Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Week of December 2 to December 8 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

It’s always a treat when a new Pedro Almadóvar film comes out. Early in his career, the titles alone were enough to get your juices flowing: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990). The Key West Film Society/Tropic Cinema has presented every Almadóvar opus released since the Society’s founding in 1999. They had a great time presenting All About My Mother at a gala fund raiser at the San Carlos, inviting Monroe County’s legendary “Queen Mother,” County Commisioner Wilhelmina Harvey, as a guest of honor. Believe me, the octogenarian Harvey didn’t expect a movie about a transvestite father and a pregnant nun.

Almadóvar’s more recent titles have pulled back a little, but the subject matter is always off-beat and provocative . His new film THE SKIN I LIVE IN continues the tradition. The New York Times’ Manhola Dargis can’t decide if it’s “an existential mystery, a melodramatic thriller, a medical horror film or just a polymorphous extravaganza.”

A quick summary, without giving away the plot twists which keep you guessing. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has become more a mad scientist, as he tries to develop a new technique for saving burn victims by experimenting on a human subject. The woman, named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), is beautiful and, by turns, dutiful and belligerent. “Part Vertigo, part Beauty and the Beast, part Bride of Frankenstein, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is yet another casually masterful work, from a director who has barely put a foot wrong in his 30 (!) years of feature filmmaking.” (Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian)

Also opening this week is MELANCHOLIA. the latest from the notorious filmmaker Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist). Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an oddly affectless, anhedonic woman who is getting married on the day that a rogue planet (named Melancholia) is threatening to crash into the earth. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has paid for the lavish wedding, tries to break the spell (and maybe save the Earth?).

Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, while Von Trier was drummed out of town for making obnoxious remarks. So it goes in the world of film festivals. He later apologized. But this side story has nothing to do with the movie which is beautifully filmed. Rene Rodriquez in the Miami Herald describes it well as “an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder…. a tremendously daring movie.”

The Europan opera season continues this week, with DON GIOVANNI live from La Scala in Milan. It’s the festive opening night of the Milanese opera season, with Daniel Barenboim conducting and the gorgeous Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna.  You can be there for the live show Wednesday at 12:00PM EST (6:00PM in Milan). There’s also an encore broadcast in the evening.

Held over are MARY MARCY MAY MARLENE, J. EDGAR, and RUM DIARY, as the Tropic’s winter movie season move into high gear and we begin the run up to Christmas.  Time to consider Tropic Gift Cards for your loved ones – ten percent discount on all cards for members. Or check out the Elves link on the Tropic’s home page. Are you naughty or nice?

Full schedules and info at or

The Skin I Live In (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Skin I Live in

The first time I came across a Pedro Almodovar film, I was a student at the University of Miami. Almodovar was known by both of  his first and last names then, and the director seemed less of a person and more like a provocative creature, perhaps an emotion, a color, or a cinematic perfume.  

I had no idea. I went into the university cinema to see "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (1990) because I had a crush on a girlfriend who invited me, but it wasn't a "date". There was a raffle prize of a pair of handcuffs. Real ones. As it turned out, I won. 

The handcuffs of hard and shiny metal were as strange and curious to me as Almodovar. I knew both involved sex but what was I going to do with a pair of handcuffs and what could I gain in watching the film? The only thing I thought about the title was that it probably involved sex and hopefully a nude scene. I remember lots of bright color, fast cutting, and some feelings of apprehension. I thought of Hitchcock and the romantic sexual cravings within my own body, but I don't remember much else. 

Now decades later, a calmer version of myself has rolled in to see "The Skin I Live In", the latest film by Almodovar, but as I looked at my body, I noticed that I was still leaning a bit forwards and sideways, my right hand clenched in excitement, much the way it was in the early 90s, but I still didn't know what to expect.

Simply put, "The Skin I Live In" is a rich, Gothic feast for the eyes, fast-paced and strange, with no uneven lulls at any point. Loyal devotees of Almodovar's films will find the same lush scenery and the director's trademark use of brilliant  color that never fails to make parrots fly away in envy. All the traditional cues are here but the story is laced in black right out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Poe.

Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Ledgard, an ultra-controlling  plastic surgeon who has been grieving over the death of his wife who was horribly burned. Ledgard lives in a opulent mansion. Each day he goes to his lab and works on a project to produce "artificial skin", from a kind of adhesive nectar, as far as I can tell, made from bees and human growth cells. In one of the rooms Ledgard keeps a live-in patient, Vera, (Elena Anaya) a very attractive feline ingenue who looks strikingly like Simone Simon. She gets more beautiful as the movie goes on on, but the cat's got my tongue.

Vera, in a flesh-toned body suit is kept in confinement, doing yoga and studying the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, whose work, with its tightly meshed and life sized sewn figures, speaks to both Vera and Dr. Ledgard.

Vera is almost always seen from the back. Almadovar's almost fetishistic reverence of Vera's vertebrae, her buttery skin and the violin curve of her hips is on par with Salvador Dali's portraits of Gala. It hardly seems coincidental that Ledgard's new skin process is actually called "Gal" after the doctor's deceased wife. But with all of the film's cold whiteness that ultimately dominates the tell-tale lushness of elegant surrealism, the artist that Almodovar seems to be echoing the most is David Cronenberg. 

But he does  Cronenberg one  better. There is a black heart here, but  it tilts and surprises with the narrative almost going full speed ahead into a subversive sun, yet this cat and mouse game with a sexual double cross never quits.
This is  an Almodovar melodrama with enough twists and turns to invert a Cronenberg story of dread into a Toledo carnival. Just the sight of Elena Anaya is enough to make anyone's heart melt, be they male, female or transgendered. When the camera moves over her body it is like watching the production of white chocolate in its most liquid form. Vera's skin is as infinite and as blankly voluptuous as a Dalinian beach---bright and visually aromatic.

"The Skin I Live In" is a taut suspenseful Grand Guignol yarn that will delight the eye as well as race the heart. An Almodovar film is like seeing an acquaintance  who is up to his usual obsessions, but who still remains exotic, mysterious and thrillingly unreachable.

Write Ian at

Melancholia (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Lars von Trier is the L'enfant terrible of current cinema. Few directors provoke. To get a reaction from others is to stimulate and move the mind. Such reactions ranging from delight to disgust proves that cinema, like painting, possesses antennae, transmitters and electric current. Lars von Trier is a director of motion from the subtle to the downright scary. This is no small thing. And he doesn't fail to disappoint or confuse, perhaps leaving his audiences hanging, which is why I find him a compelling director despite his appalling and odd statements about Hitler.

With his latest outing "Melancholia", you might get the feeling that von Trier sees the dark side of everything under the sun and you would probably be right.
The film, although not as visually upsetting as the very graphic "Antichrist", still can make you uncomfortable with its deep close ups of faces numb, dead or in torment. But "Melancholia" at least gives us a bit of breathing space where von Trier's last film was all constriction, German Expressionism and writhing dismemberment.

The film stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine (Marquis de Sade, anyone?). Justine is about to get married but she is a bit... well, moody to say the least. Justine seems oppressed or repressed by some strange draught upon the brain as soon as she enters the Gothic looking mansion where the reception takes place. The mansion is as important as any character in the film and it is positively creepy.

 The bride and groom get stuck in a ditch and of course, arrive late. Soon tension escalates between the bride's father (Jon Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling). The wedding party takes on a disquieting feeling as strong as "Macbeth" or as nerve-jangling as the Hollywood party depicted in "The Exorcist" with a whirling camera showing queasy kids unsettled in sleep as the adults menacingly insult one another in semi-whispers. No one is very likable in the film, but this is Lars von Trierworld. Every film is an emotion unto itself. And usually not a pleasant one.

 Suffice to say, there is a new planet named Melancholia that seems to be listing towards earth and it is making everyone very, very high strung. Granted, you may have seen characters who mope around with unwashed hair in von Trier's films often enough and I know that Kiefer Sutherland is weak, obsessively looking into his microscope and fretting.

 But hold on to your horses.

 The Prologue alone is a film that stands by itself having some of the most startling imagery that you'll ever see. Lars von Trier is a Surrealist par excellence, second only to David Lynch. His stark shadows on a brilliant green golf course would make De Chirico and Magritte weep and rise again, not to mention his faces of children who look like ambivalent or evil-streaked angels fresh from the brush of Botticelli.

 The natural world seems to be both living and removed in Trier's films, pulsing with a numinous intellect, not of this solar system. von Trier's inhabitants often become infantile or regress, consumed with demonic passions long spent in primordial forests half forgotten by our descendants.

 However, not since Andreas Serrano's artwork has there been a man that some love to hate on a personal level,(understandably so) but who also has the ability to show nature in all its sorcery, with all the jarring juxtapositions between our worlds, both the organic and the man-made.

 For cult science fiction fans, this film is nothing less than a visual rendering of J.G. Ballard's upper-class outer worldliness and his stories of doomsday beachcombers and neurotic astronauts, lost on terra firma.

 "Melancholia" is an apprehensive but thoughtful film with vibrant haunting visuals that fall back to the paintings of Salvador Dali and Magritte, while at the same time offering new ways to interpret Luis Bunuel's "Un Chien Andalou" (1928). That should be reason enough to turn your frowning fear for von Trier upside down and see this film.

Write Ian at

The Skin I Live In (Rhoades)

“The Skin I Live In”
Is Deliberately

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friend Dave is a retired plastic surgeon. He knows how to do butterfly stitches that don’t leave a scar, implants that change the contour of a face, and skin grafts. I hope he will go see “The Skin I Live In,” the new film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. It’s about a plastic surgeon who turns into sort of a demented Dr. Frankenstein.
Not that Dave will identify with Dr. Robert Ledgard, the physician played by Antonio Banderas (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Puss In Boots”). But he may have some thoughts on the burn-resistant artificial skin that Dr. Ledgard has invented. It worked well on mice. Now, how about on a human being?
Well, Dr. Ledgard just happens to have one handy, a beautiful woman he’s holding captive in his palatial mansion in Toledo, Spain. Video screens hang like paintings throughout the estate allowing him to keep watch on her. She’s dressed in a full-body cat suit the color of pale skin, making her look at first glance like a classic nude odalisque canvas by Ingres.
This test subject named Vera is played by Elena Anaya (“Van Helsing,” “Sex and Lucia”). Director Almodóvar had planned to use Penelope Cruz in this role, but scheduling conflicts arose. Frequent collaborators, Almodóvar was largely responsible for transforming Cruz into a screen goddess.
Dr. Ledgard is assisted in his experiment by a loyal housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). She understands what drives the doctor. Twelve years ago his wife was horribly burned in a car crash, like a “cinder” as she describes it. That led to the wife’s suicide. So our doctor is driven to find a cure.
Or is there more to the story?
Yes, indeed. How Vera came to be locked in this bright, modernistic room is the key to the mystery. Ledgard’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) and a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet) figure into the puzzle.
Some viewers have described “The Skin I live In” as an existential mystery. Others have called it a psychosexual thriller. And still others have pegged it as a medical horror film. The New York Times termed it a polymorphous extravaganza, whatever that is.
Is it a horror film? “I myself am reluctant to label it that way,” says Pedro Almodóvar. “You have to be careful because to hardcore horror fans this will seem like a very strange movie, and I don’t want to disappoint people. But in essence, yes, it is a horror film.”
With a mad genius like Almodóvar (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”) you can expect a film that’s weird, dark, and sometimes funny. He became a leading light of La Movida, the pop cultural movement that blossomed in Spain during the late ’70s. Himself gay, Almodóvar’s films often present strong female characters and transsexuals. Winner in the end, Vera fits this mold.
This film is a reunion, the first collaboration between Almodóvar and his former regular cast member Banderas in 21 years.
“No one played the male characters I wrote in the 1980s better than Antonio Banderas,” says the pudgy director. “But here I didn’t want to repeat what we had done before. I wanted to drain Antonio’s face of all expression and emotion, which is difficult for an actor to do. But his disposition was exactly the same as it used to be, and he gave me the confidence to push forward.”
“The Skin I Live In” (Spanish title: “La piel que habito”) is loosely based on a story by crime novelist Thierry Jonquet called “Mygale” (meaning “Tarantula”). The film is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
When a colleague tells Ledgard “You’re insane!” the doctor seems to accept the diagnosis. Banderas, with his weary countenance, is no longer the happy-go-lucky nice guy that inhabits so many of his performances. Here, he allows us to burrow deep under his skin to see the darkness there.
Psychosexual thriller? Mystery? Horror film? It’s all of these. Or you could simply call it a skin flick.
 [from Solares Hill]

Melancholia (Rhoades)

“Melancholia” Aims
At Being Depressing

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Feeling low? About 1 in 10 people suffer from depression. This mood disorder is characterized by sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.
Director Lars von Trier admits that he suffers from clinical depression. Matter of fact, that condition gave him the idea for his latest film “Melancholia.” It’s a somewhat depressing film.
However, sometimes you have a good reason to feel depressed. Despite the accolades his new film received at Cannes (and star Kirsten Dunst being named Best Actress), Von Trier made a faux pas, jokingly comparing himself to Hitler and claiming he was a Nazi in an interview.
“What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. ... He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit.”
The Cannes officials didn’t share his “Danish sense of humor” and banned him from the film festival. Now Von Trier has announced he will never give another interview.
That’s enough to make you depressed.
You can see what it’s all about. “Melancholia” is currently sharing Von Trier’s anxieties with audiences at the Tropic Cinema.
His film is divided into three parts:
An Introduction tells the entire story from a cosmic viewpoint, mindful to some of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” We see outer space, we see a bride, we see planets collide.
Part I is titled “Justine,” after the moody character played by Kirsten Dunst. We see her on the eve of her wedding, putting on a happy face with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård of TV’s “True Blood”) pretending to appreciate the largess of her brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) who footed the bill. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) acts as her caretaker, trying to keep her on schedule for the cake cutting and avoiding internecine warfare between their loopy father (John Hurt) and bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling). But before the night’s over Justine has lost a husband, told off her boss, and had a sexual encounter with a young guest. No one seems particularly distracted by reports that an errant planet called Melancholia is heading for Earth.
Part II is titled “Claire,” after the sister. Claire is growing more anxious that this runaway planet might collide with Earth. Her husband keeps assuring their son (Cameron Spurr) that it will by-pass them, but she isn’t so sure. The more anxiety this approaching planet causes the family, the more tranquil Justine becomes. In the end, the sisters have swapped caretaker roles, with Justine becoming the calming influence while they await disaster.
That the world comes to an end (cut to black) is no secret. Von Trier showed that in the Introduction “so the audience would not be distracted by the suspense of not knowing the resolution.”
What’s the theme of “Melancholia”? A therapist once told Von Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. He developed the idea with actress Penelope Cruz, but a scheduling conflict caused her to be replaced by Kirsten Dunst.
If you find the languorous pacing and meandering storyline of “Melancholia” to be depressing (end of the world, for god’s sake), I suspect Lars von Trier will have accomplished his purpose.
 [from Solares Hill]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rum Diary (Rhoades)

“The Rum Diary”
Is 100-Proof
Hunter S. Thompson

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1964, while working for the Florida Times Union, I started writing features where I was part of the story. I was one of the first writers to pass myself off as a high-school student and do an insider’s piece. I went flying with the world’s oldest glider pilot. I passed myself off as the world’s worst waiter. I hunted submarines with the navy. I posed as an ambulance driver.
Little did I know I was a Gonzo journalist.
Maybe predating Hunter S. Thompson.
Dr. Thompson is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories.
In 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s Monthly. Journalist Bill Cardoso was the first to use the term to describe Thompson’s writing, praising the piece as a breakthrough: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”
Thompson said, “Okay, that’s what I do. Gonzo.” It was a style he would later employ in almost every literary endeavor.
Hunter S. Thompson liked hanging out in Key West. Getting zonked with his local pals, partying with Jimmy Buffet and Tom Corcoran and Lloyd Good of Sugarloaf Lodge.
A documentary filmmaker named Wayne Ewing brought him back to Key West in 1986. “The idea was to make a short, entertaining pilot to prove to the right television programmer that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson could actually host his own regular television series,” recalls Ewing. “We were going to call the show either the ‘Gonzo Tour’ or ‘Breakfast with Hunter’ – the latter being Jack Nicholson’s clever idea spoofing morning television talk shows.”
Ewing continues, “Once in Key West among his old friends – drug smugglers, drunks, and Jimmy Buffett – he was much less forthcoming. We all stayed in Hunter’s favorite Florida motel – the Sugar Loaf Lodge on Sugar Loaf Key, about 15 minutes from Key West proper. His girlfriend Maria was there, along with his secretary Deborah. A captive, one-eyed dolphin named Sugar swam endlessly in circles in the motel lagoon while we waited for Hunter to perform for the camera each day.
“After a week at the Sugar Loaf, I figured Hunter was actually in front of my camera for a total of about two hours. He never arose until well after noon, no matter what plan we made the night before, and when I went to beat on his door he would mumble that he needed to take a shower. The water would go on, and it could still be heard running when I returned a half hour later. Of course, Hunter had gone back to bed (‘I never turn on the hot water,’ he would say in defense of the ruse).”
As Ewing recalls, “The Sugar Loaf Lodge Management (who actually were rather fond of Hunter from his previous stays) threatened to kick us all out, unless one of us moved in next door to him. The loud sounds in the middle of the night – light bulbs exploding, Maria gurgling as if she were being strangled – were upsetting the guests next door who checked out complaining bitterly.”
On a boat ride, a school of dolphins began to swim alongside. “I’m back, Boys,” Hunter called out to them.
Now Hunter Thompson is back in Key West in the form of Johnny Depp, his stand-in for a new movie titled “The Rum Diary.” You can catch it at the Tropic Cinema. Not only was Depp a close friend of Thompson, he also played him in the earlier film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
“The Rum Diary” is based on Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel. Written in 1961 when he was 22, it wasn’t published until 1998. The manuscript “bounced about seven times,” Thompson recalled. “I got the standard list of rejection letters.” It was his second novel, although the first has yet to be published. In need of money, he was “faced with the fact of having to dig out my 40-year old story” and find a publisher.
The novel (and the movie) tells of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a footloose journalist who travels to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. He begins drinking too much rum and becomes obsessed with a woman named Chenault (Amber Heard).
Set in the late 1950s, it’s billed as “a tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcoholic lust among the Americans who staff the newspaper.”
Truth is, Hunter S. Thompson took a job with El Sportivo, a San Juan sports newspaper which folded soon after his arrival. He applied for a position with The San Juan Star, but editor William J. Kennedy turned him down. Nonetheless, the two men became friends and great drinking buddies. His friendship with the writers at the Star provided the inspiration for “The Rum Diary” storyline.
Director Bruce Robinson decided to write the screenplay for the film version himself. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for six-and-a-half years but started drinking again until he finished the script and then quit drinking again. Method writing a la Hunter Thompson?
He stayed on the wagon until they started filming in Puerto Rico. “It was 100 degrees at two in the morning and very humid,” he recalls. “Everyone's drenched in sweat. One of the prop guys goes by with a barrow-load of ice and Coronas. I said: ‘Johnny, this doesn’t mean anything.’ And reached for a Corona ... Some savage drinking took place. When I was no longer in Johnny’s environment I went back to sobriety.” Method directing?
Johnny Depp describes his performance as “No Extreme Hunter like I did in the Vegas movie. The Hunter of that film was somewhat hyped. Now I’m trying to get at the essence of the young Hunter. Everything he said was so (blank)ing funny you had to write it down.” Party on.
Finally, the party was over. Faced with health problems, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67.
Johnny Depp claims two mentors: Marlon Brando and Thompson. “Selfishly, what I miss about Hunter isn’t the Too Much Fun Club stuff,” he says. “It was his steady advice. His radar detector was spot-on. He knew instantly if he didn’t like somebody.”
Depp owns a 45-acre island in the Bahamas. He named a beach in honor of his friend Hunter: Gonzo Beach.
 [from Solares Hill]

Toast (Rhoades)

“Toast” Is Buttered
On Both Sides

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When a fussy gay chef writes his boyhood memoirs what would you expect them to be about? Food, of course. And a cooking competition between him and his encroaching stepmother.
You see, when Nigel Slater’s mum passes away from chronic asthma, the voluptuous cleaning lady Mrs. Potter (Helen Bonham Carter) decides to cook her way into his dad’s heart – literally and figuratively. Thus, young Nigel (Freddie Highmore) enters into a competition for his dad’s affection.
An epicurean delight, “Toast” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
This British TV film directed by S.J. Clarkson remains fairly true to Slater’s autobiography – and even pays him a nod with a cameo appearance as – what else? – a chef who hires the boy at the end of the film.
The film is beautifully shot, from the opening scenes that swoop along the shelves of a 1960s market to the boy’s pouring over food magazines by flashlight under the cover to the hotel kitchens of London where the boy winds up.
Along the way, Nigel and his stepmother enter into a culinary one-upmanship to win the affections of his ever-broadening dad (Ken Stott). But it’s hard to compete with stockened legs and a to-die-for lemon meringue pie.
Eventually, as in most fairytales, he muss set out on his own.
We’re not sure whether Nigel Slater’s title – “Toast” – refers to the simple bread or a haughty raising his glass to a woman who out cooked him.
 [from Solares Hill]

Mozart's Sister (Rhoades)

“Mozart’s Sister”
A Family Act

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Today’s Infant Mortality Rate in Europe is only 5.6 per 1,000 births, but it used to be much higher before modern medicine. A French drama titled “Mozart’s Sister” (original title: “Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart”) tells a fictional story about the sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his only sibling to survive infancy.
Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart wished she’d been born a boy. Her brother got all the breaks.
You see, 14-year old Nannerl and 11-year-old Amadeus performed as a brother-sister act, she an accomplished harpsichordist and he a virtuoso pianist.
Alas, Nannerl really wanted to compose and play the violin, but her father Leopold forbade it because “this is not an instrument for a woman.” Besides, this popular duo act helped support the family.
In this re-imagining, we find that the Mozarts’ carriage breaks down while on tour in France and they’re forced to take refuge in the nearby Abbaye de Fontevraud. There Nannerl meets 13-year-old princess Louise Marie, sister of Louis, Dauphin of France. Of course, they become the best-est of friends. This leads to meeting the young Dauphin and a hint of romance, but Louise warns her away from him.
Writer-director René Féret provides us with his own family act, casting his two daughters in the lead roles – Marie as Nannerl Mozart and Lisa as Louise de France. David Moreau has the peripheral role of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Clovis Fouin appears as Le Dauphin.
Féret’s film captures the look and feel of a bygone century. You will revel in the beautiful French countryside and the marvelous chateau of Versailles. But it is Féret’s intellectual honesty in portraying how the world worked in the mid-1700s that anchors the story.
The high point of “Mozart’s Sister” is when finally Nannerl plays solo violin and leads a small orchestra performing her own composition. The film is making music this week at the Tropic Cinema. (Note that composer Marie-Jeanne Séréro does a brilliant job of creating original music for the film that sounds like what we might expect from another Mozart.)
The film posits that Mozart’s sister possessed a genius too – but because she was female, few would ever see it, nor would she be allowed to develop it. The director calls it, “The idea of a lost life.”
The world’s loss, as if she’d died at birth.
[from Solares Hill] 

Women on the 6th Floor (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Women on the Sixth Floor

If you can imagine "The Help" mixed with "Midnight in Paris" you might come up with a film titled "The Women on the Sixth Floor." This is a light and breezy outing that takes place in 1962 Paris. The film has a carnival sense of fun. Even if it seems very familiar in its easy bouncing rhythm, it makes a good tonic for counteracting the dark and troubling magic of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" that is playing next door. 

The film centers on a Stock Exec M. Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) and his strained marriage with Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain). Joubert is a man shaded in grey Dijon mustard. He is passive and blank, like a figure out of a Tooker painting. In his role,  Luchini is uncannily like Peter Sellers in "Being There". Even his eyes look static in routine. Suzanne is skeletal and high-strung. She is all frenzy and bone. The thing she's most concerned with is keeping a schedule. There seems no hope for Joubert. Like a comic version of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, he seems intent on making himself small. That is until the whirling and free spirited Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is hired to cook and clean. Then, as if by some elixir, Joubert becomes interested in things and something alien like color comes into his face. 

Suzanne mirrors the character of Hilly in "The Help". She doesn't like Maria, but she tolerates her and urges her to use the children's bathroom whenever possible. Suzanne is very much an elitist debuttante, almost identical to her chiffon counterparts in Jackson Mississippi, half a world away.

In short order, Joubert's whole way of thinking is changed. He yearns for the voluptual vibrance of Spain to escape the mundane one dimension of Paris depicted as flat and grey. Suzanne is cold and bony while Maria is warm and fleshy. Joubert is in love with shapes as much as he is with Spanish culture, as symbolized by the perfect hard-boiled egg that Maria serves each morning. With one strum of the flamenco, Joubert is electric and animated, rather like Gil in "Midnight in Paris". Spain is everything. 

Vale! As you can imagine the vivacious maids begin to fall for Joubert who brings them to a board meeting, with hopes that they might learn the stock market and become CEOs. Suzanne grows suspicious.

Verbeke is remarkably like a young Penelope Cruz. She is sorcerer-eyed with a vixen's smile but there is nothing devious within her. Maria doesn't want to hurt Joubert. She is more a Gypsy sprite, a cat-like catalyst that inspires.

Rather than "Midnight in Paris, the film ultimately echoes "The Illusionist" for its emphasis on askew characters in the midst of a dull setting. The maids live on a dreary, paint-peeling sixth floor but what they lack in living space, they make up for in their ebullient personalities that literally color their environment, even when the toilet is clogged or the water doesn't work.

"The Women on the Sixth Floor" may prove to be visual tapas rather than a full meal, but the sight of Natalia Verbeke's face at the film's end is enough to make Alberto Benigni run for his camera and have Penelope Cruz heading to Chinchon for good.

Sent from my iPhone
Write Ian at

Saturday, November 26, 2011

J. Edgar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
J. Edgar

As I zoomed into The Peggy Dow with my chair in a slanted position, I knew that I might be in for it. The rectangle of motion and dreams hovered in front of me about to show another historical epic from Clint Eastwood. It seemed a given that I would feel a sense of deja vu. 

After the endless ad campaign on tv for "J. Edgar", I steeled myself for a two hour and fifteen minute character study. Someone in the theater told me that it might be a real leg cramper. Something sepia this way comes, I thought. 

But I was ready.

Happily, throughout most of "J. Edgar", I was entertained and able to forget my body. Yes, the sepia tones that Eastwood often uses in his films are here in force. Everything pictured is either gray brown or off-blue but each auteur deserves his or her trademark. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays  J. Edgar Hoover in a very heartfelt and thankfully unmelodramatic way. He is somber,  driven, strangely poignant and resolute. The only thing  slightly ghoulish about him is the makeup. With the square chin, the wrinkles that look like cement and the jutting forehead, Dicaprio's face looks damn uncomfortable as if it weighs a ton. Curiously, it looks like a old man Halloween mask. But the angst  in DiCaprio's eyes---the contrast between young middle age and an old man---makes his performance all the more striking.

The best parts of the film are not its re-creations of history: Communist raids during the 1920s, Prohibition, The Lindbergh case or RFK, but rather Hoover alone, living with his dominant mother (Judy Dench). Eastwood does not spare us much. We see Hoover in all his masochism. This is a man who is the head of the FBI, but his mother and the scourge of being a "daffodil" or a gay man, can reduce him to jelly. 

Throughout the narrative, Hoover sees himself as imperfect. He stumbles and giggles around women. In order to compensate for his  heterosexual shortcomings, he takes on the crusade of America, against Communism, The Left  and,those that seem "different" or unpatriotic to him. Hoover was human but he was also a danger and it was eating at him from within. 
Under a more superficial lens, Hoover might seem like Dick Tracy, especially given the makeup which echoes the 1990 Warren Beatty film, but Eastwood gives us a glimpse of the full person---both the man, and the monster of ambition.

In scope and tone "J Edgar" recalls Oliver Stone's "Nixon".  In that film too, you have a similar average man, unblessed with looks who pathologically pursues what he thinks is right. Both films have an non-linear expressionist style, giving equal weight to dream and memory. The two films are bookends. Perhaps Oliver Stone shared his secret files with Eastwood.

Highlights of the film include Hoover giving his agent and almost lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) a slug and a kiss on the floor. The scene is Hitchcockian in intensity and just misses being taken for   foreplay. After the incident, Hoover is crushed. A G-Man without his G. And if that's not enough to bring you in, how about an Oedipal episode with Hoover putting on his mom's dress and speaking in his mom's voice, "Be strong, Edgar" Anthony Perkins would be just tickled.

Skeletons in the closet aside, I wanted to sympathize a bit with Dicaprio's Hoover, his ambition is so honest along with his shyness. Edgar wants to make the world so Right. He races to arrest criminals, only to arrive too late. 

Yet as an old man, his hatred of Civil Rights and Martin Luther King, get the better of him and he becomes ugly and a bit of a creep, especially to his friend Clyde.

The most affecting scenes despite Hoover's unsettling and distasteful views, are the moments where he encounters something emotional and sexual: when listening to a Kennedy affair he is like a drooling adolescent. At the races, with Clyde beside him as an old man, there is the regret of an intimacy unfulfilled and passed by.

"J. Edgar" is a timely collage of  an odd man behind the mask of The G-Man who wanted to right-angle the world, at all and any cost. But despite his square-edged suit and chin, you get the feeling that the only person J. Edgar Hoover wanted to be was his mother.

Write Ian at

J.Edgar (Rhoades)

“J. Edgar” Doesn’t
Ask, Doesn’t Tell

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My high-school buddy Lane spent his career with the FBI. He was an aide to J. Edgar Hoover himself.
He started out acting as liaison between Hoover and Bobby Kennedy. Hoover hated Kennedy, and assigning a fledgling G-Man as liaison was his way of insulting the president’s brother.
Director Clint Eastwood has made a film about the infamous director of the FBI. Titled “J. Edgar,” it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover and Armie Hammer as his sidekick Clyde Tolson.
Many in the FBI are angry that the film depicts Tolson trying to smooch his boss. Eastwood is hinting at the longtime rumor that Hoover and his assistant director were gay lovers.
“There is no basis in fact for such a portrayal of Mr. Hoover,” insists William Branon, chairman of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation. “It would be a grave injustice and monumental distortion to proceed with such a depiction based on a completely unfounded and spurious assertion.”
Fact is, Hoover and Tolson ate lunch together every day and dinner together almost every night. They vacationed together, they took snapshots of each other, they were tight.
So I asked my old buddy Lane what he knew. He replied: “Hoover and Tolson were chauffeured, guarded, and observed daily by FBI Special Agents throughout their tenure as FBI Director and FBI Associate Director. FBI Special Agent R. Jean Gray said it best (with my emphasis in parenthesis):  ‘If anything scandalous had happened (between) the FBI Director (and Tolson), it would have been known coast to coast within the (FBI) in thirty minutes.’”
Well, there goes another myth.
“J. Edgar” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – traces the FBI Director’s career, touching on Bruno Hauptmann and the Lindbergh kidnapping as well as his tempestuous relationship with Bobby Kennedy.
The studio publicity describes the movie: “As the face of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life.”
I asked my buddy about this. He admitted that Hoover had secret files on everybody in Washington, 28 filing cabinets in all. After the FBI Director’s death, he helped Hoover’s secretary Helen W. Gandy (“Miss Gandy,” as he respectfully calls her) shred the contents of all these files.
DiCaprio makes an interesting J. Edgar Hoover. He has the acting chops for the role, but the makeup is at times unconvincing. The FBI Director’s jowly bulldog countenance proves hard to emulate.
Naomi Watts plays Miss Gandy in the film.
If there was no gay relationship with Clyde Tolson, how about any signs of romance with Miss Gandy?
“No,” says my friend Lane, wearily shaking his head as he recently sat in my Key West living room, “Hoover was married to his job.”[from Solares Hill]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Week of November 18 to November 24 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Oh my, this week is a dream for moviegoers, but a nightmare for this columnist. Because of Thanksgiving, the movie changeover, which usually occurs on Friday, is taking place mid-week. So we’ve got one batch of films scheduled for Friday (11/18) through Tuesday (11/22), and then a separate batch starting on Wednesday (11/23).

Let’s start with Friday’s new films.

is like a crème brûlée, so French, so luscious, so irresistible. The sound track, which you’ll hear in the Tropic’s unrivaled acoustic environment, is richly Mozartian; the visual setting is the palace of Versailles where the movie was filmed. The garb and accoutrements, both male and female, are true to an era of excess that led to the French revolution. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is, but it happens to be a compelling and dramatic tale of Wolfgang’s older sister Nannerl. She was his idol as a child, inspiring him with her talent. But when the legendary prodigy blossomed, father Leopold relegated Nannerl to the role of harpsichord accompanist, refusing to allow her to study composition, or practice a virtuoso instrument like the violin.

Despite this, her talent was recognized by her peers at the French court, both the Dauphine and the Princess. If you notice a resemblance between Nannerl and the Princess, it’s because they are real-life sisters, the beautiful daughters of the director. “Alive with exuberantly thesped personages and awash in the joy and power of music, the picture is a stunner.” (Variety)

as its title suggests, is one of those little treats you find at the Tropic. Based on the comic memoir of a British celebrity chef, it’s about coming of age with a father who wasn’t taken with his son’s delight in cooking and taking home ec. “Sweet and tart, airy and rich and, above all, a thoroughly irresistible confection.“ (Gary Goldstein, L.A. Times)

Joining these on Wednesday is the much talked about MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Just so you understand the perplexing title, Martha was the name given the central character by her family, Marcy May is the name she acquired while living in a patriarchal commune, and Marlene is the all-purpose name used by women in the commune when answering the phone.

We see M ((Elizabeth Olsen) at the commune under the powerful influence of its craggy, charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone, Higher Ground), who evokes Jim Jones or Charles Manson. And we see her at her sister’s gorgeous lakeside home – a jarring juxtaposition -- where she goes to escape. What led her to the commune, and what drove her away?

Ms. Olsen is the younger sister of the famed twins, but unlike them she has taken acting seriously, studying at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School. This is a breakout role for her, portraying a woman who struggles to find herself (hence the multiple names). She’s already being touted for major awards. “The story of a scarred, scared woman - an extraordinary, mesmerizing performance from Elizabeth Olsen… a beautifully spooky film.” (Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer)

After this, you’ll be ready for something light, which the French comedy THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR nicely supplies. Set in the 1960’s, it’s sort of a French version of The Help, but without the edgy undertones of the Civil Rights movement, as a straitlaced French stockbroker and his wife interact with a bevy of Spanish maids who live on the servants’ floor of their apartment building.

Lots of holdovers: ANONYMOUS, MARGIN CALL, IDES OF MARCH, plus a brief run for RUM DIARY.

And a couple of very Special Events. On Sunday, it’s the ballet SLEEPING BEAUTY, shown live from the new Bolshoi at 10:00am EST (7pm in Moscow), with an encore show in the evening.

On Monday, Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief), will be live on stage at the Tropic, introducing and signing her new book on RIN TIN TIN, followed by a screening of Rinty’s most famous silent film CLASH OF THE WOLVES. It’s all a benefit for the SPCA and the Tropic.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Full schedules and info at or

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Martha Marcy
May Marlene”
Becomes Cult Classic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My FBI buddy was at Waco. Janet Reno didn’t follow his advice, he says.
He describes cult leader David Koresh as “a dangerous nutjob.”
Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, defines a cult as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demand of total commitment.
An award-winning film at the Tropic – the alliteratively titled “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – gives us a picture of a cult with a charismatic leader and one of his victims.
This psychological thriller stars Elizabeth Olsen (look-alike sister of the famous Olsen Twins, Ashley and Mary-Kay) as Martha, a young woman who has returned home from an abusive cult in the Catskill Mountains. And John Hawkes (Oscar-nominated co-star of “Winter’s Bone”) as Patrick, the cult’s leader.
Martha had been missing for two years when she phones for her sister (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. But back home her memories return to Patrick. Increasingly paranoid, Martha becomes convinced that she’s being watched by the cult.
When asked about where she’s been, she sometimes says she was with a boyfriend but it didn’t work out. Other times she claims not to remember.
But she does. Maybe.
The film is designed to take you inside Martha’s head and keep you as on-edge as she is. It flips from the safety of her present state to memories of the communal farm and back again. We slowly begin to share her memories of group sex and abuse at the instigation of creepy Patrick. Or do we?
With its non-linear storytelling, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” doesn’t always let us know what’s real and what’s not. An unsettling approach that forces us to share Martha’s mental state.
Does she find herself feeling as trapped by the idyllic life with her sister and brother-in-law as she did with the cult?
Elizabeth Olsen’s nervous mannequin-like performance is spot-on, that of a woman pushed to the edge, not sure where to go from here (or there). A disintegration of identity as we watch.

Written and directed by neophyte Sean Durkin, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” won the Best Directing award at Sundance and was designated Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Durkin is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Film & Television.

Why a movie about cults? “I think as a child I was really afraid of groups that conformed. I’m attracted to fear. I’m attracted to movies that scare you,” says the bearded young director.I was attracted to the world of cults and how it dealt with family and people’s different personae. When you talk to people who’ve had these sorts of experiences it’s amazing how little immediate change there is. They usually struggle for years to emerge as whole people again. Sometimes they just never do.”

Even at Waco, many of the adults and older children chose of their own free will to remain with Koresh. They belonged, they said.
[from Solares Hill] 

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Martha Marcy May Marlene

If you found the psychological  thriller  "Black Swan" to be too fanciful, but still enjoy a genuine Polanski-patterned film then "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a must see. The film slips with a slow intensity. The very images appear coated with a foggy emulsion as one scene blends into another along with geometric shapes and slanting shadows. Memories are not to be trusted.

Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a woman that has somehow entrenched herself into a cult and has disappeared for two plus years. We are not sure why she got mixed up in the cult and it doesn't really matter. We can deduce what happened. All it took was one look at Patrick (John Hawkes) and there she went.

Patrick as the leader of the group has piercing eyes and its a given that he makes you feel as if you're the only one. He is part Manson and part generic bohemian. The most disturbing thing about Patrick is that in many scenes he is off by himself, reading, sleeping, or doing chores. Like Manson, he is the orchestrater not the participant. Insidiously, he blends in to the every day.

Although Patrick is no dramatic stretch for Hawkes who has done similar eerie outings in "Winter's Bone" and "Higher Ground", one sight of him at the guitar, performed without Gothicism or melodrama is enough to haunt you for weeks.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is so jolting because it is told plainly without any of the usual dramatic "oh no here he comes!" moments or sudden scares. The sight of a young girl in a white robe is just as scary as anything dreamed up by Wes Craven. 

The magnet of this film is not just Hawkes, but Elizabeth Olsen as a woman who can't make sense of the world, especially as its represented by her sister Lucy  (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Not since Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby" have we seen such a young woman in heartbreak as she tries to make something horrible into an event that she can handle with a breezy smile. The sight of Olsen in the lake is nerve wracking . Despite the open water, the lake could well be a carnivorous closet. Claustrophobia abounds.

The magic of the film is that it makes it appear that Martha's sister and her career-obsessed husband are just as controlling as Martha's cult family. 

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" works  because it shows cults for what they are, rather than what Hollywood  makes them appear to be. There are no hyper-real boogeymen here or no supernatural woodsmen that are larger than life. Sadly, life itself is sometimes enough.

Write Ian at

Women on the 6th Floor (Rhoades)

“Women on 6th Floor”
Rises to the Top

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Lately, I’ve been consulting in Central America, although I don’t speak a word of Spanish. When French actor Fabrice Luchini started filming “Women on the 6th Floor” (original title: “Les femmes du 6ème étage”) he didn’t hable español either. And his Spanish co-stars didn’t speak French.
The film takes place in 1960s Paris. Jean-Louis Joubert (Luchini) is an uptight stockbroker married to a class-conscious wife (Sandrine Kiberlain). Their teenagers are off at boarding school. Life is, well, boring.
That is, until Jean-Louis falls under the spell of their two Spanish maids. Especially María Gonzalez (Natalia Verbeke), who lives with the other servants on the 6th floor of their apartment building. These women turn Jean-Louis’s life upside down.
The film suggests he’s a better man for it.
“Women on the 6th Floor” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
You’ve seen 60-year-old Luchini (né Robert Luchini) in “Molière” and blonde 40-something Sandrine Kiberlain in “Alias Betty.” Dark-eyed Natalia Verbeke made her mark in “Son of the Bride” and “The Other Side of the Bed.”
Director-writer Philippe Le Guay is a professor at La Fémis (Paris). You can sense his intellectual approach to this film about matters of the heart.
Nonetheless, the flaws of our wayward stockbroker are endearing as he discovers this new world on the 6th floor populated by a gaggle of female Spanish immigrants. The bourgeois Jean-Louis learns a lesson about tolerance and embracing life as he listens to his heart rather than thinking with his pocketbook.
Le Guay and Luchini have collaborated of three films (counting this one) – “L’année Juliette,” “Le coût de la vie,” and “Les femmes du 6eme étage” – all comedies.
A point of interest, Le Guay’s family had a Spanish maid when he was a child and his father was a stockbroker. Like they say, write about what you know.
 [from Solares Hill]

Anonymous (Rhoades)

Was Shakespeare
Really “Anonymous”?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I had this debate with my college English lit professor: Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
One of the oldest questions concerning William Shakespeare is whether he wrote his works or not. The first mention that he might not have written the works attributed to him was made by the Rev. James Wilmot in 1785. Wilmot suspected that Francis Bacon was the real author.
But there are others to consider.

More than 70 candidates have been proposed. The most popular include Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; Christopher Marlowe; Bacon; and even Queen Elizabeth I. Each has a group of followers who support that particular person as the real author of Shakespeare. De Vere’s are called Oxfordians, Bacon’s Baconians, and Marlowe’s Marlovians. Queen Elizabeth’s followers have pretty much faded away. Those who believe Shakespeare to be the true author are known as Stratfordians.

Fact is, there’s little evidence that Shakespeare wrote his works. As it happens, we have a lot more evidence indicating he didn’t write the works attributed to him.

The arguments include:
William Shaksper (sic) lacked the background and education to write such masterful plays and sonnets. His parents were probably illiterate and so were his daughters. So it’s unlikely he possessed the high degree of literacy exhibited in his plays.

It’s argued that the plays were written a highly educated man. But there’s no evidence that poor-as-a-church-mouse Will ever attended a university.

Furthermore, no portraits were painted of him during his lifetime as was typical of noted authors. And his entry in the parish death registry merely lists him as a “gent,” rather than as a playwright or actor.
Edward de Vere is generally regarded as the most likely of the bunch to be the famed author. In 1920 J. Thomas Looney was the first to propose de Vere as the writer of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. In “Shakespeare Identified” he pointed out analogies between Oxford’s poetic techniques and the Bard’s writing.

Not convinced? A friend of de Vere once referred to him as a “man whose countenance shakes spears.” And one of the Earl’s coats of arms depicts a lion shaking a broken spear. Plus, as a ward of Queen Elizabeth I, he was well educated, a patron of the theatrical arts, and held a lease on the first Blackfriars Theatre.

“Anonymous” – the new movie currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – takes on the question of authorship of Shakespeare’s works. As proposed by director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “2012”), de Vere is the true penman. Shakespeare was just a front man. And Ben Jonson was miffed at being passed over for this honor.

This is presented as history’s greatest literary scam. “We’ve been played,” posits the film’s trailers.

In this telling, aristocratic Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) is both son and lover of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). Believing that theaters are the work of the devil, a relative named Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) blackmails de Vere into removing his name from all his plays, attributing them to a handy surrogate named Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), an “illiterate drunkard, notorious fool, and bit-player.” Fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is privy to this subterfuge. Thus we have a conflict that sets the stage for murder, court intrigue, and the high drama of the Essex Rebellion.

Roland Emmerich admits that he never enjoyed reading Shakespeare in school, saying he picked up what he knows of Shakespeare from watching movies. So consider this his contribution to English literature.

In pressing the Oxfordian theory, Emmerich reckons “everybody in the Stratfordian side is so pissed off because we’ve called them on their lies.”

Truth is, few Shakespeare scholars and literary historians consider it likely that another person wrote Shakespeare’s plays. One problem with the de Vere theory is that he died in 1604, before 10 of Shakespeare’s plays were written. But the 17th Earl of Oxford makes good fantasy for a movie.

Wonder if my old college prof would agree?
[from Solares Hill]

Monday, November 21, 2011

Toast (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The consumption and enjoyment of food is one of the basic drives we all share. It is a crucial need and very primal. But until I saw "Toast", the recent film based on the memoir of the famous chef personality Nigel Slater, I never thought of food as a weapon of psychological warfare.
Seeing is believing. Food can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be either a harbinger of comfort wrapped in flaky pie crust, or in the wrong hands, a horror of mental and sensual anguish flayed raw and pale, arriving on any dinner plate.

Such is the duality of life: the undercooked and the burned to death from the sublime to the disgusting. "Toast" the film, illustrates both extremes and you are not likely to forget the taste of this bouncy but honest film, laced with black humor like unsweetened chocolate.

Little Nigel Slater (Oscar Kennedy) is at his wits end. Although he loves his mother very much ( Victoria Hamilton) he can't stand her cooking. She cooks solely from cans and boxes. He dreams of fresh produce like something from an exotic jungle, colorful jewels of variety and nutrition that are beyond him. 

Nigel goes to bed looking at glossy cookbooks, ogling with pleasure at standard comfort foods with a sexual intensity. The only way he can feel his mother's touch through food is by the munching of toast: the one unprocessed thing his mom prepares. Nigel describes the toast like an event. Warm, crisp and buttery, the crunch sounds like a maternal kiss or a protective hug, insulating him from the loud vitriol  of his father.

With the abrupt death of his mother, Nigel is convinced his father doesn't like him. Nigel sees the preparation of good food as a way to earn his father's respect and to battle against his father's new love interest, the flighty but domestically decisive Mrs Potter. (Helena Bonham Carter)   

The battle begins with food as the ammunition to win one father's heart.
Never have I seen the concept of food used in such a direct and unsentimental way as in this film. It is shown both as a vehicle for negative manipulation and bonding love. A lemon meringue pie is more diabolical than the apple of Eden.

There is a touch of Roald Dahl here too. Nigel, as a British schoolboy, watches from a window as Mrs. Potter cleans up his vomit as he is lactose intolerant. Nigel smiles with glee. And as he works away in his room, poring over studies for the perfect pie, might he just put in a certain something to make his father's friend just feel a little woozy? He never does, but from the look in his eye it's safe to say the wheels were turning.

Even though the British setting is Beatle-esque and seems like it could be the visual equivalent of the song "Penny Lane, the film is not sticky sweet. Children are shown as lascivious amorals who will do anything for a jug of rich cream, but their irreverent gluttony is never mean spirited. These school kids are just shown as they really are: self centered creatures who are willing to do anything for gustatory pleasure. As a young adult, Nigel (Freddie Highmore) knows cooking is his only escape from the claustrophobic home of his father.

"Toast" will stay with you long after dessert. It is smooth on the eyes and direct in its narrative, showing the power and chemistry of food upon a family's emotional well being. A towering meringue that resembles the bow of The QE2  can  either pull the family apart or unite it together, just as a new girlfriend can either be a loving stepmother or a sensual and wicked queen who overbearingly cooks with kindness.

Write Ian at

Mozart's Sister (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mozart's Sister

"Mozart's Sister", the new French drama by Rene Feret focuses on Nannerl, (Marie Feret) Mozart's sister who was discouraged from the violin and kept from composing music although there is evidence that she was every bit as talented as her famous younger brother The film, subtle in tone and easy on the eyes, maintains a kind of Gothic existential edge, like something out of Thomas Hardy. But fans of period dramas will be taken by the film's  sweep and attention to detail. Subtle it may seem, but in the end a father's control is no less vicious or vexing than "Dangerous Liaisons".

Nannerl accompanies young Mozart as he is taken on tour to musical concert appointments and special commissions. They fawn over the five year old child prodigy while the older sister, can't get a word in edgewise, let alone play music or compose. She is either humored along or solidly thwarted. Nannerl is always told that the violin is not an instrument for a woman.

The father, Leopold (Marc Feret) is an ultra-controlling stage dad. Every aspect of the Mozart family is controlled. When the parents stop at an abbey to get their coach fixed, Nannerl meets the pale and secretive Louise de France (Lisa Feret) who happens to be the King's daughter. Louise is more than a bit spooky. She always seems to hover. Louise's brother, Le Dauphin (Clovis Fouin) is also a bit of a ghoul with his staring eyes. Nannerl develops an attraction to Le Dauphin but you get the feeling that she is shuttled back and forth between all kinds of crazy disfunction. All she cares about is the liberating curves of a violin; its shapeliness is an island that she cannot reach. Nor can she compose in peace.  Nannerl is often left resigned and wistful, displaced on a rock without music. She seems the only one with her sanity. The father immediately starts screaming whenever he hears Nannerl at the piano, Louise talks of the devil and Le Dauphin is prone to sudden unpredictable rages.

Mozart is only ten here and treats the violin as his whimsical magic wand that can do anything. We wish that his sister, being just as gifted had access to that magic. Sexism, puritanical religion and parental control all conspire against her, making a three armed prison.
"Mozart's Sister" doesn't have any grand flourishes but it sneaks up on you with a slow step, offering a haunt and a voice to what it must be like to live under expectation, to compromise and finally give up. 

Write Ian at

Rum Diary (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

The Rum Diary

Hunter Thompson is a spirit that I have always felt since the early 80s. While growing up in Key West, I heard stories of the tall slender eccentric, moving spastically through space, quick with a verbal jab for any supercilious poser or smirking politician. More times than I can recall, I have heard of this madcap man, stalking about Key West and the rustic environs of the Sugarloaf Lounge, taking large, loose-limbed steps through a darkened salty interior, apparently holding court with a cigarette holder and an iconic visor.  Imaginary and fantastical, he seemed, so close but yet so far, worlds away from my wheelchair.
Now decades later, I set out to see "The Rum Diary" the new film based on an obscure novel by Thompson, which both stars and is produced by Johnny Depp. Depp has been in two previous films featuring Thompson and also became his close friend in later years.
Bumping along a slanted sidewalk on my way to The Tropic, my left leg shook in anticipation. After one film by Terry Gilliam that tried too hard (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and a conventional documentary, perhaps I would now be able to glean some new insight into the impulse of Hunter Thompson, or at least be entertained.
Sadly, my search continues.
"The Rum Diary" despite the heartfelt panache of Johnny Depp, sheds little light on Thompson, either fictionally or biographically. Both the story and its actors have no gusto in their Gonzo.
Once again we have Depp in a Thompson role as Paul Kemp, a young drifting journalist who somehow finds himself wanting to work for the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. How Kemp got to Puerto Rico I'm not sure, and I don't think it matters much. But sure enough, here he is, blotty-eyed and slobbery, under a tropical sun. Depp speaks in the same quickened voice that  was heard in Gilliam's film albeit more softly. Say what you will about Depp as  Hunter, but he is consistent. Depp has his friend's soft and speedy rumble down to a science.
But science is not enough.
Despite some clever touches of a Hunteresque Kemp intently peering at a volume of Coleridge on the beach, eyebrows rolling, Depp is too smooth and too much of a mannequin of Thompson. He is a mere shade. As Depp walks around improbably but impeccably dressed under a brilliant and glossy landscape of San Juan without any shadows, it's hard to find any Hunter in the light, be he Bohemian or beastly. The man is missing. This is just the surface of a Vanity Fair photo shoot. Paul Kemp trots about from one bland socialite to the next nightspot, drink in hand. Such repeated imbibing does not make for entertainment, surrounded by so much bland chatter.
 The story, which should have been full of Gonzo galore is the stuff of a Sunday snooze. I can only think that Hunter may well be hollering from beyond in some wild innerspace.
Actor Aaron Eckhart arrives on the scene as a petty self centered resort developer and Kemp moves into a flophouse with an alcoholic, the dissipated journalist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). Despite his formidable appearance this man is an annoying bore. No one is interesting or says anything very surprising. Granted, this story was written before Thompson found his voice, but there is hardly any energy or flavor to the narrative or acting. This is only bare mojito motion that goes on longer than it should---two solid hours--- despite the fire-breathing hijinx of someone who could be Hunter. Liquor that catches fire? Or a car that speeds over a bridge? That's not Gonzo by half.
Most of the jokes are hollow chuckles: Kemp  fretting over an out of control vehicle. Kemp sitting in his sidekick's lap, attempting to drive a car down some steep walkways and crashing. It all seems forced, not all that funny and oddly un-Hunter. Kemp could have been any well dressed inebriated tourist.
Veteran actor Richard Jenkins is one surprise however, as Lotterman, the boss of The Star. Jenkins has power and punch as the man who gives a knocking to Depp's catatonic Kemp.   
I really wanted to like this film, but it makes  a weak drink. For those of you who are curious about Hunter this is a tepid charade of what could have been. I recommend Gilliam's earlier film on Thompson  or better yet, "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), starring Bill Murray. These two quirky films, combine in a stronger shot, showing  the real spunk of this writer who wrote as life appeared to him: pouring paragraphs with painterly sounds that were unapologetically associative and full of pharmaceutical fun.

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