Monday, February 8, 2016

Hail, Caesar! (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hail, Caesar!

With glitz, glamour and sumptuous color, "Hail, Caesar!" hits the screen. This is a Coen Brothers zany and affectionate take on Hollywood's Golden Age, referencing everything from Westerns, Film Noir, Hitchcock, George Stevens and more.


George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a self important matinee idol in the shape of Kirk Douglas. On the set of his epic film, he unwitting drinks a mickey and gets kidnapped by a group of men. Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, a guardian who safeguards actors from tabloid accidents. When Whitlock goes missing, Mannix is on the case. There is a subplot involving a singing cowboy / Kirby Grant character named Hobie (Alden Erenreich) and his struggle to be a sophisticated actor ala Cary Grant or Gable. This storyline has many laugh out loud moments, most of them about Hobie trying to speak his lines and flubbing them along with him trying too hard to be a ladies man.

Though Clooney's role does not handle much, he does well as a clueless and vain actor under some shuttered blinds. The ubiquitous Channing Tatum appears once more as a Gene Kelly with some fine dancing fitting the period, and Tilda Swinton is odd and leering again in an interpretation of Hedda Hopper times two. Last but not least, Scarlett Johansson is here as well as DeeAnna, a rude Esther Williams.

The film is breezy and clever, making a kind of sequel to "Barton Fink" although this one is a bit more comical than the former. Still, this latest outing does have its dark touches, mentioning the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Film buffs will have a good time picking up cues from many films and genres. Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly musicals and "North By Northwest" are just a few of the appropriations.  Above all, the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is spectacular. The water scene alone is carbonation for the eye, a completely immersive experience.

While the Coen Brothers play most of the action for laughs in showing hammy actors  either dense or desperate, the film leaves one with a philosophical accent: Whitlock may dream of utopia, but Hollywood reaches back and holds the actor in place with an iron hand.

Ultimately "Hail, Caesar!" makes a trilogy following with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty." There are plenty of picaresque characters here in keeping with those previous works along with a generous heap of historical fun.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Oscar Animated Shorts 2016 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animation

Animation has always been at the forefront of experimental cinema for the simple reason that the genre of animation appears more plastic and immediate than live action. The animated film historically often starts with a pen, paper, a bit of clay or an inanimate object put in motion.

All the better to portray alternate worlds.  And indeed, there are certainly many alternate worlds in this year's short animated films selection.

The show starts with a zany bang with the Pixar produced "Sanjay's Super Team." A young boy is obsessed with a superhero TV show, at exactly the same time that his father is attempting to pray at his Hindu shrine causing great family dismay. One day the boy is brought to the shrine and becomes transported to an alternate land where Krishna and Hanuman fight great battles for Sanjay's hapiness. This colorful story is clever and fast moving in the great tradition of Disney. It also has a philosophical accent: comparisions are made between the father's religion and the son's TV watching. Both involve hero worship.

"World of Tomorrow" by Don Hertzfeldt depicts a noisy and hectic world where memories and people are cloned and human attachment is secondary. While the story is similar to Orwell and Aldous Huxley, the visuals are startling and irreverent as cacocophy and color overlap and become one element or presence.

We are also in the realm of science fiction in the Russian made excellent short "We Can't Live Without Cosmos" by director Konstantin Bronzit. The film showcasing a quirky sensibility with crisp visuals will keep you guessing and laughing from start to finish as two best friends train for a space mission together. Full of deadpan humor but by no means melancholy, the film does have an existential and bittersweet edge. The longing tone of this film mimics Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity."

If animals get at your heart, there is "Bear Story" about a solitary and wistful bear who portrays his story of circus suffering each day in a diorama. Affectionately told with more then a few gasping moments, this simply told tale will pull at your heart. The film is all the more potent because, despite its quirkiness, this is not kids' fare.

One movie that delivers comic relief is "If I Was God" by Cordell Baker. Free-wheeling and exuberant in the manner of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," this film about a boy in junior high definitely delivers.

If you still prefer uplifting, there is a warm and cute story of a traffic light, narrated by comedian Patton Oswalt and "A Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse." The latter is well done and fetching but as innocuous as a Saltine cracker.

The most subversive and controversial of the group is by far "Prologue" by animator Richard Williams of  "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" The film graphically explores the universality of human violence and war in no uncertain terms. The film suggests that this urge, though abhorrent is as primary as a flower and a bee and just as unavoidable. This film is a shocker that will no doubt instill shrieks among the unsuspecting.

This medley rivals the live action category and may even surpass it. Taken as a sojourn, this Oscar bunch makes a good trip, plumbing either the animal mind or the human heart with quirk and equality.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Oscar Live Action Shorts 2016 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action

This year's Oscar shorts are well in the mode of 2015's existential tone, yet they  uphold the tradition of taking us on a global voyage across many lands while being satisfying and engrossing.

"Ave Maria" is a light hearted episode of a Jewish family's struggles during car trouble in Palestine. Visually striking and effervescent, this tale is full of humorous character and detail, along with a subtle subversive quality.

For those of us who like suspense you will find it in "Shok" from Kosovo, directed by Jamie Donahue. Two young friends get mixed up in war. Through the noose of guilt and violence, the pair are steadfast friends. The film is just as much a meditation on friendship as it is an account of war. This story like others in the bunch will pull on your heart in addition to making you gasp.

The excellent and riveting "Everything Will Be All Okay" from Germany and Austria by director Patrick Vollrath is a moment by moment record of an anxious father (Simon Schwarz), just divorced, and the hold his has on his young daughter (Julia Pointner). This film doesn't pull its punches, full of tension and drama that is honest and first rate. The circumstances build gradually like life itself. Though it is explosive, the chain of events never veer into melodrama. Schwartz, through his acting, becomes a living Expressionist woodcut as if chiseled by Kafka.

"Day One" puts us on a trip with Feda (Layla Alizado), a female interpreter for the US Army, as she takes her first job in Afghanistan. Visceral, poignant and uncompromising, this true to life tale is spine-tingling from start to finish in its detail of life. Feda feels a stranger at every turn, though she is culturally accepted. The immediacy of life and death as familiar as the sun forces Feda to feel removed from herself in both spirit and body.

Finally, there is "Stutterer" a sweet and bubbly character study from Ireland about a quirky typographer (Matthew Needham) who wants to overcome a speech impediment. Positive and affectionate, though a bit too light, the story still manages to evoke a smile though the whimsy of its characters.

Though the intense films work better than the two more bouyant shorts, all selections are deftly made in spare sharp, detail without any superfluous baggage or flamboyance. Once again, despite the predominant dark tones, these nominations deliver charge and spirit. Each of these shorts can stand alone in equal weight to their feature film cousins.

Write Ian at inafree1@yahoo.com

Friday, February 5, 2016

Week of February 5 - 11 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Shorts Its Audiences
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Get out your yardstick. Tropic Cinema goes short this week. You’ll find the Oscar-nominated “The Big Short” still filling the screens, along with delightful collections of the Oscar-nominated animated and live-action short films.

“The Big Short” uses an ensemble cast -- Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt among them -- to tell the painfully funny story of a group of financial whizzes who get rich by betting against the banking housing bubble. Daily Express says, “Director Adam McKay displays a little bit of Martin Scorsese’s stylish swagger as he uses every possible means to make high finance seem sexy and compelling.” And The Scotsman observes, “‘The Big Short’ may be a comedy, but it never forgets that the joke was on us.”

 “Oscar Shorts - Animation” offers 15 animated films that are 6 to 17 minutes in length. Among them you’ll find “Bear Story,” “Chile Prologue,” and “Russia World of Tomorrow.” L.A. Biz notes, “This year’s batch of animated Oscar shorts offers an array of stunning styles from simple stick figures to classic hand-drawn animation to the most sophisticated CG.” And Philadelphia Inquirer adds, “Old school and new school, color pencils and touchscreen styli, a wide range of formats and techniques are represented … and that's a good thing.”

“Oscar Nominated Shorts - Live Action” gathers a handful of films ranging from 12 to 30 minutes in length that are particularly noteworthy. Ranging from “Ave Maria” to “Hebrew Day One,” from “German Shok” to “Serbian Stutter” and “Dari Everything Will Be Okay?”, these films will amaze you in their brilliant simplicity.  Chicago Tribune observes, “What happened to that Oscars diversity problem? Poof. Gone. Judging from the five nominated short films in the live-action category, the motion picture academy's problems of blinkered, whitey-white Oscars selection could be solved...” And the Patriot Ledger concludes, “This is the best overall collection I’ve seen in years, every one a four-star offering.”

Switching pace, “45 Years” looks at a couple -- Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay -- who are about to celebrate a big wedding anniversary. But the discovery of the frozen body of an old girlfriend changes the jubilant mood. Journal and Courier explains, “Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s script delves into the fragility of marriage and how one instant can make a person doubt a lifetime choice.” And Montreal Gazette notes, “Rampling and Courtenay don’t even have to raise their voices to command attention.”

Looking for a little shoot-‘em-up fun? Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is a Western filled with gun-totin’ bad guys -- Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern to name a few -- trapped in a stagecoach way station during a fierce blizzard. Will any come out alive? eFilmCritic.com says, “Viewers whose palates have adjusted to the loquacious maestro’s style will sigh with pleasure.” And Excelsior insists, “If you’re a Tarantino fan, you can’t miss this.”

However, this week’s pièce de résistance is “Hail Caesar!” -- the new Coen brothers comedy starring George Clooney as a kidnapped ‘50s movie star. Josh Brolin is the studio fixer assigned to clean up the mess with the help of an oddball collection of directors, actors, and film crew. An ensemble cast, you’ll encounter Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, and of course Frances McDormand. Parade Magazine calls it “The Coens’ gloriously goofy homage to the glory days of big studios, big stars and the big wheels that churned out the spectacles of Hollywood’s dream factory from a bygone era.” And Los Angeles Times describes it as “a hipster mash note to the way things used to be, it will put a smile on your face and keep it there for the duration.”

Trust me, with any of the films you won’t feel the least bit shortchanged.

srhoades@aol.com

Hail Caesar! (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Coen Brothers Say, “Hail Caesar!”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 Joel and Ethan Coen are brilliant directors with short attention spans. John Ford mostly made Westerns. Preston Sturgis mostly made comedies. Alfred Hitchcock mostly made suspense thrillers. But when it comes to the Coen brothers, their films shift from genre to genre to genre like a kaleidoscope.

The Coens (jokingly referred to as “The Two-Headed Director.”) are known for elaborate, self-conscious homages to past films and filmmaking styles.

Think about it: “Blood Simple” (psychological crime thriller), “Raising Arizona” (black comedy), “Miller’s Crossing” (gangster film), “Barton Fink” (period mystery comedy), “The Hudsucker Proxy” (fantasy), “Fargo” (crime thriller), “The Big Lebowski” (stoner comedy), “O Brother Where Art Thou” (Greek classic retold),  “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (neo-noir drama), “Intolerable Cruelty” (rom-com), “The Ladykillers (British crime comedy remake),  “No Country for Old Men” (neo-Western thriller), “Burn After Reading” (spy comedy), “A Serious Man” (drama), “True Grit” (Western remake), “Inside Llewyn Davis” (musical “biopic”).

And now “Hail Caesar!” (Let’s call it a Hollywood crime comedy).

Coen brothers films often center around a botched crime. Frequently they include kidnapping plots. “Hail Caesar!” is no different in that regard.

“Hail, Caesar!" follows a single day in the life of a studio fixer, a guy who cleans up problems and scandals created by movie stars. The idea is to keep stars’ bad behavior from hitting the gossip rags.

Here, Eddie Mannix is a fixer helping with the production of “Hail Caesar,” a costume drama starring famous actor Baird Whitlock. When Whitlock is kidnapped by a group called The Future, Mannix is the one who must collect $100,000 to rescue him. Chaos ensues, of course.

Some people call “Hail Caesar!” a love letter from directors Joel and Ethan Coen to a bygone Hollywood.

The Tinseltown of the ‘50s is on full display: In addition to the studio’s go-to guy (Josh Brolin) and the kidnapped movie star (George Clooney), you’ll find an entertaining array of oddball characters that includes an effete film director (Ralph Fiennes), a pregnant swimming star (Scarlett Johansson), a semi-talented hoofer (Channing Tatum), a frustrated film editor (Frances McDormand), a number of Communist screenwriters (Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Fred Melamed, and David Krumholtz), twin flacks (Tilda Swinton), a Hollywood accountant (Jonah Hill), a randy filmmaker (Christopher Lambert), even a Soviet submarine commander (Dolph Lundgren).

The Coens describe it as the third film in their “Numskull Trilogy” starring George Clooney.

Clooney describes it as another “idiot” film. Actually it’s his fourth “idiot” film with the Coens.

You can find “Hail Caesar!” screening at Tropic Cinema.

Ethan says, “The movie people let us play in the corner of the sandbox and leave us alone. We’re happy here.”

His brother Joel adds, “I like Hollywood just the way it is, actually. I don't think I’d change anything. I like that it’s out here 3,000 miles from where I live.”

As for the Coens’ penchant for playing with differing genres of film, Joel Coen shrugs. “We’ve never considered our stuff either homage or spoof. Those are things other people call it, and it’s always puzzled me that they do.”

srhoades@aol.com

Sunday, January 31, 2016

45 Years (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

45 Years

"45 Years" is director Andrew Haigh's masterful character study of a marriage, based on a short story by David Constantine. In just ninety minutes Haigh (Weekend), encapsulates the full breadth of two people living together for almost half a century. The director captures more minutia in this short running time than most others do in a full length two hour film.

Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are husband and wife about to celebrate a milestone anniversary. They have a comfortable but not extravagant home in Norfolk. Kate is a former teacher and there are hints that Geoff was once an aspiring explorer.

Things seem to be going along splendidly.

One day, a letter arrives in German. Geoff is shocked to the core. It appears that Katya, (Geoff's ex girlfriend) who slipped and fell to her death on ice when she was climbing in the Alps), has appeared within a glacier as a frozen corpse, preserved by the freeze.

As the event happened 45 years ago, Geoff can't remember if he told Kate the story or not. Geoff is stupified while Kate is surprised and confused, having no idea of the past affection or perhaps, the romance.

The next day, Kate moves ahead with their anniversary preparations, but is vexed. Geoff is distracted and spaced out. He goes for walks without telling her. To Kate's dismay, Geoff starts smoking again as he did when a young man. Rather than talk of the upcoming party, his talk is of his   time as a young activist.

Kate busies herself with day to day chores: going out for chats, walking the dog and making phone calls.  Kate soon discovers that she can't sleep; she finds Geoff rummaging in the attic for old photos.

This is by no means a bad-marriage film. It is simply an analysis of what can happen when secrets or even forgotten information, grow gray roots of doubt. Rampling is a study in tension, transforming into a coil of steel. Her brows pull down under the weight of worry and pined for anniversary bliss.

The excellence of the film is in the spare detail. With every suggestion of Katya, Kate carries on, stubbornly insistent on every daily activity no matter how slight.

Though the story bears a simularity to Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure) and the wicked darkness of Michael Haneke, it never loses its stark realism or its heart. That said, this film has its touches of black humor. Geoff complains acidly about a friend's ukelele, only to find the friend at his anniversary playing the instrument. Not to mention the film's last segment, which features a tense and overwhelmed Kate,  juxtaposed with a loose and childlike Geoff as he becomes the life of the party.

Like cinematic haiku, "45 Years" is a study in small deliberate motion: a shocked sigh, a set jaw, the fallen cheeks of disappointment. Just the barest of suggestion in this small seemingly quiet film, delivers a punch that is at once rueful and bittersweet.
Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Hateful Eight (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Hateful Eight

Director Quentin Tarantino is never one to inhibit himself, and he doesn't here. His latest outing "The Hateful Eight" is a kind of morality play in the guise of a Agatha Christie parlor mystery with touches of Hitchcock and William Friedkin.

In a nod to the Master of Suspense (specifically Lifeboat) and numerous Westerns, Tarantino pits eight motley characters together in a struggle during the post-Civil War era. To complicate matters, there is a malevolent blizzard that never quits.

Kurt Russell stars as bounty hunter John Ruth in charge of bringing a spiteful and mocking murderess (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice along a snow blinding path.

Their carriage crosses paths with another no-nonsense bounty hunter, Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who has seen his share of racial killing and is a vigilante. After some disturbing and hostile reluctance, the Major is welcomed on board.

The horses stop at Minnie's Haberdashery, a dark and dim general store of sorts with very little inside. There is a  Mexican (Damien Bechir), a hangman (Tim Roth), a mercenary cowboy (Michael Madsen), a wannabe sheriff (Walton Goggins), and a grouchy Confederate general (Bruce Dern).

The main melodrama is whether Daisy (the murderess) will escape and just who hates whom the most. On the whole, the total show stealer goes to Jennifer Jason Leigh who delivers her role with equal sincerity and horror film kitsch. She is rotten to the core and she clearly relishes what she is given.

Under the trappings of an abundance of gore that makes a ten gallon drum of tomato sauce seem a mere thimble, the most meaningful parts of the film are about the malignance of hate and the pettiness of rage.

While Tarantino appropriates directly from "The Exorcist" with Daisy's demonically gleeful face, actor Leigh grounds her anger with energy and the auteur gives just enough weight to narrowly miss complete camp.

A standout is the flawless cinematography by Robert Richardson whose visuals nod to the larger than life films of the 1970s, while making this film feel immersive, individual and off kilter in showing a white yet scratchy world where the gothicism of crosses and pain are everywhere.

Though "The Hateful Eight" illustrates a director up to his old tricks with exploding heads, saturated gushes of blood and spitting racists, Tarantino keeps us guessing with some well handled apprehension. The gunslinging is once more in the Grand Guignol tradition with some ugly people fuming and spitting yet again, but one still can't avert the eyes.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com