Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Week of December 30 to January 5 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann


New this week is GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE, the life story of Serge Gainsbourg, the legendary French singer, actor, lover and chain-smoker. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who had to flee Paris during WWII, he went on to become so revered that President Mitterand eulogized him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”

One might call him a French Frank Sinatra in terms of his place in their culture, but his singing style had nothing of the crooner about it. Perhaps his most famous song is Je t'aime... moi non plus (I Love You… Me Neither), that he wrote and recorded during an affair with Brigitte Bardot. He subsequently re-recorded it with a new lover, the English actor-singer Janet Birkin, in a rendition famous for its heavy, allegedly orgasmic, breathing that led to its being banned in many places. (Check out this YouTube at about the 2:30 point - Actor Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has frequently graced the Tropic screens (Melancholia, Antichrist, I’m Not There) was a product of his relationship with Birkin.

The movie takes you deep into French culture, and features Gainsbourg working his charm on everyone from young music students to Bardot, played by Laetitia Casta almost as well as Michelle Williams does Marilyn Monroe. You’ll love the scene where Gainsbourg and Bardot are rehearsing a musical tribute to Bonnie and Clyde.

“He wasn't well-known in America, but French crooner and actor Serge Gainsbourg was like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra rolled into one unfiltered cigarette. His life story, which encompasses the Holocaust and hippie eras, is worthy of a documentary, but this biopic takes a different approach. It's a comedic dramatization with a looming shadow of the surreal.” (Joe Williams, St. Louis Post Dispatch)

Meanwhile, speaking of Ms. Monroe, I urge you to see My Week With Marilyn. It’s not getting the year-end hype it should, maybe it’s been poorly positioned as the story of a young man’s tryst. That’s only a small part of the film, which is really a story about filmmaking, and about Marilyn’s neurotic but charming personality. I’d rate it as one of the best of the year.

The New Year is starting off as a great one for Special Events. On Monday, January 2, the Tropic’s Classic Movie series resumes with the month-long theme Gotta Dance. The first film is a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers treat, SWING TIME, winner of the Oscar for Best Music and Best Song (“The Way You Look Tonight” by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields) The esteemed sponsor of the Classic Series, Ross Claiborne, will be on hand to introduce this one.

Then on Thursday, we’ll proudly welcome Director Terry George to the Carper Stage to kick off the 2012 Visiting Filmmaker Series. He’ll be screening his acclaimed HOTEL RWANDA (triple Oscar and Golden Globe nominations). Mr. George will have an open dialogue with the audience following the movies.

Gainsbourg (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

If the affectionate conventionally-told documentary on Kevin Clash [Being Elmo] makes you too warm and fuzzy or jaded by the color red, I suggest sauntering in to see "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life " . The film is unapologetically  "different" without any pretension or snobbery when so many "Different", "Indie" or "0ffbeat" films wear their hearts on the screen and choose quirk over content. This filmed interpretation on the French singing legend Serge Gainsbourg is free-wheeling, open, and associative with startling animation, a bit like Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) mixed with Halloween maestro Tim Burton. "Gainsbourg" is nothing less than a chiaroscuro collage on film.

The film is directed by the avant-garde graphic novelist Joann Sfar, who also wrote a novel about the composer. Sfar has the boldness of a mixed media artist for using all materials available. Puppets merge with people and landscapes spin in an out like curls of smoke from Gainsbourg's cigarette. Terry Gilliam should guard his quixotic camera. At times roles are reversed: the puppets are  the people while people are puppets. The film presents an interspecies society---a world seen sideways. Anything goes.

We see Gainsbourg as a boy, smoking a cigarette and left on a Dalinian beach. He is spurned by a valentine for being "too ugly". Gainsbourg pokes his nose everywhere. He even smirkingly jeers at the Nazi soldiers that march past.

They don't know what to make of him.

He gradually develops a persona or a "mug" that is in the form of a extra tall and gaunt puppet/man which looks a bit like The Count from "Sesame Street" but his voice and philosophy is more Leonard Cohen. And, better yet, he has phosphorescent eyes.  

His parents force him to play piano. He refuses. Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) goes to art school and plays piano to support his painting. As an adult art teacher, Elmosnino bumbles and twitches, aping more than a bit of Woody Allen. 

The narrative is less interesting than the stream of consciousness flow of animation that abruptly stems from Gainsbourg's low self esteem as well as from his gangly, thin and awkward body. Rather than be a cartoon though, Elmosnino brings slapstick to earth and his spasms have purpose. There is method even in a cabbage-head. Judgement always lied in wait for the composer. But when the lights dim he transforms like a chameleon or leopard in dark light becoming the Franc Sinatra of Cool.

Skirt-chasing Serge eventually hits the big time with overtly sexual Lolita-inspired pop tunes that were written for 1960's teen sensation France Gall (Sara Forestier). He has an affair with the voluptuous Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and they actually write a song together, the hit "Bonnie and Clyde". 

Although the film is often brief and slighting, passing over romps in bed and far too many scenes of Gainsbourg chain-smoking, it has a flashy locomotive flavor that's hard to hate. 
Just when the film gets to flighty, a black cat  speaks with a telepathy that seems utterly authentic and Gainsbourg's puppet-ego enters the room with just as much dramatic bearing as a human player.

The young Lucy Gordon who sadly committed suicide in 2009 plays Gainsbourg's wife Jane Birkin. Gordon shoes a maternal whimsy in her performance. Gordon's portrayal as a maternal sprite could make any singer stop smoking. But even this wasn't enough for Gainsbourg. 

For all the film's familiarities, (the nods to Pee Wee Herman, Woody Allen and Mr. Bean) the blending of animation and puppetry into the demons of alcoholism and adultery are novel and compelling able to make even the most jaded Muppeteer among us stop and look. 
It is interesting to note that Gainsbourg's  daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia) was asked to play her father in this film.

What a different "different" film that would have been.

Write Ian at

'Being Elmo' creator interview (Wanous)

'Being Elmo' creator discusses her work of love




Kevin Clash and Elmo attend the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 4 in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center Honors are awarded annually for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. Rated PG. One hour, 16 minutes. Playing at the Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St., Key West.

"Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey " is the story of Kevin Clash, the man who gives life to Elmo, one of the most popular characters on the "Sesame Street" TV program.
Directed and co-produced by New Yorker Constance Marks, the documentary -- winner of the Sundance Film Festival's 2011 Special Jury Prize for U.S. documentary -- is a touching portrait of the man behind Elmo who came from humble beginnings and, through dedication and perseverance, fulfilled his childhood dream of working with Jim Henson and the Muppets.
Marks recently took time out of her schedule to discuss the film and how it's been received.
Question: I read that filming took six years. Is that right?
Answer: It wasn't the filming so much -- it was the editing that was the real challenge.
Q: As a director, do you feel that you're more an artist or a manager? I know you wear several hats.
A: I think it's like 50 hats. There's definitely the artistic conception, then there's the managing everybody and keeping everybody happy. And then on the shoot when the door's squeaky, I'm there with the oil can. You don't have the staff and the crew you might have in a much larger production. There are lots of hats to be worn -- most of them are not pretty, not glamorous.
Q: Where did the money come from?
A: That's an area I'm not really comfortable talking about, if you don't mind. I raised some money on the outside, I borrowed some money from people but I don't really feel comfortable talking about the details of the financing.
Q: You had a lot of archival footage. How do you find old film and old TV shows like that?
A: There are people who can help you find that, and with the Internet it's really not that hard to begin to track things down. We had the new iPhone with Siri, the personal assistant. We asked her, "Where do we get so-and-so footage?" and within two seconds she gave us an answer. It was outdated but it was a good place to start. So it can be done.
Q: Who are Nancy Marks, Edwin Marks and Maria that you mention in the credits?
A: Nancy is my mom, my dad was Edwin and Maria was the Make-A-Wish child in the film, who died.
Q: That was a touching scene, with the little girl.
A: We were packing up to leave for the day. Nobody told us that this was going to be happening. We're walking out the door and it suddenly looked like something important was going to happen. If we had left one minute earlier, we would have completely missed that.
Q: Do you try to attend all of the film festivals that the movie was in?
A: We attended 95 percent of the festivals that we entered, starting at Sundance a year ago. It's really good when you're the producer and director, because they fly you out and put you up. I think if it had been a much shorter film, that might not have been the case, but most of the festivals hosted us.
Because the film went to Sundance and won an award there, we got lots of calls, lots of invitations. Otherwise, you send it out, you hear back, you go the regular route, which is what most people do, what I've usually done with short films. A few of the festivals said we'd like you submit the film. A couple of times it didn't get in, even though they wrote that letter, which I thought was odd.
Q: For Sundance, you submitted the film and they accepted it?
A: Yes, I submitted it, along with the other 10,000 people, and then I got an e-mail asking me to overnight another DVD because it was stuck and they couldn't see the end of the film. I was delighted and terrified, because we had sent them a rough cut.
We hadn't cleared any archival footage, we didn't have the music scored; there was so much yet to be done. But it was so much easier than having to do it from scratch.
Q: When your films come out, do you look at Rotten Tomatoes and other review sites?
A: Yes, and I like Rotten Tomatoes because we keep climbing. But there are people on the team who look at the box office and follow it very closely. We're doing a really respectable business but I'm less interested in following every tic. It just too nerve wracking.
Q: How badly do negative reviews affect you?
A: There have been so many positive ones that I really don't allow myself to go there. Call me crazy but I usually read them once and move on.
Q: Can you give me a hint about your next project?
A: I will as soon as I know.  

[from the Keynoter -]

Gainsbourg (Rhoades)

“Gainsbourg” Offers
Comic Book Biopic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Having been a comic book publisher, I’m always pleased to see this art form get recognized as more than lowbrow entertainment. It isn’t just about superheroes.
Case in point: Joann Sfar is a creator of graphic novels (what Frank Miller called “fat comic books”). Now Sfar brings one of his works to the screen, an inventive biography of French singer Serge Gainsbourg.
“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Sfar is considered one the most important artists of the new wave of Franco-Belgian comics. You can see the comic book roots in his fanciful style of filmmaking – realism blended with fantasy artwork and animation. A potato-shaped figure on a poster comes to life and chases our young hero down the streets of Paris. A long-nosed puppet version of himself steps into the story as an alter ego.
The film won the French artist-turned-director a César Award for Best Debut.
Sfar’s comics are often inspired by his Jewish heritage. And he claims to be a “fanatic” for the work of infamous singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (who was born as Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents).
  This film follows Gainsbourg from his boyhood in Nazi-occupied Paris (where he proudly wears his Jewish star ID) to his adulthood as a painter, jazz musician, and pop superstar in the ‘60s (where the cheeky beak-nosed musician marries or woos Juliet Greco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin).
Eric Elmosnino (“Ribet”) won a César Award for Best Actor playing Gainsbourg in this film. Ironically, he’s mainly worked in the theater.
Anna Mouglalis (“Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”) steps in as Bohemian singer-actress Juliette Gréco. Supermodel Laetitia Casta (“Arbitrage”) takes on the role of sex goddess Brigitte Bardot. And the late Lucy Gordon (“Spider-Man 3”) is cast as British actress Jane Birkin.
The soundtrack will bring back memories of the ‘60s. Yes, the film also won a César for Best Sound.
The songwriter’s life is described as heroic because “he lived deeply in his own imagination and did continual battle with the personal demons.”
“He was the only French singer with an attitude,” observes Joann Sfar. “When you turned on TV in France in the 1970s, he was the only guy who would refer to sex and alcohol and the meaningless life, so it was very appealing. He was the guy who makes you feel that it would be cool to be an adult.”
How accurate is this biography? “I prefer his lies to his truth, his dreams to his reality,” says Sfar. It’s easy to see why.
[from Solares Hill]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Week of December 23 to December 29

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Christmas always brings “don’t-miss-film-week” to the Tropic, and this year is no different, with three great new movies.

Leading the pack is THE DESCENDANTS, a film on everyone’s top ten list and a sure bet for an Academy Award nomination. Combining the writer/director talents of Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) and the acting of George Clooney, it’s the story of Matt King, a man whose seemingly idyllic life in a Hawaiian paradise, seems to be crumbling around him. He’s wealthy, the lead heir of a haole family that has lived on the islands for generations and owns 25,000 acres of pristine beachfront land worth a small fortune. He’s got a lovely family, wife and two daughters.

But, as Matt tells us in an introductory scene, don’t think life in paradise is necessarily paradisiacal. (A message which we Key Westers can take to heart.) We quickly learn that his wife is in a coma, the result of a power boat racing accident. (More Key West!) His older daughter is acting out, and, by the way, he’s been cuckolded. While dealing with all this, he’s also got the ultimate responsibility of deciding what to do with the family’s land, caught between those who want to cash it in for big bucks, and those who want to preserve nature’s bounty. (Sound familiar?)

A pitch-perfect movie that threads a microscopically tiny needle between high comedy and devastating drama.” (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post) “Heartwarming, tragic and, at times, hilariously funny drama.” (Gail MacDonald, Toronto Globe and Mail)

You will all want to see this movie. But I especially recommend it to Roger Bernstein of the Wisteria Island family.

The Tropic is, of course, the Key West home of the iconic Marilyn Monroe, her skirt flying up to the delight of every passing tourist who sneaks a peek under her. But this week she moves inside the theater, in the person of Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain) in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. It’s a story of Beauty and the Boy, the latter being young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne – The Yellow Handkerchief). He’s a production assistant on the set of a film that Marilyn is shooting in England with Sir Lawrence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl). She is newly married to Arthur Miller, who accompanies her, but then has to return to the States, leaving Colin with the estimable duty of looking after the Showgirl.

The movie is based on a true story, from a journal kept by Colin. Who knows how much of it is his wishful remembrance? But the film gives us a chance to share in the fantasy that we, too, can spend a week alone with the ultimate femme fatale. To think that she, who sought dominating males to bed (Joe Dimaggio, Arthur Miller, maybe Jack and Bobby Kennedy) still might have had a place in her heart for us.

“Michelle Williams… evokes so many Marilyns… we're probably looking at one of this year's Oscar nominees.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) “
What an extraordinary thrill to leave a movie exhilarated instead of drained, sated instead of empty, rejuvenated instead of depressed. It's a magical experience.” (Rex Reed, New York Observer)

As great as they are, neither of these movies is really for the kids whom you’ve got to entertain over the holidays. For them, the Tropic has BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Don’t be confused; this is not The Muppets movie that’s currently showing at some mainland theaters. That’s a muppet show. This is the inspiring story of Kevin Clash, the soul of Elmo, and how he got to be that way. It’s also the backstage story of the Muppets, how they are made and made to move.

“A wonderful, touching story, one that made me want to scoop up every kid I know who has a scrap of creative talent, and have them watch the film. Because Elmo's story is sweet -- but Clash's is nothing short of inspiring.” (Mike Scott, Times-Picayune)

Full info and schedules at or

Being Elmo (Rhoades)

“Being Elmo” Not Just
Another Muppet Movie

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Before heading “MPA – The Association of Magazine Media,” Nina Link was president of Children’s Television Workshop, the publishing arm of Sesame Street. I used to drop by to visit her, always hoping to catch a glimpse of Kermit or Miss Piggy. Never did.
One of my favorite Muppet characters was Elmo, that furry red monster who hosts “Elmo’s World,” the 15-minutes segment of TV’s Sesame Street devoted to toddlers.
Actually, Elmo is a guy named Kevin Clash. The  Muppeteer (read: puppeteer) who manipulated that big red character.
A “Sesame Street” staff writer recalls Elmo’s origins: “There was this extra red puppet lying around and the cast would pick him up sometimes and try to create a personality, but nothing seemed to materialize.” Finally, in 1984, Clash took over the fuzzy plush toy and turned him into a three-and-a-half-year-old who speaks without pronouns. Elmo is now known as “baby monster.”
Under Kevin Clash’s tutelage, Elmo didn’t restrict himself to “Sesame Street.” He embarked on the talk-show circuit, appearing on “Martha Stewart Living,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” “The Tony Danza Show,” Emeril Live,” and The View,” to name a few.
Our baby monster has been known to dispense advice on babysitting, as well as appearing before congress to support music education. He’s the only non-human or puppet ever to testify before the U.S. Congress.
Elmo has even starred in to movies, “Elmo in Grouchland” and “Elmo Saves Christmas.”
However, this documentary playing at the Tropic Cinema – “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” – is more about Muppeteer Kevin Clash than his so-called “Little Red Menace.”
Directed by Constance Marks and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, we learn about Clash’s modest childhood as a black kid in Baltimore, his creating a puppet show on a local TV station while still a teenager, his friendship with puppeteer Kermit Love (no, not the source of Kermit the Frog’s moniker), and the fateful meeting with his idol Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets concept. And now that Henson has gone to that great puppet stage in the sky, Clash takes on the creative lead, directing and producing “Sesame Street,” as well as training new generations of puppeteers around the world.
The interviews include Frank Oz, Rosie O'Donnell, Carroll Spinney, Joan Ganz Cooney, Marty Robinson, Fran Brill, and Bill Barretta.
There’s an irony to Clash’s fame. While millions of children tune in daily to watch Elmo, Kevin isn’t recognized when he walks down the street. And though he inspired many a child to learn the alphabet or count, his workaholic lifestyle took a toll on the relationship with his daughter (mostly glossed over with a Sweet 16 party to makeup for the oversight).
Yet, there’s no question that Kevin Clash is a kind, gentle, and well-meaning man who played a major (if unrecognized) role in our growing up in front of a television set.
“Being Elmo” tickles me. Elmo will tickle you too.

Being Elmo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Who is that man behind the neon red fur? Few know him, but his name is Kevin Clash. He is the voice behind one of the most beloved Muppets of all time: Elmo. Kevin wasn't born in a palacial house in Muppetland. But a little row house near the Patapsco River at Turner Station, nicknamed Chocolate City. 
The grass is  as dry as tumbleweed and the river is polluted. His room is sparse. Kevin becomes drawn to Saturday morning television to escape his mundane surroundings. 
Kevin is aware of two things: He loves performing and has no interest in sports. One day in 1969, he sees the premiere of "Sesame Street" on PBS. By his own admission, he got right up close to the tv. At that moment Kevin knew he wanted to be a puppeteer. And better yet. He wanted to be on "Sesame Street". For Kevin, Sesame Street is an actual place, a vibrant yet elusive neighborhood  of acceptance and imagination, nothing less than Shangri-La.
So begins "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey". It is an honest and warm documentary that will give you a visceral appreciation for puppeteering as much as it will pull at your heart.
Kevin goes against the grain immediately. He cuts up his father's coat  to make his first puppet. Like a Jean-Michel Basquiat of puppets, Kevin is influenced by color and motion as much as Captain Kangaroo. Instead of playing football and zigzagging in the endzone, kevin was making zigzag stitches on his mothers sewing machine. The kids teased him for "sleeping with puppets" and being a girl. 
All he wanted to do was make the seams disappear and wake up in Disneyworld. Kevin leaves paper slips with incantory wishes for The Magic Kingdom wherever he goes, but Sesame Street still  meant The Big City and his hands were nervous and ready.
The startling thing about "Being Elmo" is that the participants in the film eat, breathe and sleep as Muppets. They move within them, they are both their mothers and their twin-spirits.
We meet Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who are as legendary and as enigmatic here as Steve Jobs and Wozniak and as equally compelling. A man named Kermit Love  is here as well, white bearded and jolly, Kermit is half Santa Claus, half Dumbledore---the Zen of Muppetry, teaching Kevin how to move within his own felt. 
Some of the most affecting scenes are when Kevin goes to visit children, bringing along Elmo, who is Kevin's second skin. The kids are transfixed. It is a universal event and a pop culture phenomenon as big as "Star Wars" or Michael Jackson. 
Kevin Clash can't stop being Elmo, he even moves his infant daughter like  a muppet of flesh moving her arms and legs. 
Rather than treating her daughter like a muppet, he is instead moving her like a puppeteer in training. It's never too early to start.
When Kevin is not Elmo, he goes about anonymous and dressed down, he slips by the New York streets without a glance. He needs Elmo but he also needs to be a father and this recognition from him as well as the reaction of the kids getting hugs from Elmo will not leave a dry eye in the house.
Through it all, Kevin keeps moving, seldom seen under the dazzle of  red neon fur, giving one hug at a time.
"Being Elmo" is a portrait of struggle without discontent. It leaps and dances in the eyes with a joyful, humanist honesty and should not be missed.
Write Ian at

My Week With Marilyn (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

My Week with Marilyn

Va-va-voom! The much anticipated film "My Week with Marilyn" has arrived at The Tropic. It is a fitting  affectionate biopic about the legendary star that is sure to please both passing and hardcore fans, even if it does not offer much pathos.

The film centers on the apparently tense filming of "The Prince and the Showgirl". We see Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) as an impatient control freak, vexed and almost driven to hysterics by the volatility of Marilyn, played here with compelling heart and verve by the spunky Michelle Williams. Branagh's performance almost reaches high comedy as Marilyn keeps missing her lines. As Branagh says in his role, trying to get Marilyn to comprehend her part is like "teaching Urdu to a badger". Olivier in the film is like a frustrated schoolteacher trying to keep fifth graders from distractions and it never works. His annoyance is so one-sided that it comes off as a cartoon.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn is far more interesting than Branagh. Her Marilyn is a vulnerable snow leopard trapped within the confines of a Technicolor movie screen. The horizontal lines that the screen create may as well be a cage enclosing a creature, at once animalistic and artificial, dripping with light. 

In accordance with the memoir on which the film is based, a young assistant Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne)  becomes infatuated with the bombshell. Although he holds his own, Redmayne is a bit like Clark Kent, all nervousness with eyes agog. But then again, this is Marilyn Monroe. Her cadmium red kisses move mountains of men.

The setting of  England makes for provocative viewing : The green-gray and brown interiors in the film  wobble in surreal contrast to Williams' sizzling bright glare as Marilyn. She is a silver space traveller visiting a monochrome and monotone earth. The brown pints of beer seem to clash in her white-on-white palms.. The main anchor of the film is Williams alone. Through her motion  and voice, Marilyn is both an all too human sprite, mercurial and  spacey and a spectral siren--a living body of Pop Art. Sadly, no matter what "Marilyn" she happens to be at any given moment, flashbulbs relentlessly pop at her like  grenades. 

The end result of  "The Prince and the Showgirl" proved tepid. The 1957 film  was dealt a blow of weak reviews despite the star power of its players. All three figures, Monroe, Olivier and Clark went on to better things. 

At the conclusion of "My Week with Marilyn" it is clear that England was briefly touched with a fleeting burst of color, a voluptual flare only to have things resume in uniformity once the dazzling rocket returns to her home  orbit.

Write Ian at

The Descendants (Rhoades)

“The Descendants”
Inherit Family Problems

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A couple years ago my wife and I went to Hawaii with my family. A timeshare swap-out. As we strolled the sandy beaches, hiked lush jungle trails, surveyed pineapple plantations, and watched for whales, we learned very little of the islands’ history. Luaus and hula dances don’t count.
Turns out, these eight islands along with numerous atolls and islets were united under one ruler in 1810.
Originally there were no land titles in Hawaii. The society was feudalistic and all land belonged to the king. But that changed with the “Great Mahele” (division of lands) of 1848. By the time the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, large tracts of land had come under the control of “men of European ancestry.”
In “The Descendents,” George Clooney plays one of these land barons. “I have inheritance issues,” he says. “I belong to one of those Hawaii families that make money off of luck and dead people.”
Descended from Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries, Matt King (Clooney) is under pressure from his cousins to sell off the ancestral land to a real estate developer. But he faces a personal trauma when his wife is injured in a boating accident, leaving him to care for his two daughters. An awkward father – “the backup parent” – King tries to reacquaint himself with his offspring but in the process discovers a secret about his wife that sends them on a trip to Kauai to figure out where their life went awry.
Billed as a comedy-drama, Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) directs this film from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The author expanded her prizewinning short story “The Minor War” into this major debut novel.
“Growing up in Hawaii, I did not constantly think about my Hawaiianness,” she says. “I just thought about how I was going to get beer and where I was going to go surfing….”
Having scooped up five Golden Globe nominations – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay – “The Descendants” is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
Here George Clooney demonstrates his virtuosity, giving a nuanced performance as a middle-aged man in crisis that ranges from hilarious to heartbreaking. Not surprising that he’s getting a lot of Oscar buzz on top of the Golden Globes nod.
Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley play whiny 10-year-old Scottie and rebellious 17-year-old Alex. Shailene picked up her own Golden Globes nod for this on-pitch performance as a teenager being forced to grow up.
Alexander Payne counts off the other members of his cast: “Beau Bridges plays a cousin of Matt King. Matthew Lillard is a lothario. Judy Greer plays the wife of the lothario. Robert Forster is Matt King’s father-in-law. Mary Birdsong is King’s wife’s best friend. Nick Krause is a good friend to Matt’s older daughter. They’re not huge roles. Only Clooney and the girls have big parts. But they’re all important roles.”
As the film’s co-scripter (he won an Oscar for his “Sideways” screenplay), Payne seems comfortable with the topic of bewildered husbands, negligent dads, living wills, and old money at a crossroads. And his two Golden Globe nominations prove it.
As Kaui Hart Hemmings’s book explains, “Minor War” is Matt King’s nickname for the Portuguese man-of-war, a kind of stinging jellyfish. “I called them minor wars because they were like tiny soldiers with impressive weapons – the gaseous bubble, the whip-like tail, the toxic tentacles – advancing in swarms,” says the character.
But Matt King suffers his own minor war with his family. And it’s toxic. But does it have to be? Maybe not, if he can come to terns with the changes in his life.
“The Descendants” reminds you that Hawaii is more than a travel destination. It’s also a place where people live and learn.
[from Solares Hill]

My Week With Marilyn (Rhoades)

“My Week with Marilyn”
Revisits a Movie Icon

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I once interviewed Marilyn Monroe’s half-sister, a nice lady who worked at a college, her colleagues unaware of her famous connection. She told of her mother’s mental illness, the genes that her sister had inherited. It made Marilyn insecure, needy, subject to moodiness.
This is the MM we encounter in “My Weekend with Marilyn,” the new film playing at the Tropic Cinema. Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, an assistant to Sir Laurence Olivier, it retells the turbulent relationship between the classically trained British actor and the American movie icon during the filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl” in 1957.
Olivier was directing the film as well as starring in it. Yes, it was a predictable clash, the autocratic director versus the actress always late to the set and not knowing her lines.
During the filming Marilyn was honeymooning with her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller. But when Miller left her alone in London to complete the film, she turned to Olivier’s 23-year-old assistant for company. Visiting his old school, sharing a kiss, skinny-dipping, introducing her to British culture, Colin helped her escape the pressures of working with Olivier.
Blonde Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Blue Valentine”) transforms herself into Marilyn Monroe, a testament to both her acting skills and physical beauty. She had to gain a little weigh to add curves, pad her hips but not her bosom. She worked with a choreographer to perfect Marilyn’s hip-swaying walk.
To prep for the role Michelle “read biographies, diaries, letters, poems, and notes, pored over photographs, listened to recordings, watched movies.”
“I’d go to bed every night with a stack of books next to me,” she recalls. “And I’d fall asleep to movies of her. It was like when you were a kid and you’d put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it by osmosis.”
Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) takes on the role of Olivier, one of his real-life idols.
Eddie Redmayne (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) co-stars as Marilyn’s erstwhile friend, Colin. He acts as narrator of the piece, a star-struck Brit, a nobody (3rd Assistant Director) whose only claim to fame is the week he spent befriending Marilyn Monroe.
Dougray Scott (“Ripley’s Game”) steps in as Marilyn’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, while Dame Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, and Derek Jacobi round out the cast.
First-time director Simon Curtis filmed the movie in the same studio where “The Prince and the Showgirl” was shot. Michelle Williams even used the same dressing room as Marilyn.
Despite the English trappings and Jill Taylor’s lush period costumes, don’t expect another “The King’s Speech.” That said, it did pick up three Golden Globe nominations – Best Comedy, Best Actor, and (not surprisingly) Best Actress. The script sticks to the story, but not much happens. A nice memoir, a closer look at Marilyn, a young man’s adventure of a lifetime. But well played.
Nonetheless, the script by Adrian Hodges (based on two diaries of Colin Clark) portrays Marilyn as “lazy, a bad actress, a boyfriend-stealer, an adulteress, and a man devouring monster.” Maybe she was all of that, but her underlying vulnerability seeps through, thanks to Michelle Williams’ insightful performance.
“I do remember one moment of being all suited up as Marilyn and walking from my dressing room onto the soundstage practicing my wiggle. There were three or four men gathered around a truck, and I remember seeing that they were watching me come and feeling that they were watching me go – and for the very first time I glimpsed some idea of the pleasure I could take in that kind of attention; not their pleasure but my pleasure. And I thought, Oh, maybe Marilyn felt that when she walked down the beach.”
[from Solares Hill]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Week of December 16 to December 22 (Mann)

 What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

What happens when Mavis, a self-loathing, narcissistic, irrational, alcoholic thirty-something, decides she wants to rekindle her high school love affair? And when Buddy, the object of her obsession, is sweet, innocent, married, and with a new baby? Welcome to YOUNG ADULT, the new rom-com tragi-farce from the director (Jason Reitman) and writer (Diablo Cody) of the wildly popular Juno.
Because Mavis is drop-dead beautiful Charlize Theron (Monster), there is a chance that her bundle of psychoses just might turn Buddy’s head. Helping us sweat out that horrible possibility is Matt (Patton Oswald), a former classmate of Mavis and Buddy. While those two were prom queen and football king, Matt was a fat schlub, the victim of endless bullying and anti-gay beatings that left him crippled both physically and sexually… even though he isn’t and never was a homosexual. While Buddy is clueless, and Mavis is beyond clueing, Matt is wise and understanding, but hopelessly smitten with Mavis.

The title of the movie comes from the fact that Mavis has a moderately successful career writing teen romance novels. But it’s also an allusion to the fact that she’s never moved beyond her adolescent glory days, and seems to think her life is still the plot of one of her novels. She’s the kind of person who, when she learns that Buddy has a wife and baby, can only respond “I'm cool with it. I mean I've got baggage, too.”

Young Adult bumps along with nasty swerves, middle finger proudly in the air, toward an ending blessedly free of anything warm, fuzzy, or optimistic. Now that's adult entertainment.” (Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). “A cockeyed comic triumph that flashes between bright and dark like a strobe light of the spirit.” (Joe Morgenstern, Wall St. Journal).

also features a lead character who seems somewhat unhinged. Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a pipeline engineer, with a good job, a loving wife (Jessica Chastain) and a couple of great kids. He’s an attentive, caring father, especially to his six-year-old hearing-impaired daughter. But he’s overpowered by a sense of dread, a fear of an apocalyptic event that will destroy all this.

This fear manifests itself in nightmares, and then in daytime visions unseen by his co-workers. Driven by his fear, he builds an elaborate storm shelter in the backyard, jeopardizing his family finances and his job in the process. What is going on? Is he mad, or is he prophetic?

“A frightening thriller based not on special effects gimmicks but on a dread that seems quietly spreading in the land…This is masterful filmmaking.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). “[Director Jeff] Nichols has given audiences something genuinely thoughtful and provocative to talk about.” (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post).

The movie fare also includes holdovers of J.EDGAR and LIKE CRAZY.

The really Special Event of the week is a live show on the Carper Theater stage. Multi-talented performer Tom Judson, who had his Key West debut at the Tropic last year, returns with a new TOM JUDSON SHOW, an evening of piano, song and story in the mode of Bobby Short and Noel Coward. It’s a benefit for Aids Help. So spring for a few bucks and have a great time. That’s Saturday night at 10:00pm.

On Tuesday, the Ballet in Cinema series features THE NUTCRACKER from the Bolshoi Ballet, with matinee and evening shows. You may have seen other Nutcrackers, but the Bolshoi is the gold-standard for this Tchaikovsky classic.

Full schedules and info at or
[from Key West, the newspaper -]

Young Adult (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Young Adult

High school spawns monsters. Too many things can happen. You can be bullied, made an outsider, labelled a nerd or somehow more demeaning, not labelled at all, merely forgettable.

Director Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed "Ghostbusters" is well versed in cataloging our society's demons from the habit of smoking (Thank You for Smoking) to professional  travellers (Up in the Air). There is an argument to be made that this is the world we live in, and like a cinematic Boccaccio, Jason Reitman is  holding up a picaresque mirror and letting us peer inside, to gaze at  his motley cast of ne'er do wells and see ourselves. 
As a director with a family background that was the epitome of 80s pop culture made famous by Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray, Jason Reitman is no doubt familiar with the feel-good canon of teenage comedies, the Day Glo legacies of John Hughes,  Richard Donner and  silly scare-meister Joe Dante. But rather than keep the tone of his predecessors, Reitman subverts. His comedy is more in keeping with "South Park", than "The Burbs" (1989)
In his latest, "Young Adult" Reitman  turns his camera on one  mascara-eyed monster raised to wreak havoc in a petri dish of high school hostility.  The vexing trouble in question is a woman, Mavis Gary, played wondrously with heart and horror, softness and shock by none other than Charlize Theron.
From the very first moment, we know we're in for it. Mavis' room is cluttered and unkempt with soiled clothes and liquor bottles. Her ordinary condo apartment looks dirty and gray, as if left out in the rain. Mavis although pretty, is no knockout. She scratches her belly, chugs Coke and has a bloated belly.
This is a homecoming queen with her hourglass figure knocked loose and put upside down. Mavis' smile seems stitched into a frown. 
She is an angry Barbie.
Semi-professionally, Mavis is a ghostwriter for Young Adult books, soon to be cancelled. One morning she gets a late email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend's baby. There is no ink for the printer and she uses her own spit to liquify the ink. Theron makes the act of drooling at once shocking and sad: a one time starry-eyed woman reduced to spitting to make her obsolete technology work.
Abruptly, Mavis gets the idea to hit the road and get back with her boyfriend Buddy, played to generic perfection by Patrick Wilson.
Theron's obsessive role is sneaky, subtle and refreshingly, never top-heavy. She worms her way into Buddy's life not by being wired and electric, but rather she is offhand, nonchalant and loose limbed. Mavis simply asks to hang out and catch up. We get the sense that if Buddy said no, Mavis would have gone on her way. This makes the mounting apprehension and comedy all the more arresting. 
This is not to say that Mavis doesn't lose her cool. She obsessively preens and makes beauty appointments. Perfect nail polish adds glare to her appearance, but Mavis's face is often drained of color-- a dissipated snow queen Everything is half empty.
Patton Oswalt also stars as the disenfranchised Matt who although once violently beaten and cynical, has the most positive attitude of all the characters.  By moving thru life and not holding any grudges and freely making fun of jealousies between the disabled, Oswalt almost steals the  struggle from Theron. His wandering shifty shuffle of Matt, an average guy  who became a punching bag, but still retains his  wiles, has a steady understated energy.
Reitman has courage in this film. "Young Adult" is what "Bad Teacher" should have been. Rather than care about pat endings, Reitman  shows real people unabashedly admitting that they don't like each other without punchlines. He makes the uncomfortable funny when so many other comedies miss out or refuse to portray people as are, complete with shades of gray. This in itself is liberating. 

Write Ian at

Take Shelter (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

 Take Shelter

It's almost 2012 and given the economy, job instability,  political divisiveness and global warming, I know that many  doom in-the-afternoon films are in vogue and may be around for quite some time.  The latest of these is "Take Shelter" directed by  Indie director Jeff Nichols, known for his 2007 film "Shotgun Stories" about half brothers dealing with the death of a father. 

In that film as in this one, Nichols wisely put actor Michael Shannon in the starring role.
In "Take Shelter" Shannon plays an  earnest and forthright road worker who is also a husband and an affectionate dad to his hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Things are peachy keen for the first few minutes of the film and then Curtis has a series of very bizarre and visceral dreams, notable for their sudden violent impact. The dream sequences, although eerie, jolting and well rendered---including hundreds of birds that fly and drift in synchronicity creating huge black ribbons in the sky--- seem a bit like leftover cues from an M. Night Shyamalan film. 

The real draw here is Michael Shannon, who portrays torment on screen so well that he recalls the immediacy of Lon Chaney Jr in  "The Wolfman" and Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's "Spellbound". Shannon forms  his emotion  into a character on film. Time weighs on his face.  

Although he is unique unto himself, Shannon shares this quality with Willem Defoe and Christopher Walken. The pain Shannon's Curtis  feels is palpable and sincere, even Christ-like. As he searches the sky for doom, Curtis is like an extraterrestrial who has lost his craft. It is also worth noting that after Curtis wakes up from a "dream", numerous characters mention the current bad economy. So it is. Just as in this year's film "Contagion", external struggles are a metaphor for economic collapse. Curtis becomes a one man army.

Jessica Chastain does well as Curtis' wife Samantha. She is strong-willed, resolute and always seems to do right. She forces Curtis to face his own personal devils. Both Shannon and Chastain play their somewhat Gothic circumstances relatively straight and the film succeeds best in its mostly objective portrayal of mental illness. 

This family loves one another despite their tribulations, that much is clear. Samantha and Curtis have an easy convincing chemistry.

But when the film moves into dream territory, it loses drive.  The effects although doomsday accurate and foreboding are  the stuff of M. Night Shyamalan's derivative daydreams. We've seen such frights before. Lars von Trier despite his cringeworthy status in being the director that you never want to invite to a party, does it ever so much better. It is far more effective to not show what we fear the most, and to turn horrible angst into a soft aria rather than a Saturday Matinee shocker.

By the end of "Take Shelter", I thought I was watching a special apocryphal edition of "The X-Files". Doomsday is fine  but spare me the blackbirds, the twisting funnel clouds and the shredding lightning. After the onslaught of "The Seventh Sign", "The Reaping" , "Signs" and "2012" this particular visual vocabulary has overstayed its welcome on my calendar. This was overkill. 

A damn shame. All it takes for me to be a Believer in film is a good character study.

Write Ian at

Young Adult (Rhoades)

“Young Adult” - A Case of
Arrested Development

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Through circumstances I won’t detail, back in my single days I once dated a stripper. An ecdysiast, if you want to dress it up. But it’s hard to dress up strippers.

She was a nice enough young adult who happened to make her living shedding her clothes to the tune of “A Fifth of Beethoven.” She had a fondness for classical music.

What I learned is that, thanks to her profession, she also had a slightly askew view of the world. Not so much cynical as one of arrested development. Not quite in tune with everyday society. A self-centered attitude. Bratty.

Hot Hollywood screenwriter Diablo Cody was a stripper before she hit it big with her script for the movie “Juno.” A spiky-haired blonde (née Brook Busey), she has an acerbic, tongue-in-cheek viewpoint that gives her scripts a zing. She’s known for her “sharp and sarcastic voice.”

Cody does it again with “Young Adult,” the new Charlize Theron comedy that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Our heroine (no, protagonist is a better word) writes YA novels that appeal to teens. Mavis (played by Diablo Cody look-alike Charlize Theron) is good at her job, because she has the emotional maturity of a teenager. A Young Adult herself, even though she’s now in her late 30s.

In this time warp Mavis is mildly dissatisfied with her life, longing for – as she saw it – the glory days of high school. So leaving the Twin Cities (Diablo Cody herself used to live in Minneapolis) our girl returns to her hometown of Mercury, MN, in search of that lost youth. Or more specifically she goes with the obsessive intent of reclaiming her high school sweetheart, no matter that he’s now married with a kid.

Reason does not apply. Well, reason as you and I know it.

Mavis dolls herself up to convince old boyfriend Buddy (a bewildered Patrick Wilson) to run away with her. However, he – like the audience – thinks she’s a bit mad.

“Young Adult” has the expected bundle of clichés, but turned on their ear. Mavis is a without-a-clue city mouse who gets her comeuppance from those nice small-town folks. But not in the way you might expect. And you’ll want her, according to formula, to wind up with the right guy (i.e. not Buddy). As it turns out, she does, at least enough to satisfy the audience’s unsure expectations.

The not-quite-right other guy is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geek who makes his own action figures and owns a collection of outdated indie-rock T-shirts. Choices aren’t big in a small town.

Charlize Theron won an Academy award for her starring turn in “Monster.” Here, she’s a different kind of monster, an unlikable Platinum princess who is spoiled, self-absorbed, and slightly out of touch with reality. It takes courage for an actress to take on these kinds of roles, characters that the audience can’t quite connect with.

Director Jason Reitman is on comfortable ground. He collaborated with Diablo Cody on “Juno.” And he gave us the masterful “Up in the Air” with George Clooney. He doesn’t flinch when presenting Mavis, a woman who has avoided the human capacity to grow and change.

Mavis seemed kinda familiar to me. In this case, a woman listening to retro music by Teenage Fanclub instead of “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
[from Solares Hill]

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Week of December 9 to December 15 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

LIKE CRAZY took the top prize at Sundance last January, continuing a string of great movies in recent years (Winter’s Bone 2010, Precious 2009, Frozen River 2008). Each was nominated for an Academy Award, and each kicked off the careers of an actress – Jennifer Lawrence, Gabourey Sidibe, Melissa Leo. But this time, rather than being a tough account of people in grinding poverty and dismal circumstances, Like Crazy is an uplifting story of young love between nice middle-class people. It’s almost as if the judges had a subconscious urge to shout Hallajuhah! there is another world out there.

The story begins in California and winds up transatlantic. Jacob (Aton Yelchin, stretching his skills beyond Terminator Salvation and Star Trek) and Anna (Felicity Jones, moving beyond historical dramas like The Tempest and Northanger Abbey) meet at U.C.L.A. where he is a teaching assistant for her writing class, and she is a Brit on a student visa. Their attraction is mutual and instant, and it develops over the summer into a visa overstay, until it is dashed by the immigration service's refusal to let her return to the US after a visit back to Britain.

Can love survive a 5,000 mile separation is the theme, simple enough. But the quality of the movie is all in the execution. Because of the superb performances of this couple, and the sure-handed touch of young director Drake Doremus, it becomes “a romantic drama that makes other romantic films look obvious and calculated in comparison.” (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle). An added bonus is Jennifer Lawrence as Jacob’s replacement girlfriend. “Like Crazy is a cinematic love potion and you leave it feeling bewitched.” (Mary Pols, Time Magazine). Academy Award Alert!

One of the strengths of the Tropic is its willingness to show fascinating films that we might never see or know about in any other way. THE MILL AND THE CROSS is a perfect example. Polish Director Lech Majewski, an artist himself, has created a cinematic depiction of a classic painting, Pieter Breugel’s The Way to Calvary. This large canvas (roughly 5’ by 4’) painted in 1564, depicts a vast panorama of Sixteenth Century life in Flanders. Because it is populated by 500 figures, a viewer at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where it is housed, might need a magnifying glass to examine them all. But Majewski takes us into the world of the painting, guided by Breugel himself (Rutger Hauer- Blade Runner), his patron (Michael York) and Mary (Charlotte Rampling). It’s an historical transformation, moving the Crucifixion to a century and a half later and to Belgium, and substituting oppressive Spanish soldiers for Romans.

The Mill and the Cross is a film of great beauty, but it’s also a lesson in history and art, from an explanation of the composition of the canvas to a depiction of the horrors of life in a world under the dominance of the Inquisition. It ’’captures the wish that some of us have had while standing in front of a great painting. What hangs before us is so striking, beautiful, strange, vast, horrifying, ethereal, lifelike - so alive - that we’re desperate to enter the other side of the canvas, to be inside the painting.” (Wesley Morris, Boston Globe).

Want something more ordinary? Don’t despair. THE RUM DIARY and J. EDGAR are held over, along with Pedro Almdovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN and Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA.

And the lecture series presented by the Heart Institute of the Florida Keys continues on Wednesday at 11:00am with a talk on WHAT SHOULD I EAT? Free and open to the public.

Full schedules and info at or

Like Crazy (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Like Crazy

Although many romantic films are well done, the romance is a genre that has been often critically maligned or overused, especially in Hollywood.  Romantic films usually involve great stretches of colorful quirky bliss followed by tangles and twists of the heart only to be topped off by a grand Hollywood ending of the two together at last. There have been countless films in this mode involving goofy moments, missed phone calls and frequent  "what do you mean?"-its in the dialogue.

Refreshingly, "Like Crazy" is not one of these. In setting and tone the film has an earthy sense of rhythm, more in keeping with the cross-cultural "Once" (2006), the punchy "Blue Valentine" or the heartfelt but melodramatic "One Day". With these three films as with "Like Crazy", there is the sense that love is a fragile element or charmed spell that can dissipate forever if shaken or bumped. 

This film stars Anton Yelchin as Jacob and Felicity Jones as Anna. Jacob and Anna are college students in L.A and that's all well and good. But Cupid's arrow goes sideways a bit in the middle. Anna is from the UK and Jacob is American. 

If you can forgive the perpetually zooming camera at times that hovers and zooms about like a debauched angel, this film is well played and genuine with not a disingenuous scene to be found. Even the buzzy camerawork finds  its  place, illustrating  the overstimulation of first love, a sensation that gives haunt and meaning to everything from the still to the scrambled. The camera even dares  to go under the sheets.

Anna is a bit preppy and devil may care while Jacob is disheveled and bohemian, but not so bohemian as to be unrealistic. He makes wooden chairs that look damn uncomfortable but that doesn't matter. He has a kind of Van Gogh aura  with a spaced out smile and looks like he's made of unspooled thread so he's not wound too tight. 

At first all is bliss. Then  reality strikes. Anna's visa runs out, which starts an avalanche of worry and a nerve knocking roller coaster of love's weep and woe.

I never thought this was possible in a so called romantic movie but the outside events that keep the lovers apart actually do seem  conspiratorial, even supernatural, akin to a film directed by Cassevetes or Polanski. The world is really out to get them. The love-spun  arguments are portrayed as they often are in real life: unpredictable, vexing and abrupt.

This is the first romance to my knowledge that deals with the pitfalls of immigration and we see the grim machinery at work here with all its sad and knotty dilemmas. Bureaucracy does not brake for Juliet. 

Drake Doremus keeps his camera rolling and we see profound  sadness in the distraught faces of Jones and Yelchin as they confront mountains of instantaneous and unheard of Catch 22s. The heartbreak in their faces reach a sparse Expressionist glare that is without any heart-bound musical lilts or tear-jerking drops on a piano. This is  life and you bring your own experiences with the film, be they wonderful or wicked, quirky or confusing. There is so much intensity of expression that I thought of Lars Von Trier. But fear not. In "Like Crazy" you have your melancholy Romeo without Rene Magritte. Events simply unfold. No surrealism necessary.

The film is masterful for letting the characters move about as they might in actual life, with a hasty abruptness of action and without the ponderousness of any exposition. Despite the determined struggles that these two contend with to break free and stay together, Jacob and Anna might just as eagerly return to their home-country loves of convenience: for Jacob, the lynx-eyed and serpentine beauty, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence) and for Anna, the earnest and anal do-gooder, Simon,  (Charlie Bewley) who resembles a sport left out of a drawing room comedy. The circumstances featuring each of these second string valentines are both sympathetic and capricious, and all too human. Your heart will leap in familiarity as much as in apprehension. 

The final courage of the film--excluding the obvious call for immigration reform--is that it reveals a disturbing truth in human nature: Love is indeed an unstable emotional chemical. Once dropped and changed, love can mutate and  allow us to become duplicitous, to ultimately reveal alternate sides of ourselves to other lovers and do so willingly.

Write Ian at

The Mill and the Cross (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway  

The Mill and the Cross

Current cinema is often a Pop medium, especially when it handles subjects of art history in 1564. The rectangle of the movie screen might seem a devil's light-box to the spirits of  Van Gogh, Vermeer or Brueghel:a moving painting within a painting. Sorcery from the sky.
Such is the sensation produced by the film "The Mill and The Cross", directed by Lech Majewski.

Majewski , who was the original screenwriter for Julian Schnabel's film on Jean Michel Basquiat, possesses a painter's eye. He makes it seem as if Brueghel could just as well be a painter of flickering triptychs as much as a master painter of religious tableaux.

"The Mill and The Cross" draws you in with its deceptively simple narrative. The film is essentially conceptual. It doesn't dramatize so much as simply show the elements and the people contained within Brueghel's 1564 work " Way to Cavalry". Under Majewski's lens, peasants simply go to work each day with their horses. They eat and holler, laugh, fart, and milk cows while kids hop and scamper like mischievous  angels in a rustic cosmos. Even drunks revolve and pinwheel about. All of nature moves underfoot.

Actor Rutger Hauer plays Brueghel, his face a worn palette against  a middle gray sky.  With his huge sketchbook that seems made for a giant, he is stern and impassive, scarcely a smile crosses his face. Hauer's Brueghel is a bit like William Blake's "Urizen" or Orson Welles especially in voiceover. Mostly Hauer sketches and fusses having no need for earthly sustenance.

Michael York also appears in the film as  Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy patron in a burgundy velvet suit. York stands about and laments the state of religious persecution in 1564. And Charlotte Rampling makes a cameo in all of her usual severe intensity. Rampling is a living Brueghel.

We also see the persecution of Jesus here, his body, as in the painting, unnaturally white, a spaceman: The First Man who fell to Earth, worlds before David Bowie. The movie pairs an average man being violently beaten and tied to a wheel with the crucifixion of Jesus as if to make the two of them interchangeable. Just as in Monty Python, Majewski makes the case for a humanistic spirituality that is both subversive and heartfelt. Christ is in all of us.

Most of the characters are pressed in two dimensions. There is little dialogue and no one says much at all. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, there are no spoken words on screen, just the trudging of heavy feet on endless wooden steps. Rather than a drawback, however, this is a delight. Majewski only needs to show what   "Way to Calvary" feels like as it shifts  across the screen in 2011. This is journey of one rectangle composed of paint and quantum space as it travels from  a mill to a museum.

Write Ian at

The Mill and the Cross (Wanous)

Film delivers visual excursion back in time

By CRAIG WANOUSKeynoter Contributor

Visual excursion back in time

Actors recreate Bruegel's 1564 masterpiece, 'The Procession to Calvary.'

The Mill & the Cross, Unrated, 95 min., opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the Tropic Cinema

"The Mill & the Cross," a Polish-Swedish co-production, is almost impossible to categorize and just as hard to describe. It is a slow and tedious yet beautiful film that will probably leave viewers in one of three camps; those who love the dramatic visual effects, those who love art and know the story of the painting at the film's center, and those who say "What the &%#$ was that?"

Co-written and directed by Lech Majewski, the centerpiece of the film is Pieter Bruegel's 1564 masterpiece The Procession to Calvary (sometimes called The Way to Calvary), a large, complex painting that reportedly contains more than 500 individual figures and puts Christ's crucifixion in Bruegel's contemporary 16th century Flanders.

The film borrows its title from the critically acclaimed analysis of Bruegel's painting by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who co-wrote the screenplay. Using a combination of blue screen, location filming from central Europe and New Zealand and CGI, director Majewski gives the film an almost 3D effect, putting us right inside the painting.

The marvelous opening shot of the movie shows us the villagers as if they were models preparing to be painted, costumed and arranged by Bruegel himself. The final shot of the film zooms out and shows us the real painting hanging in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In between, the imagined real life of the villagers blends with the figures in the painting until it becomes hard to distinguish between the two.

Several themes (I can't call them storylines) run through the film and things happen that have no explanation, almost like live-action snapshots of moments in time that we see but don't understand. The red-coated Spanish are the heavies who ride in, do horrible things, and then ride off. Bruegel's wife and children go about their daily lives, oblivious to the cruelty around them. A giant windmill towers over the landscape, the meaning of which the artist explains to his patron. A young couple buys some bread for a picnic that is fatally interrupted. Musicians scamper around the village for no apparent reason. Another couple takes their treasured calf out for a stroll, pulling it along in a cart.

Only three of the actors have any real dialog. Rutger Hauer plays artist Pieter Bruegel, working on his masterpiece and explaining it to his patron, played by Michael York. Charlotte Rampling plays the model for Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose sad, frowning face never changes. There is almost no other dialog, other than some background chatter in Flemish and Spanish, which is not subtitled. The acting by Hauer, York and Rampling is adequate but not particularly noteworthy. But the costumes are absolutely amazing and don't be surprised if the name Dorota Roqueplo, the costume designer, comes up at Oscar time.

Watching this movie takes patience and a different mindset than most of today's films. There is action and violence, but we observe it as outsiders and don't get drawn in. There is comedy, but it's the humor of real life, not the slapstick or sit-com variety. There is romance and nudity, but it's brief and not explicit. All the elements to make a good film are present. But I can't really call "The Mill & the Cross" a good film. It's more like sitting in a gallery absorbing every detail of a famous masterpiece for an hour-and-a-half. Some people enjoy that, some don't.

So do I recommend "The Mill & the Cross"? Yes and no. For those who don't enjoy art galleries and museums, you may be in the third camp mentioned above and might come out of the theater wishing you could get those 95 minutes back. But for those in the first two camps, I definitely recommend the film. It is a compelling and fascinating theater experience that must be seen on the big screen. (Do not wait for the DVD!) "The Mill & the Cross" is a visually stunning work of art, on film, that takes you inside another stunning work of art, on canvas, and rewards you for your patience.    

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Like Crazy (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Like Crazy” is,Well, Like Crazy

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’d think making a movie is about as simple as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying, “Hey, my dad has a barn – let’s put on a show!” That is, if you’re director Drake Doremus.

The twentysomething filmmaker did something crazy. He produced a movie titled “Like Crazy” on only $250,000. He shot it with an inexpensive Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera. And most of the dialogue was improvised by the actors.

“I had this love story that was sort of nagging at me that sort of encompassed a lot of things I was feeling that I wanted to convey. I wrote it really quick,” say Doremus.

Doremus came up with a general outline that described what was going to happen. His Austrian-born wife Desiree Pappenscheller says the film is loosely based on their romance and her immigration problems.

“Like Crazy” tells us of two college kids in Los Angeles – a design student and a British exchange student – who fall for each other. She sticks around for the summer, overstaying her student visa. When she tries to return to the States after a family visit to London, she’s “detained, denied entry, turned away, and sent back to England” by hardnosed Immigration officials.

Needless to say, this forces the two crazy kids into a long distance situation that puts a strain on their relationship. And despite all the efforts of an immigration lawyer, the ban isn’t lifted.

Hmm, that happened to my friends Al and Colleen. They solved it by getting married.
But an easy solution doesn’t make for a good movie.

“Like Crazy” – currently playing at Tropic Cinema – stars Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as the distance-challenged couple. You’ve seen Soviet-born Anton in “Star Trek” and “Fright Night.” And British-born Felicity in TV’s “The Worst Witch” and “Cemetery Junction.”

Toss in Alex Kingston (TV’s “ER”), Charlie Bewley (“The Twilight Saga”), and Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) to complete the cast.

This is Drake Doremus’s third film. “You know, I think I always wanted to make the harder romantic, more dramatic films, but I didn't really have the skill set to do it yet, so I was pursuing more, really, lighthearted movies. This was sort of like the first foray into doing it. But I always wanted to do this stuff. When I was a kid I was obsessed with, like, ‘Out of Africa,’ and ‘English Patient.’ My mom was like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you into these movies?' And I was like, ‘I really want to go see “The English Patient” again!’”
(Don’t panic. This 90-minute film is more than an hour shorter than “The English Patient.”)

Doremus’s romantic drama turned out to be a big hit at both Sundance and Toronto film festivals. “It has been the craziest ride,” he says. “I mean, this movie was so tiny. It was just basically like, ‘Maybe some people will see this movie. Maybe people will relate to it and maybe it will resonate.’ Then to have this reaction and for it to be now coming out is like a dream come true. This has been my dream my whole life. It is crazy. It still hasn’t sunk in yet – how special and grateful I am. It is amazing.”

Yeah, like crazy.
[from Solares Hill}