Thursday, December 30, 2010

Week of December 31 to January 6 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Guess you can’t argue with success. The hot threesome of BLACK SWAN, THE FIGHTER and THE KING’S SPEECH are held over for another week. Each is a Golden Globe Best Picture nominee, and each is drawing record crowds. One of them will probably be squeezed out by next week, so take your chance while you have it to see any you’ve missed so far.

I’d also recommend highly the less-high-profile feature HOWL, also held over. James Franco personifies Allen Ginsburg throughout, but the actual words are from transcripts of the poet himself. Even if you’re not a poetry lover, you’ll appreciate the down to earth way in which the film explains and gives insight into this beat generation literary icon. Three threads, all set in the fifties when “Howl” was first published, run through the movie -- Ginsburg reciting his poem in a San Francisco café, Ginsburg giving an interview about it and his work, and testimony at the censorship trial of his publisher -- each giving a window into the meaning of key passages. A movie as original and innovative in its own way as “Howl” itself.

Joining this collection is a new French film, again centering on an adulterous affair. Two weeks ago, in Mademoiselle Chambon, we saw a father bed his young son’s schoolteacher. This week, in LEAVING, we find a bored wife swept away by her gardener. Sorry, my mistake, he’s not a gardener, but a handyman building a shed. But old D.H. and Flaubert, too, might well appreciate this “searing sex drama about an upper-middle-class wife and mother who falls in love and goes a bit mad,” especially because the wife is the estimable Kristin Scott Thomas.

Real film fans will welcome back the Monday Classic Series, with a Damsels in Distress theme for January. This week it’s Hitchcock’s REBECCA, hosted again by our resident classicist Craig Wanous. The master’s first American film and Winner of the Academy Award in 1940, this Gothic melodrama has been rated one of the top 250 films of all time. Joan Fontaine stars as the new second wife of Sir Lawrence Olivier, a wealthy gentleman. But life is not simple at his estate, with the spirit of his first wife (the eponymous Rebecca, who is never seen) and a sneaky housekeeper (Judith Anderson) undermining the new bride.

The Special Event feature of the week is another of the Tropic’s Visiting Filmmaker programs. Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary will present FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES, his new documentary. Directed by Mr. Peary, and featuring leading critics, including Roger Ebert, and A.O. Scott the film provides “an insider’s view of the critics' profession.” The director will host a Q & A in person after the screenings. Two shows, on Tuesday and Wednesday, both free to members of the Film Society ($15 to non-members).

Why not make it a New Year’s resolution to join the film society? It’s only $35 for a full year’s membership. You’ll save $4 on regular movie tickets and get the benefit of special events like the Gerald Peary show. A no-brainer, I’d say.

Comments, pretty please, to

Howl (Mark Howell)

Let’s Look at This Thing About Howl

Howell here — and bear with me while I go on for a bit about my thing, OK?
Anybody who’s studied literature within the past 40 years knows T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins ... Shantih shantih shantih”). They also know that this threnody for contemporary civilization, first published in 1922, has since been paired with a later dystopian masterpiece, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” first published in 1957.
I have a thing about “Howl.”
It was Ginsberg who famously saw the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, naked.” Ginsberg it was who named us “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Ginsberg who said we “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-like tragedy among the scholars of war.”
There is no greater turn-on of our time than “Howl,” except, maybe, for the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (and Ginsberg’s on the cover of that).
Showing at Tropic Cinema is a film called “Howl” that tells the tale of this poem, covers the obscenity trial it generated, even illustrates its febrile, Hebraic verses in animated form. This is a wonderful film. I know because I was sent a preview copy by its distributors. When their package arrived with its label, Oscilloscope Laboratories, I thought it was some sort of sex aid or medical device.
Indeed it was.
But I’ve done this before, so watch out. Not so long ago, in these pages, I interviewed the author Robert Stone, who spends his winters in Key West with his delightful wife of 40 years or so, Janice. Stone had just published his memoir, “Prime Green,” about the hippie days he spent on the magic bus with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters in the mid-1960s. One of the tripsters was Neal Cassady, primary driver of the bus “Furthur” and, further, named in “Howl’ as the poem’s “secret hero.” Stone knew Cassady well but never dug him (I never met him) and dismissed Neal in our interview as a chattering car thief. Nevertheless I went on about Cassady in the story; my son Rafe, after all, got his middle name from the fellow. I knew that Cassady had become a huge draw over the years, ever since he died while on speed and counting the railroad ties outside of San Miguel de Allende in 1968. I knew, too, that he’d be a huge draw for a reading Stone was due to give at the Tropic that week.
It was as I expected. On the evening of the reading, every middle-aged longhair and unreconstructed hippie in the Lower Keys assembled on Eaton Street to fill the cinema. I sat in a seat at the very back, in case Stone caught my eye. For it was also as I feared. Stone never even mentioned Cassady but chose instead to read a chapter about his experience as a writer for a tabloid newspaper. “This is bullshit,” grumbled a white-haired, pony-tailed character in front of me.
Be warned, as I say. Just because I’m going on here about “Howl” doesn’t mean the movie will be whatever you think it will; I cannot be responsible for your reaction. For myself, I was in tears from the moment that Judge Clayton Horn, played to perfection by Bob Balaban, prepares the room to receive his judgement at the obscenity trial. As the music turns angelic and the judge declares his immortal horn on “Howl,” the waterworks began and the tears never stopped. It was, for me, one of the grandest and most gentle moments in all of moviedom and American life.
“Howl” the movie stars James Franco, who once upon a time played James Dean and in this film channels Ginsberg in every respect, from the look to the body language to the poet’s signature voice and sentence-length. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” was the opening night selection at this year’s Sundance Film festival but has had a mixed reception since then. That, I think, is because it’s simply too much, not because it’s way too little.
Let’s cut to the chase. The movie delivers, holy and completely, in two spectacular regards. One occurs when literary critic Mark Schorer, played by Treat Williams, explains to the courtroom that there is a difference between poetry and prose. “You can’t translate poetry into prose,” he says. Essentially, poetry goes where prose cannot. This is the argument that flows between the prosecutor, played by David Strathairn (who was nominated for an Oscar as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck”) and the defense attorney, in real life the model for Perry Mason and played by Ian Hamm (of the TV hit, “Mad Men”).
The prosecutor keeps asking what Ginsberg’s inflamed words and phrases mean. The defense says he can’t answer that in prose.
Which begs a question that has haunted me for more than 50 years, back when my twin brother and I were 13. What does it mean when a poem is “prophetic?”
I understood even then, from what was called “divinity “ class, that prophecy meant literally “speaking for another.” But what does it mean that a poem can be prophetic — in the sense of sensing the future, good for a thousand years?
I never did get it until I got my own private DVD of “Howl” and watched it one night about a month ago. It didn’t take prose to explain it, naturally. It took Eric Drooker to convey the meaning of six long lines at the end of Part 1 of the poem that explore the alchemy of writing.
Drooker was a Lower East Side friend of Ginsberg (Allen died in 1997) who illustrated his “Illuminated Poems” and has created the animation in “Howl.” His work somehow uncovered to this reader that those six lines at the end of Part 1 are literal in what they say. That when they speak of trapping “the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images,” it is in reference to the prophetic pairing of, say, the last two words in the poem’s 15th line about “the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” The words “hydrogen jukebox” cannot be explained in prose but they can clearly be read with an eye to the future.
Here are the six lines that illustrate to any writer how to be prophetic in words — and, too, come up with an ending of all endings:
and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,
who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose incarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

[from Solares Hill]

Leaving (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway  


Domestic discontent can bring out monsters. Such is the case with "Leaving" (Partir), the latest film by Catherine Corsini, who directed  "Replay" in 2001 which detailed a tormented friendship between two female drama students. Corsini is not a director who pulls her punches and she doesn't disappoint in this latest venture.
Suzanne (Kristen Scott Thomas) is married to Samuel (Yvan Attal).  Suzanne lives in a geometric modern house that is sparse, glaring-white and curved with Minimalist and abstract paintings on the walls that sometimes resemble blood vessels on canvas enlarged to life size. Samuel is a  doctor, a man of smug affection and rules who runs his life like a medical chart. He is handsome, hawk-like and not overly warm. With Samuel, the house is a lukewarm egg with two kids inside. When they go to bed, Samuel is on his smartphone and Suzanne reads a magazine. The scenes group together briefly and slowly. Ending with fade outs, the episodes are visual sighs, showing a shared life short of breath.
  Samuel offers to have a reflexology studio built for Suzanne. Enter the earthy carpenter Ivan (Sergi Lopez). After a conference and a sudden kiss, Suzanne walks away, but her mind is occupied by the stubbled laconic Catalan stranger who spent time in jail, which doesn't seem to matter. At home under the ice cube of a house Suzanne is an anemic vampire, wearing pale pinks and muted pastels, but once she catches sight of Ivan, the two conjoin like lascivious crustaceans or lustful octopi---grunting, glued, enmeshed. During one clinical lunch in the Modernist house, Suzanne gives the news: she wants out. Samuel goes into a rage, hurling sexist attacks and slapping blows of physical violence. Suzanne becomes like a bounding gazelle under Samuel's bestial ego. 
Suzanne and Ivan sort of set up house. They find a crumbling brick sea-side shack and begin a Byronic idyll. Suzanne is infinitely touching, kissing and caressing, sharing more joy with Ivan's little daughter than her own. 
But all is not well. 
Samuel cuts off all monetary support and freezes her account. Suzanne is forced to look for work at a local pharmacy and Samuel writes a letter to Ivan's foreman, who ultimately lets him go. After a gas machine devours her credit card and she sells her gold watch, Suzanne gets an idea.
She will break into her own house and take the expensive art.
What emerges is class-warfare: the Status Quo against the reflexologist who follows her heart. Samuel with his brooding darkness is a bit like Macbeth. And Ivan is a little too nonchalant. To save Ivan from prison, Suzanne moves back with her white-ruled husband, but she is a wilted rose, cooking dinner like an automaton. 
Then with an unexpected clap---an end to a visual sigh that is part Raymond Carver and part Patricia Highsmith, Kristen Scott Thomas shows us what impulsive monsters there might be under the Minimalist veneer of a  marriage.
Write to Ian at

For The Love Of Movies (Rhoades)

“For the Love of Movies” Looks at People Who Write About Them
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Being a movie critic is sometimes a lonely job. You sit alone in darkened theaters or screening rooms, or hunch in front of your TV set watching a screener DVD of an upcoming movie. And afterward you might want to talk about the film with a friend over a cup of coffee, but deadlines loom and you must put your thoughts on paper. A visual experience translated into a cerebral one.

So you can imagine how excited I was to talk with another film critic, Gerald Peary of the Boston Phoenix. Like Siamese cats seeking each other out in a room full of tabbies.

Like many critics, Peary plays a dual role: filmmaker as well as film aficionado. Peter Brogdonovich was such. So was Martin Scorsese. Even I’ve been involved in movies ranging from “Men in Black” to “My New Life” (which will premiere at the Tropic Cinema in March).

Peary’s new documentary “For the Love of Movies” – subtitled “The Story of American Film Criticism” – covers familiar ground for him. And is a tour of movie history as well. It will be playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Gerald Peary will be on hand to discuss his film. And I will be on stage with him, having a conversation about why we love movies and choose to write about them.

In his documentary, Peary traces American film criticism back to 1907 (“The Dawn of Criticism,” he calls it) with synopses of movie plots appearing in popular newspapers, mostly written by general reporters. The first to develop a point of view was Frank E. Woods, a columnist of the New York Dramatic Mirror.

“Woods was arguably the first movie reviewer in America,” says Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine. Woods recognized that movies had the potential “for being art.”

An admirer of D.W. Griffith, Woods went to Hollywood to work with his favorite director. Perhaps this was the first blending of critic and filmmaker. Few people realize that Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was co-written by a dastardly film critic.

Another early film critic was Vachel Lindsay, “a poet bitten by the movie bug.” He wrote the first serious book about the subject, “Art of the Moving Picture.” He called film “painting in motion, poetry of the eye.”
Peary’s documentary tells us that Lindsay recognized that “The arrival of film was a key moment in the history of human consciousness. It was going to change the way people thought, dreamed, fantasized, the way the shaped their inner selves.”

In 1920 Robert Sherwood started a decade of film reviews for Life Magazine. Sherwood’s playful upbeat voice was in tune with Hollywood. A good-natured reviewer, he won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for his plays. He even wrote screenplay for the Academy Award-winning movie “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

“I would go to the movies even if I were not paid to do so,” wrote Sherwood.

Thus establishing the theme of this documentary that takes us through the emergence of Bosley Crowther’s film criticism at the New York Times to the word wars between Andrew Serris of the Village Voice and Pauline Kael of the New Yorker (“the Paulettes versus the Serrisites”).

A side note: Key West’s Kim Ramono is the voice you’ll hear reading Pauline Kael’s reviews in the documentary. She was a film student of Peary’s. Her son Cody is a local filmmaker in the making.

In “For the Love of Movies” many noted critics appear onscreen, each offering their observations and little chunks of film history. We encounter such vaunted names as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Stanley Kaufman of The New Republic, Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly, Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, Stuart Klawans of The Nation, Andrew Serris of the New York Observer, his wife Molly Haskell of the Village Voice, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, John Power of Vogue, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine … and on and on.

We’re treated to the writings of such legendary critics as James Agee who managed to align both highbrow and popular taste and Bosley Crowther who championed foreign films with subtitles. We look at such early practitioners as Otis Ferguson whose sharp incisive reviews often praised fast-paced genre films and Vincent Canby who reigned as the most powerful film critic in the United States for a quarter of a century and Manny Farber whose “funhouse mirrors in his prose” appreciated low-budget crime melodramas, what he called “termite art.”

We follow the auteur theory espoused by the French members of Cahiers du Cinema, a philosophy not unlike Agee’s earlier viewpoint about strong directors. And Pauline Kael’s initial opposition to the theory (“silly, dangerous, anti-art,” she called it) before embracing it around her own set of favorite directors.

As bitchy as Kael could be, she was right about one thing. Previous film criticism hadn’t taken popular culture very seriously, even though it affected people more than high culture. And so the movie experience was returned to the people – where it remains today with bloggers and online critics weighing in just as vehemently about new movies as do the lineup of professional critics you find clustered together on Rotten Tomatoes.

“For the Love of Movies” poses the question to them all: What qualifies you to be a film critic? They seem to agree that there are no real qualifications. It’s mainly that someone will pay you to do it.

But that’s not true. I’m a film critic syndicated in five Cooke Communications newspapers throughout the South. And I do it pro bono, so I can get into movie theaters for free. I do it (as I think most critics do) for the very reason Gerald Peary’s title suggests – “For the Love of Movies.”
[from Solares Hill]

Rebecca (Rhoades)

“Rebecca” Provided Hitchcock’s Only Oscar

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is one of the most memorable opening lines in a movie, in this case from Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film “Rebecca.” But the words and the gothic sense of foreboding come from the original 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier.

Hitchcock put three of du Maurier’s works onto film: “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn,” and “The Birds.”
“Rebecca” is considered du Maurier’s most popular novel, at one time cited as the most frequently checked-out library book. The influence of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is apparent in this story of a paid companion who meets and marries a wealthy widower whose first wife Rebecca seems to haunt the relationship.

The work has been adapted for stage and screen on several occasions, but Hitchcock’s film is the masterpiece of the lot.

“Rebecca” (1940) is Monday night’s classic film selection at the Tropic Cinema.
Joan Fontaine (she also starred with Carey Grant in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”) takes on the role of the Second Mrs. De Winter. Sir Laurence Olivier is a mercurial presence as Maximilian De Winter. And Dame Judith Anderson gives a chilling performance as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who idolizes the late Mrs. De Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.

Two interesting items about the film: The Second Mrs. De Winter is never given a name. And the ever-present Rebecca never actually appears in the film.

Producer David O. Selznick had a reputation for a heavy hand in his projects. So Hitchcock edited the entire film in camera, shooting only the footage to be used in the final cut, a technique that prevented Selznick from doing any reediting. All changes required expensive reshooting. Fortunately, Selznick was tied up with the production of his masterpiece “Gone With the Wind,” allowing Hitch to have much of the freedom he required.

Daphne du Maurier drew on her own life for elements in her novels. A frosty curmudgeon, she had more in common with Mrs. Danvers than with the Second Mrs. De Winter. She tended to be a stay-at-home recluse, eschewing society functions. Her home, an estate in Cornwall known as Menabilly, was the inspiration for the Manderley in “Rebecca.”

Du Maurier had hated Hitchcock’s version of her “Jamaica Inn” the year before. So she was not pleased to learn he was directing “Rebecca.” She was particularly worried when Hitch announced, “"I shall treat this more or less as a horror film.”

However, Selznick, who had paid a high price for the rights to the novel, was determined to remain faithful to it. “Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture,” complained the director.

Despite the teaming of the most autocratic of producers with the most independent of directors, “Rebecca” was a success. The film won an Academy Award as 1940’s Best Picture. And its cameraman George Barnes picked up a golden statuette for Best Cinematography, Black and White. All three stars, as well as Hitchcock, were nominated.

Surprisingly, this is the only Best Picture Oscar that Hitchcock ever won.
As Hitch later observed, “It has stood up quite well over the years. I don’t know why.”
[from Solares Hill]

Leaving (Rhoades)

“Leaving” Is More Than Saying Goodbye

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in college, my English literature professor had a thing for D. H. Lawrence. Since I was the only married student in class, he felt safe lingering after each lecture to discuss with me the sexual symbolism in the writer’s imagery. He gave me an inscribed copy of “Sons and Lovers.” But I preferred “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” that sordid tale of a woman of means who takes a working class lover. Maybe it was my working class upbringing that made it appeal.

“Leaving” – the French film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema – reminds me a bit of Lawrence’s theme. In it, the bored wife of a bourgeoisie doctor decides to throw everything away for a love affair with a handyman who has been hired to build a structure in their backyard.

This familiar tale of a well-to-do woman falling for a working stiff is also mindful of two other recent European films, “Mademoiselle Chambon” and “I Am Love.” But where Tilda Swinton’s “I Am Love” was tinged with magic realism, this Gallic production opts for straightforward realistic drama.

Despite its clichéd premise, this is a movie without any clichéd emotions. Director Catherine Corsini doesn’t waste time on recriminations or guilt or justifications. Rather than telling the audience what to think, she lets us make up our own minds about this illicit relationship. Is it true love … or simply an escape from a suffocating lifestyle?

The doctor’s wife Suzanne is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an actress who has a knack for making women of a certain age quite appealing. You’ll remember her from “The English Patient” and “The Horse Whisperer.”
The other two sides of the triangle are represented by Yvan Attal as the husband and Sergi Lopez as the lover. The first is the man Suzanne doesn’t love anymore; the second is one she cannot live without.
The husband is vengeful. And when his lawyer refuses to help (“She’s my friend too,” the barrister admonishes), the man uses his power and social leverage to try to separate the lovers and force his wife’s return.

The film doesn’t try to answer the question of why a beautiful woman with a very successful husband and two teenage children would throw away her life of comfort. Is it for love or is it for lust? But we know the answer:
 In the end, they are both the same.
[from Solares Hill]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Weekk of Dec. 24 to Dec. 30 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Darren Aronofsky, director of the current BLACK SWAN and last year’s award-winning The Wrestler says the two films are “companion pieces… ballet and wrestling: the highest art and the lowest art. Both performers… use their bodies to express their souls.”

But where Mickey Rourke in the wrestler was a battered, over-the-hill has-been, Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers is an upcoming young star, as fresh and seemingly innocent as he was stale and world-weary. She lives with her mother – a former dancer, who treats her as a child – and has no life but the ballet. All she, and her mother, want is for her to become the prima ballerina.

We quickly learn that she has the talent and the technique to be great, and the ability to dance the role of the White Swan in Swan Lake, a part that calls for purity and vulnerability. The only question is whether she can deliver on the Black Swan part, that of a dark, sinister and seductive temptress.

The pressures on her are enormous: from her mother, from the harsh male director of the company, from her predecessor as lead dancer, and from her alternate and rival. And, not least, from herself, as she pursues perfection and struggles with delusions that take the film from reality to inner visions. The movie is about ballet. Even if you’re not a dance fan – and I’m not -- it’s fascinating to be backstage. But the movie is also about derangement, a cinematic depiction of the onset of schizophrenia, adding an almost horror-film tension as we watch Nina veer from one pole to the other of her personality.

The result is a visual and emotional experience that will captivate you, and leave you drained. Be prepared.

THE KING’S SPEECH (which opens Christmas Day) deals with a different kind of human frailty. Prince Albert is the younger brother of Prince Edward, the heir-apparent to the throne. Suffering from a terrible stutter, “Bertie” is unlikely King material, but Edward’s abdication thrusts the role upon him, just as the Nazi war machine is gobbling up Europe and lusting toward England. The “speech” of the title is one that he – now King George VI -- must give to his nation, and the world, as England declares war on Germany. Talk about pressure!

The King’s Speech is gathering accolades, including seven Golden Globe nominations. It has already swept the British Independent Film Awards, winning not only Best Picture, but also Best Actor awards for its lead (Colin Firth as the King) and both supporting actors (Geoffrey Rush as his speech coach and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife and Queen). Despite the earth-shattering events swirling around it, the movie is really about these three and how the steadfast support of his tutor and wife enabled the King to win the day. “It's a warm, richly funny and highly enjoyable human story… a picture full of old-fashioned audience satisfaction.” (

Joining these two blockbusters are the equally acclaimed THE FIGHTER (held over; see last week’s column for more) and the wonderfully different HOWL, a kind of biography of a poem. With James Franco as Alan Ginsberg (that’s a stretch), Jon Hamm as a “suit” (no stretch there) and a cast that includes David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels and Treat Willams, it’s an actors’ tribute to a seminal work of art. “It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive.” (New York Times)

Spend some time with your family over the holidays for sure, but why not share the Tropic with them, like four times for four treats. Enjoy.

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

Howl (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Rolling down Duval street, confronting cars that want to eat me with bits of legs and shoes that march towards me, while sitting motionless in the spinning top of my chair, I think of Allen Ginsberg. I once saw him at the Miami Book Fair, in 1990. I was shy but exhilarated. I rolled to him like a spun coil. Such is the way I move. He was very approachable: a poetic Grandpa of America with spinning eyes who patted me on the head. A Santa Claus of stanzas. Bringing this memory with me into the dark, I watched "Howl" excitedly, my tense body held in place with a spastic apprehension.

As Allen Ginsberg, James Franco has a conjurer's gift in grasping Ginsberg's unique lazy but leaping manner of speaking. The best episodes are of Franco himself in his chameleon incarnation of Ginsberg. Franco's Ginsberg is organic and natural, swimming in smoke, lasciviously excited by his own action, interested and nonchalant. In his apartment with a recorder, Ginsberg recounts his life, analyzing and imagining as if he, and perhaps both Ginsberg and James Franco, are their own best poems. Franco makes the simulation effortless. It is not so much an imitation but an improvisation. Franco brings both Ginsberg and himself into the role.
Interspersed with these live action scenes are segments of animation, inspired by the poem "Howl" which are startling and stand alone as visual haiku. As stanzas from "Howl" are read by Franco, Art Deco images bend and twist upon the other, sometimes recalling Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall or Dali, each segment gives a novel and lively personification to the poem---a kind of Ginsberg Fantasia.

The obscenity trial sequences, although novel, seemed dwarfed by Ginsberg's playful anecdotes of his sexual and intellectual desire for Kerouac and his romping with Neal Cassady. Perhaps this is the point. "Howl" as a sensory epic of nocturnal pleasures and pains, an adventure story of Ginsberg's mental metropolis had no place in literature's criminal court. The poem is a wild beast of the wilderness.

And although the end of the film "Howl" mimics the Lennon picture "Nowhere Boy" with its self evident nostalgia and time capsule photos, watching James Franco is a Joy.

I witnessed Ginsberg return to his sunflower.

Write to Ian at

The King's Speech (Rhoades)

“The King’s Speech” Has Something to Say

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No, “The King’s Speech” is not about a state of the commonwealth address or Edward giving up the throne for the woman he loves. It’s about the pernicious stammer of King George VI and how he cured it.

Add it to those affliction movies (“Shine,” “My Left Foot,” et al.) that garner Academy Award nominations. Buzz is that this might just be Colin Firth’s year. He stars as the speech-challenged king of the film’s title.
“The King’s Speech” is currently chattering away at the Tropic Cinema.

Based on true historical events, this is the story of Albert (the future George VI and father of the current Queen Elizabeth) who dreaded speaking in public because of his stammer. After his closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, which proved to be an ordeal for both him and his listeners, he consulted Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist. Logue instructed Albert in breathing exercises, particularly the technique of diaphragmatic breathing. As a result of this training, Albert's opening address at Australia’s Federal Parliament in 1927 went well, and thereafter he was able to speak with only a slight hesitation.

Some moviegoers might find this a dry-as-dust historical biopic, but with Colin Firth as Albert Frederick Arthur George and Geoffrey Rush as Logue you will be fascinated by the performances alone.
Firth came to attention as Mr. Darcy in 1995’s television adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” He went on to pay his dues in such nonsense as “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Nanny McPhee.” You even heard him sing in “Mamma Mia!” His breakout role was 2009’s “A Single Man,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

Rush won his own Oscar as the handicapped pianist in “Shine.” So he’s here to support Firth, like a mentor, grooming him for a walk down the Red Carpet.

“The King’s English” received a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People Choice Award.

The people spoke.
[from Solares Hill]

The King's Speech (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The King's Speech

It's not easy to get over family struggles. Consider the case of Prince Albert (Colin Firth) when he first faces the microphone in the 1920s: it is an invasive phallic machine, usurping his royal masculinity. King George (Michael Gambon) puts him center-stage at Wembley Stadium. A sea of peering faces await. The monstrous microphone resembles a gun-sight. Egad! The Prince stammers! Albert fails miserably. He attempts to get help. He tries smoking, speaking with a mouthful of marbles, and liquor. All to no avail.

Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is desperate and seeks help. She enters the home of eccentric Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue's home does not have much in it. In fact, stacks of things are on the floor. The walls are peeling, painted in a digestive mish-mash of pink- orange- purple and green. A half finished model plane hangs in this stark warehouse of a living room, perhaps foretelling the impending Hitler apocalypse.

Logue himself seems like something drawn from John Tenniel or Ralph Steadman. He is crude, irreverent, wrinkled and loud. Logue has little use for regal ceremony. To get the Duke over his stammer, he encourages His Highness to swear as he speaks with enough blasphemy to make Linda Blair blush. Logue also pushes Bertie to talk about the intimidation he felt with his father King George. Rush's Logue is part Henry Higgins and part Sigmund Freud with a touch of George Carlin. When Albert unleashes a stream of profanity, it is safe to say that many will be reminded of "the seven words you can't say on television." 

Suddenly King George is dead. The Duke's brother is in charge, a very weak king (Guy Pearce) is more focused on romance and relinquishes his power. Prince Albert is on his own. Hitler is imminent. It is Logue or bust.

A pivotal speech depends on a clear voice.  Logue becomes an indespensible arm to The King. Logue is the playful and joyful mirror that Albert reflects into to discover a sign of peace.  Elizabeth often suffers in silence. She hangs on her husband's every word and we feel scorched when Albert stammers. But might she just feel a smidge jealous given her husband's closeness with the frenetic therapist, who is more than a bit of a fakir? The movie doesn't bring this out, instead focusing on Logue's wildness and Rush does a fine job of bringing this man to life.

The highlight of the film however, remains Colin Firth. Through him we experience the anxiety and the panic of a royal stutterer, whose tongue hangs in the balance.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Week of Dec. 17 to Dec. 23

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

There’s a Christmas present for all of you down at the Tropic. A Golden Globe, or maybe I should say a constellation of them, because three of the five Globe nominees for Best Picture-Drama are all slated to open over the holidays, two this week and another the following week.

This week’s pair share a theme, the devotion of the central character to a calling that brutalizes the body in pursuit of glory. In THE FIGHTER, it’s boxing. In the BLACK SWAN it’s ballet. But, befitting the radically different aesthetics of the two endeavors, the tone of the movies is dramatically different.

THE FIGHTER is based on the real life of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a welterweight boxer who rose from the gritty world of Lowell, Massachusetts. He idolized his half-brother Dicky Eklund, who had a moment of boxing fame, and became the “Pride of Lowell” when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Micky won a string of amateur titles and had some success as a professional before injuring his hand and dropping out. The movie takes up Micky’s career as he attempts a professional comeback. It’s a family matter, with his mother (Melissa Leo from Frozen River) as manager, his half-brother (Christian Bale) as trainer, and a collection of seven sisters as a Greek chorus, while a new girlfriend (Amy Adams) struggles to achieve influence.

Walhberg gets top billing, but Bale carries the movie, dominating almost every scene. As Robert DiNiro famously gained seventy pounds for his role as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Bale went the other way, losing thirty or forty pounds to capture the physique of the skinny strung-out crack addict that Dicky had become.
He’s a boxing genius, but he’s a narcissist fuckup.

Micky has two challenges: to win his fights, and to escape the dominance of an overbearing mother and junked up half-brother. It’s no coincidence that Darren Aronofsky, the director of last year’s hit The Wrestler is an Executive Producer on THE FIGHTER, and considered directing it. Both films are as much about the family stories as about the ring. The quest to win is the front story, but the quest to live is the real heart of the film. It’s “rousing, … real and … full of complicated emotions, …. blends history and fiction in fascinating fashion, and includes several of the year's best performances.” (

Aronofsky didn’t want to return to the ring because he had moved on to the stage, with BLACK SWAN, the story of a ballerina (Natalie Portman) dealing with the triple pressures of a Balanchine-like master (Vincent Cassel) who wants her to rise to new stardom performing the white and black swans in Swan Lake, her prima ballerina predecessor (Winona Ryder), and her aspiring understudy (Mila Kunis). The result is a visually stunning cross between a backstage melodrama and a horror film that has leapt to almost everyone’s top ten list.

I’ll discuss the BLACK SWAN more next week, when I’ll also be taking up THE KING’S SPEECH, which opens on Christmas Day. But if you love ballet, you won’t want to miss one of the Tropic’s showings of the Nutcracker. On Sunday, it’s The Bolshoi Ballet live via satellite from Moscow, and on Tuesday, the British Royal Ballet in high def from London.

Meanwhile, this week’s program also offers some gentler, but no less compelling dramas. MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON brings a French perspective to bear on that most fraught of adulterous affairs, that between a father and his young son’s school teacher. “An exquisite chamber piece made with the kind of sensitivity and nuance that's become almost a lost art.” (L.A. Times)

LAST TRAIN HOME is a documentary about the annual migration of millions of Chinese workers to their rural homes for the New Year’s holiday. But “it works like stunning, grieving fiction,” as it follows one family over three years in “a reality Dickens could hardly have imagined.” (Roger Ebert).

And the Special Events calendar features a premiere screening of YASUNI, local filmmaker Leonardo Wild’s documentary about an initiative to preserve the Ecuadorian rain forest in face of large oil discoveries. He’ll be there for a Q & A on Tuesday evening.

What a week!

Full info and schedules at or
Comments, please, to

The Fighter (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The Fighter

The film, "The Fighter" opens with Christian Bale talking manically. He has spaced out rolling eyes to startling effect. The camera is grainy as in a documentary and this makes compelling start to a boxing biopic about two half brothers: one young and one burned out, and the bond that they share.

Christian Bale plays Dicky, a once proud boxing wonder who tells people he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky is addicted to crack. He shambles down the neighborhood like a narcotic monkey and enjoys talking himself up. HBO is doing a documentary on him and just wait and see, he tells the neighborhood, he'll make a comeback. A wonder he may have been, but seeing this person now would have me rolling for cover and Christian Bale excellently portrays the awkwardness of an addict and his nerves. Smartly, the director David O. Russell, illustrates the anxiety and the patronizing behaviour that is given in return. We feel the jitters.

Cinematic hunk Mark Wahlberg conveys a solid performance as Micky Ward, Dicky's talented half brother who is all good looks and animal power. In the role, Wahlberg is often bare-chested and sitting pensive in lonely lockers in scenes that echo his young modeling career. Who can blame the director.
At the crux of the film is the family burden brought on by Dicky's addiction and the desire to rise above being a flash-in-the pan.

The most evocative scenes are the quiet scenes between their family and their witches' coven conspiritorial glee of sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Micky has a desire to leave the family and to go away with Charlene, (Amy Adams) but he is in for life.

Melissa Leo as the peroxide and high-strung deadly sweet matriarch steals the movie delivering more punches than a Cassavetes Gena Rowlands and more cloying sweetness than Ruth Gordon. A true dragon lady.
This is a real life "Rocky" story with some of the same Sly Spirit, but the ensnaring sisterhood of the Ward family and the shaken chemistry of Christian Bale will keep you from wanting smelling salts.

Write to Ian at

Black Swan (Rhoades)

“Black Swan” Offers A Dark Dance
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Here on the island of Key West impresario Joyce Stahl has brought us annual performances of “The Nutcracker” ballet. Noted ballerinas from New York City have come down to perform, adding a degree of culture and dance talent not usually found in faraway outposts like ours.

If you like ballet, you will be fascinated by the new film called “Black Swan,” currently playing at Tropic Cinema. In this psychological thriller you find two ballerinas vying for the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”

Director Darren Aronofsky was fascinated with the notion of being haunted by a double, doppelgängers they’re called. A white swan, a black swan. Two competing ballerinas. Dualism … or should that be duelism?
Nina (Natalie Portman’s character) has been waiting for years to take over as lead, waiting for the company’s star ballerina (Wynona Ryder) to step aside. When that time comes, she feels insecure as the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) pits her against a new dancer, a mysterious young woman named Lily (Mila Kunis).
You see, in “Swan Lake” the lead must perform both the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan roles. While Nina is perfect to play the White Swan, Lily is more suited for the Black one. As their twisted friendship turns to rivalry, Nina becomes inexplicably drawn to Lily’s sensuous appeal. And she uncovers a dark side of herself.

Portman’s character goes through a wide range of emotions, enough to encourage Oscar buzz. “I think there was a great advantage in that Darren and I had started to talk about this film like eight years ago when I was still in college,” she says. “What he told me in our first meeting became what the movie ended up being. So to have that sitting in the back of your mind for eight years is a great help. It exists in your brain because you’ve been living with it for a long time, processing it when you’re not even aware of it.”

Maybe it also helped that Portman majored in psychology at Harvard.

“I think everyone has a little black swan in them,” muses Portman. “It’s just a matter of when you let it out. But, I would say I have a healthy balance of both, I would hope. I’m not nearly as adventurous as a black swan, but at times I would like to be.”

“My character is very loose,” adds co-star Mila Kunis. “She’s not as technically good as Natalie’s character, but she has more passion, naturally. That’s what (Nina) lacks.”

Who knew either of these young actresses could dance? Ballet is a physically demanding terpsichorean art, replete with aching muscles and sore toes and calluses that extend from sole to soul.
Portman says, “I did ballet until I was 12, then I stopped when I started to take acting seriously. Then I started again when I was 27, so there’s a 15-year gap. I did have a decent base, but the trainers that I worked with were all so instrumental in shaping all of that. I had the greatest people in the ballet world training me.”

Portman worked out for five hours a day, doing ballet, cross-training, and swimming. A few months closer to filming, she started learning the choreography.

“I was not a ballet dancer,” Kunis says. “I did ballet as a kid like every other kid does ballet. You wear a tutu and you stand on stage and you look cute and twirl. But this is very different because you can’t fake it. You can't just stay in there and like pretend you know what you’re doing. So, it was three months of training, seven days a week, four or five hours a day, before production started, and then during production it was pretty much exactly the same.”

“The thing about ballet that I never knew,” says Kunis, “is that it’s one of the most excruciating sports that I’ve ever been a part of. I say sports because they train constantly, every single day. Your body changes. Your shoulders drop, your chest opens up, and there’s a certain posture that I don’t naturally have because I slouch.”

“Black Swan” has already gathered plenty of headlines over a girl-girl sex scene between Portman and Kunis.
“Um, it was awkward,” blushes Portman. “You know, we were good friends before, but you do things for your work that aren’t comfortable all the time.”

Kunis shrugs. “Anytime you do any intimate scene on film, it’s going to be a little uncomfortable, whether it’s the same sex or the opposite sex. The great thing about this is that Natalie and I were actually lucky enough to be friends prior to production, which made it all a lot easier. We didn’t really discuss it very much. We just kind of did it. It made sense for the character. It wasn’t put in for shock value. It wasn’t something that we needed to justify in our heads, as to why we were doing it. That was it. The truth of the matter is that we were friends before we started the film, so that made it a lot easier.”

As a matter of fact, it was Portman who introduced Kunis to Darren Aronofsky, helping her land the co-starring role.

Natalie Portman has become a cult figure due to her role of Padmé Amidala in the “Star Wars” series. Mila Kunis came to attention as a regular on TV’s “That 70s Show,” before breaking into movies with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Book of Eli.”

Darren Aronofsky’s big hit was 2008’s “The Wrestler,” a drama about an aging wrestler who continues to do matches because that’s all he knows how to do. Oddly enough, Aronofsky considers “Black Swan” a companion piece to “The Wrestler,” because both involve “demanding performances for different kinds of art.”

Yes, and WWE fans know that both are well choreographed.
[from Solares Hill]

The Fighter (Rhoades)

“The Fighter” Wins A Round for Mark Wahlberg
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friend Jerry invests in prizefighters. He’s always off to Las Vegas or Atlantic City or someplace flashy to see his boy fight. He says his fighter’s a contender.

Mark Walhberg (the former Marky Mark, now a respected actor) stars in “The Fighter,” a movie about another contender, this one a pug from Lowell, Massachusetts, who has a shot at a title if his overly ambitious half-brother doesn’t get in the way.

“I’m the one fighting,” the pugilist shouts at his family. “Not you, and not you, and not you.”
Christian Bale plays the brother, his gaunt face a far cry from the chiseled-chin look in his Batman movies. Bale reportedly starved himself to lose weigh for the role.

Two of last year’s Oscar nominees, Amy Adams (“Doubt”) and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”), play Micky’s bartender girlfriend and his “momager” (mother/manager).

“The Fighter” is based on the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward and his brother Dickie Eklund who helped train him before he went pro in the mid ’80s. Himself a boxer turned trainer, Dickie put his life back together after nearly being KO’d by drugs and crime.

This is more a story of siblings and family than boxing. You see, Micky’s family is holding back his career. His mom’s not getting him the fights he needs for a title shot. Everyone’s telling him what to do. He’s their gravy train. And it bothers him that they put their own greed ahead his wellbeing. After all, fighting’s a rough game.
Sparks fly when Micky proposes changing trainers from his brother to a Vegas professional. This is a boxing film with more fighting out of the ring than in it.

“The Fighter” is currently going the distance at the Tropic Cinema.

This is an important film to Wahlberg. He worked had to get it made and he’s proud of it, saying at its American Film Institute premiere that he would “mow lawns and shovel (manure) for two hours for anyone who didn’t enjoy the film.”

Directed by David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees,” “Flirting With Disaster”), this film is a showcase for Walhberg’s thespian skills as well as his physicality. Russell has worked with Wahlberg before in the soldiers of Desert Storm film, “Three Kings.”

Russell also directed a little indie film called “Spanking the Monkey.” My son Kevin helped edit that film. “The director was always sure of what he wanted,” recalls Kev. “He was very exacting.”

As for the real-life Micky Ward, he’s regarded as a workingman’s hero in his hometown of Lowell. Before retiring, he won two WBU light welterweight titles. His three matches with Arturo Gatti are legend. And three of Micky’s bouts (2001 with Emanuel Augustus, 2002 with Arturo Gatti, and 2003 with Arturo Gatti) were named as “Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine.

“Irish” Micky Ward had a strong left hook and a rep for being able to withstand punishment inside and outside the ring. So can Mark Wahlberg.
[from Solares Hill]

Black Swan (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Black Swan

When watching "Black Swan" I was reminded of Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby". The camera hovers like a wasp around Natalie Portman who plays struggling ballerina Nina, just as it once did with Mia Farrow. The menace is palpable.

Nina is single minded in purpose. She only wants to star in the new production of "Swan Lake". She practices and practices in a grueling mechanical manner toe points, lifts and pirouettes. It is a visual trademark of director Darren Aronofsky to show objects as part of a rapid routine. In "Pi" it was albuterol inhalers. In "Requiem for a Dream" it was diet pills. In this film, it is the repeated sequence of toes wrenched and crammed in ballet shoes. Through this film we feel the agony of what it might be like to dance ballet.
Nina is up against it from the start. The womanizing director of the ballet company (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is too much of a goody two shoes. She is not sexy enough, not evil enough for the double role of the Black Swan that the role requires. As in Rosemary's Baby's sinister Dakota building, the locations of "Black Swan" are prone to eerie sights: half-human half-bird creatures engage in lascivious sex, crazed ballerinas go into rages, paintings become possessed and "Exorcist"-like, while mothers shape-shift. For those familiar with Aronofsky, it is a feast.

Nina becomes hunted by the darkling savage force of Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is a 21st century version of Alex in "Fatal Attraction" Where she is all slinky ease and feline coyness. Nina is enervated by repression and her smothering mother (Barbara Hershey) Having no outlet, Nina viciously scratches herself as a neurotic by product of the pursuit of perfection. A nameless and obscure presence of the Occult seems to pursue Nina even though she does nothing wrong.

Everything Nina sees, even a chair is demonic and scary.

As the tension builds and builds as delicately as a score in Classical music, the movie wonderfully echoes Kafka's Metamorphosis, as much as Polanski. By being both frightening and beautiful, voluptuous and vicious, "Black Swan" highlights the potential for sorcery and magic in our everyday lives.
Within each and every one of us there exists a Creature.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Week of Dec. 10 to Dec. 16 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Oh my gosh! Have you seen the new front of the Tropic? A boldly refinished sidewalk, featuring a life-sized statue of Marilyn Monroe with her iconic flaring skirt, to welcome you to Key West’s film heaven. Stop by, even if you aren’t going to the movies.

Leading the film card this week is TAMARA DREWE, the latest from the great British director Stephen Frears (Queen, High Fidelity, My Beautiful Launderette).

Gemma Atherton, playing the title role, is an established babe, from her past roles in the Bond flick Quantum of Solace (she was Strawberry Fields) and the recent mega-messes Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans, but Frears has relocated her to a bucolic location, far from the madding world of those epics.  Loosely based on a graphic novel, which was in turn based on Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” the setting is a rural English village, locus of a writer’s colony run by a writer-philanderer-husband and his long-suffering wife.

Tamara has returned to town, having left some years ago as an ugly duckling, but now looking like Strawberry Fields, come to take care of her deceased mother’s estate. So she’s foxy, rich, and a successful London columnist, to boot. Catnip for this crowd. Add in a self-absorbed sexy rocker and a collection of wannabe writers inhabiting the colony and you’ve got “a hugely exuberant black comedy,” that is Frears “most entertaining” film. (Ella Taylor, NPR).

Counterpoint to this frivolous comedy are two serious studies of genius.  IN SEARCH OF MEMORY documents the life of neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work in understanding how the mind deals with memory.  Born in Austria but living in New York since the 1930’s, Kandel is another exemplar from that mother lode of Nazi refugees that has so enriched American life. Thanks to Kandel’s effervescent  personality, and the inherent interest that we all share in the subject, the movie sparkles. “An engrossing portrait…, a generous introduction to someone worth knowing, who knows an awful lot.” (New York Times)

GENIUS WITHIN: THE INNER LIFE OF GLENN GOULD  focuses on the mind of a particular musical genius. As famous for his eccentric behavior as his brilliant playing, Gould was one of the legendary artists of the mid-twentieth Century.  You might see the Kandel movie first, to gain insight into the workings of the brain, and then the Gould one to see a very odd one in operation. The movie is full of filmed interviews with him (though he stopped performing in public in 1964, he continued to give interviews for many years until his death in 1982). The movie is “a tour de force of archival research and dogged interviewing, and the portrait it presents is remarkably complete.” (New York Times)

For all you aspiring filmmakers, there’s a Special Event this weekend. The Monroe County Film Commission is presenting a free two-day seminar on the ins and outs of film location work. The Location Manager  is the person who finds the places that fit a film director’s vision and needs, negotiates the arrangements for use of the places, and makes sure the shoot there goes down smoothly. William Bowling, Location Manager on such films as Talledega Nights, Red Dragon, and Saving Private Ryan will conduct the seminar intended to provide basic training the skills needed.  Details at Call Rita Brown at the Florida Keys & Key West Film Office at 305-296-1552 to reserve your place.

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[from Key West, the newspaper -]

Tamara Drewe (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Tamara Drewe

"Tamara Drewe" is a film version of Posy Simmonds' British graphic novel. The film captures the quirkiness and the realism of its drawn characters. "Tamara Drewe" the story, was first published in serial form in the British paper The Guardian. It concerns on a rebellious young lady who upsets a calm writers' retreat in the English countryside. Tamara is part Cinderella and part femme fatale. She sprinkles the rural sleepy setting with aphrodiasiac dust. With Tamara's arrival, the farmhouse and bed and breakfast are never the same.
Rather than use animation to describe its characters, the film has an earthy sensuality that owes a debt to madcap British comedies like "Death at A Funeral"and "A Fish Called Wanda". The magic of this film is its range of characters along with a brisk apprehensive pace. The new lighthearted Woody Allen would do well to take note.

In residence at the retreat, is the arrogant skirt-chasing novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam). Hardiment bears a bit of resemblance to Anthony Hopkins' character in Woody Allen's latest film, but where Hopkins was cartoony, Allum despite being in a re-creation of a comic serial, displays a genuine torment and angst.

Gemma Arterton as Tamara is mischievous, sincere, dynamic and softly subversive. She is no two dimensional Betty Boop on acid- free paper. Instead, Arterton liberates her role from the flat page. She is a subtle darkling Snow White with more fire in her eyes than Domme Lisbeth Salander. Why not a sequel?
The verve of Stephen Frears' direction is inimitable. His love of rebellion is clearly in evidence with his casting of Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie as two starstruck delinquents who are after an over-hyped rock star, portrayed with just the right mix of sincere ego and insensitivity by Dominic Cooper. Cooper just might have Russell Brand on the run.

The situations may be madcap but the layering of comedy and sincere conflict are so expertly blended that you never notice where the comedy ends and the pathos begins. As with "Scott Pilgrim vs The World", "Tamara Drewe" stands alone without the comparison to its printed predecessor necessary. Both films are rich sensory experiences, volatile and free with plenty of poke to the status quo.

Write Ian at

Tamara Drewe (Rhoades)

“Tamara Drewe” Retells Thomas Hardy
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Remember Classics Illustrated, those comic books featuring classic literature retold in a graphic format? Who would have made it through high school English classes without them?

Well, here we have another example of comic books and classic novels forming an interesting partnership – a film version of “Tamara Drewe.” As the credits tell us, the film is based on a graphic novel.

In my textbook “Comic Books: How the Industry Works” I point out two different kinds of graphic novels – original stories (known as OGN, “original graphic novels”) and anthologies of previously published material.
The “Tamara Drewe” graphic novel was a compilation of a weekly comic strip by Posy Simmonds that first appeared in Britain’s The Guardian in 2005. The strip was a modern retelling of Thomas Hardy’s 19th Century novel “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

Better than Classics Illustrated, the movie animates the characters to life. You can catch “Tamara Drewe” this week at the Tropic Cinema.

This film version stars Gemma Arterton as the titular Tamara. She’s a young journalist who returns to her hometown of Ewedown (a fictional town in Dorset, England) in order to sell her deceased mother’s house. Local folks are amazed at Tamara’s transformation, now a real looker after having a nose job and blossoming out in all the right places. She quickly attracts the attention of Andy (played by Luke Evans), a childhood friend. But the leggy Tamara is a randy gal who embarks on affairs with writers and boy-band drummers. Alas, poor Andy.

Like a Greek chorus, a group of authors gather at a neighbor’s house across the valley and witness these carryings-on. Will Tamara and Andy connect? Hint: Does Gabriel Oak get Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel?

This comedy comes from Stephen Frears, the British director who gave us “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “The Queen.”

The lovely English actress Gemma Arterton has had some experience with Thomas Hardy, having starred in a film version of “Tess of the D’Ubervilles.” You’ve also seen her with Daniel Craig in the James Bond thriller “Quantum of Solace” and with Jake Gyllenhaal in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” And you’ll be encountering her again, fighting aliens in the upcoming “Men In Black III.”

But back to “Tamara Drewe.” Here we have a movie based on a graphic novel based on a comic strip based on a dusty old novel. How does it translate?

“Turning graphic novels into films can be a tricky business,” notes Lisa Mullen of Sight & Sound. “Here the romantic themes – concerning sensible spouse choice ... are undercut by a bawdy appreciation of chaos, mischief, and mayhem.”

Yep, there you have it. I can enjoy watching a beautiful girl getting intro mischief, not matter what the source of the story.
[from Solares Hill]

In Search of Memory (Rhoades)

“In Search of Memory” Finds an Interesting Man
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think of it as spending time with a kindly professor, not in the classroom but tagging along with him as he talks about his research on memory loss.

Nueroscientist Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his research into the science of memory.

“My life was pretty wonderful before then,” say Kandel, “but it changed it dramatically.”

Students consider this Harvard-trained scientist “a rock star.”

In fact, he looks more like an older version of Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” than, say, Rod Stewart. But it’s his brain they admire.

He says his mother made him become a scientist without intending to. Other Jewish mothers would ask their children when they got home from school, “Did you learn anything today?” But his mother would ask, “Izzy, did you ask any good questions today?” Asking questions pointed him to a career in science.
“In Search of Memory” – a documentary by Petra Seeger -- profiles Eric Kandel. It’s playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Rather than basing the film on Kandel’s book of the same name, Seeger offers a personal glimpse into the life and memories of the noted scientist. Her camera tags along as he visits his old high school in Brooklyn; follows as he takes his family on a visit to Vienna, Austria, where he was born; reenacts his memories of Nazis kicking his parents out of their spacious apartment; listens as he offers an on-the-fly lecture on the brain and how it stores memory.

The return to Vienna is “in search of memory,” he quips. His own.

He goes on to explain that “memory is the glue that binds our mental life together … memory provides our lives with continuity.”

And it makes us unique. “Everybody in the audience has a slightly different brain,” he says to a group of listeners.

He has started a company to help deliver cures for the problems of memory loss. There’s a need. “Take a hundred people,” he says. “Forty percent of them function like they are teenagers.” What he calls Successful Aging. “Another thirty percent go on to a mild disorder called Aged Memory Loss,” he expounds. “And the final thirty percent face a very severe illness known as Alzheimer’s.”

When it comes to these memory disorders, science is better at treating laboratory mice than people, he says sadly.

Nonetheless, Eric Kandel has been on the cutting edge of unlocking the secrets of the brain since the ’60s. And he has the big gold medal to prove it.

Is he playing God? No way, he protests. Being a scientist is no different than any other craft. “You’re a shoemaker,” he says modestly.
[from Solares Hill]

Love and Other Drugs (Rhoades)

“Love & Other Drugs” Tries to Have It Both Ways
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What do you expect when a guy who peddles Viagra meets a girl who just wants meaningless sex? Exactly.
That’s the situation in “Love & Other Drugs,” the wonky romance that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the suave guy with pick-up lines that work and a puckish sense of humor. He hooks up with Anne Hathaway, a just-wanna-have-fun girl with a secret. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that despite mutual vows to keep it FWB, they fall in love. Heck, the title tells you that much.

Gyllenhall showed security with his sexual identity when he played gay in “Brokeback Mountain.” Here, he plays it straight, reflecting the ladies man that he seems to be in real life. After all, we’ve seen him date Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, and maybe even singer Taylor Swift.

And his recent films like “Prince of Persia” and “Brothers” have been designed to restore his macho image.
Anne Hathaway co-starred with Jake in “Brokeback Mountain,” so she had already developed a certain comfort level with him. Anne is trying to overcome the “good girl” image that she developed from her early Disney movies like “The Princess Diaries” and Miramax’s “Ella Enchanted.” One headline described it as going from “Princess to Passion.”

Her role as an unhappy wife in “Brokeback Mountain” signaled that sea change. She reinforced it as the free-spirited sister in “Rachel Getting Married” and as a phone-sex call girl (literally, you called her) in “Valentine’s Day.”

So now in “Love and Other Drugs” she gets naked with Jake. Pictures of the bare twosome have even appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And outtakes from the movie can be found on the Internet, two stars strategically imposed over her, ahem, bosom.

Director Edward Zwick tried to put his actors at ease with the script’s nudity by getting undressed and climbing into bed with them. Dunno, but that might have made me even more nervous.

This is about the amorous adventures of a pharma salesman. When Pfizer introduces Viagra, Jake smirks at his mentor (Oliver Platt), “Who could sell a dick drug better than me?’

Gyllenhaal’s member is the subject of a lot of jokes in the raunchy R-rated film. There’s even an impotence episode, but that flagging event is handled with funny banter and easy charm. That’s what makes this a comedy. The fact that Hathaway’s character is suffering from early-onset Parkinson’s is what makes it a drama.

The dramedy is based on a non-fiction book titled “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy.

“Love and Other Drugs” has more in common with Zweck’s TV series “Thirtysomething” than his previous hairy-chested films like “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Blood Diamond.”

This is one of a series of “unorthodox relationship” movies coming your way. Among them are “Friends With Benefits,” “No Strings Attached,” and “Hall Pass.”

Oh yes … as the title of “Love and Other Drugs” implies, we learn that love is the ultimate drug. Pharmaceutical companies, take note.
[from Solares Hill]

In Search of Memory (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
In Search of Memory

"In Search of Memory" is the documentary portrait of Nobel prize winning scientist Eric Kandel. Kandel is known for his work in neuroscience, blending the biology of the brain with psychoanalysis.~"Memory," says Kandel, "is everything. It is the glue that holds us together.Without it we are nothing."

Kandel believes that memory is encoded, stored in the hippocampus and can actually change the anatomy of the brain and make new connections. Kandel was born on 1929 in Vienna and he had the fortune to escape the Nazis in 1939. When the camera opens on him we see a dandy old man with slightly disheveled hair and an animated glee. Kandel is a kind of opposite to comedian Larry David. As he laughs at the struggle of escaping from Nazi Germany, he is irrepressible. Like  the biology of memory itself, one gets the feeling that Kandel is unstoppable. And he retains no bitterness towards the people of Vienna. The sound of a waltz always lifts him.
The sequences move naturally with ease, gracefully filmed with rich and heartfelt dramatic recreations of Kandel's childhood. As the black jackets of the Gestapo take him from his home, young Kandel can almost be seen as the Indiana Jones of neuroscience. But instead of the arc there remains the hippocampus and the elusive cargo of memory. As he travels across the globe from Brooklyn to Vienna to re-affirm his childhood and his memory, Kandel is cheerfully persistent and fearless. Inside a tunnel where he hid as a child, he cracks jokes. More than a few times, in Brooklyn, he comes up empty. No one recalls his father. Kandel studies every object in a room with his lively eyes. He is taking note of the people he meets, even the dead ends to find out how memory behaves in the human organism and how it adapts and changes under the stimuli of surprise.

Kandel is also an avid collector of German Expressionism. The deep grooved black lines in the artwork collection, like the synaptic contacts that he catalogues, have formed their  own unique pathways in Kandel's brain.

Directed by Petra Seeger "In Search of Memory" creates a provocative portrait of a man who sees the human science of memory as a living template more exotic that any group of Nazca lines that call to any divinity, yet unknown.

Write Ian at

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week of Dec. 3 to Dec. 9 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

What would you do if a loved one was charged with murder, and you thought he or she was innocent? You’d find the best lawyer you could afford, sure. And you’d take all the appeals you could, sure. But what if all that was for naught? What if there’s a conviction, a life sentence, and no more appeals?

Two movies at the Tropic suggest other possibilities. In THE NEXT THREE DAYS, Russell Crowe, an otherwise unassuming academic, puts on a metaphorical cape and busts his wife out of jail. Now there’s a solution!  I don’t know how good an idea it would be in real life, but it makes for one hellavuh of an exciting movie.

CONVICTION offers a less exciting, but no less dramatic alternative, which is to keep working your butt off. This, you see, is a true story rather than an excuse for a car chase. The incredibly versatile Hilary Swank, who has been a cross-dresser (Boys Don’t Cry), a boxer (Million Dollar Baby), and a daring aviatrix (Amelia), is Betty Anne Waters, a high-school dropout bartender, who decided to become a lawyer so she could find a way to save her brother from a life in jail. With a supporting cast of Sam Rockwell (Moon) as the brother, the underused Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) as her law-school buddy, and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) as a villainous cop, the acting talent is first rate. And the story will mess with your tear ducts.

NORA’S WILL has an unusual provenance. It’s a Mexican-Jewish black comedy that’s been winning awards at film festivals (including the Audience Award at last year’s Miami Film Fest) about a woman who arranges her death to bring her family together for a Passover Seder. It’s the first feature for filmmaker Maria Chenillo, and won her Ariel awards (Mexican Oscar) for Best Picture and Best Director last year. Like Kathryn Bigelow in the U.S., it was the first time a woman had gotten the Best Director prize. But unlike Ms. Bigelow’s mini-epic The Hurt Locker, this is a small budget, single-setting little movie, “a hugely enjoyable, low-key farce about family ties, suicide, recipes, rabbis, and Jewish burial traditions” (

The other new film this week is VISION: FROM THE LIFE OF HILDEGARD BINGEN, a documentary tribute to a visionary 12th-century Benedictine nun. Placed in the convent as a child (apparently as a religious offering from her parents), she managed to achieve a kind of greatness, overcoming in many cases powerful men who controlled her order. She did it in part through her “visions” of God and part through her inner strengths, teaching herself to read, write and even compose Gregorian chants. We view the film “with our imaginations, and realize that no matter what rules society lays down for women — for anyone — ways can sometimes be found to prevail on one’s own terms” observes Roger Ebert.

Don’t miss a couple of very Special Events. On Tuesday, the Tropic takes you Live to La Scala in Milan for the celebratory opening of the Italian opera season. The opera is Wagner’s DIE WALKURE. Conducted by Daniel Barenboim, sung in German, but with full English subtitles, the live performance will start at 11:00am (5:00pm in Milan). Opera lovers, call in sick on Tuesday!

Wednesday brings us a special screening of GASLAND, a new documentary about the emerging phenomenon of “fracking,” hydraulically cracking the subsurface to unlock pockets of natural gas. It’s a growing issue, and this is the time to learn about it. Filmmaker Josh Fox will join the audience for a live webcast, with Q & A after the film.

Full schedules and details at or
Comments, please, to

Nora's Will (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Nora's Will

A table is being set for Passover with the precision of a chess game. Wine is poured. Drawers are opened and closed. The camera pulls back: A table is shown covered with china so that it resembles an ivory coffin. It is a surreal and beautiful sight.

This mood of haunted poignancy is expressed throughout "Nora's Will" by director Mariana Chenillo.
In the film,  Nora's ex-husband Jose ( Fernando Luján) is gruff and cynical. He first gets boxes and boxes of meat sent to him instead of Nora. Going over to the apartment, He discovers her body which looks like a porcelain doll. She committed suicide. But alas, there is coffee brewing. There are brightly colored notes pasted everywhere like sprinkles on a cupcake. And there are Tupperware containers with detailed instructions, which are seen as nurturing crypts from a cypher of a woman who loved food and cooking. Tasty memorials that are only bitter to a sour ex-husband. Even with her passing, Nora exerts domination.

Jose sets to work. Even though Nora was Jewish, Jose buys her a Christian casket. Jose's one-upmanship? The Rabbi is in an uproar. The room must be refrigerated to near freezing because the deceased  it turns out, cannot be buried until two days after Passover. We see Jose shivering in the cold sterile apartment. Nora's revenge! Jose moves the coffin like a cumbersome cuckoo clock. And the huge wooden cross mocks him.
Gradually we see flashbacks of marital history: a couple warm and sensual, taken in by love. Euphoric bliss.
Now in the present, Jose sleeps with old pictures. He wakes, obsessed with Nora's fidelity. He wants her for himself. He loves her still.

Only the children in the movie can make a joke of death. They play freely in Nora's coffin. The rest of the adults, aside from Jose, are locked in a melancholy circus of ritual and formality, symbolized by the austere apartment. Jose silently yearns to break free with irreverent thought. Love and joyful play is the core of life, without it we are lost to our own routines with so many wedged apartments to fill.

"Nora's Will" despite its subject, has a disarming light charm with pointed humor and wit. In the comic style of "Like Water for Chocolate," this film highlights the conflicts of dominance, spontaneity and religious ritual.

Conviction (Brockway)

Sprockets by Ian Brockway     

"Conviction" is a very moving film about the slight mistakes we can make that turn into very big mistakes. It is about the spiral of the justice system and the pettiness that it can possess.
But ultimately, it is about the bond that exists between brother and sister.

"Conviction" stars the esteemed Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters, the driven single mom who works tirelessly to exonerate her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) who is wrongfully convicted and up for life. You could say the odds were stacked against them. As children Betty Anne and Kenny grew up in eight different foster homes, away from their dysfunctional and abusive mother. As kids, they broke into neighbors' bedrooms and ate stolen candy, pretending to live in a stable family. These are the some of the most striking scenes in the film as they are hard edged "Little Rascals" doing whatever they can, joined at the hip.

At first, the cops treat the deliquent youngsters with genial familiarity. But as years pass,Kenny has an aggressive temper and it gets him in trouble at a bar.

One day Kenny is clearing brush in his backyard and he happens to have a chainsaw in hand. A policewoman arrives. In one Kafkaesque second, Kenny is questioned in the murder of Katharina Brow. After a semi-sour exchange, Kenny is let go. Abruptly, during the funeral of his father in law, there is a flashing shade over the church ceiling akin to the apprehension in the first "Godfather" film. Kenny is led away without fanfare and without deep reason. His blood type matches and he is said to have had words with the victim. Kenny's sister knows his guilt is falsified. And she vows to get him released. But she isn't in "The Next Three Days" although she is just as determined as Russell Crowe. Unlike that action film, the events build slowly with a natural detail and the tension is in Betty Anne's unflagging resolve and the devotion to her brother.

This is a breakout part for Sam Rockwell who clearly changes from a volatile young man who is not without his charms into an almost broken soul, had it not been for his sister.

We see the suspenseful cycle and purpose of Betty Anne's journey from single mom, to student and crusader. The glue is in the charisma shared between actors Rockwell and Swank and the dramatic interplay they bring to what could have been a TV movie, but is something more. Sadly, during the writing of this review, I learned that Kenny Waters died from a fall shortly after being cleared of all charges. The film then becomes a record, but it is no less uplifting for that.

To watch Rockwell and Swank as brother and sister, is to witness the effect of sibling love on the human condition. 

Vision (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hildegarde von Bingen was a nun in the 12th century. She is known for being a trailblazer for free expression within the church and her use of herbal remedies was way ahead of her time. Hildegarde was also an advocate of music therapy when it was virtually unknown. Some thought her a heretic because of her groundbreaking belief in the earth and the soul as one symbiotic and sacred element.

Hildegarde was austere fierce and heroic, and the film "Vision" brings her both earthy and ethereal presence to life. From the very start, dirt is ever-present and men are flogging themselves in near darkness. A mural is shown highlighting demons. Everyone thinks the world will end.

No this is not "The Da Vinci Code". The tone in this film is as organic as its subject. The movement is meditative and circular; the camera allows the viewer to linger as if he/she was a medieval dove. The cinematography has thankfully, more in common with Vermeer than Ron Howard, and the film benefits from it.

The woman embodied in Hildegarde von Bingen however, for her time, is every bit as scandalous as Dan Brown. She sees plants as harmonious entities that mirror mens' souls, she sees the concept of healing as human business rather than Divine will and she calls for an expansion of female leadership within the Order.

As portrayed by Barbara Sukowa, Hildegarde is richly rendered as an earthly shaman ahead of her time. Hildegarde sweats, charges and runs. She is not merely an historical archetype. Hildegarde forges ahead in mud and muck, through forest and feild. Resolute and unconventional, she has much in keeping with Gandhi's rejection of the caste system: she encourages the Sisters to dirty their hands with hard physical labor.

Walking through every task, one gets the notion that all the elements move within her and that nothing human or natural was verboten to her. Hildegarde is not adverse to laughing or the mention of sex. Providing it is in word only. To see "Vision" is to get a tangible concrete feeling of this oddly rebellious woman of the cloister.

And I didn't wish once for a lurking albino monk.

Conviction (Rhoades)

“Conviction” Speaks of Loyalty
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

How far would you go to save someone you love from unjust imprisonment? I asked that question when I reviewed “The Next Three days.”

Now I ask it again.

Betty Anne Waters devoted her life to freeing her brother Kenny, falsely sent to prison for the murder of a woman in 1980. First she got a GED, then her bachelor's, a master's in education, and eventually a law degree from Roger Williams University. A single mother, she did this while raising two sons and working as a part-time waitress.

She eventually uncovered biological evidence that she took to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helps overturn wrongful convictions. DNA testing proved Kenny Waters’ innocence and led to his exoneration on June 19, 2001.

A clear case of wrongful imprisonment, the town of Ayer and its insurers settled Kenny’s civil rights lawsuit for $3.4 million.

“Conviction” is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Starring two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank as Betty Anne, this is the kind of role that could offer her a run at Oscar number three. After all, she plays a legal do-gooder similar to “Erin Brockovich (which did the trick for Julia Roberts).

Peter Gallagher’s turn as attorney Barry Shreck of the Innocence Project does not have the gravitas of Albert Finney in the aforementioned “Erin Brockovich.” Oscar-winner Mimi Driver has a meatier role as Betty Anne’s law school pal. And actress-turned-punk rocker Juliette Lewis has a nice quirky cameo as Kenny's former girlfriend.

However, Sam Rockwell is the one who comes on strong as Betty Anne’s falsely convicted brother. Watching his portrayal of Kenny as the years of imprisonment wear on him is heart wrenching. A raw and powerful performance, he displays many emotions – angry, sad, even joyous. Oscar material for this underrated actor.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, this is his 16th turn at helming a film (mostly TV projects, but also the well-regarded “A Walk on the Moon”). Originally an actor, he was listed as one of twelve “Promising New Actors of 1990.” You’ll remember him as the baddie facing off against Patric Swayze in “Ghost” or more recently as the victim in “Last House on the Left.” He has a long Hollywood pedigree, being the son of actress Jennifer Howard and producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

Why do we love these films about a working class woman triumphing over the establishment? “Conviction,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Norma Rae,” et al. Maybe because we can identify, no matter what our social status, with the injustices found within society. And watching a feel-good cinematic winner offers inspiration and hope – especially if it’s based on a true story.

The film fails to mention that only three months after being released from prison, Kenny Waters died from falling off a wall while taking a shortcut to a pizza parlor.

Today, the real Betty Anne Waters continues her work to free individuals wrongfully convicted of crime, as well as to fight for the rights of prison inmates.
[from Solares Hill]