Thursday, May 30, 2013

Week of May 31 to June 6 (Rhoades)

Tropic Cinema Selections Transverse Both Time and Space…

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Francophiles rejoice. Nostalgia fans get in line. And seekers of gritty realism step up to buy a ticket. This week’s lineup at the Tropic Cinema has a little of everything, including an extravaganza filled with parties, confetti, chandeliers, and jazz babies.
The title of “Renoir” telegraphs its subject. But does the film focus on the famous French director or his father, the impressionist painter. Well, more so about the painter but both are there. A woman named Andree Heuschling connects the two in this biopic by Gilles Boudon. She was not only the last model of Pierre-August Renoir but the first actress to appear in the films of young Jean Renoir. Set during the last years of the painter’s life at Cagnes-sur-Mer, the film stars Michel Bouquet as the elder Renoir and Vincent Rottiers as the son. Christa Theret is outstanding as their muse. The Austin American-Statesman observes that the film “really does have the lush glory of a Renoir.” And The Oregonian says it revels “in the pristine sunlight and unhurried pace of an era gone by.”
Another French film at the Tropic is “Something in the Air,” a look at the aftermath of the student uprisings in Paris. Here it’s 1971 and young Gilles (Clement Metayer) is carrying the flame of unrest, giving political speeches to fellow high school students and protesting for worker’s rights … while at the same time pursuing romance. The Wall Street Journal observes the film is “worth seeing for what it says of the turbulent state of France in the early 1970s.” And says “It's a terrific film, wonderfully atmospheric and alive ...”
Another coming-of-age film is “Mud,” a modern-day homage to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Living on the edge of the Mississippi, two youngsters (played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) come across a man on the lam (Matthew McConaughey) and get caught up in his quest to reunite with his true love (Reese Witherspoon). The Toronto Star observes that it’s a “fairy tale, steeped in the sleepy Mississippi lore of Twain and similar American writers, and with a heart as big as the river is wide.”
Less idealistic is “The Iceman,” the true story of a mob hitman (brilliantly played by Michael Shannon) and his mentor (Chris Evans), a pair who store dead bodies in an ice cream truck. Brrr. “Kneel before Shannon,” says Total Film. “His primal, powerhouse turn drives this criminal biopic.”
Even more dark is “Portrait of Jason,” a 1968 experimental documentary about an unhappy gay hustler. “By the end of the long night's shoot,” says The Nation, “Shirley Clarke knew she had captured one of the most involving, uncompromising and revelatory human documents in the history of cinema.” And Village Voice observes that it “says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.”
Another movie that begins with sparkle and pizazz, but ends as a tragic romance is “The Great Gatsby.” Opening at the Tropic this week, Baz Luhrmann’s extravaganza based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about a self-made man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who throws lavish parties in hopes his lost love (Carey Mulligan) will show up. “Employing the stylish grandiosity we’ve come expect from him, Luhrmann's trademark razzle-dazzle is entirely appropriate for the extravagant excess of Gatsby's world,” observes Flix Capacitor. And Richard Roper says it’s “the best attempt yet to capture the essence of the novel.”
Quite a lineup of films. Romance, heartbreak, anger, murder, lush beauty -- it’s all here at the Tropic.

The Great Gatsby (Rhoades)

“The Great Gatsby”
As Fitzgerald Imagined It

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Years ago when I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, some people still remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald who came there to visit his wife Zelda. She was institutionalized at the nearby Highlands Hospital, where she later died in a fire.
“He was a friendly man,” one old-timer told me. “Didn’t put on airs. Few people knew who he was. His high-living days were behind him.”
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald had been the chronicler of the Jazz Age –and he’d dubbed his Southern belle wife as “the First American Flapper.” Charter members of the so-called Lost Generation, he and Zelda had hung out in Paris with Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, and Josephine Baker (delightfully parodied in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”).
His writing consisted of five novels (one published posthumously), and volumes of short stories that he penned for such publications as Esquire, Collier’s Weekly, and (my old alma mater) The Saturday Evening Post.
His most famous work is “The Great Gatsby,” which has been called “a flawless novel” and “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” Modern Library listed it as the second best novel of the 20th Century. It is required reading in many high schools and colleges so you have no doubt read it at some time in your life.
As you’ll recall, “The Great Gatsby” recounts the story about an enigmatic millionaire named Jay Gatsby who throws lavish parties at his Long Island mansion in hopes that the girl he once loved will find her way there. We see it all through the eyes of Nick Carraway, who has rented the house next door and gets drawn into his old war buddy’s world of high society, gangsters, and thwarted love. Set in the ’20s, it provides a dazzling look at that age of prosperity and abandon, taking the reader from Long Island’s Gold Coast (with its clash of old money and new money) to Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and the Valley of Ashes in between.
The book has been described as a “cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream” but it more accurately deals with the “human aspiration to start over again.” While set against a backdrop that emphasizes the excesses of the rich, it tells the tragic tale of a man who aspired to wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, a man trying to relive the past.
When Nick tells him you can’t repeat the past, Gatsby cries, “Why of course you can.”
“The Great Gatsby” has been filmed five times, including the 3-D version by Baz Luhrmann that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Luhrmann is the Australian director known for his Red Curtain Trilogy “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” and “Moulin Rouge.” Here, he teams again with Leonardo DiCaprio, his star of the modern-day MTV-style retelling of Shakespeare’s tragic romance, to give us another tragic romance.
In addition to DiCaprio (“Titanic,” “Django Unchained”) starring as Jay Gatsby, we have British actress Carey Mulligan (“An Education,” “Shame”) as the elusive Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man,” “Cider House Rules”) as the narrator, Nick Carraway.
Baz Luhrmann’s movie is as opulent as the society it presents, with magnificent sets, perfectly choreographed parties, and winsome stars. The sparkling chandeliers and spouting fountains and dancing jazz babies bespeak of an era known as the Roaring Twenties all filmed in 3-D.
But Luhrmann insists, “The ‘special effect’ in this movie is seeing fine actors in the prime of their acting careers tearing each other apart.”
Nevertheless, the director asserts that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have approved his use of 3-D to tell the story. “He was a modernist,” Baz Luhrmann says. “He was very influenced by the cinema.”

Portrait of Jason (Rhoades)

“Portrait of Jason” --
Old Is New Again

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Yes, the Tropic Cinema shows some pretty cutting-edge indie films. Many are newly released; others only a year or two old. So what’s it doing with “Portrait of Jason,” a shopworn old 1967 film by Shirley Clarke.
Known for her kaleidoscope style, experimental filmmaker Clarke died back in the late ‘90s. You’ve probably never even heard of her.
“Portrait of Jason” is not a pleasant film. Not because of its Avant-Garde style, but rather because of its subject. Clark turned her camera on Jason Holliday, a despondent black male prostitute, and as the title suggests she gives us an unflinching portrait of Jason.
Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne) was an alcoholic, drug-addled hustler who sometimes worked as a houseboy when not turning tricks. He wanted to become a cabaret performer, an unlikely career path. Jason’s not a very likeable subject, but Clarke seemed determined to find out who he was underneath the black anger and gay confusion.
“Whether Jason is laughing or crying, he holds you rapt with tales that conceal as much as they reveal,” observed John Powers of NPR.
Back in the ‘60s, mainstream critics found the film “disgusting.” However, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman famously declared it to be “the most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.”
Modern-day critics seem to agree with Bergman. The New Yorker terms it “a masterwork of grand-scale intimacy ...” The New York Times calls it “a curious and fascinating example of cinema verité …” And The Nation describes it as “one of the most involving, uncompromising and revelatory human documents in the history of cinema.”
That’s because “Portrait of Jason” is more than just a profile of a down-and-outer. It explores important cultural themes -- including class stratification, homosexuality, and racial politics. Also it is a testament to the development of cinema verité and underground cinema during the ’60s in New York City.
Will you enjoy it? Maybe not. Will you find it thought-provoking and fascination. Absolutely.

Something in the Air (Rhoades)

“Something In the Air”
Is Whiff of Student Protest

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Truth is, I prefer James Jones’s book “The Merry Month of May,” but this French film titled “Something In the Air” tries to capture some of the aftermath the Parisiene student riots of May 1968.
Note that the film’s original title was “Après mai” -- or “After May.”
In this semi-autobiographical story we meet Gilles (Clement Metayer) who serves as filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s stand-in. Gilles is a politically-driven high school student trying to find himself. Should he become a painter or a filmmaker or a political activist? Well, he likely did a little of each in real life, but on-screen we see him and his friends caught up in the radical leftist fervor that came out of the riots of May 1968.
However it’s now 1971 in the film -- and while Gilles makes speeches to his classmates and mimeographs inflammatory pamphlets and organizes Italian workers one summer, “Something In the Air” lingers on him being dumped by his girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) for an older man in London and taking up with Christine (Lola Creton) who goes on the lam with him after a security guard gets injured during a night of protest and vandalism.
 “Something In the Air” -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- was selected to compete at the Venice International Film Festival where Assayas won the Golden Osella for Best Screenwriting.
That so, Assayas doesn’t tell us much about student politics in France, other than sharing a few protest songs and homilies about workers’ rights. What the film is really about is finding yourself. Here, that sometimes seems confused with finding romance. But perhaps that’s true of any teenager, French or not.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Paint It Again / Grandpa's Wet Dream (Brockway)

Two Films Take Center at The Tropic
By Ian Brockway

Paint It Again / Sasha Wortzel
Grandpa's Wet Dream / Chihiro Amemiya

Tropic Cinema and Ibis Bay will  show two films among several others by Sasha Wortzel and Chihiro Amemiya in a special event that although very different in tone, speak about intimacy and the expression of desire. First Sasha Wortzel documents her multimedia exhibition in the short film "Paint It Again" which details the life of two artists, Aileen and Florence, and the house they shared. In the installation, a typewriter is attached to a video-screen allowing the participants to peer and observe various objects and spaces throughout the house. The interfaces themselves, with an old fashioned typewriter attached to a screen, possess a whimsical melancholy and it would not be surprising to see a curl of a sunflower bend through the screen like an ear to hear what the participant is thinking.

Florence loved gardening, while the spunky Aileen is an assemblage artist. In her toughened salty speech, Aileen is a human incarnation of a Segar creation. In her eyes, Popeye himself might feel at home, but you definitely feel the touch of her partner Florence with flaming monochrome hair who lives on behind  Aileen's smoked sunglasses, despite her passing from cancer.

In Wortzel's exhibition, the hybrid screens recall Terry Gilliam but the artist's use of pattern and design put the viewer in charge as creator and provide the ingredients for a Proustian collage of the synthetic and the organic, between garden dirt and desire.

Next, Chihiro Amemiya's  "Grandpa's Wet Dream" packs a punch, telling the story of a 75 year old man in Tokyo who has a suitcase of secrets that only the nerves of his body can reveal. The man, Tokuda Shigeo is a respected family man with a wife and daughter. Shigeo is unassuming and pleasant, very much a man of patterns. Like the intersecting lines on his sky blue shirt, he follows along a path.

Shigeo lives in a rectangular apartment and compulsively collects vintage Japanese cinema posters from the 40s and 50s. His surroundings are cluttered but calm within.

One day while at a hotel, a porn film catches his eye, seemingly by chance and he resolves to acquire them.

Since he feels that he would be too ashamed to publicly buy them from a video store which resemble fleshy yet faraway space stations, Shigeo goes to the head office directly to purchase the DVDs. Mr. Tsukamoto, the head of the company, propositions Shigeo to appear in  the porn films for he says, "the dirty look in his eyes". Shigeo, is presumably not the man's name. Tsukamoto invented his name because as he explains  it "means nothing".

We watch as Mr. Shigeo crisscrosses the urban neon geometry of Tokyo: an errant diagonal being of tranquility and gentle smiles on his way to his participation. He slips behind a rectangular door and submits, simply lying still, creating pixels of synthetic sex for those anonymous-screening eyes. Boxed in his rectangular and confined world of steps, doors, windows and walls, his occult occupation gives Shigeo  a non-linear stance of freedom, a second-life to experience a lusty bestiary apparently without consequence. But at the end of the day, he snaps back to his other self, without a thought--- winded but tranquil--- to become once more part of the urban  grid.

A friend asks Shigeo if his family would care about his appearances in adult films. "Maybe I shouldn't care about others," he states with a smile.

With her facile direction that moves with an oxygenated quickness though the claustrophobic corners of a 21st century Tokyo, Chihiro Amemiya has given us an expansive and immersing portrait of one hidden man of action and the path that he takes. Amemiya's  film is a fully complete realm and seems much bigger in scope than a mere 16 minutes. Around the edges of this over-bright city,  we see the full detail of a man in outline.

Both films enfold upon the other and relate like origami, seeming to talk to one another. Each story holds squares of memory. In " Paint It Again" Wortzel offers the squares on a screen that lead to a projection of intimacy. In Amemiya's portrait, the square is a door that one unassuming man must pass through to act on a libidinous dream. Both films also ultimately complement and create in mixture, provocative parts of a whole.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's

Matthew Miele's documentary "Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's" is a catty and chatty tease for the eyes. At its best, it is zippy and visually glib although at times it suffers from a short attention span. While its true we only get slivers of Bergdorf Goodman's illustrious history here, the anecdotes are amusing and sarcastic, although you may want a bit more story to go with your sequins.

It is well established at the outset that Bergdorf is The Emerald City and Shangri-La for many of the celeb and designer set from directorMartin Scorsese to Jackie-O, Yoko Ono, Christian Dior and virtually everyone on an A and B list of fashion, cinema and television.

Bergdorf's is housed in The Vanderbilt Mansion right on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The store has expanded into several buildings and after a two million dollar renovation in 1967, it occupied 120,000 square feet. In 1990 the store expanded again to include salon stores of many inimitable designers.

The film mentions The Goodman Family and we hear intriguingly of Mr. Goodman going to the main floor in his bathrobe and slippers from his penthouse apartment above the store, but aside from this, there is virtually little historical information presented about the actual store. What kind of people were Bergdorf and Goodman? How do the majority of the clients feel and what is it like to actually work in the store. There are only silver shavings offered as answers to these questions. We see one client but we do not know about how he really feels about the legendary store.

What we do get are lots of famous designers, a virtual Addams Family feast of them, the quirky and kooky. There is Karl Lagerfeld in his big sunglasses and black gloves, Vera Wang, boy wonder Jason Wu and the ever-present Isaac Mizrahi in addition to Stefano Gabbana, Domenico Dolce and the striking Alber Elbaz among countless others, even Nicole Ritchie.

We are introduced to the buzzing Linda Fargo for a considerable amount of time who is known to be approachable smiling in contrast to Anna Wintour.  Fargo, who handles the fashion houses in Bergdorf's, can make or break careers too. Then we are taken to a tour of the inventory warehouses and workshops where they create virtuosic window displays which are nothing less than still movies with a complete bestiary made from paper.

All elements of the film move well with pulse and glitter. We see John Lennon in a fur coat looking like a sheepish owl. And there is Jacqueline Kennedy in a Halston hat. And Christian Louboutin chatters about high heels.

"Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's" is a Candace Bushnellian bubbling look at those who go berserk at Bergdorf's, but the hallowed halls themselves seem as much a fanciful figment as Wayne Manor in Gotham City.

Perhaps the most intriguing concept of the film is that of unbridled desire---the inexhaustible wish of  wanting to be seen shopping at Bergdorf's and not only once but multiple times.

Write Ian at

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nicky's Family (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Nicky's Family

"Nicky's Family" by Slovak director Matej Minak is a documentary detailing the efforts of Nicholas Winton, a Briton who was responsible for saving over 660 children from concentration camps and certain death in a 1938 Nazi-occupied Prague. Winton was a 30 year old stock broker at the time in Prague on a visit to his friend. Winton intended a time of leisure, but when he got a phone call that his friend could not attend a skiing vacation due to the terrible movement of children to the camps. Winton decided in spontaneity, to spring to his friends cause. The agencies at hand were advocating for the sick and elderly but nothing was being done for the children. Winton wrote a letter to FDR, explaining his cause and got a letter of regret from the American embassy. He had no office to organize, but worked at home and assembled a dossier of children in need, reaching the thousands in photos. Winton documented his entire progress and put it all in an scrapbook which was thought to be lost.

He told no one of his child-rescue efforts, not even his wife.

While "Nicky's Family" is one of many  Holocaust documentaries, its slant is unique in that it highlights the issue of children's terror and flight in 1938 Czechoslovakia after Neville Chamberlain's Munich Agreement which annexed Czech, Slovak and Poland to the nazi regime. The film intersperses interviews of Winton himself with sepia toned images of children playing before the occupation, and the cinematography is vivid and handsome akin to a Herge illustration. It is difficult to keep a dry eye when you see these children playing before the annexation. The sensation is like watching a black glove attempting to stifle the breath of the young in innocence. And it is harder still not to lose it when you watch the children having to leave their mothers as they board trains bound for the Penny Lane safety of England, only to suddenly see them as octogenarian kids, leaping on bunks and talking with nostalgic seriousness on the very same train that brought them escape.

Nicholas Winton himself could appear in a Tintin episode as he gently smiles, his cheeks blushing in self deprecating dimples. He is seen as a beloved uncle to countless people. At 104, he shrugs off the selfishness of fame, having no use for it. Now he highlights many altruistic organizations, not least of which are homes for the elderly. At the time of filming, well over 90, Winton hoped to get arrested for speeding, forever critical of British driving laws. We also  see the Dalai Lama who smilingly attests to the importance of  Winton, but one does not really need the very  physical  light of his holiness The Dalai Lama to underscore Winton's courage. That said, he inspires a comforting anodyne, soothing a previous emotional scene.

Winton is an epic figure of adventure status (despite being eclipsed by Oskar Schindler) and he did so not out of fame or fortune, but in accordance with his natural rhythms. Winton exemplifies goodness brought about by spontaneous motion. Through his act, his universality inspires other acts that ripple through the night like stars, as symbolized by the film's final image of cell phones winking in the dark.

"Nicky's family" ultimately creates a lively scrapbook of color and emotion, illustrating one story of an unassuming man that thankfully added to so many others.

Write Ian at

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Iceman (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Iceman
Veteran Indie actor Michael Shannon gives a wonderfully visceral and gritty performance in his portrayal of real life killer Michael Kuklinski. This is a genuine departure for Shannon, who is known for playing very sensitive, introverted characters that are either passive or schizoid and prone to martyrdom as in "Take Shelter" (2011).

Although not fully explained in the film, the real Kuklinski was medically diagnosed by a prison doctor as having bipolar, anti-social and paranoid personality disorders with periods of unstoppable  rage. Moreover he was likely sociopathic, clearly letting nothing get in his way. Touched upon in the biopic was the fact that  Kuklinski was abused by both his father and mother who apparently beat him with broomhandles. He also killed cats and dogs as a young man. 

The film "The Iceman" begins in the gray urban landscape of Jersey City circa 1962 with a claustrophobic camera reminiscent of Scorsese and Brian DePalma. Shannon himself in this role is physically frightening. His head by itself is like the wedge of an ax. Perversely, the film mocks coming of age young romance films by the very soft spoken tension and danger that lurks within the animal Kuklinski by candlelight. The infamous Winona Ryder appears as his date and future wife Deborah and she is authentic as an empathetic and caring love, although you might wonder why she doesn't have a clue as to Kuklinski's dark side. Kuklinski says he works for Disney. In actuality, he pirates low budget porn films.

While things seem benign, if unseemly at first with Kuklinski going up to a dark New York room and copying porno, a group of shady men barge in and demand to take the material. They cut and hit him. 

That night, he slips out a back door and slits a henchman's throat accompanied by bass chords reminiscent of John Carpenter. 

Incredibly, the murder is undiscovered. And there are other incidences where Kuklinski kills for sport, merely because he feels someone is a jerk. Abruptly,   Ray Liotta appears as Roy Demeo, a porn chief who psychotically offers Kuklinski a job as hit man, although I use the term "offer" loosely as Demeo has a gun at his temple.

Kuklinski works his way up the bloody ladder so to speak in the mode of DePalma's "Scarface", brutally murdering those that he is ordered to dispose of and attending high end Italian restaurants with his wife and two daughters.

And they suspect nothing, thinking that he deals in Wall Street trends. 

The most provocative but altogether disturbing concept in "The Iceman" is the  individual Kuklinski himself as he manages to channel his murderous rage and actually become employable and a success in the eyes of his family and acquaintances. Seen in this way he is a kind of antihero, although (hopefully)  no one you would want to emulate.

As the killings become numerous, (though he refuses to kill children or women) he manages to upset the obnoxious Demeo and Kuklinski has to look over his shoulder with his enemies going after his daughters.

There is a little dash of Bronson-era "Death Wish" to Ariel Vromen's direction given Kuklinski's very real anxiety and rage in keeping his family together. Like "Death Wish" too, nearly everyone he kills, is clearly dishonest, unkind or as cruel as Kuklinski. We see a  ratty David Schwimmer and a derelict James Franco and they duly do their cameo roles.  This is not to say that Kuklinski the man is sympathetic at all, yet he does love his family in his own delusional and mentally ill manner. 

At times, "The Iceman" apes a horror film with the huge scary shape of Richard Kuklinski using a knife in the darkness or disco dancing with cyanide on a dance floor. We watch him ice and hack at limbs with butcher saws at backroom freezers. Then, surprisingly  we see Kuklinski the killer rush to the hospital like any concerned and grieving parent, and are thrown for a loop.
Such is the excellence of Michael Shannon's portrayal that outshines the somewhat limited docudrama narrative.

Shannon's character is no pop culture feast as is Hannibal Lecter. But one look at Shannon's black coffee cup eyes is as intriguingly charged as Anthony Hopkins' Jack O' Lantern smile in that iconic role. We don't sympathize with Richard Kuklinski but at least we recognize his instability without the crutch of contemporary artifice.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ginger and Rosa (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Ginger & Rosa

Cult favorite Sally Potter who directed the confrontational, David Bowie-like "Orlando" (1992), offers a story of young obsession in "Ginger & Rosa". Ginger and Rosa are two idealistic teens who latch onto each other in London in 1962. The two begin to obsess not only with themselves but also with the prevalence of nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis hangs in the distance over London, a formless but toxic cloud. This gives some interesting historical tension to a rather tethered and tame friendship drama. With every discussion about poetry, romance or hair there is an image of a warhead or mushroom cloud and this apocalyptic garnish gives the dialogue a punk and iconoclastic edge.

Sally Potter's verve with the camera is in evidence here as it zips about to and fro, almost touching the skin of these two smothering soul mates.

Ginger and Rosa spend their time going to disarmament meetings with evangelical zeal as the adults look on with the passivity of human furniture, but rather than a weakness, this is actually a philosophic point in the film. As the grown-ups go through the motions, it is the young people (or specifically young girls ) who rise to the challenge.

Elle Fanning is sparky and engaging as the eerie yet volatile Ginger, whose paleness combined with her almost sudden catlike motions and animalistic spasms, transforms her into a maddened Ophelia for the Greenpeace set. Alice Englert (from Beautiful Creatures) provides a good balance in her role as Rosa who is driven to taste The Beat definition of free love.

In content and spirit "Ginger & Rosa" echo British films like "Submarine" (2010) and Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" (2009). These films were semi-comedic moody studies about young people locked in various romantic dilemmas only to become stressed out by pop culture and parental expectations.

In "Ginger & Rosa" the action moves along fine with enough one liners and naturalistic detail (as depicted in predictably gray rooms and ashen parks). The only drawback is that the story is more of a vibration in character than a drama with frisson, as first bouts of  infatuation tend to be. Be that as it may, "Ginger and Rosa" still makes a satisfying addition to the small indie friendship-film canon.

Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall all deliver solid outings as an activist friend and the godfathering couple to Ginger, respectively.

Although you might want a spot more of volcanic give and take throughout this loping tale of trysts, there is enough color in Elle Fanning's pale but understandable manias to make you see red and keep watching. Ginger is calm and over-spiced by turns---a Morrissey minion before her time--and when she states the facts of nuclear doom, her icy clarity elevates the narrative well above its soap. Ginger's anxiety is a singular element combined with the added ferrous ferociousness of all things witchy.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Angels' Share (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Angels' Share

Director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) directs this charming and quip-filled dramatic comedy about small time delinquents and their obsessions with a whiskey distillery in Scotland. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is an angry young man in a gang-style feud with a neighborhood family. He is on a dead end street with little possibility for any satisfaction, but he does have friends and they stick up for him. There is the bumbling Albert (Gary Maitland), the silent Rhino (William Ruane) and last but not least, the punchy Mo (Jasmin Riggins). Door after door closes for Robbie, but on an outing with his friend Harry (John Henshaw) he gets an idea to get his hands on some prized liquid amber, specifically a cask of rare Malt Mill whiskey.

Notable character-actor Roger Allam puts on a good show as Thaddeus, a sneaky whiskey collector, of all things.

Much of the fun is due to the sheer number of irreverent wisecracks in the tradition of Alan Parker's "The Commitments" (1991). The dialogue alone will have you hooting with laughter which is quaint in its rudeness, but not all that offensive. Entertaining as well is watching the slinky Robbie as he hatches his scheme. Look out also for some good humor involving some ultra serious whiskey imbibers, juxtaposed against some Scotch slapstick.

Although the drama handles some very real issues of anger, economic woes and crime, the tone is consistently lighthearted and it fits together just fine. Some solid acting throughout holds everything together and while you might guess what's coming ahead of time, by the end of the film you'll see this quirky bunch of Scotsmen as your good friends.

Write Ian at

Sunday, May 19, 2013

No Place On Earth (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

No Place on Earth

"No Place on Earth" tells the anxious true story  of families in World War II escaping persecution from the Nazis. Janet Tobias (of PBS' Frontline) directs this excellent and poignant documentary, detailing The Stermer, The Wexler and The Dodyk families and what they went through enduring over 500 days in a cave, deep in Western Ukraine.

NYPD officer Chris Nicola starts the story off in a folksy amiable tone with his jovial, curmudgeonly New York accent that could be taken straight from actor Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Nicola says that an unforeseen discovery happened to him during a mission to reconnect with his Orthodox Ukrainian roots in 1993, after the fall of The USSR. During his trip to the area, he became fascinated by  two caves known as the Verteba and The Priest's Grotto. After a cursory first trip, he discovered pieces of a shoe and several buttons. Nicola became transfixed. He tells of prehistoric caves being inhabited by dinosaurs or men. But he says with dramatic apprehension, that this was not ancient history, but "living history". This part of the film is reminiscent of Herzog's wonderful "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". We see ghostly pink and gray stalactites enclosing a handful of splintered buttons like gems from a haunted and melancholy planet. Nicola's narration is part urban tough guy and part Rod Serling. At the start, it might seem that this is the stuff of an O. Henry story and it certainly is as surprising. Nicola is driven to find out more and begins to question the surrounding inhabitants.

"Maybe some Jews lived there," one lady tells Nicola.

And so begins an odyssey that we can now only wish had been fiction.

Through determination and more than a hint of chance, Nicola happens upon a newspaper article about a cave survivor during The Holocaust. As it turns out, the man in question lived only blocks from Officer Nicola in New York City.

Armed by this meeting, Nicola is able to retrace some vital long ago, but very real steps about what happened.

The details are related in equal parts first hand accounts and compelling  reenactments. There is the fiesty and resourceful Sam Stermer at almost ninety who is as engaging and self deprecating as any Ray Bradbury protagonist. He speaks of his mother challenging the policemen when they tried to haul them away. "What are you afraid of?" His mother, Esther reportedly asked, "That The Fuhrer will lose the war because we live here?"

Stermer admits that he would not be alive if he did not have the kind of mother that he was fortunate to have.

"What a mother," Stermer exclaims in a chant of wistful magic. "What a mother..."

There is also Sonia Stermer who is just as taken aback by the charm of her survival. Like Sam, she has a verve, an energy and a matter of fact wonder that is as marvelous to see as it is admirable.

The Stermer family escapes trial upon trial, all in the clap of a second and it is  easy to believe that there is some cliffhanger sorcery or angelic happenstance involved in their survival.

"No Place on Earth" has a solid score full of suspense that perfectly mirrors the haunt of two particular, but unassuming caves. The ending specifically, with Sam Stermer being lowered into the cave after some sixty years, is not to be missed and could be a film within itself. Vertebra cave is a spiritual DNA backbone that holds these families together. The caves stand with a singular presence, impassive, yet curiously no less benevolent for---protective ramparts  of rock against The Third Reich.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Week of May 17 to May 23 (Rhoades)

Tropic Cinema Mixes Inspiring Features and a Doc-Hybrid.

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You can catch some great feature films this week at the Tropic. As well as a feature-like documentary.
Take “Mud,” for instance -- a Mark Twain-like tale about two Arkansas boys who happen upon a fugitive hiding out on a small Mississippi island, waiting to rendezvous with his elusive true love. Matthew McConaughey is the titular man on the run and Reese Witherspoon is the girl with “good luck” nightingales tattooed on her hands. “Mud” ranks an impressive 98% on Rotten Tomatoes based on a poll of 119 film critics. The Observer says it’s a “film is drenched in the humidity and salty air of a Delta summer.” Quad City Times calls it “a sublime coming-of-age film.” And New York Post proclaims it as “a wonderful, piquant modern-day variation on Huckleberry Finn.''

“The Sapphires” will have you tapping your feet as an alcoholic Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) fashions four Australian Aborigine women into Motown-like soul singers. Although mostly a comedy, it has its serious moments as the manager goes missing during a Vietnam tour. The Toronto Star calls it a “Commitments-style mashup of music and melodrama.” And the Movie Report declares it “a surefire crowd pleaser.”

“Disconnect” connects with today’s world of invasive technology, a multi-story drama with usually droll Jason Bateman in a serious role. Bateman is a father whose son is a cyber-bully, while Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton are victims of identity theft, and Andrea Riseborough is an journalist who gets involved with a teen who does online porn. It’s enough to make you put away your computer. “A dark but powerful cautionary tale,” says the Times-Picayune. “There’s no way to see this film and not be concerned every time an electronic device is used,” warns the Fresno Bee.

“42” tells the inspiring story of Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers ballplayer who crossed the color line. Chadwick Boseman is convincing as the African American with the guts not to fight back, and Harrison Ford turns grumpy old man as Dodgers exec Branch Rickey. Denver Post describes this as “a vital chapter in this nation's history.” And Combustible Celluloid saw it as a “wonderful, huge, glossy, mythical portrait of America's growing pains.”

“Angels’ Share” is a Scottish comedy (yes, with subtitles) about four miscreants who decide to steal a valuable cask of malt whisky from an auction house. You’ll learn a lot about distilling liquor as you join Paul Brannigan in this humorous little crime caper. The East Bay Express describes it “as heartwarming and uplifting as any tale could be that features vicious beatings and grand larceny.” And the St. Paul Pioneer Press advises moviegoers to “Drink it up!”

“No Place on Earth” is a documentary about two families of Jews who hid in a Ukrainian cave for a year and a half to avoid Hitler’s Gestapo. While this is a true-life documentary, many of the events are reenacted, making it a “doc-hybrid.” Paste magazine termed it “an incredible story of endurance.” And The Philadelphia Enquirer calls it “both terrifying and inspiring.”

There you have it, five features and a documentary. Or what you might call “a good week at the Tropic.”

No Place On Earth (Rhoades)

“No Place on Earth”
Is Underground Movie

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Ever been stuck underground? I have. Thank goodness I’m not prone to claustrophobia. That was back in my caving days, when I thought nothing of wriggling on my stomach through bat guano, squeezing through narrow limestone crevices to explore a new cavern.
That was a good day’s adventure.
But could I stay down there for a year-and-a-half without seeing the light of day? I doubt it.
However, during World War II’s Holocaust five Jewish families (38 people) did exactly that, hid in a pitch-black Ukraine cave for over 500 days to escape the Nazis. This is the longest uninterrupted underground survival in recorded human history.
“No Place on Earth” -- the documentary that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- tells that harrowing story. Sitting there in the darkened theater you’ll share all the unease of being beneath the earth’s surface.
While exploring a 77-mile-long Western Ukraine cave system in 1993, New Yorker Chris Nicola stumbled over some objects. “Those objects were someone’s life,” he realized. That set Nicola off on a decade-long quest to find the people who had lived there in the dark recesses of a cave known as Priest’s Grotto in the Bilche Zlota Valley.
Being a NYPD cop, Nicola was good at investigations. Although locals were reluctant to talk, he finally tracked down members of the Stermer and Wexler clans who had hidden in cave.
“No human being had ever set foot there,” recalls one of the escapees.
 “I forgot there was a sun,” says another. They collected water dripping off rocks and scavenged food on the surface at night.
“We were very hungry,” says a survivor. A glass of water was for a whole family.
They survived there until being discovered by the Gestapo in 1943. While several were killed, one of the cave dwellers says, “We beat the odds. They didn’t get all of us.”
In this hybrid documentary, actors portray witnesses, but real-life survivors provide the movie’s grounding in fact. These latter-day survivors -- including Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk and Sima Dodyk -- provide a commentary to the reenactments.
It’s a very dark movie, in more ways than one.

Angels' Share (Rhoades)

“Angels’ Share”
Takes Wings

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If you’re a whisky distiller you have a name for that portion of a spirit’s volume that’s lost to evaporation while aging in oak barrels. The “angels’ share,” it’s called.
Despite being valuable, this amount (about 2 percent) wouldn’t be missed being that it’s an expected phenomena of the distilling process. But what if you could get your hand on an entire cask? Well now, that would be money in the pocket.
A new film titled “The Angels’ Share” -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- tells the story of four unemployed Scottish scofflaws who plot to steal a valuable cask of whisky.
Directed by 76-year-old Ken Loach (“The Wind that Shakes the Barley”), this comedy is a “hearty paean to the pleasures of that whisky and the olfactory sophistication of connoisseurs who use the same vocabulary as wine tasters to evoke its fragrances.”
Because this is a Scottish film about Scottish lads attempting to steal fine Scotch whiskey, it has the distinction of being an English-language film with subtitles … so audiences can understand the thick Scottish brogues of the actors.
The misadventure focuses on Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a skinny, not-very-admirable ruffian with a preggers girlfriend and a sentence of 300 hours community service. Turns out, he also has a golden nose when it comes to fine whisky.
At times the movie almost seems like a documentary on the production of high-end liquor. But it’s really a crime caper in which Robbie and his work detail set out to steal a recently discovered cask of Malt Mill that’s scheduled to be auctioned off.
So they don kilts and pose as a group of Highlanders who belong to the Carntyne Malt Whisky Club. And the night before the sale we find Robbie secreted inside the distillery siphoning off the prized whisky into soda bottles.
Aside from the comic heist storyline, Loach gives us an unflinching  look at the hopeless environment that claims these young hooligans: street fighting, petty crime, feuds, and danger. Paul Brannigan comes from a similar background, so the young actor delivers a believable been-there-done-that performance.
At its heart an amiable, far-fetched farce, “The Angels’ Share” won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Disconnect (Rhoades)

Seeks to Connect

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

In this online age of Wikileaks, Anonymous, spammers, phishers, and hackers, the World Wide Web has become a dangerous place. A new drama called “Disconnect” tells you about it -- from identity theft to bullying to steamy sex sites.
Technology can be your enemy as well as your friend. Here are interwoven stories about people whose life are impacted by events that take place in cyberspace.
Andrea Riseborough plays an ambitious journalist out to make a name for herself by interviewing a teen who performs on an adult-only website. Jason Bateman is a widowed cop who discovers that his son has become a cyber-bully. Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton are a couple whose bank account registers zero after online bandits steal their identities. No secret is safe from hackers.
“Disconnect” -- now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is billed as a thriller, but much of the action takes place on a computer screen.
Oscar-nominated director Henry-Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) takes you on a journey through cyberspace, exploring its darker sides. “You can easily pitch this movie badly and have people roll their eyes and say, ‘I don’t want to watch a movie about technology and how it’s bad,’” he acknowledges. “But technology is completely neutral. It is absurd to say its good or bad. Technology has put men on the moon and it has created the H-Bomb. It’s in our hands.”
I’d tell you more about this movie, but I think someone just stole my password to IMDbPro, the online source than many movie critics rely on for casting details and film credits. Oh no!