Thursday, August 28, 2008

Week of August 29 to Sept. 4 -- Phil Mann

What's On At The Tropic

by Phil Mann

If you're like me, you've gone loyally to the annual Woody Allen movie, always with the hope that the mastermind of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters would again let us find out about ourselves by watching others. That is the genius of fiction, in film as well as in literature, and no one can do it better than Woody when he's on target. And he is again, with VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Maybe it's the sultry Spanish setting, but the silly mysteries of his English period are a thing of the past.

Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall), as two American friends spending the summer in Barcelona, represent two poles of youthful aspiration. Cristina is the rebel looking for passion and Vicky the solid citizen looking for a stable future. On the male side, we have Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) the sexy artist, and Doug (Chris Messina) the successful MBA. And as the title suggests, a fifth major character is Spain, represented by Penelope Cruz, plus the Catalonian capital city (pronounced Barthelona, Ms. Cruz tells us in interviews) and rural Oviedo. Writer/Director Allen is no longer on screen, but an Allenesque narrator reminds who is really stirring this plot. The onscreen Woody Allen may have morphed into Ms. Johansson. She’s the one who can’t find herself. Well, actually no one can find themselves, none of the Americans at least. The Spaniards, who have had a few more centuries to look, seem to be a little closer to the solution, but they’re making a different mess of their lives.

I understand that the Spanish government offered Allen great financial incentives to film a movie there. If so, it's the best investment they ever made. There are, of course, no poor people, or even poorly furnished homes, in Woody Allen movies, and this is one is no exception. I'm going to book some tickets on Iberia as soon as I finish this column.

Also opening this week is TELL NO ONE, the French crime thriller that swept this year’s Cesar awards. It's based on an American crime novel and, as some reviewers have noted, it seems like a Hitchcock movie dubbed in French. If you're an "I don't do subtitles" type, maybe this is the movie to make you get your reading glasses out. You'll be sitting on the edge of your seat anyhow. The setting is Paris, but unlike the Woody Allen movie, this is a real city rather than a travelogue fantasy.

So take your choice, get into your psyche while watching gorgeous Spain, or lose yourself in the non-tourist streets of Paris. There’s also a third choice, because the mean streets of Gotham city are also hanging around with the continuing run of THE DARK KNIGHT.

There’s a whole world at the Tropic, your cool summer haven.

Jules and Jim (Rhoades)

‘Jules and Jim” Is Three-Way Delight on Monday Night

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
LPTV’s Mary Sparacio is at it again this coming Monday night, continuing her showings of old classics at the Tropic Cinema. This time around she’s pulled out a 1962 masterpiece called “Jules and Jim,” a perfect example of French New Wave filmmaking by François Truffaut.

Described in as “the audacious apotheosis of the French New Wave,” Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” represents a new (at the time) language of cinema, one that incorporated newsreel footage, photographs, freeze frame, dolly shots, wipes, and voiceover narration. Some shots used cameras mounted on bicycles.

This is a film that epitomizes that French phrase ménage à trois. Here is the story of a three-way love affair between – as the title implies – a shy writer named Jules, his outgoing friend Jim, plus a free-spirited young woman named Catherine.

These Bohemians carry on a mix-and-match relationship that spans 20 years, from Belle Epoch to Great Depression, those periods that bracket World War I.

Although the film is named after the two men, the woman is in fact the dominant character. Jeanne Moreau is perfectly cast as the charmer who reminds them of a statue they once saw. Oskar Werner is Jules; Henri Serre is Jim.

These characters were supposedly based on avant-garde artist Beatrice Wood’s triangular relationship with painter Marcel Duchamp and writer Henri-Pierre Roché. Truffaut based the film on a book written late in life by Roché. Beatrice Woods once commented, “I cannot say what memories or episodes inspired Roché, but the characters bear only passing resemblance to those of us in real life!”

Such is fiction, such is film. [from Solares Hill]

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Rhoades)

‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ Is Latter-Day Woody Allen

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My wife refuses to see Woody Allen movies because she disapproves of his marriage to his Korean stepdaughter. She doesn’t buy that “the heart wants what it wants” excuse when hurtful to others.

Me, being from the live-and-let-live school of life, I don’t care how Allan Stewart Konigsberg screws up his personal relationships. I like his films. Well, his funny ones.

Being good at compartmentalization, I can easily separate an actor from his movie roles, and a director’s works from how he conducts his life.

I suspect I’m on morally mushy ground here, but there you have it. I couldn’t wait to see “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” – the new Woody Allen romantic comedy that opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

Rather than the name of one strange character, the film’s title refers to two sisters – Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (this one’s Scarlett Johansson) – who go on a holiday to Barcelona.

The two girls are at very different stages in their lives.

“Vicky has a plan ahead of her,” says Hall. “She’s getting married, she’s getting her Master’s, she’s moving out of the city, and she’s going to have babies. She feels that everything is falling into place as expected.”

However, her sister’s life is at loose ends. “Cristina is kind of a wandering lost soul,” says Johansson. “She’s aimless and doesn’t really know what she wants. She’s exploring her youth with no responsibility and coasting wherever the road takes her.”

Woody Allen specifically had the city of Barcelona in mind as the film’s setting. “When I began writing the script, I wasn’t thinking of anything other than creating a story that had Barcelona as a character,” he claims. “It’s a city full of visual beauty and the sensibility of the city is quite romantic. A story like this could only happen in a place like Paris or Barcelona.”
There, the girls become enamored with a painter (a lighthearted role for new Oscar-winner Javier Bardem), unmindful that his hotheaded ex-wife (Bardem’s real-life girlfriend Penélope Cruz) isn’t quite willing to let him go.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. It’s about life choices.

Although Allen wrote and directed this messy little love poem, he doesn’t star in it, seemingly fazing himself out of his acting career as he gets older. That’s perhaps a wise box-office choice, for at age 72 he’d be nearly 50 years older than his two leading ladies. (Note: He’s 35 years older than his wife Soon-Yi, an age spread he apparently considers more appropriate for a fixation with younger women.)

Gee, we should’ve seen it coming. His movies are often semi-autobiographical. For example, in “Manhattan” he was an older guy lusting after a teenaged Mariel Hemingway – granddaughter of Key West’s most famous writer.

These days Woody seems to be fond of Scarlett Johansson, this being his third movie starring the young actress.

Allen’s filmography includes more than 40 movies in all. He considers “Match Point,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and “Stardust Memories” to be his best efforts.

However, most people designate “Annie Hall” as his masterpiece. American Film Institute picked it as one of the 100 Best Movies – and the fourth best comedy – ever made. It won him two of his three Academy Awards, the other coming for his family-at-odds film “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Despite his attempts at making serious films inspired by the works of Ingmar Berman, fans liked the neurotic comedies best. He lamented that fact in the Fellini-esque “Stardust Memories,” where people keep telling his character, a successful filmmaker, that they appreciate his work, “especially the early, funny ones.”

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” isn’t one of the early, funny ones. More a light romantic comedy in keeping with “Scoop” or “Anything Else.”

When my friend Julie married a Hollywood insider, Woody Allen’s executive producer Charles Joffe showed up at the pre-wedding party. I got a chance to chat with him. He told me that Woody had planned to come, but still suffered from bouts of agoraphobia, despite thirty years of three-times-a-week psychoanalysis.

“Why doesn’t he make funny movies anymore?” I incautiously asked. Just idle cocktail-party conversation.

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” his producer warned. “He thinks his films are funny.”
I guess it’s a somewhat subjective concept. Just like an appropriate age differences between couples. [from Solares Hill]

Tell No One (Rhoades)

Tell Everyone About ‘Tell No One’

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
My pal Sandy and I swap mystery novels – John Sanford, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, J. A. Jance, David Baldacci, and the like.

Recently he sent me a book by Harlan Coben, a writer new to me. Seems Coben is best known for a series of mysteries about a sports agent who solves crimes. A quick read, I polished it off in one night.

I liked it well enough that I picked up a Harlan Coben paperback to read on a recent trip. Titled “Tell No One,” it was a taut little thriller about a pediatrician accused of being a serial killer. A real page-turned.

This was Coben’s first stand-alone novel since starting the other series. And it was a winner. “Tell No One” has turned out to be the bestseller of all his 17 novels to date.
Little did I know it was being made into a movie by French director Guillaume Canet.
‘Tell No One’ (French title: “Ne le dis à personne”) opens today at the Tropic Cinema. If you like mysteries, you’ll like it.

The plots of Coben’s novels “often involve the resurfacing of unresolved or misinterpreted events in the past (such as murders, fatal accidents, etc.) and often have multiple plot twists.”

And “Tell No One” is true to form.

In the book, the main characters are David Beck and his wife Elizabeth, but in writing the screenplay Canet changed the names to make them sound more Gallic. And New York locales were smoothly transitioned to Paris and its environs.

Dr. Alexandre Beck (very ably played by François Cluzet) is a French pediatrician whose wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) was brutally murdered some eight years ago. Although a serial killer was arrested, the man maintained that Margot wasn’t one of his victims. Haunted by his wife’s memory, Alex throws himself into his work.

But when two new victims turn up, the police reopen the case and focus on Alex. Even though he professes his innocence, there’s ample evidence pointing to him as the killer.

The mystery increases when Alex receives a strange e-mail with a video link showing Margot to be alive. The message warns him to tell no one, because they are being watched.
Alex’s sister (Marina Hands) persuades her girlfriend Hélène (Kristin Scott Thomas) to hire a high-powered attorney (Nathalie Baye) to defend him. But when a friend is murdered Alex goes on the run, trying to uncover the truth about his dead wife’s reappearance – as well as prove his innocence.

Is his wife really alive? Who killed his friend? Who tried to abduct him. Who is behind this?

It’s an edge-of-your-seat Hitchcockian thriller – a classic “wrong man” plot, complete with suspense, humor, and heart-pounding chase sequences.

In addition to being thriller, this is a story of loss and redemption. And it’s the melancholy of lost love that gives this film its haunting atmosphere.

Notice that the man who follows Beck in the station is a cameo by author Harlan Coben himself. And director Guillaume Canet, also well known as an actor in France, appears as a key character called Philippe Neuville.

The film did quite well with France’s César Awards, winning four: Best Director for Guillaume Canet, Best Actor for François Cluzet, Best Editing for Hervé de Luze, and Best Music Written for a Film for Matthieu Chedid. It also was nominated in five other categories.

Truth told, I liked the movie even better than the book. [from Solares Hill]

Friday, August 22, 2008

Week of August 22 to 28 -- Phil Mann

What’s On at the Tropic
By Phil Mann

The Tropic completes its Superhero Trifecta this week with the opening of the new Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT. Iron Man was a Techno Terror, surmounting evil with alloys and clean energy sources. Think Barack Obama. Hellboy is the King of Creatures, battling vast forces of evil emerging from a netherworld almost by force of his personality and some quips. He’s a brawler. Think John McCain.

And now we have the latest edition of Batman. He’s got the riches of Iron Man and some great gadgets, plus the cahones of Hellboy without his sense of humor. But unlike the other two, who deal with worldwide conspiracies, this Batman is just fighting an urban crime wave, and verges on evil himself in dealing with evil. Think Rudy Giuliani, I’d say.

I’m not the one to assess these movies, however. For an expert opinion I turn to my 17-year-old consultant, who provides this report on two of his summer favorites:

“Batman and Iron Man, two major summer blockbusters, are tough to compare. The Dark Knight is a dark, chilling epic, while Iron Man is a special effects packed movie filled with comedic lines. Both feature all-star casts and were number one in the box office. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark both are billionaires who use their spare time to fight crime.
The Dark Knight looks deeply into what makes a hero and the limits of the law, making Christian Bale into a rogue hero. Heath Ledger’s posthumous performance as the Joker is disturbing and frightening. It features all the big explosions and hi-tech gadgets expected of it, without seeming too far-fetched. Iron Man is a much more light-hearted movie with many funny lines and quips. Robert Downey Jr. is a much more likeable character than the brooding renegade, Batman. Iron Man features many more CGI effects and more complex, futuristic technology. In my opinion both movies receive 5 stars.”

Isn’t it time for a Hillary Clinton superhero, something beyond Lynda Carter, for this new generation of stylistic and even profound uber-characters? There’s no shortage of material, as the Wikipedia listing for Superheroines makes clear. ( Hollywood, wake up. You’ll have a guy movie and a chick-flick rolled into one!

Just to keep us grounded, the Tropic’s other new film this week is the story of a true super hero. CHILDREN OF THE HUANG SHI is set in China in 1937 as the Japanese army is overrunning the country. It tells the story of a young Englishman, George Hogg, who became responsible for the children of an orphanage and led them to safety with a trek across snow-bound mountains to the edge of the Gobi Desert, a movie that reminds that ordinary humans can do wondrous things. Why do make-believe heroes always seem to be more entertaining that real-life ones, and more enjoyable? I suspect it’s because characters like George Hogg make us feel guilty or inadequate, forcing us to confront our selves, while Batman or Iron Man are guys that let us escape from our drab selves. [published in Key West, the newspaper -]

Children of the Huang Shi (Rhoades)

‘Children of Huang Shi’ Makes
Its Journey at the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Roger Spottiswoode – a distant relation to Key West’s Spottswood family – directed “Children of Huang Shi,” a moving war drama set in China that opens today at the Tropic Cinema.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who has amazed us with his diverse performances as both Elvis and Henry VIII) plays an English journalist named George Hogg, who along with an Australian nurse saved sixty orphaned children during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. Radha Mitchell (you’ve seen her in films as varying as “Silent Hill” and “Finding Neverland”) portrays the courageous young nurse.
Yun-Fat Chow (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Michelle Yeoh (“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) are aptly cast as the Chinese partisans who join Hogg on this incredible thousand-mile journey across the snow-bound Liu Pan Shan mountains to the safety of the Mongolian desert at the western edge of the Great Wall.
Aside from being a thrilling wartime adventure, keep in mind that this film is based on a true story. It actually happened. So this is not just a made-up morality play, but a piece of history that in fact reaffirms of the goodness of man.
Here, a hardboiled journalist and an unsentimental nurse discover their capacity for love and responsibility to others.
“Children of Huang Shi” marks the first official co-production between China and Australia. In Australia the film is titled “Children of the Silk Road,” while in Singapore it’s known as “Escape From Huang Shi.”
These awesome mountain and desert regions of interior China have been rarely filmed. And talk about “a cast of thousands,” some 10,000 extras were hired for the movie’s sweeping crowd scenes.
Go see it. It’s a lesson in the true meaning of courage. [originally published in Solares Hill]

Brideshead Revisited (Rhoades)

Revisiting ‘‘Brideshead Revisited’
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1981, people of literate tastes tuned to PBS to watch a British-made television miniseries called “Brideshead Revisited.” Based on a 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh (he considered it his “magnum opus”), it is a period piece about a group of upperclass Brits at Brideshead, a large country estate in Yorkshire.
The television production starred such fine actors as Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Diana Quick, Jane Asher, and John Gielgud.
My old friend Tom Wolfe (he was a contributor to Harper’s Magazine when I was associate publisher there) wrote that the series had been successful in the US because it was a “plutography” – that is, a graphic depiction of the lives of the rich.
Keep in mind, this was during the ’80s, a period designated by Wolfe as the Me Decade. And television was marked by such popular fare as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and the fairy tale wedding of Charles and Diana.
The question: Are we ready – as the title implies – to revisit Brideshead? The answer apparently is “yes,” in that a new film version of “Brideshead Revisited” is currently at the Tropic Cinema.
Like the TV series, the film tells the story of forbidden love and a loss of innocence in pre-WWII England. It’s presented as the memoir of Captain Charles Ryder, a man drawn to the Brideshead estate and its resident Flyte family, especially Sebastian whom he meets at Oxford and sister Julia with whom he becomes infatuated.
This triangular relationship can be seen as a metaphor that reflects the decline of a decadent period in English history.
Of course, we have an entirely new cast: Matthew Goode (“Match Point”) as social climber Charles, Ben Whishaw (“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) as charming Sebastian, and Hayley Atwell (“Cassandra’s Dream”) as sophisticated Julia. Plus two-time Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (“Howard’s End,” “Sense and Sensibility”) as Lady Marchmain.
Directed by Julian Jarrold (“Becoming Jane”), it’s a brave attempt at trying to recapture magic in a bottle.
That’s a tall order. As one film fan put it, “It’s outrageous that its producers even bothered to do a new screen version of this drama ... since it would be nearly impossible to match the hosannas that surrounded the acclaimed TV miniseries.”
The original ranked tenth among the 100 Greatest British Television Programs in a list compiled by the British Film Institute. It even placed as seventh best Masterpiece Theater episode, even though it wasn’t actually part of that series, having been broadcast on PBS in its Great Performances telecasts.
Obviously trying to draw on the cachet of the TV series, the movie also used Castle Howard in North Yorkshire as the Brideshead location.
Time Magazine has included Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on its list of “All-Time 100 Novels.” And the TV miniseries is ranked by International Movie Database viewers as the 14th most popular film or television title set in the 1930s.
I doubt this remake will end up ranking that well among similar period films. In fact, a quick glance at IMDb shows it currently at 291. If you disagree, go to and cast your own vote. After all, this is an election year! [originally published in Solares Hill]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Dark Knight (Rhoades)

‘Dark Knight’ Is Darker Take On DC’s Caped Crusader
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Having been a consultant to DC Comics, I’m particularly fond of that superhero who has no superpowers, Batman. Traumatized as a kid by witnessing his parents’ murder, he grew up to become what some describe as a psychotic vigilante.
Sure, he fights bad guys. But as the Harvey Dent character says in the new “The Dark Knight” movie, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
“The Dark Knight” – the summer’s hottest comic book movie – is currently playing at Key West’s Tropic Cinema.
My friend Ski who is director of publishing operations at DC Comics reported that “the buzz is over the top. ‘Best superhero movie ever’ stuff. Word in the hallways is that “The Dark Knight” will redefine what a superhero movie should be!”
He said that the DC staff got an advance look at the movie, a giant-screen IMAX showing in New York.
“Wow!” was Ski’s one-word review.
We all know that Batman is really billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Forbes Magazine lists Wayne as the seventh richest fictional character, attributing most of his wealth to real estate investments in Gotham City. I only wish my Key West real estate was doing as well!
The Batman character made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (May1939). Note: Detective Comics is the basis for the publisher’s shortened name, DC.
Bob Kane is recognized as Batman’s creator. Although Kane got all the credit, he actually was assisted in this task by writer Bill Finger and inker Jerry Robinson.
As Robinson recalls, “Bob was given the assignment to come up with a character to compete with Superman … Bob immediately went back and called Bill to help him create the character and flesh out the concept and write the story.”
Bill Finger made several tweaks to the character (who was originally called “the Bat-Man”) such as changing the demi-mask to a bat-eared cowl and substituting a cape for the initial wings.
“Bob took it down to DC and signed up and presented himself as the sole creator. Nobody knew anything about Bill or myself until later on ….” says Robinson.
Batman got campy in the ’60s. The influence of that Bam! Pow! television show based on the Caped Crusader and his sidekick Robin.
Then Batman got rehabbed in the ’80s when Frank Miller (“Sin City,” “300”) did a new take on him, a darker more nihilistic view titled “The Dark Knight Returns.”
It was a turning point in comic book history. As I argue in my recent textbook, “A Complete History of American Comic Books,” the so-called Modern Age of Comics began in 1986 with the publication of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.”
We’re all familiar with those earlier Batman movies, Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin.” (I’m deliberately ignoring that campy spinoff of the TV show, “Batman: The Movie,” as well as those two b/w cliffhanger serials back in the ’40s.)
Burton’s versions launched a film franchise, but “Batman & Robin” (considered the worst superhero movie) killed it.
After waiting a decent time, DC’s parent company Warner Bros. (both are part of Time Warner) rebooted the franchise in 2005 with “Batman Begins,” selecting actor Christian Bale for the title role. Perhaps they felt that the star of 2000’s “American Psycho” was the perfect choice to play a character Frank Miller described as having a “psychotic sublimative/psycho-erotic behavior pattern.”
Harvey Dent: You’re Alfred, right?
Alfred the Butler: Yeah.
Harvey Dent: (about Rachel) Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?
Alfred: You have no idea.
“The Dark Knight” is the second in Bale’s reign as the Caped Crusader. Its darker, grittier sensibility is in keeping with Frank Miller’s defining take on DC’s second most popular superhero. Superman still being numero uno.
However, director Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins,” “Memento”) credits a story arc known as “Batman: The Long Halloween” – written by my old pal Jeph Loeb – as the movie’s inspiration.
Nolan also says he was influenced by “Heat,” the Al Pacino/Robert De Niro cops-and-robbers movie in telling “a very large city story.”
This new tale features Batman’s nemesis, an equally crazed malefactor known as the Joker. Yes, this is Heath Ledger’s last role – and his is a subtler, more sinister take on the supervillain than Jack Nicholson’s cackling hyena in Burton’s “Batman.”
As Ledger’s Joker says, “This city deserves a better class of criminal and I’m gonna give it to them.”
In the previous film we had Katie Holmes as Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes. Here we have Maggie Gyllenhaal as Katie’s replacement, proving the actresses to be as interchangeable as two Barbie Dolls.
(On an ironic note, Maggie’s brother Jake Gyllenhaal was Marvel Studio’s threatened replacement for Tobey Maguire when salary negations for “Spider-Man II” broke down. Maguire quickly came around.)
Back to “The Dark Knight,” you’ll enjoy the characters. Perfectly cast is Michael Caine as Alfred, the English butler who sees to Bruce Wayne’s needs, whether it’s answering the door or polishing the Batmobile.
And this time around Aaron Eckhart takes on the role of district attorney Harvey Dent, a/k/a Two Face. Before transforming into his sinister alter ego, Dent competes with Bruce Wayne for Rachel. This rivalry between them serves as the “backbone” of this film.
Gary Oldman coasts along as Batman’s ally, Lt. Gordon. Eric Roberts plays the over-the-top mobster Salvadore Maroni. Michael Jai White is a gang leader at war with Maroni. Cillian Murphy returns as the former director of Arkham Asylum, now becoming the villain known as Scarecrow. Anthony Michael Hall is newsman Mike Engel. And omnipresent Morgan Freeman turns up again as Lucius Fox, newly promoted CEO of Wayne Enterprises.
Sorry, but no Boy Wonder in this movie.
“The Dark Knight” will likely set some summer box office records. All you fanboys and –girls out there will definitely want to see it.
As the Joker says when he and his thugs break into a Gotham City ballroom: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re tonight's entertainment.”
True enough. [originally published in Solares Hill]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Week of August 15 to 21 -- Phil Mann

What’s On at the Tropic?
By Phil Mann

For the second time this summer, we have a movie based on a television series that was based on a book. It’s a tough setup, especially when the series is so beloved it has attained an iconic status. Sex and the City suffered, unfairly in my judgment, at the pens of critics because of this. And now Brideshead Revisited is coming in for some of the same treatment.

Here’s some advice for those churlish critics. Get over your nostalgia for your mother’s Brideshead, filmed in 16mm for a little screen, and get ready for the full, lush period-piece treatment. The primary location is still the jaw-dropping 300-year-old Castle Howard in York, but its overpowering presence takes on new meaning on the big 35mm screen, and the multiple themes – class, religion, ambition, and now, clearly, homosexuality – richly inhabit the two-plus-hour-long film. This “lush, bold, intellectual treatment of the Evelyn Waugh novel about Catholicism and nonconformity, … ventures where the fabled '80s miniseries couldn't,” observes Newsday. The Anglophilic among you will swoon with pleasure, and the Anglophobes can take pleasure in seeing just how awful British society could be. You just must have a glass of sherry with this one, dear.

At the other extreme is Gonzo, the documentary life of Hunter Thompson. The filmmaker here is Alex Gibney, best known for his exposes of corporate greed (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and American torture (Taxi to the Dark Side). Working with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as his producer, Gibney has given us an affectionate portrait of Thompson and his multifaceted world. If you want an idea of Thompson’s unique genius, take a look at some of his insights on (a great source), for example:

“The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives“ written on 9/12/2001. 

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

“Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can't be objective about Nixon.” [update, if you wish] 

It’s time to say a word about the person who makes sure your wine is properly chilled and your popcorn selected from only the finest cornfields. Lori Reid is the concessions manager and resident jane-of-all-trades who does more than you can imagine to keep the place humming. Like making sure the printers have ink, and debugging the box-office software. Her most important role is recruiting and organizing the team of volunteers who punch out the tickets and serve up the treats. Next time you’re at the theater wave to Lori. You can’t miss her hearty laugh and constant helpful presence.

The theater is also showing Mamma Mia! this week, and the Tyrone Power-Gene Tierney classic from 1948, That Wonderful Urge. So take break and get out of the house.

Full info and schedules at Comments to
[originally published in Key West, the Newspaper --]

"Gonzo" (Rhoades)

‘Gonzo’ Puts Hunter Thompson
In the Middle of the Story

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Hunter Thompson – the famous gonzo journalist – was a frequent visitor to Key West, where he liked to hang out with his pal Jimmy Buffet.

In fact, you’ll see Jimmy commenting on his friendship with the late writer in “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” the fascinating new documentary that opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

Thompson’s story begins long before Key West, dwelling on those days when he was hanging out with the Hell’s Angels for a book about the notorious motorcycle gang. Running for sheriff in Aspen. And supporting McGovern for president.

Here you’ll witness Jann Wenner, founding publisher of Rolling Stone, shedding a tear for his late friend and contributor. You’ll even get a glimpse of Thompson’s wild-man antics, as he merrily chases Wenner around the magazine office.

Other interviews include Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, and Johnny Depp.

Also, you’ll hear from writer Tom Wolfe, who shares memories about the man credited with inventing gonzo journalism, a style of involving yourself in the story that Wolfe himself practiced.

Thompson’s literary high point was the publication of his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” a phrase that became his trademark – whether writing about social issues or his one-sided view of politics. (His other trademarks were a gold-tipped cigarette holder and those RAF-style sunglasses.)

Both his first wife Sandy and second wife Anita are here, speaking well of the man who made their lives a crazy, sometime-dangerous adventure.

You’ll learn about Thompson’s fascination with guns and preoccupation with death, a precursor to his eventual suicide. (Ironic that he’d once traveled to Ketchum, Idaho, to search out the reasons behind Hemingway’s suicide for a proposed article.)

All that said, I’ve got a bone to pick with Dr. Thompson’s ghost. While the term Gonzo was first used in 1970 to describe his participatory style of journalism, I was already writing articles where I was part of the story back in the mid-60s. As a feature writer with the Florida Times-Union, I did hundreds of stories from a personal viewpoint. My clippings include such pieces as “I Was the World’s Worst Waiter,” where I passed myself off as a inept employee of a local restaurant, or “I Passed as a High School Student,” where I infiltrated Terry Parker High. For these first-person articles I went flying with the world’s oldest glider pilot, chased submarines with Navy flyboys, attended therapy sessions inside Raiford State Prison.

But don’t credit me, it was my kindly ol’ editor who gave me these assignments.
And come to think of it, even before my time Gloria Steinem was posing as a Playboy bunny to get an inside scoop.

None of this is to take anything away from Hunter Thompson. He was a masterful self-promoter. And a heck of a deliberately-non-objective journalist. Back when I was associate publisher at Harper’s Magazine, with Tom Wolfe as one of my contributing editors, I could hear the wary admiration in Tom’s voice whenever he mentioned his old colleague.

Yes, you’ll like this documentary by Alex Gibney, a 118-minute profile of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson that – once again – puts him smack in the middle of the story.

"Mamma Mia" (Rhoades)

‘Mamma Mia’ Is
ABBA-solutely Marvelous

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I’ll let you in on a secret: You can often get into sold-out Broadway shows if you turn up at the box office ten minutes before curtain time. They sell off the unclaimed and canceled reservations for half price.

That’s what I did a few weeks ago as I was walking past the Winter Garden Theater in New York where the long-running hit “Mamma Mia” was playing. What a nice matinee it was, with all that happy ABBA music and a vibrant live performance. Yes, people were dancing in the aisles.

But I have to admit, I preferred the movie version – opening today at the Tropic Cinema.
Why? In a word (or two): Meryl Streep.

It’s a role – that of a free-spirited mother who runs a small hotel on a Greek island – she seems born to play. Showing her acting range, this is as opposite her uptight editor role in “The Devil Wears Prada” as you could possibly get.

The plot’s loosely based on a 1968 movie called “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”: In this new version, the hotelkeeper’s soon-to-be-married daughter invites three of her mother’s old beaux to the wedding, knowing that one of them is likely to be her father.

As the title says, Mamma Mia!

Amanda Seyfried (“Alpha Dog”) is delightful as the daughter in search of a dad. And Pierce Brosnan (that former 007 smoothie), Colin Firth (“Then She Found Me”), and Stellan Skarsgard (“Amistad”) are perfect as the three bewildered old boyfriends. Add Julie Walters (“Becoming Jane”) and Christine Baranski (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) as Streep’s best gal pals and you have the cast – except for prospective groom Dominic Cooper (“The Escapist”) and all those wonderful background singers and dancers.

Of course, the movie (and play) is built around the ’70s hits of Swedish pop group ABBA. The group’s name is an acronym formed from the first letters of each member’s given name (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad).

Yes, you’ll hear your favorite tunes: “Honey, Honey,” “SOS,” “Voulez-Vous,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Does Your Mother Known,” “The Winner Takes It All,” and many others – including “Mamma Mia!”

This is what’s known as a “jukebox musical,” a story woven around previously released popular songs.

Meryl Streep – as all the cast – does her own singing. I’d nearly forgotten her performance as a country singer in “Postcard from the Edge” and how good her voice sounds. Pierce Brosnan’s warbling is little rough, but charmingly enthusiastic. And pretty Amanda Seyfried performs like a songbird.

Stay for the credits and you’ll be treated to a concert-like performance by these aging hippies in full Elvis regalia, a lively rendition of “Dancing Queen” with Meryl Streep as the terpsichorean diva.

You’ll walk out of the theater humming the songs. And trust me, the movie’s a lot cheaper than a Broadway ticket – even at half price!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Week of August 8-15 - Shirrel Rhoades

by Shirrel Rhoades

‘Savage Grace’ Plays Like a Vanity Fair Exposé 
Once I went to see a movie just because the ad promised: “Sex. Murder. Betrayal.” That offered three out of three good reasons to see a movie, I thought.
Turns out that movie was “The Crying Game,” and yes I was surprised by the shocker dénouement, although all my gay and women friends saw it coming from a mile away.
Now, here’s a movie — “Savage Grace” — that Rolling Stone describes as “Money, madness, incest and murder! Just the recipe for a twisted mesmerizer of a movie, if it doesn’t creep you out.” How could I not be drawn to such a promise? You can see it too. “Savage Grace” is opening today at the Tropic Cinema.
No, it’s not about crossdressing Irish hairdressers who harbor IRA defectors. Rather, “Savage Grace” tells the true story of a woman who married above her class, only to have things turn out horribly bad.
The woman (played by Julianne Moore) weds a wealthy plastics manufacturer (Stephen Dillane), has a child (Eddie Redmayne), gets bored. Being no match for her well-bred hubby, she grows closer to her son. That’s when things start to go off the tracks. (Rolling Stone did promise us “Money, madness, incest and murder!” — remember?)
And didn’t I mention that this is a true story, the wealthy couple being Brooks and Barbara Baekeland, scions of the Bakelite plastics empire?
“Savage Grace” is based on a bestselling book of the same name, a page-turner by Natalie Robins and Steven M. Aronson. It’s been described as “so juicy … and crazy.”
Julianne Moore first heard about the book at a cocktail party where everybody was buzzing about its shocking frankness and candor. Apparently, Barbara Baekeland talked openly with her friends about sleeping with her son.
“Everybody knew everything and people did nothing,” says Moore. “If this were a fiction, I think you’d feel like it was just sort of salacious. Like, come on, really? But what is compelling about it is that it actually happened, and it seems so outside of what we are capable of. But in fact, we’re capable of almost anything.”
Such as incest and murder.
“In a way, this is a cautionary tale,” says the actress. “You see these very rich people with no boundaries. They have no job, they have no purpose, they have nothing to do, they have no focus. And their focus shifts to one another. They seek this incredible stimulation, because they’re not getting any stimulation in how they’re interacting with the world. So they seek sexual stimulation and stimulation with drugs … all this kind of stuff that happens to these people who have too much.”
Moore attributes Barbara Baekeland’s deviant behavior to living in a “wealthy, debauched environment.”
She should talk. Not only is Julianne Moore a successful Oscar nominated actress, she’s picked up some big bucks as the celebrity redhead in Revlon’s ad campaign, sharing the cosmetic spotlight with Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Kate Bosworth.
Yet by all accounts Julianne Moore leads a fairly normal life. Although she built her career on playing characters undergoing psychological meltdowns — such as the allergic housewife in “Safe,” the unfaithful spouse in “Magnolia,” or the troubled mother in “The Hours” — she has a perfectly nice husband that she’s been with for 12 years and two lovely children.
However, signing the cosmetics contract with Revlon gave her the financial stability that allows her to appear in low-budget independent films like “Savage Grace.” According to boxofficemojo. com, the film has taken in considerably less than a million dollars in worldwide grosses, certainly not enough to cover its production costs. Or big star salaries.
Director Tom Kalin may not make blockbusters, but he proved his ability to handle lurid, true-crime stories with “Swoon,” his 1992 film about the notorious Leopold-Loeb case.
And being about a society murder, “Savage Grace” is right up his alley — a film that one critic called “an eerie, unsettling, uniquely creepy experience.”
Julianne Moore laughs nervously. “This movie makes my (previous) dark stuff look like comedy. I mean, this is really dark. As an actor, you can’t approach it other than to say she was a real person … She was probably a sociopath, but she was a person, so it’s my responsibility to make her ... human.”
Being a mother herself, Moore is quick to add, “She couldn’t be further away from me … I don’t have to identify with the character. I never identify with my characters. I have to bring their behavior to light, but I don’t worry something could happen to me because I’m pretending.”
She points out, “There’s a huge difference between empathy and identification. I think people confuse the two; they think in order to play a character, you must identify with them. And you don’t. You just have to empathize with them to be in that situation.”
And that’s “Savage Grace,” asking you to empathize with a woman described by her friends as “this monstrously narcissistic, boundaryless person.” It may be a stretch for some audiences. But if you subscribe to Vanity Fair and read Dominick Dunne’s books, this may be a film for you.

‘Roman de Gare’ Is Like a Summer Read
I don’t have to tell you members of the Literary Society that roman de gare is the French term for a trashy beach novel. An entertaining fiction.
Being it’s the beach reading season I was eager to see “Roman de Gare” — the new film by Claude Lelouch opening today at the Tropic Cinema.
Lelouch, you will recall, is the French director who gave us such classics as “Un Homme et Une Femme” (“A Man and a Woman”) and “Toute Une Vie” (“And Now My Love”). But because critics trashed his recent “Genre Humain” films, he initially released “Roman de Gare” under a pseudonym.
Somehow that seems fitting, for no one in this taut thriller is who he or she seems to be.
The plot oozes with deception: A writer of glossy fiction (Fanny Ardant) tries her hand at a true literary novel. But just as she begins to revel in the novel’s critical acclaim, a man (Dominique Pinon) comes forward claiming to be her ghostwriter, the true author of the book. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman (Audrey Dana) who has been dumped by her fiancé winds up hiring the supposed ghostwriter to pose as her boyfriend when she goes to visit her parents.
Lelouch leaves his audience to wrestle with questions of identity. Is the man really the book’s ghostwriter? Or is he a schoolteacher who deserted his family? Or perhaps he’s actually a serial killer known as the Magician, called that because he uses magic tricks to lure his teenage victims?
Could he possibly be all three?
No spoilers here, but I promise Lelouch will keep you guessing.
The twisty storyline jumps around in time, giving us clues about dead bodies and neurotic hairdressers. Be forewarned that the impish director plants red herrings throughout the picture, teasing his audience, a deliberate cat-and-mouse game designed to throw moviegoers off the scent.
Typical Lelouch. His style is often marked by stories within stories, time shifting, and a degree of audience participation.
Even the dialogue is riddled with puns and double meanings, although much of it is lost in translation with this subtitled film. (Lelouch once said, “English … it’s a tough language for the French, we phrase things completely different.”)
One reviewer used the magician wordplay to criticize Lelouch’s sleight-of-hand thriller (see, there I go, doing it myself):
“Shuffling storylines and shifting time frames, Lelouch empties out his bag of tricks, hoping viewers will be so entranced by his misdirections that they won’t notice the occasional cheat,” writes Sam Adams. “But the movie’s bubbly charms start to fizzle as the layers peel back. Lelouch is fine as long as he keeps his hands moving, but at the final flourish, he has nothing up his sleeves.”
The 70-year-old director shrugs off such put-downs. “One day I’ll make a film for the critics, when I have money to lose,” he says wryly.
Dominique Pinon makes an interesting leading man, with his “stepped-on face, scrawny beard and low key, insinuating manner.” However, the French seem to like that not-so-handsome look (witness Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Paul Belmondo). In the past Pinon has appeared in such grotesqueries as “Petits Mythes Urbains” (“Urban Myth Chillers”), “Le Bon, la Brute et les Zombies” (“The Good, the Bad and the Zombies”), and “Alien Resurrection,” although he did have a nice dramatic turn in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and delighted audiences with a small role in “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” (“Amelie”).
Audrey Dana is superb as the dumped fiancée who conspires with the ghostwriter. She was nominated for a French Oscar for this performance.
And Fanny Ardant holds her own, whether pleading her innocence in a police station or lounging on her yacht where a man may have drowned. For those film buffs out there, you should know that Ardant is legendary filmmaker François Truffaut’s widow.
In “Roman de Gare,” Claude Lelouch is clearly having fun with his audience. A pleasing puzzler.

‘Midnight Movie Madness’ 
Tapes at the Tropic
Back when I was a publishing exec in New York, I occasionally treated my staff to an afternoon at the movies as a morale booster. I’d buy the tickets, hand out bags of popcorn and humongous cups of cola, and give them the remainder of the afternoon off after we watched a summer blockbuster.
And being in the Big Apple, I’d sometimes take them to see the live taping of a TV show. We once went to Geraldo Rivera’s talk show and several of my staff got interviewed on camera.
Well, don’t feel left out. You can attend a live taping on your own (or with a gang of friends) right here in Key West at the Tropic Cinema.
Every second Friday of the month, WGAY-TV hosts the showing of a weirdo cult movie at the Tropic, complete with wisecracking commentator Rick Dery. And it’s taped for later broadcast on the local television channel.
Rick’s stolen a couple of pages out of late-night movie history, playing host to this ghoulish gathering à la Zacherley, Vampira, and Elvira. This outlandish event – termed Rick’s Midnight Movie Madness – takes place as the name implies from ten to midnight.
But rather than a horrorfest, we’re treated to an array of bad exploitation movies accompanied by Rick’s incisive comments. Thus, its kinship is much closer to Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult TV show created by Joel Hodgson that ran from 1988 to 1999. Bad B-grade movies were aired while the host and his robot companions made fun of them like a juvenile peanut gallery cutting up in front of you at the movie theater.
Rick doesn’t have a robot companion, unless you count Derek Karevicius, the director from WGAY-TV who keeps Rick on his toes with facts and anecdotes about these movies and their all-but-forgotten stars. And producer David Chesnet is usually lurking somewhere in the background.
Recent movie selections have included “Chained for Life,” “Road to Bali,” and “As the Clouds Roll By.”
Tonight, Rick will be watching (and making smart-aleck comments about) “The Wasp Woman,” a 1959 sci-fi movie that’s so bad it’s good.
This “classic” was directed by Roger Corman, master of ultra-low budget quickie films such as “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Brain Eaters,” “Big Bad Mama,” “Caged Heat,” and “The Wild Angels.” While best known as a producer of cheapie B-movies, he gave a start to the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and many other notables.
“The Wasp Woman” is both a B-movie and a bee movie. It tells the story of a cosmetics queen who develops a youth formula from a wasp enzyme, but fails to anticipate its side effects. Using herself as test subject, she begins turning into (as the title hints) a wasp woman as the dosage is increased.
This is typical of ’50s sci-fi movies, people turning into monsters due to a perversion of science. “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman,” “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “The Cyclops,” and “4D Man” are typical examples.
“The Wasp Woman” stars Susan Cabot, who appeared in a handful of Corman’s low-rent productions (“Machine-Gun Kelly,” “Carnival Rock,” etc.). This was her last film before returning to the legitimate theater in New York. She later died in a bizarre manner, which Rick will reveal to his cult-film audience.
The plot of “The Wasp Woman” is silly, the special effects tacky, and the acting not quite up to high-school level – making it an easy target for rapier-tongued Rick.
Rick’s Midnight Movie Madness has the fascination of passing a spectacular car wreck. You can’t avert your eyes.
In this case, you can be on the scene as the show is taped. Or catch it later on television.
Me, I’m going to be rubbernecking at the Tropic.
[originally published in Solares Hill -]

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Week of August 8 to 14 - Phil Mann

What's On At The Tropic?
by Phil Mann

What's with the French? They give us beautiful women on the screen: the matchless Catherine Deneuve, the lush Emmanuelle Beart, the gamin Audrey Tautou, the infamous Brigitte Bardot. I have a weakness for the lovely Isabelles, Huppert and Adjani. But the men: Well, there was Yves Montand. But Gérard Depardieu? And look whom we see today. In the last French film at the Tropic, Priceless, the bugged-eyed Gad Emaleh was Tautou's hearthrob. I don't know how these guys do it.

This French tradition continues this week in Roman De Gare, the twisting, turning thriller from the famed Claude Lelouch. This time it's Dominique Pinon, a scrawny, pushed-in face character with a lack of charm to match his physique, who's got the gorgeous Fanny Ardant eating out of his hand. No matter, it's the plot that counts here, as Pinon morphs his way through so many different characters you'll never guess where the story is going. No spoilers from me, but it is very satisfying to see a movie that features writing as the grandest profession.

Luckily for M. Pinon, he's far outstripped in the unattractive category this week by the eponymous lead in Hellboy. Despite his ghastly visage, Hellboy may be the most likable superhero in this summer of superheros. Unlike Iron Man or Batman, who are rich guys doing good, Hellboy is a blue-collar, cigar chomping, working class type, who happens to be able to do giant leaps and crush cars with his hands. This is Director Guillermo del Toro's second outing with Hellboy, and he brings the same visual and costuming panache to the movie that he perfected in last year's Pan's Labryinth. In an interview Del Toro put it this way: Hellboy is the kind of guy who'd rather be sitting on his couch watching television. But he had to get up to save the world.

These are only a couple of the broad selection being offered at the Tropic this week. For kids, there's a matinee every day of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, plus free Saturday matinee films. For nostalgia lovers, there's Tyrone Power and Loretta Young in the Monday night classic comedy Cafe Metropole. For Julianne Moore fans there's Savage Grace, true-story of the murder of Barbara Baekeland, a decadent American socialite living in Europe.

And for all you Norwegian film lovers, there's Reprise, a sharp and hilarious coming of age story about two young men vying to become the next great novelist. Reprise may be the best movie at the Tropic this week. With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 87, it's been acclaimed as “an exuberant, exhilaratingly playful testament to being young and hungry” (New York Times), and described as “Jules and Jim ... blended with A Hard Day's Night." (Baltimore Sun). So check out something different this week.... at the cool Tropic.

Full details and trailers at

Comments please, to

[Originally published in Key West, the Newspaper -]