Friday, December 26, 2008

Week of December 26 thru January 1 (Mann)

What’s On At The Tropic
By Phil Mann

The Big News at the Tropic this week is VALKYRIE, the new true story about a plot to kill Hitler featuring Tom Cruise. This movie seems to have been developed by the same team that made the B1 stealth bomber. It has become so ordinary for movies to circulate at festivals and be promoted with press screening and previews that we are accustomed to trolling the internet for reviews before setting off to the theater. But not for Valkyrie. There have been very few pre-release screenings, and even those pre-viewers have been asked to hold back on publishing full reviews. The film has been shipped to the Tropic in locked containers, with a secret combination that won’t be revealed until the last minute.

Why? The movie has a lot going for it. In addition to Cruise, director Bryan Singer of X-Men and Superman Returns fame, and the rest of the cast is a A-list of British actors like Tom Wilkinson. So why the secrecy? Cynics say it’s because the distributor wants to catch an audience with an advertising blitz before the real word gets out. But I’ve now learned enough about the movie that I can say with assurance that it’s going to be popular in its own right. There are naysayers who complain that the movie doesn’t have enough character development or adequately explore the moral dimension of the assassination plot. It’s “only a great thriller,” they say. Well…. okay, I’ll take that Christmas present.

It’s not easy to build suspense when everyone knows the ending. But the intrigue of how the plotters found each other, how they planned to do it, and what eventually happened, keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. You can get your own seat-edge at 416 Eaton St. The Tropic got the secret combination in time to open Valkyrie on Christmas Day, and it’ll be running all week.

Meanwhile, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, continues its buffo run. There’s plenty of suspense in this one, too, as Jamal Malik, an orphaned Mumbai street-urchin vies to win $20 million rupees in an Indian TV quiz show. Here, too, we have a master director, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), who knows how to build a story, to weave in action (even car chases), and also to create a character we can’t help but love. Frank Rich in the New York Times calls it “the perfect fairy tale for our hard times.”

Of course, you’ve got kids home over Christmas, so you’re looking for some child-friendly entertainment. Slumdog won’t do, because it’s got some nasty stuff and an R rating. Valkyrie, rated PG-13, would be a good bet for older kids, with a little history lesson as a bonus. But for the youngsters, there’s a special animated treat, AZUR AND ASMAR: THE PRINCES’ QUEST. This “impossibly gorgeous medieval fairytale adventure” (Salon.com) and “dazzling feast of eye-popping animation” (Skymovies.com) is a quest adventure story, as two childhood friends (one rich and one poor) seek to find and free a captive princess. Time for the little folk to find out there’s more to animation than Disney! Azur and Asmar runs at matinee times all week. And of course on Saturday the regular series of free kids movies shows at 12:30.

Need some entertainment for really old kids? How about Vannessa Redgrave in HOW ABOUT YOU? Ms. Redgrave and a couple of her peers are the naughty ones in a British “residential home” who teach their young caregiver a few things. You know, a toke or two is all it takes.

Happy Holidays! Here’s to a great 2009!

Full info and schedules at TropicCinema.com.
Comments to pmann99@gmail.com
[from Key West, the Newspaper - www.kwtn.com]

Azur and Asmar (Rhoades)

‘Azur & Asmar’ Is Disney Fairytale Without Disney

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Movies have come a long way since 1944’s “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” – as has society.
Baghdad is no longer a mystical city filled with flying carpets and genies hiding in bottles, but instead it’s a tragic war zone.

Disney resurrected the flying carpet theme in 1992’s “Aladdin,” adding the magic touch of animation and Robin Williams as the voice of the big blue Genie.

Now we have “Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest” – a French animation film that draws on “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” as well as other folktales – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

At last, a kid’s movie for Christmas! And adults will marvel at the swirling colors and delightful animation too.

The visual style of “Azur & Asmar” was influenced by Persian miniatures, 16th Century Safavid art, French art, and early 15th Century Netherlandish paintings.
This delightful fantasy was written and directed by Michel Ocelot, who has given us such fairytale features as “The Impassive Princess,” “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “The Legend of the Poor Hunchback,” and “Princes and Princesses.”

This Gallic filmmaker is beating Disney at its own game – animated movies about princes and princesses.

When my friend Jackie worked for Disney Publishing, she phoned me from Walt Disney’s apartment on Main Street in Disneyland. She said they had been meeting to figure out what was the next princess story that Disney would tackle.

As you know, Disney seemed to be cornering the market with such stories, ranging from “Pocahontas” to “Mulan,” “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Little Mermaid,” and yes … “The Princess Diaries.” And scheduled for release next year is Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
On the other hand, “Azur & Asmar” stands on its own as an enchanted fairytale designed to please audiences both as an entertaining story and as a “parable on tolerance between races, creeds and classes.”

Once upon a time (as fairytales go) there were two young boys being cared for by the same nurse. Azur is the fair-haired son of a nobleman, while Asmar is the dark-haired child of the nurse. They are as close as brothers.

The nurse tells them a tale about a fairy Djinn (that is, a genie) waiting to be rescued by a heroic prince. Ah, both boys dreams of being that prince.

Later separated when Azur is sent away to school, their paths cross again when Azur returns in search of the Djinn-fairy. But his young friend Asmar, now a Royal guard, has the same ambition.

Alas, there can be but one who is successful in this quest.

You won’t recognize any of the voices featured in this French production – no big names like Robin Williams or Mel Gibson or Anne Hathaway. But you’ll be so drawn into this dazzling adventure that Azur and Asmar won’t need famous voices behind them.

So this Christmas you have a choice: This French-made animated fairytale at the Tropic or Disney’s real-people “Bedtime Stories” starring Adam Sandler at the Regal.

Who would’ve thought! This season “Azur & Asmar” is more Disneyesque than Disney.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Valkyrie (Rhoades)

‘Valkyrie’ Tells of Plot to Kill Hitler

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Sometimes when I’m in New York I have dinner with my friend Veruschka, the famous ’60s supermodel. She was born Vera Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinhort, daughter of a German count who was executed for his part in the 20th July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. This assassination attempt by high-ranking members of the German Reserve Army was codenamed “Valkyrie.”
A movie about that plot – “Valkyrie” starring Tom Cruise – is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Okay, admit it. You never thought you’d see a Tom Cruise movie at an indie venue like the Tropic.

But Tomcat is busily reinventing his image, looking for a little boost to a sagging Hollywood A-lister career.

So he did “Valkyrie.” Not exactly “Mission Impossible,” but as close as history will allow. This is the heart-pounding story of German officers – led by Tom Cruise in this telling – plotting to kill Hitler.

Unfortunately, as we know, the assassination attempt failed. But history buffs and action fans alike will enjoy watching Cruise (wearing an eye patch) make a run at killing Der Fuehrer.
As his character puts it, “You can serve Germany, or the Fuehrer. Not both!”

Operation Valkyrie (Unternehmen Walküre) was initially a plan developed for the German Reserve Army to use in the event that Allied bombing of German cities resulted in a breakdown of law and order. In an ironic twist, the German Resistance—led by members of the Reserve Army—modified the plan to use it to disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership once Hitler had been assassinated in the July 20 plot.

Hitler’s death was required to free German soldiers from their oath of loyalty to him.
Cruise portrays Col. Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a real-life hero who planted the bomb. As the Reserve Army’s Chief of Staff, Count von Stauffenberg was the only conspirator who had regular access to Hitler, and the only officer with the persuasive power to convince German military leaders to throw in with the coup once Adolf Hitler was dead.
Researchers have determined that if he’d placed the armed briefcase in a slightly different location the bomb would have reached its target. As it transpired, Hitler survived and after a shoot-out at their Bendlerstrasse offices, the conspirators were arrested and executed by firing squad.

The execution was ordered by General Frederick Fromm, who had himself been one of the co-conspirators. British actor Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom,” “Michael Clayton”) was cast in this role to make the treacherous Fromm somewhat more sympathetic.

Others in the cast include Kenneth Branagh, Terrance Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Thomas Kretschmann, Carice van Houten, and David Bamber (as Adolph Hitler).

Directed by Brian Singer, the wunderkind director who gave us “Usual Suspects,” two of the X-Men movies, and “Superman Returns,” the film’s working title was “Untitled Bryan Singer Thriller.” That should give you an idea of what to expect.

Initially, the production was not allowed to film on Bendler Block due to “the dignity of this place.” Eventually, due to the efforts of Tom Cruise, the Ministry of Defense overturned their decision and granted permission for scenes to be filmed at the historic location as long as “the dignity of the place was not tarnished.”

Displaying swastikas is illegal in Germany but the images needed to be used for authenticity. Although “Arts and sciences” – including filmmaking – are specifically exempted, films usually avoid using correct swastikas to prevent public outrage. Therefore, warnings were posted around the filming locations. Still, a local resident filed an official complaint with the city and charges were filed against the owners of the filming sites.

Cruise became interested in the role after seeing a picture of Stauffenberg and noticing a resemblance between his profile and the colonel’s. Although taller than Cruise, Stauffenberg had what Albert Speer described in his memoirs as “mystical good looks.”

Stauffenberg’s last words were “Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland!” (Long live our holy Germany!).

Why call this plot to kill Hitler “Valkyrie”? In Norse mythology, the valkyries determined the victors of wars, and carried the most heroic of those who died in battle off to Valhalla.
So went those Germans who did the patriotic thing by committing treason.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Friday, December 19, 2008

Week of December 19 thru December 25 (Mann)

What’s On At The Tropic
By Phil Mann

Phew! Where do I start? This is a week of superlatives, with two new films opening on Friday and then adding two others on Christmas Day. There’s no problem figuring out what to do with all those visitors. Just send them to the Tropic.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (opens Friday) is that once-a-year crossover hit that moves from the indie film world to mass-market glory. Last year the Tropic opened Juno for Christmas when almost no one had heard of it and it was showing in only 40 theaters. In a month it had exploded to a over 1,000 screens and wound up grossing $143 million nationally. Slumdog Millionaire is poised for the same kind of breakthrough.

Why? Because Slumdog, like Juno and the crossover hit from 2006, Little Miss Sunshine, all feature a lovable hero on a somewhat mad quest – completing an unwanted pregnancy in Juno, winning a kiddie beauty contest in Miss Sunshine. But since the hero in Slumdog is an orphaned street urchin in Mumbai, don’t expect middle-class American adventures. Young Jamal Malik is on the hit Indian TV show, “So You Want To Be A Millionaire,” and he’s going for the top prize of twenty million. Using a highly original story-telling structure, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and writer Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Full Monty) take us through Jamal’s life and his world of Mumbai misery, corruption and crime with honesty, grit and humor. As the story stays upbeat – even when Jamal gets a beating -- we happily cheer on our hero and even manage sometimes to laugh at the villains. It’s really a fairy tale, with nasty cops and vicious ganglords as the wicked witches and young Jamal as the prince-in-waiting, needing only the kiss of the correct contest answer to emerge.

So here’s holiday tip #1 from your buddy Phil. Slumdog Millionaire is going to be a huge hit. A real treat combining a timely insight into Mumbai street life, a tense thriller, and a heartwarming love story, Slumdog is already gathering up Best Picture nods. And don’t worry about subtitles. Though shot in India, with an Indian cast, this is a British-made, English-speaking film, with only a little Hindi scattered through it for effect.

If you’re interested in a foreign movie, then A CHRISTMAS TALE might be your cup of café filtre. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) it’s your basic Christmas family get-together movie. You know, a mother who has cancer, a son and daughter who haven’t spoken in years, and a somewhat disturbed grandson. In Hollywood hands, this package might become cloying --- after all it’s Christmas for heaven’s sake. But the French have a different way. As Peter Travers says in Rolling Stone, the movie “turns one family into a universe that resembles life as a startling work of art.”

Time for holiday tip #2. Starting on Christmas Day, AZUR AND ASMAR: THE PRINCES’ QUEST will be shown at matinees. With a distinctive animated style (no Pixar here), it tells the Arabian Nights-like tale of a noble blonde prince and his African nursemaid’s son who jointly search for a Djinn fairy to release her from her Crystal Cell. So here’s the tip. Send the kids to see Azur and Asmar (Rated PG), while you sneak over to see Slumdog (Rated R). Fairy tales for the whole family.

Or, also starting on Christmas Day, you could slip in to see Tom Cruise plotting to kill Hitler in VALKYRIE. I haven’t seen it yet. The producers have it under wraps. You can beat the critics to the draw if you go on December 25.

Full schedules at TropicCinema.com. Comments to pmann99@gmail.com.
[from Key West, the Newspaper - www.kwtn.com]

A Christmas Tale (Rhoades)

‘A Christmas Tale’ Is French Family Feud

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Some years ago a photographer friend and I went in with French film exec Pierre Lescure to buy a stock photo archive. When I dropped by my friend’s studio to seal the deal, Lescure was there with his girlfriend – none other than actress Catherine Deneuve.

It seemed a little unnecessary, him buying this repository of old pinup photos when he was living with an actress who had been dubbed “the world’s most elegant woman.”

Standing there amid the camera equipment and lights and seamless backdrops, she looked quite at home, a woman who had been the “face” for Chanel No. 5, the star of such films as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Belle de Jour,” and “Indochine.” She’d spent much of her life in front of a camera.

Now when I see her again – starring in “A Christmas Tale,” the new holiday film opening today at the Tropic Cinema – she’s a bit older, but still a beautiful woman who commands your eye.
Here she plays the matriarch of a French family who learns she’s facing a life-threatening illness. As family members gather around her at Christmastime, their stoic resolve breaks down, turning it into a holiday of bickering, arguments, and debauchery.

The return of the family’s black sheep (a standout performance by Mathieu Amalric) after six years banishment acts as a catalyst – putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional” with this black comedy.

You’ll remember Amalric as the star of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” And as the villain in the recent 007 thriller “Quantum of Solace.”

Others in the cast of “A Christmas Tale” include Emmanuelle Devos, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot, and Romain Goupil (as the psychiatrist).

This family drama was directed by Arnaud Desplechin, remembered for his controversial film “Kings and Queen.” Like “A Christmas Tale,” it starred Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, and Catherine Deneuve – but drew fire when the director’s ex-girlfriend sued, claiming that it revealed personal elements of their relationship.

Although she lost in court, Marianne Denicourt published “Mauvais genie” (“Evil Genius”), a novel about an unscrupulous film director who she calls “Arnold Desplancher.” Women scorned and all that.

“A Christmas Tale” (French title: “Un conte de Noël”) is subtitled, a great way to brush up on your French. And at the same time continue your cinematic love affair with Catherine Deneuve.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Slumdog Millionaire (Rhoades)

‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Is a Winner!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The world is changing too fast. I grew up on Persian fairy tales, vampire legends from Transylvania, and stories about old Bombay. Now those places are known as Iran, Romania, and Mumbai, India.

Recently Mumbai was in the news, when terrorists hit the city killing nearly 200 people in various hotels and Jewish centers. Tragic.

There’s a new movie – “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was filmed in Mumbai – opening today at the Tropic Cinema.

Call it Mumbai or Bombay, the city is a large sprawling metropolis with boulevards, alleys, side streets, and slums teaming with poor. One such denizen, a young man named Jamal (played by Dev Patel) winds up on a quiz show called Kaun Benega Crorepati (the Hindu version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”), vying for its 20-million rupee grand prize.

You might ask, “How could an uneducated street urchin know the answers?”

So do the police, arresting the boy for cheating on the eve of the last question.
Therein lies the story: Jamal telling them about his life, each flashback providing one of the answers to the quiz show’s questions.

His stories cover his meeting a famous Bollywood star, the death of his mother, and taking in a young girl who becomes his life-long love. We learn how he was about to be blinded to improve his ability as a beggar, his stint as a tour guide at the Taj Mahal to set up robberies for his brother, and the street gangs that offer his brother a criminal career. Experiences that give this slumdog his winning answers.

The triangle between Jamal, the girl Latika, and his brother Salim are at the heart of the story. And the quiz show is merely a lifeline to reconnect Jamal to his lost love.
Think of Jamal as a modern-day Scheherazade, although it doesn’t take a thousand-and-and-one answers to win the 20-million rupees. Just name one of the Three Musketeers. Not so hard, that being the childhood nickname for the trio of our story. Or is it?

Based on a book called “Q&A” by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the story was translated into a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, best known for scribing “The Full Monty” and “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.”

Director Danny Boyle has given us such diverse fare as a murder mystery (“Shallow Grave”), a druggie drama (“Trainspotting”), a children’s adventure (“Millions”), and a zombie thriller (“28 Days Later”).

“I like taking risks,” says Boyle. “If you get a chance, take a risk … sometimes it doesn’t work, but you should try.”

Given the aging of the three leads throughout the film, he used three teams of actors. But the grown-up stars are particularly noteworthy: Dev Patel (BBC’s “Skins”) won the lead over Bollywood actors, whom the director considered too much the hero type. Freida Pinto was an Indian model who had never acted before. And Madhur Mittal got into acting after winning “Boogie-Woogie,” a popular Indian reality-TV dance contest.

Danny Boyle had never been to India before making this film, although his dad had been stationed in Bombay during the war.

“Mumbai, like New York, grabs you by the throat and says ‘You’ll never be the same again,’” Boyle observes. “There’s such energy, lots of poverty but none of it abject. Everybody is trying to move forward toward happiness.”

The film reflects the kinetic mood of Mumbai. Boyle says, “The thing I loved was, the slums are not what you’d think. There’s cottage industry, enterprise – people who don’t want to be portrayed as poor. I said, ‘But this has to be authentic,’ and they said, ‘Then don’t be pitiful about it.’ Westerners, we are so sleepy compared to them. There is so much energy.”

One cannot help but compare this film to “Quiz Show,” the movie about Charles Van Doren and the rigged “$64,000 Question.” In one a distinguished scholar fakes his answers; in the other an innocent street kid is accused of cheating.

After the scandal, Van Doren took refuge in Key West, away from prying eyes and probing reporters. Many here remember his quiet presence – a man who lost it all by winning.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is the way we wished it had turned out – an underdog destined to win.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Week of December 12 thru December 18 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
By Phil Mann

It’s a clean sweep at the Tropic this week with new movies on all three screens.

Heading the bill is THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS, a British film that gives us a different, child’s-eye view of Nazi horror. Bruno is the eight-year-old son of a German concentration camp commandant. He is very proud of his officer father and loves his life, school and friends in Berlin. When he and his family are transferred to a new post in the countryside he has no idea of his father’s duties. Housed in a beautiful home, he invents explanations for things he can’t understand.

The place on the other side of the woods – which he catches a glimpse of – is a “farm.” On learning that family’s cringing house servant used to be a medical doctor but is now peeling potatoes, he thinks “adults make strange choices.” As to the barbed wire fence that separates him from the boy he eventually meets during unauthorized explorations: it must be “to keep the animals” from straying. The boy’s striped outfit and serial number is surely “part of a game” they are playing on the farm.

So the movie unspools as a fable about childhood innocence that must inevitably be crushed by grim reality. Young Bruno is a metaphor for all who saw and heard things during that time, and conveniently explained them away, not only Germans but other Europeans and even Americans. Some critics have complained that the approach trivializes the events. Others see it as a powerful message that needs the ultimate evil to make its point.

Though set in Germany, with only German characters, the movie is entirely in unaccented (well, British-accented) English. The same is true about another Nazi movie coming to the Tropic in a few weeks, the Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie. The effect, I think, is to make us identify more with the characters, as unpleasant as that experience may be.

CHANGELING is an entirely American movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie. But in a way, it’s about Nazis, too, in this case a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department that does whatever it wants to the citizenry, and tolerates no dissent. Perfectly set in the late 1920’s, the movie tells the true story of Christine Collins, a woman who faced down the department when it tried to “solve” the problem of her missing child by putting a replacement in her home. The L.A.P.D. saw it as a way to gain favorable press for great police work. Its response to Collins’ refusal to cooperate should have been devastating to resourceless single woman like her. But think Erin Brockovich. And think film noir, in its Los Angeles homeland with fedora-clad police detectives. Ms. Jolie has already received a Best Actress nomination from the first of the annual round of ceremonies, the Satellite Awards. She’s probably in store for more.

STRANDED, the third film of the week has no Nazis in it. But that’s not to say it’s got light-hearted subject matter. This documentary revisits the famed Andean plane crash of a Uruguayan ruby team in 1972, previously the subject of the Piers Paul Read book and Ethan Hawke movie Alive. The new element is revealing interviews with the surviving members of the team, woven in with dramatic restagings of the events. Despite its subject matter, this “intimate, terrifying and positively riveting documentary…. is the most optimistic film about human nature I have seen in years” says Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. Sometimes uplift comes in odd packages.

If you need something lighter for Christmas, stay tuned. Slumdog Millionaire, coming next week, is the gosh-darnedest crowd pleaser of the year.

Full info and schedules at TropicCinema.com. Comments to pmann99@gmail.com.
[from Key West, the Newspaper - www.kwtn.com]

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Rhoades)

‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ Is Holocaust Reminder

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What if someone told you a story about a naïve eight-year-old boy who lives next to a farm? And he makes friends with a boy who lives on the other side of the fence – a boy wearing stripped pajamas.

A tale of sweet childhood nostalgia, right?

Not exactly – when you learn that the farm is actually a concentration camp during the German Holocaust, and the boy in the pajamas is a Jewish detainee. What’s more, the first kid learns that his father is the Nazi commandant in charge of the camp.

This British-made film – “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” – opens today at the Tropic Cinema.
The story is told through the eyes of Bruno (played by first-time actor Asa Butterfield). His newfound friend is a kid named Shmuel (portrayed by young Jack Scanlon). Excellent performances by both.

The film was an education for the young actors. “I knew a little bit about the Holocaust and concentration camps and Hitler,” says Asa Butterfield, “but I knew more about it after making the film.”

The hardest scene for him? “Probably when I was in the concentration camp towards the end of the film. It was weird because it was not like any of the other scenes in the film. All of the other scenes for me were usually in the house or playing outside. Here it was really hot and it was crowded with all the extras who played the concentration camp prisoners. That made it even more scary.”

Predictably, it’s a sad story, one that will leave the audience in stunned silence at its shattering ending. As one moviegoer said, “This is the first film I have ever seen in which the whole audience were silent from beginning to end, and then, when the film ended, not a single person moved for a long time afterwards.”

Based on the book by John Boyce, this is a tale about loss of innocence in the same vein as Robert Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful.”

Directed by Mark Herman (“Hope Springs,” “Little Voice”), “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” also features veteran actor David Thewlis as the father, Vera Farmiga as the mother, and Amber Beattie as the strong-willed sister.

This small film was produced by David Heyman, who also did most of the “Harry Potter” movies. Despite a seeming disparity between this tragic story and those lighthearted romps through Hogwarts Castle, Heyman sees parallels.

“Within Harry Potter there are the Death Eaters and Voldemort who are interested in a pure blood race and are deeply opposed to anything else,” he explains. “They don’t like people who are ‘others’. They do not care for Muggles or Half Blood or Mud Blood, they believe in the purity of the race and I think that is clearly very much in the vein of the Nazis. Harry Potter is very much about the characters who are unable to see the other side. Harry and Ron and Hermione are all outsiders and so, in ‘The Boy In The Striped Pajamas,’ is Bruno.”

Once while traveling through Germany, I made a side trip to visit the remnants of Dachau, one the Nazi death camps. The wire fence was till standing, separating the buildings from me standing outside by my rental car. Situated at the edge of a piney woodland, mist rose from the ground like disembodied spirits. It was an eerie landscape – not just because I knew its history.
Thinking back, I find it unlikely that a couple of kids could dig a hole under the electrified fence unnoticed. The guard towers dotted the parameters like lighthouses seeking passing ships. But I’m willing to forego any quibbling about the plotline, for the story is too powerful to be sidetracked by reality. Perhaps I’m as naïve as young Bruno, in that I find it difficult to grasp man’s inhumanity to man. But this little film reminds us of that fact. And we should never forget its lesson.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]


Stranded (Rhoades)

‘Stranded’ Offers First-Hand Tale of Survival

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ve heard the story before – the planeload of Uruguayan rugby players that crashed in the Andes. There was a movie about it called “Alive” that starred Ethan Hawke and Vincent Spano.
Now here’s “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains” – a no-holds-barred documentary opening today at the Tropic Cinema – that gives you a first-hand recounting of “one of the most astonishing and inspiring survival tales of all time.”

On October 13, 1972, the young ruby team boarded Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 for a match in Chile, the atmosphere one of excitement and expectation. But soon after takeoff the plane hit a snow-covered mountainside, shattering into pieces. Amazingly, there were survivors.
Now thirty-five years later, they return to the crash site (known as the Valley of Tears) to describe their ordeal for documentary filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon, a boyhood friend of the players.

Through these on-location interviews, archival footage, and reenactments, Arijon captures the horror, the indestructible fortitude, and ultimately the inspiration of this event.
Stranded in the mountains for more than 70 days, 29 initial survivors faced a life-and-death struggle against the elements – and their own ethical feelings as they are forced to cannibalism. 

“Either we do it, or die” was the unavoidable consensus.

Hearing on their radio that the search had been called off, they realized they would have to get out on their own. But they were trapped in a basin where the plane crashed, surrounded by snow and mountainous terrain, and the threat of avalanches. At one point they get buried in the hull of their airliner for three days, finally digging out, at the cost of more lives.
Finally, two “expeditionaries” managed to climb out and trek through the Andes until they came to a path leading them to shepherds tending livestock. A helicopter was dispatched to rescue the others, an ending that is both joyous and poignant. Of 45 passengers, 16 were alive in the end.

What’s remarkable about this telling is that the words come from the survivors themselves, as they vividly recall the monotony, the fear, and the near-death experiences – describing the ordeal as “coming back to life.”

Today, most of the survivors live as neighbors in the same village where they grew up, but closer now, almost like a family. It’s their brave return to the crash site and their first-hand accounts that make this film remarkable.

A four-year project, Arijon has produced a powerful and well-crafted documentary. The film won the Joris Ivens Award at the 2007 Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Less sensational than the dramatized movie “Alive,” more intimate that the book of the same name, it’s a rare occasion where you hear from those who were actually stranded by a plane crash in the mountains.

Piers Paul Read, author of the 1974 book, wrote that “some of them were disappointed by my presentation of their story. They felt that the faith and friendship which inspired them in the cordillera do not emerge from these pages. It was never my intention to underestimate these qualities, but perhaps it would be beyond the skill of any writer to express their own appreciation of what they lived through.”

“Stranded” doesn’t disappoint, for it doesn’t depend of the skill of a writer … just the words of the survivors themselves.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Changeling (Rhoades)

‘Changeling’ Helps Us Define Clint Eastwood

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Check your dictionary:
change•ling (noun) a child believed to have been secretly substituted by fairies for a real child in infancy.

That definition provides a succinct review of the new Clint Eastwood movie “Changeling,” which stars Angelina Jolie as a mother who doubts that the child returned to her after a kidnapping is her own son.

Scary. But it’s based on a true story.

“Changeling” opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

When Christine Collins’ nine-year-old son Walter goes missing, she’s understandably frantic. Then when the boy is recovered several months later, rather than rejoicing his return, the mother makes a bizarre claim: That he’s not her child.

Busy police and cynical reporters ignore her plea to keep looking for her missing son. After all, the case is closed.

When Christine (Jolie) pushes against the system in Prohibition Era Los Angeles, she learns some awful truths. Branded as crazy, her life endangered, she can’t find anyone who will listen to her story – other than a crusading radio minister (John Malkovich).

Under Eastwood’s sure hand, Jolie proves her earlier Oscar was no fluke. Returning to similar territory, a woman confined to a nut house, she convinces you that she’s under emotional stress, whether real or imagined. Is she the victim of a sinister plot? Or a woman who has gone off the deep end?

In this day of mothers like Casey Anthony and Susan Smith, who’s to know where truth and lie overlap?

The original screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski is based on real events, known at the time in the Los Angeles press as “The Wineville Chicken Murders.” That storyline is intertwined with police corruption in the 1920s and the disappearance of young Walter Collins.
Clint Eastwood approaches this is in a noirish James Ellroy vein, mindful of such Ellroy-inspired films as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia.”

I’m friends with Ellroy’s ex-wife Mary, who tells me they sold the movie rights to “L.A. Confidential” for a paltry $25,000 because they needed the money at the time.

The Straczynski script certainly cost ol’ Clint a lot more, but it was money well spent. This is a taut thriller that keeps you guessing about the mysterious changeling, a boy who is three inches shorter than the original, uncircumcised, and sports different dental work.

Clint Eastwood is something of a changeling himself. Fairies have stolen the actor and left behind a damn fine director!

Sure, we’ve all loved Eastwood’s movie performances, but his late-in-life second career may prove to be the greater talent.

To give credit where it’s due, Clint Eastwood was ranked #2 in Empire (UK) magazine’s “Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time” poll. Entertainment Weekly named him the 16th “Greatest Movie Star of All Time.” And he was named the top box-office star of 1972 and 1973 by the Motion Picture Herald.

Who doesn’t love this lanky 6’ 2” actor of few words? First as the Man With No Name in those spaghetti westerns like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Then as Dirty Harry checking to see if punks feel lucky in such hardboiled cop movies as “Sudden Impact.” Or as the DJ stalked by a deranged ex-girlfriend in “Play Misty for Me.” Or as that doofus with an orangutan in “Every Which Way But Loose.”

All in all, Eastwood had acted in 66 movies.

Years ago I met him on the set of “Paint Your Wagon,” a muddled musical about the Old West. I watched as he did take after take, stepping through a bar door only to repeatedly blow his lines. He rattled off a string of curses that expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms. You could tell he took his acting seriously, even if this was a silly sing-along role.

But it’s clear he takes his directing even more seriously. Witness, “Mystic River,” “Bird.” “The Unforgiven.” “Flags of Our Fathers,” and “Million Dollar Baby.” And now “Changeling.”
While “Changeling” draws on “Mystic River” sensibilities, it doesn’t quite come up to that water level. But the level it reaches is good enough.

As Clint Eastwood once said, “There’s a lot of great movies that have won the Academy Award, and a lot of great movies that haven't. You just do the best you can.”

He’s doing pretty good for my money – the price of a movie ticket.

You could say, he makes my day.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Friday, December 5, 2008

Week of December 5 to December 11 (Mann)

What's On At The Tropic

By Phil Mann

I first experienced Charlie Kaufman's singular creativity in Being John Malkovich, and haven't missed a mind-bending word since – Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With his latest, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the fun begins with the title. Just to clear the air, the pronunciation of this unusual word is sin-neck-dough-key. That's a trope in which a part of something refers to a whole -- as "word" in the first sentence above refers to "screenplays" -- or vice versa. The movie features a playwright-director whose sprawling masterwork is his life, or vice versa. Since Kaufman is the director as well as the writer of the film, maybe the whole thing is a synecdoche. Or whatever… that's the way it always is with Kaufman. He gets you thinking.

The first half of the movie is nothing short of brilliant. Caten Cottard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a director of regional theater whose marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) is deteriorating, and not helped by his self-promoting therapist (Hope Davis) or his flirtation with the ditsy box office manager (Samantha Morton). From witty dialogue to comic visuals, Kaufman and his wonderful ensemble cast build a set of characters who make us laugh and winch at the same time. The second half of the movie is not so easy to describe, as Cottard goes off to Manhattan and an inventive but dreamlike world where nothing is exactly as is seems. Can we say that the movie goes from Schenectady (grounded, real) to synecdoche (nothing is what is seems, or vice versa)?

This week also brings the annual Best of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival to Key West. The format is different this year. It's all packed into one day, Wednesday, December 10. The best seven films of this year's FLIFF, will be shown from 9:00am to 9:00pm in two hour segments. The opener, for you early birds, is TAOS, about a young D.C. lawyer whogets stuck in New Mexico and learns something new about life. In the closing film, I DO AND I DON'T a young engaged couple in premarital counseling find out more about each other than they want to know. In between, we have THE AUTEUR, about a porn movie director trying to raise money for his magnum opus, Gang Bangs of New York. Check out the full schedule, with film synopses, at <http://keywestfilm.org/films2008/fliff08.htm>. Just five bucks for any movie.

If you want to hang out for a while at the all-day Film Festival, the Tropic will be featuring a selection of tasty snacks -- imported cheese, crackers, pita, crème caramel mousse, and more - to supplement the always-available beer, wine and treats. So make a day of it.

The other new movie this week is MOMMA'S MAN, a black comedy about a young husband and father who returns to his parents' house, and refuses to leave. Manhola Dargis in the New York Times calls it "a touchingly true film, part weepie, part comedy." Sounds like a fantasy to me, or a nightmare.

For those of you who missed the premiere of the new locally produced movie LUCID, there will be an encore screening of this true Key West gem at 8:00pm on Tuesday, at regular movie prices.

Full info and schedules at TropicCinema.com. Comments to pmann99@gmail.com.
[from Key West, the newspaper - kwtn.com]

Week of December 5 to December 11

What's On At The Tropic

By Phil Mann

I first experienced Charlie Kaufman's singular creativity in Being John Malkovich, and haven't missed a mind-bending word since – Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With his latest, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the fun begins with the title. Just to clear the air, the pronunciation of this unusual word is sin-neck-dough-key. That's a trope in which a part of something refers to a whole -- as "word" in the first sentence above refers to "screenplays" -- or vice versa. The movie features a playwright-director whose sprawling masterwork is his life, or vice versa. Since Kaufman is the director as well as the writer of the film, maybe the whole thing is a synecdoche. Or whatever… that's the way it always is with Kaufman. He gets you thinking.

The first half of the movie is nothing short of brilliant. Caten Cottard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a director of regional theater whose marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) is deteriorating, and not helped by his self-promoting therapist (Hope Davis) or his flirtation with the ditsy box office manager (Samantha Morton). From witty dialogue to comic visuals, Kaufman and his wonderful ensemble cast build a set of characters who make us laugh and winch at the same time. The second half of the movie is not so easy to describe, as Cottard goes off to Manhattan and an inventive but dreamlike world where nothing is exactly as is seems. Can we say that the movie goes from Schenectady (grounded, real) to synecdoche (nothing is what is seems, or vice versa)?

This week also brings the annual Best of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival to Key West. The format is different this year. It's all packed into one day, Wednesday, December 10. The best seven films of this year's FLIFF, will be shown from 9:00am to 9:00pm in two hour segments. The opener, for you early birds, is TAOS, about a young D.C. lawyer whogets stuck in New Mexico and learns something new about life. In the closing film, I DO AND I DON'T a young engaged couple in premarital counseling find out more about each other than they want to know. In between, we have THE AUTEUR, about a porn movie director trying to raise money for his magnum opus, Gang Bangs of New York. Check out the full schedule, with film synopses, at <http://keywestfilm.org/films2008/fliff08.htm>. Just five bucks for any movie.

If you want to hang out for a while at the all-day Film Festival, the Tropic will be featuring a selection of tasty snacks -- imported cheese, crackers, pita, crème caramel mousse, and more - to supplement the always-available beer, wine and treats. So make a day of it.

The other new movie this week is MOMMA'S MAN, a black comedy about a young husband and father who returns to his parents' house, and refuses to leave. Manhola Dargis in the New York Times calls it "a touchingly true film, part weepie, part comedy." Sounds like a fantasy to me, or a nightmare.

For those of you who missed the premiere of the new locally produced movie LUCID, there will be an encore screening of this true Key West gem at 8:00pm on Tuesday, at regular movie prices.

Full info and schedules at TropicCinema.com. Comments to pmann99@gmail.com.
[from Key West, the newspaper - kwtn.com]

Southern Mini-Fest (Rhoades)

A Mini Film Fest Straight from Ft. Lauderdale

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Okay, so it’s not quite the same as the Sundance Film Festival. No movie stars and directors and distributors, like those I encounter at Sundance.

And, as a matter of fact, it’s a secondhand film festival, borrowed from Ft. Lauderdale.

Even so, FLIFF’s Southernmost Mini Fest – seven films showing on December 10th at the Tropic Cinema – is certainly a movie marathon worthy of any aficionado’s attention.

These intriguing entries in the 2008 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF) range from comedies to action dramas. Sponsored by Visit Florida & The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Science, this Tropic Cinema event is supported by Island City House.

Starting at 9 a.m., you get a new screening every two hours all day long.

“Taos” is the story of a hopeful young attorney and his controlling blue-blooded fiancé, stranded in a mystical town in northern New Mexico where dreams may just come true.

“Off Jackson Avenue” is a section of New York City where a Japanese hit man, Mexican prostitute, and car thief collide in a “smack-bang tale of ambition, survival and fate.”

“A Deal Is a Deal” gives us a wannabe novelist who is stuck in the city driving trains because he can’t afford to retire to the country … until he learns that if you have three fatal accidents on your train you get automatic retirement with 10 years salary. Hmm.

“The Auteur” is a satiric comedy about a famous porn director who is trying to raise money for his long-awaited masterpiece, “Gang Bangs of New York.”

“The 27 Club” is about a dead guy who hopes to join that rarified group of rock ’n rollers who died at age 27 – Janis, Jimi, and Kurt, et al.

“Lifelines” is a close-up portrait of a dysfunctional family. Dad’s a tyrant, Mom’s at wits end, the eldest son is repressed, the daughter has a serpent’s tongue, and the 12-year-old can twist everyone else’s words like a pretzel. Makes your own family look pretty good.

“I Do & I Don’t” is an examination of pre-marital counseling gone awry, with Bob and Cheryl’s traditional Catholic wedding jeopardized by too much “sharing.”

An interesting collection, these are films you’ll want to discuss over a cup of Zabar’s coffee in Tropic’s lobby between the showings. A big benefit over a trip to Sundance, you don’t have to run all over town to catch all the screenings – and the weather’s warmer than Park City, Utah.

srhoades@aol.com
[from Solares Hill]

Momma's Man (Rhoades)

‘Mamma’s Man’ Is Daddy’s Boy

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What happens when you grow up but don’t want to leave home? That’s the question posed by “Mamma’s Man” – the new dramedy that opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

Mikey (subtly played by Matt Boren) has a wife and kid, but he’d rather retreat to the psychological safety of his parent’s loft apartment. Visiting his folks in New York, he makes up a flimsy excuse to stay on (and on and on), ignoring the plaintive phone messages from his wife in California as he reconnects with old toys, comic books, letters, and other reminders of his childhood.

Eventually, he finds himself unable to leave the apartment. Walking down the steps, abandoning the comforts of a long-ago childhood, is just too painful to contemplate. He makes up excuses to delay his return to his adult existence, even inventing an affair to explain his absence to his wife.

His mom feeds him cereal and tells him to stay as long as he likes. His dad worries that there’s a problem in his son’s marriage. But the problem is Mikey’s alone.

Writer-director Azazel Jacobs filmed “Mamma’s Man” in the actual New York apartment on Chambers Street where he grew up. And Mikey’s parents are played by Jacobs’ real-life parents.

Starts to sound a tad autobiographical, doesn’t it?

Jacobs admits to some similarities with his own life. “It stemmed from just being at my folks’ house and waking up and finding coffee and breakfast waiting for me and thinking, ‘Why did I leave this place?’ And I went home and started writing.”

This is the kind of film you’d have expected to see from, say, John Cassavetes. A personal, introspective look at the familiar, and an examination of the secret feelings that lurk just beneath the surface of our psyche.

The theme is similar to “Full Grown Men,” a film by David Munro that recently played at the Tropic. Over dinner at Key West’s Raw Bar, Munro told me his film was based on his own feelings of hanging on to childhood.

But Azazel’s influence for “Mamma’s Man” more likely came from his dad, who is legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs. “I love his work, and I wanted to be part of it,” the son says. “It’s my way of kind of attaching myself to what he’s doing and trying to figure out how it can fit into my world.”

Some moviegoers describe the film as poignant and honest. Others see the character as pathological and pathetic. Both are correct.

That means that some people will love it, some will hate it. But then again, life is never just one thing, is it?

srhoades@aol.com

[from Solares Hill]

Synecdoche, New York (Rhoades)

‘Synecdoche’ Takes Us Inside a Genius’s Head

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

After I left Harper’s Magazine, where I was associate publisher, it was made into a nonprofit, largely funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. John R. MacArthur – better known to his friends as Rick – is now publisher and president of the magazine.

Rick’s grandfather’s foundation also gives out those so-called Genius Awards. Properly termed MacArthur Fellowships, 20 to 40 are awarded each year to US citizens who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

The fellowships aren’t based on past accomplishment, but rather they are considered “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” The current award is $500,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years. Nearly 800 recipients have received more than $350 million to encourage their creativity.

Once when I was having lunch with Rick, I quipped, “How do I get one of those Genius Awards?”

He laughed and said, “It helps to be a genius.”

Oh well.

In the new film “Synecdoche, New York” – a word play on the city of Schenectady, New York, where a part of the story takes place – a theater director receives a MacArthur genius grant and uses the money to build a replica of New York City in a warehouse and encourages his ensemble cast to live out their constructed lives in this artificial environment.

This oddball film – written and directed by oddball Charlie Kaufman – opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

You know Kaufman’s work: He wrote the screenplays for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He won Oscar nods for those first two and an actual statuette for the last.

Charlie Kaufman likes to blend reality and fiction. “Being John Malkovich” takes place inside the head of real-life actor John Malkovich. In “Adaptation” one of the characters is a fictional Charlie Kaufman who has an identical twin much like the real one. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is a purported autobiography of game show host Chuck Barris in which his imaginary life of a CIA hitman is explored. And “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” tells us about a man using a doctor to erase memories of a failed relationship from his brain.

Head games, to be sure.

In Synecdoche, New York,” the theater director (brilliantly portrayed by indie veteran Philip Seymour Hoffman) must deal with the women in his life while he builds a faux city to house his faux people.

There’s a great female cast: Catherine Keener as his estranged wife, Samantha Morton as his unhappy girlfriend, Hope Davis as his self-absorbed therapist – plus Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, and Michelle Williams. Quite a handful for our director cum playwright.

The term “synecdoche” is actually a figure of speech in which a part of something is referred to as the whole – or vice versa. For instance, “all hands on deck” (meaning all of the sailors, not just their hands) or “use your head” (meaning the brain, not the entire skull).

Yep, head games.

In the early ’80s Kaufman started out writing on spec for National Lampoon, the humor magazine. By 2004 Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Impressive.

This is his directorial debut. Rotten Tomatoes says the film “strains to connect, but ultimately provides fascinating insight into a writer’s mind.”

Charlie Kaufman may indeed be a genius. But – I must point out – he’s never won a MacArthur Fellowship award.

srhoades@aol.com

[from Solares Hill]