Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Week of August 1 to 7

What’s On At The Tropic

By Phil Mann

Sometimes life is too good. That’s certainly the case at the Tropic this week, where your cool summer haven is offering enough film selections to keep you chilling every day, all week long. Six different movies: from the new Pixar-Disney animated hit WALL-E, to the epic biopic MONGOL about the early life of Genghis Kahn, to a documentary about gay Muslims titled A JIHAD FOR LOVE. Since the Tropic doesn’t have six screens, that means you have to watch the schedule carefully. Some movies, like WALL-E and MONGOL are showing only once per day.

I haven’t talked much about technology, but the apparatus to make all this happen is quite something. It’s not just a matter of sticking a DVD in a deck and hitting Play. The 35mm films come to the Tropic on four to six big reels that have to be spliced together and put on a six-foot wide “platter” that feeds to a 2,000 watt projector. The film runs through the projector and then back to the three-deck platter. The Tropic projection booth, spanning the area behind the Carper and Taylor theaters has two of these rigs, plus four high-powered digital projectors and a unique high definition digital cinema server. The surround sound comes from an array of ten to twelve speakers in each theater, dominated by a set of three refrigerator-sized speakers behind each of the screens. That’s why the dialogue seems to come from the actors’ mouths; the primary speakers are hidden behind perforated movie screens. To drive these speakers, each theater is equipped with a rack of five to seven independent amplifiers, all tied together with a specialized Dolby or Smart cinema sound processor. The Tropic has over $250,000 invested in this state-of-the art equipment, and is constantly upgrading it.

Sorry for the digression, but the projectionists (Dan Schwab, Ed Steinhardt, and Ozlem Berg) are the unsung heroes of your viewing pleasure. With only a single projectionist on duty at any time, there’s going to be a lot of scurrying around as he or she switches from one movie to the next. So be patient.

As always, you can find the full schedule at or check the daily ad on the TV page of the Citizen. If you aren’t getting the weekly email coming attractions, send me a note and I’ll get you added to the list. You don’t have to be a Film Society member to get it, but of course if you attend more than a few films a year you’re foolish not to be. Society members save three bucks on every ticket.

The main special event this week is a visit from filmmaker David Monro, director of the movie FULL GROWN MEN, the story of two boyhood friends who try to recapture their youth at their favorite childhood amusment park. The movie is running all week, but he’ll be there to introduce and take questions for the 6:15pm show on Saturday night. Make it a date.

Comments welcome here or to
[Originally published in Key West, the Newspaper -]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Week of July 25 to 31, 2008

What’s On At The Tropic

By Phil Mann

I’ve been following movies at the Tropic for several years now, and I’ve never ceased to be amazed at the peculiarities of audience tastes. One dismal fact of life is that massive publicity does produce some results. Whether it’s an advertising blitz like that which accompanies the big Hollywood releases, or a popular buzz like the ones generated by Michael Moore’s documentaries, people are more likely to turn out for a film that they’ve heard about. No surprise there.

But one of the strengths of the Tropic, its raison d’ĂȘtre, is to help Key West discover movies that have not already been crammed into our collective conscious by external forces. Sometimes one of these movies succeeds beyond expectations. For the first two weeks in July the Tropic was showing the documentary Up the Yangtze which, without any publicity except the regular Tropic news bulletins and no movie stars, outdrew movies like Iron Man or Indiana Jones at several performances. Its environmental theme (the destruction of the Yangtze environment by the massive Three Gorges Dam) struck a sensitive Key West nerve. In past years titles like Mrs. Henderson Presents and What the #$*! Do We Know?!, have enjoyed good attendance largely through word of mouth. But then there are real gems that slip by without notice, like The Edge of Heaven, which opened and closed last week with hardly anyone noticing. What a shame! This is especially a problem during the summer in Key West, when the more-limited audience precludes the Tropic from holding a movie for several weeks just in the hope that someone will discover it.

The most important thing a columnist like me can do is to alert you to these special opportunities, which the Tropic’s programming manager Scot Hoard work hard to line up. There’s one this week that I hope will find a Key West audience. CHRIS AND DON: A LOVE STORY is a wonderful documentary about the lengthy relationship between Christopher Isherwood and his 30-year younger lover, Don Bachardy. It’s full of famous people, from Isherwood himself to friends like Tennessee Williams and Igor Stravinsky; clever wit and dialogue; and a moving true story of a gay romance.

The other very special event is the opening of the Tropic’s new cultural program, world-class ballet from the Bolshoi in hi def with surround sound. The ballet is Dimitri Shostakovich’s BOLT, a new interpretation of a 1931 ballet that was banned by the Soviets. I don’t know anything about ballet, but the reports on this say it is full of humor and even comic dances as well as superb classical ballet and a great score. If you’ve got Tuesday evening free, give it a shot.

Full info at If you’d like to get on its list for free weekly movie bulletins, just send an email to with the subject line: Add Me.

Comments, please, to
[originally published in Key West, the newspaper -]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Week of July 18 to 24, 2008

What’s On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

Now at the Tropic! The Superhero to top all Superheroes! Iron Man? Batman? Hellboy? No.... Genghis Kahn. Born in 1162 as simple Temudgin, the dude we know as Genghis Kahn came to dominate the largest contiguous empire in history, from China across Asia and into Europe. And, get this, he was a nice guy, and he didn’t even have a sidekick. Top that Bruce Wayne.

I know all this because I saw the movie MONGOL (and I did a little reseach on Wikipedia). This is an epic on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia, with vast hordes of mounted warriors surging into battle across the sweeping landscape of the Mongolian steppes. Told with reasonable historical accuracy, and filmed with an international cast of thousands, MONGOL swept the Russian Oscars this year and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the U.S. ceremonies.

It’s bold and it’s bloody. And this film, the first in a planned trilogy, covers only The Rise To Power. According to some interesting DNA research, 8% of the men in a section of Asia are descended from Genghis. Think of how many “Son of” sequels we could have. Anyhow, this one is quite a show. It’s in Mongolian with subtitles, but don’t be deterred.

The talking hardly matters. (I can’t resist the opportunity to note that the major battle scenes in IRON MAN (also running at the Tropic) are set in Afghanistan, a very small part of the Mongol Empire. How paltry indeed are the accomplishments of the Man of Iron compared to those of the Man from Mongolia.)

On a more sedate level, the EDGE OF HEAVEN, tells the story of an expatriate Turk widower living in Germany who invites a prostitute to live with him, only to assuage his loneliness. His son, a Professor of German Literature, is dismayed, and eventually becomes embroiled in a complex plot as he searches for the woman’s daughter back in Turkey. From Fatih Akin, a Turkish-German director, this film dominated the German Oscars and has been acclaimed as “a film to been seen, savored and thoughtfully appreciated” by Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer.

The Monday night classic movie series continues this week with DOUBLE INDEMNITY a 1944 noir mystery with a pedigree to die for. Directed by Billy Wilder, written by him and Raymond Chandler based on a novel by James M. Cain, and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, the movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Warning: Last week’s Monday night classic was sold out, so get there early if you want to see this one.

Quite a week. Academy Award films from three continents.

Comments, please to
[originally published in Key West, the newspaper -]

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Week of July 11 to July 17, 2008

What's On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic is proud this week to bring IRON MAN to its screens. As James Berardinellli of ReelViews notes, “Iron Man is a different breed of superhero movie - a film that remembers it's possible to be outside the target demographic and still enjoy a tale set in this genre.... Over the years, there have been only a handful of exceptional superhero movies, and Iron Man is among them.”

It’s timely and topical. Iron Man is a techno hero, his powers based on futuristic power sources, incredible alloys and voice-controlled computers. His opponents are terrorists in Afghanistan seeking world domination. It’s got great acting from Robert Downey, Jr, who seamlessly makes the transition from a hair-covered man (as he was in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) to a metal-clad one; and Gwyneth Paltrow, who is alluring as ever as Pepper Potts (this super man’s Lois Lane).

They’re both nominated, as is the movie itself, for this year’s Teen Choice Awards. What’s that, you ask? Seventeen Magazine is trying to get the jump on the award season with a summer ceremony adding such award categories as Best Hissy Fit and Best Lip Lock to the usual actor/actress/movie stuff. The ceremony is coming up on August 4. I’ll give you a report. Indiana Jones, also running at the Tropic this week, is another of the nominees. Who said the Tropic was an elitist theater?

Not forgetting its core audience, however, they’re showing SANGRE DE MI SANGRE, winner of the 2008 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Goya Award (Spanish Oscar) for Best Spanish Foreign Film. This thriller from first-time director Christopher Zalla, follows two undocumented Mexican immigrant boys on the gritty, mean streets of New York. Pedro has come to find his father, who he thinks is a well-to-do restaurant owner. Juan is posing as Pedro to reap the supposed benefits, and finds the father first, but the tension builds as Pedro continues his quest.

This week’s Monday night classic is from Hitchcock, the 1950 film STAGE FRIGHT. Starring Jane Wyman, the newly ex-wife of Ronald Regan and Marlene Detrich, it’s one of the master’s lesser-known films, but there’s never a really bad Hitchcock.

For some real summer fun, check out the Tropic’s Friday night special event, Rick’s Movie Madness. At ten p.m. there will be a live taping of this new WGAY-TV show. Rick shows guaranteed, certified bad films accompanied by a sniping, informative and downright funny commentary. Check it out at and come see the live taping of CHAINED FOR LIFE, the story of a Siamese twin who kills her husband, and the dilemma of how to treat her innocent sister.. It stars the real-life Siamese side-show performers Daisy and Violet Hilton. Where does Rick find this stuff?

Oh, and don’t miss UP THE YANGTZE, the documentary of the river environment soon to fall victim to the Three Gorges Dam. It’s held over for a second week by popular demand.

Full info at Send me your comments at
[Originally published in Key West, the Newspaper -]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Week of July 4 to July 10, 2008

What's On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic prides itself on showing “the best in new independent, foreign and documentary” films. That sounds pretty good. Sometimes people refer to them as “art” films, which I suppose can be taken as a compliment. But not Hollywood. The label out there is “specialty” films. Not “special,” which would imply something better or greater (as in “she's a very special person”). But “specialty,” which suggests something of limited or narrow interest (as in “her specialty was geriatric neurology). To put it bluntly, we're a niche market.

I've been around long enough to watch some profound changes in this market. When I was in college in the fifties, the movie theater world was divided into the downtown first-run theaters that we couldn't afford on a student budget, a mass of second-run (or neighborhood) theaters which offered cheap double features, and a few quirky little places showing Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. I was hooked early on, and was proud to be challenged by The Seventh Seal, but when exam time came, the diversions of the the Hollywood double-features were the solace I needed. The world has changed a lot since then, and the niche market has expanded to almost a nook as American filmmakers have developed their skills.

But it's still a struggling little segment. The numbers are hard to pin down, but the best estimates are that maybe 10% of movie box office dollars go to specialty films. The future of that market is in flux as major studios have begun to close down their specialty divisions (arrivederci, Warner Independent; sayonara, Picture House). The independent films are still being made, in alarming numbers now that digital filming and home computers have chopped the costs, but without the marketing muscle of the studios it's hard to catch the public's attention.

The Tropic is up to this challenge. It is developing new sources of films and making sure it has the latest equipment to show digital media. But, in an adjustment that reminds me of my fifties exam-time slumming, they're showing a few major releases this summer. So kick back and enjoy the work of legendary filmmaker Stephen Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or TV's beloved femmes (Sex and the City), both showing this week.

If you'd like more meat on your cinema bones, the amazing documentary Up the Yangtze, picks up where last year's Manufactured Landscapes left off, taking you on a tour of the river and its environment that will disappear before the Three Gorges dam. Or check out the excellent new Monday night classics series. This week it's Orson Welles' The Stranger, about a sinister secret in a picture-perfect small town. Or, if you haven't seen it yet, catch an encore performance of The Return of the Key West Picture Show on Tuesday afternoon.

Full info at Comments always welcome at
[Originally published in Key West, the Newspaper --]