Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: The Year in Film (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

2013: The Year in Film
[Highlighted films currently playing at the Tropic]

Although Lee Daniels' "The Butler" was snubbed this year by the Golden Globes, possibly because of Oprah Winfrey's star power or even, perhaps by The Butler character's imagined passivity, true life stories were still in vogue at year's end. Tom Hanks solidly went to sea in "Captain Phillips", based on an ordeal with Somali pirates. Hanks role proved compelling, but it was the acting of newcomer Barkhad Abdi who made the real strike and I think he will win an Oscar.

Robert Redford also hit the spot in the understated "All is Lost". J.C. Chandor's brilliant study of one man at odds in the ocean.

"12 Years a Slave" was an impeccable and uncompromising memoir on the life of the kidnapped Solomon Northup that is to be commended in its refusal to pull punches.

Denis Villenueve's "Prisoners" melted a true story into a noirish Hitchcockian study of punishment and loss. Never has a single note of one whistle been so fraught with tension.

If the dark side of the Catholic Church catches your fancy, "Philomena" highlights a devout and seeking Judi Dench and a crabby Steve Coogan in a light hybrid of papal espionage and a road film all mixed together to make a delightful portrait of a friendship.

For those that like quirky families, "Nebraska" created a deceptively simple and warm, picaresque study of a family trying to cope with eccentricity. A highlight of the film is Alexander Payne's subtlety in speech and comedy, combined with wonderful cinematography that recalls Walker Evans.

Also touching on a difficult relationship of sorts is "Saving Mr. Banks" a poignantly vivid account  undertaking of  Mary Poppins featuring the stuffy author and an egotistical Disney.

Now we come to some topical financial themed character studies.

"Blue Jasmine" heads the list with a prolific Woody Allen in rare form. Allen delivers with a razor sharp interpretation of a Mrs. Madoff expose with a Tennessee Williams' toxic edge of suffering ghosts. Cate Blanchett can't lose.

"American Hustle" is a solid account of the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s. Christian Bale has gained weight and a hairpiece that is both scary and silly. Jennifer Lawrence is a living Betty Boop with a nail polish fetish. Her superficiality is something frightening and slick. The film has a very accurate rhythm in capturing its time of disco and panic, but if Louis Malle had had his way with the late John Belushi in the Bale role, the story might have reached poetic heights.

Finally "The Wolf of Wall Street" places Leonardo DiCaprio in familiar urban territory as a Money Mad Man---part Johnny Knoxville and part pageboy De Niro. He takes a few paragraphs from his role as Frank Abagnale Jr. DiCaprio is intimidating enough but he also rants  roars and pratfalls along the way, losing all muscle control. Scorsese is at his best when he tones it down a bit at last, allowing some grim and pointed humor to finally come to the trading floor.

This year in film has seen all manner of real stories through schemes and scams, full of motley characters, windbag financiers with all variety of  pirates, cousins and lost uncles, not to mention those just plain lost who look to find their own family, be they real, stolen, or imagined.

 Write Ian at

The Wolf of Wall Street (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Wolf of Wall Street

In Martin Scorsese's epic fall from grace tale "The Wolf of Wall Street" all the usual suspects are here.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as another crooked shyster with a big forehead of Ego as Jordan Belfort, the real life George Hamilton-ish con man who made millions dealing in fraudulent penny stocks. Belfort ultimately went to prison for 36 months.

Although the dizzying debauchery is masterfully rendered in all its bestial grunting and frenetic fornication (with much cocaine and champagne nuzzled and guzzled over mounds of heaping cleavage) the film takes a cue from Oliver Stone and MTV's "Jackass".

A little goes a long way with three hours pushing to self indulgence.

We see Belfort a little damp behind the ears as an adrenaline junkie who goes to Wall Street to become a phone puncher. He is seduced by the reptilian Mark Hanna (played by who else but Matthew  McConaughey) who teaches him the ropes (sort of) along with a weird primal chant. Hanna tells him that he has to forget his morals if he wants to be a broker. He also must do copious amounts of drugs and masturbate compulsively without regard to convention or mores. Such rituals are the only way to keep the imps of anxiety and self doubt at bay.

Money and transgressions create the only standards.

Belfort happily pushes buttons and passes his broker exam. Then Black Monday hits and the market drops precipitously, losing some five hundred points. He is a man beyond his means, unemployed and unemployable, yet still driven by hungry ghosts. Belfort gets a tip in the paper that an unscrupulous boiler room outfit is hiring. In a phone audition, they are overwhelmed by his wiles in making thousands in mere minutes.

Belfort starts his own cubicle warehouse, riding on the coat tails of blue chip stocks, while making millions in obscure and worthless "pink sheet" stocks.

Belfort becomes richer and richer, able to turn his day to day life into a orgiastic carnival of sorts, complete with amber strippers and chimps. There are long stretches of savage roars and simian shrieks, the shredding of Armani suits, the pumping of male muscle coupled with the snorting of breasts and public urination.

Flesh is cast to look like exploded flowers or depressive vines. Fellini could make this hypnotically interesting, but here, (although not tedious) such voluptual vacuity runs a little flat.

How many shots of cocaine-hilled breasts are really necessary?

Donnie (Jonah Hill) is Belfort's right hand man, but he acts like an adolescent, drooling, crying and snorting. Hill has a nice scene with heavy Jon Bernthal and captures the staccato of Scorsese's trademark dialogue perfectly. As a smarmy and self deprecating henchman Hill is fittingly entertaining and he employs his usual awkward and unwanted persona to vivid advantage.

The best aspect to this film is its humor. Suffocated by monogrammed pillows on his yacht, Belfort gets deeper and deeper in the morass of muddied money and wanton deceit. Much of it hinges on adultery, the pull of sex and self destruction with Belfort's new materialist wife (Margot Robbie). Just when Belfort attempts to escape, his yacht gets pulverized by a storm. On land, as his polyester men are being arrested, he unwittingly overdoses on old quaaludes while Donnie chokes on a roll of ham.

Scorcese lampoons his own snare of savagery in making a karmic joke.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is crafted like a pair of two toned gangster shoes. The first side pays  homage to those non-potty trained pratfalls of injury tv and Johnny Knoxville, while the second is a black laced noose of a feckless man in happenstance.

If you have seen "Casino" or "Goodfellas" the story is practically patented: an excess of macho, savage sex and fiscal irresponsibility leads to The Feds.

But even with such familiar territory, DiCaprio makes it fun as an unshakeable, semi-sinister goon who keeps his bone ivory polo shirt and white spackle smile unsoiled by the shit of his deeds.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Week of December 25 to January 2 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Has Wolf at the Door This Christmas

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cook Communications

Yes, the wolf is at the door. That is, Martin Scorsese’s new comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street.” For this tale of financial misadventure the director reunites with one of his favorite stars, Leonardo DiCaprio. This is their fifth film together. Based on a true story, DiCaprio plays an over-the-top wheeler-dealer who misappropriated over $100 million and spent only 22 months in prison for the deed. Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill join him as fellow swindlers. The Orange County Register says, “This sprawling mock epic about a sleazy penny stock whiz contains scenes of astonishing black-comic brilliance.” Fox News calls it “wild, offbeat and insane.” While Grouch Reviews says it “rests comfortably alongside Scorsese’s masterpieces Goodfellas and Casino, but carries a sting that even they don't by examining the most acceptable, yet most rapacious, of criminal swindles.”

Also continuing its visit at the Tropic is “Saving Mr. Banks,” the almost-true story of Walt Disney’s wooing P.L. Travers for film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories. Tom Hanks dons a mustache to give us an Uncle Walt and Emma Thompson offers a prickly version of the children’s author. agrees that it’s a “charming confection.” And Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls it “a shameless wad of corporate PR, a feel-good, self-serving Disney film about the making of a Disney film.”

“Nebraska” asks you to take a little journey with 77-year-old Bruce Dern as a farmer who thinks he’s won a $1 million in a junk-mail sweepstakes. Will Forte is the son who joins hid dad on this last hoorah. Boston Globe describes it as “a desolate comedy-drama about fathers, sons, life's highways and missed off-ramps.” Aisle Seat calls it “funny and touch in equal measure.” And Entertainment Spectrum says it’s “a must-see that will spark conversations and please the viewing audience.”

“Philomena” adds humor to a serious subject too. Dame Judi Dench takes the title role of an Irish woman searching for the son she gave away 50 years ago, and writer-costar Steve Coogan plays the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her. Metro Times observes, “The odd-couple road movie is well-trod territory, so it's a welcome surprise to see it handled as intelligently, deftly and movingly.” MovieFIX sees it as “lovingly crafted and beautifully told.” And Washington Post says, “At its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” rounds out the movie lineup. Matthew McConaughey portrays an HIV man who finds a way to buy needed drugs. Newsday crowed “A solid biopic is made transcendent by McConaughey, who shed nearly 50 pounds and deserves to gain an Oscar for his ferocious, funny performance.” Denver Post describes the performance as “played with raw, rattling fury and grace.” And Toledo Blade calls it “an AIDS drama about tolerance and the ability for even the worst of us to improve our lives and those around us.”

Laughs, tears, comedy, drama -- a holiday bounty from the Tropic.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Rhoades)

DiCaprio and Scorsese Make “Wolf” Howl

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Got money to burn? Or to toss at suspicious FBI agents? Well, you would have it to flaunt if you’d made $48 million in one year alone.

But Jordan Belfort was disappointed. He’d been aiming for $50 million with his all financial shenanigans.

Nicknamed the Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort went to prison for manipulating the stock market. Leonardo DiCaprio plays him larger than life in a movie aptly titled “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Also on hand for this Gatsbyesque excursion into the world of high finance is Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Spike Jonze.

Directed by Martin Scorsese (he’s fond of directing DiCaprio), this is a film about excess -- sex, profanity, money, and drugs. And at nearly three hours in length, it lives up to that promise of overabundance. Heck, you get much of the promised sex, profanity, money, and drugs in the first five minutes.

This film -- now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is as different from Scorsese’s sweet sentimental “Hugo” as you could imagine. You’ll see more kinship with Scorsese’s bad boys in “Goodfellas.”

Based on Jordan Belfort’s tell-all memoir, “The Wolf of Wall Street” chronicles his rise and fall as the head of a brokerage house called Stratton Oakmont. He founded it when only in his twenties. “The book personified America’s addiction to obtaining wealth at all costs, and that hasn’t changed,” says Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Long Island boiler room swindled small investors out of roughly $100 million. In 1998, Belfort was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering, but after cooperating with the FBI he served only 22 months in prison.

The ’90s was a heyday of cheap money, junk bonds, drugs, sex, and parties. “He was a small fish in a gigantic pond, and he’d motivate his guys by telling them they were heroes for taking on the big houses,” explains DiCaprio. “Unregulated Wall Street was like the Wild West.”

Scorsese weighs in: “Jordan was a brilliant guy in a world where there may be no morality ­- whatsoever.”

How far does the movie go? There are in fact little people in the movie, but no actual “dwarf tossing.” And there’s a chimpanzee, but producers deny the Friends of Animals claim that the chimp “suffered irreversible psychological damage” after being forced to roller skate through an office in a collared shirt and slacks. The movie also features dogs, a lion, and a fish. And yes there are lots of naked women, but Scorsese agreed to trim certain nudity and sex scenes in order to avoid the dread NC-17 rating. Now it’s just a solid R.

Despite the guaranteed box office draw of both Scorsese and DiCaprio, several studios turned the film down. But Leonardo was determined. When his schedule opened up, he suggested they give it another try. “I told Marty, ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to do a movie like this too many times in the future,’” says DiCaprio. “Larger-scale, R-rated dramas, like ‘Blood Diamond’ or ‘The Departed,’ don’t really get financed anymore.”

An independent production company called Red Granite Pictures stepped in to finance this film, with Paramount distributing.

“It certainly couldn’t be more politically incorrect or chauvinistic,” says co-stare Jonah Hill. “People who are weak, or perceived as weak and emotional, are fed to the wolves.”

Did we mention it’s a comedy? Well, a black comedy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Saving Mr. Banks

As if in response to Randy Moore's  comic horror film "Escape from Tomorrow" which appeared at this year's Key West Film Festival, comes John Lee Hancock's (The Blind Side) solidly entertaining "Saving Mr. Banks", a somewhat revisionist expose on Walt Disney's working relationship with the author of the book Mary Poppins.

The wonder of the film is that with the liberties that it does appear to take with the author's life (there is scant evidence that author Travers saw her mother's suicide attempt, or that the father died from alcoholism) the film is absolutely riveting in its drama of the charismatic Walt in a perpetual maze with Pamela, or more properly, Miss Travers.

The excellent Emma Thompson plays the Australian author and she is perfectly on point. Disney is incarnated in the body of Tom Hanks  and Hanks' transformation seems to possess something easeful and supernatural.  Gone is his Everyman persona. Hanks has a Los Angeles shark's smile with P.T. Barnum in the pluck of his white gloved fingers.

A friend of Mickey is born every minute.

Disney will stop at nothing to acquire the rights to Miss Travers' beloved Mary Poppins and he turns on an overload of sweet charm that would make many a used car salesmen roll his eyes in caution.

But Travers won't stand for it.

Arriving at a bright blue vision of Southern California reminiscent of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" and TV's "Mad Men", Travers is assaulted by an avalanche of stuffed Disney animals in her hotel room straightaway. She breaks into a fit of nerves, chucking the plush bestiary in the closet.

It is a panic that is almost religious in its intensity.

Disney has his own monomaniac vision; he wants a wondrous musical for all ages complete with avian animation.

Travers cuts Disney to the quick and the happiest man on earth resorts to smoking, although it is not depicted onscreen.

He paces.

The grinning and candy-striped  Sherman Brothers who constantly consume sugar (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) dandily take to the piano in the hopes of coming up with silly affectionate songs.

"No! No No!" is the invariable response.

Walt is vexed.

Poppins is family to the author, modeled after her own great aunt. Travers can't let her iconic characters become cheapened to a  juvenile cartoon. This vehemence especially arises concerning the  character of the father when Disney requests that he have a mustache very much like Walt's  own.

In the film, Mr. Robert Goff (portrayed with pathos and warmth by Colin Farrell) is playful and sensitive, moonlighting with revolutionary socialist ideals.

Alas, he is a banker by day and turns to the bottle.

Travers is bitten by daydreams of guilt.

This makes some  stirring emotional impact with episodes not aimed for the extremely young at heart.

More profound though is the role of the driver Ralph  (Paul Giamatti). In his cherubic round face, wide eyes and sable spectacles, he is The Mouse in human form.  While Ralph is forever buoyant, Travers is unflappably sullen and damp, shut like a valise. Ralph never alters in mood and when he pulls up from out of the background as a churning figure of non-ego and joy, your heart will unfold like an umbrella.

Also provocative are the scenes of Thompson at the Poppins premiere, looking like a bejeweled pencil, put aside and forgotten.

Disney purposely left the author out of the invited circle.

The piece de resistance is the sight of Travers watching the film. In observing her favorite dance number, she bursts into tears, as much from recollection as from hurt in seeing those animated penguins.

Although P.L. Travers no doubt had an acute aversion to the Disney film, she had been known to watch "Mary Poppins" numerous times and to have had a respect for the maestro.

That being said, it's  safe to say she never forgave Mr. Disney, forbidding further adaptations from her books.

With the portrayal of Tom Hanks, we see a slick Mickey, smarmy and honest by turns who even reveals his own inky imps of anxiety as well as his heart.

In the instant that Miss Travers signs on the dotted line, however, it is a deal with a devil who lords over his compulsorily cheerful, yet unalterably anal  dominion.

"Saving Mr. Banks" does one better in showing both Walt and Pamela as two peas in a Poppins pod, both obstinate in creation: one championing Goofy, the other Gurdjieff.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Week of December 20 to December 26 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers Respite from Holiday Stress

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Stop right there and take a deep breath. Watching a movie or two is the perfect antidote for the stress of the Christmas season.

New this week to the Tropic Cinema is “Saving Mr. Banks,” the mostly true story about how affable Walt Disney came to acquire the rights to “Mary Poppins” from uptight Brit author P.L. Travers. Apparently, it took a lot of tea and cookies … not to mention money. Tom Hanks makes a good Uncle Walt and Emma Thomson plays the starchy children’s writer. Leonard Maltin sees this as “a charming and heartwarming piece of entertainment, highlighted by a handful of superior performances.” Lyles Movie Files calls it “an audience-pleasing, if incomplete look behind the Walt Disney empire’s curtain.” And Cinema Sight says it’s “an engaging film that sugarcoats Disney history as only Disney itself can.

Meanwhile “Nebraska” continues its journey at the Tropic. Bruce Dern stars as a Montana farmer who thinks he’s won a million dollars in a mail-order sweepstakes, so he convinces his son to go with him to Nebraska to collect the cash. Dunno if money’s the root of all evil, but it certainly screws up one family’s life in this Alexander Payne dramedy. Boston Globe calls it “a desolate comedy-drama about fathers, sons, life's highways and missed off-ramps.” And the Tri-City Herald says it’s “the year's best movie ... period.

“The Book Thief” continues to examine war through the eyes of a young German girl. She learns the meaning of hope and freedom while learning to read. And then there’s the Jewish boy hiding in her stepparent’s house… concludes that “it is the wisdom of restraint that makes the film as touching and haunting as it ends up being.” And Detroit News says the movie “may not be perfect, but it may steal your heart.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” gives us a lean, mean Matthew McConaughey as an HIV-positive Texan who starts a workaround organization for buying drugs. Having shucked his old rom-com image, McConaughey is becoming the go-to guy for gritty down-and-out performances. Newsday says, “A solid biopic is made transcendent by McConaughey, who shed nearly 50 pounds and deserves to gain an Oscar for his ferocious, funny performance.” And describes it as “a biography about a man going through a very new, very scary disease and his will to help others.”

“Philomena” rounds out this week’s films, the story of an Irish woman searching for the son she gave away to the nuns 50 years ago. A disgraced journalist assists her in this seemingly foolhardy quest. Both Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan give great performances as they examine the meaning of forgiveness and belief. Associated Press observes that “both actors find complexity and depth.” And Washington Post says, “This clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.”

Plenty to keep you entertained when you’re not undertaking the hassle of holiday shopping.

Saving Mr. Banks (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Delivers Spoonful of Sugar

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What if Walt Disney met Mary Poppins? There’s a movie about it. Well, actually about Uncle Walt’s negotiations with P.L. Travers for the screen rights to her Mary Poppins novels.

“Saving Mr. Banks” stars Emma Thompson as a tweedy Pamela Travers and a mustachioed Tom Hanks as Disney. It’s currently working its magic at the Tropic Cinema.

The title is a reference to the father of the children in the Mary Poppins stories, a character modeled on Travers’s own father.

While Disney did in fact invite Travers to Hollywood to clench the deal after 15 years of pursuing the rights to make his celebrated “Mary Poppins,” it didn’t happen exactly as depicted in this likeable retelling.

Mrs. Travers was a grouchy, stiff-upper-lipped Brit (though actually born in Australia). She didn’t want to sell her rights to Disney, but her books had stopped selling and she needed the money. At her agent’s urging, she flew to California where she was ensconced in the Beverley Hills Hotel and plied with tea and cookies.

Walt Disney wanted the Mary Poppins character (we’re told) to keep a promise to his daughters. But Travers is resistant. “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” she says.

Thus, in addition to paying top dollar, Disney gave her script approval -- which turns out to be the bane of everyone’s existence. She harangues the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting team (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak), complains about the costumes and sets.

The relationship between Disney and the writer was prickly at best. While the movie shows her crying tears of joy at the film’s world premiere, they were in fact tears of disappointment.

At the time “Mary Poppins,” a musical about a magical nanny, was the most expensive live-action film Disney had ever produced.

The story jumps back and forth between 1961 Burbank and her childhood as a little girl named Helen Goff. As the title hints, she had daddy issues. Her alcoholic father is played by Colin Farrell. The thesis here is that childhood misery begets adult creativity.

Walt Disney had a similar impoverished background, but their viewpoints of life differ. In Travers’s books, Mary Poppins seeks solutions to problems. On the screen she merely wishes them away.

As A.O. Scott noted in The New York Times, “It would be unfair to dismiss this picture … as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.”

So no wonder we get a slightly sanitized version. Like the song in “Mary Poppins” said, A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Philomena (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


This is one instance where the Catholic Church does not fare too well. But more importantly, it is also one of the few films where Religion is debated openly, yet given a light, (and sometimes a gallows humor ) nudge when needed.

"Philomena", a new work by Stephen Frears, details the true life drama of an Irish woman Philomena Lee  (Judi Dench) and her quest to find her lost son many decades later. Philomena had a illicit rumpus when she was very young. Because she was exiled by her family, Philomena joined a convent. The Mother Superior took control of the birth and the child, Anthony, and sold the toddler to an American family.

In one of the most heartrending flashback sequences in current cinema, we see owlish white tailed nuns as they neutrally administer to the teen Philomena with brusque officiousness. These episodes are swift with menace and doom and echo the best of Gothicism. Philomena has no idea that her sweet infant is about to be blatantly stolen by the convent, for the petty reason that the child is affectionately attached to his toddler friend Mary.

Philomena's sister has a chance encounter with a down and out journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who, having no options for rapid employment, reluctantly agrees to write the pining mother's story.

What follows are a rollicking series of  quippy meetings which evolve into a thoughtful road trip. Sixsmith is a reserved and cynical pessimist while Philomena is a kind hearted openly affectionate older lady knocked about by tragedy.

There is much banter and comic bits exchanged that arise from the juxtaposition of the ultra-serious Martin and  by the ebullient Philomena that recall the easing films "Quartet" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" with various pop culture references about TV and social mores. But Dench's role has decidedly more meat. Her emotional pendulum between gravity, sadness and joyful comedy is refreshingly authentic. If you have been bogged down by the dearth of films that feature aging folks having a silly old time and carrying on with Casanova attitudes and dancing in various rediscoveries, take heart. You will not find a lunatic scream or a sudden outbreak of geriatric revelry anywhere. Philomena is a full fleshed person illustrating terrible  pain and a buoyant spirit at once.

Steve Coogan (who is also the film's writer and producer) is superb in shuffling off his comical persona as a nebbish man who is stuck in third gear. Here, he is a straight arrow, a somewhat introverted but altogether passionate man who has definite humanist ideals, railing with fire against religion. Coogan's repartee in defense of non-belief contain some of the best returns on matters of theology ever found in a so-called "comedy" film.

 Philomena's battle of the heart is not to find her lost adult son, but ultimately to reconcile herself to the scheming and unethical realities of this quaint Irish convent.

This story may seem a bit melodramatic and it is, but its twists and turns rival "The Dragon Tattoo" tales and the film never wallows in false Gothicisms.

The trick of "Philomena" is that it combines the warmth and quirk of Coogan's appearance in "The Trip" with a string of Catholic subterfuges that would make Dan Brown blush and hide in a habit. Yet instead of going for ephemeral entertainment, the film has the smartness to settle down and relate a very human story of two people who finally shed their spiritual dualities with one another.

Write Ian at

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nebraska (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The American auteur Alexander Payne (The Descendants) sounds a lively, off-kilter note in "Nebraska", a black and white study of an aged man in search for satisfaction, embodied in a million dollar certificate.

Bruce Dern stars as Woody, a grizzled and grumbling blue collar retiree who seems pained by the very air he breathes. Nevertheless, he shuffles out every morning with the idea that a lottery prize is waiting for him in Lincoln Nebraska. Woody schemes and connives. Most days, he escapes and walks on foot, in a painstaking attempt to reach the supposed cash office.

His face is pale, tense and as stubborn as Popeye without his spinach. Indeed in his haggard and salty appearance, Woody most closely resembles an old sea captain. Some will be reminded of Nick Nolte perhaps, but Dern has a softness and a passivity at times, that Nolte often lacks.

Woody usually takes flight when his dominant wife Katie (June Squibb)  has her back turned which isn't a very frequent occurrence.

The comic Will Forte from SNL gives an excellent serious performance as Woody's innocuous yet caring son who appears to just go with the flow of life. He likes his father but is often turned to a puddle of soft jelly by his domineering septuagenarian mother.

Payne has much to draw from. The crisp imagery of bent black trees parallel Woody's own tilted frame. The flat fields of Nebraska and the wrinkled munchkin-like faces of many Hawthorne residents recall the photography of Walker Evans. And the pedestrian yet innerly madcap characters recall something of Jim Jarmusch, especially given the   black and white cinematography. But although "Nebraska" may echo other films and several art forms, Payne's theme of the struggling embattled senior, up against expectations and running out of time are uniquely his own.

The veteran character actor Stacy Keach gives a fine, precise performance as a whale-like "frienemy" who sings bad karaoke but intimidates in an acute and scary manner in his desire for payback.

But it is June Squibb who roars loudest with the most animation and practically carries away the whole state, setting and film as the unapologetically profane matriarch whose vituperations are laugh out funny. Her role of Katie, despite its invective invention, is not without solitude or sweetness.

"Nebraska," although it is zany and deadpan, unfolds like a spool of life. The scenes of a soporific tv room, paired with half remembered smiles, greedily seeking and wanting, are instantly familiar. Alexander Payne has weaved a picaresque American portrait that turns a barren country into something eccentric and vibrant.

Like an O. Henry story, the ending is as sneaky as it is sentimental.

Write Ian at

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Week of December 13 to December 19 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Holds All the Cards This Holiday Season

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Scott Hoard, Tropic Cinema’s programmer, listed “Philomena” as one of his favorite films from the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Now you can see it on Tropic screens, along with four other terrific films.

“Philomena” stars Dame Judi Dench as an Irish woman who wants to locate the son she gave up for adoption 50 years ago, and Steve Coogan is the disgraced journalist helping her in this quest. It’s sort of a detective story with both humor and pathos. The Irish nuns are the impediment in this hunt, but Philomena maintains her faith and forgiveness. The journalist sees it differently.

Returning is “Nebraska,” the Alexander Payne film that had appeared for one night as part of last month’s NY Film Critics series. Bruce Dern pays an old-timer who thinks he’s won a million dollars in a junk-mail sweepstakes. This sudden “wealth” changes those around him -- family, neighbors, all. Will Forte is his dubious son who agrees to journey to Nebraska with his father in search of this mystical million.

“The Book Thief” is holding over, a child’s eye view of World War II Germany. This story of a ten-year-old girl who loves books and protects a Jewish hideaway has been getting rave reviews from Tropic moviegoers.

“Kill Your Darlings” also is holding over. Local columnist Mark Howell proclaimed it one of the best movies ever made about the Beat Generation. Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) plays poet Allen Ginsberg. Having met Ginsberg on six occasions, Mark called it a spot-on performance.

Moving to the Tropic is “Dallas Buyers Club,” a tour de force by Matthew McConaughey as an HIV-positive Texan who starts up a new way for sufferers to buy meds. It will hold your attention start to finish.

Also don’t miss the special showing of “Nutcracker Key West,” with principal dancer Natalia Ashikhmina, the youngest prima ballerina of the Russian National Ballet. Joyce Stahl’s production of an “underwater” version of the “Nutcracker” is a holiday treat.

Tropic Cinema holds the cards to a full house!

Dallas Buyers Club (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Dallas Buyers Club

Director Jean-Marc Vallee makes an almost subversive move in bringing to the mainstream an extremely homophobic man with AIDS who was nonetheless a trailblazer. "Dallas Buyers Club" is the true story of the late rodeo cowboy and electrician Ron Woodroof who contracted HIV through an afternoon of unprotected libertinage and ended up saving lives. Woodruff is played by Matthew McConaughey in a performance that is organic and seamless.

Woodruff is slender and tilted. He swaggers and is invariably dusty, looking like a Marlboro Man made of balsa wood. Day in and day out, Woodroof works with singed circuits. He tilts and leans in to the rodeo to relieve steam, and gets on a bull. The hard carnivorous charge of the animal, both inflames and appeases Woodroof's need for some sweaty and panting sex. Throughout the day, he often appears like an empty vacuous cloud, only animated during anonymous sex with strippers, grunting and roaring in synch to the bulls that  he dominates.

After trying to escape from some angry dudes and intentionally punching a cop, Woodroof collapses and is rushed to the hospital.

He finds that he is HIV+ and becomes enraged. This is the 80s after all and HIV was thought to be an almost exclusively homosexually-transmitted disease at the time.

Woodroof is given six months to live.

He then indulges in some wanton hedonism of drugs and sex, but instead of an escape, Woodroof gets increasingly sicker.

He goes to the library and HIV support groups, slinking in as an anonymous coyote. When confronted and complemented by men, he is aggressive and violent.

Woodroof lands in the hospital once more where he meets a drag performer Rayon (Jared Leto). Woodroof has an instant aversion to him, by Rayon's irrepressible spirit catches the constricted rambler off guard. The two bet on cards and the macho man loses.

Despite its occasionally dry documentary feel, there are some wonderfully solid outings, chiefly due to Leto and McConaughey who in their own way, deliver an off-kilter and quirky interpretation of "Brokeback Mountain" sans sex.

The most telling and poignant scene occurs when Woodroof physically defends Rayon, settling the score with a bigoted buddy (Steve Zahn)

Jennifer Garner gives a sincere, if safe performance as a doctor willing to give Woodroof a vital push.

The magnetism of "Dallas Buyers Club" comes from its lack of sentimentality and tame tugs and its agility in turning a hostile man in denim into a hero by lassoing the drug AZT and revealing it to the public as a toxic two-face. Woodroof might have started as a homophobic hombre, but he evolved into a better man and saved thousands of lives in dispensing several savior drugs such as Interferon and antiviral proteins, not yet approved in the mid 80s.

The film also subverts the cult movies in the manner of Peckinpah as this lone wolf runs from the FDA, but instead of dealing with double crossings of decapitations and severed limbs, this is a direct and forthright tale of a sunburned and desperate man against the system, not because of his own greed, but rather through a tragic and unforeseen war raging within his own body.

Write Ian at

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Philomena (Rhaodes)

Whose Message Is  “Philomena”?

 Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 If you were a poor Irish woman forced by the nuns to give up your child 50 years ago, would you want to find out what had happened to your long-lost son?

A woman named Philomena Lee did. And she teamed up with a down-and-out journalist named Martin Sixsmith to search for her son.

It’s a true story. Kind of a detective story.

Martin Sixsmith wrote a book about the search, titled “The Lost Son of Philomena Lee.” And director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) has made it into a movie starring Steve Coogan as Sixsmith and Dame Judi Dench as the eponymous Philomena.

Dame Judi Dench needs little introduction. From playing M in the “James Bond” films to her appearances in such movies as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Notes on a Scandal,” she is a British treasure. Steve Coogan you may not know quite as well, but you will recognize him as “Part No. 4 in someone else’s movie,” to use his own description.

“Philomena” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Stephen Frears likes making movies about real-life people. “When it’s about a real person, the audience sort of believes it. So the fact that we can produce the real Philomena … you start off much further down the track.”

Funnyman Steve Coogan (“The Trip”) not only took on the role of Martin Sixsmith, he also co-wrote the script.

“In my state as a writer, you sort of get bored with just writing comedy for its own sake,” says Coogan. “I just thought, I want to talk about something that is about something.”

Nonetheless he inserted a sense of humor into a somewhat grim story.

As Frears tells it, “I said to Martin, ‘You are a good sport allowing Steve to play you.’ Steve is much more outrageous and with a sense of the ridiculous. Martin Sixsmith is now a rather distinguished historian.”

“I felt a connection to Martin — a liberal intellectual,” confides Coogan. “But I also knew who Philomena was: A working class Irish woman. And her story could have happened to anyone.”

The contrast between the two makes it work. Martin is a cynical atheist; Philomena a devout Catholic. He is gay; she a “fallen woman.”

“I want to show both sides, show some balance,” says Coogan. “I spoke to Philomena, I spoke to Martin, to find out where they were coming from. I put a lot of myself into Martin.”

Here the nuns are the obstacle, burning the adoption records, refusing to help them locate the boy they’d sold to American parents.

“People want to hear the confrontation with the nuns,” says Coogan. “It’s important to express that anger.”

But as Philomena says, “Isn’t it exhausting being angry all the time?”

“In my anger toward the church as an institution, I didn’t want to castigate people of simple faith,” declares Coogan. “My parents are people like that. I respect them. They are good people. Through Philomena, I want to dignify that.”

In the film (as in real life) Philomena forgave the nuns. “This is not a rally cry against the church or politics,” she insists. “In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.”

“She’s a better person than Martin, and she’s Catholic,” says Steve Coogan. “She seems to be at a better place at the end of the film than he is.” It’s not clear whether he’s really talking about Martin Sixsmith or himself.

Nebraska (Rhoades)

“Nebraska” Returns to Tropic Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I used to do a lot of business with Publishers Clearing House (PCH) when I was in the magazine business. They really did give away millions of dollars in sweepstakes prizes. But sometimes their promotions could be a tad misleading, making people think they’d won when they hadn’t.

That’s the situation in “Nebraska,” where an old timer (Bruce Dern) and his reluctant son (Will Forte) travel from Montana to Nebraska hoping to collect the million dollars he thinks he’s won in a junk-mail sweepstakes.

What we learn is that greed changes people. The neighbors want to see the money. A town bully (Stacy Keach) wants a share. The old man’s beleaguered wife (June Squibb) thinks he’s finally lost his marbles.

“Nebraska” showed one-night-only last month as an entry in the NY Film Critic’s series. Now it returns to the Tropic Cinema this week as a regular release.

Directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”), this is the first of his films that he didn’t write, rather using a screenplay by Bob Nelson, a one-time member of a comedy troupe on Seattle TV.

The film was deliberately shot in black-and-white to produce an “iconic, archetypal look.”

Bruce Dern was cast because “he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery.” Dern won the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this performance.

Will Forte got the role of the son because “he has a very, very believable quality.” A guy has to be convincing when he’s trying to talk his dad out of walking from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I think many of us have experiences with fathers who are loving, they are nice, but somehow they’re on another planet and you wonder your whole life, ‘What is that planet that my father is on?’” says Payne.

And therein is the film’s underlying theme: That fathers are ultimately unknowable to their children.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Kill Your Darlings (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Kill Your Darlings

It has often been said that much of the Beat Generation's literary work (particularly Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Kerouac's On the Road) would be "unfilmable". Critics have eaten crow in various quantities as that has now come to pass, albeit with various degrees of success. "Naked Lunch" was a visual and occasionally daring half joke with some fine provocative episodes, though it seemed a bit too self -conscious, while "On the Road" clunked by with a whistle instead of an engine roar.

Thankfully all is not lost.

Director John Krokidas, known for his quirky short films gives us a richly episodic and dramatic expose on Allen Ginsberg and his relationship with Lucien Carr when he was a Columbia freshman in the 1940s. The film, "Kill Your Darlings" pulses with energy. It is neither lagging or self-conscious. Better yet, it is completely free of pretension and there is no clunkiness present. In a bold and absurdist-seeming casting move, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) stars as Allen in all his be-speckled and earnest nervousness and it works. Allen's black rimmed, iconic glasses are spastic with unbridled motion.

 Rather than play Ginsberg as he was to the tee, Radcliffe plays him with a blend of comedy and sincerity borrowing a bit from Hogwarts to make it a personal and completely believable interpretation.

We see Ginsberg sequestered with his father in Paterson, New Jersey, dancing alone seeking his own language of kinetic motion.

Despite the pressure of comforting his ill mother ( Jennifer Jason-Leigh) Ginsberg is accepted to Columbia and goes to New York City.

Ginsberg is catapulted into a vortex of pharmaceutical phantasmagoria and creativity unlike anything he witnessed before.

Forgoing a staid sequence of events, the camera becomes a whirlwind, popping with vibration and revealing dark amber swirls in chiaroscuro---all the better to highlight this circle of nightshade men in all their amphibious glee. Here is the pale Lucien Carr  with aluminum eyes (Dane DeHaan) his pupils constricted in the desire of a snake. And the outwardly tight-clothed and graveyard-voiced William Burroughs whose family invented the adding machine. He is invariably shown here connected to some narcotic machine with echoes of Dennis Hopper or the painter Otto Dix.

 Last but not least, we have the edgy and earthy Kerouac who is physically loud and reckless with a stuntman's verve that predates Johnny Knoxville's antics by almost a century now.

"Kill Your Darlings" mainly focuses on the character of Carr and Ginsberg's unabashed attraction to him. Dane DeHaan is almost perfect in his embodiment of Carr, who moves through many an umber-paneled library like an ocelot in silver. In many ways Carr is portrayed as a melting of Lord Alfred Douglas and Tom Ripley.

The excitement of the film is that it never takes itself all that seriously. The roles (including a doomed and sad David Kammerer, played by Michael C. Hall) display an emotional, often unbound energy that gives a new body and rhythm to what might have been---in other hands---another stale biopic of the past.

 In "Kill Your Darlings" (to its credit) there is something of the Beats' aim of "first thought, best thought"-- a beam of Benzedrine in shadow and light.

Write Ian at

Saturday, December 7, 2013

About Time (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

About Time

British rom / com maestro Richard Curtis (Love Actually) strikes an amiable and quirky note in "About Time" that is as infectious as it is accessible. Despite its trite device of time travel ala "Groundhog Day" or "Back to the Future", its warm simplicity and offbeat humor is hard to ignore.

Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is a very awkward college kid with a warm and bustling family in Cornwall. Tim mumbles and always manages to say the wrong thing. His bright red hair invariably seems to turn girls in the other direction. From the first shot of him alone at a party our heart goes out to him.

Abruptly it is New Years Day. Tim's academic but nonchalantly childlike dad (Bill Nighy) tells him an occult secret: the men in the family can travel through time. Though this may not be the most progressive of plot points, the information is given in an amusing and madcap fashion so the sexism falls by the wayside.

The reason or purpose of this time travel is unclear---it appears to function as a vehicle to revisit enjoyment, either with literature or altruism.

Tim is baffled, but he quickly gets the idea to use this family legacy to be a Casanova. He is struck by the friendly yet intimidatingly statuesque Charlotte (Margot Robbie). After a disastrous meeting, Tim goes into a wardrobe to rewind twenty minutes back to when he first met Charlotte. Now Tim is a smooth operator. Where he was stumbling, he is now graceful, even cocky and overconfident as he spreads sunscreen on Charlotte. These scenes are quite fun and recall something of the zany Woody Allen of long ago.

Despite Tim's manipulations, Charlotte slips away.

After his move to London, Tim gets invited to some kind of speed-date party (in pitch darkness of all implausible things ) and meets the cute and seductive voice of Mary (Rachel McAdams).

Hours later, a face to face meeting is adorably imperfect with Tim fidgeting and twitching as Mary looks on with a self-deprecating sparkle.

Kismet and karma unite. But as fate would have it, Tim gets the unfortunate urge to help his misanthropic playwright roommate (Tom Hollander) and he takes a trip into the wardrobe, so that his grumpy friend's play runs smoothly, receiving praise of genius.

Unbeknownst to Tim, his Juliet suddenly vanishes from his smartphone and he is left bereft.

You know what they say about messing with physics: you alter one wrinkle and the whole blanket of cause and effect gets bunched and knotted. Bloody hell.

Unfazed, Tim goes to a Kate Moss exhibition in the hopes of catching his quantum-crossed lover.

Tim catches her sight and some galvanism is created. However he learns that Mary is taken by the egocentric, overbearing hipster Rupert (Harry Hadden-Patton).

Tim comically goes to the wardrobe with the expediency of  Clark Kent to a phone booth, as a means to capture his Mary's heart.

Although so much time-changing and haste does not make much sense, it doesn't matter. Gleeson has such spirit in his role that it is all seamless and his politically incorrect faux pas are genuinely funny because they are done without meanness or guile. He is a Monty Python Everyboy with an open heart. McAdams does well too as the glib, perpetually surprised sweetheart.

While its true that "About Time" doesn't cause a lasting stir or fuss in the end with the time travel becoming little more than a parlor trick, the actors grow on you with more than a bit of poignance regarding father and son roles.

 There are even a few jolts with a misplaced toddler (that hits like a thriller, at first) and a very black humored meteorological event at a wedding.

"About Time" is ultimately an affectionate tease about our selfishness in wanting to capture and  possess the sequences of our events, but it is also a meditation on wanting to carry on indefinitely and how no amount of time ever, ever seems to be enough.

Write Ian at

Friday, December 6, 2013

Found Footage Festival Brings Funny Video Montages to Tropic

Found Footage Festival Brings Funny Video Montages to Tropic

By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

Back in 1991 two bored teenagers in Wisconsin stumbled onto a strange career by dumpster diving. “There wasn’t that much going on,” nods Nick Prueher, co-host of The Found Footage Festival, a live one-night-only event coming to the Tropic Cinema on December 12th.

That summer Nick was working at McDonald’s when he found an old training video in the trash. “They said I wasn’t smiling enough at the customers,” he recalls, “so they moved me back to the grill. That meant I had to do odd jobs … which is how I came across a training video titled ‘Inside and Outside Custodial Duties.’ It was so funny I brought it home and shared it with my buddy Joe.”

They found it funny, with its low production values and simplistic instructions.

That gave way to a “weird hobby,” collecting assorted found video footage.

Buddies since the 6th grade, Nick and Joe Pickett started showing their collection to friends and friends of friends, adding their own smart-aleck comments. Everyone found it funny. That led to taking their show on the road, going from theater to theater with their too-weird-to-be-true video clips and entertaining banter.

“We’d grown up riffing on bad television,” Nick muses. “Who knew we could make living as professional smart asses?”

Now they give 150 performances a year in all 50 states. Key West, and then Miami, wind up this year’s tour. This is the 10th year of the show.

“Every year we keep finding plenty of weird, esoteric videos for next year’s show.” They find footage at thrift stores, garage sales, warehouses, in the trash -- you name it.

For example, they bought an old camcorder for $5 at an estate sale. Turns out, a VHS tape was still inside. “That was quite a bonanza. It showed a man in a dress dancing to ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ Probably the same guy whose estate was being sold off.”

They sometimes track down the people in the video.

In Gainesville, Florida, they scored big when they came across a 1996 video about how to care for your ferret. A collection of exercise tapes yielded “The Sexy Treadmill Workout.” A video featuring a woman whose overzealous enthusiasm for craft sponging “bordered on the psychotic.”

Each of these found videos might boil down to a 3-minute clip in the show or become part of a montage.

Nick and Joe’s riffs on these old video snippets are downright hilarious. These screenings may remind you a bit of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” that cult TV series that offered snide remarks about bad sci-fi and horror movies. Not surprising, when Nick admits he interned on that show in 1998-99 in Minneapolis. “We know all those guys,” he says.

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have also written for The Onion and Entertainment Weekly and directed the award-winning documentary, “Dirty Country.” Nick was the Head Researcher for “The David Letterman Show.”

What do Nick and Joe’s parents think of their unusual career, producing “The Found Footage Festival” and making in-person appearances around the country (even Sweden recently)?

“They are oddly very supportive,” shrugs Nick. “They caught our show recently in Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where they live. Their only comment was ‘Next time less nudity.’ It was a fair comment.”

Nick Prueher pauses to consider his parents’ view of his offbeat profession. “They are strangely proud,” he says, sounding almost surprised.

# # #

“American Hustle” Hustles into Tropic Ahead of Release Date (Rhoades)

“American Hustle” Hustles into Tropic Ahead of Release Date -
Key West Plays a Key Role in Launching NYFC Program

By Shirrel Rhoades

There’s no con job here: You can watch the movie “American Hustle” ahead of its national theatrical release date.

“America Hustle” will be showing at the Tropic Cinema on Tuesday, December 10th, as part of the innovative NY Film Critics Series. The film’s national release is scheduled a week later.

“Up until now, live talent has only been accessible to the public in New York, Los Angeles and at Festivals,” notes producer Mark Ehrenkranz. “Now everyone throughout the country can enjoy up close and personal moments from major movie stars, producers, writers and directors in the comfort of their own neighborhood theaters.”

This is more than just a “traveling road show” coming to town. According to Mark Ehrenkranz, Key West played a key role in launching this new film series. “George Cooper attended one of our screenings of ‘Tiger Eyes,’ a film based on his wife’s book. We were talking about the difficulty of expanding our local program and George said, ‘Listen, why don’t you just stream the interviews in HD (high definition)  and stop messing around with satellites.’ That was the seed that made it sprout. I thought about what he said and just decided to go for it.” [Note: The movie itself is shown as a regular digital cinema presentation.]

Remaining loyal to George Cooper for his input, Ehrenkranz made sure that the Tropic Cinema was on the list of participating theaters.

Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone, will host this event, broadcasting live to the Tropic’s screens … by HD simulcast.

While preview screenings aren’t new, this is the first time they have been accompanied by live real-time conversations with directors, actors, and critics.

Presented monthly, December’s screening will include conversations with director David O. Russell as well as cast members.

“American Hustle” gives us a con man named Irving Rosenfeld, a paunchy conniver with an elaborate comb-over. A woman named Sydney is his partner and lover, a sexy Brit with a larcenous heart. They are being coerced by an FBI agent into working a scam on a New Jersey politico. The wild card is Irving’s unpredictable wife.

Director and co-writer David O. Russell draws on the stars of two of his previous hits. Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro from “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Here, Bale and Adams are the tricksters; Bradley Cooper is the Feebie; and Jeremy Renner is the target of their elaborate scheme.

The film is a fictionalized telling of the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, an FBI operation that began as an investigation of trafficking in stolen property, but was later expanded to include political corruption.

Bale gained 40 pounds, got himself an elaborate comb-over and slouched to play Irving. The actor ended up herniating two of his disks in the process.

“The NYFCS is dedicated to producing inspiring events in a collaborative environment and to nurturing the long-term success of movies.”

Week of December 6 to December 12 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Time Travels From Civil War to WWII to
Beat Generation to Now!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Key West “Howlings” columnist Mark Howell is an expert on the Beat Generation, so I’ve promised to take him to see “Kill Your Darlings,” a film set around the NY literary movement sparked by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. This tells the story of David Kammerer’s murder by Lucien Carr, a lynchpin in the group. Time Out observes that “Daniel Radcliffe is back in a pair of nerdy specs as Allen Ginsberg in this sincere, heartfelt film about how the gay beat poet found his voice.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes it as “a coming-of-age chronicle that morphs into a crime story without missing a beat.”

Moviegoers are raving about “The Book Thief,” a story set in a small German village during WWII. A young girl discovers the joy of reading and the hope that books instill, while Nazis are searching houses for the Jewish boy her stepparents are hiding. Dallas Morning News says, “Pretty visuals give an unexpectedly painful twist to other parts of the story.” And Detroit News opines that it “may not be perfect, but it may steal your heart.”

“12 Years A Slave” provides a different view of man’s inhumanity to man, the true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery. Horrific in some ways, but inspiring in others. The New Republic says, “It is a film that necessity and education demand seeing.” And Cinema Writer goes so far as to term it “The film of the decade.”

In “All Is Lost” Robert Redford takes you on a sea cruise, one that will make you think twice about owning a yacht and sailing it alone on the Indian Ocean. No Somali pirates here, but the vicissitudes of nature make this an unforgettable voyage. The Denver Post says this is “very much Redford's triumph.” And Laramie Movie Scope observes, “This is a one man show. One man against the sea.”
Want a good laugh? “Last Vegas” will deliver it, a “Hangover” type comedy about four aging buddies -- Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, and Robert De Niro -- getting into trouble in Vegas. Globe and Mail calls it “a preholiday trifle that’s mildly risqué and a lot sentimental.” And the Guardian notes: “A good-natured bimbo of a movie, it’ll do just about anything to please you.”

“About Time” is one of my favorite little films of the year. It introduces us to a very unusual family where the men can (yes!) time travel. Domhnall Gleeson is the winning young man who sets his timing on Rachel McAdams, and Bill Nighy is his remarkable dad. The Times-Picayune says, “It’s smart and sweet and unabashedly sentimental. But it’s also the kind of movie that -- in spite of its faults -- strikes a bright, resonant wind-chime of a note.” And Film Threat adds, “It’s a charmer.”

About Time (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“About Time”
Is Love Retold

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Don’t you wish you could go back in time and change something you botched? Or better still, go back and make something good happen … like that New Year’s Eve kiss you wish you’d taken?

That’s the plot of “About Time,” a sweet little rom-com about time travel that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

In this telling (and retelling), we meet an eccentric British family who live on the Cornwall coast. Among these of sharply etched characters is the dad (wonderful Bill Nighy), a college professor who has taken early retirement so that he can spend his days playing table tennis with his son and enjoying tea on the beach with his family. Mum (Lindsay Duncan) is a take-charge lady, the glue of the family. Mum’s befuddled brother (Richard Cordery) lives with them. Sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) loves purple and has a zest for life and the wrong guys. And Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is the likeable and insightful narrator of our tale.

While some fathers leave their sons an inheritance -- money, land, a gold watch, Tim Lake’s dad bestows upon him a secret: that the men in the family have the ability to travel in time.

Sure enough, step into a dark place, clinch your fists, think of a time in the past and -- gasp! -- you’re there. Able to claim a do-over.

So when the awkward, scrawny redheaded Tim meets a pretty girl, he can redo that bungled encounter or not-so-great first-time sex or correct those points where life seems to go off-track.

On the surface, this is the story of when Tim met Mary (Rachel McAdams), the somewhat shy, sensitive American girl with a fringe hairdo. They meet … and remeet … and remeet till he gets it right. However, this time travel tale is more akin to “The Time Traveler’s Wife” than to “Groundhog Day.”

Truth is, this is really about a son’s relationship with a remarkable dad. Or more accurately about the discovery of the joys of being alive. Whatever the time.

Kill Your Darlings (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Kill Your Darlings,”
More Than a Murder

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“Kill Your Darlings” is more than a movie about death, drugs, and homosexuality. In it, director John Krokidas traces the origins of three prominent poets just before World War II.

As founders of the so-called Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were not only breaking the rules of literary and poetic structure, they were intent on breaking the rules of society as well.

As one moviegoer observed, “It is not easy to tell what the plot is all about, and I don’t think it is useful to try anyway. Summarizing it can only do injustice to the complex, shifting relationships between the main characters.”

So we won’t try.

We’ll leave it to the studio’s succinct synopsis: “A murder in 1944 draws together the great poets of the Beat Generation …”

Allen Ginsberg met Lucien Carr in a poetry class at Columbia. The handsome young Carr introduced his new friend to Burroughs, Kerouac, and a former teacher named David Kammerer. They all shared a vision of rebelling against the “fascist notions of meter and rhyme.”

At the age of 14 Carr had met Kammerer, an English teacher at Washington University. Kammerer had been a childhood friend of William Burroughs. As young men they had traveled together, enjoying the nightlife of gay Paree (pun intended). Burroughs described his pal as “always very funny, the veritable life of the party, and completely without any middle-class morality.”

Kammerer became infatuated with the handsome young Carr. It led to his murder.

Michael C. Hall (TV’s “Dexter”) portrays the victim. Dane DeHaan (“Lincoln”) serves as the killer.

They are surrounded by Daniel Radcliffe (the “Harry Potter” movies) as Ginsberg; Jack Huston (TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) as Kerouac; and Ben Foster (“The Messenger”) as Burroughs. You also get to see Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, David Cross, John Cullum, and Kyra Sedgwick in passing.

“Kill Your Darlings” is showing at the Tropic Cinema. Despite the murder plot, this is very much Daniel Radcliffe’s movie. As another moviegoer observed: “This is proof that there is an acting life for Daniel Radcliffe after Harry Potter.”

As for the movie’s title, here’s one takeaway: David Kammerer dies. And while Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac went on to fame as poets and writers, Lucien Carr spent his later years working as an editor for United Press International, cranking out bland news releases ... a form of literary death.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Book Thief (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Book Thief

Although Markus Zusak's The Book Thief rushes to the screen with more than a bit of Spielbergian sentimentality, the film makes amends with its solid performances by Ben Schnetzer, Emily Watson and Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur  Lazhar).

Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) directs this adaptation  with a provocative premise: here is Germany on the eve of war in the mid thirties from the perspective of the German people. This is one of the few mainstream films with that exclusive point of  view, not to mention the other unconventional trait of having the specter of Death as the narrator (as featured in the book).

Despite these daring touches Percival plays it a bit too lukewarm in the manner of Spielberg's "Warhorse".

Death makes a cozy pajama mate like Allistair Cooke in "Masterpiece   Theater" . The reaper is a friend rather than a villain. The train blanketed with creamy snow seems hurtling towards Christmas rather than The Third Reich. And the iconic street is gingery and warm with cobbled and sweet houses out of Thomas Kinkade.

Yet in spite of these syrupy trappings there is a beating heart. The young adorable Liesel (Nelisse) is sent to live with foster parents: the earnest, but inwardly playful Hans and the stentorian Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively) Liesel avoids Rosa, but instantly takes to the quiet but quirky Hans. Liesel has been knocked mute by sadness: her brother is suddenly struck down by a sudden nosebleed and she is given up by her enigmatic mother. Illiterate, the young girl is transfixed by the mystery of words and begins to snatch books sometimes  surreptitiously, or sometimes in plain view. Liesel is badgered, teased and assaulted at school, but she holds her ground, a hellion with heart. Sinister red and black flags of the swastika blow about at every turn, but rather than comment upon it, Liesel sees books as her incline, her passage to freedom. The Nazi Party is seen realistically enough as ultra-officious arrogant and nasty. But we get precious little real interaction or drama between them and the youngsters which could have been interesting. Instead, the adult soldiers are faceless brutes, who block Liesel and her young Romeo Rudy (Nico Liersch) throwing them to the ground. Rudy has a novel and startling episode when he imagines himself the star Olympic runner, Jesse Owens. The cherubic and Aryan Rudy actually paints himself with mud in an effort of identification and the film does a masterful job in showing this young boy portraying Owens in tribute in an era of racial hatred and genocide.

It is the most stirring part of the film. But then this astonishing aspect is left behind.

Hans takes in a fugitive Max (Schnetzer) who further teaches Liesel to read and fosters her creativity. Schnetzer is gaunt and sensitive and he has an authentic rapport with Nelisse. Liesel is an expert at ferreting away books and the two begin to have literature parties with the spirit of H.G. Wells.

There is a Nazi book burning fire that is strangely half spooky and half Rockwellian  (if that's possible) with the blond curled Liesel looking with a melting earnestness at the scorched books with her overlarge eyes ala Walter Keane. There is even a bit of comedy as a singed and fiery  book is pulled from her jacket and tossed by Hans' hands.

Max is forced to vacate by the SS (no surprise) but he flees undetected.

Liesel escapes to the house of the Burgermeister which is a library for  , presided over by the kind Ilsa (Barbara Auer). Despite some violence by the SS, things progress in kid gloves with dark pathos largely ignored. Rosa softens, her warmth coming predictably to the fore while the two young scofflaws take to the meadow and shout "I hate Hitler!" Rather than focus on the earth-shattering hatred of genocide, war and what that might mean to the German children, the film focuses on imagination and the power of words in the manner of  "Fahrenheit 451". This is compelling in itself, but when it is handled with sentimentalized closeups and shadowy spaces with non expressive Nazis in technicolor, the pages appear just a fold too flat.

Write Ian at

All Is Lost (Wanous)

Redford never misses in gripping 'All is Lost'

Robert Redford carries this film beautifully, even though he barely speaks a word throughout it.

"All is Lost," Rated PG-13, 106 minutes. Playing at the Tropic Cinema in Key West.

Sailors beware: After seeing "All is Lost," you may never want to leave port again. What "Jaws" did for swimming in the ocean "All Is Lost" does for sailing.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, Oscar-nominated for 2011's "Margin Call," serves up a film that is tense, suspenseful and thoroughly scary. This is only his second full-length film but it shows he has successfully made the transition from TV work to the big screen.

There is only one actor seen in the film, Our Man, played by Robert Redford. With this performance, Redford shows why his Hollywood career has lasted for more than 50 years.

With only two lines of dialogue in the entire film, he demonstrates he has no need for an elaborate script in order to command the viewer's attention. This is Redford's tour de force and, his once-boyish face now weathered and worn, he fits perfectly the role of the grizzled old single-handed sailor.

The plot is simple.

On a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man (Redford) is awakened by a sudden noise. He discovers his sailboat has hit a shipping container and is taking on water. All of his electronics are ruined, including his navigation equipment and radio, so he is on his own to survive.

He patches the hole in the hull just as a violent storm strikes and he and his boat barely survive. Murphy's Law seems to be at work throughout the film.

Slowly, inexorably, like the boat, his prospects for survival begin to sink and Our Man's only hope is that ocean currents will carry him into the shipping lanes, where he can signal a passing vessel.

The cinematography is beautiful and vivid enough that viewers will almost feel the need for foul-weather gear as the rain, wind and waves batter Our Man and his yacht. Those who don't sail might not follow all the sailing scenes in the film, but the sense of impending disaster is ever-present and landlubbers will feel it as much as boaters.

Howling winds, pounding rain and crashing seas serve as the soundtrack to this survival story, and the score only seems to intrude the few times viewers are aware of it. The music is elegant but seems superfluous since the sounds of Mother Nature dominate the film.

Using only facial expressions and body language, Redford manages to express a gamut of emotions that such a desperate situation would evoke. Battling storms, the blazing sun, thirst, hunger and sharks, he shows joy, fear, acceptance, hope and despair without the need for spoken words.

His performance as the lone man battling nature is reminiscent of Spencer Tracy's role in the 1958 Hemingway story "The Old Man and the Sea", but with much less dialogue (one of Redford's few lines is the F-bomb, so parents of young children should be prepared).

Many people who sail have been a little tough on the movie, with lots of comments on the character's numerous mistakes, ranging from when he put up the storm jib ("You would do that sooner rather than later.") to the stupidity of removing the hatch boards from the companionway ("Don't open the door and let the ocean in!"). But most sailors do agree that Redford's character moves deliberately, almost in slow motion, when the stuff hits the fan.

Like them, when things get tough, most of them tend to slow down and carefully think things through. Could this happen in real life? According to statistics, about 2,000 shipping containers are lost overboard in the world's oceans every year. So the events depicted in the film are frighteningly authentic and occur frequently enough to be a concern to deep-water sailors.

But for those watching in the calm and quiet of the movie theater, the only worry is whether Our Man is going to live or die. Like a mystery novel where the killer is revealed on the last page, director Chandor makes viewers wait until the very end.

Finally, after emotionally exhausting the audience for an hour and forty-six minutes, the answer comes, but only in the last 60 seconds of the film. To see for yourself, go see "All Is Lost." But don't forget your foul-weather gear.

And viewers who stay for the end credits will be rewarded: This is probably the only film ever made that gives credit to a sailboat -- actually, three of them. Three different sailboats are named and the producers thank them for giving their lives in the filming of "All Is Lost."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Week of November 29 to December 5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Serves Up a Thanksgiving Film Feast.

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cook Communications Film Critic

New this week at the Tropic Cinema is an old theme … World War II. “The Book Thief” tells about a young German girl whose foster parents harbor a Jewish boy from the Nazis. Her love of books supplies the movie’s theme about life and death and hope. calls it “touching and haunting,” while East Bay Express says that it delivers “vivid character acting, superior production values, and a gracefully grim narrative structure.”

Still playing is the masterful “12 Years A Slave,” the true story of a free black man shanghaied into slavery in the 1850s. The remarkable courage and fortitude of Solomon Northup (as portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes this a must-see film. Q Network Film Desk says it “avoids an easy sense of moralizing and propels us deep into the characters' experiences.” And Minneapolis Star-Tribune concludes “The film is both brutal to watch and stunning to contemplate, powerfully challenging audiences -- particularly white audiences -- to examine their consciences.”

“All Is Lost” offers the singular performance of a leathery Robert Redford as a sailor marooned at sea, an event that takes him to the brink of despair. Denver Post terms it “very much Redford’s triumph.” And Globe and Mail says, “The movie is rigorous, serious and well-crafted, with Redford holding the screen using only his economical emotional reactions and physical presence.”

“Captain Phillips” remains afloat, based on the true story of a cargo ship captain who comes up against Somali pirates. Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in the title role. Detroit News proclaims “This is one of the year’s best movies and it features Tom Hanks’ strongest work in more than a decade.” Also Screenwize says the film “mixes gritty realism with some stirring military ops for an edge-of-the-seat piracy thriller.”

And to cheer you up, “Last Vegas” is still carrying on at the Tropic. This what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas comedy will have you laughing as four 60ish pals -- played by Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, and Morgan Freeman -- whoop it up in Glitter Gulch. Toronto Star writes that “De Niro and Douglas weirdly play versions of their real selves, while Freeman and Kline ham it up as if they’re auditioning for a reality show.” Media Mike concludes “Each character is perfectly cast. These actors are masters at the tops of their game, with over 200 years of experience between them.” And Reeling Reviews gushes that the movie is “a refreshing surprise.”

Claim your seat. These films add up to a great Thanksgiving feast at the Tropic.

The Book Thief (Rhoades)

“The Book Thief” Sugarcoats Its View of War

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’d think this picturesque German town in “The Book Thief” was the setting for a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. But the outbreak of World War II festoons the buildings with Nazi banners and the story turns grim.
Here we meet Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an innocent young fräulein who has been sent to live with a foster family following the death of her brother. The kindly couple (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) are protective of the ten-year-old girl, even teaching her how to read. With this new talent, Liesel begins stealing books and memorizing them, then entertaining Germans huddled in a bomb shelter with her recitations.
Yes, we get the symbolism. Nazis burning books is like burning the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. And each of the books that Liesel steals “represents a glimmer of hope – for her, for the Jewish community, and for the post-Holocaust world.”

“The Book Thief” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

As directed by Brian Percival, this is an idyllic view of Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes. However, it takes on a touch of realism when her foster parents hide a Jewish boy from the Nazis.

There’s a hint of competition for Liesel’s affections between the hidden boy (Ben Schnetzer) and her neighborhood pal (Nico Liersch), but the romance is about as bland as the movie’s depiction of war. Even when the town is bombed, the victims look as untouched as actors in a pretty play.

Nonetheless, underneath all this kitsch is an ominous story of life and death. We get the message from the narrator (Roger Allam), perhaps the voice of Death himself.

“The Book Thief” is based on the 2005 novel by Markus Zusak (listed as a New York Times bestseller for 230 weeks). Zusak’s parents grew up in Germany during the war and shared their stories of those horrific times with him.

John Williams who scored “Schindler’s List” does the music here too -- a somber rendition as if he doesn’t realize this is a lighter, less substantial version of that earlier masterful film about war and inhumanity and heroism.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All Is Lost (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

All Is Lost

On the surface of things, "All Is Lost"  (directed by Margin Call's J.C. Chandor)  is about a man and a boat but it is also nothing less than a study in Nature's animal power, her beauty and The Sublime.

We have before us the existential man (Robert Redford) alone at sea on an expensive looking sailboat. No this isn't a revenge fantasy about the 1%, but rather a gripping psychological tale of a man fighting with his wilds and his wit to literally keep his head above water.

At the beginning, the sea is blue and benevolent. The man sleeps serenely in his boat. We have a hint that he has secrets in his past as he intones earlier in a voiceover: "I tried to be right but I wasn't. At least I fought to the end...if that matters... All is lost..."

Perhaps this man was a stock trader, perhaps he was a radical environmentalist, a politician, a real estate flipper. We don't know. It is this mystery, this gap in the narrative that keeps us guessing.

Abruptly he is rudely awakened by a rush of water in his cabin, which assaults his beloved sail like malevolent amniotic fluid. The man is quickly knee-high in water but at first he maintains  a bemused smirk on his face. Surely this is a dream, a joke. Then, a hole appears. He moves on deck and discovers that a cargo trailer has run into the side of his boat with the front of it jutting out of the water like a huge scarlet iceberg. The words printed on the side of the cargo vessel read HO WON. This name might be a cynical jab that bad news comes from China or Walmart, true, or it might be some fated dark humor, given that it reads similar to WHO WON. Whatever the case, brightly colored sneakers pepper the ocean like fallen canvas orchids or Japanese lanterns.

He repairs the hole with epoxy that under the circumstances, is akin to a balm from a human First Aid kit or even an antacid.

We watch as The Man ties the boat, winds various cranks and checks his stores. He is at peace with nature we can surely assume, yet he scowls and frowns with irritated wrinkles. It is as if this man was awakened from a wonderful dream into a nightmare. He walks up and down countless times with bone-creaking trudges and moans. Above deck, there is a huge fan-like cloud creation with deep blackness below that feels all heaviness and doom; it might as well be a call from Hiroshima.

Chaos ensues and so begins the most confrontational and emotional part of " All Is Lost" which is in actuality,  a visual interpretation of The Sublime  as pictured by Edmund Burke---that middle ground between fear, confusion, beauty and shock, all muddled together and intermixed into an obscene whirl to take man out of the world.

The episodes of squalls are pulsing and almost orgiastic in their intensity. This film exposes a storm for what it appears to be: an amoral meteorological beast eating all in its path. Redford is tossed like a ginger-curled rag-doll. And his Half and half cream colored sailboat becomes a pitted and meager satellite, adrift in space. The sound of the sea is the rage of a demon and for most of the film, this is all the soundtrack that is needed.

Periodically, a ship appears. At times this event seems more like a mirage that hovers with a Camus-like apprehension just above the ocean, going neither forward or back. The bright, cranberry-intense flares come to nothing. In one such episode, we see a Maersk ship that echoes  the film "Captain Phillips". It floats by silently, a mere metal wall. The man is reduced to bobbing in his lemon shaped lifeboat--- a human fish lure. When he starts a huge bonfire in his boat, it is a call to a primeval Walpurgisnacht spirit or a yelp of white magic as well as survival.

Though the whole of "All is Lost" is seamless, one moment is singularly perfect as the unnamed  man lets himself go. As he falls deeper and deeper underneath, the ocean  seems to rebirth and regenerate him. Magically, he is light and loose.

And as he points upward with his finger in a cowboy-superhero snap, we see Redford the man as an ageless, forever young boy / star with that  fiery famous blonde hair and dazzling good looks. He is Jay Gatsby, the Sundance Kid and he won. This one moment is so powerful in spontaneity as much for the sudden clap of Redford breaking  the "wall" with recognition of his  audience as for poetry of gesture.

The potency of "All Is Lost" comes from this recognition: we see both an invisible man in the battle to continue his life in spite of nature's unforgiving noose as well as the iconic Redford who offered a flashing verve and joy to some of our greatest films.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 23, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's (Shame) new film "12 Years a Slave" is a cinematic and nerve-rending vision of Solomon Northup's account of being kidnapped and sold as a slave in Washington DC in 1841. This is a volcanic and harrowing film, not to mention a sinister and tragic story of a forthright and quite creative man who is treated worse than a dog. The film is also about the spiritual sin of slavery itself and its profound  disgusts.

At the start of the film, two flamboyant  circus hands that resemble the villains in Pinocchio  Hamilton (SNL's Taran Killam) and Brown (Scoot Mcnairy ) seduce Northup (perfectly interpreted by Chiwetel Ejiofor) into playing the fiddle for their traveling group. Inexplicably with a sudden and surreal horror, Northup is drugged as he collapses unconscious and is taken to Louisiana, where he is sold, bound, whipped, and ultimately subjected to devastating emotional abuse.

McQueen directs with an unflinching authenticity which is almost Gothic in its power, but this vibrational and focused intensity is no maudlin melodrama or cheap parlor trick and only strengthens its subject.

Most Caucasians here are repulsive monsters and McQueen pulls no punches. 

Nor should he.

There is the solid actor Paul Dano (Prisoners) who is nothing less than a virulent boiled weasel. Not to mention the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti  as a slavetrader with the ironic name of Freeman. Chief among them is Edwin Epps, a pathologically violent but tormented man who seems in the throes of demonic possession. Much of this is excruciating and hard to watch, almost bringing to mind a Passion Play. Horribly, this appears accurate and sadly the actuality of slavery was most likely much more humanly reprehensible.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the oasis of sanity and grace that holds it all together and he has a striking and holistic poetry within his Expressionist face that communicates all that we need to know.

The excellence in the film comes from its pathos, jarring surprise and symbolism throughout. Keep an eye out for the caterpillar munching on the cotton, the repetitious cravats and spools of paper turned to cinders like burnt constellations and last but not least, the cane dolls that are held together by the sound of field songs.

McQueen grasps both the terror and the existential, almost literary charge of history and makes it unavoidably confrontational to us in the 21st century.

With every inhuman episode we half expect Northup's environment to shift and transform into stability and peace while the abhorrent henchman wake from a nightmare. Neither happens. 

When Northup is hung by a rope and left to hang in space, time stands still. Birds sing on. A pleasant breeze stirs and the sun appears. We realize in disbelief that no one will come to his rescue. He is near asphyxiated in suspense, near death. In this moment, Northup mirrors the audience and challenges us to act.

By the end of the ordeal in a dressed in a neatly pressed suit on a perfect summery day, he finally returns home. All Northup can say is "I've had a difficult time." It is a singularly disturbing and dreamlike moment that speaks for the entire film.

Solomon Northup went on to publish 12 Years a Slave as a memoir in 1853. Even though it was considered a bestseller with 30,000 copies, it fell into obscurity later with details of Northup's death falling into mystery and unknowns. Because of this obscurity in death and also because of Northup's spirit and humor, he seems to me in the same family as Ambrose Beirce and just as important as Frederick Douglass. Hopefully more generations to come  will know of this film, and also, Solomon Northup's actual words.

Write Ian at

Friday, November 22, 2013

Week of November 22 to November 28 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Adds Two Terrific New Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

Recovering from the chaotic excitement of the Key West Film Festival, Tropic Cinema returns to it usual schedule with two outstanding new films, among the best you will see this year.

“12 Years a Slave” is based on the true 1853 account of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold to southern plantation owners. Aside from the veracity in its telling, what makes this a powerful story it's the thirst for freedom that inspires Solomon to carry on. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 96% rating. St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it “One of the best and most courageous films of the year.” Miami Herald notes that “at times difficult to watch but always impossible to turn away from.”

Also sailing on to the Tropic screens is “All Is Lost,” the new Robert Redford one-man-movie about a sailor faced with a sinking yacht. Giving a great almost-no-dialogue performance, Redford proves his mettle. American Profile says it’s “a spectacular, galvanizing display of how this one-time Hollywood "golden boy," now 77, can still commandeer the screen.” And terms it “a gripping exercise in visual storytelling.”

Holding over is another sea tale, “Captain Phillips” with Tom Hanks as a cargo ship captain dealing with Somali pirates. Based on the true story of the capture of MV Maersk Alabama, this tense standoff between Captain Phillips and Muse, the leader of the pirates. Christian Science Monitor says, “It's some of the most powerful acting Hanks has ever done.” And 3AW describes it as “a splendidly mounted, nerve-racking thrill ride, building to an almost unbearably tense climax.”

Looking for laughs, you can still catch “Last Vegas,” the older boys’ night out comedy starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, and Morgan Freeman. Think of it as a “Hangover” movie for the aging set. Globe and Mail sees it as “A preholiday trifle that's mildly risqué and a lot sentimental.” And Beliefnet observes, “The greatest pleasure of this film is in watching the evident pleasure five Oscar-winning pros take in each other.”

With movies like this, I expect to see you at the Tropic.

All Is Lost (Rhoades)

“All Is Lost” Has Much to Discover

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If someone decided to do a movie with only one cast member and practically no dialogue, he’d need to hire a pretty good actor to pull it off. Someone like, say, Robert Redford.

That’s exactly what J.C. Chandler did. Writer and director of a survival-at-sea movie titled “All Is Lost,” he hired Robert Redford.

A lot of the movie’s promotion has been sparse in describing its plot. In fact, Wikipedia sums it up with one only line: “A man is lost at sea and struggles to survive.” So succinct that a Wikinote was posted, saying, “This section requires expansion.”

Okay, here goes.

Robert Redford plays an unnamed sailor, enjoying a leisurely voyage on his 39-foot yacht “Virginia Jean.” He wears a wedding ring. Is the boat named after his wife? We don’t really know. But here he is on a solo sail in the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Indonesia and Madagascar, not a care in the world.

Until he awakens to a boat filling with water.

No, there aren’t any Somali pirates like in “Captain Phillips.” Here the threat is a floating cargo container like those carried by Captain’s Phillip’s ship. The metal container has rammed into the “Virginia Jean,” puncturing the hull, leaving a gaping hole into its side. The situation is bad. The onboard electrical system has been wiped out. And the boat is sinking.

But “Our Man” (as Redford is identified in the film’s credits) remains skillful. He patches the hole with epoxy and cloth, averting a disaster. He shows himself to be competent, a survivor, a man we can admire for his cool head and strong hands.

But like in a Greek drama, Fate is working against him. A ferocious storm throws itself upon him, tossing and smashing the boat. Our man hangs on, still survives.

Unable to communicate his plight, he gathers provisions, hauls out maps and an old-fashioned mariner’s sextant, and climbs aboard his lifeboat. The plan is, using a copy of “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” he will find his way to the nearest shipping lane where he can be rescued by a passing freighter. However, in this metaphysical world of water and sky, it doesn’t work out quite that way.

After all, the movie is titled “All Is Lost.”

While most of the movie is told in flashback, the story begins on Day 8, with Our Man composing a letter of apology and farewell … to whom we’re not sure. That absentee wife? Unknown loved ones? The world in general?

Is this indeed a Greek tragedy where our protagonist is about to be punished for the hubris of being a handsome, well-to-do man of leisure?

“All Is Lost” is now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

This is the second feature film by J.C. Chandler, his first being the Oscar-nominated “Margin Call.” But “All Is Lost” -- a singular old-man-against-the-sea yarn -- is the opposite of what you might have been expecting from the director who gave you a talky, indoor, people-crowded drama about financial institutions.

Nonetheless, Chandler has placed his bet on an aging, leathery-faced Robert Redford, perhaps vying for the first Academy Award for Best Acting of his career. Sure, he won an Oscar for directing “Ordinary People” and received an Honorary Oscar for his body of work as an “actor, director, producer, creator of Sundance, inspiration to independent and innovative filmmakers everywhere.” But never a straight-up golden statuette for his acting.

This might change.

That fact that he might pull it off while uttering only a few Voice Over words would make it all the more of an achievement -- but that’s quite possible, thanks to what’s being called The Artist Effect. With “The Artist,” its star Jean Dujardin, the movie itself, and three others won for a silent movie. “The Life of Pi” and the more recent “Gravity” are also being cited as great films with very little dialogue.

While this powerful man-against-the-elements movie does not have many words in it, you’ll find it offers much to talk about.