Among the Tombstones" from a novel by Lawrence Block and directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout) there are some of those elements, in force, but the apprehension is so tightly wound with such shifty and rancid characters, that it all manages to work.

Neeson plays Detective Matthew Scudder, a man who is battling demons, mainly alcohol. He is haunted by the moment when he went into a bar during a  brutal shooting and stopped the assailant only to have the bullet ricochet and kill a young girl.

Scudder promptly joined AA.

Now, as a semi-retired investigator, he is a shadowy man who works for gifts, but only, it seems, if he likes you.

An young man Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) contacts the lugubrious investigator saying two men killed his wife after they received ransom money. Scudder is reluctant to help, since it becomes evident that Kristo is a drug dealer but given the sadistic nature of the crime, Scudder agrees to find out all he can.

The apprehension is in the reality that every character is as shady as the next, with some anxious cinematography that recalls "Serpico" and the work of William Friedkin in its harsh lighting along dark streets. There is a gloomy and nonchalant Jonas: a big jelly of a man (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who is alternately criminal and self deprecating.

But above all, the film has quite possibly two of the most sinister characters that have ever been seen since "The Silence of the Lambs." The scariest moment may be one that doesn't show anything Halloween-worthy at all, merely a shot of these two men at the breakfast table in their underwear reading the morning paper.

In the role of TJ, singer Brian   "Astro" Bradley (The X Factor) is excellent as a young homeless kid who worships Scudder. TJ's idolatry mimics a bit of Joey Starrett in "Shane".

Scudder's identification with AA is a nice touch as well with the "twelve steps" becoming a personal metaphor for the detective in his attempt to make things right.

And there is mystery as to why Scudder wants to help in the first place.

As an anti-hero as gray as the dirt path he walks through, Scudder takes on loads of guilt and pain as a fatalistic matter of course. His speech to TJ about guns and self esteem is as somber and sincere as it gets, unusual for a conventional good guy/ bad guy yarn. The lines become blurred by sadness.

" A Walk Among the Tombstones" never stoops to be self-conscious. It is a gritty hide and seek with a gun and does so much with so little. A simple trip down the stairs becomes an invitation to an almost paranormal sense of evil.

But, best of all, the dry-bone delivery of Liam Neeson, which is usually easy fodder for a joke, has never been more appealing.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Two Faces of January (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Two Faces of January

The existential yet exuberant novel "The Two Faces of January" by Patricia Highsmith is now a film by Iranian director Hossein Amini (screenwriter, The Wings of the Dove).

The narrative which is set in Greece, concerns a poetic but obsessive drifter Rydal and his compulsion with a bourgeoise stock scammer named  Chester, who looks like Rydal's recently deceased dad.

In the book, Rydal is entranced by Chester's wife Colette, too, who also happens to have a striking resemblance to Rydal's cousin Agnes, who was romantically involved with him.

Rydal is played by the intense Oscar Isaac, and Chester is inhabited by a teeth-grinding Viggo Mortensen.

While the film adaptation tones down the outlandish desperation of Chester and doesn't mention the Colette / Agnes comparisons together with Rydal's guilt regarding the  bad romance, it succeeds as an acidic noir idyll with the flavor of  "Strangers on a Train" (another Highsmith book and a Hitchcock classic).

Mortensen is well outfitted as the shifty and tense man who is constantly looking out for the police as he goes from one tourist attraction to the next. He is an appropriate white linen shark. As Chester goes to his ritzy hotel in Athens, after a day of sightseeing, he is startled, interrupted in his boozy foreplay by an insistent knock.

A detective waits patiently.

Chester tries to stall him but the investigator doesn't fall for small talk and aims his gun. With deliberate force, Chester kicks the man to the floor and knocks his head into the hard tile.  Chester drags the body out to the hall, but he can't hold the man and loses his grip.

Rydal appears. Chester asks for help, insisting the man is drunk and Rydal readily consents.  Chester quickly asks Rydal to stay with him and a bland Colette (Kirsten Dunst), to act as an interpreter. Chester becomes edgy though feeling that the young pensive man with the dark eyes will turn him in and leave with his wife.

In the role, Mortensen is satisfactorily petty and selfish, although some of the nouveau riche behaviors of the original Chester character are omitted. Oscar Isaac's Rydal is more dishonest and calculating and less spontaneous in this film adaptation. At the start, we see Rydal shortchanging a gullible girl.

Despite these differences from the novel, the film capably weaves some co-dependent tension with Chester and Rydal oscillating between a kind of understanding and a volatile hatred for one another. This pairing is similar to the previous mentioned Hitchcock work with the effete but psychotic Bruno (Robert Walker becoming drawn to the young, dashing tennis star, Guy (Farley Granger).

The best scenes here are the ones in which Viggo Mortensen tries to ignore his sociopathic acts and become a kind of smarmy counselor to Rydal as the young man stares with a steely concentration, alternately seeming dead and wistful in the manner of a David Cronenberg  film.

The locations are fittingly midnight blue and sweeping, crisply brilliant and as ominously dim as one might expect from a Highsmith thriller. Every character is attired well, displaying many a fedora hat and suit as linear as a Parthenon column.

Although the film dispenses with most of the book's darkly comic overtones, "The Two Faces of January" is another handsome addition to the films made from Patricia Highsmith's novels. By the second half especially, the passive aggressive noose tightens, and the young Rydal realizes that he is attracted to  this wincing, self absorbed man (out of habit and guilt) just as much as he is repelled by him.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Philosophy and comedy together are hard to come by and often fleeting in cinema.  But perhaps, I thought, I would find it in "Hector and the Search for Happiness" by Peter Chisholm (Shall we Dance?).

The film stars the self deprecating Simon Pegg, and he is hard not to like. Here he is Hector, an anal retentive and dull psychiatrist. His life is smooth, without pathos or pulse. He has an effervescent girlfriend (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl), and for all the complacency his life has, he is in a rut. He gets angry and abrupt with his love and his patients.

He resolves to go to China to discover the essence of happiness.

What follows is a kind of "Eat Pray Love" for the British humor set. Hector endures one inconvenience after  another: cramped seats and odd occurrences, and even scrambling plates.

In one scene, an intoxicating beauty patiently and seductively prods him about the location of happiness saying it is in the Space of a shared smile with two friends. This is a terrific moment and rarely do you find such daring thought in any film, let alone a comedy.

The seductress abandons Hector. He goes on writing in his journal and drawing about his findings. There is some lively animation that scrolls across the screen like carbonated giggles.

Hector goes to the Himalayas and meets a monk, (Togo Igawa) who is predictably calm and content. He goes to Africa and winds up talking to a drug dealer (Jean Reno)and getting kidnapped by a warlord (Akin Omotoso).

Despite an intriguing premise, the characters don't change beyond their stock roles.  Jean Reno is as gruff and intimidating as ever while the warlord is right out of "Blood Diamond." Given the film's ambition regarding what constitutes happiness should we not get more depth of character aside from an evil boss, a violent dealer or a cynical business man by Stellan Skarsgard (acting similarly to his role in Nymphomaniac)? While we might have gotten something more, here are the same "take it in stride" platitudes from other films we know well: "Benjamin Button" to "Forrest Gump."

The film does give some picaresque fun with its swiftness and likability (via the wonder of Pegg), but it slides into an easy predicable glide soon with Hector acting invariably like a Disney version of the United Nations to virtually everyone. At one point, after being beaten, he shouts "Yippee! I'm Alive!"
People  would just not act that way, even Hector. With all of his cheering and laughter that glaze you with sugar, whatever that was thoughtful and pensive is left behind.

By the second hour, we get a Robert Zemekis film with Hector's brain lighting up like spumoni ice cream which mimics the  Tibetan flags, with everything put right.

"Hector and the Search for Happiness" is fine as entertainment, but its premise seems to make a one-handed clap in its need for a less "It's a Small World' treatment.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Tusk (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Kevin Smith can usually be counted on for some pointed comic situations full of quirky characters chock full of barbs about the way a youngish crowd communicates, feels, and expresses itself.

"Clerks" was his debut smash: a small film about the funny and lackadaisical events at a convenience store.

Smith also directed "Dogma" an outrageous look at Christianity in all its forms.

Smith has done other notable films. The best of them being often quasi-autobiographical with a wild whimsy, often going on tangents. His films have energy at its core. A color and a spirit.

Smith is understandably inspired by comics. His characters of Jay and Silent Bob are in our cinematic consciousness and for good reason. They are fun to watch and probably in some circles, beloved.

His latest film "Tusk" a horror type story started as a joke on a real podcast. It involves an eccentric older gentleman who lives in an old house, Howard Howe (Michael Parks) and his obsession with a walrus.

Wallace (Justin Long) is an insulting creep who makes horrid fun of people on the net. After being let down by the suicide of an internet curiosity, he spies a bathroom note telling of Howard Howe's adventures.

Wallace is intrigued.

Suffice to say, the mocking sarcastic dude with one bad mustache is held captive in the old house by a psychotic man.

Undoubtably influenced by EC Comics' Weird Tales and films like "Creepshow", it quickly becomes evident that this passive aggressive and unsavory man is a crazed surgeon. Mr. Howe drugs Wallace and gets his tools out, but aside from that nothing much happens at all.

Justin Long has a few snide and biting remarks that carry a few chuckles but he is neither a nice person nor much of an antihero to care for.

He is a mere shmuck.

As for Michael Parks, he is simply sadistic. There is little of Smith's comedy here, and the action runs thin with an "Island of Dr. Moreau" type story. If you want to see this kind of film, try John Frankenheimer's 1996 film.

The acting is unconvincing even by drive in standards as Genesis Rodriguez weeps and tells Wallace's friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) how good she feels with his friendship. There are shots of her in closeup boo-hooing, tears flowing.

Then we have a silly cross eyed Johnny Depp as a homicide cop who bumbles and mumbles in French about bowel movements and farting.

The human-walrus scenes are ludicrous and  too overly campy to give any fun scares, whether in pathos or glee.The 1980s era David Cronenberg would certainly squirm away, embarrassed.

All the Grand Guignol business runs static: a stale Frankenstein tale stuffed in raspberries. All anemic kool aid here with no octane in this punch. "Tusk" has no verve or motion. I suggest that Kevin Smith go back to his storyboard with some stronger THC of Terror and puff away.

You know you're in trouble when the best thing you can say about a film  is a well placed Fleetwood Mac song.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

To Be Takei (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

To Be Takei

George Hosato Takei, (pronounced To' Kay ) better known as Cmdr. Sulu from the "Star Trek" movies and tv series goes through life now at 77, with a wonderful lightness that intoxicates the spirit.

"To Be Takei" by Jennifer M. Kroot shows the man, the performer and his outspoken humor with zip and verve.

Here, Takei is a kind of positive Larry David character. He frequently appears on The Howard Stern Show detailing his life, his internment at a Japanese American prison camp as a youngster until the age of eight, his  marriage to Brad Altman in 2008, and his vitriol for co-star William Shatner who refused to attend his wedding. As he says in the car at one point:

"There's Bill Shatner on a billboard with tape over his mouth, just as there should be!"

He is not one to hold back. The Shatner-Takei feud has been well documented with Shatner saying that he doesn't know George Takei on a personal level and didn't  feel able to attend the wedding for that reason. He also said that he never got an invitation.

Through it all, Takei emerges as victor, making a joke out of everything. He is a joy.

Takei's childhood, spent in a World War II camp, clearly shook him as he watched his parents go through anguish, hemmed in like a herd, surrounded by barbed wire with floodlights and lousy food.

By his own admission, Takei  was a ham, so he got to UC at Berkeley and then studied acting at Desilu Studios.  Work was hard to find, but after some dubbing work for Toho monster films, he got work on the respected Playhouse 90 drama series. John Wayne hired him as did Jerry Lewis with mixed results.

Then "Star Trek" beamed him up and a pop star was made.

Some of the most arresting segments in "To Be Takei" show the icon being loved and adored across this country's constellation for his humor and irreverent bounce that is never mean. Convention after convention, he is sought and pursued like an extraterrestrial heron, everything is as it should be and Takei walks forward with a tranquil grace.

Only his husband Brad, pale and warrior-backed with something of Teddy Roosevelt in him ( due to a pair of steely spectacles) betrays anxiety. Takei is fiercely protective of his semi-passive spouse and to see this contrast (especially when Brad stuffs autograph cash in his fanny pack) is a laugh riot.

Takei the person, a Buddhist, is aware of a flow of life, which in this Trekkie film might be a beam. The condition of being human is fragile, temporary, and as he says, part of "the big whole."

Despite the actor's success, his activism and his near worldwide adoration, one aspect haunts Takei: his parents'  anguish at the camp because of his critical words. Inspired by regret, he met with playwright Marc Acito  about his and his dad's prison experiences at the Arkansas prison camp. The result, the musical Allegiance, has been playing to record crowds.

Also entertaining are scenes from Takei's day-to-day life, as he lopes about gingerly through Central Park. In one animated sequence he details his first love with a Boy Scout counselor as an event "delicious and terrifying."

When basketball player Tim Hardaway asserted his horrendous homophobia, George Takei countered with a hilarious sexual pass on video.  And, when pressed about the past stigma of the word "Gay" he coined the phrase "It's okay to be Takei". Because he is a glib showman with a penchant for the florid turn of phrase in a deep languid voice, he also seems to have a bit of Vincent Price within.

By far, however, the film's best moment is in its showing of some homoerotic artwork depicting Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in lusty or loving embraces to the delight of the present Captain Sulu.

The ignorance of Shatner has indeed been pulverized into gaseous space junk with Howard Stern and George Takei laughing all the way.

"To Be Takei" is a refreshingly  universal documentary, snarky and affectionate by turns, but never poison. And the best news is that you don't have to moonlight in pale or pointy ears to enjoy it.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 11, 2014

One Chance (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

One Chance

The most interesting thing about "One Chance" the underdog story about an unknown Welsh opera singer, Paul Potts, is its subversion and nod to Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." In the film, Paul Potts (James Corden, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) relates in a sly voice-over reminiscent of Alex, that he was badly beaten. As Paul races down a lane of identical block houses, he intones with a gallows deadpan of how some school bullies, Matthew's "droogs" pummeled, spit and kicked him bloody. To further enhance the comparison, as he is being chased, Mozart No. 25 is heard, all during Potts' matter of fact and slightly sarcastic nostalgia. Potts as an opposite and heroic version of Malcolm McDowell, has revenged himself upon his attackers, with opera as his weapon of peace.

There are other good moments as well showing Paul smitten almost to the point of paralysis by his girlfriend, Julz as he says goodbye to her on a high speed train. This sequence with Julz (Alexandra Roach) kissing the window as Paul sketches a heart, almost outdoes Romeo and Juliet along with "A Little Romance."

Both James Corden and Alexandra Roach become the most stirring magnets in this film by director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and  producer Simon Cowell of American Idol.

This is a small heartfelt story of a pudgy youngster who wants to sing,  in the tone of  a "Billy Elliot."

While we have seen so many runs of it before, in life and in film (the humble person with the "big voice" from a small town who finds solace in singing) ala Susan Boyle and many others, this film still delivers a good dose of freshness and verve singularly because of James Corden.

While most of the drama is predictable: a macho blue collar pop (Colm Meaney) coupled with  a supportive yet reticent mum (Julie Walters), Corden gives his role a throttle of restless energy with a hint of shy irreverence in the style of a Ricky Gervais. There is also something refreshingly unkempt  in his role as if he were in a soprano version of "The Little Rascals," his faced flushed, his dress baggy,  his hair a mop.

Si, belissimo he is.

At one point it reminds one of "Flashdance" when Paul is forced to work at a steel yard.

While it hits all of the recognizable keys that we know so well, ad nauseam , including a self conscious song by Taylor Swift, the film keeps its spunk. The romance between Corden as a naive but verbally frank singer and his adorable and upfront love, bring back something of the big screen Hollywood Romance recalling the Technicolor "Singin' in the Rain" as well as a daring wisp of Charlie Chaplin.

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