Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Week of September 26 to October 2 -- Phil Mann

What's On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

Take a great actor and give him a great story, not a bad formula. Sir Ben Kingsley finally comes into his own this week as the male lead in ELEGY, the movie adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2001 novella “The Dying Animal.” Kingsley is Professor David Kepesh, an aging New York cultural critic and university teacher. He is also a womanizer, incapable of commitment, who has made his peace with contemporary restrictions on teacher-student affairs by waiting until the semester is over.

This year the object of his desire is Consuela Castillo, a Cuban graduate student thirty-plus years younger, played by Penélope Cruz, who also reaches the peak of her form, perhaps because she’s freed of the burden of shedding her accent. When I say the peak of her “form” I’m speaking literally as well as theatrically. Thanks in part to the sensitivity of the female director Isabel Coixet, the photography of Ms. Cruz and her body, which is amply displayed, could not be more beautiful.

What starts out as another notch on Kepesh’s belt becomes instead his undoing as he finally finds a woman who overwhelms him as much as the reverse. You would think that Kepesh would be an object of scorn, that we would see the 70-year old, not particularly handsome, professor as deserving whatever ill befalls him as he lusts for the irresistible Consuela. But Kingsley makes him as much a victim as victimizer.

As the story takes a turn at the end, and Kepesh struggles with his own inadequacies in dealing with both Consuela and his estranged son, the power of the movie and our feelings for each of the complex characters builds. The screenwriter Nicholas Meyer also worked on Fatal Attraction. In the wrong hands, that might have been the theme of this movie, too, but Elegy instead is true to the meaning of its title, a poetic lament, and a stunning one.

Just as artful, but at the other end of the cinema spectrum, is Werner Herzog’s documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD. Herzog has always been attracted to obsessed people doing impossible things in impossible places, Aguirre, the Wrath of God searching for El Dorado on the Amazon, Fitzcarraldo bringing opera to the same place, Grizzly Man living among the bears in Alaska. His new doc is in the same vein, about people who choose to go to the so very inhospitable last frontier – the Antarctic – and what they find there. The scenery, both above and below the surface is spectacular, and the people are too, in their own way.

The Monday night classic this week is another Ida Lupino film, the noir ROAD HOUSE. Last week we saw her in Moontide. Ms. Lupino was an English actress who carved a unique role for herself in Hollywood, starring in tough-girl roles opposite such as Bogart and, in Road House, Richard Widmark and Cornel Wilde. But she also became one of the first women directors and continued on to a television career with her husband Howard Duff. If you’re a bit older you may have seen their fifties series, Mr. Adams and Eve. Here’s your chance to see her as a sexy thirty-year old.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Week of September 19 to September 25 -- Phil Mann

What’s On At The Tropic
By Phil Mann

It must be official Ben Kingsley week at the Tropic. In TRANSSIBERIAN he’s a sinister ex-KGB agent become narcotics detective. In THE WACKNESS he’s a marijuana puffing American psychiatrist.

That’s not all you’ll see of Sir Ben at the Tropic this month. Upcoming in a week or two is Elegy, where he’s womanizing college professor. Kingsley has been a Polish Jew being rescued from the holocaust (in Schindler’s List), a brutal British thug (in Sexy Beast), an immigrant Iranian businessman (in House of Sand and Fog), a crafty American Jewish gangster (in Bugsy), and the father of Anne Frank (in Anne Frank: The Whole Story). Since winning the Best Actor Oscar in 1982 for Gandhi, he’s been nominated three more times, and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He comes to this range of ethnic characters naturally. Born as Krishna Banji to an Kenyan-Indian Muslim father and an English model of partial Jewish descent, he changed his name thinking it would advance his career, but ironically achieved his breakthrough success playing the Mahatma, the quintessential Indian.

It’s interesting that, despite his stellar acting credentials, in neither of this week’s movies is he the star. For that, you’ll have to wait for Elegy.

The leads in TRANSIBBERIAN are Woody Harrelson, playing a Christian missionary, and Emily Mortimer, as his formerly bad-girl wife. They are on their way home from a mission trip to China, taking a decidedly unglamorous (forget the Orient Express) six-day rail journey from Beijing to Moscow. With Kingsley lurking and companions who aren’t what they first appear, it’s an edge-of-the seat thriller (“one hell of a thriller,” says Roger Ebert) that works a classic theme.

THE WACKNESS features Josh Peck (from TV’s Drake and Josh) and Olivia Thirlby (the girlfriend in Juno) He’s Luke Shapiro, a loser slacker who finds himself dealing dope in Central Park as a summer job after high school graduation. She’s Stephanie, the class hottie who’s hanging out before going off to college. They hook up because of , or maybe in spite of, the fact that her stepfather, the shrink Dr. Squires (Kingsley), is one of Luke’s best customers. The two are trading marijuana for counseling. For Dr. Squires, the dope seems to be counseling as he and Luke go stoned cruising together, meeting such as Mary-Kate Olsen, who’s another of Luke’s clients. The theme here is obviously coming-of-age, but the setting is a now-nostalgic 1990’s Manhattan newly under the sway of Rudy Guiliani.

Speaking of Manhattan, this is the week of the annual Manhattan Short Film Festival. Each year the MSFF team screens hundreds of shorts, choosing a dozen finalists that are shown in selected theaters all over the world. Theater-goers vote for the winner, which will be announced on September 28th in New York. Entries range from the animated TEAT BEAT OF SEX, a humorous take on first kiss and first sex, from a woman’s viewpoint; to THE GAME, a dark story of surreal board game involving matters of life and death. The full set of shorts will be shown twice, on Wednesday and Thursday at 8:00pm. You can vote at either showing.

More info and full schedules at
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The Wackness (Rhodes)

‘The Wackness’ Is Wacky High-School Nostalgia

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

One of my favorite books is “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the quixotic story of a young oddball wandering about the French Quarter of New Orleans. Ironically, the book’s author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide because he couldn’t get his book published, then eleven years later the manuscript made it into print and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Alas, there’s never been a movie made of it.

However, there’s a new indie film called “The Wackness” – opening today at the Tropic Cinema – that captures some of the same coming-of-age flavor as my fav cult book.

“The Wackness” gives us a wacked-out teenage marijuana dealer (Josh Peck) who trades weed to his shrink (Sir Ben Kingsley) in return for therapy sessions. Forging an odd friendship, the two lost souls wander the streets of New York in search of meaning to their wacky lives.
Seems the teen has a crush on the shrink’s stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby), but is too inexperienced to act on it. And the depressed shrink is having a meltdown and needs a little handholding. It’s questionable as to who’s helping whom in this strange union.
This story’s set in the summer of 1994, a time when hip hop music ruled. The movie’s soundtrack is cranked with cuts by Nas, Raekwon, Notorious B.I.G., R. Kelly, and Fresh Prince (a/k/a Will Smith). Method Man has a major role in the film.

“For me, hip hop was at its best in ’94: at its most creative and most authentic,” says writer-director Jonathan Levine. “And while the lives of my friends and I were distant from the gangsta life of the rappers, we identified with their spirit, and the authenticity of feeling that they embodied. So we listened. These days, I don’t really listen to much hip hop. I don’t think today’s artists have as much to say; the production’s too slick. In ’94, it was a movement; in ’08, it’s pop. Things just aren’t the same as they were then.”

Turns out, 1994 was the year Levine graduated from high school and that time period is forever imprinted on his psyche. He says, “I wanted to do a movie about that time, you know. About that time in someone’s life. And I really like high school movies that are authentic. And for me that was the best way to be authentic. Rather than trying to write a movie that takes place in present day.”

He admits that the film is semiautobiographical. “But otherwise I never sold weed or traded it with a shrink for therapy or anything like that. But the world it’s grounded in is very specific to my growing up.”

As one moviegoer waxed enthusiastically: “‘The Wackness’ is essentially a slacker flick, a film where people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives worm their way into our hearts and minds. It’s great, it truly is, and the soundtrack goes a long way to setting the scene of the timeline and feeling of the film.”

Me, I didn’t grow up with hip hop music. So I’m waiting for a “Confederacy of Dunces” movie. Maybe it’ll feature New Orleans jazz.  [from Solares Hill]

Moontide (Rhoades)

‘Moontide’ Ebbs In At Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

It sounds like a page from Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” but comes off more like a John O’Hara short story. And well it should.

Based on a 1942 novel by lawyer-turned-actor Willard Robertson, “Moontide” was whipped into shape for the screen by John O’Hara. Several of O’Hara’s own books had been made into movies (“Butterfield 8,” “From the Terrace,” “A Rage to Live,” etc.).

In addition to O’Hara, famed scriptwriter/director Nunnally Johnson (“The Dirty Dozen” and dozens of others) lent an uncredited helping hand.

“Moontide” is Mary Sparacio’s Monday night classic at the Tropic Cinema. She’ll be on hand to introduce and discuss the film with the audience.

Set in John Steinbeck country, this film noir outing gives us a tale about a longshoreman named BoBo (portrayed by French actor Jean Gabin) who fears he may have killed somebody while drunk. When he rescues a would-be suicide (Ida Lapino) and invites her to stay with him on his barge, his erstwhile pal (Thomas Mitchell) uses Bobo’s guilt over his supposed crime to put a wedge into this threatening new relationship.

Slumming in Hollywood during the early days of World War II, Jean Gabin had already starred in several French masterpieces such as “La Grande Illusion” and “La Bête Humaine” by Jean Renoir,” “Quai des Brumes” and “Le Jour se Lève” by Marcel Carné, and Jean Gremillon’s “Remorques.”

Thomas Mitchell (“Gone With the Wind,” “Stagecoach”) goes against the grain as his pal Tiny, playing a malevolent character rather than his usual avuncular role.
Ida Lupino also tries hard here, but the awkward plot works against her. Having appeared in “High Sierra,” she would eventually drift into B-movies such as “Women’s Prison,” before finding a renewed career on television (“Four Star Theater,” etc.).

Claude Rains (“Casablanca,” “The Invisible Man”) puts in a fine performance as the local “failed intellectual.” Biographers claim this role came closest to reflecting the actor’s true personality.
The black-and-white cinematography by Charles G. Clarke was nominated for an Academy Award. The night shots effectively capture the dark brooding atmosphere, yet it’s obvious from the sets that this is a low-budget production.

Director Archie Mayo (“The Petrified Forest,” “A Night in Casablanca”) was considered hard to work with, and his actors called him a “fat slob” behind his back. Jean Gabin didn’t seem to mind, having a reputation for being difficult himself.

And at the time Gabin was having an affair with Marlene Dietrich. Fired from a film for insisting that Dietrich be his costar, he went back to France and joined General Charles de Galle’s Free French Forces, winning numerous medals for his wartime heroism. When he entered liberated Paris with his troops, Marlene Dietrich was captured on film waiting for him in the crowd that lined the streets.

Gabin and Dietrich would later star together in a French production called “Martin Roumagnac,” but it was a box-office failure. They broke up shortly after that.

Two little known facts about “Moontide”: It was partially directed by Fritz Lang (“Metropolis,” “M”) before him being replaced by Archie Mayo. And the surrealistic drunken sequence in the film was designed by Salvador Dali.

Charles Zigman in his book “World’s Coolest Movie Star: The Complete 95 Films (And Legend) Of Jean Gabin” calls this movie “a great Lost American Classic.” [from Solares Hill]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Week of September 12 to September 18 -- Phil Mann

What’s On At The Tropic
By Phil Mann

MAN ON WIRE takes your breath away. The story of Philippe Petit’s historic walk between the World Trade Center twin towers, it’s a documentary film but executed with a polished blend of actual footage, restaged events and interviews to keep you enthralled.

You know where the story is going, of course. Petit did it and he’s still around to tell the tale, living in Woodstock, New York. The walk itself would have been a feat enough, but the movie unspools the equally triumphant conquest of the towers security system to tautly fix 450 pounds of main wire and four associated guy wires spanning the 200 feet between the towers, all the while worrying about wind or fog which might prevent or obscure the spectacle. By the time Petit stepped out into space, a quarter mile in the air, he and a ragtag team of recruits had been working for months, capping their efforts with an all-night session feverishly lugging, hauling and rigging. Yet there he is when day breaks, not merely walking but kneeling, laying down, getting up, and dashing away from the police for almost an hour.

Topping not only the wire but the film itself is Petit, an endlessly charming scamp with a pitch perfect Gallic accent, never bragging, only telling us more or less that he did it because it seemed like something he wanted to do. At a time when Jackasses are making foolhardy acts foolish, it’s inspiring to see that such acts may also be artistic triumphs that elevate the human spirit.

BOTTLE SHOCK is, in a way, the geographic flip of Man on Wire. If Petit was a Frenchman who conquered an American icon (the skyscraper), the heroes of Bottle Shock are Americans, with the help of a Brit, who conquered the ultimate French icon, wine. Though not a documentary, it is based on a true story, when an upstart California winery bested the French in a blind tasting and put America on the world’s wine map. Don’t take it too seriously, though. This is a comedy. One fact I learned from researching this movie is that the French drink a lot of wine on movie sets, while American insurers only allow at most grape juice on ours. So we haven’t quite caught up.

On another topic, you probably know that the Tropic was closed last Sunday through Tuesday in response to the mandatory evacuation of residents. There’s a lot of debate about the appropriate policy. Is it the duty of the theater to fall in line with an evacuation order and not encourage people to stay by offering them entertainment? Or should it try to keep the show going until the power fails (or flood waters reach the screens)? Or some middle ground? I’d be happy to hear any thoughts on this, and will pass them on. [from Key West, the Newspaper -]

Boomerang (Rhoades)

‘Boomerang!’ Bounces Into the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Eddie Murphy once made a romantic comedy called “Boomerang,” about a womanizer who falls for his female boss. That’s NOT the movie playing next Monday night at the Tropic Cinema.

Go ahead, breathe a sigh of relief.

Instead, Mary Sparacio of LPTV has selected yet another “Boomerang!” – the 1947 film noir classic starring Dana Andrews as a hard-hitting state attorney who risks his career trying to prove that the man accused of murdering a kindly priest is in fact innocent.
“Boomerang!” was based on a story that appeared in Reader’s Digest. It was mostly filmed in Stamford, Connecticut. Needless to say it caught my eye, in that before moving to Key West I worked for Reader’s Digest and lived about ten miles outside of Stamford. Many scenes in the movie were familiar landmarks to me.

Directed by three-time Academy Award-winner Elia Kazan, “Boomerang!” tells about an actual 1924 murder case, where a priest was shot in broad daylight on a Bridgeport, Connecticut, street corner. Despite witnesses, the killer made his getaway. Only later was a homeless drifter (aptly portrayed by Arthur Kennedy) arrested in Ohio and shipped back for trial. Seems he was carrying the .32 revolver used in the priest’s murder.

The cast is impeccable: Lee J. Cobb as the police chief who sweats a confession out of the suspect. Ed Begley as a party official pressuring the prosecutor to bring in a conviction. Sam Levene as a newspaper reporter goading the local politicos. Jane Wyatt as the prosecutor’s supportive wife. Even the bit role for Karl Malden as a police detective.

Presented in a documentary style, with a sonorous voice-over narrative by Reed Hadley, much of the film takes place inside the courtroom – a setting that Kazan would revisit in his underrated “A Face in the Crowd.”

Even so, this is not a Perry Mason plot where the guilty party is revealed on the witness stand. It’s more a “wrong man” theme, where the DA’s trying to provide the man innocent
Kennedy’s character certainly looks guilty. A man who had a confrontation with the priest, he had the murder weapon in hand … and he even confessed.

But Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) isn’t convinced. And he’s a rare breed, a DA who believes his job is “not to prosecute, but to see that justice is done.”

The storyline pretty much follows actual events, except that the real Henry Harvey was not simply a small-town lawyer – he was actually a well-known Connecticut state attorney named Homer Cummings who later became Attorney General of the United States.
The screenplay by Richard Murphy was nominated for an Academy Award.
Playwright Arthur Miller had a cameo role in “Boomerang!” (he's the line-up suspect who towers over the policeman), a lark between him and his friend Elia Kazan. Miller later asked Kazan to direct his play “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. For the 1949 drama Kazan drew on his “Boomerang!” cast, selecting Lee J. Cobb to take on the role of Willy Loman and Arthur Kennedy as his son Biff.

The actors had earned their stripes with “Boomerang!” It’s a movie that stands up well half a century later.

Sure, today the legal system is a little different. We have Miranda rights and better due process. But wrong men get accused all the time. The question is how many state attorneys would stand up and refuse to prosecute.

Filmed in black-and-white, with ominous shadows, this crime drama gets categorized as film noir. But in truth it’s a movie about ethics. [from Solares Hill]

Glen or Glenda (Rhoades)

Movie Madness Doubles Your Fun with “Glen or Glenda”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
I’m currently co-producing a documentary about drag queens here in Key West. My friend Robbie Hopcraft is helming the project as lead producer and director.
Yes, I’ve learned more about guys who dress like girls than I ever expected to know. And in the process I’ve become friends with Sushi, Googie, R.V., Samantha, and the rest of the girls at the 801.
That’s why I’m eager to see that campy old favorite “Glen or Glenda” again, one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies by Ed Wood, Jr. – a director who liked to wear women’s angora sweaters while working.
“Glen or Glenda” is the 1953 film being featured in Rick’s Midnight Movie Madness, the live taping of Rick Dreys’ WGAY-TV show tonight at the Tropic Cinema. You get to view a silly movie, replete with Rick’s acerbic comments, movie trivia, and funny observations. Kinda like that old “Mystery Science Theater 3000” TV program of yore.
The festivities at the Tropic begin around 10 p.m. and continue toward the midnight hour.
I’ll be particularly interested in Rick’s on-stage critique of “Glen or Glenda,” knowing that Rick himself is also a well-known drag queen, often found performing at Aqua or tending bar next door. Who better to explain a movie about cross-dressing?
Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (you may have seen the Johnny Depp movie about him) was so engrossed in the subject of wearing women’s clothing that he not only wrote the script but also stars in the title role.
Even so, Wood is very careful to make his position known. As the narrator emphasizes, “Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.”
Alternate titles for this sensationalized exploitation film included “I Changed My Sex,” “He or She” and “I Led Two Lives.”
A pseudo-documentary, “Glen or Glenda” has the narrator/psychiatrist telling us two stories: One of Glen who secretly dresses as a woman and the other of Alan who undergoes a painful operation to actually become the woman he wants to be.
Of course, we have Wood’s usual repertoire of actors in their familiar roles. Lyle Talbot as a police inspector investigating a transvestite’s death. B-movie actress Dolores Fuller slumming as Glen’s blasé fiancée. Timothy Farrell portraying the shrink. And former Dracula star Bella Lugosi as a scientist who babbles on about the subject of cross-dressing, warning “Beware! Take care! Beware!”
Lugosi was “visibly morphine-addled” during the filming. But Wood’s unintelligible and confusing script didn’t help matters. One assumes the director was sympathetic to the subject, given his own predilections, but the garbled storyline comes off more like a cautionary tale.
But then again Ed Wood is known for his bad filmmaking. You’ve probably seen his classic “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often cited as the worst movie ever made.”
“Glen or Glenda” runs a close second. Crew and equipment can be spotted in scenes. The shadow of the cameraman’s clearly visible in Bella Lugosi’s first scene.
Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (“Twin Peaks,” “Lost Highway”) has stated that this is one of his favorite films. Figures. [from Solares Hill]

Man On Wire (Rhoades)

‘Man on Wire’ Is Well-Balanced Documentary

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1974 I got a crick in my neck staring up at the death-defying high-wire act taking place in New York City, a man walking a tightrope between the then-standing World Trade Center buildings.

I could barely breath.

This unsanctioned event has been called “the artistic crime of the century.”

The fascinating documentary “Man on Wire” – which opens today at the Tropic Cinema – offers some of that same hold-your-breath excitement as it details the risky career of French aerialist Philippe Petit.

Petit started off working as a street juggler in Paris. Improving on his act, he became a tightrope walker, unicyclist, magician, and pantomime artist. By the early ’70s he was juggling and walking a slack-rope in New York’s Washington Square Park.

There he became obsessed with the idea of walking a high wire between the Twin Towers.
With “Man on Wire,” British director James Marsh follows the ups-and-downs (pun intended) of Petit as he prepares to pull off this far-fetched caper. Planning took six years. He snuck into the buildings several times, often posing as a construction worker, once as a writer for an architectural magazine. He even made aerial photographs from a helicopter, using them to build a scale-model of the edifices to help him figure out how to get the cable across the 140-foot chasm between the Twin Towers. A bow and arrow, it turns out.

Then on August 7, 1974, Petit’s associates rigged a 450-pound tightrope cable between the towers of the still-under-construction World Trade Center, and he spent 45 minutes inching his way back and forth across the wire, dancing, kneeling, even lying down, a 26-foot-long balancing pole in hand, before the police finally convinced him to come down.
Philippe Petit was arrested for his audacious feat, but the Port Authority, which owned the towers, considered his walk a publicity coup for a pair of enormous buildings that had been having trouble attracting tenants. For his crime, Petit was sentenced to community service – a walk over Belvedere Lake in Central Park to entertain children.
James Marsh’s documentary is meticulous in detail, replete with interviews, archival footage, and reenactments.

Yet in the wake of 9/11 there’s an eerie quality as Petit details how his team evaded World Trade Center security, shot a cable across the towers, and danced out onto the wire at airplane-level, some 1300 feet in the air.

Although a true story, it comes off somewhat like an old-fashioned caper movie. Oh that Steve McQueen were still around to star in a dramatized version of this yarn. But perhaps the documentary will serve as well.

“Man on Wire” won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at 2008’s Sundance Film Festival. [from Solares Hill]

Friday, September 5, 2008

Week of September 5 to September 11 -- Phil Mann

What's On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

Can you imagine High School Musical meets Waiting for Guffman combined with Jesus Christ Superstar and even a little Hamlet? It's all there in HAMLET 2, at the Tropic this week. Oh, yes, also some of Dead Poets Society and The History Boys. But it's all a satire. Brit comedian Steve Coogan, fresh from a brief life in the current box office smash Tropic Thunder (he's the director of the movie within a movie), takes over the screen in Hamlet 2 as a manic high school drama teacher desperately trying to save a failing marriage and the pending demise of his course due to budget cuts. His only hope is to produce a great play with a group of reluctant inner-city Latinos who have been dumped into his class. Did I mention West Side Story?

Coogan roller skates (badly, in traffic), wears a caftan, gets tricked into dropping acid, and that's all besides the central plot. Did I mention that it's less serious than Hamlet 1? In addition to a serviceable ensemble cast of kids, he's supported by Catherine Keener, as his wife; Elizabeth Shue, playing herself as an acting dropout turned nurse in a fertility clinic; and Amy Poehler, hilarious as a garbage-mouth ACLU attorney sent to defend his play against censorship.

The movie starts slowly, and wanders all over the place as Coogan bounces between the disaffections of his wife, his principal and his students. But when we get to the play there's no stopping it. If this appeals to you, the movie's only here for one week, so you'll have to hustle down before September 11.

Manic comedy may be in the air this week, because on Saturday night the Tropic's main stage is being turned over to singer/songwriter/comedian Lisa Koch, brought to Key West by WomenFest 2008. She's doing two shows, at 7:30 and 9:30. Last minute tickets at

The best of the best is there, too. Woody Allen's VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is delighting everyone, as is the French thriller TELL NO ONE. Both are continuing for a second week, along with the Saturday Kids Matinee and the Monday Night Classic Series.

A lot of credit for keeping you entertained and keeping the Tropic humming all summer has to go to the summer manager, Ed Steinhardt, who has been the theater's shepherd during Managing Director Mark Slater's extended family leave to Wales.

Ed got his start at the Tropic as a projectionist, so he's come up through the ranks. But he's also a former journalist, feature-writer and librarian and is the author of several books of verse, including The Painting Birds (1988) and Standing Pelican: Key West Poems & Stories (2008). Dandelion Dreams and Other Poems (1999) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Before moving to Key West he served as president of the Missouri Writers' Guild, and produced annual poetry readings featuring U.S. Poets Laureate. What better credentials for an art house cinema!

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Rules of the Game (Rhoades)

‘Rules of the Game’ Remains a Tragic Comedy of Manners

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You probably can’t graduate from film school without having viewed Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic “Rules of the Game” (original French title: “La Règle du Jeu”). It may remind many modern-day moviegoers of Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” in that it’s a complex social commentary about the upperclass and their servants. But Renoir’s came first – by over half a century.

Even before that, director Renoir showed that he could deal with complicated stories and intertwining characters in his 1937 masterpiece “The Grand Illusion.”

Some viewers see “Rules of the Game” as a satire, but Renoir denied this, saying it was “an exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time.” Yet it’s as funny as it is tragic.

Like “Gosford Park,” the story takes place at a country estate. A famous aviator is enamored of the Marquis’s wife. The Marquis is having an affair with another woman. The Marquise’s maid is married to the gamekeeper. But a poacher working as a servant has eyes for her. Tragedy is inevitable.

Renoir himself played the character Octave, a sort of master of ceremonies in the film.
The French aristocrats did not appreciate being shown in an unflattering light, and Renoir’s film was reedited to reduce its bite, then later banned in its entirety.

An Allied air raid during World War II destroyed the original negative of the film. It wasn’t until the ’50s that two French film buffs worked with Renoir to reconstruct a complete print of the film.

Thus, LPTV’s Mary Sparacio is able to host a showing of “Rules of the Game” this coming Monday night at the Tropic Cinema, part of her series of old classics, complete with a discussion afterwards.

You’ll be impressed by the fluidity of the cinematography as the camera glides through the vast chateau, first following one character, then abruptly switching direction to follow another. And the ensemble upstairs-downstairs cast holds our attention as they interact. No wonder Altman paid homage to it with 2001’s “Gosford Park.”

Yes, “The Rules of the Game” is a must-see. You don’t even have to be a film student to enjoy it. [from Solares Hill]

Hamlet 2 (Rhoades)

‘Hamlet 2’ Will Make Shakespeare Roll Over

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

There’s the old saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” There also should be a corollary that says, “If you can’t act, direct.”

So in “Hamlet 2” – the silly comedy opening today at the Tropic Cinema – we have a very bad actor directing a very bad play based on Shakespeare’s classic about a melancholy Dane.
While this is more akin to a dumb Will Farrell movie than, say, Christopher Guest’s brilliant “Waiting for Guffman,” it’s still worth a viewing if you like low-brow comedies and don’t want to wait for the DVD.

Unfortunately, neither Will Farrell nor Christopher Guest is in “Hamlet 2.” Instead we have British-born Steve Coogan (“Tropic Thunder,” “Coffee and Cigarettes”) as a failed actor now working as a high-school drama teacher. Unfortunately, this character’s no better at putting on a play than he was at his earlier thespian pursuits.

His attempt to put on a musical version of “Hamlet” is the basis of the humor. But the idea of a politically incorrect musical was better handled by Mel Brooks in “The Producers,” a comedy that the diminutive director originally wanted to title “Springtime for Hitler.”

Steve Coogan admits he was a bit nervous about the story of this inept drama teacher. “When I saw in the script this song ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus,’ I was nervous that people might take it in the wrong spirit and be offended by it. I do think that any comedy that is interesting has got to take some risks … There is some edgy comedy, but it’s not a cynical film.”

Coogan seems fond of his character, Dana Marschz. “He’s trying to do his best. However misguided he is, he is earnest and trying to do something for the greater good – save his drama department. That’s why people watching the movie have responded to him. Dana is slightly theatrical and neurotic; he’s overly demonstrative with his emotions and very effusive with his feelings. This is part of why he has failed as an actor. He’s channeled everything into teaching students his love of the craft. What fuels a lot of the humor is that he’s obviously not very good at it. But he’s someone who genuinely believes in what he says, and there’s nothing Machiavellian about him; he’s open and honest.”

Oscar-nominee Elisabeth Shue (“Leaving Las Vegas”) is delightfully self-deprecating while playing a successful Hollywood star – herself! “I think she found it slightly cathartic to mock her image and the baggage she has from her past work,” grins Coogan.

And Catherine Keener (“40 Year Old Virgin”) is always great. “The dinner scene with her in ‘Hamlet 2’ raised the quality of my game,” says Coogan “She’s so committed and truthful, and tries different things, so you’re really kept on your toes. It was like playing tennis with someone who changed the technique, so you’d have to constantly be alert.”

Born in Manchester, England, Coogan had to perfect an American accent for this story set in Tucson, Arizona. “I experimented with different voices for Dana,” he says. “In a comedy movie, you have to know what the rhythm of the speech is going to be. I had to make sure that I got the American accent right; I worked with a coach. During shooting, when I would hit a vowel incorrectly, I’d think ‘I’m an English impostor!’”

So it’s a flimsy story and a trivial movie. But you’ll laugh. “On some levels, ‘Hamlet 2’ is a parody of inspirational-teacher movies, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘Dangerous Minds,’” observes Coogan. “Dana is pretty idiotic at times, but he does what he says he’s going to do – ultimately, inspire his students.”

What kind of preparation did Steve Coogan do for this movie? “I didn’t read Hamlet,” he says. [from Solares Hill]