Thursday, February 23, 2012

Week of February 24 through March 1 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Coming up this Sunday night is the annual Academy Awards. You can watch it at home, or at locations around town, but there’s no better place than the Tropic, with the biggest screen, best sound and most comfy seats in town. Plus they’re adding their own pre-show with a live concert of Oscar nominated songs, both past and present. All this for only $20 ($15 for members), or go for the Star treatment and get an elegant light buffet dinner and other free goodies (and the joy of supporting the Tropic) for $65 ($50 for members). Details at

Whether you’re there or elsewhere you can join the Tropic’s annual Oscar picking pool, with prizes including free memberships or membership upgrades that are worth hundreds of dollars. Ballots are available at the box office and cost $5 each. Enter as many times as you want. You have to turn in your ballots by Sunday, but you don’t have to be present to win.

To help you, they’re still playing nominees in all the theaters: Two with a Best Picture nod, THE ARTIST and HUGO, and two in the running for Best Actress, THE IRON LADY and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. And opening this week is one of the Best Foreign Language Nominees, BULLHEAD. The title character of this Belgian film is a steroid-addicted cattle farmer who gets involved with a hormone mafia that illegally injects animals to bulk them up for market. It’s “an intense, shattering film, a confident and accomplished, punch-in-the-gut debut.” (L.A. Times).

If you’re entering an Oscar picking competition, I have some advice for you. The goal is not, of course, to pick who you think should win, but who will win. There are many ways to suss that out, such as checking the results of earlier award festivities or even seeing the movies and making your own judgments. But why go through all that work when the oddsmakers have read the tea leaves for you. You can get odds from places like the Las Vegas or British bookies, or from venues like which show the crowd-sourcing insights of thousands of anonymous selectors. This is not like a horse race, where the favorite can have a bad day or even pull up lame in the stretch. It’s rather the polling of a small, insular group, mostly aging white males, many of them having already tipped their hands in voting for earlier prizes. So predictions tend to be pretty solid.

A few of the top prizes seem like sure things. As I mentioned last week, THE ARTIST is given an 85-90% chance of winning Best Picture. If you have a contrary insight, get your butt over to an online betting site, where you can get 75 to 1 odds on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Extremely Maudlin and Incredibly Manipulative) or on Tree of Life (National Geographic meets West Texas), or even 20 to 1 on The Descendants.

Also odds-on favorites are Best Director for Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist), Best Animated Film for Rango, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants, Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, Best Original Score for The Artist, Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress (The Help), Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor (Beginnings), Hugo for Best Art Direction, Tree of Life for Best Cinematography, A Separation for Best Foreign Language Film, The Iron Lady for Best Makeup, Rise of the Planet of the Apes for Best Visual Effects and Hugo for Best Sound Editing and Mixing.

The major uncertainties among the big prizes are in the top acting categories, with George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist) running close for Best Actor, and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Viola Davis (The Help) battling for Best Actress, with Dujardin and Davis surging in recent betting.

Join the crowd at the Tropic on Sunday and be prepared to gasp when one of the favorites fails to win, or when one of your obscure picks pops out of the envelope.

Bulllhead (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

If you like your existential hunted man films to have a literal carnivorous edge, "Bullhead" (Roundskop) is cooked up especially for you. 

Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a violent Limburgish cattle farmer who was horribly abused as a kid, his genitals are severely damaged. So much so that he was forced to take injections of various hormones. Jacky goes from a 98 pound weakling of sorts to a massive hulk of a man. His chest is as broad and heavy as a refrigerator. Jacky is an angry Hercules, a ninth wonder. In some shots, his back fills the entire screen like a real life Tom of Finland male nude straining to be free of canvas. Yet in his eyes there are orbits that remain heartsick and cheated. His existence is of someone relentlessly prodded and who always watches his back for an oncoming dart. Jacky moves like a sandbagged boxer or someone lost in a better dream without meat in it, and his eyes have a sheepish animal desire.

Though we don't get a lot of information in the film, Jacky's family is involved with illegal hormones to fatten cows and to make them more profitable and they make an unscrupulous deal with the hormone mafia. A chance meeting with childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) brings back the horrible event and Jacky becomes increasingly brutal and tormented but also vulnerable. The scenes of injection, violent drunkenness and animal slaughter are not for the delicate.

Though some might make comparisons here to the films of Scorsese, a better directorial calf to this film, would be Gaspar Noe, whose 1998 film "I Stand Alone" concerns a former butcher consumed by unbridled rage.  Both films share a kindred carnal knowledge of random bad decisions made toxic by violence and laced with the ennui of towns with not much going on. The films also share a cousinship in cinematography: dim neons coupled with dizzying long shots of turning corners and slanted doors. Fleshly life is seen squirming and disembodied.

Brutal as this film is, it could be a savage cautionary tale detailing the perils of eating meat. There is an actual C-section on a cow shown and the camera doesn't pull away. The world of MEAT is before us, full-frontal. Yet just when it almost becomes too squeamish, Jacky attempts to redeem himself by going into a beauty shop to see his childhood crush Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy). Jacky tries to communicate but can only grunt and look away, lowering his head like a shy steer trying to avoid attack. Lucia sprays him with perfume, but the scent is unwelcome and vexing, staining him like oil. These scenes are very touching like "Beauty and the Beast" or Frankenstein's creation. Jacky yearns for the softness of civility.

"Bullhead" is a film of blood and beasts but it has such a magnet in the form of Jacky that I found it hard to pull away. This is a genuine antihero story on the order of Albert Camus sitting down to Osso Buco. It may not be visual dessert and you probably won't ask for seconds,  but it is certainly worthy of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film this year and you shouldn't pass it up.

Write Ian at

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher, famed director of the Facebook bio has put his own antisocial serial number  on "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".  Fincher,  a master stylist, is well aware of how the lack of color in setting influences our emotional response to film and he delivers a fine interpretation  of the popular Swedish trilogy.The film closely follows its foreign counterpart: Newly disgraced publisher Mikael Blomkvist is hired by a wealthy industrialist to investigate the death of his daughter. Blomkvist  meets up with the Goth and spacey cyber-belle Lisbeth Salander and they begin a cold blooded cat and mouse chase filled with sexual abuse, ritualistic carnage and Nazism. 

Rooney Mara shines as Salander, who gives the iconic performance by Noomi Rapace a newly confrontational slant. Mara is incensed and overtly sexual in opposition to Rapace's existential gloom. It's not that Mara gives an alternate version of Salander so much as she enhances Rapace's emotional dramatic hardware. Salander's violent serpents are brought to the surface and not encrypted here. She oozes danger instead of slumping and slinking. This is Lisbeth Salander 3.0.

From the start, we feel Mara's frisson. With her white moon face and dark hood, she is very similar to Ghostface from the Wes Craven "Scream" franchise. Salander here is as moody and displaced as we expect, but the rage is brought to the surface. She is more visceral: one half Michael Myers maven and one half Dark Knight. This latest film, in contrast to the original, is less process and more punch. It says more about our pop culture and fascination with violence than the previous outing. In this tattooed visit, more things are shown than hidden. 

As Blomkvist, Daniel Craig gives a hard-bitten edge to the driven journalist-turned-detective. Every action seems to hurt him, either physically or emotionally and he gets pummeled often. There are echoes of Robert Mitchum here or even De Niro. This is a man who is uncomfortable and rocks in space, as if the room is too big for his aching body. Time and digital media crease his face. Both Blomkvist and Salander spend more time with laptops than they do person- to- person and this is very deliberate on the part of director David Fincher who manipulated the film "The Social Network" to canon status. Both characters are Zuckerberg valentines. 

The atmospheric soundscapes by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails deliver a detached mood to the cinematography which is all surface and hard edged drear, in keeping with Fincher's visual style. The meditative pauses in the original film are now filled with confined spaces and right-angled shadows. It is no surprise that   Fincher, who directed "Seven" with  its focus on biblically inspired serial killings and hangings, would tread similar ground once more. These seem to be Fincher's own personal keystrokes, as recognizable as Hitchcock's falling man.

The film is as much about Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho as it is Stieg Larsson's enigmatic story of Pippi Longstocking. When the psychopath Martin Vanger puts on Enya before his attack, he is a shade of nightmare cut from the same gaberdine cloth as Patrick Bateman, who gives soliloquies about top 40 hits before each kill.  He is also just as frightening.

If you have any reservation in seeing this update to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" don't worry yourself. Rooney Mara is perfectly shaped to the Salander CAD design, and she well deserves her Academy Award nomination. Her icy looks have longing in them as well as isolation and there is a physical bite to her Munch-like aura. She dances with danger, seeming more Salander than Salander in the original program. Better still, Mara shows us that the virus of romantic rejection is a very human element with or without the gory fractals waiting in cyberspace.

Write Ian at

Bullhead (Rhoades)

Angry “Bullhead”
Up for Award

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Traveling recently in farm country, I ate dinner at an off-the-beaten-path restaurant whose menu promised only to serve organic, hormone-free beef. That brought to mind a Belgian movie I’d recently seen about a cattle farmer who gets involved with the “hormone mafia,” a gang that traffics in bovine hormones, forcing cows to mature in eight weeks instead of 10.
Can’t be good for either the cow or a steak dinner.
This film called “Bullhead” has been nominated as Best Foreign Language Picture in tonight’s Academy Awards. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
A sometimes painful-to-watch film, “Bullhead” was written and directed by Michael R. Roskam. His first feature film, he seems to be making the point that innocent people can be turned into confused, angry animals.
Not always delivering a coherent plotline, “Bullhead” is mostly a character study of Jacky, the bulked-up cattleman who gets involved in the shady world of chemically enhanced cattle farming.
With his oversized muscles and continual steroid injections, Jacky (as played by Matthias Schoenaerts) seems a candidate for ’roid rage. But inside he’s a scared, frightened man.
One scene that shows a baby calf trembling in a tub after a caesarian birth mirrors Jacky’s huddling in a bathtub, knees drawn up in a fetal position, after injecting himself again with steroids.
When the thugs kill an undercover cop, Jacky is trigger to go looking for those people who damaged him in his youth, setting him off on a testosterone-driven spree.
The criminal subplot is merely an excuse for pulling Jacky out of his sad shell and forcing him to face up to his past. It raises the question of what makes a man. And the answer certainly isn’t chemical.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rhoades)

“Girl With Dragon Tattoo”
Gets Stylish Remake

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Swedish journalist Karl Stig-Erland “Stieg” Larsson was the editor of Expo, a magazine devoted to exposing right-wing extremism.
So he sat down at night and wrote a novel he called “Män som hatar kvinnor” (translation: “Men Who Hate Women”) about a journalist who battles right-wing extremists. Published posthumously, it was retitled “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
All told, Stieg Larsson wrote three books and was working on a fourth when he died. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” are essentially one long story told in three parts. This trio of crime novels – collectively known as the Millennium Series – have sold more than 27 million copies in over 40 countries.
Ironically, Larsson didn’t set out to be a crime novelist. He preferred science fiction. Early on, he edited a sci-fi fanzine called Sfären. And he served as president of Sweden’s largest science fiction fan club.
Politically, Larsson was involved with the Communist Workers League and at one time edited Fjärde Internationalen, a journal with a Trotskyist message.
A committed activist, 1977 found him in the Horn of Africa training Eritrean People’s Liberation Front guerrillas how to use grenade launchers. Concerned with the rights of women, he oversaw an all-female EPLF squad. He was determined to make them self-sufficient. However, after contracting a kidney disease, he was forced to return to Sweden.
Back home, he started the Swedish Expo Foundation whose stated mission was to “counteract the growth of the extreme right and the white power-culture in schools and among young people.” An anti-skinheads crusade. And he edited the foundation’s small magazine, the aforementioned Expo.
As a gonna-bust-this-town-wide-open crusading journalist, Stieg Larsson bore more than a little resemblance to his fictional character Mikael Blomkvist. Since Larsson’s day job was devoted to rooting out dreary facts about scary Neo-Nazi groups, at night he wrote novels for his own amusement. And as literary critics often advise, he wrote about what he knew: Right-wing extremists who prey on women.
The first novel told the story of a journalist hooking up with a tattooed, punked-out, leather-clad girl whose eidetic memory makes her a great researcher. Lisbeth Salander is really the heroine of the piece, helping Blomkvist find a girl who went missing on a Swedish island some 36 years ago. Along the way, Lisbeth takes on several “män som hatar kvinnor.”
Since the young girl disappeared on an isolated island, Larsson saw this as a classic “Locked Room Mystery.” But with a message. As one observer summed it up: “His favorite targets are violence against women, the incompetence and cowardice of investigative journalists, the moral bankruptcy of big capital, and the virulent strain of Nazism still festering away ...” in Swedish society.
Yellow Bird Films produced three well-done movies based on Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I highly recommend them, especially the first one. And thus I was surprised when hot director David Fincher (“The Social Network”) announced he was going to make a Hollywood version. Why bother? Niels Arden Oplev’s original film didn’t need improving.
While Fincher’s version is not necessarily an improvement, it’s equally good. A stylish and visually rich retelling. And I (contrary to my expectation) recommend it. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
In the original, the journalist was played to perfection by Michael Nyqvist and the tattooed researcher (read: computer hacker) was outstandingly portrayed by Noomi Rapace. (You will be seeing her as the Gypsy in the new “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” movie).
For this English-language redo, David Fincher turned to a bigger-name star. With the James Bond movie series at a standstill, recent 007 Daniel Craig has stepped into the role of Mikael Blomkvist, the world-weary journalist at the heart of these stories. And in a star-making gesture, Fincher has cast Rooney Mara (she had a minor role in “The Social Network”) as the titular Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Note: She’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actress for the role.
Fincher’s is a faithful adaptation, filmed in Sweden. He’s surrounded Craig and Rooney with a great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgård.
As for Stieg Larsson, he died of a heart attack while climbing the stairs at his office (the elevator wasn’t working). His will left everything to the Socialist Party, but because it was unwitnessed all the royalties from his books have reverted to his estranged father and distant brother. Left with nothing, Larsson’s live-in girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson intends to complete the unfinished novel left on his computer. Larsson had planned out ten books in the Millennium Series.
Because of all the death threats Larsson received as editor of Expo, there were rumors that right-wing forces were behind his demise. Not so, says his publisher. Life (and death) is not always as exciting as fiction. Or movies.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Oscar Best Picture Nominees 2012 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2012 Oscar-nominated Films - Best Picture

With this year's group of Oscar nominated films for Best Picture, there is a hunger for nostalgia. It's as if the Earth is spinning too fast on its axis or making too much consumerist noise and we all want to put on the brakes, moving into a slower,  more relaxed, and ultimately, more escapist orbit.

Going retro has never looked so good.

With "The Artist" (now playing at the Tropic ), Michel Hazanavicius has created a completely enclosed world that's as beautifully monochromatic  with sumptuous black and white tones, as "Avatar" is hallucinogenic and  colorful. "The Artist" is a genuine Wonderland of silent film where the only vocabularies used are the Grand Masters of Cinema: Wilder, Hitchcock and F.W. Murnau. However, the best sleight of hand  is that it makes sound irrevelant, a gimmick of the past and not the present. At the film's conclusion, when sound finally does come in, it seems a rude intrusion, signaling the loss of our beloved silence.

In "The Help" we travel back to the 1950's where black maids were treated painfully as second class citizens. The film mainly holds back, packaging the sad toxin of history in a Disney-spun ribbon. Still, the frankness of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, save this movie from having a permanent  bland revisionist aftertaste. The performances alone will make you want to peer behind the kitchen door.

In "The Decendants", the smug, charming-pussed George Clooney expands his dramatic range and actually emotes something new in his dynamic role as a second-string father who practically begs for help. The charm of the film is in its subtle movement and naturalistic detail. We never doubt the film's simple authenticity and Hawaii herself, as a beautiful chain of collective pearls, is well represented here as a vibrant character.

In "The Tree of Life" the enigmatic Terrence Malick gives us a vision of Earth from The Beginning, and forward to the life of a pent up suburban family. And it keeps going into what I think is the Afterlife. Heavy-handed and heavy-hearted it may be, (and this is debatable) but hear me out. The film treats us to some of the most startlingly beautiful images that I've ever seen. I can only compare it to a PBS Nature special soaked in absinthe and swallowed by John Cheever. Some may find it incomprehensible, but I found its uncompromising imagery to be refreshing. The only aspect I could have dispensed with was its pitchy, literal ending. "The Tree of Life" is best when it is rooted in poetry.

A favorite pick despite its lightness of being would have to be Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris". Although little more in content than a New Yorker cartoon, the film has such joy in its  caricature of famous Parisians from the 1920's that it is impossible to resist. This film is Allen's personal pantheon and the eccentrics are all lovingly drawn with affection and wit. It is a mille-feuille for the eyes and a valentine to the city of Paris.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, so be it.  I must mention "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", not for its stifling and overbearing melodrama but for the haunting gravity of Max von Sydow. His nomination is well deserved and will most likely be awarded.

"Moneyball", a favorite of statistics lovers far and wide, has the novelty of telling a true story without any mayhem or hijinx. Instead, the drama unfolds organically from within. This baseball story is told without any cinematic whistles and the star-power of Brad Pitt practically vanishes under this very unique story of greed and numbers.

"War Horse" puts the children's tale on the level of high art. Spielberg has been often criticized for bringing the drama of Tv to the movies, but this criticism is now a complement. Never has the quality of anthropomorphism seemed so authentic or convincing. Better still, we see noble and unassuming horses  given as much weight and bearing as humans. Spielberg has deified the horse a bit and this karmic debt has been all too late in being paid. Horses are wonderful not because they are like us, but because they are horses and they contribute to our collective motion. Horses everywhere have finally found their voice in this John Fordesque motion picture that is an anthem to Equus.

Last, but certainly not least, is Scorsese's artistically bold and elegant "Hugo" (also now playing at the Tropic,  in 3D) which is nothing less than splendor on screen. At its core, it is a fairytale to the history of cinema, but that is to enclose it too much inside its clockwork. The film is a love affair in visual perspective and motion. A dessert in pictures of course, but also a meditation on the perishable nature of historic film.

So if we must journey backward to a more vibrant or illustrious time, let us jump back as spacemen to Tinseltown. There are many examples of Bohemian  by-gone beings here, complete with flora and fauna, but please, look but don't touch.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Week of February 17 to February 23 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

It’s good to be back, and just in time to bring some exciting news. The Tropic folks have always prided themselves on providing the best cinema presentation. And now they’re adding 3-D to their equipment arsenal.

Not just any 3-D system. I don’t want to get all techie on you, but bear with me for some interesting background. The movie industry sets standards for visual presentations, including the required screen brightness measured in something called foot lamberts. The goal for ordinary 2-D projection is 16FL and is easily achieved by most theaters. But because 3-D splits the image in two and also requires dark glasses, the brightness drops dramatically. The standard setters initially called for a standard of 4FL for 3-D because most theaters couldn't do any better than that. They’re now trying to crank it up to 7FL, but the trade press is full of stories of movies that were projected at 1FL and moviegoers were left staring into the darkness.

The Tropic is attacking this problem in two ways. One, its brand-new digital 3-D projectors are provided with ample lighting power. Second, rather than use the passive Polaroid glasses deployed in most theaters, they’ve opted for a more sophisticated system using glasses with electronic shutters. The glasses cost $50 a pair, so the system is not viable for megaplexes. But it provides a better, brighter experience. (By the way, the glasses won’t work at home, so please return them after the show.) The combination lets the Tropic achieve 14FL for 3-D, almost up to the standard of an ordinary 2-D show.

You’ll get your first chance to experience this system this week, when they’re showing Martin Scorsese’s first 3-D film HUGO, nominated for eleven Academy Awards including the biggies of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. This family film about an orphan in the Depression who is obsessed by technology and movies is “heartbreaking, funny, passionate and impossibly beautiful …. a must-see” says

And, as you might expect from the Tropic, Roger Ebert has noted that “Scorsese uses 3-D here as it should be used, not as a gimmick but as an enhancement of the total effect.”

Come see 3-D as it should be seen. This, by the way, is a great time to become a Tropic member if you haven’t yet joined. As an introduction to the new system they are waiving any 3-D surcharge for members, who will be admitted for the regular price ($6 matinee, $7.50 evening), while other patrons will be paying premium 3-D prices ($12 matinee, $14 evening).

Held over for another week is THE ARTIST, the odds on favorite to win the Best Picture prize. Betting on puts the likelihood of a win for The Artist at 87.5%, compared to 5% for the next most likely, The Descendants. Get ready. Intrade was right in 11 out of 12 Oscar prediction for 2010 and 2011. This would be the second black and white, silent picture so honored, the only other one being Wings at the very first ceremonies in 1929. I suspect that The Artist, a tender love story, would not have stood a chance in 1929 against the epic Wings, a precursor to Top Gun, full of epic aerial battles and a bare-breasted Clara Bow.

Also held over is THE IRON LADY with Meryl Streep’s commanding, and Oscar-nominated, performance as Margaret Thatcher. The Intrade odds on this category are a little closer, with Streep at 39.1% against Viola Davis (The Help) at 56%. My personal favorite, Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) is third, but not really in the running, at 2.4%.

The Oscar-nominated shorts, both Live Action and Animated continue to run. These are the only categories where you can see the full range of choice in a single sitting.

Lot’s to see to get ready for the Academy Award ceremonies, which will be broadcast live, on the big screen at the Tropic. Tickets for the show and party are on sale now at the box office or the website.

Hugo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The air popped with anticipation when I settled into The Carper to watch "Hugo", the new Oscar-nominated Epic by Martin Scorsese. Not only was I excited to be seeing the film, but I was going to see it on The Tropic's new state of the art 3D system. The 3D glasses were smooth and black, reminiscent of the glasses that the new-wave group DEVO once wore, a personal favorite of mine.

Little did I know that the night would bring back many echoes of the past.

From the very start, we are put at ground level in a 1920s Paris train station as scores of suited passengers rush past. The effect is dizzying. I recalled a dream I had as a student. I was in an office building. I came in through the window. Suddenly, I wasn't human, I was a camera, rushing between feet and briefcases. This is the exact sensation at the beginning of "Hugo".
 It is nothing less than a rush.

The plot of "Hugo" is relatively simple and I won't spill all the sparks. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy who lives in a clock tower, spending his days winding the clock and stealing bits of pastry to eat. As a boy, he is part Phantom of the Opera and part Max from Where the Wild Things Are. No one really notices him. He spends hours climbing about huge mazes of gears and clockwork. There are tunnels upon tunnels and each turn is more elaborate than the last. The 3D is spellbinding. We are placed in a world that is more organic and flexible than a rigid fix in space. The whole city of Paris is dipped in a sort of paranormal chocolate. And more than a plot-driven mystery about a near-forgotten filmmaker Georges Melies, the film is a sumptuous love affair to the mystery of perspective and the numinous art of early film. There are so many passages  for the eye to peer in. We are active passengers  in this film and the 3D effects which dazzle the eyes like visual ribbons of high quality fructose, are never fatiguing. 

This is no mere trick film. Rather Scorsese has pushed and charged the effects, making Hugo more of a seminal art piece, in which virtually every frame is busy with the bestiary of its characters. In scope, it has the breadth of a "Gone with the Wind", transforming  a Grimm's Fairy Tale about childhood orphanage terror into a historical meditation on the mortality of the moving image.

Ben Kingsley plays the legendary Melies who is a bit like Geppetto. He is a magician who has defensively lost his shadow. A Santa man of secrets he is, and Kingsley is a twin of the actual Georges here.

A stand out is Sacha Baron Cohen as a alternately intimidating and silly Inspector who walks with a savage Doberman. Rather than ape his way through the film using his past comic roles of Insult as a template, Cohen makes this role his own.

"Hugo" is just as much a milestone to 3D, as "The Yellow Submarine" is to musical animation. Nothing on the screen is superfluous or wasted. We all become travelers along the astral path of the early cinema. The film itself with its winding narrative and bold color in design, seems the very blueprint of Scorsese's heart, hand tinted with the henna of a Prismacolor New York City or in this case , the colors of a silver ocean.

My one small reservation is that the story takes a bit long to get going . There are repeated scenes of Hugo walking through clocks and gears with many, many shots  of eyes peeking in and out of gingery-brassed windows,  keyholes and cranks. Yet if this becomes tedious, there is always something else to look at:  The Eiffel Tower, a curl of smoke, or Savador Dali sitting at a table. Don't blink or you will miss him.

The film's last half, pertaining to the mystique of Melies sent me backward as a once lonely Ian, left out of a college party. My face and wheelchair were white crayon wedges against the night sky. I looked up at the moon and wrote a poem about that moon, my isolated feelings and the supposed far away rocket-ship of Georges Melies. 

Write Ian at

Oscar Nominated Shorts - Animated 2012 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2012 Animated Shorts

It's 2012, and nothing expresses this anticipatory year of Mayan mania like the Oscar nominated shorts. This current batch of films contain more quirks then Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, you will see graphic beings of every temper in tempera, in every shade, gesture and hue. These films may have an apoplectic eye, but there are enough Mesoamerican calendars of color here for a score of civilizations. We have arrived. Here are some Looney Toons for the Apocalypse. But rather than being grim and gloomy, this frisson-fare is sophisticated, pointed and altogether addictive.
The first entry is "Sunday" from Canada, directed by Patrick Doyon. The film focuses on the interior world of a child confined by adults. The animation is visceral, scratchy and primitive, a bit like Paul Klee in black and white. With its dry ironic tone and jabbering adults it is clearly influenced by The Far Side comic strip.

Also from Canada, there is "Wild Life" by Amanda Forby and Wendy Tilby. about a remittance man on the run who is a pathological liar. He writes letters home to his mother about living the high life on a ranch, when in fact, he squats in a cold, depressive shack with hardly any freedom. The painterly animation is a buttery delight and recalls the primitive colorful figures of  early David Hockney. The directors are taking something from Patricia Highsmith's  "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and Albert Camus' The Stranger. This film is an exceptional one-of-a kind.

From England , there is the odd "A Morning Stroll" by Grant Orchard. "Stroll" is about a chicken wandering through one nightmare after another. Although technically brilliant, a collage of eclectic style and mood, I found the film a bit offhand and the digital animation  too much like a Nintendo DS.

From the USA, and specifically New Orleans, comes William Joyce's “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore". The film is a kind of "Wizard of Oz" commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, laced with the whimsical gothic glee of Tim Burton. Morris looks a bit like Tom Hanks as he wanders through the city looking for books and traces of humanity. The narrative tone owes a debt to Disney's "Up" especially when all the magical- leaved books fly around the aging Morris. The real magic in the film is that, in just a few bare scenes, we witness the full scope of Mr. Morris---the arc of a life well lived and analyzed through the pleasure of books.

Next, is the much talked about "La Luna" by Enrico Casarosa. Although charming and beautifully produced, this selection is a bit too slick for me---a complete cutesy vision of a moon overwhelmed with stars with little eclipse or astral ambiguity. It is a crowd pleaser and quite stunning, reminiscent of  Exupery's  "The Little Prince", I just expected a bit more.

Last but not least, are four Special mentions. The first, "Nullarbor directed by Allister Lockhart and Patrick Sarell, is half Mad Max and half Ralph Steadman. A young angry drifter is in a race to the death for a cigarette, fighting tooth and nail against a Clint Eastwoodish Septuagenarian. This selection has all the intensity of a feature length film---it is as suspenseful as it is zany and it is a painter's joy where the artists hand is clearly visible.

There is also "Hybrid", which although colorful and crystal-clear seemed too much of a Rube Goldberg exercise for me.

And then there was "Skylight", directed by Dave Baas. Flooded with humorous irreverence, this film's cynical denouement will have you shaking your head. Does he believe in global warming? Whatever the director's stance, he clearly feels that the governments of the globe will do little to stop these thermal dominoes.

At last! And indeed I've saved the best for last, we have "Amazonia", directed by Sam Chen. This is a rollicking comedy of how everyone becomes literal food for thought in the jungle. Sharp and vivid with the feel of an interactive joke, it is pure pyrotechnics where we all become The Ride. It is Disney without the American agenda, and it critiques our vivid and vapid snakelike consumerism as much as it entertains. It is a crime that "Amazonia" is a mere Special Mention. I think it's among the best of the end of days lot: concise, joyful and pointed with pleasure upon the eye.

Although there are some poignant mini gems here, I found most of the animated  nominations ( with the exceptions of "Wild Life" and Mr Morris) to be heavy on escapism but light on feeling. If I had to pick between the two genres, I would favor the Live Action group this year.

Yet in spite of this, in watching these dazzling dystopian crowd pleasers, not one pair of our human eyes  will go hungry for long.

Write Ian at

Hugo (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Hugo” to Be
First 3D Film
Shown at Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

New York film buyer Jeffrey Jacobs makes an interesting observation. That two of the movies vying for this year’s Best Picture Oscar pay homage to the early days of filmmaking. But in “Hugo” an American director looks at the beginnings of motion pictures in France, and in “The Artist” a French director focus on the beginnings of movies in Hollywood.
“A fascinating juxtaposition,” says Jacobs.
He and I were talking about “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece about a young orphan who encounters Georges Méliès, an early pioneer of the cinema. While the cinématographe films of Lumière brothers presented slices of life transfixed onto the screen (a train coming straight at you, etc.), Méliès’s films dealt with the world of fantasy, devising special effects that revealed the magic of motion pictures.
The subject of “Hugo” came up because Jacobs has booked it to be shown at the Tropic Cinema in Key West this week – in 3D.
Yes, 3D at the Tropic.
A masterpiece that uses 3D effectively (i.e. not as a poke-you-in-the-eye novelty), “Hugo” is a most appropriate choice for the Tropic’s debut of its new DCI-compliant 3D projectors.
As Scot Hoard, who books the Tropic’s films through Jacobs, explains, “A great and highly acclaimed film about a filmmaker, from one of America’s most important directors and Academy Award nominated for Best Picture, made ‘Hugo’ an easy choice for our first 3D exhibit.”
But the installation of the 3D projectors is a major (and expensive) undertaking that was occasioned by greater cosmic forces: the studios.
Jacobs recounts the studios’ announcement last March at the CinemaCon in Las Vegas that as of the end of 2013 motion picture exhibitors had to switch to digital because 35mm prints were going to become nonexistent.
And 20th Century Fox sent out a memo to exhibitors saying it could no longer afford to make 35mm prints so all films will be supplied in digital format in the future.
This led to the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), an organization whose owners are six major motion picture studios (the same studios that comprise the MPAA). This represents the consensus of DCI’s members about the technical details of exhibiting digital cinema.
“That’s the death knoll for many small-town theaters,” Jacobs shakes his head sadly. “Many of them can’t afford the conversion to digital.” It can cost $50- to $100,000 per auditorium to convert a theater from analogue to digital, he notes.
He explains a program called Virtual Print Fees where third-party integrators help movie theaters recoup part of this digital conversion expense over time. “But for some reason they generally don’t make this program available to non-profit theaters.”
Thus the not-for-profit Key West Film Society turned to its local supporters for help. “The Rodel Foundation’s grant and matching funds from the TDC didn't just propel the Tropic into the 21st century with DCI-compliant projection,” says Tropic Cinema’s executive director Matthew Helmerich.  “They did do that, but more important, they really saved us, in a real sense, from having to close our doors because we could no longer show films.  Distributors and studios will almost entirely stop making 35mm prints by the end of this year – many majors have already cut 35mm production by 75%.  Our 35mm projectors will be more or less obsolete, except for existing old films we can show.”
The 3D system that has been installed at the Tropic is unique to South Florida. As the Tropic’s chief projectionist and technical guru Dan Schwab describes it, “Our 3D technology gives a bright, crisp, perspective-rich image that other 3D technology can’t deliver.  Our glasses are synced to the projection with an active-shutter system – not like the disposable, passive system glasses you see in commercial theaters – and they create 3D images without blocking color or compromising image integrity.  The effect is incredible.”
“Another factor influencing our 3D technology choice was keeping our white screens at Tropic Cinema,” says Matthew Helmerich.  “With passive 3D systems, you have to project onto silver screens rather than white screens.  Silver screens degrade and dim the clean images of regular two-dimensional DCP (Digital Cinema Package) films.  We expect to continue to screen mostly 2D films and wanted to keep our white screens so those films look as they were meant to look.”
The switch from film to digital was inevitable, for once technology escapes Pandora’s box you can’t stuff it back in. “Sometime around 2000 digital cinema became a technical reality,” recounts Jacobs. “Since it cost studios $1,500 to $2,000 to make a 35mm print of a film, and the shipping cost for 50 pounds of film cases is quite expensive, it wasn’t surprising that studios quickly gravitated to a digital solution. And blockbuster films like ‘Avatar’ being supplied in digital format put the pressure on movie chains.”
“Now we get a small computer drive shipped to us for each film rather than 50 pounds of plastics,” smiles Helmerich.
The Tropic is proudly DCI compliant with its state-of-the-art 3D projection equipment. So while the storyline in “Hugo” represents the beginning of the film industry, the showing of “Hugo 3D” at the Tropic represents the industry’s future.
It’s likely that Martin Scorsese’s paean to film history – a wonderful, magical movie that everyone will enjoy – is going to win this year’s Oscar as Best Picture. And you can catch it at the Tropic (in 3D, the way it was meant to be shown) prior to the telecast of the Academy Awards on February 26. The Tropic will be hosting its annual Academy Award gala that night.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oscar Nominated Shorts - Live Action 2012 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

The 2012 Live Action Shorts

It's Academy Award week at The Tropic and for those of you who enjoy a little stream of consciousness and eye candy to stimulate the heart and mind, it's always fun to catch this year's bunch of live action shorts.  Oscar has been using kid gloves this year with unusually light comic fare and I'm wondering where to find some morsels of sincere cinematic subversion. Oh to live the salad days again of Scorsese, Polanski, Casavettes or David Lynch! Yet as invariably comic as these films are (with one exception) they still have a fluid verve which makes them all charmers.

If a bit of good natured Catholic ribbing is your bag, there is "Pentecost" from Ireland, directed by Peter McDonald and Eimear O' Kane. The plot is simple: a young boy is grounded from watching soccer because of an accident during Mass. He is given a pep talk by the local priest as if he is in training for the World Cup. Will the youngster drop the censer? Or will he be redeemed behind the bishop near the altar goal line? Although this film has its share of religious irreverence, it shies    away from edginess and is ultimately lighthearted. The star of the film is the character of Damien who is a Roald Dahl character brought to life.

Next, it is off to India with the singularly eerie "Raju". from Germany and India, directed by Max Zahle. The film is apprehensive electric and confining, focusing on the quagmires of adoption and the crimes of kidnapping. In this film,the crowd congestion is carnivorous and you don't know who to trust. Despite its short length of under twenty-four minutes, it says more about the fragility of children and the monstrous desire of a family ego than any feature film. "Raju" is a solitary gem.

If the moral pitfalls of international adoption is too heavy, you can always go back to the future with "Time Freak" (USA) directed by Andrew Bowler. The film as facile retro-1980s quality. In content and form, "Time Freak" is a cheerful hybrid of Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" and a Robert Zemekis comedy. It also has a dash of "Seinfeld". Mad Quantum Scientist Stillman wants to have a date with a girl and needs a suit. He can't stop "going back" until he gets things exactly right. At first this feels like a SNL skit that runs too long, but then at the film's end, the punch line finally hits and a belly laugh erupts in spite of it all. Stillman steals the show with his John Belushi aura.

Also represented is another entry from Ireland, "The Shore". The film is directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) who recently appeared in person at The Tropic as part of our visiting director series. "The Shore" is about the falling away of two friends who were romantic rivals. It is full of ease, poignancy and earthy humor. Terry George is a slice of life maestro and his camera never edges into drama or camp. This is simply life as it is lived, bumpy and cramped with domestic foibles but ultimately bouncing with joie de vivre.

No live-action selection would be complete without a sliver of Gallows Humour and that is what you get in "Tuba Atlantic" directed by Hallvar Witzo (Norway). We have an old man Oskar diagnosed with six days to live. Oskar puts the Mudgeon in curmudgeon, seeming like a mix of a Clint Eastwood character and Mr. Magoo. He is fond of shooting seagulls out of the sky with a huge machine gun. He can't be bothered with anything let alone death.

Then a grief counselor comes to the door from "The Jesus Club". A battle of wills ensue. All Oskar can think about is finishing his huge tuba machine, to create earth-shattering noises across the globe. This brilliantly realized film stands out in quirk and circumstance with a take no prisoners tease. It moves across the eye like an existential slapstick. It is nothing less than Lars von Trier in relief. 

Refreshing and riotously regressive, "Tuba Atlantic" is my personal pick for an Oscar, but if the isolationist humor is not to your liking, you will find others to root for with this year's Live Action Shorts.

Write Ian at

Oscar Nominate Shorts - Live Action and Animated (Wanous)

Oscar nominees: 'Dazzling, amusing, intense'


L'Attitudes Contributor

The 2012 Oscar-nominated Short Films open February 10, Tropic Cinema, Key West
Short Films (Animated)

"Sunday"/"Dimanche" - 10 minutes - An unusual animation style coupled with an odd story line make up this peculiar short about a Sunday in a small village. Train tracks run through the village and as the rail cars rumble and roar through town, the inhabitants go about their everyday lives. Like the odd drawings, this feature doesn't leave a long-lasting impression.

 "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" - 15 minutes - The most beautiful of this year's animated nominees, this work is dazzling, with a story line that counters the notion that the days of the printed word are numbered. Exquisitely rendered with a combination of animation techniques, this lovely film should touch book lovers everywhere.

"La Luna" - 7 minutes - A fable of a young boy who is coming of age in the most curious circumstances. For the very first time, his Papa and Grandpa are taking him to work. A big surprise awaits the little boy as he discovers his family's unusual line of work. From Pixar, "La Luna" was unavailable for screening.

"A Morning Stroll" - 7 minutes - Another unusual animation technique that tells the story of a New Yorker who encounters a chicken on his daily walk. As the years go by, the man and the city change but the chicken is always there. Finally, as the city deteriorates, we are left to wonder - who will survive, the chicken or the man? It's an entertaining but bizarre tale.

"Wild Life" - 13 minutes - At the turn of the century, a young Englishman moves to the Canadian wilderness to start a ranch but is definitely not up to the task. He sends glowing reports home, exaggerating his progress. But as winter closes in, the comparison of his fate to that of a comet is sadly apropos. It's a melancholy look at unfulfilled dreams.

Short Films (Live Action)
"Pentecost" - 11 minutes - When a young lad serves as an altar boy at an important mass, he can't resist the urge to bring his life's passion into the service. The "pre-game" pep talk the priest gives the boys before the big mass is hysterical and at the end of this amusing short the viewer will be saying "No, no, don't......!"

"Raju" - 24 minutes - A German couple travel to India to adopt an orphan and complications arise. They are faced with a moral dilemma that is heart breaking and thought provoking at the same time. Good acting and sharp cinematography do an effective job of bringing the sights and sounds of crowded Kolkata to life. This intense feature forces the viewer to think of what he/she would do in the same situation.

"The Shore" - 31 minutes - Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Terry George ("In the Name of the Father", "Hotel Rwanda"), this film tells the story of an Irishman who, after 25 years away, returns to Belfast with his American daughter. His attempt at reconciling with the two people he thought he abandoned all those years ago doesn't go as planned and mistaken identities result in a hilarious chase through the tidelands. "The Shore" is a warm-hearted film with an ending that should leave a smile on the viewer's face.

"Time Freak" - 11 minutes - Stillman invents a time machine, but rather than use it to do good or change history, he can't get past yesterday, reliving it over and over like an OCD version of "Groundhog Day." The opportunities are lost on him but his friend Evan sees what the machine is doing to Stillman and finally has to interfere and 'reboot' his friend. The acting and editing are excellent and this well-made film is over far too quickly.

"Tuba Atlantic" - 25 minutes - Oskar is an old man with an obsessive hatred of seagulls who finds out that he only has a few days to live. He wants to reach his estranged brother who lives across the ocean in America but the brother's phone has been disconnected and there's no way to contact him...or is there? Birds fall from the sky and windows are shattered but his brother does finally hear from him, in a most unusual way. This short is so well done that the subtitles are almost superfluous.

My favorites are "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" and "The Shore" but all of the shorts are worth seeing. I think "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" will win the Oscar for animation because of the beautiful art and "Raju" will win for live-action because of the subject matter.

To see if I'm right, tune in Sunday night, February 26. Or better yet, join me at the Tropic Cinema and watch the telecast on the big screen. Hope to see you there.    

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

 Just when I thought it was safe to retreat to The George in meditation  with several  Indie films, along comes "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". I'm not so bothered by the title which seems a bit jarring, confusing and fragmented (and let's face it, titles are the first thing we know about a film: they create an image) and I know it's based on  the Bestseller by Jonathan Safran Foer.  But no, the thing that  irks me about "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" , is the feeling of being emotionally force-fed. I felt manipulated in an automatic sense, presented with a Hallmark card and I  resent  the sticky-sweet way everything went so neatly pat (or is it Pow!)  with its own cutesy puzzle, drawing, or friendly face to accompany a scene with no sense of ambiguity whatsoever. 

We have a precocious, isolated youngster,Oskar Schell who is functioning at a near genius-level, played by newcomer Thomas Horn.  Schell is semi-autistic. He is fiery and bold when he is with his Dad, (played with a  glib intensity by Tom Hanks) but the mother, played by Sandra Bullock is a bland non-entity. I'm not sure why.

Oskar is amphetamine-driven, with energy to burn. He spends days with his Dad on scavenger hunts focusing on  obscure words,facts and conspiracies. Then 9/11 happens and that's when the syrup begins to pour. Uh oh.

Oskar finds a key. Omg!  One last hunt! What does it open? A mystery is afoot and the film suddenly feels  like an apoplectic hybrid of "E.T", (Horn with his adorable appearance and tousled hair  recalls Henry Thomas as Elliot) "The Da Vinci Code" and "A Beautiful Mind". The film is all surface and rapid motion with no space to settle into any deep meaning and when it attempts introspection, (as in the phone ringing episode,) it is heavy handed.

 Why, I wonder, does every family story have to have a parental showdown, with such screaming and caterwauling? ("I wish You were in the building instead of Dad, I wish it was you!") . How is this necessary, being so reminiscent of other coming of age films? Why attack the audience with such a  huge dramatic club? 

 Thomas Horn is riveting at times and undeniably charismatic, but he is just so unrelenting and badgering. I'll admit to getting punchy at him and for me, that's a first. 

Oskar goes  all over New York City with a tambourine of all things, to fight fear. This is puzzling mainly because, for the most part, the city looks like Sesame Street. Everyone is so invariably kind to Oskar and he meets too many people for my standard powers of memory to count. One wishes Oskar would stop and chat awhile. We see Viola Davis, John Goodman and James Gandolfini, all thumbnail sketches, all cheerful pastiches of quirk, with no lasting character to them. 

One glaring, grateful exception is Max von Sydow who without saying a word, tells all you need to know about his existential predicament. There is a wonderful and poetic gravity to his face that this film desperately needs. Sydow is nominated for an Academy Award in this role and it is well deserved.

There is one other thing I liked about this melodrama and that is its visually sharp and crisp quality. In its scenes of ghostly figures falling from the Twin Towers, the film owes a debt to the photographic work of Robert Longo and the remote brightly-colored abstractions of John Baldessari. The rhythmic fade-ins with their attention to positive and negative space, are restive and wonderful, providing a welcome anodyne to the sappy plot.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" would do better, on film, if it were a little less loud and a little less close. There are too many Hollywood "Aha" moments for its own good. The driving elements: a genius kid,  9/11, semi- disability, and the loss of a parent, are all dynamic issues and deserve a more provocative treatment as they are so loaded on their own with a human vocabulary. To see these elements doled out in such a pre-digested fashion is maudlin, preposterous and grating on the senses. 

Write Ian at

Oscar Nominated Shorts 2012 (Rhoades)

“Oscar Shorts” Are
Big This Year

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Each year Oscars are awarded to short films, both animation and live action categories, but since these snippets of film rarely get theatrical distribution we have no idea which one to root for. However, a compilation of these films is being shown this week at the Tropic Cinema, so you can pick your own favorite.
Mini movies, these films range in length from 7 minutes to 30 minutes each. The animations tend toward fantasy; the live action films tell stories, some funny, some serious.
Among the animations, my favorite was “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” a paean for booklovers. In it, a mighty wind blows books, words and bicycles – not to mention Morris Lessmore himself – into the air a la Wizard of Oz. With straw hat and cane intact, he encounters a beautiful girl with books flying before her on ribbons. This leads him to a library where he feeds the books alphabet cereal and helps them put on their book jackets and adopts them out to good readers. As Morris ages his beloved books swarm around him like a murmuration of starlings, carrying him away. And then a new young booklover finds her way to the library door.
You’ll also encounter a Canadian short called “Wild Life,” the sad story of a young Englishman who comes to a snow-covered shack in Alberta and writes home to his parents about the grandiose ranch he oversees.
Another interesting animation was “Sunday.” Here, on a Sunday morning, a train rattles through a small village, clattering pictures on walls and overturning coffee cups. The parents go for Sunday drive with the kid in the backseat, a visit to grandma’s house. During the visit dogs, fish, and bears meet an ignoble fate. A slightly violent tale of childhood.
And there’s “A Morning Stroll,” the tale of a chicken going for a walk in 1959, 2009, and 2059, with the art moving from black-and-white line drawings to flat colors to Pixar-like modeled images.
As for the live action shorts, each tells a complete story.
“Pentecost” equates a Sunday Mass to competing in the European Cup for a young incense-bearing altar boy.
“Tuba Atlanta” takes a more serious life-and-death tone for a man facing an illness.
“The Shore” looks at a group of Irishmen who troll the seaside for mussels. And one of their own returns after 25 years only to re-discover the loved ones he’d left behind.
In “Time Freak” a friend visits the inventor of a time machine over and over again, sort of a “Groundhog’s Day” lite. The friend is astonished that his pal has only gone back one day in time. “So you built a time machine and you’ve been traveling around yesterday?” Of course, because that’s when he bumped into a pretty co-ed named Debbie.
My favorite live action was a drama titled “Raju,” the story of a couple who go to India to adopt a 4-year-old orphan. But when the new dad temporarily loses the kid at a market he discovers that Raju might in fact be a kidnapped child with parents still searching for him. He now faces a moral dilemma, whether to keep his new son or return him to a life of poverty.
Go see these Oscar Shorts. They won’t take up much of your time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Week of February 10 through February 16 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

It’s good to be back, and just in time to bring some exciting news. The Tropic is busy getting you ready for the upcoming Academy Awards on February 26, with all four screens packed with nominees.
THE IRON LADY (Two nominations, including Meryl Streep for Best Actress) is one of those movies that packs a history and biography lesson into a narrative film. I hope that doesn’t put you off because it’s also a fascinating movie. Ms. Streep is, as usual, masterful in a very demanding role, portraying former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia) and her screenwriter (Abi Morgan) have chosen an interesting path to a biopic, focusing on the current life of Thatcher as a somewhat distracted old woman. But it’s by no means an unfavorable portrait overall because her triumphs are powerfully shown in flashbacks – her victories over a hidebound male Conservative establishment, over an Argentine military junta in the Falkland Islands abroad, and over an entrenched union movement at home. She is shown in all her power and glory as the first female Prime Minister of Britain, and the longest serving one in centuries (more than eleven years).

I was not a fan of Thatcher’s Reaganesque politics, but I came away from the movie with admiration for her steely will and her extraordinary ability to cow the stuffed-shirt class-conscious men who didn’t know what to make of this grocer’s daughter who had pulled herself up by her own pump straps.

Britain is also the setting for Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE (Six nominations, including Best Picture) but the time is during World War I. It’s a Spielbergian family film par excellence, the story of a boy and his horse. The thoroughbred stallion of the movie title is purchased at auction by young Albert’s n’er do well father in a foolish bidding contest, where he should have been shopping for a plough horse. But the boy and the horse bond, and we are off on a saga that leaves National Velvet in the dust, as the equine “Joe” conquers the plough and then German soldiers when he goes off to war.

I saw War Horse first as a play on Broadway, where it is still running. It’s an amazing production for its stagecraft deploying full-sized horse puppets to depict, among other things, battlefield war scenes. The film medium of course offers Spielberg the opportunity for realism, and he embraces the task as we know he can. It’s a beautiful film about a beautiful young man and his beautiful horse, an uplifting, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, that is a dark horse candidate for the big Oscar prize.

(two nominations, including Best Picture), based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel, is the story of a quest by nine-year-old Oskar. His beloved father has been killed in the Twin Towers collapse, and he has found a mysterious key amongst his father’s belongings. The key is in an envelope marked with the name “Black,” so Oskar sets out each Saturday trekking throughout the five boroughs, visiting the homes of “Blacks” to see if he can find a fit for the key.
The picture has some star power, with Tom Hanks as Oskar’s father, Sandra Bullock as his mother, Max von Sydow (nominated as Best Supporting Actor) as a strange tenant in his grandmother’s apartment, and Viola Davis (nominated for Best Actress in The Help) as one of the sought for “Blacks.”

But first-timer Thomas Horn as Oskar carries the film on his young shoulders. The role of precocious whiz kid comes naturally to him, a real-life winner on the Jeopardy! Kids Week show. As you might expect, especially in a movie, there is no shortage of odd characters and strange places that Oskar visits, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of his grandmother’s tenant, as he traverses the near and far reaches of New York.  

Joining these main screen features are the Oscar-nominated Short Films, both Animated and Live Action, and THE ARTIST, touted as the leading candidate to win the award for Best Picture.

See them all! 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Young Goethe in Love (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Young Goethe in Love / Goethe!

O,  as a once blonde haired and cherry -cheeked student of literature, I find myself wishing I could be easy on this little Sturm in pictures!  O, how I am of two minds with my electronic pen!
Alas, here we have the almost unbearable pretentiously titled "Young Goethe in Love" or "Goethe!" in German.  Really? After Shakespeare himself? A boo-boo from the get go...yet it is so. 

Here is the young poet Johann Wolfgang  von Goethe. (Alexander Frehling) he is in school. He is bumbling and charmless, falling over himself. He blushes, but he's not really sorry. He says some reverse drivel about Augustine. His dialogue  would make Abbott & Costello into Rhodes scholars. Then he suddenly makes a show of writing "Kiss my Ass" dancing an stomping--a human scissors---in the snow. This makes the great poet into a  clown on the order of "Dumb and Dumber". It's a stretch for the great German modern poet and playwright, even as a young man of twenty three.

 I don't buy it.

 In this film, Goethe may as well be a silly Shakespeare on the order of "Anonymous". The Faustian genius is watery and generic here. He could be one of countless men. The real Goethe, as much as I have researched, was a deeply conservative but spiritual man.  Goethe was a naturalist, a champion of science, and a pioneer in color theory. Shouldn't  there be something of that man here? I argue that there should be, if only a mere puff of  personality to suspend disbelief.  

 That being said (and here is where my double mind kicks in) it is a charming enough romance. Lotte (Miriam Stein) is fresh and voluptuous and needless to say, she falls for our young poet. No surprises here. There are the usual lovesick chases over bridges and hedges and some familiar wax-sealed letters. However, the action is quick and the actors are so pleasing to the eye that it will hold your attention.

The most hypnotic aspect of the film is its preoccupation with duel and suicide. We see it here for how it might have appeared to young eyes: flamboyant, but also trite and narcissistic. Alexander Frehling is charming and handsome in this all too ordinary role, with very little Goethe in his knickers. Still, his face on screen trumps all and he appears uncannily, like the late Heath Ledger. Goethe he isn't, but as a young nonchalant brooding Bro, he is one to watch.

 The cinematography is sweeping and pleasant, recalling many Ivory / Merchant productions. With just a little more pushing, we could have a visual echo of Edmund Burke and his Theory of the Sublime: the mountains towering above an abandoned church in ruins. This would have been more worthy of our Young Werther.

I asked numerous people upon leaving the film what their impression was. "Cute" was the one word response that I invariably received. Zounds-o-Rama. Cute is fine, but there is nothing of Goethe in these pastures. Please call it something else.

Write Ian at

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Balibo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Balibo" tells the unfortunately true story of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the resulting massacre. More than 100,000 people were slain, as well as five Austrailan journalists. This film chronicles the abrupt and bloody event as is, and it is not for the sensitive among us. 

Anthony LaPaglia plays Roger East, a foreign correspondent who meets a driven activist Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and decides to locate the five missing journalists, now known as "the Balibo Five".

As Roger East, LaPaglia is as rugged and risky as any Spielberg adventurer, but it is important to keep in mind that East is no fiction. At first, it seems as if we are in for a road movie, so fluid is the chemistry between LaPaglia and Isaac. The two characters eat together, philosophize and talk full of pauses. Yet it soon becomes apparent that we are in Herzogian territory where nature looks at man from above with an indifferent lens. Even the camerawork looks scorched like a Polaroid photo burned at the edges. There are no easy explanations as to why the Indonesians attacked. Violence appears both brutal and evasive. 

 "Balibo" is tight and anxious, disturbingly recalling the edgy over-the top melodrama of  "Man on Fire" with its hand held claustrophobic camera. The scenes with LaPaglia are shown in alluring color while the flashback scenes are done in anemic pastels and faded sepia-tones. One senses the melancholy in the mere human motion of walking, deep in vegetation with no path visible. The act of reporting is seen as a waiting game of misinformation with nothing to look at but the stagnant frame of a swimming pool. A shadow on the wall can either summon panic or a spontaneous joke. The seconds are heavy. 

Despite the apprehensiveness of "Balibo", the film  is not with out its buoyancy. The harmony between LaPaglia and Isaac is clearly evident. This kindred spirit together with some easy banter between journalists, give a lightness to what could be all anxiety and woe. Camaraderie  is  one defense against blood.

No country is immune from violence, oppression or invasion. Every continental closet has its own skeletons rattling within.  By the end of "Balibo" a caption informs us that Jose Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 and independence was achieved in East Timor in 2002. But given the horror of  sudden carnage by the Indonesians this  seems a  mere whisper of retribution, a small attempt to balance human scales.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Iron Lady (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Iron Lady

The much awaited "The Iron Lady" has come to The Tropic and Meryl Streep in her role of Margaret Thatcher makes it well worth the wait. She is a startling chameleon: a veritable political ice queen with a tea and biscuit complexion.
Streep doesn't so much borrow Thatcher's soul as she inhabits it like a dramatic virus. She moves differently through space. She breathes differently. The airy spontaneity that we see embodied in Meryl Streep on talk shows is gone. Streep's Thatcher is a person that steamrolls  through life with the philosophy of 'my England Right or Wrong" (and invariably always Right). Yet "The Iron Lady" is a very human film and Streep's milestone performance will nip at your heart.

The film is impressionistic and told primarily in flashbacks. Rather than a linear storyline, the action unfolds in layers, pacing between aged Thatcher and young Conservative Margaret Roberts. The motion of the story is collage-like and fluid, interspersed with lively splurges on the Punk movement in the 1970s, coupled with bold Orwellian overtones that echo Stanley Kubrick and the controversial "Spitting Image" puppets. Stylistically the film shines with bold close ups and claustrophobic shots of males eating rapaciously in their razor-black shoes while a young Maggie Thatcher tries to squeeze her way through the House of Commons. This interpretation may not to be all tastes, but it makes for lively viewing, giving color and verve to what could have been a gray drudgery.

When we first see Maggie she is old and addled in a grocery store. Gradually with the surface pathos of an Andy Warhol portrait, we are hit with a contrast of images: a ghostly Thatcher who is haunted by the goggle-eyed haunts of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Thatcher spins and giggles in senility, as Denis both delights and chastises her. Then she is young again, as a blueberry eyed Conservative with the fire of Freedom in her eyes. Under less sensitive hands, these scenes could be maudlin, silly and overbearing, but Broadbent and Streep give authentic comic weight to the experience of loss and living with someone for a lifetime. 

We experience a good slice of Thatcher's life in Streep's frost-fired eyes---her face is an eerie organic mask of overwhelming intent. One step above Leonardo Di Caprio in "J. Edgar". 

This is no hatchet job. We see both the good and the bad of Thatcher. (the atrocity of strikes, the deadliness of the Falklands, the end of The Cold war with Russia). She stormed through it all and had no patience for passivity.
Our last image of Thatcher in the film is one of loss and wandering. There are echoes of  Samuel Beckett here as the lighting slowly dims on film.What a wonderful revelation: that Phyllida Lloyd, director of the notoriously ridiculed film "Mamma Mia!" would be the one to give such a vibrant and well-dressed portrait of "The Iron Lady". It is not a question whether Thatcher is seen at her best here, rather we get the impression that we see her as she is, in totality, and that is the best in film trickery that we can ask for.

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