Saturday, July 30, 2011

Week of July 29 to August 4 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Here’s a movie that everyone loves: BEGINNERS. Christopher Plummer (last seen at the Tropic as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station) and Ewan McGregor (recently seen as the title character in both The Ghost Writer and I Love You Phillip Morris) join their talents as a father and son rediscovering each other at a late stage of life. The father is 75 and widowed, when he suddenly announces to his son, age 38, that he is gay… and has terminal cancer.

I know, the plot doesn’t sound promising. But in the hands of these master actors, you are drawn to their story as the father and son, in extremis, form a bond that they could never forge in better times, and change the son forever. “A sad, sweet, funny and ultimately unforgettable love story about a man and a woman and a father and son, and also ranks among the most affectionate and sensitive portraits of homosexuality ever crafted by a straight person.” (

The power of CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, doesn’t come from plot or character, because there is none. Rather it is our sense of amazement that captivates us. Director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) obtained unique permission to take cameras into the ancient caves at Chauvet in Southern France to photograph the remarkable paintings on the walls. The artistic quality of some of these depictions of animals would rank the unknown illustrator with any contemporary painter. Yet the images are as much as 32,000 years old, and the artists from a preliterate, prehistoric world that seems impossibly removed from ours. To all the definitions of the essential differences between man and other creatures, we might add: the ability to make art. In any event, this will be your only opportunity to see these paintings, because the caves are not regularly open to the public, and are available even to scholars only for limited periods each year. A “cinematic mind trip that blows you away.” (New York Daily News)

The art in CARS 2 is a little bit more recent, and of course the creatures depicted are mechanical rather than horses and woolly mammoths. I read somewhere that the artistic breakthrough in the original Cars, maintained in this sequel, was to move the vehicles’s eyes from the headlights, where you might intuitively expect to find them, up to in the windshields, giving them a more human-like visage. Would you say that this cinema art shows the advance of humanity over 320 centuries? Well, that’s not the point is it? Summertime is for kids, too. Let them enjoy this “this lightning-paced caper-comedy [that] shifts the franchise into high gear with international intrigue.” (

PAGE ONE, LARRY CROWNE, BAD TEACHER, and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS are held over, all probably for the last week. Fair warning.

Now that we’re in August, the Monday Summer of Fun Movie Classics is shifting themes, to Murder and Mayhem. First up is THE EVIL DEAD (1981), the directorial debut of Sam Rami (Spiderman 1,2,3 and Drag Me to Hell). Do you like guys chopping up their girlfriends with axes, trees raping women, and horribly possessed demons? Then queue up on Monday night for this cult classic. You know who you are.

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

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Wanous)

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams"
by Craig Wanous

Art has always been a part of human history and cave drawings are some of mankind's oldest creative expressions. The subject of the documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" contains the oldest cave paintings ever found, dating from 32,000 years ago, nearly twice as old as the next oldest cave art.

Only recently discovered in 1994, the main entrance to the Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave in France was fortuitously sealed by a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, thus preserving the marvelous illustrations for thousands of years.

Named after one of its discoverers, the entrance to Chauvet cave is guarded by a massive steel door and admittance is highly restricted. Director Werner Herzog was granted unusual access to make the film, but had to work under tightly controlled conditions.

He was limited to four crew members, with only battery-powered fluorescent lamps for lighting. And the filmmakers were constrained to a two-foot wide walkway in the cave. They were not allowed to touch anything and if a crew member had to leave for any reason, they all had to leave and shooting would be over for the day.

But once inside, all that is forgotten. The drawings on the cave walls are magnificent. The bold strokes, flowing lines and realistic renderings could be shown in any modern gallery. Near the entrance, there is a cluster of red handprints, all made by one person, a forever-unknown artist with a deformed little finger. Deeper in the cave, that same crooked finger shows up again, almost as if the viewer is following the artist into the darkness.

Horses, bears, lions, wolves, rhinos, and other animals are prominently depicted everywhere in Chauvet cave. Even odd-shaped stalactites have artwork on them. There are burn marks on the walls where flaming torches have been rubbed. And some of the drawings have even answered questions about an extinct cave lion, whose appearance has been debated for years.

Paw prints, bones, skulls and even pieces of primitive musical instruments are scattered throughout the cave, as is the world's longest trail of cave bear tracks. There are bear claw scratches on top of paintings and paintings on top of claw marks. Some overlapping drawings were drawn as much as 5,000 years apart.

This has all been preserved in the sealed cave by the slow, millennia-long accumulation of calcite and concretions. But strangely, there is not a single drawing of a complete human form anywhere in the cave.

Herzog, is an acclaimed filmmaker with several award-winning movies to his credit, including a previous documentary, "Grizzly Man", and the film "Rescue Dawn", with Christian Bale. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is receiving rave reviews and will likely garner more award nominations for Herzog.

While the scenes inside the cave are mesmerizing and the art is stunning, when the focus moves away from the art itself, the movie tends to drag. Some of the interviews are too academic, off-target and overly long. And Herzog's voiceover sometimes gets a little esoteric, including the line from which the title is derived - "These images are memories of long forgotten dreams." Huh?

I also found the screeching, discordant soundtrack a bit distracting. And the postscript about atomic energy and albino crocodiles is simply bizarre, having little or nothing to do with the art and more to do with the director's views on nuclear power.

But overlooking those minor faults, I do recommend "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." This is a window into humanity's distant past, offering us a fascinating glimpse of the dangerous world in which our ancient ancestors lived. And the art is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring that it really should be seen on the big screen.

Since it probably won't have a long theater run, I urge you to catch it at the Tropic while you can. I was moved by the film and came out of the theater with a renewed sense of optimism. Surely, hopefully, any species capable of such beauty and artistic vision at its earliest beginnings cannot be all bad.

Write Craig at
[from the Keynoter -]

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's new documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" may be the most entertaining history show that you will ever see. It focuses on the Chauvet Cave in Southern France which contains the earliest cave paintings ever known, produced some 38,000 years ago. Just the opening shot of four modern humans looking like terra-cotta soldiers gingerly walking into a Paleolithic era as you hear Herzog's hypnotically charged voiceover will have you wanting more.

Herzog was given access with very strict guidelines to film inside the cave. Special shoes and suits had to be worn under the rule that nothing be touched. The exploratory men look like miners from another dimension, going back in time with their miniature cameras. The scholars, including Herzog himself, stand aghast like grown children. It is almost like the film "Super 8" upside down: these men armed with their small but advanced recorders want to re-imagine the perfect Paleolithic moment, to get anything they can on film.

And when they arrive what a sight it is. Stalactites hang down in huge formations creating pink womb enclosures. Sparkling sediment coats huge areas of wall while the floors are encrusted with calcified bone, be it bear, bird, rhino or wolf. This cave would make Salvador Dali's tongue salivate in pink frescoes of rivalry. But any Surrealist painting would be a poor study in matching the grandeur of this scene. The Chauvet cave does not merely look surreal, it is Surrealism itself: the curving walls, the illusion of movement, the sense that the 38,000 year painting of an animal sexually thrusting upon a female human, could have been painted by Picasso. Once inside the cave, the concept of Surrealism seems old news. The paintings become the original Brut in Art Brut.

Back at the lab, artists and archeologists toil feverishly, a bit like CSI. They work in vain in attempts to discover every bump and bruise, every stipple and scratch. To their delight, the experts deduce that the scratches were made by a bear. And then a tall man added a painting on top of the bear-scratching. Aha! The first inter-species collaboration!

The cave paintings are provocative enough but with the topping of Herzog's comments, we are put firmly in the realm of the Intense and even the comic. Herzog's voice, although dramatic is never distracting. He knows when to hush around the cave corners, listening to heartbeats---his own and the beat of the camera as it moves slowly like a jellyfish recording an ocean off limits.
Like the cave paintings that may have been overlapped upon and added by others decades and decades later, Herzog puts his own narrative stroke on the Chauvet cave with a visit from an eccentric expert and some exotic fauna.

But seeing is believing, so I'll say no more.
Write Ian at

Beginners (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Beginners" the new comedy drama by Mike Mills hits all the right notes of an indie film so predictably that it seems as formulaic and satisfying as a Starbucks coffee. Indeed, we have a curious body of a film with a rich texture, authentic characters and a cinematography appropriately frappacino-colored in soothing (if distracting) tones. But it is a little too familiar. A bit like a Noah Baumbach brewhaha with very appropriately subtle ha-has, well made and acted. I just expected a bit more.

The film stars Ewan Mcgregor as Oliver, a commercial illustrator who is depressed over the death of his father. His father, a likable sort (Christopher Plummer) is trapped in a joyless 9 to 5 marriage. At 73, after the mother passes away, the father comes out of the closet with a great sense of verve and relief. The father is cheerful and full of bravado. But Oliver remains in a rut. Through much of the movie he wears a face of subtle or pained sadness. And yes, the death of a parent from cancer or from anything, is one of the most painful and abrupt things that we ever have to face. But unless I missed something, Oliver just didn't seem happy at all with his father at any time. And shouldn't he have been? As his dad finds romantic happiness at 73? Oliver's gloom through a good half of the film frankly puzzled me. This seasonally challenged mood together with the sepia cinematography is a bit much.

Despite Oliver being a gloomy Gus he takes in his dad's dog, a telepathic terrier (yes I said telepathic) and cries silently at his desk while doodling a History of Sadness for a rock band. I liked the artwork. These lively illustrations coupled with the manic montages of iconic events from Suburbia to life in the 50s, to gay rights are some of the best in the film. These sequences give the film a satisfactory punch, vitally needed.

Oliver's life picks up. Or at least it should have. He meets Anna, a predictable bohemian French actress (Melanie Laurent) and they hit it off. Or do they? Despite this romantic fortune, Oliver still seems weighted down. Yikes. Then Anna starts crying.

The only character that seems to have any fun in the film is Oliver's father and the role could not have gone to a better man. Veteran actor Christopher Plummer keeps just the right mix between paternal worry, a disdain for convention and joie de vivre. There is not a false note in his performance. And even Oliver, for all his perpetual sadness is drawn with authenticity and heart. I just didn't comprehend all the melancholia.

"Beginners" is well acted and sure to please admirers of the indie crowd. But I craved to feel more range in the characters as they faced their challenges. The film is so artfully decorated in a low-grade depression, not all that depressing. It is a mumblecore for mumblecore's sake.
In real life, new beginnings are not so needlessly brown, nor so mumbling or sentimental.

Write Ian at

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beginners (Rhoades)

“Beginners” Was True New Beginning
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I used to have an apartment on Cooper Square in New York City, just across the street from the Cooper Union building. That’s the art college that filmmaker Mike Mills graduated from. Likely he drank two-for-one beers along side me at nearby McSorley’s Tavern, ate pizza next to me on St. Marks Place, and bought used magazines beside me on Astor Place.

After Mills graduated he worked as a graphic designer, producing album covers for Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and Dirty Ol’ Bastard. That led to directing music videos for Yoko Ono, Moby, and Air.

His first feature film was called “Thumbsucker,” a comedy about a teen who tries to cure his oral-digital problem with hypnosis, sex, and drugs.

Now Mills is back with “Beginners,” an autobiographical film about a graphic designer (played by Ewan McGregor) who discovers two startling facts about his 75-year-old dad (Christopher Plummer): That he is gay and has a terminal illness.

You see, Mills’ father came out of the closet at age 75 after 40 years of heterosexual marriage and died a few years later. Mills says his father enjoyed “five very intense, brand-new years of being gay and being very free.”

He adds, “OK, so my parents were married in 1955 and my mom knew my dad was gay and my dad knew he was gay and so I was, like, 'Why in the heck did you get married?' Like, what was going on? What was that time? It's like this crazy paradox that my whole life is based on, or my family's based on. So I spent a lot of time trying to understand ’55.”

Sticking to real time, Mills’s film is a period piece. He uses still-image montages that juxtapose clippings from Look magazine with photos from Mills' family albums to recreate 1955. “That’s kind of a by-product of me being a graphic designer as much as I am a filmmaker,” he says of the technique.

Was “Beginners” a therapeutic way of dealing with this revelation about his father? “No,” he says, “I didn’t set out to make a memoir, or a therapy piece. I meant it to be a story. My dad coming out is an incredible story. For me, it’s the perfect story.”

“My film is pretty autobiographical,” Mills admits. “There is a lot of true stuff about my dad, lots of facts. He really did have tattoos on his chest from the radiation registration, for example, and it’s in the movie.”

Hm, I wonder if Mills also sucked his thumb?
[from Solares Hill]

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Rhoades)

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Is Prehistoric Sistine Chapel
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Years ago, driving through France, I made a side trip to visit Lascaux, the cavern that’s like a gallery for prehistoric art. Discovered in 1940, the walls of the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Shaft of the Dead Man. the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of Felines are decorated with paintings that give us an insight to life of early man. Unfortunately for me, it was closed to tourists. Carbon dioxide from visitors was damaging the paintings.

Now, another cave filled with prehistoric art – even older – has been discovered in Southern France. The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is located within the limestone cliffs above the winding Ardèche River. About 400 meters long, with vast chambers, it was first explored in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet and two speleologist friends. The walls of Chauvet cave are covered with images of lions, hyenas, bears, and rhinoceros – perhaps the oldest paintings in the world. Based on radiocarbon dating these paintings go back to 32,000 BP. The cave’s floor is littered with 150 cave bear skeletons, and its soft clay still holds the imprint of human feet.

And no, visitors (other than archeologist types) are not allowed beyond the thick metal door that closes off Chauvet to the outside world.

With one exception.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”) and a small crew were allowed inside the caverns for a few hours to document the Upper Paleolithic paintings that decorate its walls. Herzog is an important figure in the New German Cinema. He was once called “the most important film director alive” by François Truffaut.
Herzog’s opus is titled “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” His cameras probe nooks and crannies of Chauvet where images of lions prowl, linger lovingly on the broad friezes where painted horses gallop, zoom in to examine the handprints stenciled on the walls next to pointy horned rhinos. He acts as narrator, explaining the findings inside the cave, describing the charcoal and red ochre drawings, pointing his lights into dark corners.

The paintings are exquisite, the horses as well crafted as a sketch by Michelangelo or DaVinci. The cave walls take on the magnificence of a prehistoric Sistine Chapel.
Yes, you can join Werner Herzog’s unique tour – “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” – this week at the Tropic Cinema.

You might think a documentary that merely trains its cameras on paintings inside a dusty old cave would be about as exciting as watching paint dry. But the paint dried here over 30,000 years ago and the experience is mesmerizing. It held my attention from the moment Herzog led us into the cave’s entrance to the moment we saw sunlight again.
[from Solares Hill)

Cars 2 (Rhoades)

“Cars 2” Is Up to Speed
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Thanks, Henry Ford. We’re a nation obsessed by cars. Adults own them for transportation, for status, for the thrill of driving, for the privilege of paying $4 a gallon at the tanks.
Even kids are obsessed with cars from the time they’re buckled into the safety of a car seat to the time that a hormones-raging teenager asks to borrow dad’s car.

In between, youngsters have plenty of toy cars to hold their attention – die-cast Matchbox cars and sturdy Tonka trucks and fast Hot Wheels racers and extra-large Bruder vehicles and Playskool’s playful Chuck My Talking Truck and even Hasbro’s Transformer Chevy that turns into a robotic alien called Bumblebee.

And now we have a return of Disney’s Pixar cars, plastic replicas of those anthropomorphic automobiles from the movie “Cars 2.” This new computer animated comedy adventure is currently revving its engines at the Tropic Cinema.

“Cars 2” is, of course, a sequel to that popular 2006 Pixar film of the same name.
This time around, racecar Lightning McQueen and a tow truck named Mater head abroad to compete in the World Grand Prix, but Mater gets sidetracked with some silly cloak-and-dagger shenanigans.

Owen Wilson (you just saw him in the new Woody Allen film) provides the voice of Lightning McQueen. And Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Lawrence Whitney) speaks for the tow truck.

Pixar began in 1979 as part of the Computer Division at LucasFilm before then-ousted Apple co-founder Steve Jobs acquired it in 1986. The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion, making Jobs the largest shareholder in Disney.

And considering that Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion a couple years ago, you could stretch the point and say Jobs “owns” the comic book company and all those superhero movies. So with “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and now “Cars 2,” you might say Steve Jobs owns the summer’s movie screens.

“Cars 2” should be a big hit with the kiddy set.

But it makes me wonder, if cars and movies are such a popular combination, whatever happened to drive-in movies?
[from Solares Hill)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Week of July 22 to July 28 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Newspapers may be in trouble, from the public’s rising inclination to get news through alternative sources, to the press’s own self-inflicted wounds like those wracking Murdoch’s empire. What’s a newshound to do? The Tropic’s got an answer for you. Check out PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, the new documentary set in the newsroom of the great Grey Lady. Granted broad entree to reporters, editors, and their meetings – what the filmmakers call “unprecedented access” – documentarian Andrew Rossi prowled the newsroom. Wisely focusing on a couple of reporters, especially David Carr and Brian Stelter who cover media, he tells a story while also giving us the scent of the place.

If you’re someone like me, for whom reading the daily Times is a rite of passage into the day, this is a sure don’t miss. It adds a new dimension to my reading to be able to know some of the personalities behind the bylines. But even those less addicted can take interest in how this most important of the world’s newspapers works at this critical juncture in its history. “The precariousness of keeping that enterprise going makes for a great story — one that all surviving newspapers, not just the Times, are still writing.” (

What else do we have in store for you? You like movie stars? How about Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts? In LARRY CROWNE, Tom is in his nice guy mode, sort of a grown-up version of his character in Big or a sharper version of Forrest Gump. This time he’s a guy laid off from his job at “U-Mart” for lacking a college degree. Being a positive thinker, he enrolls at the local community college and finds himself in a communications class taught by Julia. Tom Hanks directs himself in this movie, which he also co-wrote with Nia Vardelos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. Recommended for fans of that film. The “characters and their dilemmas stay with you. These days, any of us could suddenly be Larry Crowne.” (Miami Herald)

Or how about Cameron Diaz? She’s the title character in BAD TEACHER, a comedy about a 7th grade teacher with a heart of gold… digging. It’s probably worth a trip to the cinema just to see Cameron sitting up there on a desk at the front of the classroom, in a short skirt with her legs crossed. It’s a way to get the class to pay attention. But that’s not her goal. She just wants to land a rich husband, or get money for a boob job that will enhance her charms. Maybe she should get a job as a school administrator down here. Anyhow, it’s “a raucous, cynical comedy.” (Wall St. Journal)

Summer of Fun Classics continues this Monday with GREMLINS (1985), winner of the Best Horror Film Award from the folks who give that out. “The whole movie is a sly series of sendups,… a sophisticated, witty B movie, in which the monsters are devouring not only the defenseless town, but decades of defenseless clichés” says Roger Ebert. Sounds perfect to me.

Holdover runs of TREE OF LIFE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and SUPER 8 round out the schedule.

And Saturday evening features a special screening of Hemingway’s ultimate fishing story about a man who tried to land the big one, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Spencer Tracy stars, and it’s all a fund raiser for HelpLine, Monroe County’s 24 hour telephone crisis and information hotline. With programs ranging from suicide prevention to helping elders avoid falls, it’s a vital community resource. They’ll be gathering in the Sussman Lounge for a silent auction at 7pm, followed by the movie at 8pm.

By the way, don’t miss the chance to furnish your room with movie posters! The Tropic is selling off all its old posters for five bucks each. Check out the selection in the lobby.

Comments, please, to

Page One (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Page One: Inside the New York Times

As the camera opens, newspapers are being shuffled out in a spacious warehouse that looks a bit like a hangar belonging to a giant spacecraft. Then, crisp white pages are sorted and hung upside down resembling fresh cotton sheets. Shiny white trucks pull in looking like milk trucks. No, this is not the opening to the cult film "O Lucky Man!" or a scene from Stanley Kubrick's "2001", this is the start of "Page One: Inside the New York Times". And in a sense the trucks are delivering a kind of mother's milk: a daily paper that has set the standard for decades and the singular paper that still remains the paper par excellence for many in the Western World, despite scandals and allegations of erroneous reporting at the start of the Iraq War.

"Page One" is about The New York Times and how it is striving to adapt to the changing cyber realm of news and how it is packaged. During the Nixon years, The Times was a pinnacle of free press. The publication was an illuminating tool during Watergate. One almost gets the sense that it was almost superhuman in its duty to report the news objectively, to tell America what was going on, or what sneaky things were afoot before any other source. And indeed, it was. It sounds a bit like Batman to me: a Fortress of Truth with the gargoyle busts of Edward R. Murrow on the ledges for protection.The old films of the newsroom does show men in white shirts and black ties working around the clock, smoking and going to and fro. These are folks that probably didn't sleep much, drinking Nixon's crimes like so much caffeine.

Decades after that heady heyday, the New York Times credibility slipped with false intelligence sources regarding Judith Miller and the plagarism scandal of 2003 by Jayson Blair. In 2007, The New York Times computers jittered with the news of buyouts of The Tribune. Was this the beginning of the end for printed news?

"Page One" does a fine job of interspersing office life with the existential limbo of the moment, although except for David Carr, who is thankfully unapologetic and outspoken in opinion, these reporters don't offer much juicy detail. You do get the sense that these guys still do stay up all night to break that one hot story, the story that will put the fear of closing to rest.

The standout remains David Carr who as an ex-alcoholic and crack user is like a character out of Robert Crumb or Charles Bukowski and sung by Tom Waits. Dressed in an old tweed coat and scarf, he is leery of the new technology. He might look at an IPad as if it were a faceless creature from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, with no good news for anybody. Carr regards Twitter as unnecessary chatter, at least initially. Then he decides to just go with it.

The character portrait of Carr gives this film a much needed colorful voice. Coupled with noirish music, this documentary almost achieves some apprehensive tension. It is not sustained throughout, but it is there--a tone of anxiety. The question of What If The Times Closes?
Oddly I'm thinking of the Warholian figure of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. With his shock of silver hair, he is an eerie cyber-pop manipulator of video footage. A few years ago, he put The New York Times back on the map. But, will the use of Internet news, by himself and others, be the undoing of this historic bastion yet?

We all must stop, listen and keep reading as much as we can. The New York Times on paper is a tactile pleasure. Its inimitable touch should not be lost.

Wite Ian at

Page One (Rhoades)

“Page One” Is Making News

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My wife used to work for the New York Times Company – and I attended several gatherings and company retreats with her – so we were eager to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” the new documentary that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Yes, we recognized several familiar figures, like NYT chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. (who does not like to be called “Pinch”), and noted the names of friends on the credits, like advertising columnist Stuart Elliott. Old home week, you might say.

For this documentary, director-producer-cameraman Andrew Rossi was granted unprecedented access to the Times’s newsroom, and spent a year following around staffers of the paper’s Media Desk. These are the reporters tasked with reporting on the changing face of media, including the Times itself.

As one New York Times exec described it, these as “interesting times” in the old Chinese proverb sense. And he’s right. Rossi picked a momentous period in the Times’s 160-year history to document. We witness the precipitous drop-off in advertising revenue, the onslaught of online news blogs and aggregators, the layoff and forced retirement of 100 New York Times staffers, the publication of Wikileaks revelations, its brave reporting of the demise of the Tribune Company after a take-over by non-news businessmen, the decision to add a paywall to the NYT’s website, the Times facing the threat of bankruptcy, and trying to divine its own fuzzy future.

David Carr is the de facto hero of this piece, a New York Times columnist who focuses on media issues including print, digital, film, radio and television. This hunched-over, world-weary, but fiercely intelligent reporter serves as an unlikely Don Quixote whose windmills may be real dragons. Wunderkind media reporter Brian Selter serves as an apt Sancho Panza, supporting Carr’s quest to make heads-or-tails of the shifting media landscape.

David Carr is quite an interesting character. A cocaine addict turned journalist, this “very human” man tilts with those who would question the value of on-the-ground news reporting or the consequences of not having a New York Times. Here we watch him take on the self-aggrandizing editor of Vice magazine and sexually inappropriate then-CEO of the Tribune Company with equal righteousness.

In “Page One” you’ll hear from Washington Post legend Carl Bernstein, Wikileaks activist Julian Assange, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, billionaire dabbler Sam Zell, and Gay Talese, author of “The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World.”

While “Page One” never resolves those issues about the future of news media (no one can), or the ongoing role of the “Gray Lady,” it does pose an even more important question: the value of journalism in a free society.

Those of us who have worked for news media will find this documentary sad, but inspiring. “Page One” should be requiring viewing for every publisher, reporter, blogger, newcaster, and J-student in the nation.

Larry Crowne (Rhoades)

“Larry Crowne”
Reeducates Us With Laughs
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Remember that great extended-shot opening scene in Robert Altman’s “The Player,” where scriptwriters are pitching movie concepts to studio bigwigs? Well, I saw a pitch that perfectly describes “Larry Crowne,” the new Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts comedy that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

As IMDb put it: Sorta sounds like “The Company Men” meets “Eat Pray Love” meets “Community” to us.

Yep, that pretty well sums it up. A guy who loses his job meets a teacher in search of herself when he goes back the community college for a little re-training. And it has a funny screenplay by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, the actress-scribe who gave us “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” In addition, Nia also provides the voice for the film’s Map Genie.

Tom Hanks directed this film, his second (not counting TV movies).
After being downsized because he doesn’t have a college degree, Larry Crowne (Hanks) decides to go back to school to jumpstart his life. As his neighbor (Taraji P. Henson) tells him, “You’re never to old to learn.”

The plot hangs on a timely entrance by Tom Hanks. You see, ten students are the minimum required for Speech 217. And Larry arrives at the last second to complete that number – to the chagrin of unenthusiastic teacher Mercedes Tainot (Roberts). Her world-weary attitude is summed up with the observation: “I have a speech class that thinks the Renaissance is a fair they go to every July.”

Larry falls in with a group of oddballs. “Wanna join my gang?” asks one of his new college buddies, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). When he accepts, she concludes, “You are way cooler than you appear.”

Leader of this motor-scooter pack is Dell (Wilmer Valderrama). “Welcome to the street patrol,” he says. “We ride for justice and beauty.”

Talia gives her new bud a makeover. “A man with a motor scooter can accomplish anything,” she tells him. Turns out, Larry’s now cool enough to catch the romantic attention of his teacher.
Truthfully, I wasn’t so excited to see Tom Hanks reunited with Julia Roberts, his co-star in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as I was a-twitter when I heard the rumor that the film would team him up again with Peter Scolari, his co-star in TV’s “Bosom Buddies.” But I didn’t catch Scolari’s cameo – did you?

Oh well. Other supporting actors were terrific. Cedric the Entertainer as the yard-sale pal who provides Larry with a motor scooter. Bryan Cranston as the teacher’s deadbeat hubby. Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier as Francis. And Star Trek’s George Takei as the very funny Dr. Ed Matsutani.

Key West’s Al Kelley has fond memories of Takei. When 14-year-old Al was burned in a car crash, Takei took time off from a Star Trek convention to visit him in the hospital. “I’ll always be a fan,” smiles Al.

Us too.

Bad Teacher (Rhoades)

“Bad Teacher” Is Good Fun
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Who was your favorite teacher? Was it that buttoned-down sixth grade teacher who went by the book? That inspired high-school science teacher who made you see the world in a different way? Or that college professor who took the time to nurture your love of literature?
No matter. You will count Miss Halsey (Cameron Diaz) among your most memorable teachers. Why?

Because she’s such a BAD teacher.

In fact, that’s the name of the movie – “Bad Teacher” – the new comedy playing at the Tropic Cinema.

You see, Elizabeth Halsey doesn’t really want to be a teacher. She hates kids. As she hated school when she was a student. She wants to meet a well-to-do guy and get married. A guy like, say, that handsome substitute teacher, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake).

Now if she could only get Scott’s attention….

Maybe if she had a “big heart” like the former girlfriend whose picture he displays on his smart phone, that would do the trick. So she starts saving money to get a boob job. Washing cars in her Daisy Dukes, spraying water in an orgiastic frenzy to earn a few extra pennies.
Russell Gettis (Jason Segal) is the gym teacher who doesn’t have a shot at the leggy blonde. Or does he?

Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is the other man-hungry teacher with her sights set on our boy Scott.
You’ll remember Cameron Diaz from the classic comedy “There’s Something About Mary.” She also voiced Princess Fiona in those animated “Shrek” movies. Yep, she was one of “Charlie’s Angels” too.

Justin Timberlake is the pop-singer-turned-actor who got a lot of notice for his turn in “The Social Network.” From TV’s “The New Mickey Mouse Club” to singing with ‘N Sync to ripping Janet Jackson’s top off during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show to guest hosting TV’s Saturday Night Live, his career has been on a roll. What makes him interesting here is that he and Diaz used to be an item (if you know what I mean), so the old chemistry keeps bubbling up.

Jason Segal is a regular on TV’s second funniest show, “How I Met Your Mother.” You’ve also seen him in several Judd Apatow comedies (“Knocked Up” to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and heard him in “Despicable Me” as the supervillain with all those little yellow minions.
And you’ll recognize Lucy Punch as the wayward wife in Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”

IMO, “Bad Teacher” isn’t a bad movie if you like stories about redeemable baddies. This ought to be booked as a double feature with Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa.” Both flicks turn the tables on icons that we hold dear, teachers and St. Nick. Kinda the way “American Pie” gave us a whole ‘nother viewpoint about apple pie.

What next? Bad Mom? Bad Dog? Bad Date? Bad Wife? I think we’re onto something here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Larry Crowne (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Larry Crowne

When life gets you down there is always Tom Hanks, this century's answer to Jimmy Stewart, a self deprecating Everyman with a slanted smile who has the knack for making us feel better, no matter the straits. Hanks, in character, and in interviews, is so unflinchingly good natured that he is hard to criticize. For good reason. As a blank slate, Hanks shows us the universality in everyday actions. And he absorbs each role completely.

Such is the case in Hanks' second directorial outing, "Larry Crowne". From the first Pop-art Mondrian credits on screen, we know we are in seasoned visual hands and we also know we are going to be placed in Hanks' world. There is nothing truly dark here. Hanks plays Larry Crowne, a dedicated worker in a box store, on his way to supervisor we assume, or employee of the month, at the very least. Crowne gets called in to the lounge. To his shock and horror and through no fault of his own, the company lets him go. Crowne is denied upward mobility because he doesnt have a college degree. Crowne is crushed and bereft. The simplicity in which Hanks portrays the emotion of dashed hope is subtle in simplicity. All in just one pale look: a crooked smile, the arch of an eye, the drop of a shoulder, anything in holding back a cry. It is a signature moment.

Crowne decides to get his degree and we are carried along with him in a seamless and entertaining fashion as he struggles to get to class, looking adorable as a gentle unassuming middle aged man trying to better himself against traffic, jobs and impersonal bank employees. Hanks has an artful easy touch as a director as delicate as rice paper. His equilibrium with the camera is never heavy handed and always puts us in his story. We never leave Larry Crowne and never want to--- his struggle is so much our own.

Then as if on cue, enter Julia Roberts as the instructor, Mrs. Taino. She is non-plussed and beaten down. If you have ever wanted to see Julia Roberts lose her sunny disposition, this would be the film. She is an authentic teacher but not a bad one, of course not. Everyone, from the mediocre students who say nonsensical things,to the head-honcho of the "scooter-gang", Dell Gordo, is under a lens of charm. There is no upsetting anarchistic Dennis Hopper here. And that is not a bad thing. Or is it? There is one ridiculous moment where the scooter gang surrounds Crowne and they snap their fingers in unison and stare each other down. Really? The effect is almost cringe-making. I can forgive it. But the scene is almost on par with Pierce Brosnan's singing ability.

George Takei of "Star Trek" makes a funny appearance as an economics professor, playing on his spacey persona. Takei has one good line as he takes all the smartphones in one big pile. But when he laughs like an arch-villain on "The Simpsons" it just doesn't make sense.
Roberts plays her part well. She is a good-hearted teacher, shuffling and plodding along. Her mix of ease and angst is easy on the senses. We care without caring too much. Her character of glee under gloom is well matched with Hanks' Pinnochio panache.

Only Brian Cranston from "Breaking Bad" seems annoying and interminable on-screen. The single character written without a puff of charm. Just one big whine: Mr. Taino. I wish Hanks had revised him or whited him out.

Yes, we have seen many "Larry Crowne" stories on film before. It is a formula. Call it Paxil in pictures if you like, but it moves so quickly. And with just one look at Hanks' trademark slanted smile, you'll be watching too.

Write Ian at

Bad Teacher (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Bad Teacher

"Bad Teacher" The new so-called "black comedy" from Jake Kasdan owes a strong debt to Terry Zwigoff's "Bad Santa" (2003). Indeed this teacher spinoff film might never had been made in the first place, were it not for Billy Bob Thorton's surly irreverence and his free wheeling no-holds barred joy in insulting the sacredness of Christmas Tradition. "Bad Santa" curled across the screen like smoke from a Luciferic cigar. It was joyful in its offense. The film unspooled like a Robert Crumb cartoon in motion. It didn't fuss too much and had a certain quirky rhythm.

"Bad Teacher" by contrast, lacks flavor and seems oddly pre-packaged by punch lines and sight gags. The bits of alcohol, sex and bathroom humor are mildly funny the first time, sure, but once it leaves its chuckle, you're done and you forget all about it. Like Chinese food with MSG, one bite and you have had enough.

I thought I would have had more fun watching Cameron Diaz as the blatantly bad teacher, but somehow watching her strut her stuff while drinking and smoking from her desk just isn't playful and I know why: I can tell she is acting. A cardinal Sin in comedy. Diaz seems to merely go through the motions of being bad rather than being truly "BAD". Is a teacher drugging herself and drinking all they can come up with in this age of "Hangover" raunch fests? What about being truly offensive like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" (a film that has some comical pokes despite its terror, which I still can't bear to watch for the fright it induces in me.) Little Linda had the knack and so does Billy Bob Thorton. But Cameron Diaz doesn't have it.

The camera stays on her so much that she goes stale and seems detached from the other characters. Even though they were together in real life, Diaz and Justin Timberlake, have all the crackle of two Saltines together.

The bright spots in this automatic chuckle machine of a film, thankfully, are Phyllis Smith (The Office) and Lucy Punch (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) both of their roles are believable and zany, a skill that Cameron Diaz never quite attains.

Yes, of course Ms. Halsey shows her soft side to the well meaning goof of a gym teacher, played well by Apatow veteran Jason Segel, but I still don't buy it. It just doesn't seem to matter. We have seen her do the same things in similar films.

I don't care how rudely Ms. Halsey acts or how much she drinks or smokes, I'm not convinced. Cameron Diaz isn't a "Bad Teacher" she's just an average actor.

Write Ian at

Week of July 15 to July 21 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Well, it’s here. Terrence Malick’s much discussed THE TREE OF LIFE, winner of the grand prize (Palm D’Or) at Cannes and the unofficial huff-and-puff trophy of the season, given by me to the film that has provoked the most critical chatter. Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) is a man who grew up in West Texas, but went to Harvard and then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has translated Heidegger. So we have a guy with down home roots but worldly knowledge, and the movie draws on both.

A brief summary. Cinema convention calls for three acts in a movie: setup the story, develop an issue or conflict, and resolve it. Tree of Life adheres to this convention, but since it’s “attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives” (Roger Ebert), the first act is creation and the last is end-of-days, both told through images which will blow the minds of the right-brained among you, but puzzle left-brain literalists. The middle act, however, is a wonderful coming of age window on a family in Waco in the 1950’s. The father (Brad Pitt) is as you would expect given the time and place – stern, cold and strict. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is loving and tolerant, an angelic, ethereal beauty. The two sides of God? The children – three boys – lead an idyllic life in a town with no locked doors and woods to explore, sullied only by the harsh reality of the father, whom they careen between loving and wishing dead.

What can I say? Is it “an eruption of a movie, something to live with, think, and talk about afterward” (Nick Pinkerton - Village Voice). Is it “pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance” (Andrew O’Hehir - Or is it “ridiculously sublime or sublimely ridiculous? Don’t be afraid to find it both” (David Edelstein – New York Magazine).

Guess you’ll have to see for yourself. That’s why the Tropic is here; to give us that opportunity.

Too serious for you? How about KUNG FU PANDA 2. That’s a bit more popular. To give you an idea, it opened the same week as Tree of Life, but has since grossed twenty times as much ($563 million compared to $29 million). In the battle for animation championship between Dreamworks (whic has the Kung Fu franchise) and Pixar (Cars, Toy Story), the real winner is the kids. They’ll love these further adventures of Po and the Furious Five, with voices from Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen and Dustin Hoffman, among others.

Or how about X-MEN:FIRST CLASS ($344 million, but it’s a week behind). Shift genres to action adventure, not animated, but it’s so CGI laden that it might as well be. The X-Men in case you don’t know it, are mutants with supernatural powers recruited by Professor X (James McAvoy) to save the world while battling another group of mutants under the control of Kevin Bacon. Did I mention that it’s based on a comic book? Now you get it.

The Monday Night Summer of Fun Classic is THE GOONIES (1985), a Steven Spielberg concoction directed by action man Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon). The favorite film of everyone who grew up in the 80ties.

Comments, please, to

The Tree of Life redux (Rhoades)

Further Comments On “Tree of Life”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My movie bud Michael Shields and I saw “Tree of Life” last weekend. Being an admirer of director Terrence Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”), I was very eager to catch the film, but admittedly had trepidations.

My instincts were right.

Predictably, Michael loved “The Tree of Life.” He’s a guy who appreciates esoteric expositions.

Me, I applauded its ambitions, but didn’t consider the film a successful execution due to its hard-to-follow non-lineal presentation moving from architect Jack O’Brien’s boyhood in 1950s Waco, Texas, to a fearful Parasaurolophus facing predators in the Late Cretaceous Era, and back again.

Sean Penn as Jack, and Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as his parents, do a credible job of delivering Malick’s autobiographical ruminations, but the side trips that take us soaring into deep space and wallowing among the primeval ooze are distracting.

Michael Shields termed the film “enigmatic” and described it as a “visual poem.”

My opinion? Brilliant, but not fare that average audiences will find satisfying. “The Tree of Life” is a highly personal film, as if Terry Malick has opened up his brain with a can opener and let all the impressionistic shards of his boyhood memories come spewing out.

Yes, this is Malick’s attempt to come to terms with his family – stern father, passive mother, the loss of a brother – but perhaps like that Parasaurolophus he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

X-Men: First Class (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
X-Men:First Class

Just when you thought Marvel film projects were running out of ink or radiated cameras here comes an X-Men installment that might have had Ayn Rand yearning to change her cell structure. Or at least fortify it. "X-Men: First Class" is a colorful, benzedrine-paced prequel that has the instantaneous zip and texture of an actual comic book.

At the start, Erik Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) is a young boy in Nazi-dominated Poland. Erik apparently has the ability to bend metal. But faced with seeing his mother held at gunpoint by the once again evil Kevin Bacon. A Sebastian Shaw.(Yes, Kevin Bacon is playing a villain once more, as he did in the film "Super" he's not a drug dealer, but a mutant doctor this time) Shaw counts to three and shoots Erik's mother. A rage commences. The boy reduces the room to an empty shell.

Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a semi-arrogant hot-shot at Oxford. He talks in poetic speech about the wonders of manipulating genes and cell structures. In a comic-book way he is a bit like the poet Shelley, with all the talk of a new science emerging with the improvement of Man. And he has a trio of sexy mutant girlfriends that wear the most fashionable of contact lenses even though the action takes place in the 1960s before the trend. There is so much interest in the sexy irises that the beginning could be a commercial for Bausch and Lomb.

Erik, needless to say becomes a kind of Nazi-hunter, wanting to avenge his mother's death. The evil Shaw is a megalomaniac playing Russia against the U.S. in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Marvelized version of history.

We see all the heroes and villains here: Raven, Banshee, Darwin, Beast, Frost and Angel (who might be the first stripper super-villain) she is part dragonfly and spits fire. What emerges is kind of a Fab Four story of the X-Men as kids.

"X-Men: First Class" presents the origins of their characters as a bunch of idealistic Libertarians. The U.S. Government is powerless. Only the mutants seem to know what's right. The choice to act or not act is theirs alone. Part of the fun is wondering which mutant will turn to Erik's sinister side and who will remain true to Xavier's benevolent path.

The crisp retro cinematography gives a sort of "Barbarella" like attitude to the film without any rated R risqué romps or robe tosses. No reason to be camera shy, this film is safe for any mini mutant that may be among us. And I know you're out there.

Watching the debt ceiling talks on television, I am reminded of Charles Xavier's words: "true focus comes from the point of rage and serenity."

If only Stan Lee could ink Professor X into The Capitol to read minds. Yes...if only.

Write Ian at

Sent from my iPhone

The Tree of Life (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick is a unique director. His film "Badlands" (1973) with wide expanses of Western earth and sky together with the deadpan and sly acting of Martin Sheen was a classic of its time not least for its neutral attitude, neither moral or amoral. In Malick's films, the land itself is just as much of a character as any other role, if not more so.

In his latest film "The Tree of Life", Malick strives to orchestrate a vast drama, giving a bird's eye view--- or is is an angel's?--- of the interplay between our human selves and amoral nature, mainly sky and the reaches of space.

Right off, this film has some of the most eye-grabbing images of nature that I've ever seen. Huge jellyfish are shot in deep closeup as to appear abstract, along with shots of swarming bees or some type of winged pestilence that seems about to collide into a skyscraper. The towering edifice looks like an imperial icicle thrusting into the sky. This is one of the more arresting images in the film. Haunts, I feel, that recall the Trade Center.
The opening scenes in the film are singularly provocative and owe a debt to the non-narrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage whose quick cutting and in-camera editing put him on par with many Surrealists.

But when Malick introduces a dinosaur drama into the mix, as novel as this may appear, he stumbles. The scene appears kitschy and anthropomorphic--a theme park mix of Darwin ala Disney.

The human portion of the film focuses on a suburban American family. Brad Pitt plays the somewhat scary, somewhat sensitive dad: a modest inventor with a military mindset. Jessica Chastain plays the long suffering mother. If she's not suffering she's running and you half expect her to go around chasing butterflies. Pitt does a good job at forgetting his good looks and sly smile. He becomes caring or violent to his kids in the blink of an eye and this, to Malick's credit is done without melodrama, in the same lens that made the director a legend.

The film deftly illustrates the supernaturalness of childhood, the savagery at play equal to the tone of The Lord of the Flies or the photography of Sally Mann. The image of children with their shadows projected on the sidewalk has an extra terrestrial eeriness to it. And the shot of children getting ready for Halloween might make you think of strange rituals, Satanic or otherwise. Malick is not one to conceal his camera. And its a good thing that he didn't pull back. The film's strength is in its ability to illustrate a vivid childhood. If it had just stopped there, "Tree of Life" could have made Ray Bradbury proud.

Yet, when the film goes on and plunges into the realm of the cosmic and The Far Out, it loses its potency, and becomes a spaced out "happening" film for the new century as well-crafted as it is.

Sean Penn makes an appearance as an over-tired architect, the grown up son. He only has one line and a few mumbles. For the life of me, (or for the life of the film) I'm not sure what on earth he is doing in this movie. Should I ask Yahweh?

The film has some startling imagery, mostly when focusing on the children. The film is at its best, I'll say, when it is impressionistic and silent with an objective mysticism.

I was tripping with Malick's poetry all well and groovy. But then the clouds opened up and the seas parted. The whole cast of the film arrives on a heavenly beach with photographic quotations that seem directly taken from a United Methodist Church commercial. (Open hearts. Open minds) What gives Malick, man? Such a heavy handed bummer.

Should I wait for your Second Coming?

Wite Ian at

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Tree of Life (Rhoades)

“Tree of Life” Sinks Roots at Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Okay, let me tell you right upfront that I couldn’t get a screener DVD for Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” So I will come back to you with a more critical appraisal after I’ve actually seen it. My friends who have caught the film in other cities are giving me mixed feedback.

Nonetheless, I’m eager to catch the current showing at the Tropic Cinema, for Malick is a director whose work I’ve long admired.

Malick isn’t very prolific, only five feature films in 40 years. After “Days of Heaven” (1978)” he waited twenty years to do his next film, “The Thin Red Line” (1998). He has been described as “one of the great enigmas of contemporary filmmaking, a shadowy figure whose towering reputation rests largely on a very small body of work.”

A thinking man’s director, he studied philosophy at Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (but left without earning a doctorate). He did a noted translation of Heidegger’s “Vom Wesen des Grundes” (“The Essence of Reasons”). Malick taught philosophy at MIT. Later he wrote think pieces for Newsweek and The New Yorker.

Then he earned a MFA at the American Film Institute Conservatory and became a filmmaker.
With the help of Jack Nicholson, he got work doing script rewrites. Though not used, he banged out early drafts of “Dirty Harry” and “Great Balls of Fire!” The movie “Deadhead Miles” based on his script was scraped, considered unreleasable by the studio.

In 1973, he wrote and directed “Badlands,” a minor masterpiece based on the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend.

His next film was “Days of Heaven,” a lyrical love triangle set among turn-of-the-century farm workers of the Texas Panhandle. Visually stunning, it won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. And Malick picked up the prize for Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Following that thundering success, Malick began working on a screenplay titled “Q,” a concept that explored the origins of life on earth. However, during the film’s pre-production, he suddenly moved to Paris to live in seclusion. Vanity Fair referred to him as “The Runaway Genius.”

His disappearance was attributed to the studio’s objections to “Q” – seen as a “long, rambling, almost incoherent look at the beginning of the world that was little more than just images.”
Reemerging two decades later, he directed “The Thin Red Line,” a loose adaptation of James Jones’s World War II novel. Although not ultimately a winner, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

That was followed by “The New World,” his retelling of the Pocahontas story.

Malick’s films are typically period pieces with a voice over by one of the main characters. “The Tree of Life” is true to form. As for going back to earlier times, one of my friends commented, “I was following the movie pretty well until the dinosaurs appeared.”

Much of the criticism is aimed at the film’s fragmented and non-linear narrative style. “The Tree of Life” gives us a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of his family life in 1950s Texas. Yet it takes side trips into space and time, exploring the meaning of life on earth.

Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect who begins to think back to the death of his 19-year-old brother as he observes a tree being planted outside his office. He reminisces about growing up with his strict father and permissive mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in Waco, Texas.
This existential exercise in filmmaking may in fact be a psychological autobiography. The son of an oil company geologist, Malick was raised in Oklahoma and Texas, where he worked on farms and oil fields as a young man. His father Emil Malick was a stern figure of Lebanese descent. His brother Chris was badly burned in a car accident. His younger brother Larry committed suicide.
The genesis for the film was that earlier treatment titled “Q” that he walked away from thirty years ago. When more recently pitched to River Road Entertainment chief Bill Pohlad he called it “crazy,” but wound up backing it.

“The Tree of Life” was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival. Yet it drew boos as well as applause at its Cannes premiere.

Some reviews have called it “dazzling” and “a transcendent achievement.” Others have termed it “pretentious” and “sanctimonious mopey male egotism disguised as a search for meaning.” Based on all this, I would probably call it “polarizing,” a love-it-or-hate-it film experience.
Let me know where you come out … and I’ll share my observations with you next week.
[from Solares Hill]

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Rhoades)

“Kung Fu Panda 2” Has the Right Moves

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Actor Jack Black looks like a chubby, cuddly Panda Bear – at least in “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Sure, it’s animated, but squint your eyes and you’d have a hard time telling the panda’s rounded profile from Black’s.

For those of you who didn’t see the original movie, Master Po (voiced by Black) is a Panda who (as the title suggests) knows kung fu, that chop-socky martial arts fighting style invented in China. This time around, Po and his pals – The Furious Five – are content to protect the Valley of Peace.

That is, until a new villain comes on the scene with a secret weapon that can defeat kung fu.
The Furious Five are a Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey. These voices are reprised by the same actors from the original film: Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogan, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan. Plus Dustin Hoffman, Michele Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert, Gary Oldman, and Danny McBride lend their voices too.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, herself of Asian ethnicity. It was filmed in poke-you-eye-out stereoscopic 3-D.

“I actually wanted to start off from the original and not lose anything good about it,” says Jennifer Yuh Nelson. “But also keep building on what we learned in the first one. In the first ‘Panda,’ Po got to be the Dragon Warrior. And he reached a certain level of happiness. In the second one we get to go to a larger scale adventure.”

“Po is like a big kid,” says Jack Black. “He has an awe and wonderment for his kung fu master heroes. He’s still sort of wide-eyed and innocent.”

Watching Jack Black talk about the movie, you’ll note his awe and wonderment. And wide-eyed innocence as he describes Po’s new adventures. Yep, Jack’s just a big, cuddly Panda in human form.
[from Solares Hill]

X-Men: First Class (Rhoades)

Is “X-Men: First Class” Really First Class?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

By now, fanboys have probably caught onto what Marvel is doing: Treating movies like comic books.

Sure, they are bringing their famous superhero characters to the big screen amidst plenty of CGI special effects. But there’s a bigger scheme afoot.

Marvel isn’t treating movies as stand-alone entertainments the way we usually think of cinema. Rather, it’s releasing them the way comic books are published – as a series of entertainments that are linked.

Y’see, fanboys don’t just buy the #1 issue of a comic book, they buy the entire series. And the stories are continued from one to the next. Back when I was publisher of Marvel Comics, we used to compare comic books to soap operas, using “Days of Our Lives” scripts to teach our young writers how to tell sequential art stories with greater skill.

Look at the Marvel superhero movies of the past decade: “Spider-Man” was followed by “Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man 3,” just like a comic book series. And now it’s being rebooted, just as we used to do with comic books, retelling the story in a new way.

The “X-Men” films have worked the same way. “X-Men” followed by “X-Men 2” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”. And that was followed by the “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” spin-off. At Marvel we always had a half dozen or so different “X-Men” titles being published simultaneously. With a Wolverine spin-off.

Now we have “X-Men: First Class,” a prequel to the other X-Men movies. (Prequels? Heck, at Marvel we even published a title called “X-Babies,” about the mutants as tiny tots.) This new story about Professor X and Magneto as young men is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Just to remind you (in case you’re not an avid fanboy), the X-Men are mutants – genetic freaks who have superpowers. Humans fear them, but the X-Men don costumes to go save mankind from various threats … even itself.

When legendary Marvel Editor Stan Lee created the X-Men, he saw it as a plea for tolerance, accepting people who are different from us. Now, in college textbooks, they’re labeled as “archetypes,” iconic characters that strike a chord within each of us.

Those of you who saw the previous X-Men movies (or read the comic books) think of Magneto as Professor X’s bitter rival, two mutants who have differing views on how to handle being “different.” But in this prequel, you learn that they started off as best friends.
Some compare them to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, two men seeking the same goal, but via very different paths.

In “X-Men: First Class” we meet these young mutants who are just coming to terms with their powers. Charles Xavier, the stud who grows up to become Professor X, is a high-level telepath who can read and influence human minds. His pal Erik Lehnsherr, who later becomes Magneto, has the ability to control magnetic forces.

You’ll also meet mutants who are shape shifters, can spin at incredibly fast speeds, have high-pitched sonic abilities, shoot blasts of cosmic energy, display insectoid physiology or blue fur, and have retractable claws made of Adamanthium.

James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “Wanted”) gives us the young Professor X, while Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Jayne Eyre”) opts to be the young Magneto.

Kevin Bacon (“Footloose,” “Tremors”) is closer than six degrees as Sebastian Shaw, leader of the nefarious Hellfire Club. Sexy January Jones (TV’s “Mad Men”) plays the villainous Emma Frost. Oliver Platt (“Please Give,” “Frost/Nixon”) is a Man in Black. And Hugh Jackman (the “X-Men” movies, “Sailfish”) does a cameo as Wolverine.

Director Matthew Vaughn has proven he can do action movies with “Layer Cake” and the comic book-y “Kick-Ass.” He says, “I love superhero films. I want more to be made but they need to be taken seriously as a genre and not just comic books.”

Casting was a challenge. “James McAvoy was top of my list when we talked about who would play Professor X. He got pretty annoyed with me because I made him audition with every single actor who came in for Magento, because I was like if we’re trying to do that Butch Cassidy Sundance Kid chemistry I think it was really, really important that you have to see that chemistry beforehand. The poor guy, I’m wheeling him in everyday saying you’ve got to read with this other actor and this other actor. And then when Michael Fassbender came in, after 20 seconds the two of them together, and I’m like OK, I’ve found them.”

Problem was Professor X and Magneto had already been played to perfection by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in those other “X-Men” movies. Vaughn said to his stars, “I think they did a great job but you’ve got to make these characters your own.”
As he pointed out to McAvoy, “When we first meet Charles Xavier he’s not a Professor and we were trying to show that transition. Seeing Magneto becoming a villain, that’s far more interesting than watching a guy sadly becoming a cripple and becoming a teacher ultimately. Charles Xavier, he’s the hardest character to make interesting.”

But he declares, “I think James did a fabulous job.”

The story for “X-Men: First Class” is new. In the comic books, we hinted that Magneto had a history that went back the WWII Holocaust. But in this new take, the story is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can the young mutants Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr avert a nuclear disaster?

Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that war is averted. Not only do we know how America’s historic confrontation with Russia and Cuba turned out, we also have those other X-Men movies – the stories that take place after this prequel – to prove they survived.

Oh, and as for my premise that Marvel is treating these movie like comic books, “X-Men: First Class” is envisioned as the first in a prequel trilogy. When I was at Marvel we would have termed that a “limited-edition series.”

And just watch, all those other Marvel movies – “Iron Man,” “Thor,” the upcoming “Captain America” – are really part of a bigger series, leading up to a movie about that grand ol’ Marvel superhero team, “Avengers.”

C’mon, haven’t you moviegoers been staying until the films’ end credits are over in “Iron Man,” “Thor,” et al. to see those snippets of Sgt. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) pulling his Avengers team together for a movie blockbuster? That’s the one fanboys are really waiting for.
[from Solares Hill]

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Week of July 8 to July 14 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic

by Phil Mann

There’s a lot of fluff at the Tropic right now, which is to be expected for the summer season. Whether it’s the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, Salvatore Dali and Pablo Picasso holding court in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS; the female versions of the Hangover guys engaging in shenanigans in BRIDESMAIDS; Morgan Spurlock jerking the chains of corporate America in THE GREATEST MOVIE EVERY SOLD; or J.J. Abrams channeling Steven Spielberg in SUPER 8; you know you can just kick back and enjoy the show.

But for the thinking filmgoer, INCENDIES is the movie to see. This noir thriller/anti-war movie was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, and by the judgment of many should have won. It starts out in Montreal (the home of director Denis Villeneuve), where twin 20-year-old brother and sister Simon and Jeanne Marwan are given sealed letters from their just-deceased mother, with instructions to deliver them to their father and brother. Since the twins had no idea that the father was still alive, or that they had a brother, the plot quickly thickens.

Both of the addressees are living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, which is easily identified as Lebanon. As they travel there to carry out their mother’s wishes, Simon and Jeanne are thrust into the middle of a religious/ethic civil war that is wracking the country, and the movie pulls no punches showing the horrors of the war. We discover through flashbacks that the mother fled the country because of these tensions. But why did she want to thrust her children back into such turmoil? Didn’t I say it was a mystery?

“Tells a story-masterfully-of courage, cruelty, family mysteries and a chain of anger that can only be broken by love.” (Wall St. Journal) “Painful, searing and something close to brilliant.” (Arizona Republic) You’ll want to discuss it over a glass of wine in the lobby rather than just amble out of the theater.

The Ballet in Cinema Series also brings a note of seriousness on Saturday, with a presentation of CHILDREN OF PARADISE danced by the Paris Opera Ballet and shown live at 1:30pm EDT (7:30 in Paris), with an encore evening performance at 7:00pm EDT. It’s appropriate that this new ballet come to the Tropic because it’s based on the classic 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis, rated by Gallic critics as the greatest French film ever.

Two special events round out the week.

On Monday, the Summer of Fun Classics Series features the PEEWEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985). This was director Tim Burton’s first hit, preceding Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and of course it’s Peewee Herman’s greatest achievement. Recapture your childhood this Monday, and every Monday in July with a classic kids’ film.

For a special treat on Thursday, local cinephile and director Mike Marrero has collected a group of short films from local Key West filmmakers, including Chris Shultz, David Sloan, Mark Pierson, Chad Newman, and Mike himself. These guys are doing great things in the local cinema community. Support them and enjoy yourself.

Comments, please, to

Incendies (Rhoades)

“Incendies” Heats Up Screen

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think of it as the difference between 2D and 3D, the addition of a whole new dimension. That’s the way I view it when a stage play is adapted into a movie.
No longer are you restricted by the confines of the theater’s proscenium arch. You can move from close-ups to panoramic vistas. You can use authentic backdrops, or present the story with ultra reality.

When director Denis Villeneuve decided to base a film on Wajdi Mouawad’s play, “Scorched,” he was able to supplement the gripping dialogue and startling plot with authentic Middle Eastern locales that add a verisimilitude only cinematography can supply.

This is not to denigrate the excitement of a live performance or the immediacy of theater. It’s merely to recognize that a film is something different. So Villeneuve changed the title to “Incendies” (French for “Scorched”) to distinguish between his film and Mouawad’s play.
“Incendies” recounts the search by a brother and sister for their heritage. When their mother dies, she leaves two envelopes for her twin children to deliver to a previously unknown father and a surprise brother. Her odd will specifies that she be buried without a coffin, naked, and facing downward, with no headstone, until Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) accomplish their mission.

So the siblings travel to the Middle East, visiting their mother’s village, orphanages, and prisons, in search of this phantom father and brother.

The film unfolds as two parallel stories, the twin’s search and the mother’s ordeal.
The flashbacks reveal that Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) disgraced her Lebanese family when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Even though she gave up the baby to a midwife, she vowed to one day find him again. And amid the war-torn country, she doggedly looks for him. Her political viewpoint shifts when she witnesses the brutality of the Christian right – a harrowing experience as passengers are murdered on a burning bus – and she commits an act that lands her in prison. There she is known as the Woman Who Sings, refusing to be broken by her merciless jailors.

At the same time we follow Jeanne as she retraces her mother’s steps in search of her father’s identity. Brother Simon and the notary who employed Newal in America (Rémy Girard) join her as they close in on the identity of this long-lost brother (Abdelghafour Elaaziz).
Past and present collide as the shocking truth is uncovered.

“Incendies” is currently heating up the screen at the Tropic Cinema.

Filmed in Canada (Quebec) and Jordan (a stand-in for Lebanon), this French-language film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Roger Ebert predicted it would win, but it lost out to “In a Better World.” Having seen them both, I agreed with Ebert. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 94% positive reviews.

Denis Villeneuves’s fourth feature, “Incendies” is considered a shocker – not for blood and
gore, but for the horrors that war and culture can exert on a family.

Not to take anything away from Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad’s fine play, but the film delivers a you-are-there sensibility that makes it all the more poignant. Mouawad’s production of a trilogy of Greek plays by Sophocles – “Electra,” “Antigone,” and “The Women of Trachis” – received great acclaim in Canada. No surprise that he’d tackle “Oedipus” too.
[from Solares Hill]

Incendies (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Incendies", a film by Denis Villeneuve based on the play Scorched, by Wajdi Mouawad, gives Alajandro Inaritu (Babel) a run for his money and has the kind of existentialist spirit that you find in the fiction of Paul Bowles. The film creates a bitter landscape and doesn't mix any sugary events with its shrubs.

All to the good.

"Incendies" lost out to "In a Better World" at the Academy Awards but that doesn't make it any less of a film. It is by turns wistful, punchy and unapologetic.
The film concerns Canadian twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) as they try to find answers to their wild mother's past during the reading of her last will. The mother, Nawal, (Lubna Azabal) has died of a stroke during a swim. She wants to be "buried naked, with no headstone face down away from the sun" She informs them that they have an unknown father and brother.

So begins this hard-bitten jigsaw of a tale that might make Thomas Hardy wish he had traded his fictional Wessex for the director's fictional town of Daresh, somewhere near Lebanon.

In a series of flashbacks which are as intricately woven as Muslim prayer rugs, although the bold style of the titles owe much to the films of Michael Haneke and Richet (Mesrine), we take in little parcels of the story, tasting each bit like spoonful of apprehensive hummus. We are nomadic travelers watching Narwal's young life as she falls in love with a scorned refugee and has a pregnancy deemed an abomination by Narwal's family. Almost immediately, as in Hardy's Tess, she is judged an outcast with no where to turn. As Narwal struggles on in her quest to find her lost son who is peppered with a tattoo on his heel--- three dots that resemble ellipses in an interrupted story--- her daughter struggles on also to find her mother thirty five years later. Mother and Daughter as a kind of Hitchcockian "Vertigo", share two halves of the same face. They exist both together and alone, as two pairs of knitted brows and doubled crosses that hope to receive answers through time but only get anxious echoes in return and more dusty trails to wander upon.

Both Narwal and Jeanne are obsessive doubles, both engaging in a kind of mental noir that we see on film. And we as all- seeing scarabs are not spared or blindfolded from what occurs.
In the its last half, "Incendies" becomes Hitchcockian with its deep closeups of skirts and stockings and the razor sharp edge of a bob-haired mother with murder on her mind.
Narwal has all the power of a character in "Salt" without the pulp comic acrobatics. Her vignettes are jarring and unsettling without comic relief. The sometimes bloody events are juxtaposed by the silent beauty of an ochre field in Jordan and the winding turn of an infinite sand-road.

"Incendies" doesn't have any single point of view, a cross is seen in the same light as a crescent and star. Narwal and Jeanne carry on in their own Gothic lives: the turn of a foot equals the muzzle of a gun, shot either in religious hostility or a mother's revenge.
Only nature---the hard baked earth--- carries on without Judgment.

Write Ian at

Monday, July 4, 2011

Week of July 1 to July 7 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Did you see Super Size Me, the documentary about the guy who ate only at McDonald’s for a month and wound up a fat slob? The writer-director-subject Morgan Spurlock has a penchant for tweaking the system. He also produced What Would Jesus Buy?, a satirical examination of the commercialization of Christmas. And now he’s back as a writer-director-subject with POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD, the ultimate product-placement film. If you believe Spurlock – and why not, since transparency is his mantra for this movie – the pomegranate drink Pom Wonderful paid him a cool million bucks for its “above the title” ad placement. Unlike ordinary movies, where people do such things as drive Mini Coopers to secretly promote the minis (The Italian Job), everything here is a promotion, and the movie is about how Spurlock got advertisers to pay his costs by giving them screen time. You won’t believe what people will do for a plug. It “makes you laugh until it hurts.” (Rolling Stone)

Not that every movie is so crass. Watching SUPER 8, set in 1979, you’ll look in vain for any product, except maybe Kodak Super 8mm movie film, which I hardly think the company is paying to promote now. Like Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. this is an alien movie – from other planets, that is, not other countries – with a heart. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek-2009, Mission Impossible III) and produced by Spielberg, it has the same kid’s eye viewpoint as E.T.

Abrams has acknowledged his debt to Spielberg with a letter to theater operators:
“As many of you are aware, the film is set in the 1970s and is an homage to the early works of my good friend, Steven Spielberg. Naturally, the theatrical experience should be as attentive to period detail as the film itself. To that end, all stadium seating should be removed and replaced with cracked and ripped vinyl benches. If you are unable to affix chewing-gum to the bottom of each handrest, know that you will be greatly disappointing Steven Spielberg, my creative partner and mentor.“

However, since Hollywood’s CGI (computer-generated imagery) has ramped up over the past thirty years, the alien in Super 8 is much bigger than in E.T., and his destructive capabilities are vastly enhanced. So come for the kid-hearted charm, and stay for the explosions. And see if the Tropic has accommodated Abrams’ requests.

Those are the two new films. Held over by popular demand – meaning people are still buying tickets like mad – are Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, BRIDESMAIDS, and WINTER IN WARTIME.

The Monday Night Summer of Fun Classics starts a new theme for July: Second Childhood, with WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Not the recent movie based on the Roald Dahl story, but the original from 1971 that Roger Ebert called “probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz. It is everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren't: Delightful, funny, scary, exciting, and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination.” School’s out. Bring the kids on Monday night for a delightful end to the long weekend.

Comments, please, to

Super 8 (Rhoades)

“Super 8” Captures Alien Dreams on Film

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Not to take anything away from director J. J. Abrams (he gave us the “Star Trek” reboot, TV’s “Alias” and “Lost”), but producer Steven Spielberg’s name easily overshadows when it comes to the new sci-fi thriller “Super 8.”

Thanks to such classics as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” it’s hard not to think of Spielberg without thinking of aliens (and great white sharks and holocaust victims). He’s a producer-director who leaves his imprint.

I can’t say I’ve met Steven Spielberg, but I did exchange waves with him once. My friends and I were staying at Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s rambling old house in East Hampton, right across from Spielberg’s place. From the second-story window you could look right into Spielberg’s fenced-in compound. One day the director pulled into his driveway as I was staring out the window. He looked up and saw me, hesitated, and then waved.
No neon-lit spaceships hovered over his house that night. No cute little extraterrestrials knocked on my door asking to use the phone. No train wrecks outside of town released any dangerous aliens.

But in Spielberg’s head – and later on movie screens – all that happens.

“I dream for a living,” he once said.

As I said, “Super 8” – the new sci-fi thriller currently playing at Regal Cinema 6 – is directed by J. J. Abrams, but produced by Spielberg. Quite a teaming.

Unlike those atom-bomb-fear-driven sci-fi movies of the ’50s, Spielberg doesn’t usually show us the dark side of invaders from outer space. The aliens in “Close Encounters” were friendly, even musical. And the visitor in “E.T.” was cuddly enough to spawn toy lines. But “Super 8” is different, more a monster movie than not.

A train wreck outside of a small Ohio town releases a government-captured alien. And suddenly the town’s dogs go missing. Then citizens disappear one by one.

Who’s to save us? Well, the town’s brave lawman (think: “Jaws”). And a kid who accidentally films the train crash on his super 8 camera (kind of a “Blow Up” moment).
Instead of the late Roy Schieder we have Kyle Chandler as the cop. And instead of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, we have Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as leaders of those six cute kids who investigate these strange goings-on.

Spielberg himself doesn’t see this film as a departure. “I’ve had darkness in all the films,” he insists. “There are moments in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ that are brutally dark. I just don’t think people have stopped to study. They assume that I suddenly developed a dark side because of ‘Schindler’s List.’ When critics carp about my dark side, I always wonder, ‘Well, did they really look in the shadows?’”

He once said of his film “Poltergeist” (directed by Tobe Hooper), “It’s the darker side of my nature, it’s me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death. In ‘Poltergeist,’ I wanted to terrify and I also wanted to amuse – I tried to mix the laughs and screams together.”
With “Super 8,” it’s not so much the mixture of chills and laughter that audiences will find significant. It’s this darker view of extraterrestrial life.

“Whenever I try to tell a risky story, whether it’s about sharks or dinosaurs, or about aliens or about history, I’ll always be thinking, ‘Am I going to get away with this?’” says Spielberg.

“When I don’t have that worry, I won’t make that movie.”

J.J. Abrams, who has already directed a monster-on-the-loose film called ‘Cloverfield,’ has this to add: “All people need to know is that it’s an adventure about a small town and it’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s scary and there’s a mystery: What is this thing that has escaped? What are the ramifications of its presence? And what is the effect on people?”

“Super 8” is the amalgam of two film pitches that Abrams made to Spielberg. The first, a coming-of-age film about small-town kids in the ’70s. The second, a film about the government moving alien monsters out of Area 51 on midnight trains – “one of which never reaches its final destination.”

Why go see it? As Spielberg explains: “After a scary movie about the world almost ending, we can walk into the sunlight and say, ‘Wow, everything’s still here. I’m okay!’ We like to tease ourselves. Human beings have a need to get close to the edge and, when filmmakers or writers can take them to the edge, it feels like a dream where you’re falling, but you wake up just before you hit the ground.”

Or before ravenous aliens come to earth.
[from Solares Hill]

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

The friendly documentarian Morgan Spurlock returns with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold". This film is considerably lighter than the highly-saturated "Super-Size Me", where Spurlock took on on the fast food kingpin McDonald's and did an adequate job of convincing us that a steady diet of a Big Mac and an order of fries was slowly putting us in lethal jeopardy and that Happy Meals target children for obesity. This film is kinder but less impassioned. Now Spurlock has his camera-eye trained on product placement in movies and advertising.

His concept is to have a film where he shamelessly seeks out advertisers and tie-ins for his documentary on advertising itself and simply show what happens. The film holds its own. Spurlock is easy to watch. He is a gentle Everyman from West Virginia. Unlike his contemporary, the heavy -coated Michael Moore, Spurlock doesn't badger. When Moore trudges in confrontation, Spurlock casually walks in a board room with a self deprecating smile. No bullhorn here. He is quick to shake hands.

We get a good taste of corporate behavior here, but as Morgan isn't really attacking anyone the smiles are congenial and not forced. The highlight of the all the interviews are the offices of POM Wonderful, a juice company that seems just a smidgen saintly and self conscious. CEO Lynda Resnick is a bit catty underneath her politeness. She is a reverse-image of Cruella de Vil killing Spurlock with kindness. Her fingernails are painted a deep red, perfectly matching the super-juice that she is mistress of. I would hate to be on her bad side. Imagine being juice-boarded by POM Wonderful.

The irrepressible Ralph Nader makes an appearance too, with what may be the best exchange in the film when Spurlock asks him if there is anyplace to go without ads. Nader replies, "to sleep."

Linguist Noam Chomsky is questioned and gives Spurlock options, either to "put his toe in the water" or to swim in a sea of advertising and drown.

This is all well and good. But when Spurlock interviews Donald Trump, the film drifts a bit into camp, especially in light of current events. Trump is as arrogant as ever, lamenting certain musicians for not taking corporate cash.

There is good fun here though, mostly in the earnest good guy nature of the director himself as he gleefully accepts sponsor after sponsor with an unbridled joy. Or when he just shrugs and laughs at the ocean of corporate zombiefication, ready to wash over his efforts .
There is a very funny sequence of Spurlock mimicking a Justin Timberlake video and shots of

Spurlock's son role-playing in corporate videos and these moments are insightful. It just seems as if the director is having too much fun going with the flow.
But maybe that is the point.

I prefer the old Spurlock, the one who unnerved the Mcdonald's corporation with stubborn charm. And who went for multiple Big Macs like a kid on a mission. Like new Coke, Spurlock's tone just seems a bit altered, a bit too jokey and sweet.

It is still Spurlock and it pleases, but I miss the old attack. The flavor suited him.

I'm not sure about the new POM suit.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Super 8 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Super 8

The movie "E.T". came out when I was sixteen. It wasn't just seeing the movie itself, but the act of physically going to see the movie. I was spending the summer in Cape May. And the next morning I was scheduled to go to a physical therapy clinic in Atlantic City. They were going to try to straighten my body. I was dreading it.

Like Elliott in "E.T". I was surrounded by identical houses in the suburban area of Cape May under a midnight sky. As my own physique was not the norm, I too, felt Outside--a star-flung traveler. After all, my feet seldom touched the ground. My Grandfather was adamant. "Ian shouldn't go to the movie. He has a doctor's appointment!" But my Dad let me go.

In watching " Super 8", I couldn't help having these recalls of memory. Here are six kids from a suburban neighborhood who want to make a monster movie. One of the kids, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) bears a startling resemblance to Henry Thomas. There is also a glib chubby kid Charles (Riley Griffiths) who looks a little like the smart aleck character, Chunk in "The Goonies" (1985). This is no accident, since "Super 8" is produced by Spielberg, who knows how to treat children as people in much the same way Hal Roach did in the 1930s, by portraying their quirks without condescension.

And in "Super 8" the kids are the best aspect of the film. They are glue that holds it all together. They want to make a zombie movie with a super 8 camera. It is the late 70s and each one of them is in charming cahoots against the adults, who are too wrapped up in problems to really know what their children are doing. Like in any Speilberg movie, the parents are out of touch or eerie, wearing big key chains or overlarge shoes that go thump. You can't help feeling for the boys who resort to the movies to escape parental dysfunction.

Young Charles is about to make a breakthrough. He wants to film a crucial scene by the railroad tracks. There is the cue of wind and a blue beam of light. Where had I seen that before... Of course---"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). These references are quite intentional, for in "Super 8", J.J. Abrams and Spielberg are telling of their own childhood aspirations and (re-hashing?) legacies.

The kids watch a horrible train-wreck and their dropped camera holds a secret. They must never tell their parents what lies behind the lens.

The film's strength is in its characters and in the vivid recreation of the 1970s as a period. Here is awful decor in all its orange and brown glory and here are the mature parents looking as naugahyde and drab as you might expect. The film doesn't pull punches. The grown ups are foul and coarse, but nobody is all good or all bad. The one odd note in the film that seems off key is that the kids scream and holler holy Hell whenever they see something horrible. (Eek!) At such times it seems more like a roller coaster ride than a meaty film. If we are really scared as children, aren't we usually scared speechless? I can get into the Earth vs. monsters idea that the film presents in the style of 1950s movie camp. But I have to say that after a while, this becomes a bit boring and contrived. So modeled it is after films like "War of the Worlds" (1953) and other George Pal classics.

"Super 8" starts out as a heartfelt autobiography detailing the genesis of a Spielbergan imagination with humor and gusto, but soon becomes two films in one. It does too much. Had the film stayed on the trajectory of young childhood, it would have been as deft as E.T's finger, perhaps becoming science fiction's answer to "Au revoir, les enfants". Yet with all the explosions and military charges and BoomBoomBoom! I feel I stayed a bit too long in Elliott's bedroom.

But perhaps it is enough to see this and not worry remembering my former self, as a young boy bundled in my chrome chair with my index finger extended, in one hope, to somehow touch the flickering screen.

Write Ian at