Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Week of April 2 to April 8 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
By Phil Mann

It's difficult not to be dismayed by the current state of American politics. We need more than pundits to help us understand it, and where it might be going. You might study a little history of movements like the Know Nothings of the 1850's, or McCarthyism in the 1950's, or even the otherwise honorable John Adams' support for the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early days of our republic, to see how fear and insecurity have always stood ready to captivate the public.

Or you might see a film like THE WHITE RIBBON. The time and place is a Germanic village just before World War I, a traditional, stable town. But strange and terrible things are happening. The town doctor is nearly killed in a riding accident caused by a maliciously planted trip wire, and children are abused and mutilated. Where does it all lead, and why?

You may recall Austrian director Michael Haneke's last film, Caché, a provocative thriller about a family terrorized by someone putting them under video surveillance and sending them the tapes. Like that previous film, The White Ribbon is a troubling puzzler that sends you out of the theater debating with your friends about what you have just seen. It is one of the most honored films of the past year, winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes, the European Film Award, and nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar. Simply stated, it's a great movie, "stark, contemplative and hauntingly brilliant." (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

Don't be confused by the similarity in the title of THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF. This is a very different animal, an all-American road movie, populated by an alienated teenaged-girl (Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame), a young misfit (Eddie Redmayne), and an ex-con drifter (William Hurt). They're thrown together in a convertible cruising through post-Katrina Louisiana, with nothing in common except a desire to hit the road. But the drifter has had a life, with his ex-wife (Maria Bello), and therein lies the Yellow Handkerchief heart of the movie. Bring one, of any color.

THAT EVENING SUN brings us Hal Holbrook in a movie that has swept up awards at film festivals across the South -- Atlanta, Austin, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Sarasota. It's adapted from the novel "I Hate To See The Evening Sun Go Down," which sort of sums up the theme of the movie. Abner Meecham (Holbrook) is facing the sunset of his life in a nursing home and doesn't like it. So he hies himself back to his old homestead, only to find it leased out to a former neighbor whom he despises. The grudge match that ensues produces an "achingly memorable star performance" (L.A. Times) by Holbrook, and an interesting take on the acting abilities of Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) as the nubile daughter of the hated interloper.

The Monday Movie Classic this week is ALGIERS (1938), featuring the inimitable Charles Boyer as Pepe Le Moko, the master criminal who rules the "native quarter" known as the Casbah. He falls for a beautiful Parisienne (Hedy Lamarr) who he can follow only by leaving the security of his Casbah domain. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Actor (Boyer) and Best Cinematography (the famed James Wong Howe - nine nominations and two wins, for The Rose Tattoo and Hud). By the way, Boyer didn't say "come with me to the Casbah" in this movie; that was his cartoon-skunk successor Pepe Le Pew in For Scent-imental Reasons (1945).

[from Key West, the newspaper -]

The White Ribbon (Rhoades)

“White Ribbon” Offers Pictures of Germany’s Childhood
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I collect original photographs by noted photographers. Mostly old black-and-white images that offer a stark beauty in their abstract simplicity. After all, the world as we know it is ablaze in a rainbow of colors, but early photographic technique offered a limited spectrum for photos and films. Today, that’s all but disappeared with the advent of digital cameras that deliver colorful pixels and automatic exposure.

So you can imagine my delight to discover a beautifully filmed movie in black-and-white like “The White Ribbon,” the award-winning drama that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. It was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

“The White Ribbon” is mindful of an Ingmar Bergman film, austere and dark and full of portent. An art film, as we used to call them.

Alas, nothing is what it seems. Austrian-born writer-director Michael Haneke actually shot this long 146-minute film in Super 35 color and then converted it to black-and-white – a deliberate attempt to capture the visual “feel” of old photographs.

Haneke’s story takes place in a German farming village just prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the 1914 event that ignited World War I. The children of the village live under the authority of a strict baron (Ulrich Tukur), a sexually abusive doctor (Rainer Bock), and a puritanical pastor (Burghart Klaussner). Only the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) is kind, but he is powerless in this closed society.

The bright-faced children represent innocence under siege. An oppressive environment destined to produce those who will later embrace Hitler and Nazism.

The film is narrated by an older version of the teacher (Ernst Jacobi), now an elderly man looking back on the mysterious events that beset the villagers.

“Accidents” begin to happen. The doctor’s horse trips and gives him a dangerous tumble. A woman falls to her death at the sawmill. The baron’s son is kidnapped. A barn burns down. People disappear.

The villagers become fearful. The schoolteacher confronts the pastor, to no avail.
Is someone behind these dark events? The ambiguous ending is not unlike M. Night Shyamalan's unresolved storytelling (“The Village”) or Lars von Trier's leave-you-wondering films (“Dogville”).

Haneke’s heavy-handed suggestion that actions of this village reflect the ideologies that would eventually lead to two world wars seems a bit like pop sociology. But the abstraction of the black-and-white cinematography, the haunting close-ups, the strong lighting, all are designed to convey a proper distance from which the audience can absorb this doom-laden allegory.
The film’s title comes from the white ribbons the pastor makes the children wear to remind them of the purity from which they have strayed. And “The White Ribbon” is Michael Haneke’s reminder of the purity from which the German people strayed.

The Yellow Handkerchief (Rhoades)

William Hurt Waves “Yellow Handkerchief”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Having spent my career in the magazine industry, I know a lot of insider gossip and trivia. For instance, that actor William Hurt is the grandson (by marriage) of Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine.

Majoring in drama at Tufts University and Julliard, Hurt debuted in the film “Altered States.” He stood out in the noirish “Body Heat,” and received Academy Award nominations for “Children of a Lesser God,” “Broadcast News,” and “History of Violence,” actually nailing the golden statuette for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Now we find him in “The Yellow Handkerchief,” the road-trip film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Taking place in the modern-day South, William Hurt takes on the role of an ex-con who embarks on a journey to reunite with his abandoned love (Maria Bello). Along the way he hooks up with two outcast teenagers, one a runaway 15-year-old girl (Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame), the other a geeky boy (Eddie Redmayne) seeking acceptance.

The trip takes them through post-Katrina Louisiana, and they dwell on rebuilding their wrecked lives just as the storm-ravaged countryside must be rebuilt.

Hurt found it easy to identify with the character, a man who reveals little of himself while revealing a lot. “The biggest challenge was trying to be true to a rural origin, and a person who didn’t have a lot of education with his blue collar background and being true to the quality of courage and honor that those people who are the platform on which we all stand have,” he says.

For a man with a privileged background, Hurt aligns himself with the common man. “They’re the people who make the whole country work for the rest of us. They know how to work, they’re not superficial and not for show.” He adds, “My cause is an honest middle class.”

Known to be quirky and eccentric, Hurt liked the film’s theme of second chances. About forgiveness and redemption.

Surprisingly, “The Yellow Handkerchief” is loosely based on a short story by former New York Daily News editor Pete Hamill. Who would expect a sensitive story based in the damaged South from a prototypical New York City denizen?

As for William Hurt, he felt the film captured “the poetry and lyricism that basically bubbles up from the ground in Louisiana.”

Hurt and Hamill, two for the road.
[from Solares Hill]

The Ghost Writer (Rhoades)

“Ghost Writer” Writes Latest Polanski Chapter
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ve likely caught the news reports about director Roman Polanski being arrested in Switzerland a few months ago on charges that he had unlawful sex with a minor in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub back in 1977. This unexpected incarceration interrupted the production of Polanski’s latest film, a mystery thriller called “The Ghost Writer.”

I generally ascribe to the auteur theory of filmmaking: that great directors make great films. But sometimes a great director’s personal life can get in the way of appreciating his work.
Woody Allen may be one, a guy whose personal peccadilloes nearly overshadowed his cinematic genius.

Another is Charlie Chaplin, whose association with leftist viewpoints drove him to Europe during the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.

Same could be said of Roman Polanski, the French-born Polish director who gives us “The Ghost Writer,” now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

While I want to think of Polanski as the filmmaker who created “Knife on the Water,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Pianist,” and “Chinatown,” it’s difficult not to remember him as the aggrieved widower of actress Sharon Tate, the budding star who was butchered by Charlie Manson’s maniacal gang. And if I can get past that, I’m reminded by his recent arrest in Switzerland that he’s wanted in the U.S. for having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Let’s not argue over his guilt. Whether the girl was willing … or whether that kind of thing is commonplace in European societies … or whether he got a raw deal by U.S. law officials (there’s an excellent documentary about these points), I’m trying to concentrate on his latest film, evaluate it on merits along, ignoring the whirlwind of controversy that surrounds its director.
Polanski is truly a gifted filmmaker. And he finished “The Ghost Writer” under the duress of house arrest.

Here is the story of a writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). The man who had the assignment before him has died under questionable circumstances. In the midst of our ghostwriter’s research, the prime minister is accused of war crimes, an assertion that brings the news media en mass to the remote island where the book’s collaboration is underway.

And as our writer digs into the politician’s background, he begins to turn up details that seem contrary to the accepted history, facts linking the politico to the American CIA.

What’s going on here? Did the ghostwriter’s predecessor discover too much, leading to his death? Is our scribe getting in too deep for his own good?

Yes, Brosnan’s character is clearly modeled after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But we’re not aware of any people dying in the course of ghostwriting his autobiography.

Polanski co-wrote the script with Robert Harris, the novelist who penned “The Ghost,” the book that’s the basis for the film.

Along with McGregor (“Angels & Demons,” the “Star Wars” films) and Brosnan (James Bond films, “Remember Me”), we have Olivia Williams (“An Education”) as the politician’s wife; Kim Cattrall (“Sex and the City”) as his mistress; Timothy Hutton (“Ordinary People”) as his lawyer; Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) as a suspected CIA agent; and Jim Belushi (TV’s “According to Jim”) as his publisher.

The plot device – a writer playing detective – is mindful of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a book that’s getting a lot of buzz at my Key West luncheons with a group of local writers and college professors.

So I remain conflicted. Admiring “The Ghost Writer” as a stylist thriller from a great director. And wishing I didn’t know that Polanski was involved.
[from Solares Hill]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Week of March 26 thru April 1 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic is proud to bring you the new film from the great, though personally flawed, director Roman Polanski.

THE GHOST WRITER is a thriller, a political-mystery, set on Martha's Vineyard (but filmed in Germany --who knew they're closely related, at least in winter?). Pierce Brosnan is an ex-British Prime Minister (Tony Blair in all but name) living in seclusion on the Vineyard, writing an autobiography with the help of a ghost writer. He also has the help of a sexy assistant (Kim Cattrall, Samantha of Sex and City fame), but the writer mysteriously dies. Enter Ewan McGregor (Amelia, Angels and Demons, Deception) as his new "ghost," a guy best known for working with trashy celebs, and a bit out of his element -- especially when dark state secrets begin to appear.

The film has been called "neo-Hitchcock... an extraordinarily precise and well-made political thriller," by David Denby in the New Yorker. And the rest of the critics agree, giving it an 81% Rotten Tomatoes rating with accolades like "irresistible" (New York Times), "handsome, smooth and persuasive" (Roger Ebert), "brings an icy hand up your back" (Detroit News).

Seems like this week is the one for Massachusetts island-based thrillers. Also opening at the Tropic is Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as investigators sent to solve the mystery of an escapee from a hospital for the criminally insane on an island in the Boston Harbor. Of course, there's no place scarier than a criminal nut house, and no American filmmaker more masterful than Scorsese. The Los Angeles Times calls it "a divinely dark and devious brain tease of a movie in the best noir tradition." "Not since Raging Bull has Mr. Scorsese so brazenly married brutality to beauty," adds the Wall Street Journal.

If I were a film teacher, I'd want my students to see and compare these two movies -- the ferry scenes with ominous music, the gray brooding landscapes, and the layered mystery stories. But as simple filmgoers we can just kick back and let them wash over and fascinate us.

FISH TANK is something quite different. Writer-Director Andrea Arnold is not an old master, like Polanski and Scorsese, but a rising newcomer, winner of a Best Short Film Academy Award in 2005 (The Wasp), and the BAFTA (British Oscar) Best British Film for Fish Tank. Fifteen-year-old Mia is a lost soul in a bleak housing project, alienated from classmates and, naturally, her mother. The plot gets thicker when her mother brings home an attractive boyfriend, and we begin to feel the sexual tension. No spoilers from me, but I have to say that Katie Jarvis as Mia is a striking new actor. Discovered by Ms. Arnold in the projects, and wholly untrained, watch for her to rise fast.

The Tropic's movie schedule is filled out with continuing runs of CRAZY HEART, THE HURT LOCKER, THE ROAD and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

Topping the Special Events calendar is a special screening of ONCE IN AFGHANISTAN, with by a live intro and Q & A with the Director Jill Vickers. She was part of a team of Peace Corps Volunteers who served in that country in 1969, giving smallpox vaccinations and successfully eradicating the disease, a proud and uplifting moment for America and the Peace Corps. The documentary tells the tale including interviews with seventeen of the participants. Come and meet Ms. Vickers (in person.. not Skype) and see her film. That's Sunday afternoon at 4:00pm.

Monday night brings SCARLET STREET to the Monday Murder Classics series. Legendary director Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis) directed this 1945 film, starring Edward G. Robinson as a mousey clerk seduced into a life of crime by an amoral Joan Bennett.

And Tuesday is Opera Night, with VIVA LA MAMA, in high def from La Scala. Jessica Pratt sings the role of Daria in this chaotic comic opera. It's relatively short (2 hrs) and full of fun. In Italian with English subtitles.

[from Key West, the newspaper -]

Once in Afghanistan (Rhoades)

A Visit with “Afghanistan” Filmmaker
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Not just American soldiers have gone to Afghanistan. Peace Corps volunteers were there in the late ’60s to help vaccinate the local populace.

That visit by vaccinator teams is recorded in this documentary – “Once in Afghanistan” – directed by Jill Vickers and Jody Bergedick.

Vickers at the time was one of the 17 American volunteers, so hers is a firsthand tale. She will be at the Tropic Cinema tonight to introduce her doc as the latest entry in the Tropic’s Visiting Filmmaker series.

You (along with me and others) can ask Jill Vickers about that faraway land where we now fight a war. And what compelled her to record the reactions of Afghan women to the idea of being vaccinated against smallpox by well-meaning Peace Corps teams.

In particular, “Once in Afghanistan” taps into the recollections of the American women who were there, facing a culture so radically different from anything they had encountered before.
She begins her film with this observation: “We would bang on doors, walk in unannounced, walk in on weddings, walk in on funerals, and everything would stop and we’d vaccinate. Thinking about it years later it was astounding that the Afghans put up with it the way they did, with such humor and welcoming.”

The group was all women, because it was felt woman could vaccinate Afghan women easier than men could. Now older, these female volunteers look back on their experience.

“We were young, we were naïve,” recalls one. “Overachievers,” says another.

They dressed more like Afghan men, a confusing sight to local women. “We thought we were covered up, and they thought we were naked.” Long baggy tunics and exposed hair, alone and doing that kind of job, made the people question whether they were men.

Undulating bare hills greeted them. “It was winter and there was snow and all the buildings were mud and flat roofs,” remembers a former team member.

“The sights and the smells, wood smoke and other smells, and donkeys in the street and horns honking, it was almost overwhelming,” says another.

The black-and-white photographs and faded color film set this in another time and place – one closer to primitive times. “I remember thinking,” says one, “this country is only three days away from my life, and yet it’s just totally another world.”

“I really had no idea what it was gonna be like,” smiles another, “but I’ll tell you one thing, it was out of the office!”

This Dirt Road Production will take you there. And Jill Vickers will be here to take the journey with you.
[from Solares Hill]

Fish Tank (Rhoades)

“Fish Tank” Displays British Teen Angst
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Don’t know about your teenage years, but mine were just fine. Yet I’m drawn to coming-of-age films – from the puerile “Porky’s” to nostalgic “The Last Picture Show” to the current “Me and Orson Welles” – stories that tap into the emotions that bubble just beneath the surface of all youngsters.

Sex, love, rejection, growing up. We all had to deal with them, one way or another.
The latest such entry in the teen angst sweepstakes is “Fish Tank,” a British look at a 15-year-old girl’s struggle to find a place in her unsteady world. It’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Newcomer Katie Jarvis stars as the teenager in question, an aimless girl from a broken home, little interesting in her life other than trying to help mistreated animals (a horse) to street dancing (which leads to a dance competition).

Her mom’s an alcoholic, her mom’s hottie boyfriend pays a little too much attention to her tight clothes, her younger sister hates her.

“Fish Tank” won the Jury prize at Cannes and picked up the 2010 BAFTA Best British Film Award. British director Andrea Arnold (“Red Road”) helmed the production, a slice of life drama filmed on location in Essex, a northeastern suburb of London.

Katie Jarvis was discovered by one of the director’s casting assistants when she was spotted arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. A school dropout, she was unemployed and wresting with her own angst.

“Mainly it’s just real life around me that inspires me,” says Arnold. “I see someone on the bus, and I want to write about them.” Or at a train station.
[from Solares Hill]

The Road (Rhoades)

“The Road” Takes Us On Apocalyptic Journey
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As a film critic, I eruditely like to point out that society is reflected in movies. And that each decade’s films are a mirror of the times.

Take the Great Depression where Hollywood musicals offered solace to the hard times. Or the ’60s where the anti-hero flourished.

So what does it tell us about our current era, where apocalyptic movies are becoming abundant? You recently saw the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar in Roland Emerish’s “2012.” And a few months ago you witnessed a post-apocalyptic world with Denzel Washington in “The Book of Eli.” And you also had an end-of-the-world fable with Dennis Quaid in “Legion.”
One might even argue the spate of zombie films signal a similar theme of the end of life as we know it. Witness Will Smith in “I Am Legend” and Rhona Mitra in “Doomsday.” Or George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” Or even the satiric “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”

Latest entry in the post-apocalyptic fantasies of our era (“The Great Recession”) is a film titled “The Road.” You can take the journey at the Tropic Cinema, where it’s currently playing.

In it, Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises,” “History of Violence”) portrays a father walking south with his son in an ash-strewn burnt-out America. With a pistol and a shopping cart filled with food and belongings, they travel through gray lands inhabited by cannibalistic bands of survivors.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Stranded”) plays the Boy, his father’s only companion as they follow the road toward warmer climes.

Along the way they encounter such wayfarers as the Old Man (Robert Duval), the Veteran (Guy Pearce), and the Woman (Charlize Theron).

In “The Road” this Man and Boy, like so many other characters in post-apocalyptic movies, are determined to survive at any cost.

Maybe that’s what these movies tell us about our society in these difficult economic times.
[from Solares Hill]

Friday, March 19, 2010

Week of March 19 to March 25 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Tropic is moving into its A.A. period. That's After Awards, when the commotion dies down and we can begin looking at some great movies that don't happen to be clamoring for statuettes. Three new films in that category open this week.

ME AND ORSON WELLS features newcomer Christian McKay in an incredible performance as the incredible Mr. Welles. He's directing his first play for the Mercury Theater company in New York. This is before his notorious War of the Worlds radio show that scared the pants off America, and before Citizen Kane. But the 25-year-old Welles was already the enfant terrible of performing arts.

The play-within-a-movie is a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, set in Mussolini's Italy. But wrapped into it is a love story between the teen-aged Richard (Zak Efron), who is roped into the production by Welles, and another Mercury theater member, Sonja (Claire Danes). It's "steeped in theater lore... not only entertaining but an invaluable companion to the life and career of the Great Man" (Roger Ebert), and "necessary viewing for anyone whose imagination has been seduced by the charms of art." (New York Times)

THE ROAD brings another of Cormac McCarthy's novels to the screen (following the 2008 Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), this time a post-Apocalyptic tale of a The Father (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) roaming the now desolate countryside (which seems to be in South Florida), trying to reach the sea. There are no animals, no crops, and almost no sunshine through the enveloping haze. The tone is lightened with flashbacks to an earlier life, with Charlize Theron as the wife, but it's otherwise grim. If you're like me, almost any movie with Viggo Mortensen is worth seeing, and this one has him in form as the rare kind of man who could survive in such an environment, and even be a good guy. Yet, as Mortensen has said in inteviews, "there's something uplifting" about the journey.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN takes us to the suburbs of Paris, and a French film based on the 2004 true story, which became an international incident, of a young girl who falsely claimed she was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. The girl Jeanne, played by Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta), is an enigma, rebelling against her widowed mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve). The plot draws in Louise's ex-lover, a Jewish activist lawyer, and his troubled family. Complex and layered, as we expect a good French film should be, The Girl on the Train is from well-known director André Téchiné (The Witnesses, Wild Reeds).

All three are the kind of movies that help make the Tropic the extraordinary venue that has won the "Best Cinema in Florida" rating from Florida Monthly magazine. The theater has the best popcorn in South Florida, all fresh-popped with heart-healthy canola oil, but they also have serious and thought-provoking movies to give you something to chew on.

Meanwhile, the eclectic lineup also includes holdovers of the wildly successful CRAZY HEART and THE HURT LOCKER.

Sunday brings an encore production from the European hi def Opera in Cinema Series of IL TROVATORE, from Barcelona.

There's another winner in the Monday Night Classic Murder series, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, plus Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas. She's rich, unscrupulous and with a dark secret. Oscar nominated for Best Screenplay, calls it " a superlative film noir... one of the most superbly realized of the big budget noirs."

[from Solares Hill]

Me and Orson Welles (Rhoades)

“Me and Orson Welles” Displays True Genius
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’re probably way too young to remember Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air, the live radio series he produced from 1938 to 1940. You’re more likely to recall Welles as that fat guy who used to do TV commercials about selling no wine before its time.

Fact is, Orson Welles was a true creative genius. Not only did he broadcast that historic 1938 “War of the Worlds” performance that convinced listeners America was being attacked by aliens from outer space, but he also produced, co-wrote, and directed 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” considered by many (including me) to be the greatest motion picture of all time.

Before all that, he’d produced an inventive adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in modern dress that won him great acclaim.

“Me and Orson Welles” – a delightful little indie film that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – tells the story of a teenager who is hired to perform in that 1937 production of “Julius Caesar” and falls for a pretty assistant who is having a fling with Welles.

Teen heartthrob Zac Efron (“High School Musical” et al.) stars as a 17-year-old boy who is inadvertently offered the role of Lucius by Welles’ in the play’s Broadway debut. Claire Danes (“Stardust,” “Shopgirl”) is the ambitious young lady in question. And Christian McKay (“Abraham’s Point”) gives a spot-on perfect performance as that libidinous prodigy, Orson Welles himself.

Call it a coming-of-age film about young love and heartbreak … or look at it as a period drama offering a behind-the-scenes peek at Mercury Theater’s sturm und drang.

“Me and Orson Welles” is based on a book by Robert Kaplow. Richard Linklater (“Fast Food Nation,” “The School of Rock”) stepped in to direct the film after financing was put together. Key West’s Karin Prince worked with Linklater on one of his early films, “Dazed and Confused.” She says, “We really hoped it would be successful because we had to push his car to get it started every day after work. He was so broke.”

Linklater’s done pretty well as it turns out. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his “Before Sunset.” And he drives a better car.

While Linklater’s known for his films about “the youth rebellion continuum," you’ll find that “Me and Orson Welles” is more cerebral.

The casting is great. You will like Efron and Danes as the feckless young twosome, but it’s Christian McKay who steals the show as the man know for stealing shows. Before being cast in the film, McKay had already had experience portraying Welles in a small one-man play titled “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.”

Being that McKay was actually born in England, he had been showcased in a production titled “Brits off Broadway.” However, Welles was a Wisconsin-born who was taken in by Dr. Dudley Crafts Watson of the Chicago Art Institute after his mother died. By the age of ten, he and Watson’s same-aged daughter ran away from home to sing on street corners. Later, he traveled to Ireland and bluffed himself into a role at Gate Theater in Dublin. The manager didn’t believe the young man to be the Broadway star he claimed, but was impressed by his brashness.

Returning to America, he worked as a radio actor in New York before being hired by John Houseman for a WPA production of “Macbeth.” Houseman and Welles then formed Mercury Theater which became famous for its radio broadcasts using a repertory company of then-unknown actors like Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Delores Del Rio, Vincent Price, and Martin Gable.

I once met Agnes Moorehead, late in her career, while she was playing the witch Endora in the ABC comedy series “Bewitched.” She reminisced about her days with Mercury Theater and Orson Welles: “He was a true genius. You don’t meet many of them guys.”

Even Rita Hayworth cited as the reason for her divorce from Welles, “I can’t take his genius any more.”

Welles is not the only genius here. You’ll have to admit after seeing Christian McKay’s performance as the womanizing, bombastic, yet creative title character in “Me and Orson Welles,” he has a touch of genius himself.
[from Solares Hill]

The Girl on the Train (Rhoades)

“The Girl on the Train” Is Based on a Lie
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ve probably been following the recent news story about a guy accused of making a false claim that his Toyota accelerated uncontrollably. Sure, the Japanese automobile maker has had some serious problems with that. But why would someone make up a fake incident?

This topic of falsified reports reminds me of “The Girl on the Train,” a film that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. Based on an actual news event, it tells the story of a young woman who pretends to have suffered an anti-Semitic attack while on a suburban Paris train. But it’s a lie.

Following a rejection by her boyfriend, she deliberately cuts herself and paints swastikas on her body, then concocts a tale about being attacked by six Arab youths who mistake her as being Jewish.

A hate crime, it’s called on television.

The girl’s shocked by all the media frenzy her story engenders. What’s the big deal? she wonders after admitting the falsehood to her mother. Mom thinks her daughter needs a lawyer, so she calls an old friend with whom she once had a fling. The Jewish lawyer finds himself embroiled in an emotional challenge. Should his client go to jail?

Directed by André Téchiné (“Wild Reeds,” “My Favorite Season”), the film features several of his favorite stars. Michel Blanc, who plays the lawyer, is a Téchiné regular. Catherine Deneuve is the girl’s mother. And Emilie Dequenne is the naive girl who cried wolf.

I once met Catherine Deneuve at a friend’s New York photography studio. She was as lovely in person as on the screen. At that time she was living with a French TV exec, best friend of Key West’s Michel Toulouse. “I’m tired of playing beautiful women,” she told me. In this supporting role, she’s hoping the thought-provoking storyline will distract you from her onetime designation as the “most beautiful woman in the world.”

André Téchiné belongs to a second generation of French film critics associated with Cahiers du cinema, the publication that spawned such noted directors as Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Goddard. He’s known for films that explore the complexities of the human condition.

“The story became the mirror of all French fears,” says Téchiné. “A revelation of what we call the collective unconscious. How an individual’s lie is transformed into truth with respect to the community at large and its fears. It’s a truly fascinating subject.”

“The Girl on the Train” is a study of the psychological truth behind lies. Its French title is “La fille du RER,” a reference to the Réseau Express Régional, the train that connects Paris with surrounding regions. Like the train in its title, the film takes its audience on an interesting ride.
[from Solares Hill]

Tropic Talk with Rebecca Miller (Rhoades)

Tropic Talk Offers
Live Conversation
With a Filmmaker

As follow-up to last week’s review of “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” I’d like to report a conversation with the film’s director Rebecca Miller. This was as part of Tropic Talk, a program where the Tropic Cinema’s audience is hooked up via Skype for a live conversation with a filmmaker.

Despite the time difference, Rebecca Miller talked with us from her home in Ireland that she shares with husband Daniel Day-Lewis.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is based on her novel of the same name. She described the process of using color-coded index cards to dissect and shorten the book to a manageable length for a film. “It was a challenge,” she admitted.

Starring Robin Wright Penn, the film is also populated with Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Shirley Knight, and Julianne Moore. When asked about the movie’s amazing cast, she replied, “I was very fortunate that a lot of great people wanted to work with me. I needed them to get the film’s financing. Money people think a film needs big names to be successful.”

Although I’d promised myself I wouldn’t ask her about her famous husband, I couldn’t resist, realizing he was probably nearby and hoping to lure him into camera range. “You started off as an actress to get the experience that allowed you to direct films. You live with an actor. Do you think he wants to direct films too?”

“Not right now,” she countered, allowing him to stay out of camera sight. “He loves acting. I think he’ll keep doing that for a while.”

Asked about her next film, she said she didn’t have one in mind. Her next project was to write another novel. The Key West audience agreed she should hurry up with that novel so she could give us another film.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Week of March 12 thru March 18 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Last summer the Tropic Cinema brought you a hot new independent film riding a wave of critical acclaim. But it was summertime, and the movie was about Iraq, so hardly anyone came.

Now that movie has just won six Oscars, including Best Picture of the year. And the Tropic's giving you another chance to see it, all this week. I'll just recycle my comments from last August with a few parenthetical updates.

Welcome to THE HURT LOCKER. That's urban slang for a place where bad things happen, and it's the title of the tense, intense new film from indie filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (Best Director winner) that's already generating Oscar buzz. It's the final 38 days of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad's tour of duty. Each day brings a new confrontation with the precariousness of mortality, and each man deals with it in his own way. Meanwhile, thanks to the verisimilitude produced by Ms. Bigelow's use of multiple hand-held cameras in a real Middle Eastern location, we are drawn into their world and out to the edges of our seats.

The team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Best Actor nominee), is the man who has to don a 140 lb. blast suit and go mano-a-mano with the bomb itself. His support team has to cover him, watching out for snipers or for the concealed bomb maker about to activate the device with a cell phone. The movie is not really about the Iraq war, but about these men, what goes on in their heads and why they might be doing this. EOD specialists are volunteers. Every branch of the military has them, because they have an essential role to play in contemporary mine-field, improvised-explosive-device, warfare.

I kept asking myself why would someone choose to do this? My first reaction on leaving the movie was to think it would discourage anyone from joining such a unit. But then I did a bit of Internet trolling, and learned quite the opposite. If you're the kind of person who is unlikely to join such a unit, the movie will reinforce your reluctance. But if you're the kind who finds the thrill and challenge appealing, it's a recruiting tool. It's all in the epigraph that opens the movie: “War is a drug.”

Maybe so, but I'll get my fix via a movie. And The Hurt Locker mainlines it. A must-see.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE is at the other end of the life-experience spectrum. The title character is a woman who thought she had found peace and security in her intellectual Manhattan marriage after years of youthful dalliance, only to fine it all unraveling when her thirty-year-older husband Herb drags her to a Connecticut retirement village.

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur Miller), starring Robin Wright Penn as Pippa and Adam Arkin as her husband, and featuring Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Shirley Knight and Princeton professor Cornel West, the movie would be worth seeing for its cast alone. But it's a "wry, acutely observant drama" (New York Times), a "soap–meets–Woody Allen smart-set comedy" (Entertainment Weekly).

Writer-Director Miller will participate in a live video Tropic Talk via Skype at 5:00pm on Saturday, following the afternoon show. If you've got any questions, come and ask her on the spot.

AVATAR, THE MESSENGER, CRAZY HEART and THE LAST STATION, all Oscar winners or nominees, continue their runs in this star-studded week.

But, in the midst of it all, the thing that has me most excited is the Monday Movie Classic. True to the March theme of Murder, it's one of the great films of all time, H.G. Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE (1955), the movie that famously did for bathtubs what Psycho did for showers. I can't say more. Mmmm, March Murder Madness.

[from Key West, the newspaper -]

The Hurt Locker (Rhoades)

“The Hurt Locker” Is Explosive Story
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I sometimes refer to action films as “bang-bang boom-boom movies,” a reference to the shoot-em-ups and explosions that have become so familiar to audiences. Well, here’s one that can certainly be described as “boom-boom.”

“The Hurt Locker” is about a military bomb squad. It’s exploding again this week at the Tropic Cinema, a return engagement after winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.

There have been movies before about men whose job it is to defuse bombs. One memorable example was “Blown Away,” starring Jeff Bridges as a bomb squad cop out to catch an IRA bombmaker. (Bridges just won Best Actor for “Crazy Hearts,” also playing at the Tropic).

In “The Hurt Locker,” three members of the Army’s elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad are assigned to disarm roadside bombs near Baghdad.

The trio is played by Jeremy Renner (“The Assassination of Jesse James”), Anthony Mackie (“Half Nelson”), and Brian Geraghty (“Jarhead”). Ralph Fiennes (“The Reader”), David Morse (“John Adams”), Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”), and Guy Pearce (“Memento”) also do cameos.

As the story goes, Bravo Company is a small counterforce specifically trained to handle homemade bombs (known as Improvised Explosive Devices). These IEDs account for more than half of all hostile deaths of American soldiers in Iraq.

The message here is that personal relationships are just as explosive as bombs. When a new staff sergeant (Renner) takes over the team, he’s seen as a cowboy with a reckless disregard for protocol and basic safety measures. With only 39 days left on their tour, two of the soldiers (Mackie and Geraghty) try to avoid disaster at the hands of a leader who doesn’t seem to know the difference between bravery and bravado.

“The Hurt Locker” is based on the first-hand experiences of journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal. On an embed in Iraq, he got to duck shrapnel as bomb squads exploded homemade IEDs.

Kathryn Bigelow brought it all to the screen. She’s a terrific director, capable of handling quirky subjects. Like her classic “Point Break.” Or the vampire film, “Near Dark.” Or the sci-fi thriller, “Strange Days.”

Seeking greater authenticity, Bigelow filmed in Jordan, less than three miles from the Iraqi border. Her cast attests to its accuracy. “They were throwing rocks. We got shot at a few times while we were filming,” Renner said. “When you see it, you’re gonna feel like you’ve been in war.”

“I wanted you to walk out of the theater and wipe the sand off your pants,” agrees Bigelow. “There’s a real visceral, raw, immediate immersion into a day in the life of a bomb tech.”
Bigelow says she wanted “The Hard Locker” to be “a combat film, not a re-integration to the home front, not an overt commentary on the war. It’s really meant to be reportorial.”

What she’s delivered is more a psychological profile of the men who disarm bombs in Iraq than a typical bang-bang boom-boom action film. “When you’re laying on your belly and you’re five inches away from the bomb, there’s no blast suit or helmet that’s going to protect you,” she says. “You’re intimate with an object that could spread your DNA into the next county if you make a mistake. There’s no margin for error.”

She obviously admires these brave soldiers. And it shows. “The Hard Locker” has already been called “a near-perfect movie about men in war….”

Winning the Best Picture Oscar is proof of that claim. Kathryn Bigelow also picked up a golden statuette as Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” making her the first woman to ever win that honor. And in doing so she beat out her ex-husband James Cameron, pitting her little indie production against “Avatar,” the biggest grossing film in history. A true David and Goliath moment.
[from Solares Hill]

Diabolique (Rhoades)

“Diabolique” Still Scares Us
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ve seen all those horror movies where the seeming dead rise abruptly – making you jump out of your seat! – trying for one last gasp at revenge? Well, the grandmother of these frightfests is the French classic, “Les Diaboliques.”

“Diabolique” (as the title was shortened in the U.S.) will be playing Monday night at the Tropic Cinema as part of its weekly classic movie fare. After all, March has been dubbed Murder Month at the Tropic.

No, this is not the 1996 remake with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. Here’s the original 1955 black-and-white thriller that’s considered one of the Scariest Movies of All Times.
And the movie’s make-you-jump scene ranks #49 on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

When both the wife and mistress of a school’s headmaster collaborate on his murder, it doesn’t go quite as planned. The body disappears from the murky swimming pool and the victim is spotted around the school by pupils and even shows up in the class photograph.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this suspense masterpiece stars Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, and Paul Meurisse.

Brazilian-born Véra Clouzot was the director’s wife and star of three of his best films (“The Wages of Fear,” “Les Diaboliques,” and “Les Espions”).

However, Simone Signoret was the film’s draw. She later became the first French actor to win an Academy Award (for 1958’s “Room at the Top”).

Paul Meurisse appeared in over 60 films and stage productions, but his role as the cruel headmaster in “Diabolique” was the pinnacle of his career.

This nasty little tale was based on “Celle qui n'était plus,” a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Alfred Hitchcock unsuccessfully tried to buy the film rights. The authors later wrote “D’Entre les Morts” for Hitch, which became the basis for “Vertigo.”

“Diabolique” did for bathtubs what Hitchcock’s “Psycho” would later do for showers.

The twist ending in “Diabolique” set the stage for such later films as M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” Not to mention horror films from “Friday the 13th” to “Carrie.”
[from Solares Hill]

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Rhoades)

“Pippa Lee” Has Many Lives
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Rebecca Miller swears her new movie isn’t autobiographical, even though it’s about a Connecticut housewife seeking to make peace with the memories of her youth and formidable parents.

Never mind that Rebecca is the daughter of literary legend Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath. Or that she’s married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

“It would be a mistake to get me confused with Pippa,” says Miller. “Although I know that world of Connecticut intellectuals, it is not my life. Some of the things I love about Pippa are the things that are most unlike me.”

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. The film gives us the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the conflicts between her present and past.

A former party girl, Pippa Lee has found stability as the wife of a brilliant publisher thirty years her senior. But after suffering multiple heart attacks he decides to move to a retirement community in Connecticut, and Pippa finds her life thrown into an emotional turmoil.

While her husband fears senility and death, Pippa develops a tendency to sleepwalk. But a sleeping disorder turns out to be the least of her late-in-life problems. As she reflects on her past, we learn about the events that have shaped her into the woman she is … or the woman she pretends to be.

Robin Wright Penn (“The Princess Bride.” “Forrest Gump”) stars as the fiftyish Pippa. Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) plays Pippa’s younger self in the flashbacks. Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sunshine Cleaning”) is the older husband. And Wynona Ryder (”Girl, Interrupted,” “Autumn in New York”) appears as his mistress.

Add Keneau Reeves (“The Matrix,” “The Lake House”) as Pippa’s Jesus-tattooed boyfriend, Maria Bello (“The Jane Austin Book Club,” “A History of Violence”) as her alcoholic mother, and Julianne Moore (”The Hours,” “The End of the Affair”) as a lesbian photographer from her Bohemian past – suddenly you have a great cast.

Robin Wright Penn spent a year talking to Rebecca about the role while the film was struggling to find funding. “I got to know her as a woman and as a writer and then as a director,” explains Wright Penn.

Having spent a number of years married to bad-boy actor Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn understands Pippa’s turbulent life. “I think we all can relate to just being a woman and the evolution of life and the different lives that you do live. 20-30, 30-40, they’re truly different lives. And that self-reflection that comes with each life when you look back, right?”

Think: “Diary of a Mad Housewife” and you’ll get the idea.

“I don’t have all the answers," admits writer-director Rebecca Miller. “It’s more that I’m bringing up all sorts of questions and incongruities and things that don’t match because that’s what people really are, these anomalies.”

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is at heart a domestic drama. But Miller quips, “This is as close as I’ve ever come to a romantic comedy.”
[from Solares Hill]

Friday, March 5, 2010

Week of March 5 to March 11 (Mann)

What's on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

I don't know if you've ever seen Blue Man Group, a wonderfully inventive team of performance artists who stage a combination musical/artistic/comedy routine all while covered in blue paint. It's become a worldwide phenomenon with troupes from Tokyo to Las Vegas. I couldn't help thinking of them while reading about AVATAR, which has now found its way from North Roosevelt Boulevard to the Tropic Cinema.

Avatar, as you of course know, is Blue Man Group meets Star Wars, with the blue people on a distant planet. It's been called everything from "a quantum leap in movie magic" (Chicago Reader) to "stupendously friggin' rad" (Slate), and is shattering box office records. Along the way, it has picked up nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score -- not to speak of the Best Visual Effects, which may be the surest bet at Sunday's award ceremonies.

Avatar may not be the Tropic's usual fare, but as cinematic breakthrough it well deserves a place in any theater devoted to the art of film. So, if you haven't seen it yet, or haven't had a chance to enjoy it in a pristine environment, pop down to the theater this week where it will have a full run -- except for Sunday night when the theater will be turned over to a live broadcast of the 2010 Academy Award Ceremonies.

This year's Oscar Gala at the Tropic will occupy only the main Carper Theater. So if you're disposed to see a an award-nominated movie instead of sitting through the TV show, the other three screens will be running their regular programs. THE LAST STATION (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), CRAZY HEART (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress) and all the OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS (both Live Action and Animated) are held over.

Joining these holdovers is the opening of another award nominee, THE MESSENGER. Woody Harrelson (Best Actor) and Ben Foster are an Army team dispatched to inform the next of kin that a loved one has been killed. Not an easy job, and not an easy film. But the tension between the two men -- Harrelson is a tough guy, but not a war hero; while Foster is softer, but with a medal for bravery -- and how it plays out, drives the story forward. The Messenger is another of a group of Iraq-Afghanistan war movies, like In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs, that focus on the home front implications. Even the much acclaimed The Hurt Locker, while taking place mostly in Iraq, has much to do with what goes on back in the North Carolina. This is not an era of John Wayne war movies.

Heading the Special Events calendar is a repeat performance of the JAZZ DUO PIANO CONCERT on Saturday at noon. Regular tickets are $30, but students of any age are admitted free, along with an accompanying adult. That's free, as in F-R-E-E. An amazing opportunity.

On Sunday, there's a repeat performance of CARMEN from La Scala at 1:00pm, and, of course, the big Academy Awards show in the evening at 8:00pm.

Monday Movie Classics has the theme of murder this month. This week it's JIGSAW (1949) starring Franchot Tone, with uncredited bit roles for John Garfield, Henry Fonda and Burgess Meredith. The movie was an early effort to shoot in actual locations in New York rather than the studio-lot focus of Hollywood films. And the story, featuring hate-mongering right wing "Crusaders," has contemporary undertones.

And on Tuesday evening at 7:30 HOMETOWN PAC sponsors a free State of the Island forum.
Get out and enjoy yourself at the warm! Tropic.

Full schedule and details at
Comments, please, to

Avatar (Rhoades)

Sci-fi Epic “Avatar” Offers a CGI Substitute for Actors
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Not only is filmmaker James Cameron the King of the World (as he declared when accepting his Oscar for “Titanic”), he’s now the King of Other Worlds.

In the case of his latest on-screen magnum opus “Avatar,” he’s king of a world known as Pandora. This is a lush jungle-covered extraterrestrial moon that’s inhabited by fantastical life forms, including an indigenous race known as the Na’vi. Unfortunately, these sentient 10-deet-tall blue humanoids are sitting on valuable minerals (read: the MacGuffin). And earthlings want these minerals.

The sci-fi film “Avatar” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The epic story centers around Jake (Sam Worthington), a marine who has been paralyzed from the waist down. He joins the so-named Avatar program that allows him to inhabit the body of a genetically bred human-Na’vi hybrid, a symbiote that allows him to walk again.

Jake is sent into Pandora’s jungles as an advance scout for the soldiers who will follow. However, as he infiltrates the Na’vi, he finds himself falling in love with a native named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a situation that forces him to choose between the invading earth forces and the unspoiled Na’vi.

Think of it as John Smith and Pocahontas with a different twist. A brilliant sci-fi extravaganza with mind-bending CGI animation that’s blended with live action.

If you thought James Cameron pushed the technical limits of filmmaking in “Terminator 2” or “The Abyss,” think again.

This time, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Lang are along for the interstellar ride.

As for Zoe Saldana, I know her original manager, Bill Civitella. Back when Zoe was just starting out as an actress in Bill’s teen flick “Dirty Deeds,” he told me she was going to be a big star. That prophecy’s proving true, following her successful turn as Uhura in the recent “Star Trek” movie, and now with her high-profile co-starring role in “Avatar.”

What is an avatar? The intellectuals among you will recognize it as the term for a Hindu deity who appears in human or animal form. However, those of you who are into role-playing computer games will know that an avatar is a moveable 3-dimensional image that can be used to represent somebody in cyberspace.

James Cameron’s avatars are 3-dimensional hybrids of human and animal forms, existing in outer space.

He has said his inspiration was “every single science fiction book I read as a kid,” particularly the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series.

While Cameron’s “Avatar” missed out as Best Picture in the Oscar race to his ex-wife’s “The Hurt Locker,” it already has earned more than a billion dollars at the box office, establishing it as the most successful movie ever made.
[from Solares Hill]
Oscar Gala Set at Tropic Cinema
By Shirrel Rhoades

Social observation: Motion picture box office revenues are higher than they’ve been since the Great Depression. When times are bad, people seek escapism and entertainment.

But with the economy still wheezing along, the annual Academy Awards party at the Tropic Cinema – starting tonight at 8 p.m. – is a bit more subdued, with only one of its four auditoriums plus the screens in the lobby devoted to the live broadcast.

Sure, the red carpet will be rolled out, and champagne will flow, but there won’t be any klieg lights on the street or high-ticket admissions. Regular prices apply, but for a $25 ticket you can drink champagne all night long.

“We’ve showed the Academy Awards live for four years,” says Tropic Cinema’s executive director Matthew Helmerich. “And we’ve shown more Oscar contender films than any other theater in Florida. So it’s definitely the place to be.”

To make the Oscar race more fun, the Tropic will sell ballots at the box office, with the person who gets the most winners right receiving a free Tropic Cinema membership for two.

This is the 82nd annual Academy Awards presentation, Hollywood’s celebration of it best films, best actors, and best technical achievements. If you’re a movie fan, it has to be a date on your calendar tonight.
[from Solares Hill]

The Messenger (Rhoades)

“The Messenger” Sends Message to Oscars
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When I spoke with Oren Moverman a few weeks ago, he hadn’t yet been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for “The Messenger.” Nor had Woody Harrelson been tapped as a Best Supporting Actor candidate for that same film.

Oren was telling me how amazed he was that he’d got to direct his own screenplay. “Yeah, I’d like to do that again,” he admitted shyly. “But I don’t have anything definite.”

That’s changed by now. An Oscar nod is a door opener. Hollywood scuttlebutt says he’s just been tapped to do a long-awaited film about legendary rocker Kurt Cobain.

Oren’s a friendly self-deprecating guy who lives in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York City. He describes his main interest as being a family guy, looking after his kids. His main claim to fame was co-writing the screenplay for “I’m Not There,” that cinematic paean to Bob Dylan.

We were kibitzing over the irony that two “immigrants” had penned what might be the best screenplay written so far about the Middle East conflicts, offering a very American viewpoint on lives lost to war. You see, Oren was raised in Israel, served in the Israeli army, migrated to the US in his early 20s. And his writing partner Alessandro Camon was born in Italy.

“Losing loved ones to war is a universal theme,” Oren opines. “People deal with grief in different ways … the movie itself has simple suggestions about how you get back to life after the experience of pain, loss and grief.”

“The Messenger” offers a snapshot of an odd coupling of two U.S. soldiers assigned the task of notifying Next of Kin that someone has died while in military service.

Unlike with many movies about the current wars, the U.S. Army fully cooperated with Oren in making “The Messenger.” Actual soldiers whose job it is to deliver bad news to NOK assisted him in making sure the film reflected the way it really works. “To a man, every one of them said they’d rather be facing battle than delivering these messages,” Oren says. “Casualty notification, it’s the hardest job in the army.”

Ben Foster is cast as a decorated soldier with three months to go on his hitch, temporarily assigned to notify NOK. Woody Harrelson plays his by-the-book supervisor, a hardcase who leans on the new messenger to get it right. You only deliver the news to the Next of Kin. You never touch them. You stick to the script.

However, Foster’s character has a more compassionate bent, particularly when he encounters a sad widow portrayed by Samantha Morton.

“It is really if anything a love story,” observes Woody Harrelson. “A love story of Ben’s character falling in love with a widow and it’s also Ben and my character loving each other. It’s a testament to how Oren captured all these different relationships and deep emotions.”

Capturing these emotions has an authenticity rarely seen in films. Oren revealed to me that the actors didn’t know who would be opening the door when they played each scene. Each character was coached as to their backstory, how to play it. But Foster and Harrelson were left on their own, sticking to the Army’s rules as they encountered angry relatives, grieving wives, collapsing fathers, and shattered mothers.

“It was fairly chaotic in the sense it was really unpredictable,” admits Harrelson. “We really didn’t know who would open the door, will they’d let us in, where we stand. I thought it was a smart way to shoot it on Oren’s part in that it gave us believability and there was real spontaneity.”

Woody Harrelson has come a long way from that doofus on TV’s “Cheers.” He’s terrified us as a “Natural Born Killer.” Amused us as a “Kingpin.” Impressed us as a bounty hunter in “No Country for Old Men.” Stretched his acting muscles as “The Walker.” Heralded the End of the World as a prophet in “2012.” But his role as “The Messenger” has brought him a deserved Oscar nomination.

Tonight, as we all watch the Academy Awards, you might well see him receive a golden statuette. And Oren too.

“We tried to be respectful of characters and audiences,” Oren told me. “This is not a movie that hits you over the head … but it doesn’t shy away from feelings.”

Harrelson agrees. “As my character, I have to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they say, ‘Cut,” I’d start bawling.”

“People reacted strongly to the screenplay because its about grief and life, about needing to move on back into the realm of the living once faced with death,” nods Oren. “And so it’s a much more universal theme than just a particular war.”

Yes, it’s an unusual war movie, one that doesn’t show a single battle scene. But it delivers a powerful message, one that leaves you thinking about the tragic toll of war as you walk out of the theater into the bleak night.
[from Solares Hill]