Thursday, September 27, 2012

Week of Sept. 28 to October 4 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Following on the heels of the reformist documentary Waiting for Superman, we have WON’T BACK DOWN, the true(ish) story of a couple of superwomen who fight to take over and improve a public school. The bad guys are the established structure, the school board, the school leadership and the union. The producers insist that it’s not an anti-union movie, but rather an “anti-complacency, anti-status quo, pro-parent” one.

In any event, putting politics aside, it’s a powerful, emotional story carried by Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Hysteria), as the mother of a third grader with reading problems, and Viola Davis (The Help) as a teacher who cares. Together, and with the help of a Parent Trigger Law, they take on the establishment.

If you’d like to meet the new Monroe County School Superintendent Mark Porter, he’ll be introducing the six o’clock show on Friday.

The popular movie genre of bashing financial tycoons adds another title with COSMOPOLIS. Like Arbitrage (which opened last week, and is held over) we witness a “master of the universe” as his world crumbles around him. But unlike Richard Gere, who presents himself as a dedicated family man and pillar of the community in Arbitrage, we now have Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame as a strange, reptilian figure. Most of the movie takes place in his lavishly equipped white stretch limousine, as it struggles through traffic and a series of encounters on his way to a traditional, old fashioned barber shop, while his massive bet against the Chinese yuan is collapsing.

Director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method) is known for his unusual, challenging films. This one is based on a Don DiLillo novel, which it generally follows, “but not everything is necessarily the same as DeLillo’s book. And that makes the film, as a series of discussions about inter-related money-minded contradictions, insanely rich and maddeningly complex.” (Simon Abrams, The Playlist) “Diamond-hard and dazzlingly brilliant…” (Budd Wilkins, Slant Magazine)

Have you ever been embarrassed by a sibling? Do you know someone who has? If you’ve missed that little pleasure in life, UNION SQUARE will fill the gap. Lucy (Mia Sorvino) is a loud, overdressed, clubbing party girl from the Bronx. Her sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) is a low key, organic foods guru, engaged to a very handsome, very fit, very quiet, and very WASPy guy. They live a mess-free life in a very clean, meat-free apartment… until Lucy arrives, unannounced, with a dog (who jumps on the white sofa). I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine tells on herself about the time she stayed with her sister: “Joyce,” the sister said, while asking her to leave, “you take up too much space.”

But behind the façades there’s a person and a history that the acting talents of Sorvino (Oscar-winner from Mighty Aphrodite) and Blanchard (Emmy-winner for Life With Judy Garland) bring to the surface. “A lively, nervous energy and an expansive sympathy for the mismatched women at its heart.” (A.O. Scott, New York Times) “Looks deeper to find the common humanity of its characters. This, Union Square seems to say, is the real ‘reality.’” (Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic)

takes us back to the early years of the last century, and to a story that reminds us of how much the world has changed for young women. Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is a beautiful 18-year-old who is helping her widowed father raise her five sisters. Her father wants her to marry a local colleague. But enter a rich, dashing aviator. Need I say more?

It’s the directorial debut for famed French actor Daniel Auteuil, and based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol, beautifully filmed in Provence. The English-language trailer is hard to find, so here’s a link. Take a look; you’ll be hooked -

“Marks a return to old-school French moviemaking, the kind of classically well-made endeavor that unrolls before us like a beloved tapestry.” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)For lovers of classical French cinema, and I am one, this earthy throwback is a whiff of lavender borne by the bracing winds of the mistral.” (Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer)

The new October theme for Monday Night Classics is Creature Feature. This week it’s THEM a 1954 horror story about giant ants mutated by A-bomb testing. Bring your Raid!

Full schedules and info at or

Union Square (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Union Square

"Union Square" by Nancy Savoca (Household Saints, Dogfight) puts us right in New York City. This is a quiet Indie that has its own quirk and motion and holds your interest throughout. Mira Sorvino plays Lucy, a hyper-sexed, vulgar-humored and very anxious lady who just happens upon her estranged sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) just by chance since her boyfriend dumped her.
This is a tale of two sisters and I found most of it lively and entertaining.
The crass and earthy Lucy barges right into Jenny's monastic New Age apartment. And she spreads right out almost refusing to remove her shoes. She immediately asks for a drink and puts on a loud Housewives reality show. Although this might seem like a Saturday Night Live skit, and indeed is at times, the film has enough natural momentum to be very life-like.
Lucy just will not get the hint to leave and the somber and outwardly calm Jenny is too Zen to give her sister the heave ho. There is comedy here in seeing just how far the garish Lucy will go.
High drama begins when Lucy blurts out to Jenny in the wee hours that their mother is dead, three years after the fact.
"Union Square" has plenty of apprehensive tension. At first you don't know what is going to happen or who is going to come knocking. A black poodle on a white sofa? Horrible Tv? A long lost sister who intends to be a squatter and ruin a vegan Thanksgiving? Oh No!
The film just loses a bit of steam when it evolves into the austere Jenny trying to rescue Lucy. Lucy attempts to jump and she cries and hollers. In these episodes, the film forgets its fast paced rhythm and almost becomes mush.
But yet again, with yet another impromptu visit, the story regains its quirky engine.
Union Square's strength is its dialogue, its quirky happenstance and its on target awkwardness in conversation between two sisters who regard each other as The Other.
This is a facile and simply told film that is mostly light on its urban feet. And it is worth a look the next time you cross your own cinematic intersection.
Write Ian at

The Well Digger's Daughter (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The Well Digger's Daughter

"The Well Digger's Daughter" is in the tradition of those masterful films  "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring." It is directed by Daniel Auteuil who also  stars as the vengeful and controlling father Pascal Amoretti. Auteuil knows just the right mix to give his character: an obsessive compulsive Alpha but altogether loving man, not without his endearments. Amoretti is sometimes put upon and stuck in the middle of social obligations. At such times this film is humorous and almost seems like a French "Meet the Parents" but it also has enough hard luck and tension to rival Thomas Hardy.

In Pre-WWII France, we have the young Patricia ( Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who is like a Snow White or a Tess. Her skin is like the sunflower and her lips glow incarnadine. She is a bit reckless too, in keeping with most French heroines. Everyday she crosses a river to get home. Enter Jacques, (Nicolas Duvauchelle) a blonde aristocrat, his face unnaturally pale. This man owns the river and demands obedience at first. No this isn't "Twilight of the Spring", don't worry. As nature progresses, ladykiller Jacques gives our pre-Raphaelite hottie a ride on his motorbike. 

Meanwhile, the older and clumsy Felipe (Kad Merad) pressures old man Amoretti to give him the honor of marriage. Amoretti agrees. Thrilled, Felipe plans to pop the question during a picnic at an airshow.
But Patricia and Jacques have sultry and stealthy alternate plans and she sneaks away.

Things get steamy in the rustic workroom.

Suffice to say Jacques is a bit of a cad and he is more than a little distant, a warm twin of Eric Packer in "Cosmopolis". Jacques is a daring Gatsby to be sure but he is also quite eerie. 

Yes, this has all the trappings of a Gothic twist of the heart. But it also has its moments of madcap comedy, notably in the scenes where Felipe is at a cafe, ordering copious cocktails to propose. He becomes more and more Chaplinesque and painfully polite and we know it's hopeless.

Back at home, Amoretti learns of the tryst, and he becomes pridefully enraged thinking that Jacques has pre-meditatively gone off to war, making a fool of him.

There is a letter of explanation, but Jacques' mother ( Sabine Azema) is a hyperbolic and slinky witch and burns the letter. This sets off a whole chain of Rage with Patricia feeling more and more guilty and the patriarch getting more incensed with indignation.

This film is pitch perfect, well balanced in pathos and hilarity. Amoretti is lovable and lunatic, soft and scary, but never cartoonish. Within Auteuil's face we can see the miles of memory and his hopes for an ancestral immortality.

And you won't find a more vibrant and handsomely produced film this week. It is nothing less than a panoramic Renoir painting in motion. For those of you who crave an old-fashioned family melodrama of amber avarice and  leering light, you will be grandly pleased with "The Well Digger's Daughter".

Write Ian at

Cosmopolis (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets
by Ian Brockway

Cosmopolis In what might be thought of as an existential and abstract version of "Arbitrage", here is David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis", an adaptation of Don DeLillio's novel of the same name. "Cosmopolis" in both book form and film, is ( at least in my mind) an interpretation of Brett Easton Ellis' "American Psycho". Both films and novels have similar tones, themes and some equally far out dialogue throughout. Both stories also have similar obsessions with wealth. In "American Psycho" it is restaurant reservations, but here it is the paintings of Mark Rothko and the prostate.

Before I go any further, I'll admit that if you are not a fan of David Cronenberg you probably won't get this film. I happen to like Cronenberg's way of treating everyone as if they are from Saturn, so I took everything in as a matter of course. This is Cronenberg as usual.

Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a selfish and distracted assets manager who would make the public image of Andy Warhol into a chattering jitterbug. Packer speaks in off camera asides throughout the entire film as his urban environment floats through him. And if this puts you off, as it will, it's supposed to.

Cronenberg as well as DeLillio have conceptual aims here in showing a cypher of a man who rolls rather than walks through a cold and formal geometric world. And although this is not a new idea, it has evolved into Cronenberg's personal trademark, in much the same way as Spike Lee describes his Brooklyn bubbling over with emotion, gliding by quickly in festive colors and it worked for me. In contrast, Cronenberg's style is one of ice, surface temperatures with clinical, often medical terms and associations in dialogue.

Pattinson seldom addresses anyone face to face. He looks out a window, at his sleeve, crotch or shoe. He is less a man than mannequin. Eric Packer's eyes are invariably glazed. He is either wincing or bored. Many might lose patience in this portrayal with total lack of character intent. But for me, it is a visual mediation on Albert Camus or something very close to it. Packer is an adult Billionaire, but he just as well might be an aloof adolescent. His blank stare seldom changes.

The more inactive Packer becomes, the more animated his visitors are, who incessantly barge in on him in his limo like the neighbors from "Pee-Wee's Playhouse". Packer has visits from four advisors, a mistress, a wife, and a medical doctor, all from his limo seat and that's not all.

"Cosmopolis" works best on a visual level. Packer's limo is electric with all the soft operatic feeling of Stanley Kubrick's spacecraft from "2001" Light pours from Pattinson's fingers. He is a vampire locked in the reaches of nihilistic space while his porcelain features echo a bit of Malcolm McDowell's haunting portrayal from "A Clockwork Orange". When Eric finally exits his space-station limo, passersby plague him like suspicious insects in a William Burroughs novel.

We get the feeling that Packer is guilty of crimes just by the mere fact of his breathing, of taking up space. This is no accident. Cronenberg, after all, directed the film adaptation of "Naked Lunch" (1991). The director is terrific in showing the paranoia in the mundane and its silence. The director's devotees will be able to pick up all the familiar Cronenberg touches here: a serpentine mistress, (Juliette Binoche ) an extraterrestrial newlywed (Sarah Gadon), along with a full-fledged medical exam and some startling percussive moments. Last but not least, there is a pie in the face that is filmed like a Hitchcockian murder scene.

The only stumble in tone and feeling for me is the appearance of Paul Giamatti as one of Packer's disgruntled employees. This role is far too familiar for him, too histrionic and over-the top to balance in an interesting way with Pattinson's space-man drift. But this is only a minor wrinkle to what is a flawlessly smooth and all out odd film. The word "haircut" has never sounded quite so strange spoken aloud, nor has there been a prostrate so mythically asymmetrical.

Write Ian at

[Editors Note: This review has been amended in acknowledgement of the comment below.

Won't Back Down (Brockway

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 
Won't Back Down

What's all the hoopla about? Granted we all like a "feel good" film every once in a while. That's all well and good. I enjoy a solid underdog tale as much as   anyone, and if that's your appetite and you enjoy visual baby food, you will be well pleased with "Won't Back Down", the new film by Daniel Barnz which is (yes you guessed it) yet another film inspired or based "by actual events." Dear God.
The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie and Viola Davis as Nona. They are two young struggling mothers with two struggling kids and their dads are either non-existent or self absorbed. Their kids are academically failing  in school and both have learning disabilities, although this is not completely or intricately described. Gyllenhaal goes hither and dither overworked and looking cute (if that's possible) with dimpled cheeks. She smiles as much as a Cabbage Patch doll. When she notices that her daughter is having trouble in school and being bullied she springs into action. Watch out! 
"Have you heard about those mothers who lift those one ton trucks off their babies? They're nothing compared to me." Grizzly Mom 3!!!
Subtle this film is not and it deals with such a vital and important subject that it should be. 
Jamie as portrayed, is half Betty Boop and half Sarah Palin. Jamie's speech is so familiar and trite it's embarrassing 
"Let's be the Change!" She screams.
A quotable T-shirt has more wisdom.
And as inflamed by teachers unions as she is, she never looses her sexual allure, going about in loose t-shirt dresses and skin tight spandex pants. Allegheny chic! 
Oscar Isaac is her heart throb Teach, part Ricky Martin and part Fonzie  with a ukulele and a bad ass which makes him all bohemian. Our man Michael complete with a leather jacket doesn't care to make a new school, all he wants to do is teach, man.
Wow. Radical dude! I'm blown. 
Every rally in the film comes with a festive smiling  crowd and pre-fab speeches of the TV movie variety. 
The school board is described without much heart, spirit or color, having all the subtlety of Grinches and Ebenezer Scrooges. I have been a teacher and I have talked with other teachers and college professors much more accomplished than myself. Unions do present problems. This is true. But they are not faceless, manipulative, sniveling bitchy people as they are shown here. There are reasons for unions: they function to protect the worker and that point is largely forgotten here.
This film is a libertarian valentine under the guise of a report card and the subject deserves more weight.
One aspect that I did enjoy is the acting of Viola Davis. Her portrayal is honest and forthright and her expression is shining steel. And Gyllenhaal has her moments as well, particularly when she is incensed and spaced out in shock after losing the opportunity to place her kid into a charter school. 
I was even ready to meet this film half way, but when Nona hit me with the fact that she was in a car accident with her taciturn son and then when Jamie admits that she is dyslexic along with her daughter. I said, oh No way, Nona. Balanced against a big showdown at the end, the melodrama becomes pre-stirred into an all too cloying syrupy pablum.
There is one fine poetic scene near the start of the film, where Jamie and Nona are canvassing their building asking for signatures. The camera pulls back to show multiple silhouettes of the two women panoramically, as if they are reproducing themselves by the force of their intention to make a better school. Alas, out of two become many, be they mentors or exorcists, shaded in the darkness of anonymity, to cast out the demons of a sick educational system.
It is a singular beautiful image, recalling the vibrant melody of "West Side Story". If only this one scene and some compelling acting largely due to Viola Davis ("I'm the first black Stepford Wife." Nona exclaims in the film's best line) but the story is as thin as a #2 pencil. 
Go see "The Class" (2008), a fine French-language "slice of life" film to compare, or the classic "Blackboard Jungle" (1955).  And don't forget  "Dead Poets Society." (1989). All three of these films have a depth and an allure that the self righteous and seemingly mass produced "Won't Back Down" just doesn't have. 
Based on this film alone, I want to quote Alice Cooper: "School's out for summer!"

Let us hope that there will be better films to come and that school will not, actually, be out forever.

Write Ian at

The Well-Digger's Daughter (Rhoades)

“Well Digger,” An
Honorable Remake

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Film snobs are likely to dismiss this remake of the 1940 French film “La fille du puisatier,” a classic by Marcel Pagnol.
If you’ve ever seen “La fille du puisatier” (Translation: “The Well Digger’s Daughter”), you know that it’s about the eldest daughter of a well digger who gets pregnant by the son of a wealthy shopkeeper. Set in the South of France at the beginning of World War II, it’s a sweet drama about a workingman’s attempt to maintain his family honor.
The film details the ensuing feud between the two families.
Now actor-director Daniel Auteuil (“Caché”) has had the audacity to redo the beloved film, taking the lead role of Pascal, the well digger, for himself.
Actually he does a good job with this homage.
Gamin-like actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (one of the mermaids in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) is perfect as Patricia, the saintly daughter who falls from grace. She will remind you of a Spanish-French version of Jane March.
Nicolas Duvauchelle (you saw him in “Polisse”) is convincing as Jacque, the handsome young man who knocked her up before going off to war.
Kad Merad (“22 Bullets”) is poignant as Félipe, her father’s co-worker who offers to marry the pregnant daughter.
And Jean-Pierre Darroussin (“La Havre”) plays the father of the seducer, a bourgeoisie shopkeeper who humiliates the well digger and his family.
Pascal declares that you can’t trust people "who sell tools, but never use them."
“The Well Digger’s Daughter” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is a moving story. And the colorful depiction of the Provence countryside delivers a delight to the eyes. You will fall in love with the south of France, if you haven’t already.
This is a simple story:  boy meets girl, girl has his child, things turn out okay in the end. It’s a faithful adaptation of Pagnol’s original story. Snobs have little to complain about here.

Won't Back Down (Rhoades)

“Won’t Back Down”
Drama Inspired By
Parent Trigger Law

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

California has a “parent trigger law” that allows parents to take control of underperforming schools. In 2010 a group of parents citing that new state law attempted to take over failing public schools in the Sunland-Tujunga community of Los Angeles.
That event was the inspiration for “Won’t Back Down,” the new movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a pair of women (a mother and a teacher) who, as the title says, won’t back down to the head of a teacher’s union and the school’s principal when trying to improve the education for their kids. This fictional account takes place in Pittsburgh.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake’s sister, nominated for an Academy Award for “Crazy Heart”) plays a bartender-mom who wants more for her child. And Viola Davis (Academy Award nods for “Doubt” and “The Help”) joins her in this crusade.
Holly Hunter (she won an Oscar for “The Piano”) takes on the role of the teacher’s union president. And Ving Rhames (the “Mission: Impossible” films) is the principal entrenched in bureaucracy.
“Won’t Back Down” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. It opened on Friday with Monroe County School Superintendent Mark Porter saying a few words following a 6 p.m. cocktail reception.
Parent trigger laws typically allow parents to overhaul the structure and operations of their schools by replacing staff, converting them to charter schools, or closing the school altogether if a majority of parents sign petitions agreeing to those changes. Although California was the first, seven states – Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, and California – now have some type of trigger law on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Advocates argue that parents should have a more active role in how their child's school is managed. They also claim that the traditional procedures for turning around low performing schools are too slow and heavily influenced by political interests, not necessarily the students’ interests,” notes NCSL. “Opponents claim that there are mechanisms already in place to intervene in low performing schools.”
“I do fight for what I believe in,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal. “And I think everyone should. I hope that this movie will inspire people to something about the educational system or whatever they think isn’t working in their country or community.”

Cosmopolis (Rhoades)

Cronenberg Takes
You For a Ride
In “Cosmopolis

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Wall Streeters are the new movie villains. There was a time when Russians were the bad guys in films. But despite a certain political candidate’s assertions about the continued villainy of Moscow, movies have found an “enemy” much closer to home – stock traders and hedge fund managers, those thinly disguised Bernie Madoffs and Michael Milkens that are perceived as greedy wreckers of our economy.
You’ve seen the return of Gordon Grekko in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and you’ve met Robert Miller, the bad guy you kinda rooted for in “Arbitrage.” Now meet Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who just wants to get a haircut from his favorite barber.
Robert Pattinson (star of those “Twilight” movies) takes on the role of Packer, a wealthy Wall Streeter who is out of touch with humanity as he sits in the back of a white limousine, fiddling with big-money numbers, driving around Manhattan looking for that elusive haircut. In the protective bubble of the limo, he’s isolated from the world, just as he’s intellectually and emotionally isolated from the realities of life.
His odyssey is interrupted by a presidential motorcade, a funeral procession, and an anti-one-percenter riot. Along the way he has several chance meetings and sexual encounters, all the while being stalked by a “pastry assassin” (remember Rupert Murdock’s pie-in-the-face brouhaha) and by a vengeful former employee. Betting against the yen, our Master of the Universe almost gleefully faces his own ruination.
A cold, alienated sociopath, Parker will remind you of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Yes, things get bloody.
An odd, offbeat movie – it’s directed by David Cronenberg, so what do you expect? – one moviegoer described it as being “like an American version of a French art film.” Another declared, “This is a very profound and insightful film.” Still others say “The film builds absolutely no momentum at all” and “I loved it, but it won’t be for everyone.”
Not a lot of things happen,” admits another movie buff. But adds, “It is demanding for the audience, yes, but every line of dialogue suggests, every line holds a meaning.”
This is pure Cronenberg, commenting on society through the intellectual interior of his characters. In this case, a society veering astray due to its focus on money and information. A fairly bleak viewpoint, by any interpretation.
Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, you eggheads out there will recognize “Cosmopolis” as a modern-day reinterpretation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” set in New York around the time of the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the year 2000. Originally criticized for its tone (John Updike didn’t like it), the book is now seen as “prescient for its views on the flaws and weaknesses of the international financial system….”
This is a film that helps put the Occupy Wall Street movement into a proper context. “Cosmopolis” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Note: This review of a Robert Pattinson film did not mention trampire Kristen Steward one time … well, before now.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Week of September 21 to 27 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Matthew McConaughey’s career has exploded over the last two years, with a series of edgy roles as a low-level criminal lawyer (The Lincoln Lawyer), a straight-arrow prosecutor (Bernie), and a smarmy male-strip-club owner (Magic Mike). But nothing can compare to his breakout performance as a rogue cop/hit man in KILLER JOE.

Chris Smith (Emille Hirsch – Into the Wild, Milk) has a brilliant plan to raise money to pay off a debt to drug dealers. Kill his mother – unloved and unwanted by everyone -- and collect on her life insurance. His naif sister Dottie (Juno Temple), his simple-minded father (Thomas Haden Church), and his evil-minded step-mother (Gina Gershon) all think it’s a great idea. And Killer Joe Cooper is happy to oblige for a fee and a little warm-bodied collateral.

Killer Joe got its start as an off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts, who went on to write the great August Osage County, which was presented here by the Waterfront Playhouse. Killer Joe exhibits the same wonderful combination of razor sharp dialogue and surprise plot twists, but with a humor that surges from merely black to downright morbid.

With Letts staying on hand as the screenwriter, Killer Joe strides onto the big screen without missing a beat. There’s no one to root for among this collection of worthless characters as they move from depravity to depravity in a series of “Oh, no” moments. But what a time you’ll have deciding who’s the worst.

“A hideously funny tabloid noir.” (Nick Pinkerton, Village Voice) “A rude, shit-kicking thriller that co-opts - and merrily defiles - a classic like Double Indemnity." (Scott Tobias, A.V. Club)

THE CAMPAIGN is for those who prefer their humor satirical. Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is an entrenched Congressman who cares about nothing except reelection, whose campaign theme seems to be “round up the usual platitudes.” But the industrialist Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd) decide they’d like to buy the seat to advance their interests, so they put up Marty Huggins (Zach Galifanakis), a local nonentity, and back him with plenty of money and a cutthroat campaign manager (Dylan McDermott).

What ensues is laugh-out-loud ludicrous, but not so much that we don’t recognize how close it is to things that really happen, from the influence of big money interests like the Motch (Koch?) guys, and the smarmy shifting of positions by the candidates. Laugh and cringe at the same time.

“Raucous in its send-ups of the moral, financial and sexual peccadilloes of the common political animal.” (Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Examiner) “Below-the-Beltway humor, stretching obvious targets to raunchy extremes.” (Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times)

Enough already, you’ll be tired of laughing, and ready for SIDE BY SIDE an informative documentary look at the changes in film presentation over time, with an emphasis on the recent changeover to digital cinema. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that film distributors have been phasing out 35mm film, which they have to ship around in big canisters, in favor of a digital medium, which they can deliver on small hard drives. The implications are many, somewhat analogous to the change from vinyl records and tapes to CD’s to iPods. With Keanu Reeves as the moderator, and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, and George Lucas as the interviewees, we learn how this transition is taking place and what it means.

“It is worth a year of film school and at least 1,000 hours of DVD bonus commentary.” (A.O. Scott, New York Times). If you’d like a little local background, Shirrel Rhoades, film critic for Solares Hill, will be on hand for the Saturday matinee show to handle a Q and A.

Got kids? They’ll love ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT, the fourth in an animated series that has produced some of the highest grossing movies of all time. Manny the wooly mammoth, Scrat the sable toothed squirrel and the rest of the gang are trying to get home after being set adrift on an ice flow. Need to know more? Ask your ten-year-old.

ARBITRAGE and SLEEPWALK WITH ME are held over, and the John Hughes classic BREAKFAST CLUB is the Monday Night Classic.

Full schedules and info at or

Killer Joe (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Killer Joe

American Gothic director William Friedkin has a new film out and he seldom misses out on a visceral, haunting, upsetting or psychically  jarring experience. His gallery of rogues have included, a sweet and vulnerable young girl torn apart by an execrable demon, (The Exorcist) a pair of driven and closeted cops, (The French Connection, Cruising) a nest of nasty, snarling thespians, (The Boys in the Band) and last but certainly not least, a group of criminals who risk everything, carrying explosives over a swinging  bridge. (The Sorcerer)

Friedkin, in the tradition of Bunuel and Polanski, thrives on audience discomfort  and he doesn't change his tune here.

"Killer Joe" takes place in a squeamish fly-infested Texas town where everything is rusty and anemic, either stained with fecal matter or blanched a bone gray. The very earth seems composed of broken metallic parts and the people themselves, hobble and drift about chewing on their gums with little outlet, occupation or money.

Everybody hates each other, and then some. 

Drug Dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) needs money. He is victimized by his monster-mom who we never really see and takes a hit out on her. He enlists the help of  the chiseled and robotic Detective Joe Cooper,  played to creepy perfection by Matthew Mconaughey who seems to have a secret leather or cloth fetish (among other very upsetting pre-occupations) in keeping with a former film character Steve Burns in "Cruising". Cooper has more than a bit of Frank Booth from "Blue Velvet" in him here too, but that's really not the surprise, the Halloween trick is seeing how far Joe is going to go. 

You have to see it to believe it. As I recall, this is what someone once said to me during a Halloween movie about a little girl in 1979.

This film will give you both yikes and yucks in spite of all, although perhaps more are needed. Not since "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or the stories of Flannery O' Connor has there been a more amoral or evil family depicted. There is one outrageous scene that is guaranteed to keep you away from fried chicken, at least for a few nights. Cinematically-speaking, we can all sleep a bit easier with no KFC here.

Juno Temple plays the eerie and manipulative young daughter Dottie, whose bedraggled yet willful bearing (complete with stringy hair) reminds one of, yes indeed, the demonically-blighted Regan. And near the end, she's (almost) just as crazed.

Gina Gershon plays a narcissistic stepmom and Thomas Haden Church plays a selfish, weak, dumbling. Everyone on screen is petty and does terrible manipulations to each other, but even though no one is even remotely likable, the deadpan dialogue and punch-drunk gothicism succeeds to the point of dizziness. 

You probably won't exit  this film puzzled or perplexed as you might with "Rosemary's Baby", "The Tenant" or "Crusing" but this is not its purpose. This is a rough and tumble roast to jolt your eyes. Both the actors and the action go increasingly over the top, but I wouldn't expect less from such an impresario of  Ick. The director has such a time honored and scary legacy that even though the humor is blacker than black, the characters and tone do not  disappoint.
Go ahead, don't be scared. See "Killer Joe" on a dare and you'll be freaked out by Friedkin once more. 

Write Ian at

Killer Joe (Rhoades)

“Killer Joe” Is
A Dish Served Raw

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

How can you not love a movie that has the descriptive tag, “A Totally Twisted Deep-Fried Texas Redneck Trailer Park Murder Story”?
And who better to star in this film called “Killer Joe” than that totally twisted deep-fried Texan, Matthew McConaughey? As the titular Killer Joe, he’s hired to off the mother of a kid named Chris (Emile Hirsch) who’s in debt to a drug lord. You see, his mom has a $50,000 life insurance policy that pays off to his sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Since Chris doesn’t have the money to pay his hitman upfront, he turns over Dottie as collateral. That sets the stage for an unusual and wayward romance.
Emile Hirsch (he’s the kid from “Into the Wild” and “Speed Racer”) is properly panicky as Chris Smith. “I need $6,000 or some guys are gonna kill me,” he says to his dad.
The drug lord has threatened him: “I’m gonna wrap you up in electrician tape and bury you in a coffin about ten feet deep.”
So he decides to cash in on mom’s policy.  “You ever hear of Joe Cooper?” he tells his cooperative dad. “He’s a cop, a detective actually. He’s got a little business on the side … he kills people … He’ll do this right.”
Sister Dottie gets in on the act. “I heard you-all taking about killing mama,” she says. “I think it’s a good idea.” Pretty blonde Juno Temple is actually English (she played Queen Anne in “The three Musketeers”), but here you’d never know she wasn’t a good li’l Texas gal.
Matthew McConaughey (you last saw his bare chest in “Magic Mike”) gives a creepy performance as Killer Joe Cooper. Flicking his Lone Star cigarette lighter. Speaking of murder as laconically as praising a tuna casserole.
But there’s a fly in the casserole. Killer Joe requires a payment of $25,000 cash. No exceptions. That’s where Dottie comes in, being held by Joe as a “retainer.”
Turns out, he doesn’t want to give her back.
“My sister never did nothing to nobody. I can’t let you have her,” mutters Chris, finding a little backbone.
“The retainer’s for the money,” Joe growls. “I’m not leaving till I get my money.”
As dear ol’ dad says, “This is murder we’re talking about.”
Thomas Hayden Church and Gina Gershon add to the suspense as dad and mom. It’s hard to figure who’s on which side in this “Blood Simple” wannabe.
The film is based on a play by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts. As directed by William Friedkin (he won an Oscar for “The French Connection”) we have a black comedy that’s kinkier than a roll of barbed wire.
Friedkin hasn’t lost his touch, perhaps his own deal with the devil after directing “The Exorcist,” considered by many critics (me among them) to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
As Friedkin explains “Killer Joe”: “Well it’s sort of loosely made based on the Cinderella story. Every little girl everywhere in the world dreams of becoming Cinderella some day, and being swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Taken out of her dire circumstances where her parents don’t understand her, and there’s an evil stepmother. To me, Killer Joe is a twist on that and this Cinderella finds her Prince Charming, but he happens to be a hired killer.”
A fairy tale? The film is sadistic at turns. Matthew McConaughey originally threw the script away, calling it “disgusting.” But he returned to it, curious how Friedkin would handle such a gruesome tale.
“It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea,” says Friedkin, “but those are the kinds of films that attract me as a viewer. I understand these characters. To me, this was a story about people who were trapped within their own dreams of escape. People would like to think these sort of things don’t happen, but they do all the time.”
“Killer Joe” is closer to home than we think. Although the movie’s set in East Texas, the idea came from a news release about a family in Florida: a father and son who killed the ex-wife and mother for a cheap insurance policy.
“The setting is not geographical,” warns Friedkin. “It’s accurate in the geography of the human soul, and what I like to refer to as ‘the crooked timber of humanity,’ which is an Immanuel Kant phrase that I find to be a wonderful description of all of us.”
The film has been called “brutal.” Friedkin shrugs at the description. It’s that as well as grasp-out-loud funny. He describes “Killer Joe” as “a dish best served raw.”
Like a tuna casserole perhaps.

The Campaign (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Campaign 

Here's a comedy to put your brain on cruise control and although it isn't all that original or daring, pitted against  Friedkin's skillful but jarring "Killer Joe" a bit of bubble-gum silliness might be just what some of us need. "The Campaign" is the latest collaboration between actor Will Ferrell and Adam McKay who was behind such comedies as "Anchorman" and "Stepbrothers". Will Ferrell is a wonderful, madcap comic. He essentially takes the bland milquetoast characters made famous by Steve Martin (The Jerk) and gives them a weird spaced out polyester edge. Ferrell's comical bestiary portraying square Anglo-Saxon men who are steeped in the 70s, is now canonized. 

In this outing, Ferrell plays Cam Davis,  an incumbent congressman who hopes to run unopposed. Enter the Moch Brothers, (obviously based on the Koch Brothers) who engineer a goofy but amiable evangelical candidate, one Marty Huggins, played wonderfully by Zach Galifianakis. The cherubic and sweet Huggins who swishes and sways, is a bit like silent-era funnyman Oliver Hardy. Marty has all the best lines and balanced against the dry and airbrushed Cam Davis, he steals the show along with his twin pugs.
After the first twenty minutes, it is clear that Huggins is probably based on Mike Huckabee and Cam Davis is a hybrid of Bush and Clinton. Ferrell does well here although very few of the jokes are nothing we haven't seen before in his George W appearances on SNL and Broadway, although he plays more of a slick and clueless silver-haired shyster here. Davis is in damage control mode, having made a obscene phone call that was caught on tape. Yes, as soon as we see Cam Davis's syrupy smile we know what's coming: the stupefied looks, the comments about his hair and the jokes about polls being silly. 
Yet Ferrell has his brand of political humor down so well that we chuckle anyway. His best moments are when he makes up the words of The Lord's Prayer. This will have you laughing out loud and it is clearly the film's best moment. 
Marty Huggins' earnest madcap spirit clearly makes him the most colorful character, not least because Galifianakis uses his body with verve and spontaneity. His best moments are when his character attempts to act more manly in front of the camera and his antics of embarrassment at the family dinner table. As Huggins walks through the town, he says hi to everyone and shouts "Can't is the new C-word!" 
True, this is not controversial comedy but it still produced chuckles.
The first half hour of the film works better than the second. The jokes are supple enough, but the plot has no legs. Of course Cam Davis is going to have an affair with Huggins' wife. We can see that a mile away. And sure Marty Huggins is going to face off with Cam in a deer hunt. We know this and we still laugh when Davis screams. It is not the plot but the chemistry between Galifianakis and Ferrell that makes "The Campaign" watchable. By the conclusion, things are tied up so well that the film loses its punch. 
But perhaps this comic debate is not meant to be punchy, but a  only a mere light lampoon to alleviate the very ugly language in this season's real-life political climate, not to mention the grim Gallows humor of a man called Killer Joe.  

Write Ian at

The Campaign (Rhoades)

“The Campaign”
Elects to be Funny

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we focus on the presidential election – Obama versus Romney – let us not forget about other campaigns for office. For example, those two North Carolina politicians vying for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.
Yes, I am speaking of the political rivalry between Camden “Cam” Brady and Martin “Marty” Huggins. Moviegoers may know them as Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis, stars of the new comedy called “The Campaign.”
This dog fight (that was the film’s working title) is the typical funfest you’d expect from either Farrell (“Step Brothers,” “Anchorman”) or Galifianakis (“The Hangover,” “Due Date”), half silliness and half slapstick. By slapstick I’m referring to that scene were Cam Brady loses his cool and takes a swing at Marty, only to slug – rather than kiss – a baby. He goes on to complain that no one cares about his sore hand from connecting to that baby’s iron jaw.
The backup cast is strong, perhaps to make up for a weak plot. You’ll encounter Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, and Piers Morgan (as himself).
In order to unseat longtime Congressman Cam Brady, a pair of Tarheel businessmen named the Motch brothers (Aykroyd and Lithgow) put up a rival candidate, simpleton Marty Huggins, the director of a local tourism center.
Full disclosure: I once published a North Carolina travel magazine, distributed through the state’s Welcome Centers, Chambers of Commerce, and tourism outlets. So I know this world fairly well. Oh, you don’t think so? I even went to high school with Zach Galifianakis’s mother. We swapped emails just this week.
Silly, yes. But that’s not my complaint. It’s that they filmed this tale of North Carolina politics in New Orleans. You don’t have to publish a travel magazine to know the difference in locales.
In “The Campaign,” Zach does his brilliant man-child schtick. And Farrell does his dumb politician impression.
Fans debate which politician Farrell was imitating. One bloggers writes, “Rick Perry is the first thing that comes to mind. Is that just a coincidence or has Will Ferrell been watching Rick Perry campaign videos?”
Another responds, “Ferrell has had good practice at playing GWB, I imagine it would translate very well to playing a Perry parody. Perry is basically Bush, but even dumber.”
Others took umbrage with that remark. “George W. Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard. Rick Perry flew C-130s for the USAF. Will Ferrell has a bachelor's degree in something called Sports Information, was a failure as a hotel valet and a bank teller, and now reads lines that someone else wrote for him in ‘comedies’ that aren’t funny.”
“Not funny? I haven’t laughed that hard in a while,” argues someone else.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw some ‘pretty boy’ a la John Edwards in there as well,” speculates a moviegoer who knows his North Carolina politicians.
“Weiner jokes, fart jokes, and punching babys (sic) are not really all that funny...”
Overall, the film is hilarious,” says another.
Go see the movie before you cast your vote. The “polls” are open at the Tropic Cinema.

Side by Side (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Side by Side

For those philosophical cinephiles among us, Chris Kenneally's "Side by Side" offers a thoughtful and comprehensive look into the rise and increasing domination of digital filmmaking. This film will either scare or inspire depending on what medium you feel close to, and speaking for myself, I feel perched on the edge of my ambivalence, typing on my virtual keyboard, frankly unsure of how I feel.
I see arguments for both. And I think the tension between film and digital media has a parallel in the battle between printed and electronic books. 
At the start of this film, my heart sank. Here was my hero David Lynch telling the narrator (Keanu Reeves, of all people)  that he doubts he'll shoot again, no less with 35mm film.
"Are you done with film?" Keanu asks, (as in Dude, are you through?)
"Well, don't hold me to it Keanu, but I think I am." 
This was more shocking for me than the end of "Killer Joe".
Gone are those beautiful blacks and yellow grays from the "Eraserhead" period. And no more of those pure painterly, photochemical blues from "Blue Velvet" will be seen again.
Now what?
Instead of sobbing uncontrollably, I quickly got into the documentary which is a story in itself. If you can tolerate Keanu Reeves' occasional surf accent that creeps in here and there, the film has a wealth of information on the differences between film and digital media and the pros and cons for both. Although the material presented might seem a bit intimidating on a technical level, the documentary never flies above your head. You don't have to be a film professional or an academic scholar. 
The  concepts are accessibly shown with a moderate amount of attention paid to entertainment. Although I did find the film clips to be weighted a bit to heavily on George Lucas' repertoire. What about Steven Spielberg's filmography? And David Lynch had barely one clip. Ridley Scott, the visual maestro behind "Alien" and "Blade Runner" was not even mentioned.
The most interesting aspect of "Side by Side" is the aspect of digital film as a conquering and dictatorial virus that consumes all in its path, replacing the hard sculptural editing process with the fluidity of convenience, the smooth push of a button.
Director Martin Scorsese appears waxing nostalgic for the great  spooling editing machine of the old 20th century, when you spliced, cut or physically taped actual film together and you ran the risk of nicking your fingers. 
"That was real blood on film!" Yells Scorsese. Projection in Hell's Kitchen. 
Geoff Boyle, a master cinematographer is largely critical of digital media. For one thing, the media is changing so fast that it runs the risk of outdating itself once an image is made. Once that happens there is no way to store the material without transforming it back to 35 mm film. 
Simply put Boyle says, "We're fucked."
Disturbing film for thought. 
But it's not all boom and gloom. We get the mercurial director Danny Boyle complete with his rapidly moving eyebrows, who champions the lightness of the new cameras. And there is Pop sensation Robert Rodriguez in a cowboy hat who swears allegiance to the new medium.
As I am myself inhibited in mobility, I can indeed see these small insectile and futuristic recorders as droids of wonder. What other device could be strapped to the arm of my chair, or even my stiff and tight right arm to record something of me? 
I get it.
But still as a painter, I relish working with my left hand and doing physical things that are a little difficult. There is something sensual that goes into the hardship of things, I enjoy any visceral contact with most anything.
In that sense, I would seek out the noisy and loud editing machines. I can see myself craving the clatter, the motion, the energy of such things. The tactile is divine. 
Near the end of the film, director Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) says she sees a time when actual movie theaters will fade into obsolescence, and become virtual.
I pray that Wachowski is dead wrong.
I would greatly miss the feel of that  comfortable and cloaking darkness on my skin and in my nose. Apprehension... and the moment just before the film starts when I make the sedentary jump, both losing and regaining my body.

Write Ian at

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Week of Sept. 14 thru Sept. 20 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

ARBITRAGE leads the card this week, with Richard Gere as a morally compromised lion of Wall Street. He brings to mind a guy I knew whose very successful business was always a mystery to me. When I asked him what he did, the answer was always “arbitrage,” but I could never get him to explain any further. I’ve been to business school; I know what arbitrage is, and that it takes various forms. I eventually found out what form my friend was using. He was marketing for a Bernie Madoff-type. But he would never let me buy in. I didn’t have enough to make it worthwhile, I guess. As it turned out, he was a better friend than I thought.

Richard Miller (Gere) is a “master of the universe,” to borrow Tom Wolfe’s term, running a hedge fund that is the envy of Wall Street. He has a beautiful wife (Susan Sarandon); a smart, knockout daughter (Brit Marling); and even a luscious mistress (Laetitia Casta). Did I mention that he’s handsome and charming? He’s Richard Gere, for f__ s sake.

But as with my friend, and Madoff, everything is not quite as it appears with the firm. And then there’s a devastating accident (no spoiler; it’s in the trailer). And there’s a relentless, suspicious cop who has a thing about rich guys who get away with crimes. (Tim Roth).

“Slick and grown-up as Richard Gere himself, this intricate fiscal thriller takes a dead bead on extreme privilege .” (Michael Atkinson, Village Voice)

“a professional, morally thorny thriller” (Peter DeBruge, Variety)

“Gere's gripping performance is just as much physical as it is verbal…. This bastard, like so many before him, attracts people like moths to a flame, never thinking twice as he watches them burn.” (Glenn Heath, Jr., Slant Magazine)

SLEEPWALK WITH ME is lighter fare, essentially a very popular stand-up routine brilliantly spun out into a movie. The somewhat autobiographical Matt (Mike Birbiglia) has a wonderful understanding girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) but he’s struggling with two problems: failure in his chosen profession of stand-up comedy, and self-endangering sleepwalking. We follow Matt as he finally scores some gigs at bottom-feeding venues and manages to build a routine. And we suffer, with pleasure, as he fights off threats, and threatens himself in active dreams.

It’s hard to describe this movie. Take my word. It’s delightful. Co-written and produced with Ira Glass from NPR’s This American Life, it “holds together as a story that, like a particularly good episode of This American Life, is both laugh-out-loud funny and somewhat melancholic.” (Drew Grant, New York Observer)

“A dream for fans of offbeat, well-written, subtly acted projects.” (Claudia Puig, USA Today)

If these aren’t what you want (though I can’t imagine why), there’s plenty more in the holdover movies.
 Frank Langella stars in ROBOT AND FRANK, a buddy comedy about an aging thief and his caregiving robot.
Jeremy Renner and Ed Norton continue the Bourne saga with THE BOURNE LEGACY.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in HOPE SPRINGS, a rom-com about a fading marriage.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, a tongue-in-cheek look at an eccentric inventor of a time-travel machine.

And last, but not least, Monday night brings the latest in the September Back to School series: SUMMER SCHOOL (1987), a comedy about an irresponsible teacher teaching a summer session of malcontents and dropouts.

Full schedules and info at or

Sleepwalk With Me (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia's autobiographical film, "Sleepwalk with Me" is a solid comic experience. It is an inspired hybrid: a gentle version of a Louis C.K. mixed with a dose of a tranquil Woody Allen. 
As improbable as this might appear, "Sleepwalk with Me", draws you in with an easy smoothness and despite its somnambulant title, your eyelids will never get heavy.

Birbiglia himself plays Matt, a guy so casual and nice he is almost painful to watch. Matt is shy and easygoing, and just about the only things that make him nervous are his overbearing parents, his mom (Carol Kane) and his condescending father, (James Rebhorn) along with a debilitating sleepwalking disorder that follows Matt everywhere like a narcoleptic poltergeist. 

The film is plainly told and without decoration. If anything, it is a throwback to the films "One Trick Pony", by Robert Young, the Paul Simon road movie from 1980 and John Schlesinger's"Midnight Cowboy" (1969). These films were earthy naturalistic tales of well meaning people just trying to make it and hopefully not becoming used up along the way.
Matt is a hopeful  stand-up comedian who just can't get a job and isn't all that funny on stage. He struggles. Time and time again, he speaks with a halting monotone voice. He is just too bland and unassuming. He takes a job as a bartender in a local comedy club and voyeuristically  watches others rise to mediocrity. Matt's  cute and effervescent girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) who is a bit like Olive Oyl refashioned for the 21st century, gently prods him to be more ambitious. Matt meets a mid-level agent by chance and begins to take long distance  gigs as a replacement host and last minute comic at dives in Trenton and other bland environs. The long hours on the road coupled with his anxiety over his isolating relations with Abby, only increase his sleepwalking and he starts to have violent episodes. His parents urge him to seek help but he refuses, fearful of change.
This is one of the most direct and perceptive films I have ever seen regarding fear and relationship stress. The film does not have the smooth panache of "Hope Springs" but it has just as much awkward and genuine confrontation. Traveling has never seemed more gritty or as empty. Most of the time spent is done waiting, with sparse small talk and chatter.
And even though Matt's sleep disorder becomes unbearable, he treats it like a quizzical friend, a quirky happenstance that is occasionally malevolent and quite disturbing. We get the feeling that Mike or Matt (in the film) can handle anything though his very nonchalance and his almost Zen passivity. 
There is one small scene involving a pizza pillow that is too over the top to make much of the haunting impact that most  genuine dreams possess, but despite this minor misstep, I found this film subtle and refreshing, with a confessional spirit that ranks with the bounce of a Judd Apatow relationship study. At one point, the film directly quotes Woody Allen as it shows Matt running though an open field in the manner of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)". (1972) We almost see that giant squirting breast.
But no cigar.
Despite its softness in tone, the film moves along with an ebullient bounce that is hard to ignore. In highlighting life on the road and romantic discontent, Mike Birbiglia illustrates the human crisis of apprehension and the passing of time. The filmed  locations are often ochre or brown, yet this film is never melancholic or depressing. All events wobble in their own orbit. And Matt sleeps on, content in his existentialism. 
Without hesitation, Sleepwalk with Me is a deceptively casual, sharp film---a humorous sleeper that deserves undivided attention.

Write Ian at

Robot and Frank (Wanous)

Charming film a winner from first-time director

Charming film a winner from first-time director

Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella in a scene from 'Robot & Frank,' which opens at The Tropic Cinema.

"Robot & Frank," Rated PG-13, 89 min. Now playing at The Tropic Cinema.

Set 'in the near future,' "Robot & Frank" is a charming film that is part caper, part romance, part comedy and a look at the problems of aging that everyone eventually faces.

Frank, portrayed by the gifted Frank Langella, is a retired senior who is showing the deteriorating signs of aging that lead his two adult children, played by Liv Tyler and James Marsden, to consider placing him in a nursing home.

Knowing that Frank will want no part of that, his son instead buys him a humanoid robotic companion, who is programmed to improve Frank's physical and mental health. At first reluctant, Frank soon comes to appreciate the robot as a cook, housekeeper, friend and, ultimately, accomplice. Turns out, Frank is a retired cat burglar, 'a second story man,' and his new robot is the perfect partner-in-crime.

Langella ("Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," "Frost/Nixon"), who has been acting since the mid-60's, is perfect as Frank, giving the character just the right mix of charm, cunning and confusion. It's fun to watch Langella as he takes Frank from a bewildered and befuddled old man in the beginning, to an energized and focused schemer planning new heists with his new mechanical confederate and, finally, back to reality when his plans don't quite work out as planned.

Marsden ("Enchanted," "27 Dresses") is excellent as Hunter, the frustrated son and brother who is just trying to do the right thing. Liv Tyler ("The Incredible Hulk," "The Lord of the Rings") is Madison, Frank's altruistic daughter, who doesn't agree with Hunter's purchase of the robot. She thinks she can do a better job of taking care of their father and temporarily moves in with him.
Peter Sarsgaard ("Green Lantern," "Knight and Day") voices the robot, sounding like a much friendlier version of HAL, the malevolent computer from "2001."

Jeremy Strong plays the smug financier of the new library with such creepy flair that the viewer is glad when things go against him. The cast also includes the talented Susan Sarandon as Frank's friend and town librarian, who is coping with the not-so-comforting transition of her library of printed media to a library of the 'near future.' She also has a surprising past that will slowly be revealed.

In his first full-length feature, Jake Schreier makes the jump from his previous career as rock band keyboardist to movie director seem almost effortless. His film perfectly captures the tone of a light-hearted plot with serious undertones and does one of the most wonderful things a movie can do: send the viewer out of the theater with a smile. Scripted by Christopher D. Ford, also in his first full-length film, "Robot & Frank" scored well on Rotten Tomatoes, with both critics and audience giving it well-deserved high marks.

There are only a couple of flaws in this otherwise wonderful film. Even in the near future, one cannot imagine the crime victim being allowed to ride along and practically direct the police investigation.

And the viewer may be a little puzzled by an ambiguous ending that could be taken several ways. But these are just minor imperfections in a small gem of a movie. Only in limited release, it's too bad that "Robot & Frank" didn't get a wide distribution, as its message should resonate with all ages. The 30- & 40-somethings of today could well be the Franks of tomorrow.

And, considering that I need a watch that gives me both date AND day, well.... some of us are already there. So before you forget, write yourself a Post-It note and stick it on the 'fridge: 'Go see "Robot & Frank.' (Be sure to stay for the credits at the end - there are some film clips showing real present-day robots doing amazing things.)  

Sleepwalk With Me (Rhoades)

A Funny Wake-Up Call
From “Sleepwalk With Me”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My cousin used to sleepwalk. When I spent the night at his house, his brother and I had to stand alternate watches to make sure he didn’t get into trouble. Not that his going to the ‘fridge for a middle-of-the-night meal was particularly dangerous. Or the fact that he once peed in a closet, thinking in his somnambulistic state of mind that it was a bathroom. No, we remember the time he tried to drive away in the family car. He was maybe ten years old at the time.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia had the same problem – sleepwalking. But like most comedians he took life’s adversity and turned it into a funny routine. His sleepwalking riff became a key part of his one-man off-Broadway show. He’s also completed three Comedy Central TV specials and released a trio of comedy albums – one of them called “Sleepwalk With Me.” It debuted at #1 on the Billboard Magazine Comedy Chart.
Then he wrote a book titled “Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories,” which was nominated for a 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Boy, does he know how to milk a good joke.
Now he’s expanded that bit into a feature movie, titled – what else? – “Sleepwalk With Me.” He wrote, directed and stars in the film.
What’s more, this indie comedy – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance, selected in the "Festival Favorites" at South X Southwest, and won the award for best writer/director at Nantucket.
Okay, we’ll skip all those lame jokes about his comedy routines putting his audiences to sleep. Fact is, he’s pretty funny. I laughed.
In the movie he plays a character called Matt Pandamiglio. Carol Kane is cast as his mother. Lauren Ambrose does a turn as his girlfriend. Yet, it’s eerily autobiographical.
The film gives us an aspiring comedian who’s in denial about his whole life.
He can’t come to terms with the relationship with his girlfriend. He was “lied to, cheated on, duped, and dumped.”
He can’t deal with his lackluster career. He failed at becoming a professional break-dancer, rapper, or starting point guard for the Boston Celtics. He wanted to open a pizzeria where third graders could hang out, but his friends pointed out that it was “kind of creepy.”
And he refuses to admit he has a sleepwalking disorder. The more he represses his anxieties, the more funny (and dangerous) his sleepwalking episodes become. He once jumped out of a second-story window. “Mike’s serial delusions ultimately led to a series of incredible sleepwalking incidents and fortunately he lived to tell about it,” notes a friend.
“I’m trying to express certain themes – the theme of denial, and the degree to which people will go to not deal with something that is right in front of them,” says Mike Birbiglia. “In my case, it was sleepwalking. In other people’s cases, it was alcoholism or some bad relationship that they knew was over, but they couldn’t admit it to their husbands or wives.”
He adds, “I think serious situations actually make for the best kind of belly laughs.”
Mike Birbiglia is one of those guys you’ve seen but can’t quite place. In addition to his TV specials, numerous appearances on Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and NPR, and a recent small part in the Mumblecore comedy “Your Sister’s Sister,” nobody recognizes him.
In the movie he’s trying to deal with the question, “Why am I not more famous?”
 Off-screen he grouses, “I’m such a loser. I’m looking at a 40-foot version of my face and just going, ‘Not only am I playing a loser, but I am a loser, for making this movie about myself. What am I doing? I’m some kind of egocentric maniac.’”
Birbiglia shakes his head sadly. “I’ve been doing comedy for 13 years, and I’m described constantly as ‘up and coming.’ I’m like, ‘Okay sure, I’ll be up and coming forever.’” But maybe this film will change that.
“I don’t want to be known as ‘the sleepwalking guy,’” he says. But it may be too late for that. What can he do? “I don’t know,” he grumbles. “I’ll sleep on it.”