Monday, September 29, 2014

My Old Lady (Brockway)

My Old Lady
Noted playwright Israel Horovitz (Author, Author) directs an adaptation of his play "My Old Lady" starring the iconic Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline. The story of a man (Kevin Kline) spiritually at sea, starts out as a farce involving a older woman who comes with a spacious Parisian apartment complex, and grows more intense despite some over the top melodrama that gives mixed results.
A down and out Mathias (Kline) hopes to get back on his feet financially by selling his inherited Paris property. Mathilde (Smith) is the headstrong lady who has a lifetime occupancy on the property.  To put wrenches into an already unattractive economic situation, Matilde's off-putting daughter Chloe (Kirsten Scott Thomas) also lives in residence.
Kevin Kline does wonderfully with some zany antics in the mode of his performance as Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda" with plenty of sarcasm and exaggerated hyperbole in stubbornness. Mathias is also quirkily self-deprecating and offhand, which gives his role a more believable flavor.  Maggie Smith is predictably entertaining too, as a very opinionated and zesty older lady although this is no great stretch for her.
What starts as a madcap dilemma quickly deepens into a boozy Sturm und Drang when it is revealed that Matilde had a near lifetime romance with Mathias' father. Kline is very watchable and endlessly smooth as the snarky schemer quick to pull the wool over Matilde's eyes. With such moments the film almost reaches the fun found in Frank Oz's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Provocative also are Mathias's maudlin zingers when he blames Mathilde for his family drama.
During the height of the yelling, however, "My Old Lady" feels like "August: Osage County" with Edward Albee waiting off camera. Kline is much better as a gonzo alliterative punster than a indignant sad sack. The shifts in emotional color make the film seem like two narratives in one, and the farcical segments hold more gusto than the ones with heavy pathos.
Given that the playwright  Horovitz was close friends with Samuel Beckett (there is a quote by  famed Beckett in the film), one wishes for a less formulaic narrative that owes more to the genre of romantic comedy than a character study. The conventions of hugging and kissing at the finish of some scenes make this cinematic lunch into a small salade verte  rather than a  satisfying nicoise.
That said, you will not be bored. There is enough ramble in Kline and Smith to keep you on The Left Bank.
A colorful outing is delivered by the gifted character actor Dominique Pinon, who plays an existentially joyful bohemian realtor who lives on a barge along The Seine.
Despite a couple of handwringing reservations, "My Old Lady" honestly seduces in its charm with stunning locales of Parisian streets. The savory cinematography by Michel Amathieu (Paris Je t'aime) rivals Darius Khondji's work in "Midnight in Paris".
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Skeleton Twins

Filmmaker Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) takes us on a novelistic journey that is as rich as a work by Salinger. The film, "The Skeleton Twins" produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, is thrilling, meaningful and provocative in tone.

Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, SNL) as Maggie is gripped in depression. Just as she is about to take a heap of sleeping pills, she gets a call from the hospital. Her brother Milo (Bill Hader) has attempted suicide.

Maggie steps up although she hasn't seen Milo in ten years.

In a parallel of sorts to "Love Is Strange," Milo moves in with Maggie and her husband: the macho, athletic but likable Lance (Luke Wilson).

Much of the comedy in the beginning centers on the glib sharpness of Milo up against Lance's slow wit. The dialogue  makes for some laugh out loud funny bits with exchanges destined to be classic, reminiscent with  "A Fish Called Wanda."

The movement of the film swerves into seriousness however, when it is revealed that Milo is still emotionally dependent on his male teacher, the lecherous and closeted Rich, (Ty Burrell) who he had sex with in high school. Maggie has her emotional addictions as well, committing adultery several times with various continuing education instructors.

"The Skeleton Twins" is a diverse odyssey in friendship and family love that is nothing short of a roller coaster. Wiig and Hader who worked together on "SNL" know each other well with such looseness and easy verve that they might as well be siblings, if not by blood, then by profession. Their exchanges are simply  authentic.

No one character is cheaply done or played for quick laughs. These people (especially Maggie and Milo) are genuine and made of flesh.

Although quick and brief as with a pastel drawing, we see this sister and brother as colorful grinning goblins that use Halloween as a holiday shield against dysfunction, insecurity and sadness and we grow with them.

The ghost of their father is felt throughout as a "Day of The Dead" laughing skull, although he is masked and only sketchily visible. Indeed, the father's philosophical antidote of joking through pain makes able medicine against a controlling mother's New Age nonsense ( singularly delivered by actress Joanna Gleason) in one of the film's best scenes. It is a point of view that these two have taken to heart and despite the upheavals, at once tense and tittering, it serves them well.

This film succeeds where so many other indie comedies fail; it maintains a perfect tone throughout. No one segment is superfluous or thrown away upon the eye and even the incidental scenes offer a dry and soft-biting wink.

The beginning flashes of Milo and Maggie as children in particular, have a fine delicate hand that recall a Charles Addams cartoon, and a  sweet yearning for some unapologetically black humor.

Though one might well think of immediate laughs, the film is neither a drama or a comedy. More than anything, it is a portrait of a sister and a brother in the midst of their similarities and differences.

"The Skeleton Twins" far outshines most indie films by betraying no confining heaviness or fluffy lightness. As close as possible, (especially given that these two famed comedians, Kristen Wiig and  Bill Hader have such a previously recognizable schtick) this is life.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Love Is Strange (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Love Is Strange

Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On) hits upon familiar territory once more in "Love Is Strange", a character study of two older men who are just married, struggling and in love.

George (Alfred Molina) is a music teacher in a New York City catholic school while Ben (John Lithgow) is a painter with brief touches of fame. As a couple for forty years they decide to marry.

But all is not smooth.

Through Facebook, word gets out  among the school administration in regard to George's wedding and he is promptly fired.

Since the couple has lived just a bit beyond their means, they can't afford the nice apartment in the city and the two call a family conference.

While they have the support of their relatives, not one of them is all that thrilled to have them as roommates. Ben and George decide to split locations in order to keep the city life. The bohemian Ben takes up with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) while the more conservatively appearing but perhaps inwardly daring, George moves in with two gay cops (played by Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson)

Kate can't work on her novel because of Ben's vocal self doubts together with his large and somewhat slovenly appearance. Elliot is invariably preoccupied on the phone, taking on the form of something halfway between a skeleton and a ghost.

Kate is at her wit's end.

Across town, George doesn't fare much better, forever assaulted by disco music and a motley assortment of strangers.

The core of this film is the believable qualities and emotional chemistry between Lithgow and Molina. Lithgow's Ben is aloof, a tad passive and elitist, while Molina as George is a nervous teddy bear who frets over nuances and expenses. These two have indeed lived and loved each other, both apart and together.

With just a few bare touches of the hand, we can feel their seasons and grasp the texture of intimacies shared---be it by fire or along the rocks of an ocean.

While all of the actors have fine outings (Darren Burrows is both a non-entity and a threat, while Marisa Tomei is a chattering wreck) it is Charlie Tahan that shines as the shy but seething son Joey who is anarchistic and homophobic. Actor  Eric Tabach is a highlight too, as the aloof and arrogant Vlad, Joey's friend.

Lithgow's performance embodies a nostalgic and melancholy New York that still retains a hope to recapture times long gone by.

Ben's art, reminiscent of the Ashcan school and Andrew Wyeth, speak of a 1970s metropolis of diners and gay bars, which are now little more than a comet's reflection or the trace of Warhol's silver star.

When Ben falls down the stairs, overrun by the heaviness of metal and his own body, the city is seen in a void as the blankness of skyscrapers rush by.

The message of  "Love Is Strange" suggests that the intimacy of caring holds through any emotional famine as the heart and memory fuses to make a living memento: one part creating a cameo and the other, a steady compass.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Week of Sept. 26 - Oct. 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Engage Your Emotions and Intellect at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Want to see a good movie? Well, you can still catch "The Drop" and "Love Is Strange" at the Tropic Cinema, and it’s adding "My Old Lady" and "The Skeleton Twins" -- a crime drama, a gay marriage, a quirky old woman, and strange siblings.

"The Drop" stars Tom Hardy as a Brooklyn bartender who keeps his nose clean, until finding a battered pit bull pup in a trash barrel sets events in motion that violently changes things. A robbery, an old murder, the Chechen mob, and James Gandolfini (in his last role) figure into the neo noir film based on a Dennis Lehane short story ("Animal Rescue"). Chicago Reader observes, "Lehane’s climactic plot twist is all the more laudable because it springs directly from complexity of character; you realize the truth has been obscured not through a writer’s trickery but through your own simple reading of the action." And’s Andrew O’Hehir calls it "a masterful construction that held me rapt from first shot to last…"

That not-so-odd-couple Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) get married, then things go wrong in "Love Is Strange." So much for marriage equality laws when George gets fired and the two are forced to live apart. Love in modern times, we discover. Toronto Star describes it as "An unforgettable portrait, set to a dazzling soundtrack of Chopin piano pieces, of the sense of loss we all feel when we are obliged to move into unfamiliar and uncomfortable surroundings." And Charlotte Observer adds, "By the end, when love is in the air again, we realize the title is meant ironically. Love isn’t strange, after all."

Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline are at odds in "My Old Lady," the dramedy about a New Yorker who inherits a Parisian apartment that comes with an unwanted tenant. Toss in Kristin Scott Thomas as the old woman’s daughter and you complete the unlikely trio. Newsday says, "What starts as an elaborate sitcom becomes an emotionally substantial tragicomedy." And Philadelphia Daily News tells us, "Just when you’ve recalibrated your emotional receptors ... the movie shifts back again to whimsy…"

And in "The Skeleton Twin" you have former Saturday Night Live cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader playing it straight as brother and sister who cheat death on the same day and pause to commiserate on what went wrong in their lives. Grouch Reviews says, "Wiig and Hader’s shared history beautifully informs their entirely credible screen relationship, which can be as testy as it is loving, as distressingly haunted as it is funny..." Popmasters observes, "This is one of the best films about the lingering effects of dysfunction that’s been made." And Common Sense Media calls it an "irreverent, mature, deeply affecting drama about siblings."
There you have it, four films guaranteed to engage your emotions and intellect … a typical week at the Tropic.


Front Row at the Movies

"Love Is Strange" Is Not So Strange
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Depending on where you stand on Marriage Equality, you may or may not find the title of "Love Is Strange" a misnomer.

Here we have Ben and George, two gay guys (played by non-gay John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), who after 39 years together get married. About time, you say? Or not.

The ‘not" drives the plot. You see, George is a music teacher at a Catholic school and when word reaches the archdiocese about his legalizing his relationship, he is summarily fired.

This puts a financial strain on the relationship. Unable to afford their New York apartment, Ben and George must move in with others -- separating them. Ben is forced to share quarters with his nephew, his novelist wife, and teenage son (Darren Burrows, Marisa Tomei, and Charlie Tahan), while George bunks with two sympathetic cops (Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson).

Despite these hardships, this is at its heart an aging love story. "It’s love at the end of your life," says writer-director Ira Sachs, who was inspired by the long relationship between his great-uncle and his partner. "There’s something imperfect and beautiful and I wanted to make a film about that. It’s a classic story of a couple facing a crisis and how they deal with it. It’s a sweet film but the characters have edge, they’re real."

Sachs calls it poignant. Audiences at the Sundance Film Festival considered it a tearjerker. It’s currently making moviegoers pull out their handkerchiefs at the Tropic Cinema.

Lithgow and Molina admit that, at their age, they don’t get romantic leading roles anymore -- "whether gay or straight."

While having been married to his wife Mary for more than 30 years, Lithgow is no stranger to gender-bender roles. From "M. Butterfly" to "The World According to Garp" to "My Brother’s Keeper," he’s never shied away from a meaty gay role.

"It’s the most fascinating subject, because sexuality is at the heart of all of us," he says.

But he makes the point that this movie is not about being gay … it’s about being in love. "The star of this film is a marriage and it’s played by two people," notes Lithgow.

And he goes one step further, speaking for his co-star Alfred Molina. "We both have the feeling that this is the best work we’ve ever done on film; it may be the best film we’ve ever made."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Giver (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Giver

Lois Lowry's book The Giver is now a film. Despite some slick direction by Phillip Noyce (Salt), the film is a decidedly lukewarm sci-fi chase, which slips and slides from black and white to sepia, then into color with a dreamy facility that gives the cinematography a singular appeal.

We have young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) who is a uniform teen in a cubistic white-washed world of gray reminiscent of Pete Seeger's song "Little Boxes". Each dwelling resembles a kind of bauhaus jigsaw puzzle, utilitarian and devoid of color.

Jonas and everyone in his family "unit" does what they are told; each citizen has a purpose and a role. All events are governed in a very Orwellian manner. There are no colors, no vibrant emotions or conflicts.

Obstacles and deviations are shielded by daily injections taken by the community. Jonas and his friends exhale a bland bliss.

But The Elders see great things ahead for Jonas and act accordingly. When Jonas sees his infant brother marked as "unspecified" and destined to be "released," he decides to take action.

While the context of the story has a retro feel, recalling every film from "Logan's Run," "Soylent Green" and "Fahrenheit 941," "The Giver" feels stuck in retrograde, having an "After school special" texture and not really going anywhere that is original or provocative.

Jonas battles against the system, lost in a blinding white network of homogenized houses with baby in tow. The dialogue is static with Jonas mostly in a voice-over narration, talking at length about adventure and expression, color and the emotion of love. Thwaites delivery grows monotone and the expression on his face (one of shocked dismay) seldom varies.

There is a laughably flat appearance by Jeff Bridges here as The Giver who has all the pathos of an animatronic figure in Disneyworld's Hall of Presidents. Granted, it is Bridges' voice, but you don't see his mouth move all that much. For a man who is the keeper of all emotions, words and memories of the past, he moves stiffly with odd jerks throughout.

Meryl Streep who is usually full of verve also gives a strange decaffeinated performance as a Head Elder, a kind of Big Sister. Her role could be filled by anyone.

Katie Holmes (in a somewhat ironic turn with her history of Scientology) doesn't emote at all and the same applies to Alexander Skarsgård. While it is true that a bland delivery is needed, it doesn't call for boredom. The original "Stepford Wives" made for riveting stuff as did "Soylent Green" and other 1970s classics. The acting has a television-like tepid quality that lacks point and just goes on course.

Tweens may get a kick out of a cameo by Taylor Swift as The Giver's daughter, but they'll only get Taylor's usual, gooey-eyed looks into the camera.

The crux of it all involves a run for a young boy's life against a totalitarian society that has been done too many times to carry a surprise now.

The one interest is the direction of Noyce which has a definite Kubrick influence and style with long shots of the puzzle-like houses as they loom in the distance like faceless polyps usurping and watching all on a grid. Not to mention some billowy clouds that hover on a horizon, providing a tease of options.

It is reported that Jeff Bridges has wanted to bring this book to the screen for many years. He once said that he himself filmed a version on a home movie camera with his dad, Lloyd Bridges in the title role.

One wonders if Jeff's organic version would have been better; this adaption of "The Giver" feels stingy. It is flat, repetitive and serial in tone, and, if you are older than twelve, you will probably wish to be given a different film.

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Drop (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Drop

Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam master of the shockingly visceral "Bullhead" that dealt with paranoia in the butcher and beef industry, now tries his hand at a mainstream urban crime drama.

 "The Drop" highlights the sneaky business of a Brooklyn bar-owning family.

Dramatic heavy Tom Hardy stars as Bob, a well meaning, sad faced and laconic bartender who merely wants to survive amid the dark subterranean environment of a walnut paneled bar that is as confined as a submarine. Day after day, smoky and prune-mapped faces accost him in want and greed.

He struggles to keep his unassuming  head upright, in treating both gangster and average guy with some equality.

The bar, "Cousin Marv's" is the occasional location for a "drop", that is, a holding place for protection money or questionable cash that the mafia collects.

One night,  two masked men crack into the bar as Bob closes up.

Fear ensues.

The next night, Bob hears an animal noise coming from the trash. A bull terrier puppy is inside, as adorable as can be, but gorily beaten.

Are the two incidents related?

Bob doesn't know, but he is smitten with the puppy and discovers a skittish but helpful novice vet, Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

Bob resolves not to lose the dog which he names Rocco.

The following day, the patriarch, Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final outing) gives Bob argumentative business over his forthcoming behavior with investigators. Marv is a former thug and loan shark, now gone squinty and diminished in importance.

More alarmingly, Bob is hounded by a loping yet intense man, the volatile Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). And just to make everything extra icy, the bar is badgered by Chechen gangsters who want their money returned.

This story is clearly in the mode of other films like "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone" with stock character roles that don't reach out of their gritty orange gray zones. Both Gandolfini and Schoenaerts are somewhat scary bruisers throughout. Schoenaerts reprises his hard and silent persona established in "Rust and Bone" and the previously mentioned "Bullhead" while Hardy gives his best Brandoesque version of Terry from "On the Waterfront".

Gandolfini too, retains the  clipped and punchy repartee from "The Sopranos", although his Marv is more melancholy and pensive than threatening.

But though it may wear some easily  recognizable cement shoes, "The Drop" holds fast to some steely apprehension and nervousness, largely due to the blank docility of Bob and his desire for a more civil world. His inner tension combined with an outer facade of gentle passivity makes Bob a human twin to the puppy he yearns to shelter from harm.

The dog itself is a voluptuously hopeful gray ribbon that pulls Bob's dream of security closer together tethering Nadia to his hip.

Schoenaerts is riveting once more as a blandly nonchalant, yet toxically intent drifter who simply takes up space.

"The Drop" has plenty of the mealy hard bitten seediness we expect coupled with wincing faces in pain, shock and other pulpy emotions.

Yet it is Roskam's trademark circular claustrophobia that makes this a fine film to mark.

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