Sunday, May 29, 2011

Week of May 27 to June 2 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann
     Have you ever been to a film festival? If so, you’ll recognize the mix of a major star vehicle, and a couple of small human interest stories that make up the Tropic’s program this week. The theater’s own little festival, just for us.
     The big movie is THE BEAVER, featuring Mel Gibson in his first return to the screen after his weird Mayan adventure story Apocalypto, and his even weirder drunken personal behavior that threatened to wreck his career. Jodie Foster, who directs The Beaver and plays Gibson’s wife in the movie, has told interviewers she cast him in the role because he had the unique talent to make this difficult script work.
The story is about Walter Black, a depressed alcoholic (Gibson) who manages to ward off suicidal behavior by ventriloquizing a beaver hand puppet who replaces his tormented self. There is an undeniable comic element to seeing the former Braveheart and Mad Max as a sagging shell of a man dependent on this alter ego, which speaks with a Cockney accent and reminds viewers of Senor Wences or the Geico lizard. But it’s also impossible to separate Walter Black from the real Gibson, whose travails gave him ample insight into the character.
     Balancing these story elements was not an easy task. The script for The Beaver was something of a legend, rated as the best unproduced script in town by a website that rates such stuff ( But Foster, looking for a third directorial project (after Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays), was not one to be deterred by difficult material, not when she had Gibson. “There isn’t anybody—anybody—who isn’t blown away by this performance,” she says.
     She is also astute in her casting of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Terminator Salvation) as the lead supporting actors. He’s Walter Black’s older son, a teenager so angry at his father that he fills a wall with post-it notes of his father’s behaviors that he must learn not to emulate. She’s his love interest, a superficially popular girl who has her own torments.
     It’s a dark movie, no doubt, but for Foster, and maybe for Gibson, too, it’s about getting through crisis and emerging stronger. That’s something we all can use. In any event, it’s “a film of power, wit and thought-provoking ideas.” (Orlando Sentinel)
     THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED based on a case study by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) also deals with a troubled relationship between a father and son. Henry Sawyer (J.J. Simmons – Juno, Law and Order) is a straight-laced engineer whose son ran away from home as a teenager in the Sixties to follow the Grateful Dead. Now it’s twenty years later, and the son has an odd neurological condition that has so addled his memory that he can’t tell past from present. To bond with his lost son, Mr. Sawyer has to expand his musical tastes beyond Bing Crosby, to Dylan and the Dead. Full of wonderful music – if that’s your taste – and the neurological aspects are factual. “A powerful, even shattering look at music's power to unite where it once divided.” (Onion A.V.)
     HARVEST is also a family story. The well-to-do patriarch Siv Monopoli (Robert Loggia) is at the end of his days, but still full of vim and vigor. His wife (Barbara Barrie) suffers from dementia, but is cheerful. His children have gathered at the family place on the Connecticut shore. “Meticulously written and exquisitely acted,” it’s been gathering audience awards on the festival circuit and drawing big crowds at a New York opening earlier this month.
     The events calendar this week features a live performance from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. COPPELIA, the story of a doll come to life airs live on Sunday morning at 11:00am EDT (7pm in Moscow) with an encore showing at 7:00 EDT.
     Full schedules and info at or
Comments, please, to

The Beaver (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

The Beaver

     Is it possible to separate the man from his work? Given the recent horrendous  tabloid headlines of Mel Gibson's rages, I'm not so sure.
     In "The Beaver" Gibson plays Walter, the CEO of his father's toy company and father of two. Walter is clinically depressed. It seems no one can help him. He storms and rages. He drinks and sleeps all day. And, predictably, Walter's wife leaves him. Alone in a gray apartment, he becomes a suburban Robinson Crusoe, adrift in nothingness. He watches reruns of "Kung Fu" and decides to do himself in. Walter gets tangled in the shower curtain and falls to the floor. The Tv bonks him on the head.  Masochism and suffering is a repeated element in Gibson's acting roles and one wonders if he did not take on Jodie Foster's directorial film as a way of penitence for his real-life  violent, sexist and racist tirades.
     One aspect that the movie succeeds in, is in its ability to show Walter as a dangerous being as if he is fighting a malevolent unseen force known only to himself.  Walter fights with walls, with doorhandles and tv sets. He is a one man army against himself. The solitary fight scenes are physical, loud and bloody-- and more exciting than any "Braveheart" or "Apocalypto" climax.
     The problem is that Mel Gibson and his off screen ravings are so vivid and highly charged that the character of Walter doesn't seem to hold much power. When he reaches for a way out in the form of a hand-puppet it is quirky and self deprecating at first, but  as the story unfolds,  it becomes a predictable, one handed film.
     That is not to say that it is not well acted or filmed. There is an real haunt to Mel Gibson's face. When he suffers, you feel it. And there are bedroom scenes between Walter and his wife, played by Jodie Foster that are hilarious.
     Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) appears as the girlfriend of Walter's oldest son, but despite her considerable talent, she seems a card-board cutout. Her part could have been acted by anyone. The movie is all Mel. 
     As soon as the camera drifts away from Gibson and his sarcastic handheld buddy, the movie loses its quirky hold.
     "The Beaver" is a curiousity in Mel Gibson's impassioned gallery of self immolating characters. Not Since Klaus Kinski has there been someone so iconic and tortured, or even torturous. But Gibson's moments  of humor and physical locomotion  release this movie from its ball and chain of predictability. 

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The Music Never Stopped (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway  

The Music Never Stopped

     "The Music Never Stopped", based on an essay "The Last Hippie" by British neurologist Oliver Sacks is about the power of music to fuse broken connections.
It stars relative newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci as Gabriel, a young idealist musician who came of age in the 60s, only to get a benign brain tumor and have his memory function impaired and  intermittent. By working with a music therapist (Julia Ormand) they were able to awaken areas of Gabriel's brain and restore his verve.
     Yes, this does seem a bit like "Awakenings" the 1990 film also based on the writings of Dr. Sacks, but this latest film has a lighter touch and is easier on the eyes mainly due to the charming charisma of Mia Maestro as Celia, Gabriel's love interest at the hospital. This is not a sad or depressing film. It is often enchantingly upbeat. First time director Jim Kohlberg, clearly cares about this true story and the time of the 1960s as a decade of ideas in music. But the film does have its Hallmark card moments. The first sight of Young Gabriel as he is diagnosed: he is markedly changed in appearance with a full beard and wild hair. Why I wonder? And a few of the parental conflicts seem like acting class moments. Or something out of James Dean. 
     What saves this movie from flower-power shmaltz is the giddy grace of Gabriel as portrayed by Pucci once he is reconnected with the music he adores. Gabriel is plugged in, lost and alive within the music--- all at once. Pucci well illustrates this man's gyroscopic heart. As a young man Gabriel is an all seeking musical vagabond, wild eyed and full of happy rain. Without music he is a hollow shell, sitting on the River Styx of television commercials. Gabriel's hospital room has no television in it. He only has need for 60s rock. Indeed he is a parched desert plant without it.
     Veteran character-actor J.K. Simmons gives more depth as a  controlling father. As does the mother (Cara Seymour). The main center of the film though, remains Lou Taylor Pucci as a whirling dervish of spoken hijinx and hope. 

Write Ian at

The Music Never Stopped (Rhoades)

“The Music Never Stopped”
Offers Brain Candy

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Have you ever read that mind-blowing book by Columbia University neurologist Oliver Sacks, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales”? It’s a fascinating collection of case histories involving brain disorders.
Another of his books was adapted into a film called “Awakenings,” starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. It was about patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica.
Now we get “The Music Never Stopped,” a father-son drama based on Sacks’ essay “The Last Hippie” from his book “An Anthropologist on Mars.” It gives us the story of Henry Sawyer and his son Gabriel, a kid who suffers from a brain tumor that prevents him from forming new memories. Anterograde amnesia, it’s called. Unable to deal with their strained relationship through normal communications, Henry Sawyer turns to music as a means of reaching his son.
In “The Music Never Stopped” –now playing at the Tropic Cinema – that underappreciated actor J. K. Simmons (“Juno,” TV’s “The Closer”) takes the role of the father. Lou Taylor Pucci (“Thumbsucker,” TV’s “Empire Falls” miniseries) plays the damaged boy who floats in and out of four different states of consciousness.. Cara Seymour (Adaptation,” “The Gangs of New York”) is the mother. We also have Mía Maestro (TV’s “Alias”) and Julia Ormond (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Che”) to round out the cast.
Directed by first-timer Jim Kohlberg, “The Music Never Stopped” offers the three most important things he looks for in a film: “Story, story, and story.”
Kohlberg says, “A friend of mine sent the script to me. I read it and immediately fell in love with it for several reasons. First, I’d actually been kind of a brain science reader and read Oliver Sacks’ books and Proust as a neuroscientist and a bunch of the books by Nobel winners because it’s fascinating to me. So this film was about that, plus it had this wonderful story about fathers and sons and a family that had been pulled apart by music and then brought together by music.”
Needless to say, a movie about using music to reach a person with a brain tumor has to have a great soundtrack. And it does: Dylan, The Grateful Dead, “this amazing soundtrack that I never thought I’d get, not in a million years,” as Kohlberg describes it.
From time to time Oliver Sacks has taken some criticism for his books. One noted researcher said, “He’s a much better writer than he is a clinician.” And his studies have been called “a high-brow freak show.”
However, I’ve always found Sacks’ books to serve a valuable purpose by putting a very human face on gobbledygook medical terms. Whether explaining such neurological phenomenon as visual agnosia, cerebral achromatopsia, Tourette Syndrome, or Lytico-Bodig disease, I prefer to call these stories brain candy.
[from Solares Hill]

The Beaver (Rhoades)

Mel Gibson Leaves It to “The Beaver”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

     Mel Gibson has always excelled at playing slightly unbalanced characters. As a young Australian actor, he made his mark as “Mad Max.” He was a developmentally deficient young man in “Tim.” Later, he scored as a mentally-unstable cop in the “Lethal Weapon” series. He was cast a paranoid taxi driver in “Conspiracy Theory.” He even had a run as the melancholy “Hamlet.” Now he plays a depressed toy executive who must rely on a beaver puppet to communicate with his family.
     Great acting – or typecasting?
     Truth is, the real life of Mel Colm-Cille Gerard Gibson has been crazier than any of his characters. Once an A-List actor, he has all but trashed his career by a series of antics that have been described as homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynistic. Being an avowed Catholic, his divorce from longtime wife Robyn made headlines. His rants during DUI arrests have been splashed over the Internet. And his tirades with former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva were featured on the 10 o’clock news.
     This rep has come back to “to bite me on the ass,” he admits. Set to do a small role in “The Hangover II,” he was dumped from that film after the cast and crew objected to working with him. (See accompanying review of “The Hangover II.”)
     He claims to be manic-depressive. Just like his character in this new film.
     “The Beaver” – now playing at the Tropic Cinema – is one of the most unusual tales to come out of Hollywood in years.
     This is the story of a once-successful toy executive and family man who suffers from suicidal depression. Walter Black (Gibson) can’t seem to get himself back on track … until he starts talking to people using a beaver hand puppet that he finds in a Dumpster. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) tolerates this eccentricity because their youngest son (Riley Thomas Stewart) relates to this fuzzy friend of dad’s. But his oldest son (Anton Yelchin) objects to this nutty behavior. What’s to become of this family?
     More to the point, what’s to become of Mel Gibson?
     “I don’t care if I don’t act anymore,” Gibson says, adding “I could easily not act again. It’s not a problem.”
     “The Beaver” marks Mel Gibson’s reunion with Jodie Foster, who co-starred with him in “Maverick.” Foster both directs and co-stars in this quirky film.
     Why did she cast Gibson? “I’m not defending him,” says Foster. “I can't defend what he does. He has to defend what he does. But he’s an excellent actor. He’s a great friend. He’s someone I love. When you love somebody, you don’t just run away from them when they’re struggling. I will always be there.”
     Films either starring or directed by Mel Gibson have earned over $2.5 billion, in the United States alone. He won an Academy Award for directing “Braveheart.” And “The Passion of Christ” grossed in excess of $600 million during its theatrical release, making it the highest grossing non-English language film of all time. Gibson personally earned more than $300 million from “The Passion of Christ.”
     But this one won’t be one of Gibson’s big moneymakers.
     The odd little movie was already topically a tough sell before casting Mel Gibson.
“Obviously, Mel Gibson’s problems have been an issue for the film for distribution,” admits Foster. “But we all know the strength he shows on the screen. He’s also witty. He can be funny and charming. I knew he would bring an affability to the role of Walter. He’s a soulful, interesting guy who knows a lot about struggle.”
And he’s actually a good choice for “The Beaver,” a film that offers the perfect metaphor for somebody who builds something and destroys it at the same time.
[from Solares Hill]

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Week of May 20 to May 26 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann
     Another literary adaptation joins JANE EYRE and ATLAS SHRUGGED, which are held over.
It’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, based on Sara Gruen’s best seller about a sexy circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line, Legally Blonde), her sociopathic circus-owner/ringmaster husband August (Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds), a wandering young veterinary student Jacob (Robert Pattinson - Twilight) and the very special elephant Rosie (Tai – Larger Than Life, Operation Dumbo Drop).
     Just this list of characters makes it sound enticing. The circus is no fancy three-Ringling extravaganza, but a ratty, tatty, traveling show barely making it in 1931 hard times. When it loses its star animal attraction, a horse ridden bareback by Marlena, all seems lost, until August finds an elephant act and discovers that young Jacob has a way with these animals. It’s “a splendid period swooner that delivers classic romance and an indelible insider's view of 1930s circus life“ (Variety). Looking for something to take the kids to? This is also a “good sound family entertainment, a safe PG-13 but not a dumb one” (Roger Ebert).
     Meanwhile Sara Gruen's new book Ape House, about bonobos, has been optioned by Ellen DeGeneres. From what I've heard about the sexual proclivities of these primates, this movie probably won't be for the youngsters.
     IN A BETTER WORLD is certainly no PG-13. It intercuts two stories, one set in an African refugee camp where the Danish doctor Anton provides free treatment, and the other in Denmark where Anton’s son struggles with bullies. As the stories unfold, Anton must deal with an uber-bully in Africa -- a vicious Idi Amin-like warlord, and a thug-like Dane back home. As he tries to set a Gandian role model, his son sinks to a simpler, more instinctive response. The “violence and disturbing content” of this movie has earned it an R rating, presumably because the action is realistic. That’s too bad in a way. The moral dilemma presented is one that could well be discussed with teenagers. The film won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe this year for Best Foreign Film. It’s “a tough piece of work, subtle in some ways, obvious in others, viscerally affecting throughout.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
     For something completely different, consider I AM. When pop movie director Tom Shadyak (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; The Nutty Professor) was recuperating from a horrific biking accident, he had an epiphany. Giving up his Pasadena mansion, he set out with a skeletal film crew to ask two questions: What’s wrong with our world and what can we do about it. The answer is embedded in the title of this documentary. Sounds heavy, and it is in a way. But Shadyak’s still a goofy comedy director at heart. Thus we learn not only about the connectedness of symbiotic animals but also how yoghurt can feel your emotions.
     I AM is a New Age documentary, but called to mind Jim Gleick’s brilliant new book The Information, where I learned about quantum computing. Did you know that at the subatomic level two particles can react in concert even though separated by great distance and seemly unconnected with each other? Einstein knew about these “entangled particles,” but even he had no explanation.
     Well Shadyak does. Everything’s connected. We’re all in this world together, and we all should do our part to make the best of it. You and me, Bishop Tutu and Noam Chomsky (whom he interviews)…. and the bowl of yoghurt.
     Comments, please, to

I Am (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

I Am

     Tom Shadyac is a famous comedy director known for hit films "Ace Ventura" and "Bruce Almighty". In 2007, Shadyac experienced a bicycle accident and suffered a concussion. Despite seeming recovery, his symptoms did not go away. He was diagnosed with Post-concussion Syndrome which Shadyac likens to Hell, experiencing months of crippling paralysis and months of self imposed exile, unable to move or travel.
     The documentary "I Am" is a diary of Shadyac's struggle with illness and his quest to make sense of his former life as a somewhat selfish Hollywood director. His self analysis forces him to question society's true intentions. What exactly is the human purpose? And are we as a species, selfish by design?
     This is a weighty question. Some might say it is loaded, despite the film's convincing argument for working together for our collective happiness. For every ten arguments for looking out for our fellow man, there is another ten validating our self interest.
     No matter what side your shadow is cast on, Shadyac makes a valid case for our communal co-operation, interviewing iconic speakers like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Desmond Tutu. These snippet talks are interspersed with familiar shots of New York's Stock Exchange, the movie character Gordon Gekko and luxury shops. At times the movie skips a bit and seems like a channel surfing montage from Al Gore's television. Despite these moments that seem a bit pre-packaged, there is some valid information regarding the nature of kindness and the biology between the heart and the brain. I remain skeptical though, about the ability of our emotions to affect a petri dish of yogurt. Really?!?
     It is Tom Shadyac himself, however, that saves the film from being a mere altruistic infomercial. He is comically nonchalant and heroically deadpan with pratfalls and stumbles. When he returns to his Malibu mansion and shakes his head, Shadyac is a serious silly man, with more karmic comedy that any Jim Carrey can mask.          He is compelling to watch and one wishes for more of him.

Write Ian at

Water for Elephants (Rhoades)

“Water for Elephants” Is a Circus Memory

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

     D’you remember the boyhood excitement of the circus coming to town? The big tents blossoming in the meadow down by the river. A parade with elephants and caged lions and aerialists in spangled costumes marching down Main Street. The clowns handing out balloons to the crowds of children who lined the sidewalks.
     My heart still races at the memory.
     That sense of nostalgia returns to me in “Water for Elephants,” the romantic circus tale that’s come to town at the Tropic Cinema.
     I can almost smell the sawdust, hear the roar of the big cats, taste the popcorn. (Well, of course, I can taste the popcorn here at the movies. But you know what I mean about those childhood memories that revive all those sensory stimuli.)
     The story is told as a remembrance of a very old man (venerable Hal Holbrook), how as a boy he ran away to join the circus – the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Being a veterinary school dropout, he’s put to caring for the animals. But his attention is drawn to the beautiful equestrian star of the Big Top. Ah, young love. If only she weren’t married to the possessive and twisted animal trainer.
     This love triangle surrounds an elephant named Rosie, who is considered untrainable until it’s discovered that she only follows commands in Polish.
     The young Jacob Jankowski is played by Robert Pattinson, last seen biting necks in “Twilight.” But here he’s a 23-year-old drifter who hopped a circus train. The object of his affections is Marlena, charmingly played by legally blonde Reese Witherspoon. And her ferocious husband August Rosenbluth is portrayed by Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz.
     Witherspoon as you’ll recall won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Waltz snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Robert Pattinson is adored by millions of teenage girls, not to mention Kristen Stewart. And Hal Holbrook will forever be Mark Twain in our minds.
     “Water for Elephants” is based on the New York Times Bestseller by Sara Gruen. She originally wrote the book as part of National Novel Writing Month, an annual internet-based creative writing contest that challenges entrants to write a new 50,000-word novel in one month. Guen’s book is loosely based on the Biblical story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. It was her third novel.
     Also “Water for Elephants” is director Francis Lawrence’s third film (he gave us the comic-book-based “Constantine” and the sci-fi thriller “I Am Legend”). However, Lawrence is better known for his lyrical music videos featuring such performers as Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Nine Inch Nails, and Beyoncé.
     “Water for Elephants” is mostly a love story. As Jacob says to Marlena, “You’re a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life.”
     Ah, the memories of a 90-year-old man.
[from Solares Hill]

I Am (Rhoades)

“I Am” Answers Questions About the Meaning of Life
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”
In his new documentary, Hollywood-director-turned-philosopher Tom Shadyac seems to be saying, “I am, therefore I love.”
You may not recognize Shadyac’s name, but you’ve certainly seen his movies – “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Bruce Almighty,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Liar, Liar.” He once had it all: Lots of money, a lavish 17,000-square-foot Los Angeles mansion with a big swimming pool, and a bright future as a director of laugh-your-butt-off comedies.
Then he fell off his bicycle.
The injuries weren’t life threatening. A broken hand. A skinned knee. A bump on the head. But he suffered from post concussion syndrome, a condition of lingering pain, hypersensitivity to light, depression, and general malaise. He felt like he was dying. And at that moment of giving up on life, he had an epiphany. What if he’d been living his life all wrong?
Sure, his was the American dream. Rising above the masses with his success. But what if that was dead wrong? What if man’s true nature was not setting himself apart from other people, but one of connecting to them – heck, maybe even connecting to dogs and apes and trees and grass. Kind of a great cosmic consciousness.
So he decided to do something very different with his life. He dumped the mansion and the fancy car and moved into a trailer park with his bicycle. How could he justify living in luxury when people across the street, across the country, across the border, across the world were in need?
And rather than doing another blockbuster Hollywood comedy, he would do a simple documentary … in fact, this documentary ... in which he tried to answer two big questions that occurred to him when his life was at low ebb:
What’s wrong with the world?
What can we do about it?
This film titled “I Am” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is his journey in search of those answers.
Shadyac visits the world’s top thinkers to pose his questions. These include scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists, and philosophers. Among them you will encounter the Dali Lama, Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Lynn McTaggart, David Suzuki, Elisabet Sahtouris, Thom Hartmann, and even Shadyac’s dad who was co-founder of St. Judes Children Hospital with Danny Thomas.
And he discovers some seemingly common truths. That empathy is a common trait, built into our DNA. That man has a propensity for doing collective good. That there’s a democracy among animals herds. That John Lennon had it right when he sang, “Love is all you need.”
Visually dazzling, “I Am” is a scrapbook of movie clips, sound bites, and interviews that support Shadyac’s thesis. Whether or not he’ll convince you, you’ll enjoy sharing this thoughtful journey that helps him conclude, “I am.”
[from Solares Hill]

In a Better World (Rhoades)

“In a Better World”
Ranks as Best Foreign Film

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

     Don’t be put off by the subtitles, for this Danish drama won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s 83rd Academy Awards. It also scored as Best Foreign Language Film at the 68th Golden Globes.
     “In a Better World” was originally titled “Hævnen,” which in Danish means “The Revenge.”
Here you will see revenge played on two levels – parents and children.
     This duality is also reflected in the film’s locales, as it follows a doctor between his home in an idyllic village in Denmark and a dusty refuge camp in Sudan.
     The cinematography is spectacular, capturing both the dramatic African landscapes and the small town scenes in Scandinavia.
     We first meet Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who shuttles between his troubling life in Denmark and the troubled African country where lives are in his hands.
     His patients are often young women who have fallen victim to a sadistic warlord, a man who bets on the sex of an unborn child, then slices the expectant mother open to determine his win.
     When the warlord is brought to his tent hospital for a leg injury, Anton treats him. But when the doctor sees the warlord’s remorselessness, he turns the man over to villagers who hang him in revenge.
     Meanwhile, back at home, Anton’s twelve-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school until a new friend Christian (William JØhnk Nielsen) comes to his aid with a knife.
     And when his younger son gets into a schoolyard fight, Anton intercedes … only to be slapped by the other boy’s father. How can he prove to his children that he is not a coward?
     Elias and Christian form their own plans for revenge, setting the stage for an explosive ending.
     Director Susanne Bier describes the film as an experiment that explores “how little it really takes before a child – or an adult – thinks something is deeply unjust.” Her conclusion is, as she puts it, “scary.”
[from Solares Hill]

Water for Elephants (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Water for Elephants

     The film adaptation of Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants has come to town with a lush cinematography that remains the best thing in the film. With its glossy circus hues of rich reds, earthy browns, brilliant blues and deep middle grays, its visual impact is a hypnotic mixture of a Thomas Hart Benton painting and a glossy Vanity Fair spread. It presents a Pop version of circus history. On a visual level, it succeeds.
     The plot concerns an ambitious young college student (Robert Pattinson) and his attraction to the circus after the death of his parents in a car accident.  College boy Jacob hops a train and confronts a batch of hobos, who don't seem very hobo-like. Even their pants and shirts betray a newness despite holes and smudges. Most of the men look muscular and buff. The men decide to take it easy on Jacob. And it turns out the train is actually a traveling circus, belonging to the Benzini Brothers. 
     Jacob is immediately star struck by the main attraction. Of course it is the ravishing and blonde Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Jacob manages to ingratiate himself with the proper melting eyes (remember this is the former Romeo from "Twilight") and gets a job as a vet. He becomes more and more enamored of Marlena. There is only one gremlin in this romance; Marlena is married to August, the authoritarian and abusive ringmaster (Christoph Waltz). Waltz,  famous for his menacing role in "Inglorious Basterds" is just as monstrous in this role. Indeed his festive red coat might just as well be a deaths-head SS uniform. Waltz is a fine actor. No one in current cinema portrays the detachment of violence so well with a pulp richness, but I found little imagination in his role. 
     When he zealously tortures the elephant and assaults his wife, he seems just another Tarrantino-tossed Nazi. My favorite part of the film is when the animals escape and wreak havoc on the circus company---a doomed ship. 
     The film is handsomely produced and richly told. Pattinson and Witherspoon are appropriately valentined. It is safe, family fare. The tent is just too flat. Real circuses possess an eerie drama. This film is a "Titanic" with greasepaint and I expected a little more bang. 
Write Ian at 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In A Better World (Wanous)


Pat ending, but film still makes you think


     The gripping "In a Better World" from Danish director Susanne Bier won both this year's Academy Award and Golden Globe for best foreign picture. And like Bier's first English-language effort, 2007's under-rated "Things We Lost in the Fire," this movie features serious themes supported by excellent performances.
     The original Danish title is "Haevnen" which translates to "Revenge," to me a more appropriate title than "In a Better World." Shaky marriages, absent fathers and pent-up anger are woven into two parallel stories, one set in Africa, the other in Denmark.
     You may recognize Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), Christian's father, from "Duplicity" and "Hitman," while most of the other characters will probably be unfamiliar faces. But everyone in the cast, especially young William Johnk Nielsen as Christian, hits just the right tone to underscore the accumulating tension in the film.
The Danish story begins with a boy being bullied at school and a newly arrived transfer student who stands up for him, which forms a bond between them that will be sorely tested. The bullying continues but spreads beyond the schoolyard and into the adult world.
     The fathers of both boys are absent at crucial times and slowly but surely, the escalating confrontations, a hidden knife and an off-limits rooftop set the stage for impending disaster.
     The African tale takes place in a peaceful village, where the physician-father of the bullied boy staffs a free medical clinic for refugees. The village setting, where the children play games and patients calmly wait to see the doctor, seem just a little too tranquil. It reminds me of those old war movies in which one GI whispers from his foxhole: "You know, it's awfully quiet out there," and another GI answers: "Yeah, too quiet."
You just know something bad is going to happen.
     The African narrative, which unnecessarily weakens the film, ends somewhat predictably, the way good versus evil in Hollywood usually ends. But the Danish story concludes in an unexpected manner.
The forbidden roof, the increasingly explosive violence and a mother's implausible lie send the plot in the direction that's been hinted at since early in the film. And while director Bier leads us right to the edge, is she willing to make us jump?
     "In a Better World" poses questions about violence and its aftermath but leaves us to draw our own conclusions. I was struck by the fact that the African children are happily playing soccer throughout most of the film. But near the end, they are playfully fighting each other, using sticks as swords. Which poses another question: Is that the natural order of things or was it influenced by what the children have witnessed?
The sudden outbursts of hostility, the somber music and the even-more somber faces of the characters all combine to give "In a Better World" a sense of dread that lasts through much of the film.
     Even with the uneven script and the pat endings, I recommend the movie but with this caveat: You may find yourself on the edge of your seat, in breathless anticipation of the expected tragedy.

Write Craig at
[from the Keynoter -] 

In a Better World (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

In a Better World

    Suzanne Bier's Academy Award-winning film "In a Better World" is a meditation on friendship, violence and the violence of friendship. Although it is a film of emotions, the importance of setting should not be overlooked. Its crystal clear yet painterly cinematography rivals the work of Tanguy, Magritte or even a sun-stroked Vermeer. It is a visual interpretation of the kind of cultural eeriness seen in the work of Paul Bowles: How far should anger go? And what is the price of friendship?
    The film stars Mikael Persbrandt as Anton, a Swedish doctor who deals with healing near- death injuries in Sudan. He stitches up one bleeding stomach after another. Through it all, Anton is affable and goodnatured.
The doctor's son (Markus Rygaard) is plagued by violent bullies. One day, a seemingly handsome and pleasant boy, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) sticks up for the quiet boy. But this is no feel-good "Karate Kid". All is not well. When the bully doesn't give up, Christian follows him to the restroom and beats him to a pulp with a tiny terror intensity that only little Damien would enjoy. There is bashing and blood with a pump and a knife. All three troubled dears are brought into the school office and they are let go after questioning. Christian and the victimized boy are friends for life.
    Then, on a seaside outing, the doctor is assaulted in front of his kids for no explicable reason by an ape like xenophobic Lars (Kim Bodnia). The doctor, wanting to show that defiance is stronger than fear, confronts Lars at his garage. Lars resumes the beating, but the doctor does not retreat.
Christian becomes incensed and driven and begins to hatch a plan of revenge that becomes psychotic in its solitude and determination. He cannot leave an unjust moment, unadjusted, even in violence. Christian, for several days becomes a real-life tiny terrorist--a little Damien without the supernatural pageantry, an Edward Gorey illustration without the inky punch-line. Christian's face is ashen and shadowed. The boy means business, consumed by his mother's unfair death from cancer and a father distant with euphemisms. The grown boy is fed up.
    Rather than submerge into a soap opera mentality, the film retains its objective lens. This is life as is. Within the square houses of Denmark, there is a jungle and it is the human heart. Tortured souls do not fit squarely inside Ikea furniture. The only eye we are under is a glaring one of blue--the empty sky.
    The Danish word for the film is Haevnen. Although this translates into "The Revenge", yet I can't help thinking that the word is similar to the English Heaven. The only heaven that there is, I believe, is in the immediate earthly moment as we live out each day, either through acceptance of our human frailties or anger.
This film, coupled with a pair of human eyes, will offer that choice.

Write Ian at

Monday, May 16, 2011

Week of May 13 to May 19 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

     Amazing! Two buzz-worthy literary adaptations in one week, both from books written by strong, survivor women.
     JANE EYRE is said to be the 28th cinema version of this Gothic novel from Charlotte Brontë, originally published in 1847. We’ve had Orson Welles as Rochester, the overbearing Lord of the Manor; with Joan Fontaine as Jane, the struggling orphan of indomitable fortitude. We’ve had William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The Rochester figure has been captured by Charlton Heston, George C. Scott, and even Timothy Dalton in his pre-James Bond days.
     This time Michael Fassbender (300, Inglourius Basterds, Fish Tank) is an excellent Rochester, but the soul of the movie is Mia Wasikowska, fresh from Alice in Wonderland and now Jane in the Yorkshire moors. “Do you think that because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong…” says Jane, straight from the page to the screen. The novel was originally published as a faux “autobiography,” but much of the story is derived from Charlotte’s own life, including the physical description of Jane and her travails at a Dickensian boarding school. And Mia looks strikingly like pictures of the author, so we finally have a Charlotte look-a-like portraying the Charlotte life-a-like character of Jane.
     The most surprising element of the movie is the director, Cary Fukunaga, a 33-year-old American of half-Japanese decent. This is only his second movie, after the Central American immigrant saga Sin Nombre, but he has mastered the Victorian Gothic look and feel essential to any Brontë movie. It “very likely surpassed all previous cinematic versions of "Jane Eyre." … it's also a cold, wild story about destruction, madness and loss, and this movie captures its divided spirit like none before." (
     ATLAS SHRUGGED has never been seen on the screen before, having spent decades in development hell since its publication in 1957. It’s certainly not for want of interest, since author Ayn Rand’s cult of objectivism is much in vogue and has followers, like Alan Greenspan, in high places. The 1949 film of her first novel, The Fountainhead, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal has become a classic. But this sprawling 1000+ page book which is as much a tract of political philosophy as a romance novel, had defeated all Hollywood’s efforts, until now. Word has it that the current producers’ option would run out unless they got the movie released by next month. There’s nothing like a deadline to bring decades of labor to fruition.
     The movie, which traverses only the first third of Rand’s novel, is set in 2016. The United States has become the Tea Party’s worst dream, with a Socialist government running everything. The female hero, Dagny Taggart, is a railroad executive whose efforts at modernizing her empire are thwarted by government regulation. You see why this is seen as prophetic in certain quarters. (Although there’s a little disconnect in the fact that her goal is flashy high-speed rail that seems oddly akin to the 2011 government project just torpedoed by Rick Scott.)
     This is a love it or hate movie that has generated the widest split in Rotten Tomatoes ratings I have ever seen, with a 13% from critics (“An eye-rollingly clumsy amble through a Middle Earth of Monopolists” – Orlando Sentinel) and an 82% from viewers (“Fantastic film…). I guess you’ll have to see it to decide for yourself. Meanwhile writer-producer John Aglialoro is contemplating Parts II and III, which will carry the story to the establishment of a Randian utopia (dystopia?).
     On the Special Events calendar Maurizio Nardi returns to the Tropic’s Carper Theater stage with his summer dance festival on Thursday (encore on Friday).
     Comments, please to

Jane Eyre (Rhoades)

“Jane Eyre” Retells Classic Brontë’s Tale 
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As any English Lit major can tell you, “Jane Eyre” is an “influential feminist text” written in 1847 under a pseudonym by Charlotte Brontë, the eldest of the three sisters whose assorted novels are mainstays in college literature classes.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne published a joint collection of poetry under the assumed names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two copies were sold.
Charlotte then tried writing a couple of novels, using the same pen name – Currer Bell – “assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’.”
“Jane Eyre” was a first-person narrative about an orphan who eventually becomes governess to a young girl at Thornfield Hall, the estate owned by a handsome man named Edward Rochester. She falls in love with Rochester, only to discover that he is already married to a crazy lady who often tries to burn the place down. Standing on her principles, Jane refuses to live with him and exiles herself until that time they can be reunited.
You may be fond of the 1944 film “Jane Eyre,” which stars Joan Fontayne as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester. That’s not the version that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.
This new version of Charlotte Brontë’s romantic drama stars young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska as Jane and German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender as Rochester.
You’ve seen Mia as the title character in Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland” and as the daughter in “The Kids Are All Right,” that delightful comedy executive produced by Key West’s own Anne O’Shea.
Fassbender you will be seeing soon in Marvel Comic’s summer blockbuster, “X-Men: First Class.” You may also remember him from HBO’s miniseries, “Band of Brothers.”
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga wanted to capture the “spookiness that plagues the entire story.” He notes, “There’s been something like 24 adaptations, and it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides. They treat it like it’s just a period romance, and I think it’s much more than that.”
Yes, “Jane Eyre” is a great Gothic novel, a “tale of woe,” a declaration of a young woman’s indomitable spirit. It’s a tale of love and longing beautifully translated to the screen.
The film opens with our heroine fleeing Thornfield Hall after discovering Rochester’s dark secret. The story is largely presented by way of flashbacks. Mia Wasikowska’s performance reflects Jane’s lonely life and the longing for romance.
The cinematography pictures the isolated environment, stark locations shot in a painterly fashion. Derbyshire’s Haddon Hall fills in as Thornfield, a manse shrouded in mystery. Its brooding masculine feel reflects the times, when a young woman must struggle to find her place in the world. Or a female writer must use a male pseudonym to be taken seriously.
 [from Solares Hill]

Atlas Shrugged (Rhoades)

“Atlas Shrugged” Carries
World On Its Shoulders

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I used to work with a woman who read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand and became a follower of Rand’s Objectivism philosophy. My friend described it as a “be selfish” viewpoint. She quoted Rand and her chief guru Nathaniel Branden to anyone who would listen. Eventually she dumped her sluggish husband, got a bouncy blonde coiffure, started dressing like a fashionista, and became more outgoing. She transformed herself from a mousy proofreader to a star reporter – “a caterpillar into a butterfly,” we said at the time.
So I guess Ayn Rand’s philosophy works.
Last I heard, my friend was in California now giving Primal Scream Therapy a try.
“Atlas Shrugged” told the story of a dystopian world where intelligentsia refused to be exploited by society. The theme is that a civilization where innovators are not free to create is doomed. Published in 1957, it was Rand’s fourth (and last) novel, considered to be her magnum opus.
This new movie version – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – stars Taylor Schilling as railway maven Dagny Taggert and Grant Bowler as steel manufacturer Hank Rearden. Paul Johansson is the shadowy John Galt who ultimately will lead a strike that results in “stopping the motor of the world.”
Directed by Paul Johansson himself, this film is actually titled “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” because it covers only the first part of the 1,368-page novel. It is planned to be the first film in a trilogy.
The essential drama is Dagny and Hank’s joint effort to build her railroad using his steel, despite all the opposition they encounter.
An equally interesting story is the 40-year struggle to get a film made of “Atlas Shrugged,” despite the opposition it encounters. The project was first initiated in 1975. There were a number of mishaps – mainly Ayn Rand and her heir Leonard Peikoff insisting on maintaining creative control. Finally, in 1992, John Aglialoro bought an option to produce the film, paying Peikoff over $1 million for full creative control. With the 18-year option to the films rights about to expire on June 15, 2010, Aglialoro began principal photography on June 13, 2010, barely managing to retain the rights.
Hmm, this must be another instance of society not allowing innovators the freedom to be creative.
[from Solares Hill]