Saturday, December 29, 2012

Holy Motors (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Holy Motors

Watching "Holy Motors" is to cheer (or jeer) that the cinema of Dada circa 1920 thru 2012 is alive again. Duchamp, Man Ray, or Rene Clair had never seen such things, or maybe they did.

This is Leos Carax's fourth main feature (The Lovers on The Bridge) who is fond of eccentric plots with imagery that recalls the psychedelic director Alejandro Jodorowski (El Topo). "Holy Motors" has a sweep and a slickness to it. With its detached urban flavor, it recalls Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," if  Eric Packer's limo had been waxed with hallucinogens.

At the start of "Holy Motors, we have Oscar (Denis Lavant) who is sleeping, I assume, in a dingy motel with a dog. After several minutes, the forest-patterned wallpaper dissolves to reveal Oscar with a screwdriver for a finger entering a crowded cinema. There is a baby, followed by a scary growling dog. 

Instantly we are in Paris, with Oscar in a stretched white limo. He is on the phone with a file in front of him. Quickly the limo turns into a makeup room and Oscar sets to work, applying makeup and masks. He dons a black skin suit and enters a warehouse which is equipped with lasers. He has an Uzi type gun. Is Oscar a video game actor or an assassin?

What follows is one of the more poetic passages of the film, with Oscar writhing in video ecstasy as he turns into a reptilian sex creature who becomes fused to a red-leathered female counterpart. Another file is placed in Oscar's seat and he turns into a gluttonous and violent, grimy leprechaun. He strips naked and gorily upsets a photo shoot with the beautiful Eva Mendes. Oscar savagely gobbles flowers  and bites a secretary's finger clean off. He ransacks a cemetery. In one fine touch, the gravestones read "Visit My Website".

The imagery is stirring and although I'm not quite sure what the point is, it's never boring. In tone and spirit much of the sequences  echo the art films of Matthew Barney.

Oscar drives on, barely communicating to the chauffeur, the Hitchcockian blonde Celine. (Edith Schob) and getting increasingly ill, the more he impersonates others. With every new character, Oscar takes nothing with him. Like the wallpaper in the cinema, he is flat. For the moment, people know him, but then he vanishes becoming little more than tinsel in a Parisian sky.

There are many vivid touches in keeping with its iconoclastic tone, not least of which is a jubilant accordion disco number which runs throughout a gothic cathedral.

At one point, we think that Oscar is returning home to his wife in a futurist apartment ala "2001". Our man Oscar is apparently married to a chimpanzee and they have two chimp offspring. Juxtaposed against a modernist and spacey environment, this is both haunting and silly,  as is the last scene with the limos  actually talking to each other which feels as goofy as Disney.

What does it mean? Perhaps it doesn't matter. It is  enough to go ahead and enjoy or just absorb "Holy Motors" for its mania. I don't think the ghost of Antonin Artaud will utter a peep.

Write Ian at

Friday, December 28, 2012

Week of Dec. 28 to Jan. 3 (Rhoades)

Tropic Holds Its Lincoln Lineup
For Holidays, Adds Surreal Flick

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Sticking with a good thing, the Tropic Cinema holds its movie lineup for Christmas week, adding only a French surreal head-scratcher.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” continues to impress audiences with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 16th President of the United States. Based in part on historian Doris Keene Goodwin’s book, the film examines the political machinations that Lincoln initiated in order to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery.
Aside from great turns by Sally Field, David Strathairm, and Tommy Lee Jones, moviegoers have been impressed by the historical detail of the film. Count on Oscar nods for Day-Lewis and Field.
Also holding over is “The Guilt Trip,” a very funny mother-son road trip starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. When a young inventor invites his mother to spend eight days on a business trip with him, the results are predictable – bickering, confusion, a generation gap, and (as the title implies) Jewish guilt. But in the end both learn valuable lessons about themselves. The kvetching chemistry between the iconic Oscar-winning diva and the young upstart comic is worth the ride.
Movie buffs will definitely want to see “Hitchcock,” the biopic about the director behind such classics as “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” Here, the story focuses on the making of “Psycho,” a horror film that changed the genre, and was a shocking entry from the roly-poly British director known for his breezy mysteries. Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren portray the Master of Suspense and his brains-behind-the-scenes wife Alma Reville. Hopkins in a fat suit and Mirren with a short bob capture the familial tension between the couple as Hitch bets his career on a movie ears recording receding glaciers and ice floes around the world. The imagery we see is amazing – and frightening – as we watch the changes taking place to our planet.
The one new entry for the holidays is “Holy Motors,” a film that will leave you puzzling with your friends exactly what you just saw – a Master of Disguises riding about Paris in a white stretch limousine, going from assignment to assignment where he takes on different roles as if moving through parallel universes. Beggar woman, mob hitman, a shuffling madman who kidnaps a beautiful model, a dying man, a character in a musical, a stern father, a thwarted lover,  we’re left wondering who Mr. Oscar really is. This surreal masterpiece by Leos Carax is a commentary on “the increasing digitalization of society” – maybe.
Give yourself a holiday treat and catch one of these interesting films at the Tropic.

Holy Motors (Rhoades)

“Holy Motors”
A Puzzlement

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Yes, I’ve seen “Holy Motors,” but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what it’s about. This fascinating French film is a surreal puzzlement. The hardcore film buffs who watched it with me were left shaking their heads.
Director Leos Carax wants you to scratch your head, I think.
In it, a man known as Mr. Oscar rides to work in a big white limousine driven by his associate Céline. Mr. Oscar seems to be a master of disguises, at one location posing as an old beggar woman, at another as a gibberish-speaking madman who kidnaps a fashion model and drags her into the city’s sewers, at another is a dying man visited by a young woman … among many others.
We voyeuristically travel along with him and his livery driver, watching him change costumes in the back of the limo, then be dropped off at his next appointment. From musical numbers to gangster shootouts to simulated sex on a stop-motion soundstage to picking up his daughter after a party, we’re never sure what’s real and what’s not.
But mostly not, you can assume.
The one thing we do know is that we’re watching a masterful kaleidoscopic performance by French actor Denis Lavant (“Boy Meets Girl,” “Beau Travail”). The pug-faced chameleon is a favorite of Leos Carax, who has collaborated with him on several films (“Lovers on the Bridge,” “Tokyo!”).
For “Holy Motors,” the director wanted a Lon Chaney or Charlie Chaplin. Or Lavant …who played a Chaplin impersonator in Harmony Korine’s “Mr. Lonely.”
Édith Scob joins Lavant as Céline, sort of a Charon ferrying him about a Parisian Styx in the white limo. Punctuating the cast is Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, and Michel Piccoli. And Carax himself appears in the opening scene as an enigmatic character called Le Dormeur (“The Sleeper”).
Leos Carax sees his film as “a science fiction scenario where organisms and visible machines share a common superfluity.” Yep, a vast underground garage of limos serves as part of the cast.
As for these limos, Carax says, “They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.” These so-called Holy Motors seem to link Mr. Oscar to some sort of parallel universes in the film.
Moviegoers seem to like “Holy Motors” even if they don’t understand it. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 91% rating. Critics describe the film as “captivating and compelling,” “weird and wonderful,” and “the stuff of cinema itself.”
Even if you’re not familiar with Leos Carax’s films, I think this is one time it’s okay to take a ride from a stranger.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chasing Ice (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Chasing Ice

Jeff Orlowski's excellent documentary "Chasing Ice" portrays National Geographic photographer James Balog as a glacial astronaut and a hero. Indeed, he is both. Balog's lifetime work up to this point, has been to analyze man's interaction with Nature, including how we are interconnected and our supposed desire to be separate from Nature, in pursuit of material concerns.

Most recently, starting at year 2001, Balog has been concerned with the melting of the ice shelf, specifically the glaciers in Iceland and Greenland.

Balog sees glaciers as eccentric and colorful as diverse as a Richard Avedon photograph and his work shows this sensibility. Under Balog's lens these magnificent ice castles are frozen leviathans, dripping with life. They are also numinous curves into infinity, resembling spectral nautilus shells or giraffes in crystal. These photographs also have a unique human quality possessing ridges, wrinkles and rings that are as storied as Nico, Editta Sherman or Andy Warhol.

Balog has been up against the wall of Ignorance, and those who protest that global warming is an elaborate hoax ignoring the hard science that our CO2 levels have reached 391 parts per million, while scientists universally agree that acceptable levels would be 350 parts per million for those of us that recall the intriguing documentary "The Island President" centering on The Maldives.

Balog spent countless months rappelling along icy monoliths to set up timed cameras in the hopes of getting time lapse photographs of glaciers calving. He risks life and limb in his quest which is for art as well as survival. He has blown both knees and has been operated on three times. Like The Dark Knight of a Polar planet, Balog trudges on, climb after climb. He has gathered a great abundance of evidence that points humankind to a watery fate but those at Foxnews seem like Lex Luther offering shared Orwellian denial delivered with sarcasm.

Balog is almost a double agent. His wife cringes when he goes out to gather photographic evidence. He invariably travels far and is known to break down and cry if his cameras crack under pressure, no matter if it is by chance or predetermined.

Balog is driven. If the preternatural imagery of "Chasing Ice" doesn't get you, in its depictions of glaciers as sentient beings who rival the crystal skulls of Indiana Jones, James  Balog  the man will. When he looks into the camera with frost in his eyes, he is counting on us to be rational, adapt and move forward.

Write Ian at

Hitchcock (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Good Evening, ladies and gentlemen." So begins the familiar first bit of dialogue from "Hitchcock" Sacha Gervasi's (This is Anvil: The Story of Anvil)  handsome biopic of the beloved film director.

The film focuses on Alfred, his wife Alma, and the production of the classic "Psycho". Anthony Hopkins does wonderfully as the famous Hitchcock as does Helen Mirren as the arguably greater or at least equal force  (in both art and life) being his wife, technical troubleshooter and creative guardian, Alma Reville.

Stylistically, "Hitchcock" takes a cue from AMC's tv series Madmen. Hitchcock drinks like a fish and Alma drinks too. There is much emphasis on money and luxury dinners. The cars are cream-colored and the dresses are creamier. At first glance, this might seem another example of style over substance.

The director stands rigid like a pale root in the garden. Even the Los Angeles sun is swallowed up in the dark suit. He is without an idea and he wants something iconoclastic, no usual  suspense stories where morality has the upper hand. Then by chance, he happens to see a clipping in his office about the serial killer Ed Gein mentioning the  horror novel Psycho by Robert Bloch.

Hitchcock is hooked.

Paramount won't finance "Psycho" thinking the film will be a box office turkey, given its emphasis on incest, flesh-skinning and grave-robbery. After all, Hitchcock has been the standard for sophisticated suspense.

The director and his wife agree to put up the money personally and to mortgage the house. What follows is an analysis regarding the  domestic life of  Alma and Hitchcock in the style of an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode. This is an interesting idea. We see a fussy confining Alma who keeps a tight sable hold on the nearly impassive director who is inwardly perverse and amoral in his imaginations. Hitchcock has a very real lust for his  "icy blonde" leading ladies, specifically Grace Kelly and Kim Novak which is a perpetual source of great vexation.

It comes as no surprise then when asked  about Psycho's Marion (played by Leigh) that Alma suggests to Hitch "Why don't you kill her off in the first half hour?"

This was previously unthinkable for a film, let alone a Hitchcock one, as was the inclusion of a toilet accompanied by a flush.

The film moves quickly. It is smartly  shot and seldom misses a beat. Hopkins delivers a smooth respect to the great director, while still keeping his own  personality intact, the mixture of coldness and frivolity that is a frequent ingredient in many of Hopkins' roles. There is a scene in which Hopkins as  Hitchcock conducts the audience like an orchestra and dances manically about behind closed doors, which is in perfect rhythm and worth the price of admission, as is his near perfect Robert Benchley/ Hitchcock humor. Helen Mirren is surprising and bold as Alma, a person who is shadowy on the outside but very outspoken without.

Scarlett Johansson is authentic as Janet Leigh who has the twin traits of sensuality and a professional cool which are essential qualities for a 'Hitchcock Blonde'.

The only top heavy wobble in the film  is the flashback inclusion  of Ed Gein himself (Michael Wincott) as he putters around with the corpse of his mother, gets in bed with her and talks to Alfred in the manner of psychiatrist. These flashbacks are too much of a contrast to the stylish tone of the film and come off as overdone kitsch. Wincott doesn't offer anything intriguing and slows down the domestic tension between Alfred and Alma. Instead of  the exchanges with Ed Gein, why not Norman? There is one terrific  meeting  with Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy), then mysteriously, the character of Perkins is all but dropped. "Hitchcock", the film would have benefited with more scenes pairing Hitchcock and Perkins, given the groundbreaking history of the film.

Yet, despite its television-like bookend conclusion that seems a bit too pre-packaged, "Hitchcock" is a tongue in cheek Pop Art memento of a man driven by his movie. And while it is more  about Alma and Alfred than about a project  in crisis, it still beguiles and satisfies.

Who can argue with Anthony Hopkins as The Director in his trademark suit as he sits by the pool wearing black sunglasses as he wistfully fingers a Wisconsin leaf? Hopkins as Hitchcock or vice versa can make a single stalk of celery both comical and menacing.

Write Ian at

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Week of December 21 to December 27 (Rhoades)

Historical Drama, Biopic, Road Trip Comedy,
And Global Warming Doc Fill Tropic Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 With all your last-minute gift shopping it may be hard to squeeze in a movie during the countdown to Christmas – but you’ll want to make the time! This is a season of the year when you can expect to see some great films.
For example, still playing at the Tropic Cinema is Steven Spielberg’s masterful historical drama “Lincoln,” the story of the political infighting it took to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. History comes alive with Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Honest Abe … perhaps the most accurate depiction of Lincoln in screen history.
Film buffs (and aren’t we all?) will want to see “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the famous director and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville. Watching these two Oscar winners is like peeking through the blinds at the Hitchcock house. And Scarlett Johansson makes a very credible Janet Leigh.
Focusing on the making of “Psycho,” we see the influence of his wife’s collaboration on his work. “That was the most terrifying film I'd ever seen,” Anthony Hopkins says of “Psycho.” “I couldn't believe it: Where's Janet Leigh? She's got to come back. She's the star of the movie!” Well, here Hitch and Alma are the stars.
If you want a giggle or two, don’t miss “The Guilt Trip,” an amiable Jewish mother joke with Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen as a mother and son who go on a cross-country trip together. Oy vey.
Here, Seth Rogen swaps the raunchy humor he is so well known for, for an honest, toned-down comedy about a boy and his mother. And the chemistry between Rogen and Streisand appears genuine, a gentle bickering between generations.
Rogen says, "A lot of people see the movie … and they're like, 'Oh man, she reminds me so much of my mother,' and I think it's probably because your mother is a fan of hers and acts like her. I think there's a whole generation of mothers who kind of model themselves off of Barbra.”
“Mothers develop guilt trips,” she admits. “I know that feeling, a lot.” 
Filling out the Tropic’s slate is “Chasing Ice,” the documentary about National Geographic photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, a program that charts climate change. Using time-lapse photography, the haunting images of melting glaciers and receding ice sheets will remove any doubts you ever had about global warming’s affect on this planet.
One way get in your holiday gift shopping is to sign up a friend for a membership to the Tropic when you’re there catching one of these movies.

Chasing Ice (Rhoades)

“Chasing Ice”
Is Slippery Slope 
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

We don’t get much snow here in Key West … well, none to be exact. But living on an island we should be concerned about water levels being affected by melting glaciers and ice floes. I’m not looking for my house in the middle of Old Town to become waterfront property.
“Chasing Ice” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is the documentary about National Geographic photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, a program that charts climate change. Using time-lapse photography, the haunting images of melting glaciers and receding ice sheets will remove any doubts you ever had about global warming’s affect on this planet.
In order to document these changes, the Extreme Ice Survey was born in the mid-2000s. Balog set up 27 cameras in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland and Montana and took pictures every hour of daylight for a few years.
What we saw right away was ice disappearing. Ice retreating. Ice retreating at a remarkably fast rate – I mean much, much, much more rapid than I had anticipated. What we saw in those first downloads to the cameras in 2007 was kind of staggering,” says Balog. “To be honest with you, six years later when we go and open up those cameras and play back what happened, it’s still shocking. We’re still seeing lots of retreat, and in some cases we’re also seeing rivers form and lakes form where there once was ice.”
He describes glaciers as “the canary in the global coal mine.” When you see these 3-D manifestations disappearing, you start to worry.
“I’ve been knocking around the world’s mountain ranges for 40 years,” says Balog. “It remains shocking to see these large, seemingly immutable features of the landscape disappearing at this rate.”

Hitchcock (Rhoades)

All the Suspense Is Killing Me
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
 As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies, I’ve been dying to see the new biopic simply titled “Hitchcock,” a behind-the-scenes look at the director who gave us suspense masterpieces ranging from “The Lady Vanishes” to “Strangers on a Train” to “Rear Window.” Even a little horror sojourn appropriately titled “Psycho.”
We film critics knew Hitch was “bent,” that he had a hang-up for icy blondes.
The evidence was there onscreen – from Madeleine Carroll in “The 39 Steps” to Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” to Kim Novak in “Vertigo” to Eva Marie Saint in “North By Northwest” to Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”
Unfortunately for Hitch, his roly-poly brunette wife Alma looked nothing like this.
Rumors around Hollywood suggested the fat man liked to watch. A voyeuristic kink that seemed appropriate for a film director. After all, he was a porky Brit who’d got his start doing movie storyboards and title designs. Among the many suspense techniques, he pioneered the moving a camera in a way that mimics a person’s gaze, “forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism.”
Hitch’s psychologically-driven films often had strong sexual undertones. His heroines tend to be cool blondes who “seem proper at first but, when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, or even criminal way.”
French director François Truffaut captured hints of Hitchcock’s proclivities in his 1968 interview-book “Hitchcock, Truffaut.” Screenwriter David Freeman got the frightmeister to admit even more in “The Last days of Alfred Hitchcock.” And biographer Donald Spoto’s book “Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies” shared a lot too.
Now along comes “Hitchcock,” a tell-all film by Sacha Gervasi that lays it out for all to see. Based on Playboy contributing editor Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” it centers on the relationship between the director and his wife during the making of that controversial horror movie.
We learn from “Hitchcock” – now playing at the Tropic Cinema – that his wife was the power behind the throne.
As Hitch said when he accepted an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen … and their names are Alma Reville."
In “Hitchcock” we’re treated to Academy Award-winners Anthony Hopkins as the title character and Helen Mirren as his wife. In an attempt to make him look like Hitchcock, Hopkins is in full makeup and a fat suit. Tall and regal, Mirren looks nothing like squat Alma Reville.
But never mind. I was going for story here. The inside gossip. The dish.
Eh, but there was not so much about the cool blondes.
Frankly, it’s impossible not to compare “Hitchcock” with “The Girl,” a TV docudrama about the director’s turbulent relationship with Tippi Hedren (Melanie Griffith’s mother). Hedren has called him “A mean, mean man.”
Gervasi’s Hitchcock is less mean, more henpecked, a more sympathetic, even comedic, assessment of the man behind the portly silhouette. Helen Mirren carries the story.
But Hitch is still a driven man – whether by his wife or his psychological demons.
Biographer Donald Spoto described Hitchcock as “a man in the grip of uncontrollable impulses.” According to Spoto, his more perverse traits included “misogyny, sadistic tendencies, and fantasies of rape; bathroom and various other fetishes about sex and the body; overwhelming guilt, anxiety, and a mother fixation; and phobias toward women, people in general, and the world at large.”
Do we blame it on Hitchcock’s strict Roman Catholic upbringing? A mother fixation? A dominating wife? An obsessive need for fame?
Hitch achieved fame. He put his name on a mystery magazine, hosted a television anthology show (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents”), became known for his ironic twist endings. He directed more than fifty feature films in a career that spanned six decades. In late 1979, he was knighted, making him Sir Alfred Hitchcock. He died the following year of renal failure.
Moviemaker magazine has described him as “the most influential filmmaker of all time.”
His trademark was quick cameo appearances in his films. “Hitchcock” is one long 98-minute appearance, surrounded by his angst and quandaries and psychosexual hang-ups. Maybe it would have been better to leave Hitch to his cameos.

The Guilt Trip (Rhoades)

“The Guilt Trip”
Takes You On Mother-Son Ride
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
 Have you ever taken a trip just you and your mother? I mean as an adult. No, don’t cringe. It could happen.
As a matter of fact, that’s the plot of “The Guilt Trip,” a movie about a nice Jewish boy who is guilted into taking his mother along on a cross-country business trip. You know it’s going to be funny because it stars Seth Rogen and Barbra Steisand. How could it not be?
Rogen has given us such comedies as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” And in addition to being a legendary singer, Oscar-winner Streisand has yukked it up in those “Meet the Fockers” comedies.
But what’s missing here is the Judd Apatow magic touch. “The Guilt Trip” is directed by Anne Fletcher, who gave us “27 Dresses” and “The Proposal,” very girl-centric rom-coms. Being a choreographer, her first directing role was the dance film “Step Up.”
For this comedy – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – Fletcher had to “go Jewish,” to use Rogen’s words.
They tried to play the characters more generic, says Streisand, “But then your natural instincts come out.”
Here, Andy Brewster (Rogen) is going on the road to find a distributor for his organic cleaning product. And in a moment of weakness he invites his mom Joyce (Streisand) to tag along on this 8-day odyssey.
Along the way they encounter hitchhikers (“They rape,” his mother assures him), stop off at a topless bar with a flickering neon (“I love tapas,” she misreads it), and chow down at a roadhouse that serves steaks the size of a tire (“You know how I can eat,” she chirps as she digs in).
Yes, the trip is as painful for the son as it sounds.
However, as Andy deals with his mother issues, he comes to better understand himself. Thank you, Dr. Freud.
The screenplay by Jewish humorist Dan Fogelman is based on an actual road trip he took with his mother from New Jersey to Las Vegas. Her name is Joyce too. He describes his family as “endearingly dysfunctional.”
Streisand says she kept turning down the role until she read the script aloud with her own son, Jason Gould. Then she “fell in love with the role.”
That and the fact the producers guaranteed to film the entire movie within a 45-minute drive of her Malibu home. They also promised weekends off and no call times before 8:30 a.m.
Referring to her reputation as a demanding diva, Rogen says, “She can get away with a lot of stuff that she doesn’t pull. I've seen people with much less power than her get away with crazier things...”
Rogen tries to find the right words to describe the film. “In a lot of ways it kind of follows a very traditional buddy comedy idea, but it’s with the mother and son. To me that’s what’s different about it.”
“It’s transformative,” offers Streisand, just like a mother correcting her tongue-tied son “The journey is more than a road trip. They both grow as people by the end of the movie. That’s what I loved about it.”
Rogen says Streisand reminds him of his own mom. ‘‘I think there’s a whole generation of mothers who kind of model themselves off of Barbra. She’s the patient zero of Jewish mothers.”
The appearance of Barbra Streisand should assure you this isn’t the typical Seth Rogen stoner comedy. “I had seen a few of them,” she claims, though she referred to one of the films as “Coconut Express” in a recent interview  “I was a little shocked,” she admits. “He just said that? He did that? He showed that? Oh my god!”
This film isn’t like that.
The upside is that this might be the first Seth Rogen movie you can take your mother to see.

The Guilt Trip (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Guilt Trip

Oy vey. We have one overbearing mom here folks and she is played by the legendary Barbra Streisand. "The Guilt Trip" is the latest self-deprecating comedy starring Seth Rogen. Rogen, who has a natural likable charm, in the manner of a young Albert Brooks, predictably stars as Andy Brewster, an aspiring corporate inventor. While this is nothing inspired for Rogen, (he worries, frets, smirks and frowns, as he has done in many other outings) it is hard not to like him. He has his friendly, anxious and irritable persona down to a science.

Andy's semi-sloppy helicopter-mom Joyce (Streisand) calls constantly---seven times a day---and he duly deletes each message. He decides to visit mom on the way to a business trip and gets henpecked:

"Why can't you settle down and find a nice girl? Do you have sexual problems?"

Etc etc. Streisand manically goes on about her therapist, her hair, her makeup, her non-dating and the love she has for peanut M&Ms, to her son's increasing discomfort. Mom goes on to reveal that some other man, also named Andy, was the true love of her life with intimate details. Andrew is confused. In an apparent stab at being more amiable to his domineering mom, he invites her on a business road trip across the country.

At times Streisand's histrionics do become wearing, but just when you want to throw a whole bag of popcorn at Barbra, a frenetic chemistry builds between Rogen and the iconic Streisand.

This is not to say that she gets a free pass here. This comedy is filled with some needlessly silly stuff (like the mom finishing a four pound steak for a hundred bucks, not to mention carrying on, at a stripper's bar, or gambling) and most of it sillier than John Waters. And not very interesting, given that there is so much back and forth between it all. It was reported on the David Letterman show that the story is based on an actual drive that screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy Stupid Love) took with his own mother but I doubt their experience was as goofy as this film.

"The Guilt Trip" does set out on a novel path: a romantic comedy formula using the dynamic of a mother and son. At first Andy is reluctant, then he actually likes being with his mom, then of course, there are the usual miscommunications and harsh words just like in the usual romantic films.The two do possess a harmony and a solid heartfelt connection. The scenes that work are the ones where manic mother and badgered son are sharing some rapid fire repartee.

The film goes bland in its forced poignance though, especially near the end when it dives into an attempted meeting with Joyce's unrequited love.
Overall, the comic strength of "The Guilt Trip" is in its recognizability. We might know guys like Andy and mothers like Joyce.  We laugh even though we know what's coming, in the manner of a lukewarm Judd Apatow comedy, although its single joke of the ever-present mother who won't butt out is more like a skit than a full-length feature. Be this as it may, "The Guilt Trip" goes down easy and does manage to make you laugh a bit. The last scene in particular with Rogen and Streisand going their separate ways at an airport (as both pairs of eyes and smiles tilt quizzically in identical ways) is very touching as is the way in which they take leave from one another.

These quick strokes at the end give "The Guilt Trip" a much needed push, off-setting a bit of its warm predictability.

Write Ian at

Monday, December 17, 2012

Week of Dec. 14 to Dec. 20 (Rhoades)

“Anna Karenina” and “Lincoln”
Lead “Must See” Lineup at Tropic

By Shirrel Rhoades

You hear about some movies being described as “must see.” That’s certainly true of this week’s lineup at the Tropic Cinema.
Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” had been called the “greatest novel ever written.” And British director Joe Wright’s stage-set adaptation of it, starring Keira Knightley, is not to be missed. This stylized presentation is dazzling, the fine performances and mobile camera drawing you breathlessly into this story of love and betrayal in 19th century Tsarist Russia.
There’s more, lots more.
Central to the American experience is “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated movie about the 16th President of the United States. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe, the film focuses on the last few months of Lincoln’s life when he uses a former rival, Secretary of State William H. Seward, to help twist arms and bribe politicians into passing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Political machinations that remind you of today’s hardball lawmakers.
Also in the “must see” category is “Cloud Atlas,” the sprawling time warp of a movie that casts Tom Hanks, Haile Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, and others in multiple roles as it explores the karma that connects lives, past and future. Andy and Lana Wachowski, those mind-bending directors who gave us the “Matrix” movies, have teamed with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer to bring this sprawling sci-fi fantasy to the screen. Maybe you won’t understand it, but you definitely will not forget it.
And you can’t overlook “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s telling of the so-called Canadian Caper, the real-life rescue of six American diplomats trapped in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.  Here, a CIA exfiltrator poses as a Hollywood producer making a sci-fi film to get them out, a daring cat-and-mouse game that will have you on the edge of your seat even if you know the ending.
Also Edward Burns brings us “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” another of his brilliant dysfunctional Irish-American family dramas. When Burns isn’t acting in mainstream features and TV shows, he cranks out insightful indie films (you’ll certainly remember his “Brothers Mulligan”) that ring true. In this one, the Fitzgerald clan anxiously awaits spending the holidays with the dear ol’ dad who walked out on them 20 years ago.
Topping the off the Tropic’s lineup is “The Flat,’ a documentary about how the death of a grandmother sets a Jewish man off in search of his family’s past. But Nazi murderers and strange friendships make him think twice about shaking the family tree.
“Must see” or “Wanna see,” you make the distinction. But if you’re like me, you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the Tropic this week.

Shirrel Rhoades is taking over this weekly column for his old friend Phil Mann. Phil (the pen name of a local cinephile) has decided to sit back and watch movies without taking notes for a change.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas

Nothing says dysfunction like Christmas in some families  and we see it all in a new film by Edward Burns. This is the self-consciously titled "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas", which could be titled "Irish American in New York" given the past of Edward Burns' films. The story is quite well acted and swift, despite some overly melodramatic touches (namely the intrusive score) and a range of bad behavior which becomes dizzying. No character gets off easy here and the audience could have been in  for a heavy load were it not for the heartfelt acting and quick pace.

Thank Goodness.

Edward Burns stars as Gerry, the addled makeshift patriarch of the family who runs an Irish pub. He lost a fiancée in 9-11 and had to assume responsibility given that his cad of a father abandoned the family. He has sibling rivalry with his brother Quinn (Michael Mcglone) a hothead exec who is fond of twenty year old girls. None of Jerry's sisters want to spend a birthday with their well meaning but meddlesome mother, Rosie (Anita Gillette). There is the selfish Dottie (Marsha Ditlein), the selfish and secular Erin (Heather Burns), the selfish and bohemian Abbie (Daniella Pineda) and the selfish Cougar Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald). There is one generous sister Sharon ( Kerry Bishe) but she is a frequent victim of domestic violence.

These are all side stories. The crux of the story is whether to let the deadbeat and terminally ill dad (nicely played by Ed Lauter) back into the family during Christmas.

But of course.

 To complicate matters,  a druggy brother (Tom Guiry) is about to get out of rehab at the exact moment of a family meltdown.

And Rosie just won't budge.

As overly dramatic as the story is, it is nicely acted. The events are not lethargic with molasses and the cuts are quick and rapid, giving the domestic Sturm and Drang some much needed apprehension. You do feel for these characters and their feelings are tangible and solid. We want to see Gerry succeed and relax given that he carries so much within him and he is so well meaning.

The problem is only that the story is so overloaded that it becomes predictable at its end, a little like a Lifetime Movie. Might it have been better to leave out a couple of sister subplots and give the dad a bit more to do? We know that he is remorseful but beyond that, there is not much provocative exchange with him and Rosie.

The rapid editing is a plus, allowing us not to feel so bogged down with an  abundance of sister-narcissism. At one point, with Gerry racing back and forth to convince and placate mama and sisters , it could have had the quality of a suspenseful family noir, but then the story lags a bit with the budding of a romance between Good Guy Gerry and an earthy nurse Nora (Connie Britton) and they bond but don't exchange much spontaneity beyond a little French (or Irish) kissing.

The performance of Ed Lauter with his  stern Calvinist expression has enough tension and ambivalence to give the story its poignance , no matter that its end is too warm and fuzzy. Still an added dash of ambiguity  (with less explanation) could have gone a long way.

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Flat (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Flat

"The Flat" is a compelling documentary by Arnon Goldfinger which examines the  anxiety of history and the question of guilt on a very intimate level.

Goldfinger despite his James Bond-like name, is kind and unassuming. With his glasses and sparse hair, he reminds one of Kafka and indeed, given that he is surprised at every event that he uncovers, he does seem existential.

At the start of the film, Goldfinger's grandmother has been dead for a month. He is faced with the often upsetting task of going through her personal effects. After relating to us that his grandmother kept her house in Tel Aviv as a Berlin time capsule, filled with old classics of Balzac and Shakespeare that few read, he discovers something in the drawers that shocks him: Nazi propaganda, specifically the newspaper Der Angriff. 

Goldfinger is stupefied as anyone would be by these objects and he is driven to find out why they exist in his grandmother's house concealed for decades. Through his research of personal letters and Angriff papers, he finds mention of his grandmother, Gerda Tuchler in the company of one Zionist expert and Nazi, a Baron Leopold  von Mildenstein. Mildenstein was a SS officer in the department of Jewish affairs under the command of Goebbels. Gerda and grandfather Kurt accompanied Mildenstein on many trips to Palestine and Vienna. Horrifyingly, Gerda had knowledge of her own mother shipped out to the death camps and more unbelievably, Gerda and Mildenstein remained friends for many decades after the war, visiting, dining intimately and exchanging gifts.

Goldfinger's  quest is one flabbergasting surprise after another. Like an historical Columbo, he disarms with gentle congeniality, invariably bringing bouquets of flowers.

He kills with kindness.

"The Flat" unfolds like a Roman Polanski thriller. Everyone around Goldfinger is friendly and charming, eager to please yet distant and vague regarding the past. Goldfinger initiates a friendship with Mildenstein's daughter Edda, a disarmingly eager and charming sophisticate. At one point bearing proof of Mildenstein's acceptance in the SS, Edda dismisses the letter saying, "I don't believe it." She tries to convince Goldfinger that her father was an energetic Coca Cola executive with no Nazi association. Finally, Edda  says, "I'm interested, but...I'd like to think of other reasons."

The director's sister Hannah is non-plussed by the mystery. "I really don't think about it. It doesn't bother me." As mind-boggling as this is, Edda's husband gives somewhat of an excuse:

"We didn't think about it because you didn't ask. We weren't allowed."
The facts of history are thus forgotten under an accepted fiction of Mildenstein as a dashing and charmed traveller, a man about town, and ultimately, a conscientious executive for an iconic company who lived the American Dream.

This invention of truth is as jarring as anything in "The Girl With  The Dragon Tattoo". Within each smiling and champagne bubbling face, the eyes go momentarily blank and then recover as if to say, "No, this is what we've been told. It must be true."

The final upset is the present sight of Gerda's apartment, once brimming with scarlet bound tomes and old photographs, now  picked over by strangers, empty and barren. The clap of a shutter signals the closing of history and a gnawing thirst that sadly goes unquenched.

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Lincoln"  the film has now arrived in a blaze of cannon fire and Lincoln, the rational and very human being, breathes life in Spielberg's new epic. Here we have speaking before us and actually smiling, the ultra-iconic Abraham Lincoln (both the president and the man) and he is quite sensitive with an novel sense of humor portrayed by the chameleon Daniel Day-Lewis.

This is no surface performance but a near tour de force. We really see Lincoln walk ( he has a nonchalant, drifting gait) stammer and smile in a very real and quite human way. Although Lincoln is often taciturn and melancholic,he is no Gloomy Gus. He has a dry sense of fun and is fond of telling long stories full of pauses to the chagrin of others. As gentle and reserved as he is, Lincoln is never a passive penny. He booms with resolve and gets what he wants.

When the camera opens we see The  Union and The Confederacy deep in the mud, white soldiers against black soldiers, punching, clawing and impaling with grunting awe in hyper-drive  reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan". The blue and gray are so immersed that they are Greek wrestlers in Bas-relief.

Then we see Lincoln who is relating a rather scary dream to his confidante and wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). Mary tries to put her brooding husband at ease, saying that his fear is obviously his apprehension in trying to end slavery, known as The 13th Amendment. Mary's advice: there is a extremely bloody war. The amendment can and should wait till after the bloodshed  has ceased.

After all, Mary is clairvoyant.

Lincoln is pitted in the lion's den of his cabinet, although the film mostly focuses on Lincoln's relationship with the irascible but passionate Abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens, played with spirit and verve by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens fears that Lincoln will go diplomatic and soft. His message: the democrats will cave. Push the amendment through.

The first half of the film has our 16th President of The United States, going from place to place trying to reason with his cabinet and hesitant democrats who would rather end a war than terminate slavery. Violence, abuse and the nation-wide debasement of an entire race, albeit wrong, is the way things are in 1860 and no one likes change, especially in the midst of loss.

Lincoln is caught in an existential bind. The more he tries to placate, the more democrats rise against him. To prove his point, Lincoln quotes Euclid, who was the emperor of equality, so to speak. As it is in nature, he suggests, so it is with men: all sides are equal. Lincoln begins to win both ally and adversary to his cause, due in no small part to some one of a kind bullying by Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln employs guile and good nature to illustrate his cause, but once he is rebuffed, he is a dynamo of coal and brimstone. The table shakes under his slap. And it is then we see an echo of Daniel Day-Lewis' monstrous bloodletters, consumed by ambition. A duality of nature, both fire and kind function existed in this man.

The most interesting aspects of the film is Lincoln's nonchalant humor  and Mary Todd Lincoln's fearful dominance, despite her small stature. Cloaked under her huge billowing skirt, she trembles over her husband as a wild mushroom, saturated with toxicity and invective.

As Mary says at one outing in paraphrase: Do as I say. Mary is the one person that Lincoln is afraid of.

The pacing is brisk throughout, making this film a solid and active history. Thaddeus Stevens' rolling volcanic outbursts offer a light irreverence to Lincoln's saturnine smiles, who is not beyond poking at himself.
"You know Mary, we should be happier. We're miserable." He admits with a sad smirk.

"Lincoln" finally showcases the man, the icon-as- president and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis as a Humanist instrument. As he explosively fires at his wife and then his cabinet, he shuffles off in an odd hopping tread: a man in an ordinary black blanket, a pilgrim and a president, who has extinguished himself in battle to become part of our collective  transformation.

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