Thursday, January 28, 2010

Week of January 29 to February 4 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Three new movies, two great holdovers, an opera and a classic. What are you waiting for?

We haven't had a big musical film in a while, so fans of that genre will welcome NINE, the new film from Rob Marshall, director/choreographer of Chicago. If ever a Broadway musical was destined for the screen, this 1982 Tony Award winner is it. The story is based -- very loosely -- on Frederico Fellini's struggles with life, love and filmmaking, depicted in his famed film 8 1/2, the period between his eighth and ninth movies.

Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido Contini, a filmmaker who, in addition to dealing with his creative block, must contend with an array of women -- his muse (Nicole Kidman), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his wife (Marion Cotillard), and a stalking journalist (Kate Hudson), while a couple more females try to help him out -- his costume designer (Judi Dench), and, in flashback, his mother (Sophia Loren). They all have songs, and being a Rob Marshall movie, all are supported by big, bold production values. The roots of Nine may be in Italian cinema, but this is unquestionably a Hollywood musical with spectacles that Busby Berkeley might be smiling down upon.

Nine is "loud, brash, brassy, sexy and sometimes tacky or silly, but always entertaining," says the Wall St. Journal. It won the Satellite Award for Best Musical of 2009, and was nominated for Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics Awards in that category.

NO IMPACT MAN, is another of those movies about people who undertake offbeat challenges. Remember Supersize Me, in which Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but fast food for a month? Or Julie Powell who cooked her way through Julia Child? Well, No Impact Man is the opposite. Colin Beavan persuaded his wife to join him in living for year without impacting the economy. Living off the grid, so to speak (no electricity, no heat or AC), eating only local produce, and using no transport, not even buses. And, oh yes, no toilet paper. Tough, eh. Well they really did it, and in Manhattan, with a two-year-old child. Seeing is believing... all this week at the Tropic.

THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS is also a documentary, about the well-known director Agnès Varda. Made by Varda herself, the film is more of a cinematic poem than a routine life narrative. We see marvelous scenes like Varda setting up a shot on a beach with vertical mirrors. It doesn't make any sense until the final visual appears, and then we understand. That's the essence of filmmaking: it starts with the director's vision. She is one of the founders of the French New Wave, a friend and colleague of Godard and Belmondo, and was married to Umbrellas of Cherbourg director Jacques Demy. The Beaches, winner of the French Cesar award, is a Valentine to her late husband, and to the art of film.

Speaking of the art of film, Tom Ford's A SINGLE MAN, held over for another week, is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Not because of the scenery but because it is the work of a master designer. That is enough reason to see it. But more than that, it is a moving story of the love between two men, based on an iconic, devastating Isherwood novel that speaks to anyone who has lost a lover. The Tropic's film programmer had his eye on this Venice Film Festival Queer Lion winner from the moment it was announced. Word to the wise: this will probably be its last week here.

This week's opera is Verdi's comic opera FALSTAFF, performed at the Royal Opera House in Liège, Belgium. That's Tuesday night.

And the Monday Night Classic is Carole Lombard and Federic March in NOTHING SACRED, a 1937 screwball comedy written by Ben Hecht, with a score by Oscar Levant.

Comments, please, to
[from Key West, the newspaper -]

No Impact Man (Rhoades)

“No Impact Man” Makes Impact
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If you’re a fan of the Ed Begley Jr. TV series on Discovery’s Planet Green channel, this documentary may seem a tad familiar. While unrelated, “No Impact Man” also tells the story of a guy who decides to go green to the consternation of his less-than-committed wife.
Author Colin Beavan decides to live for one year in a way that makes zero impact on the environment. “I’m trying to live a life in line with my values,” he says in the beginning of the film.

A daunting task, for he vows to give up automated transportation, electricity, toilet paper, disposable razors, plastic bags, non-local food, magazines, and materialistic consumption. However, the challenge increases when he factors in his “espresso-guzzling, Prada-worshipping wife Michelle, and their young toddler.”

Directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein capture the good intentions, family strain, and angst as Beavan turns his family’s life upside down in this one-man attempt to save the planet.
“No Impact Man” – the documentary of Beavan’s do-good experiment – is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

What makes this film interesting is the comedy that infuses this environmental viewpoint. Not preachy, no arm-twisting. But despite Beavan’s good intentions being challenged by his spouse, you’ll get the message that every individual can do his or her part.

“We’re just cutting down too many trees,” he says. “We need the trees to save the planet. And the polar bears.”

The film is based on Colin Beavan’s book, “No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.” Too bad trees were cut down to make the paper used to publish Beavan’s book. Life isn’t perfect.
[from Solares Hill]

No Impact Man (comments)

Would you consider becoming a No Impact Man (or woman)?

Beaches of Agnes (Rhoades)

“Beaches of Agnes” Beachheads at Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Filmmaker Agnès Varda opens her autobiographical film by saying, “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plumb and talkative, telling her life story.” Yet, she professes, it is other people that she’s really interested in, others who intrigue her.

She says looking at others is like looking at landscapes. But when she looks within herself, she sees beaches. Thus, the title of this documentary, “The Beaches of Agnès” (“Les plages d’Agnès”). It’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Agnès toddles around a sandy beach, setting up mirrors and frames facing the sea. The mirrors symbolize a camera reflecting what they see. She walks backward to signal going back in time. She invites circus acrobats onto this beach that represents her life. She sails a boat from Sete to Paris as an allegory of the journey of her career.

She wants this portrait to show her as if reflected in an old mirror, showing that familiar bowl-shaped haircut, her scarf blowing in the wind. She says the mirrors remind her of her parents’ bedroom in Brussels where she grew up.

If you’re a cinephile, you probably know Agnès Varda from her films. “Cleo from 5 to 7,” “Le Bonheur,” and “Vagabond” are among her classics.

She was married to a famous French director (Jacques Demy), covered the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, and supported feminism when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. Her first film, 1954’s “La Pointe Courte,” is considered a stylistic precursor to the French New Wave films.

This is not her first foray into biographical films. She created an excellent documentary about her late husband, “The Universe of Jacques Demy.” And her documentary “The Gleaners and I” offered a tantalizing glimpse into her then-life.

She says of her early days as a filmmaker, “I had seen very few films, which, in a way, gave me both the naivety and the daring to do what I did.” So it’s not surprising that her films have a distinct experimental style about them.

“The Beaches of Agnès” typifies that experimentation. A most unusual – and fascinating – approach to a self-portrait.
[from Solares Hill]

Beaches of Agnes (comments)

What did you think of Agnes Varda's "autobiography?"

Nine (Rhoades)

“Nine” Counts on Fellini-esque Tale
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If you were doing Federico Fellini’s classic film “8 1/2” one better, what would you call the result? In this case, “Nine.”

“8 1/2” was a surrealistic autobiography of the Italian film director.

“Nine” tells us about Guido Contini, a famous director who is struggling to find harmony between his professional and personal lives. Or at least the women in his life.

You can catch this kick-up-its-heels pseudo-biography at the Tropic Cinema.

Daniel Day-Lewis, complete with black hat, portrays the ersatz Fellini.

And, ah, the women!

We meet his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his film star muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidant and costume designer (Judi Dench), an American fashion journalist (Kate Hudson), the whore from his youth (Fergie), and his mother (Sophia Loren).

Guido wrestles with a maddening midlife crises while at the same time struggling to produce his next movie.

“Nine” is based on a Broadway musical. The 1982 production, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, won five Tony Awards (including Best Musical).

This film version is director Rob Marshall’s latest foray into Hollywood musicals. As you’ll recall, his “Chicago” won 6 Academy Awards.

“Nine” succeeds in transforming reality into fantasy. The musical numbers have been called “magical.” A seamless production, you never ask yourself why the people are suddenly bursting into song or dance.

Casting the film was as big a challenge for Marshall as it is for fictional Guido: Antonio Banderas (who had starred in the Broadway production) was disappointed when he didn’t get the film role. Javaier Bardem had won the lead, but dropped out due to exhaustion. Intense actor Daniel Day-Lewis was a long shot, until he sent producers a video of him singing (who woulda thought?).

Penelope Cruz auditioned for the part of the muse but was cast as the mistress. Marion Cotillard auditioned for the confidant but wound up as the wife. Demi Moore auditioned but didn’t make the cut. Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman, Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams, and Katie Holmes were considered for roles but lost out.

Looks like Rob Marshall could wind up with as many women problems as Guido. Or Fellini himself.

Nine (comments)

Check out Nine, and let us have your thoughts.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Week of January 22 to January 28 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic's going to keep you busy this week, with four new films.

Topping the schedule is Tom Ford's A SINGLE MAN, based on Christopher Isherwood's story of a gay man coping with the death of his partner. There are two marvels in this movie. One is Colin Firth in the title role, who is raking in awards for his remarkably restrained, nuanced performance, a very likely Oscar nominee.

The other is the phenomenal Midas-talent of Tom Ford. This now 48-year-old man from New Mexico first conquered the world of fashion at Gucci and YSL, then the world of retailing with his own lines and shops, and now the world of film. In its first festival appearance, at Venice, A Single Man was nominated for the Golden Lion top prize and ran away with the Queer Lion for, guess what? Like Brokeback Mountain, it is a gay-themed movie that transcends the category. Ford not only directed the movie; he also co-wrote it. Might I add also that he financed it himself? And that, according to people who have known him for years, he's modest and approachable?

What's next? Can you imagine what a sytlish political campaign he might run?

YOUNG VICTORIA celebrates another iconic figure, the Queen who would define an era. Her reign was in the same century as Jane Austen and the Brontes, whose lovingly portrayed novels have become almost of genre of their own in recent years. But why trifle with the lives of mere commoners when there's an even greater story at the top of the heap. Anglophiles rejoice. This is Britain at its finest, ruling a broader swath of the world than any nation before (or, probably, ever after), portrayed with sumptous sets and scenery. The story of the child-queen, and how she managed to find both love and the spine to rule this empire, is one for the ages.

Pity poor Elizabeth II, with her humbled kingdom and fusty Philip. She had her movie (The Queen), an excellent film, but a paltry affair compared to this. Emily Blunt in the title role is short-listed for Best Actress.

STILL WALKING does what foreign filmmakers seem to do much better than we can: take a family story and turn around and around, examining it like a cut diamond so we can appreciate its varied facets. No movie stars, no montages, no cinematic tricks, just life.... revealed. The focus here is on the family tensions that persist years after the favored son has died drowning while rescuing an errant swimmer. The family gathers annually to honor their fallen hero, but it's more a repeated wake than a joy, no less so when the saved man appears. He's not worth the trade, they (and we) feel, and he knows it himself. Roger Ebert calls it "a magnificent new film from Japan." I agree.

KILLING KAZTNER: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis , is a documentary that takes us into a very different world, a post-holocast sorting out of the difference between morality and immorality, in a world where morals seem to have disappeared. Rezco Kasztner rescued a trainload of Jews, but at what price? As a filmgoer I sometimes wonder if holocast movies will ever end. But then I realize that they are not so much about that horrible series of events as they are about probing the nature of man.

The new series of Tropic Talks, live video Q & A sessions with filmmakers, this week features Gaylen Ross, the writer-director of Killing Katzner. She'll be up on the screen, live from New York, at 8pm on Saturday following the 6pm screening of her film. A wonderful chance to do your own probing of a controversial subject.

Full schedules and info at
Comments, please, to

A Single Man (Rhoades)

“A Single Man” In a Single Day
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Sometimes a guy isn’t married for a reason. That’s the case in “A Single Man.”

This is the story of George (a nice performance by Colin Firth), a gay middle-aged college professor who is coming to terms with the death of his longtime partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Consumed by loneliness and questions about the future, George contemplates suicide. Before meeting his friend Charlotte (Julienne Moore) for dinner, he has an encounter with a male prostitute (Jon Kortajarena). Meanwhile, he’s being stalked by a young college student (Nicholas Hoult) who suspects a kinship.

“A Single Man” can be found playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Colin Firth came to our attention as Darcy in the BBC-TV production of “Pride and Prejudice.” His stock as a film star rose after his appearance as the suitor in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” He was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew in the recent Disney’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Matthew Goode is an up-and-comer, currently the romantic lead in the new Amy Adams comedy, “Leap Year.”

Julienne Moore has appeared in many notable films, ranging from “Short Cuts” to “Jurassic Park.” She’s also one of the faces for Revlon.

Noted fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with “A Single Man.” No, it’s not autobiographical for Ford. He based the film on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood.

Literary critic Edmund White (a longtime Key West visitor) has called it “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement.”

The film is achieving its own kudos, having picked up several Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards so far. Ford is hoping for an Academy Award nomination. Maybe.

Set in Southern California during the ’60s, the sets were designed by the team who did TV’s “Mad Men,” a show that takes place in the same era. A highly stylized view, the visuals nearly overwhelm the story.

This being Ford’s first film, he financed it himself. But the result – a tender story of loneliness and loss – is more than an ego piece by a rich designer. Ford might just be tempted to abandon the fashion world for a film career.
[from Solares Hill]

A Single Man (comments)

I bet you have something to say about this film. Let us hear it.

The Young Victoria (Rhoades)

Young Emily Blunt Plays “Young Victoria”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I think I know more about the English throne than about my own family’s genealogy. After all, I’ve seen all the movies: “Elizabeth,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” “The Virgin Queen,” “The Madness of King George,” “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Becket,” “The Lion in Winter,” “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” “The Other Boleyn Girl” – even “The Queen.”

Now we have “Young Victoria.” It’s currently holding court at the Tropic Cinema.
This is the dramatization of the tumultuous early years of Queen Victoria’s reign and her enduring romance with Prince Albert.

British-born Emily Blunt wears the crown this time around. You’ll recall her as the snippy assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada” and as the slacker sister in “Sunshine Cleaning.”

The 27-year-old actress has had practice. Her previous assignments have included TV’s “The Royal Family” and “Henry VIII.” And Blunt is best known for playing manipulative characters, good practice for a queen.

As a child, Emily Blunt suffered from a stutter. It was only when an acting teacher asked the 12-year-old girl to perform in a play using a different voice (a northern England accent, as it happens) that the stammer disappeared.

How did she snag the lead in “Young Victoria”? “My agent sent me the script and I really fell in love with her and the script,” says Blunt. “It seemed to be a very intimate portrait of a girl, rather than a queen. She was a girl who was under duress and huge pressure, and she was in love, so there was so much to play with and I knew it was such a rare find. I had to be quite pushy about getting them to cast me.”

Oops, maybe those manipulative roles were simply method acting, practice for getting these plum parts.

So what did she know about Queen Victoria before reading the script? “I didn’t know very much. I knew about the old lady with the thing on her head, looking really grumpy. I knew that she wore black and she had nine children. And, I knew that
Albert had died young. That’s all I knew.

“I remember my mom telling me about the fact that they had this incredibly loving, passionate relationship... But then, when I started reading about her, I was so surprised to see that she was the antithesis to what I imagined her to be. Everyone knows about the mourning and the grief, but no one knows why… When he died, she literally said, ‘How am I supposed to go on when half of my soul is gone? How am I supposed to live when half of my soul does not exist anymore?’ And, she really meant it. She never recovered. I think that’s what I loved about the film. It gives people an indication as to why she mourned him as ferociously as she did.”

Hm, maybe there’s more to learn about the British royal family than I thought.
[from Solares Hill]

The Young Victoria (comments)

What did you think of The Young Victoria?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Killing Kasztner (Rhoades)

“Killing Kasztner” Is Untold History
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama. You remember it, the pretty-much-true story about Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of some 1,200 Polish Jews by employing them in his factories during World War II.

But have you ever heard of Dr. Rezsö Israel Kasztner, a Hungarian lawyer who saved 1,685 Jews by shipping them to Switzerland on a train?
Similar stories, right?

Not really. Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, was hailed as a hero for his manipulation of the Gestapo to save Jewish lives. While Kasztner, himself a Jew, was branded a traitor because he’d negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in order to save the lives of his Jewish countrymen. And rather than being regaled as a hero, he was murdered for this so-called collaboration with the Nazis.

The story is told in “Killing Kasztner,” a documentary that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

To make this film, American director Gaylen Ross traveled to Jerusalem to meet with survivors who rode the Kasztner Train, as well as with Kasztner’s family and Ze’ev Eckstein, the man who killed him.

Until now, Ross was better known as an actress, the star of “Dawn of the Dead” and “Creepshow.” But here she gives us a real-life horror story – the Holocaust.
In 1944, twelve thousand Hungarian Jews a day were being shipped to their deaths in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. A small Zionist rescue group called Va'adat Ezrah Vehatzalah (Vaada) was attempting to save people from this fate. One of the group’s leaders, Rezsö Kasztner, entered into negotiations with SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann,

Eichmann was willing to barter Jewish lives for war materials. “Goods for blood, blood for goods,” he called it. He offered to sell one-million Jewish lives for 10,000 trucks.
When Kasztner couldn’t get the Allies to come up with the trucks, he raised private funds, enough to buy a trainload of Jews otherwise destined for Auschwitz. Made up of rabbis and scholars and family and friends, he called it Noah’s Ark. The 1,685 people on the train cost $1,000 per head. Kasztner stayed behind.

At first Eichmann detoured the train to Bergen-Belsen, another death camp, his intention to hold the passengers captive until he got his payment. Eventually, the train was released and made it ways to the safety of Switzerland.

Years later, Kasztner was accused of having “sold his soul to the Devil,” allowing millions of Jews to die in order to save his trainload. By then serving as a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry, he was forced to clear his name. The trial didn’t go well, but the verdict was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in January 1958 in a vote of 4 to 1.

Kasztner didn’t live to see this reversal. Reviled by his compatriots, he was spat upon and pushed off buses, his daughter harassed at school. Then on March 15, 1957, he was shot in front of his Tel Aviv home by an assassin who had been a child living in Palestine at the time of the Holocaust.

This documentary not only records the praise of Jewish survivors for Kasztner, but the accusations of his detractors. And in a stunning scene, it brings Kasztner’s daughter and three grandchildren face to face with the man who murdered him.

“Killing Kasztner” is fascinating as it unfolds a page of nearly forgotten history. I’d love to see what Steven Spielberg could do with this story.
[from Solares Hill]

Killing Kasztner (comments)

Please let us have your thoughts on this film.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Week of Jan. 15 to Jan. 21 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

For its first five years (2004-2009) the Tropic was a secret spot for local film fans. Behind a little façade blossomed almost 9,000 square feet of viewing pleasure. But I would sometimes hear tourists murmuring, "What's that, a porn house?" Now, with the addition of a new theater and a doubling of the frontage, the secret is out. Passersby on the 400 block of Eaton Street see a phalanx of poster boxes for seven first class films, boldly announcing that this is a place demanding your attention.

That's especially true this weekend, when they dedicate the new Peggy Dow Theater with a celebration and a Peggy Dow Film Festival. Peggy Dow was on contract at Universal Studios from 1949 to 1951. Her career started when she appeared in the long-forgotten noir thriller Undertow -- along with a bit player then named Roc Hudson. She would later go out with Hudson ("the perfect date," she acknowledges), star in movies with Dick Powell, Arthur Kennedy and James Stewart, and take over the cover of Life magazine. All within two years. She then left Hollywood, married Tulsa oilman Walter Helmerich, raise five sons, and barely looked back. She wasn't a mere star, she was a blazing meteor.

This Friday and Saturday (January 15-16) is your chance -- very likely your only chance -- to meet the still lovely Peggy. On Friday, she'll be at a benefit, meeting guests and being interviewed on stage, before a screening of her most famous film, HARVEY. (A few tickets may still be available. Call the box office at 294-5857.) And then on Saturday, it's a Peggy Film Festival all free! They'll be showing four of her best films, and she'll greet the audience and introduce each one. Saturday's festival is all in the intimate new Peggy Dow Theater.

The Saturday lineup of free films starts with the tale of the famed invisible rabbit HARVEY. Next up is YOU NEVER CAN TELL, in which Miss Peggy falls for Dick Powell, a Tulsa oilman (wink, wink). Then BRIGHT VICTORY, where her male lead and love-interest is a blinded WW II veteran. And finally, WOMAN IN HIDING, in which she's the bad girl in the path of nice Ida Lupino. See them all if you want, all free. But seats are limited.

Of course the regular movie program continues (except for Friday, when the theater closes at 4:00pm for the gala benefit). Newly opening is GARBAGE DREAMS, a documentary about a huge group of people in Cairo who make their living collecting garbage and recycling it. These Zaballeen ("garbage people" in Arabic) manage to recycle 80% of their collections, compared to the 20% rate achieved by even aggressive American systems. But the Zaballeen are being replaced by government-paid corporate contractors in an attempt to modernize the system. The movie premiered last week in a benefit at the Tropic, and was so well received, they've booked it for a regular run. The director Mai Iskander has just been nominated for the Directors Guild best film award.

Also showing are holdover screenings of INVICTUS, UP IN THE AIR, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, and THE MAID. I've already written about all these, a wide selection with something for everyone.

This week's Monday Night Classic is Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood.

The European Opera Series also resumes this week, with a Tuesday night performance of Monteverdi's L' ORFEO from La Scala in Milan.

Comments, please, to

Harvey and Peggy Dow (Rhoades)

“Harvey” Remains Peggy Dow’s Fav Film
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Do you believe in Pookas? C’mon, you know what a Pooka is, don’t you?

Well, Púca is an Old Irish name for a ghost. The basis for Puck, the mischievous nature sprite featured in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But the Pooka you know best is that six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall invisible rabbit who palled around with Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) in the classic 1950 movie comedy “Harvey.”

Directed by Henry Koster, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase, it tells the story of a simple-but-kind off-center guy who worries his sister (Josephine Hull) with his insistence about having a Pooka as his best friend. Too much drink or a touch of dementia?

Either way, his sister decides to lock him up in a sanitarium for his own good.

The good doctor (Charles Drake) commits the sister instead when she admits to possibly having seen this giant rabbit called Harvey herself. Meanwhile, the nurse is having her own problems in the romantic department with the distracted doc.

Nurse Kelly was played with great charm by actress Peggy Dow – who happens to be coming to Key West this Friday to host a special showing of “Harvey” at the Tropic Cinema. It’s part of the christening of the new Peggy Dow Theater wing at the Tropic (see accompanying article).

As the last surviving cast member, Peggy will share fond memories about working with Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull. “He was absolutely the dearest guy,” she says of Stewart. “He was so funny. He had not a narcissistic bone in his body. He was not glitzy. He was elegant, but he wasn’t a Hollywood type. He was a true hero, had several missions over Germany.”

Known these days as Mrs. Walter Helmerich of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Peggy Dow is the mother of the Tropic’s executive director Matthew Helmerich.

“Working with Jimmy was just magical,” she remembers. “My heart didn’t stop racing until the movie was over. He was so generous with young actresses and actors. And he was so funny. He’d challenge us to kiss our elbow or touch our tongue to our nose – he could! He was a scream. He kept all of us upbeat.”

Although Peggy confesses “Jimmy was never quite satisfied with his performance in ‘Harvey,’” the America Film Institute rates it as the seventh Best Fantasy Film ever made.

The nurse in “Harvey” turned out to be her most famous role. And her favorite. “I have to tell you, I got the part because of Walt Helmerich,” she refers to her husband. “I’d just received notice that I was going to be an Indian princess in a picture with Van Heflin and I was going to be the second lead. Typical of what Hollywood does, I was to play an Indian maiden and I’m Norwegian looking. So I was going to get a black wig and all kinds of dark markup. Of course I was a perfect Indian! And Walt came into the little setting with my agent, and they said, Guess what, you just got the part of Nurse Kelly in ‘Harvey.’ And I said, I don’t won’t the part of Nurse Kelly in ‘Harvey.’ That’s a secondary part. Here I am, the lead in a great cowboy movie and I’ll be the Indian princess. And Walt said, You idiot, you’ve got to do this, it’s going to be a classic. It’ll be shown 50 years from now. And he was right.” With a wink, she adds, “That once.”

Born Margaret Josephine Varnadow on March 18, 1928, in Columbia, Mississippi, Peggy’s family subsequently settled in Louisiana. “My mother felt that every girl should learn to play the piano, speak French, know all kinds of verse, and cook an eight-course meal,” she says. So she attended a girls’ finishing school in Gulfport, Mississippi, then went on to college (Louisiana State and Northwestern State University), majoring in drama and appearing in several college plays.

After a brief stint of modeling and some radio experience, she was spotted by a talent agent and cast in a TV show in February 1949, a sitcom episode called “The Mummy’s Foot.” Shortly after that exposure, Universal-International Studios offered her a seven-year contract.

“We were all so excited about it,” she says of the seven-year deal. “We didn’t think about the consequences of how long that might be.”

Those were the days when studios ruled their contract players. “The studio made all the decisions,” she explains. “They decided who you’d be seen with, where you would go. We all had drama lessons, and we had speech lessons, and we had horseback riding, tap dancing, ballet, almost everything.”

The contract players were divided up into classes. “In our group, Rock Hudson was there, and Tony Curtis. A young actress by the name of Piper Laurie, Peggy Castle, Dorothy Hart.”
She describes Rock Hudson as the perfect date: “He was a great dancer, made wonderful conversation, and after dinner would drop you off at your door.”

In her first movie “Woman in Hiding” (actually released as her second picture after “Undertow”), she co-stars with Scott McNally, Howard Duff, and Ida Lupino. “I called my mother and said, Mom, I’m so thrilled. You will love this. I have a wonderful part in a movie and it’s the other woman. And there came a great silence, I didn’t hear a word. I said, Mom, are you there? She said, You know this is terrible, you’ve got to get the good girl part. I said, I would but Ida Lupino already got the good girl part. Then I said, Mom, don’t worry, Bette Davis got started that way. She replied, I don’t know Bette Davis.”

Despite a promising career as an actress (“so much going for her -- beauty, brains and talent,” notes her biography on IMDb), after three years in Hollywood she gave it all up and retired to a domestic life as Mrs. Walter Helmerich.

How did an Oklahoma oilman woo a movie star who would appear on the cover of Life Magazine? Peggy grins at the memory. “I had come to New York for the first time in my life. We were making a movie that was called ‘Night in the City,’ about drugs in Bellevue Hospital. I was twenty or twenty-one at the time. They put us up in the Waldorf Astoria. Well, I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven. They were having parties for us, just the best time. We’d go to dinner at the 21 Club.

“One night I got a phone call from my friend Nina Foch. She was engaged to Richard Conte’s brother and Richard was in the movie with me. She said, I know you don’t do blind dates but I want you to go with us to see the opening of the play ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ starring this new girl Carol Channing. Afterwards we’ll all go to a party at the St. Regis and wait for the reviews.

“My date was a Broadway producer named Tony Farrell, a very nice guy, a real angel. We’re at the St. Regis and sitting across the table from me are Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jessica Tandy and her husband Hume Cronyn, writer Edna Ferber, and that loud singer – what was her name? – Ethel Merman. It was just fabulous. I couldn’t believe we were really there.

“And here comes this blonde babe, this Lana Turner type with too much décolletage, sweeping down the stairs, flanked by two really good-looking young men. One was movie columnist Army Archer and the other one was Walt Helmerich. I thought I’d seen him somewhere before, but couldn’t place it.

“We were just absolutely mesmerized as she works her way to my table and said something rather nice to my escort like, Tony Darling, I want to be in your next play. And proceeded to look down at me and say, Oh excuse me, dear. And I looked up and here was this young man that I could have sworn I’d seen before and he said, Hi, I’m Walt Helmerich, would you like to dance? And I looked over at Nina and she said, Watch out, dear. So I said, All right, I’ll dance one dance. As it turned out, my escort was occupied, so we danced a lot.”

“Then I remembered where I’d seen him before. I went to a girls’ school in Gulfport, Mississippi, near Kessler Field, during the war. I was about fifteen years old and we all thought it was wonderful to sit up in this big high smoker room about the third floor and watch all the dates come in. And Walt Helmerich would get out of his convertible and put his gray coat collar up and swagger down with an officer’s hat on and take out some Oklahoma City girls And we’d shout, Who’s the lucky one tonight, honey? And guess what, there he was dancing with me at the St. Regis. It’s a small world.”

“Well, next morning Walt sent me a four-page telegram of flight numbers showing how I could come through Tulsa on my way back to California. I asked my mother what should I do? He’d been terribly nice to me in New York. She said, Well, Sweetheart, if you want to stop, pick out a short time so you won’t be committed. So I picked out a thirty-minute slot. The plane landed and he was there and I said, Oh gosh, it’s nice to see you, we just have time for a Coke. And we were sitting there drinking a Coca-Cola when this voice comes on the loudspeaker and says, I’m sorry but Flight so-and-so to Los Angeles will be delayed, we have some mechanical troubles. I looked at him and said, Did you do this, Walt? He laughed and said he wished he had the power. So I was there four hours. I met his mother, I met his father!”

At this point, Walter Helmerich speaks up. “She fabricates a lot,” he chuckles. “When I went to Harvard Business School, you could live off-campus. Three of us guys had this house. I saw this picture of this beautiful Hollywood actress in the Boston Globe and I cut it out and put it on my wardrobe where I would see it every morning as I dressed. My roommate’s dad had produced ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ so we got invited to the premiere. There I am at the party and who do I see but the girl from the picture on my wardrobe – Peggy.”

Two and a half years later -- “after a very bumpy courtship,” she jokes – they were married.
She credits her co-star Dick Powell with the success of her 58-year marriage. “Oh, he was so funny and just darling. He was married to June Allyson. And they used to ask us up to their hilltop home. And Natalie Wood would walk in, she was fifteen. And Robert Wagner … was cute as pie ... they were so beautiful and so young and really fun.”

Dick Powell had been married several times. “He kept saying to me, What are you doing in this business? For heavens sake, go away, don’t stay in this business. And I’d say, Wait a minute, I’m going to be a great actress. And he’d say, Can you think of about five people on one hand that are still married and haven’t been married 14 times to different people? When I thought about it, I couldn’t. So I quit Hollywood.”

But she left us with “Harvey” and a dozen or so other films.
[from Solares Hill]

The Lady Vanishes (Rhoades)

“Lady Vanishes” – Hitchcock at his Best

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I like to remind you from time to time about the oldie-but-goodie films – mostly classics – that play every Monday night at the Tropic Cinema. Sure, you can catch them on the Turner Classic Movies channel, but you’ll miss that magical experience of seeing them in a darkened theater they way they were meant to be shown.

Don’t discount the movie experience. No interruptions by the telephone. No friends dropping by in the middle of a crucial scene. No distractions, as you mentally put yourself into the film, letting your imagination soar along with the director’s vision, watching those fascinating actors up there on that big screen.

This Monday night the Tropic is offering up an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, “The Lady Vanishes.” One of Hitch’s earlier films, it happens to be one of my favorites.

This 1938 thriller came during the period of his career that has been designated “Becoming a Master of Suspense,” that 1934-1939 era that produced such films as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (his first version), “The 39 Steps,” and “Secret Agent.” This was just before David Selznick invited him to Hollywood to seek a wider audience.

“The Lady Vanishes” has been called “near flawless.”

You remember the story: A young British woman (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an older lady (Dame May Whitty) on a train across Eastern Europe. But after a flowerpot bonks our heroine on the head, she wakes up to find this Miss Froy missing, with someone else taking her place. The other passengers act strangely, from the troupe of magicians to the brain surgeon traveling with a nun. Only a music scholar (Michael Redgrave) steps to her aid, listening to her wild tale about the missing Miss Froy.

Of course, there’s espionage afoot. But Hitchcock keeps us guessing in this film that sealed his reputation as a master of suspense. It won the New York Critic’s Award and Hitchcock was hailed as the best director of the year.

“People think I’m a monster,” Alfred Hitchcock once said, a touch of pride in his voice. He was noted for his disdain for actors (“cattle,” he called them) and he didn’t really care what drove the plot (the “MacGuffin”). His films often dealt with duplicity, psychos, and murder most foul.

He often insisted these films were “not slices of life, but pieces of cake” – made strictly for people to enjoy.

Hitchcock makes his famous appearance in “The Lady Vanishes” near the end, seen standing in Victoria Station, smoking a cigarette. He later moved his appearance earlier in his films so as not to distract audiences waiting for his cameo.

Orson Welles is said to have seen “The Lady Vanishes” eleven times. And James Thurber reportedly saw it twice as many as that.

So another viewing may be in order for you too.
[from Solares Hill]

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Week of Jan. 8 to Jan. 14 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Director Terry Gilliam's first movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, maybe the ultimate in brilliant satire, and that offbeat quality runs through all his work.

My favorite Gilliam scene is from the movie Brazil, which portrays a 1984-style future society controlled by all-knowing thought police. Because terrorism is so rampant, people have begun to take it in stride. In one scene a group of refined ladies are having an elegant lunch when a bomb goes off in the dining room. No matter. They simply continue to eat, while a waiter fetches a folding screen to close off the exploded area. Though made almost 25 years ago, the satire of Brazil is spookily relevant today.

Gilliam's new film THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, takes us on a visually dazzling carnival trip that is being billed as "a fantastical morality tale." Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus, a carny magician who has made a pact with the Devil (Tom Waits), giving him immortality and a great show. The starring role of Tony, a young hustler who spices up the show, was meant to be played by Heath Ledger, but he died half-way through the filming. The script was then tweaked to allow a group of his friends to share portrayal of the character in fantasy scenes. What friends! Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. It's a trip... in all senses of the word.

If you prefer real people, doing real things (no C.G.I.), THE MAID will be more to your liking. Raquel is the live-in nanny and maid to a well-off family. She's been there for twenty years, and raised the kids. She's part of the family, but not. Even when they try to celebrate her birthday, she jumps up in the middle to wash the dishes. All this neat separation of functions begins to unravel when Raquel is injured and the family brings in a helper to lighten her load. With Raquel displeased and threatened, it seems that Steven King has taken over the script as Raquel segues into RaquHell. First time director Sebastian Silva has told interviewers that the movie was based on his own growing up in Chile. But he now lives in New York and says he'll never have a live-in maid. (Subtitled Spanish)

Special Events? Yes, starting with a hi def screening of the newly released LEONARD COHEN: LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT, 1970. Cohen is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Grammys (along with Loretta Lynn and Michael Jackson) and he's still performing, with a European tour scheduled this spring, But this 1970 concert has been called his seminal performance. Shot by music documentarian Murray Lerner, whose work covers musicians from Isaac Stern to Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull, the film captures Cohen's 2:00 am performance, and adds interviews with Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and Judy Collins. It'll be shown twice, on Friday and again on Saturday, at 10:00pm each night.

Then on Sunday, the Tropic is initiating the first in a new twist on its Visiting Filmmaker Series. At 7:00pm, they'll be screening the award-winning documentary GARBAGE DREAMS, which chronicles life in the Cairo underworld of garbage collection, where humans trump rats as the ultimate recyclers. Following the film, the producer/director Mai Iskander will join the audience live for a Q & A via cyberspace transmission. She'll be up on the big screen at the theater, and she'll be able to see and hear the audience on her end. This special screening will be a benefit for two of our local environmental groups, Last Stand and GLEE, as well as the Tropic. Only ten bucks, for a good cause and a film that is more intriguing that you might imagine.

The Monday Night Classic is the much censored (at the time) THE OUTLAW, starring buxom Jane Russell. UP IN THE AIR and INVICTUS continue for another week.

Full schedules and info at
Comments, please, to

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Rhoades)

“Imaginarium” Sparks Your Imagination
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Yesterday I watched a marathon of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” episodes plus the 6-part documentary, “Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut).” My ribs hurt.

The six members of the comedy troupe introduced a new form of British humor. Terry Gilliam was the brash American member of the group. It was Gilliam who was responsible for all those weird little animations that accompanied their popular TV show.

When the Monty Python guys moved into movies, Gilliam helped with the directing chores. As co-director of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” he found it difficult to share the duties with chum Terry Jones. After all, he was a man with his own unique vision.

Eventually, Gilliam began directing his own films. “Brazil” is one of his best, a satiric sci-fi fantasy about futuristic bureaucracy. “The Fisher King,” a modern-day Arthurian fable, is another worth watching on a Saturday afternoon. And his cynical “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” chronicled the adventures Key West regular Hunter S. Thompson.

This time around he gives us “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” a visually stunning fantasy about a traveling theatre troupe led by Doctor Parnassus, an old humbug who offers unsuspecting members of the public a chance to enter a magical mirror to strange worlds of almost hallucinatory beauty. He calls this other side of the looking glass “the Imaginarium.”

But it turns out that Parnassus’s magical powers were granted by the Devil, who’s now back to collect on the bargain. The price: His daughter Valentina.

Despite all the subplots, the film is really about Parnassus’s mission to save Valentina from the Devil. Gilliam sums it up as “simply a man looking for his daughter.”

Gilliam’s cast is fascinating: Christopher Plummer as the aforementioned Dr. Parnassus. A pencil-thin-mustachioed Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, the devil. Andrew Garfield as the annoying Anton. Lily Cole as the beauteous Valentina. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell as Imaginarium Tonys #1, #2, and #3. And Heath Ledger as Tony on this side of the mirror.
Gilliam insists this is not Ledger’s film, it is about Dr. Parnassus. Perhaps that’s a bit of expectation control, given Ledger’s masterful performances as the gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” and as the maniacal Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

When Ledger passed away (a sensational National Inquirer-style death), he had only filmed one-third of his scenes, none of them within the Imaginarium. But Gilliam came up with an imaginative solution: Every time Tony steps inside the magic mirror, he looks just like Johnny Depp, Jude Law, or Colin Farrell.

Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus like “a washed-up Prospero, a brilliant dreamer who has lost his ability to mesmerize and charm” – an obvious metaphor for Gilliam himself. It’s been a long time since his last hit.

While very entertaining, in its own hallucinatory way, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” unfortunately won’t break that unlucky streak at the box office.
[from Solares Hill]

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The is something, isn't it. What did you think?

Garbage Dreams (Rhoades)

“Garbage Dreams” Offers Heap of Info
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

For those of you who live within the shadow of Key West’s Mount Trashmore, the idea of a documentary about garbage dumps in Egypt may seem far removed. But it’s worth a viewing, this intriguing look at three teenage trash collectors living in the world’s largest trash village.

“Garbage Dreams” – with ten festival wins so far as Best Documentary – is playing today at the Tropic Cinema. It’s being presented as a fundraiser for GLEE, Last Stand, and the Tropic.

Directed by Mia Iskander, you will learn about the Egyptian trash industry, where 60,000 Zaballeen (“garbage collectors”) ply their trade. Well ahead of the rapidly globalizing Green Movement, more than 80 percent of the garbage they collect is recycled. But they too face changes that will impact their future.

As Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Academy Award-winner and former Vice-President of the United States, commented: “‘Garbage Dreams’ is a moving story of young men searching for a ways to eke out a living for their families and facing tough choices as they try to do the right thing for the planet. Mai Iskander guides us into a ‘garbage village,’ a place so different from our own, and yet the choices they face there are so hauntingly familiar. Ultimately, ‘Garbage Dreams’ makes a compelling case that modernization does not always equal progress.”

This is a documentary that stands alongside such recent social commentaries as “Food Inc.” and “The Cove.” It’s sure to win more awards. So mark it on today’s calendar and go get trashy at the Tropic.
[from Solares Hill]

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Week of Jan. 1 to Jan. 7 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic is humming this week, and with the demand, four of the movies are being held over.

Topping the list is the Oscar-bound UP IN THE AIR. It's the feel good movie of the week, with enough of an edge to make you think and talk afterward. Director Jason Reitman, whose first two films were Thank You For Smoking and the crossover megahit Juno, has nailed it again with this story of a corporate hatchetman. George Clooney is the star, but the two female supporting actors, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are perfect foils for his soulless character.

Clint Eastwood's INVICTUS, is an appropriately "joy to the world" film, set at the moment when Nelson Mandela did his best to convert formerly-apartheid South Africa into a One Human Family nation. Morgan Freeman (as Mandela) and Matt Damon (as captain of the national rugby team) are the odd-couple duo who make this happen.

PRECIOUS is one of those special films, not easy to categorize. It's raw, honest and totally original. And it's one of the most talked about movies of the year. First-time actor Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe is an African-American teen seemingly without any basis for hope, who nonetheless finds some.

LA DANSE is the newest documentary from the legendary Frederick Wiseman. Starting with Titicut Follies (filmed in a state hospital for the criminally insane) Wiseman has most often pointed his camera at unappealing aspects of life (the welfare system, intensive care, juvenile justice, domestic violence), but this time he has turned to one of the most beautiful subjects on earth, the Paris Ballet. Join him backstage as the they prepare and present their breathtaking work.

Joining these is RED CLIFF, a sweeping epic set in Third Century China. With a budget of $80 million spent in China it is, in the sense of real value, the most expensive movie ever made. Full of scenes with thousands of extras and modern CGI effects, Red Cliff has become the Titanic of Chinese cinema, breaking all box-office records there. Director John Woo grew up in Hong Kong but he earned his chops in Hollywood, doing such big budget features as Mission Impossible II with Tom Cruise. There is talk that the Chinese government lured him back to help launch a "Chinawood" film industry that can compete with Hollywood and Bollywood, with Red Cliff as the opening wedge. Meanwhile, Woo is scheduled to receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at this year's Venice Film Festival. Seems like another smart move by China.

Special Events fill out the week.

Saturday's Free Kids Matinee has a big hit this week: ICE AGE 2. The ice is melting, Scrat and his buddies have to get out of the flooding valley, and Manny the woolly mammoth has a girlfriend. Fun and FREE for all kids and accompanying adults.

Craig Wanous's Monday Night Classic is a dilly, THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH. A young couple inherit a rundown cinema with a dotty old staff including Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford. You can imagine the rest.

Mark you calendars now for the official opening of the new Peggy Dow Theater (screening room #4 at the Tropic). There are fund-raising events on Friday, Jan. 15, featuring the 1950's movie star Miss Peggy Dow herself. And then on Saturday, Jan. 16, a bevy of Peggy's movies will show all day, free and open to the public.

Top Ten (Rhoades)

My 10 Best List for 2009
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

One of the occupational hazards of being a film critic is that everybody wants to know your favorite movie. Not as simple as it sounds. I like a lot of different genres. When asked this week, I gave a semi-truthful reply: “Casablanca.” The choice of many moviegoers, in fact.

The other occupational hazard is that people expect a film reviewer to offer up a list of his or her Top Ten Picks at the end of the year. Fair enough.

So here’s mine:
[Movies that screened at the Tropic are in boldface]

“Up in the Air.” My pick for Best Film of the Year. George Clooney as a high-flying corporate hatchet man told with style and simplicity. The director of “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking” continues his success with this tale of wrong-headed loneliness.

“Up!” Ed Asner lends his voice as an old-timer who attaches balloons to his house and flies away on a long-postponed adventure in this delightful animated romp.

“Avatar.” James Cameron sets the Pocahontas-Captain John Smith storyline on the distant planet of Pandora, telling it with dazzling technological panache. Call it CGI eye candy. Or a sci-fi blockbuster to rival his “Titanic.”

“The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” Okay, not a masterpiece, but a highly enjoyable movie aimed at tweens and their moms. Vampires meet werewolves in this Romeo and Juliet retelling.

“District 9.” Sci-fi with a fresh viewpoint: Aliens interred in a South African concentration camp. Not your average “E.T. Phone Home” flick.

“The Blind Side.” Sandra Bullock pulls off the impossible: a chick flick combined with a sports movie. You can’t help but love this true-life tale about a family who adopts an oversized black kid into their lily-white lives.

“It’s Complicated.” Meryl Streep at her best in this “relationship movie” from Nancy Myers. This story of two middle-aged exes having an affair gives us a warm-hearted look at modern social mores.

“The Great Buck Howard.” Based on the mentalist known as The Great Kreskin, this ode to show-biz loneliness and bravado is a winner. John Malkovich pulls it off like magic.

“The Informant.” Matt Damon impresses us with his ability to go from the buff “Bourne Identity” superspy to this fat ersatz corporate spy. A funny-but-true story about a bipolar white-collar con man.

“Zombieland.” As funny as “Shaun of the Dead,” this I-want-to-eat-your-brains zombie fest offers the best Bill Murray cameo ever.

That’s my Top Ten.

Want more? Here are some honorable mentions worth catching on the movie channels or Netflix:

“Pirate Radio.” A remembrance of rock ’n roll on the high seas. Phillip Seymour Hoffman entertains as a wacked-out DJ in this fact-based story about an offshore radio station.

“Taking Woodstock.” A remembrance of rock ’n roll in the Catskills. This mostly-true story of how the Woodstock Festival came to be is as nostalgic as a relit reefer.

“Invictus.” Morgan Freeman channels Nelson Mandela in this South African rugby story. Matt Damon shows up as the determined-to-win team captain.

“Paranormal Activity.” This scary little movie made on only $11,000 proves you don’t have to have a big budget to do big box office.

“Star Trek.” J.J. Abrams pays homage to this outer-space classic by offering up a double dose of Mr. Spock. A successful reboot of the franchise.

“Precious.” A much-abused ghetto girl finds faith in herself. Director Les Daniels gives Mo’Nique a plum role that makes Joan Crawford look like Mother of the Year.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Wes Anderson uses stop-motion animation to tell this Roald Dahl animal fable. George Cooney and Meryl Streep provide the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Fox.

“Hangover.” A silly road trip movie that’s really funny. Everything that could go wrong in Vegas does. Bradley Cooper emerges as a new Leading Man Lite.

“Taken.” Liam Neeson kicks butt in this thriller about a father saving his kidnapped daughter. Non-stop action that doesn’t allow us to catch our breath.

“Gran Torino.” Clint Eastwood makes our day in this vigilante vignette about an aging vet who takes on dangerous neighborhood punks.

“The Cove.” A documentary that may save the dolphin.

“Food Inc.” The documentary that convinced my wife to become a vegetarian.

“Frost-Nixon.” Michael Sheen and Frank Langella channel the glib talk show host and the former president of the United States. A 2008 film that made it to Key West earlier this year.

“The Wrestler.” Mickey Rourke in his comeback role as “a washed-up piece of meat” shows us that all wrestling isn’t fake. Another last-year’s film.

“Inglorious Basterds.” Quentin Tarantino delivers a World War II yarn that audaciously kills off Hitler. What balls!

What do these movies have in common? “Up in the Air” and “Up!” are pretty different, despite the similarity of titles. “Invictus” and “District 9” are both set in South Africa, but one’s a true story and the other science fiction.

I think the thread that stitches these disparate films together is their ability to seamlessly transport us to another existence. A world of imagination that thrills, inspires, and entertains. And these films do it better than most.
[from Solares Hill]

Red Cliff (Rhoades)

“Red Cliff” Called Chinese Braveheart
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My buddy John Hang likes to joke that he’s a minority, but I point out there’s more Chinese in the world than anyone else. You’ll certainly get that idea with “Red Cliff,” the Chinese-made movie that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema. The well-choreographed battle scenes feature a cast of thousands.

The year is 208 A.D., the narrative tells us as the film unfolds. After years of civil war a deathly calm has fallen over northern China. Even the Han emperor bows to Prime Minister Cao Cao’s tyranny. Not satisfied with his power, Cao Cao declares a new war against the peaceful people of the south.

What makes this more than another subtitled Chinese import is its director, John Woo. All of you action fans out there know Woo’s work, from his two-gunned “Hard Boiled” to the testosterone-driven “Mission Impossible II” with Tom Cruise.

Now after 15 years in Hollywood Woo returns to his Asian roots with this epic story centered on a famous battle fought during China’s Three Kingdoms period.

No guns in this period piece. Just swords, flashing with blood. And lots of arrows.

Thousands of peasants flee with their leader Liu Bei from Cao Cao’s million-man army, escaping, across the Yangtze River to take refuge in the south. Cao Cao plans to send his huge navy after them.

“Rather than strike directly with his navy, Cao Cao tried a sneak attack with his cavalry,” strategizes Liu Bei’s trusted advisors Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu. “A wrong move. Now he will switch tactics and use his navy.”

So Liu Bei’s men devise a plan to destroy Cao Cao’s 10,000 ships by setting fire to them.

The plot is filled with clever ruses on both sides of the battle lines, from Cao Cao’s sending typhoid corpses into his opponent’s camp, hoping to pass along the plague … to Liu Bei’s sending Sun Shangxiang to infiltrate Cao’s camp as a spy, sending him messages by pigeon and wrapping her body in a hidden strategic map … to using straw dummies to draw the enemies’ arrows, depleting their weaponry supply … to using the wind’s changing direction to send fiery missiles against Cao Cao’s troops.

“I never guessed I’d be defeated by a gust of wind,” Cao Cao laments.

Fengyi Zhang and Yong You make good opponents in the roles of Cao Cao and Liu Bei. Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro are outstanding as Liu Bei’s chiefs, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu. Wei Zho does well as the spy. And Chiling Lin is notable as Zhou Yu's wife.

But it’s the film’s fiery finale and arrow-filled battle scenes that mark this as a new chapter in Woo’s action-packed body of work.

“Red Cliff” (original title “Chi bi”) is based on "Romance of Three Kingdoms," the most famous novel in Asia. Rather than trying to chronicle all 120 chapters of this book, Woo concentrated on the historical record to reconstruct the Battle of Red Cliffs. It has been called “the Chinese version of Braveheart.”

Bring your spectacles. The subtitles are small, even for those of you with eagle eyes.

No, you won’t find John Woo’s familiar anti-hero Yun-Fat Chow with blazing twin pistols in this one. But “Red Cliff” is certainly Woo’s filmmaking at its finest.
[from Solares Hill]

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