Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Way Way Back (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

"The Way, Way Back"

"The Way, Way Back" is a coming of age comedy drama directed by the writing team of  "The Decendants," Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who also portray minor character roles. This film, despite its extremely familiar content of an awkward kid at odds, will sneak up on you and yank on your heart solely through the strength of its actors.

Liam James ( Psych) stars as Duncan, a pale fourteen year old with a metaphysical weight on his shoulders who does not fit in. James bears a striking resemblance to Bud Cort in "Harold & Maude." One look at his paper-white face is to feel hopeless tension and loss. Duncan is in tow with his mom (Toni Collette) traveling to a summer cottage with every mom's boyfriend-you love to hate, Trent  (Steve Carell). Trent represents virtually  every single thing that would make us say "Eww!" He is anal, superficial, uncaring and a sexist womanizer. His only whisper of a saving grace is that he wants to care, but his attempt at compassion is a mere feint. Despite his forbidding defects Trent is ultimately believable as is the entire cast.

Duncan goes on dreary outings and is treated with condescension---all but ignored. At one such misadventure, he wears a needless and bulky neon life preserver. Earlier, Trent gives him a demeaning numerical grade of  a 3 out of 10. The walls close in.

On a whim, Duncan catches sight of a water park whose bright blue watersides strike him as mazes of liberation. They are nothing less than curves of freedom. He sees a foxy and boyish man (Sam Rockwell) playing Pac-Man, and is struck by the man's devil may care attitude.

Duncan is hooked.

The bohemian stranger turns out to be the owner of the water park, Owen, and he is drawn in by Duncan's curiosity and offers Duncan a pool boy job. Sam Rockwell almost steals this film. Not only is he very funny but his body has an exuberance that has not been visible in other films. Rockwell's face has actual mischief within it and like Melissa McCarthy, we are never sure how far he is going to go. That is part of the fun.

Also poignant is the bit part of Peter (River Alexander)  who is patronized and made self conscious about his left eye by his shallow mom (Allison Janney). River Alexander is a glib riot.

While some sequences are predictable (the showdown with "Mr Man" Trent) the sequences move at a rapid pace and never appear routine.

There is some nostalgic and poetic haunt in the Water Wizz park itself, a ramshackle third rate Disney imitation which nonetheless retains a Bradbury sense of charm for a young boy surrounded by such supercilious and stunted adults. Some water slide scenes are shot with an odd sense of apprehension and suspense that recall an early Spielberg thriller, as if the coils of the slide represent a shark-monster to be conquered by the teenage ego. And, indeed that is what the coils are in this film and arguably in life.

Directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon make appearances as a snide Don Knotts type and a sex obsessed beach boy respectively, but the real spark is watching the wolfish Sam Rockwell portray his surreptitiously touching spirit under a guise of irresponsibility and  guile. Such moments make "The Way, Way Back" an easy, yet emotional course to take.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Week of July 26 to August 1 (Rhoades)

Tropic Cinema Takes You Way Way Back and Way Forward

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Leading off this week’s Tropic Cinema lineup is a sweetly satisfying coming-of-age film called “The Way Way Back.” Balancing it off you will find is a belly-laugh cop comedy, a serious music documentary, a wonky sitcom-y comedy, and a futuristic zombie flick.
“The Way Way Back” gives us Duncan (Liam James), a gloomy 14-year-old kid forced to go on vacation with his mom (Toni Collette) and her not-so-nice boyfriend (Steve Carell). Life is a drag until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of a nearby water park. The Kansas City Star tells us, “Liam James is the introverted heart of the film... His perfect portrayal of a skittish boy who is forced to become assertive anchors the whole movie.” And Popcorn Junkie says it “lovingly retraces pubescent steps with mirth.”
New to Tropic screens is “The Heat,” the buddy comedy with Sandra Bullock as a by-the-book FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as a disorderly street cop. notes that “the mismatched chemistry between McCarthy and co-star Sandra Bullock drives the film.” And the Baton Rouge Advocate calls it “A funny new take on one of Hollywood's biggest clichés.”
“20 Feet From Stardom” recounts the stories of backup singers, those not-quite-stars who make Cher and Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder sound good. As the Arizona Republic puts it, “Music documentarian Morgan Neville uses a mix of live interviews and archival footage to let the singers, and their music, tell their stories of vocal triumph and thwarted ambition.” Detroit News observes, “The enthusiasm and love of music on display is just unavoidable.”
“Girl Most Likely” stars Kristen Wiig as a failed playwright who most go home to mother, a zany Zelda played by Annette Being. Richard Roeper describes it as “Another movie about a woman falling into a deep funk because some narcissistic twit dumped her.” Metroactive terms it “a showcase for the superb comic talents of Kristen Wiig.”
And don’t be turned off just because “World War Z” is an epic zombie movie. In it, Brad Pitt races around the world in an effort to head off this living-dead pandemic. The Star-Democrat says it “somehow ends up being an effective action-thriller.” “An intelligent Zombie Apocalypse film, starring Brad Pitt no less. Boy, I sure did not see that one coming,’ says Mark Leeper’s Reviews. And Spectrum calls it a “well-crafted, action-packed, and most impressively, not overly gory horror thrill ride...”
Indie films, documentaries, action thrillers, comedies -- you’ll find it all this week at the Tropic.

The Way Way Back (Rhoades)

“The Way Way Back”
Takes You Back

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think back to when you were fourteen. Sucked, didn’t it? It’d hard being a tween, a time of puberty and angst -- not quite being grown up, but no longer a child.
If that tweaks your memory, you’ll identify with Duncan, the 14-year-old at-a-loss subject of “The Way Way Back.”
This coming-of-age dramedy -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is the brainchild of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the Oscar-winning scriptwriters of “The Descendants.” This is their directorial debut, but you’d think they’ve been at it for ages.
They call their screenplays “mining our own personal family dysfunction.”
Here, Duncan (Liam James) is a mopey teen who’s at odds with his mother’s boyfriend, a jerk named Trent (played against type by Steve Carell).
When Trent asks how highly Duncan thinks of himself on a scale from one to ten, the shy kid answers, “Six.”
“I think you’re more of a three,” counters Trent.
“I think he’s a guy who is sort of done being a father,” says Nat Faxon. “Which is why he says to Duncan that he needs to get out of the house and not hang around there all the time.”
Fortunately, Duncan’s miserable existence takes a turn for the better when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the cool guy who manages Wizz World, a ramshackle water park located on the Massachusetts shore. Next thing you know, Duncan has a part-time job and is learning how to be cool too. Meeting girls. Copping a stare at their bikinied bottoms. Becoming one of the guys.
Jim Rash says that put-down scene was the genesis for this movie. “The whole conversation about ranking Duncan on a scale from one to ten — that actually happened to me. Yeah, that scene was sort of pulled verbatim from my 14-year-old experience going to our summer vacations in Michigan. My stepfather at the time actually had that conversation with me.”
The second motive was Wizz World. “A fascination and enjoyment for going to these types of water parks while growing up on the East Coast, with all of these eclectic characters. We definitely wanted to enter that world,” adds Rash.
Nat Faxon nods his love of water parks. The duo even cast themselves as minor characters in the movie. Faxon plays a water park employee who likes to make the bikini-clad girls wait a bit longer before sliding down the Devil’s Peak slide. And Rash is a guy who is always threatening to split the dead-end gig, but never quite does.
“The Way Way Back” held a longstanding place on Hollywood’s so-called Black List, the best movie scripts not yet in production. It took the duo eight years to get the movie made. “Movies sort of help each other in a way,” Faxon explains. “The script got us in the door to meet with Alexander Payne’s production company and got us the job for ‘The Descendants’ -- and then the momentum from ‘The Descendants’ provided us the opportunity to finally make ‘The Way, Way Back.’ They’re connected in many ways.”
The film’s ensemble cast also includes Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet.
Does “The Way Way Back” tweak audiences’ memories? “It is interesting to see, from screening to screening, just the wide variety of young to adult viewers, female and male, having found something similar that they connected to in the movie,” nods Jim Rash. “I think it’s that power of the genre – coming of age movies and rights of passage – some people can remember having had that experience while somebody else is perhaps watching it while still going through it.”

The Heat (Rhoades)

“The Heat”
Is Re-Heated

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Aside from her Oscar-winning role in “The Blind Side,” Sandra Bullock often appears in silly comedies. One of her more popular movies was “Miss Congeniality,” a farce where she’s an undercover FBI agent in the Miss United States beauty pageant, trying to prevent a bombing while wobbling about in high heels.
“Miss Congeniality” was funny. And it earned over $200 million. So in Hollywood logic, she did a sequel, “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.” It only did half as well, but that was okay.
Now, eight years later, Bullock needed a new idea. Putting the best Hollywood minds on the case, they came up with this: How about a movie where she plays a bumbling FBI agent?
But so it won’t seem too familiar, why not team her up with someone very different from her -- someone like Melissa McCarthy?
Thus, we have “The Heat.”
Bullock got $10 million to do the movie. Up-and-comer McCarthy was a bargain at $2.5 million.
Bullock plays a straight-arrow FBI agent who is teamed up with McCarthy, a slovenly overweight Boston cop. Forget the fat jokes, their oil-and-water shtick is enough to keep you laughing.
“The Heat” is currently (ahem) heating up the screen at Tropic Cinema.
Known as America’s Sweetheart, Bullock plays against type. Here’s she’s a loner FBI agent whom nobody likes. And McCarthy is a mean-spirited cop who ticks everybody off. For this “comedy with crime” they are assigned to work together as a team.
You can take it from there, if you throw in a lot of crude jokes and physical stunts designed to make you laugh out loud. The mission is to take down a Russian drug lord. But the movie is really about a two-losers-becoming-friends relationship.
 “I’ve always wanted to do a female buddy film, the kind the guys get to do,” Sandra Bullock says. “This didn’t have anything to do with getting a guy, and it didn’t involve shoe shopping …”
The odd-couple pairing was a good choice. As Bullock explains, “I’d seen ‘Bridesmaids’ and I said, ‘If Melissa McCarthy wants to work with me…’”
McCarthy responds to her co-star, “Before I knew you—don’t listen, I don’t want you to get cocky—I was asked in an interview who I thought was funny, and I said you … I love to watch someone who just goes for it and isn’t worried about whether it’s silly or awkward or unflattering.”
The film’s director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Knocked Up”) notes that the two stars became inseparable. “Normally after movies, those friendships go away. Theirs blossomed.” These days Bullock and her son Louis regularly hang out with McCarthy, her actor husband Ben Falcone, and their two daughters. It’s a much smoother relationship than portrayed in “The Heat.”
As Bullock puts it, “Having kids connected us on a deeper level. And the things we’re obsessed with outside of being a mom are the same, too: construction and house renovation. We’re kindred spirits in that world.”
Okay, we get it. They like each other -- on and off screen.
As for “The Heat,” fan reaction is mixed. One moviegoer said, “This looks like a Razzie nomination to me!” Bullock is no stranger to that dubious award.
Another proclaimed, “I saw ‘The Heat’ at an advanced screening and I can tell you it’s a very good and funny film.”
Still another adds this prospective: “Guys have dominated buddy movies for so long; it’s nice to see variety and multiple-dimensional characters for women.”

The Heat (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Heat

Here is a film that seemed destined to be made since "Bridesmaids" turned the macho college guy genre on its heels (literally)  two years ago. Now by the director of that successful film, Paul Feig, there is "The Heat" which subverts the buddy cop film by giving the starring irreverence to two women. "Cagney & Lacy" this thankfully, is not.

Sandra Bullock plays a prim, arrogant, and by the book FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn who is insufferable in her correctness. She is under pressure to prove herself as a promotion looms within reach but an agency head, blandly played like a saltine by Demian Belchir sets a daunting task in front of her: find an elusive drug lord and bring him to justice.

Granted, the all too basic plot could be electronically generated by an iPhone app and doesn't go anywhere all that arresting, but the story is a mere vehicle for the antics of the powerhouse known as Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, Mike and Molly). McCarthy plays Shannon Mullins, an obnoxious Boston cop who uses her body as a loaded weapon. McCarthy's comedy is primarily physical in nature: just looking at her matter of fact expression and her pushiness is enough to burst in guffaws. She uses the awkwardness in her body as an advantage, reminiscent of  the late comic Chris Farley.

We know what's going to unfold: Officer Mullins has an inside scoop on the local crime scene and Ashburn needs help. Bullock plays the straight woman to McCarthy's rolling aggressive antics and its a good thing that McCarthy is a riot throughout. Her body language is giggle inducing as is her unexpected garbage mouth. Think of an updated John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd pair with todays ironic sensibilities: She's the only woman that I know that can make a threat to the groin with a gun funny, along with a full-body fall. While Bullock gives the straight shtick, she also has her moments with her deadpan lines.

The only drawback is the slightly disappointing cast of secondary players who are otherwise talented and very funny. Michael McDonald's appearance  (MADtv) as a villain is too generic, and Dan Bakkedahl as a smarmy and frost complexioned henchman is just not interesting. Fans of Jane Curtin (an original "SNL" siren) might well be mystified as she has only two lines, if that.

Despite these minor slights, Bullock and McCarthy make a rip-roaring pair as they trade nearly (but only just) offensive barbs back and forth and back again. The movie shines in the liberties that McCarthy takes with her body and her cast members' personal space. The joke is in guessing how far Melissa McCarthy will go as a person and as a comedian. If the cat doesn't open you up to giggles, the team of Bullock and McCarthy will, in spite of all formulaic events.

Write Ian at

Monday, July 22, 2013

Girl Most Likely (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Girl Most Likely

"Girl Most Likely" ? Really? Here we have a  new film by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the promising and usually edgy team behind the excellent and quirky "American Splendor". The earlier film is wonderfully crafted with a punchy mixture of animated scenes and live action about the misanthropic and ruffled mature comic artist Harvey Pekar.  If you get a chance, see it.

Now in this film,  we have a lark in the style of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult". A thirty-something writer Imogene (Kristen Wiig) is lost and adrift. Her generic beau (Brian Petsos)  who has all the personality of a cell phone breaks up with her without sympathy. Imogene goes bonkers. She messes up her apartment and her hair, flailing on the bed in a supposed attempt at suicide. We have seen such histrionics before (sans suicide) in "Bridget Jones's Diary".

Here, Wiig caterwauls carries on and makes faces and it just isn't all that interesting or funny.
The hospital demands that she be in the custody of her selfish and nervous wreck of a mom (Annette Bening). Imogene again screams and yelps. They have to subdue her. She comes to in her mom's car at an Atlantic City casino and drags her mom out, still in her hospital gown. When she gets to the house, Imogene sees that her room is occupied by co-ed ne'er do wells and she has no where to sleep. Her mom has a macho slug of a boyfriend, a "George Boosh" (Matt Dillon) and her eccentric socially backward brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) makes her a room made out of  sheets.

Come on.

Matt Dillon has all the comic charm of a sheet of white construction paper, while Christopher Fitzgerald's time on screen mostly consists of how silly he is with his obsession of hermit crabs. He makes a hard steel and fiberglass shell for humans to wear on their backs, but instead of anything poignant in his character, he is played for a mostly bland stooge.

I found Matt Dillon's role tacky and mean as he hits Ralph upside the head. In "Something About Mary" Dillon's character was a little offensive, but the his character was more zany and there is none of that here, where you chuckle in spite of all.

I wish I could meet Kristen Wiig half-way as I am a fan, but I can't. We get precious little variation in her role as she whines and chatters on. What scarce humor there is, comes from a few good turns from an inimitable Wiigian delivery and dry sarcasm but she is far too irritatingly shrill in this gallivant. You can sense a bland "Layer Cake" style baddie a mile before he actually occurs, but before that, the normally compelling Bob Balaban appears as a father on sedatives who worries about soup and pilgrims.
The biggest disappointment in "Girl Most Likely" is that you never get any sense of the characters. They seem drawn from sitcom coloring books. It's hard for me to admit, but this is watered down Wiig at best.

Write Ian at

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Monster U. (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Monsters University

Summer is here and that means a sumptuous and colorful Pixar film in state of the art 3D, with none of those blurry red and blue traces from old fashioned 3D. Your eyes and heart will delight in "Monsters University," directed by Dan Scanlon, the creative force behind "Brave" which played earlier at the Tropic.

In this prequel to "Monsters, Inc," we revisit Mike (Billy Crystal) the lovable but anxious green monster who is literally a giant M&M with one big eye. Six year old Mike wants to grow up to be a "scarer." In this monster world, the screams of children provide the energy needed to power their multiple-eyed society and  resident little monsters hopefully make it to college to learn how to frighten kids and coerce the most potent screams. After all, this is a kids' film but there is enough belly laughs for goth grown ups.

Mike dreams of getting to Monsters U and being a grade a frightener. He enters as a freshman and constantly has to prove himself. Billy Crystal is terrific in his character ridden with self doubt. He completely embodies his ambitious Aargh-meister, as if he were an actual human being. Steve Buscemi returns as Randall who is entertaining too, as Mike's slippery snake roommate. John Goodman also reprises his role as the voice of Sully, Mike's rival, who resembles a parti-colored Abominable Snowman with a bloodcurdling roar. I have to admit, though, that Helen Mirren upstages everyone as Abigail Hardscrabble, the school dean, who is an imperious but oddly likable creature: a winged serpent reminiscent of Dante's Inferno and Mary Poppins. And, for  those of us who enjoy "Saturday Night Live," Bobby Moniyhan plays an opposing frat brother along with Charlie Day  (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who looks like a fuzzy letter C.

The film possesses a solid score by Disney veteran Randy Newman which mimic the pop art visuals.

The joy of this episode is its liveliness, its color and its quirky rambling tone. The story never takes itself too seriously and Billy Crystal infuses his character with feel good warmth and a very human spirit.

"Monsters  University" has a charming  irreverence containing several wise asides for adults while mildly lampooning many scare flicks. In the process, it introduces a bit of psychology into what makes us, as humans, afraid. The tale is sunnily subversive at its core with its depiction of children as toxic and easily scared fleshy things. Here, it is the monsters who have dominion, while young children are mere groundlings, almost something to be pitied.

But fear not, there is no eerie heaviness or nevermore drear in this Crayola crayon bestiary. "Monsters University" is a light and airy primer, ruled for kids, rampant in abundance with some impish and manic titters.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Week of July 19 to July 25 (Rhoades)

Travel the World (and Beyond) at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

This week Tropic Cinema takes you to back to school with monsters, to North Korea with zombies, to Hollywood with backup singers, to Heaven with movie stars … even to (groan) New Jersey. That’s quite an itinerary.
In “Girl Most Likely” we meet Imogene (played by SNL star Kristen Wiig), a playwright who gets sent home to New Jersey by court order after a failed suicide attempt. Things haven’t been going well on Broadway or with her boyfriend, but being put in the custody of her zany mother (Annette Being) may be even worse. Critics haven’t been kind. Village Voice describes it as a “disingenuous city-vs.-suburbs comedy.” And Reel Film Reviews says, “This could very well be the premise for an off-the-wall new sitcom...”
With “20 Feet from Stardom,” music documentarian Morgan Neville provides a tuneful look at backup singers, those “unsung heroes” of the music world. You’ll meet half a dozen singers who make the big-name headliners sound good. Footage includes Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Steve Wonder, Bette Midler and other stars weighing in with praise. This documentary scores 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. “Lovers of classic R&B and rock will never get tired of revisiting this movie,” says the East Bay Express. And Chicago Tribune opines, “Just about everything in this movie is right.”
For lighthearted entertainment there’s “Monsters University,” a prequel to Pixar’s other monster-friendly animation “Monsters Inc.” Here we find out how Mike and Sulley met -- in your choice of 2-D or 3-D. Time Out says “It has enough of the right stuff to haunt the imagination long after the immediate buzz of its fluffy-furred cuteness has melted away.” Daily Express tells us “If you enjoyed ‘Monsters, Inc.’ 12 years ago then you're not going to be disappointed even if it does feel a little slight at times.” And SFX Magazine calls it “A worthy addition to the Pixar class of classics.”
Do all movie stars go to Heaven? Only the self-sacrificing ones, according to “This Is The End,” the frat-boy comedy starring Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. Seems a bunch of real-life comedians are partying at James Franco’s house when the apocalypse comes upon them. Quad City Times describes it as “profane, shocking, and absolutely hysterical,” while ABC Radio calls it “one of the most fun movies I've seen in ages.”
And jumping from Philadelphia to North Korea and parts beyond, Brad Pitt saves the world from Zombies in “World War Z.” Part action adventure, part mystery, this big-budget thriller will keep you riveted in your seats even if you don’t like zombie movies. Spectrum calls it a “not overly gory horror thrill ride...” And Cinephile terms it “...distinct, off-beat and fearsomely entertaining.”
There you have it, travel all over the world and beyond, for the price of a movie ticket. And you don’t even have to pack your bags.

Girl Most Likely (Rhoades)

“Girl Most Likely”
Likely to Amuse

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 A cry for help, they call it, when someone stages a suicide attempt in order to win sympathy. It’s the stuff of overly dramatic teenage girls and insecure young women who make bad choices.
Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) stars as Imogene, a woman whose cry for help backfires in this comedy directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Instead of winning back her boyfriend, Imogene winds up in the court-appointed custody of her wacky, former go-go dancer mom.
Her mother Zelda (as played by Oscar-winner Annette Bening) all but steals the show, a difficult task when acting opposite a talented comedienne like Wiig. You’ll recognize Wiig as a one-time fixture of “Saturday Night Live.”
Now playing at the Tropic Cinema, “Girl Most Likely” is a funny look “at one woman’s offbeat family and her attempts at discovering just what went wrong on the road to success.”
A fading playwright, Imogene was having difficulty with her career when the relationship with her boyfriend fell apart. Hence, the suicide ploy.
So Imogen returns to New Jersey. There she finds a strange man (Darren Criss) sleeping in her old bedroom and another weird guy (Matt Dillon) in her mother’s bed.
Can she come to terms with her mom’s eccentricity and her own Jersey roots?
Well, that’s what makes this film funny.
Surprisingly, screenwriter Michelle Morgan is a southern California native who has barely set foot in New Jersey.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are the directors of “The Nannie Diaries” and “American Splendor.” As you’ll discover, “Girl Most Likely” has more in common with the latter, a look at oddball characters.
When the comedy debuted at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, it was titled “Imogene.” Critics described it as “a touch too sitcom-y.” So the distributors changed the name. You might call it a cry for help.

20 Feet from Stardom (Rhoades)

“20 Feet From Stardom”
Looks at Backup Singers

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You may not recognize the name, but Darlene Love has performed with Cher, U2, and Michelle Phillips of Mama and the Papas. She’s a backup singer. And she’s even been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“20 Feet From Stardom” is a documentary that looks at these unsung backup singers. It’s currently making music at the Tropic Cinema.
In addition to Darlene Love, you’ll meet Judith Hill, Merry Layton, and Lisa Fischer, among others.
And you’ll hear from the likes of Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie wonder.
Directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, you’ll meet the singers who make other singers sound good. Neville has been nominated for three Grammys for his music films: “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” “Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “Johnny Cash’s America.” He won an Emmy for “Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues.” And his film “Troubadours,” with James Taylor and Carole King, premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Producer Gil Friesen was a long time music industry executive (27 years with A&M, 13 as president). He was curious to learn more about the lives of background singers, so he put this documentary together with Caitrin Rogers.
“These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music, but each has a uniquely fascinating and personal story to share of life spent in the shadows of superstardom,” says Friesen.
As the movie trailer tells us, Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names.

Monster U. (Rhoades)

“Monster University”
Takes You Back
To College

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A few months back I got invited to my old university to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award. Their mistake, probably. But I enjoyed seeing the old campus. There was the fountain. There was the student union. There was the building where I had my art history classes. There was the room where I failed trigonometry. Ah, the memories.
Walt Disney’s Pixar takes some of its popular characters back to college too. In a prequel to “Monsters, Inc.” we learn how Mike and Sulley first met, two students at … well, what did you expect it to be called? … Monster U.
“Monster University” -- the fourteenth computer-animated comedy from Pixar -- is currently matriculating audiences at the Tropic Cinema in both 2-D and 3-D.
You remember Mike and Sulley, those two lovable monsters who worked at a factory in Monstropolis that is powered by the screams of children? Mike Wazowski is a little green monster with a ball-shaped body, a single big eyeball, a wide sharp-toothed grin, and skinny arms and legs. Sulley Sullivan is a giant furry blue monster with horns and purple spots.
And they are best friends.
However, as we learn in this 10-years-earlier prequel, it wasn’t always that way. Back at college the two monsters were fierce rivals. Mike, a serious student, was just the opposite of fun-loving Sulley. Being in the same fraternity, they couldn’t help but clash.
As IMDb’s Buzz put it, “We already know that Mike and Sulley wind up being best friends, so the story of how they met could feel redundant.”
Not so.
This is mainly due to the performances of Billy Crystal (Mike) and John Goodman (Sulley). Their voices, that is.
To hear Crystal and Goodman tell it, you’d think this movie is about them.
“I have to admit, I was a little bit of a misfit,” says Billy Crystal about his college days. “I was a film-directing major at NYU – when I was really an actor and a comedian, so I was a little out of it.”
His professor was Marty Scorsese. And his classmates included Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest, and Mike McKean.
John Goodman laughs. “I ain’t never been in no college with famous people like Billy here. I was a drifter for a while. I just was desperate to fit in with a group. Really, I was swimming. I was lost, treading water, trying to find my way. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I found acting in a theater department, and then it just – everything fell into place.”

Billy Crystal nods. “Yeah, that’s how it was for me, too. Once I found a theater group, then you’re just – like a gym rat, but you’re a theater rat, and then that becomes your fraternity house. That becomes your family – extended family. I still see a lot of those people to this day because they owe me money.”
You’ll be interested in seeing how Pixar goes about “monsterizing” the college experience. Steve Buscimi returns as monstrous Randy Boggs. You’ll also hear the voices of Frank Oz, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Charlie Day, Sean Hayes, John Krasinski, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, and John Ratzenberger. Almost like Saturday Night Live with lots of guests.
Billy Crystal sums up “Monster University” with this insight: “In this movie, they find out who they are. Mike has a dream, and the dream may not work out, and then he has to readjust and recalibrate. He does that with the help of his friend, who tells him who he thinks he is, and he starts to believe it himself.”
“They’re good for

20 Feet from Stardom (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

20 Feet from Stardom

Morgan Neville's (The Cool School) documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" places you squarely left of center in the lives of many accomplished back-up singers. These vivacious women, who are more like sorceresses in my opinion, deserve far more credit than they often get for their art, but many of them have been virtuosic alone.

Here we have the legendary Darlene Love who worked with the charismatic but volatile music producer Phil Spector and singlehandedly vocalized many hits from the 1960s ("He's a Rebel") but received little credit. There is the iconic but down to earth Merry Clayton who sang the original controversial lyrics for The Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter". There is also the voluptuous and angelic Lisa Fischer who came to the fore in the 60s working for Tina Turner and  achieved near star-status in the 1980s with Luther Vandross.

This documentary is most intriguing for raising the question of who has the upper hand in the music world in terms of creativity.  All the headliners from Springsteen, to David Bowie, Sting and Lou Reed, depend on their back-up singers to give their songs that extra whirl, that spark, or that crucial fusion with the audience. Without these singers, Prince is a mere puff of purple sequins. Merry Clayton even scored the upper hand in singing the main chorus in Lynard Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". As she says in the film "I'll show you Alabama all right!" The country rock song would be nothing without her and as depicted in the film almost seems a satire and a well deserved oneupmanship instead of an in-your-face southern anthem.

You will feel for all of these artists and recognize them as geniuses. Darlene Love was subordinated and harshly snubbed by Spector and his unapologetic greed. Claudia Linnear who was in many ways the pulse of The Rolling Stones, appeared in Playboy, embarked on a solo career but faced disappointing sales. She now teaches English to students, forced to put her vocal career on hold. Tata Vega who worked with Stevie Wonder, also faced a struggling solo run, but she now works for Elton John. Last but not least, there is the wunderkind Judith Hill who spritely worked with Michael Jackson on his last Xanadu-like rehearsal of "This Is It". She fears being typecast into routine busy-work by her time with Jackson, and takes to wearing disguises onstage, most recently on Jay Leno.

The music featured is pulsing and electric, well matched by the imagery and editing which create a rhythmic collage of celebrity and history and the gaps between solitude and success, between uncertainty and verve.

"20 Feet from Stardom" shows these singers for who they really are: covert and curvaceous women, (many of them grown from Gospel roots) who surreptitiously slip the true personality into a song and have the last shout.

Write Ian at

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Storm Surfers (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
 Storm Surfers 3D

"Storm Surfers 3D" directed by Justin McMillan and Christopher Nelius, sketches the life of champion Australian surfers Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll as they face big monster waves with names like Cow Bombie, The South Coast Bombie, Ship Stern Bluff  and Turtle Dove.

Ross Clarke-Jones with his dark hair and tan appearance is a rock star surfer of the Australian coast, a little like Rod Stewart with a dash of Ozzy Osbourne thrown in. Ross Clarke-Jones feels the powerful cyclone of water and air pressing in around him like a thrashing dance at a disco surrounded by beautiful girls. He lives for the beating which appears to hit him in curious caressing attacks.

Tom Carroll, by contrast is a bit more reasoned and careful. He bares a resemblance to Lance Armstrong in his grim and chiseled face. Both men are nearing 50, but they abhor the concept of slowing down as they are both thrill junkies.

Shot in extraordinary three dimensions,  the film puts you right in the core of the swirling wave, transforming the deep blue projections into huge leviathans that fill the entire screen. The 3D is even noticeable in the living room interview scenes which highlight some green foliage intruding from the room. Although this is overdone, "Storm Surfers 3D" does not use its effects as a gimmick.

Gradually we get a somewhat divisive portrait of the two men. Carroll, a winner of the 1987 Pipe Masters among other achievements, has suffered some rough outings and is in the midst of a semi-respite from the big curls. Clarke-Jones is like a teenager. He accuses Carroll of acting like "a girl" for wanting to spend time with his family. Self absorbed with a seven league ego, Clarke-Jones comes across as insensitive in this documentary.

Faults aside, Clarke-Jones emerges as a most entertaining provocateur as he runs about the surf-headquarters, setting radio controlled helicopters on fire and laughing riotously. These two men have worked and shot waves alongside each other for decades and despite the rivalry they clearly care for each other. Repeatedly almost like a mantra throughout the film,  Clarke-Jones refers to himself and Carroll as kids who refuse to grow up.

They need the waves.

There is an underdog story as we see Carroll pore over tidal maps and diagrams. He worries about his mortality or the moment when he won't want to surf. His face is stern and determined. He is a boxer in a fight, an oceanic Jedi of water and velocity.

When Carroll rises from the isolated and singularly man-eating Turtle Dove, you will feel the vibration, akin to the sight of Rocky's raised fist.

Both Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones emerge as nautical matadors who spray themselves with irreverence and by the end of "Storm Surfers 3D" (well narrated by Toni Colette) these natural forces are seen as they are: vexing, monolithic walls of water that roll on, only to be challenged by two skilled but reckless rockers of balance.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 13, 2013

World War Z (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

World War Z

For some zombie pathos and hokey pokes, the popular "World War Z" scrambles into the Tropic, making it seem like Halloween in July. The film, based on a critically acclaimed graphic novel by Max Brooks ( son of director Mel Brooks) stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, a former investigator for the UN. Gerry is stuck in traffic when suddenly there is a potent and inexplicable rabies outbreak.

The violence and cacophony that ensue almost immediately, along with the punches of some jarring terror and the excellent 3D effects (perfectly suited for the interpretation of a graphic novel), make everything very scary. Crazed and wizened people rush at cars with a nightmarish speed. They emit deathly horrible croaking noises and have only one goal: to eat the people contained within. The seizures of the poor souls affected are as frightening as the cannibals themselves, reminding one of the throes of demonic possession.

Gerry somehow manages to flee with his family intact. There is  Karin, his wife, (Mireille Enos) Rachel, (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins). After an anxious search for albuterol, (which I can personally relate to) the Lanes luckily make it to the roof where they are rescued---after a banging and jolting escape---by a military helicopter.

So here we have Brad Pitt against the world and he is grim, smirking and seasoned to a golden brown.

Gerry is driven to find the primary cause of this zombie pandemic if at all possible and this takes him around the world almost in the manner of "The Da Vinci Code". We know that this is his main goal, but the film limits itself a bit, going in the direction of a George A. Romero zombie survival film, albeit very  well done in its visceral emotion and apprehension.

Much debatable fat has been chewed and spat over the fact that the film largely ignores the sociological and economic situations in the personally told and sweeping novel which is given in vignettes, but as long as you view the film and the novel as two separate elements of the undead, you will be sufficiently pleased in popcorn fashion.

There is an excellent tense scene aboard an airplane. Special mention should be given to Daniella Kertesz as the soldier Segan, who is essentially Gerry's sidekick. Kertesz has spirit and meaningful bravado in this role reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" films. Moreover, she contrasts Brad Pitt well, who, at times, appears bland and mumbling with emotional anemia.

While the zombies are little more than rolling parasites that clack and roar, the effects are arresting with great pouring tides of ambulatory cadavers that try and succeed in building towers of teeth and flesh to consume mankind. Even though the social implications of such a catastrophe are not dealt with there is a fearsome and terrible poetry in such imagery.

The virulent power contained within such episodes, although filled with a good amount of pulp, is that we can almost see this crisis before our eyes as a possibility. Such haunting imagery combined with a last clap of surprise at the end, make "World War Z" a real arm-grabber.

Write Ian at

Week of July 12 to July 18 (Rhoades)

Tropic Cinema Takes You From the End of the World
To the Edge of the World

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Take your choice how the world will (almost) end -- an onslaught of zombies in “World War Z” or earthquakes and fire in “This Is the End.”
“World War Z” stars Brad Pitt as a former UN troubleshooter called back to work when an outbreak of zombies threatens to overwhelm the world’s major cities. So he races from Philadelphia to Korea to Israel to Wales in search of an antidote. MovieLine calls it “epic and fun.” And says, “If you have a thirst for zombie movies, this one will quench it.”
On the other hand, “This Is the End” gives us real-life funnymen Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel facing the apocalypse at James Franco’s house. Quad City Times calls the comedy “profane, shocking, and absolutely hysterical,” while Little White Lies describes it as “a cheerfully crass, enjoyably puerile entertainment.”
Back in the real world you’ll find the documentary “Storm Surfers 3D” about as exciting as being on the water yourself. Big wave surfing champions Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones take you 50 miles off the coast of Western Australia to ride humongous waves -- all seen in state-of-the-art 3D. Toronto Star calls it “as real as a blast of saltwater to the face.” The New York Times says, “The vistas are spectacular, the waves fearsome, the filming often amazing.”
You can still catch “The East,” the story of an investigator who infiltrates an eco-terrorist group only to become sympathetic to the cause. Brit Marling both wrote and stars in this thriller. Miami Herald rates it as “taut, compelling, unpredictable,” while Time Out calls it a “morally ambiguous investigation of extreme left-wing politics.”
Those of you who followed the talky romance of Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in the earlier movies “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” will want to catch up with the couple in director Richard Linklater’s third entry in his trilogy, “Before Midnight.” Filmed 9 years apart, we have watched the stars age as along the way they remind us that romance is not dead, just wounded. Seattle Times terms it “a joy to walk with this prickly but fascinating couple again.” And Flick Filosopher concludes, “It’s impossible to shake the feeling that we are merely eavesdropping on reality. Witty, wise, and -- most important of all -- truly romantic in ways that movies usually aren’t.”
Yes, Tropic Cinema continues to entertain, amaze, and intrigue with the wide variety of its film selections.

Storm Surfers (Rhoades)

Ride the Big Waves
In “Storm Surfers”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If I saw a 1,000-foot wave off Key West, I’d be shouting “Tsunami!” My house is on high ground, but that’s only 7 feet above sea level.
However, surfer Ross Clarke-Jones thinks nothing of riding big waves. He hails from Terrigal on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia, where 300-meter waves are common place.
Known to his friends as “Dark Bones,” Clarke-Jones regularly takes on the giant 80-foot waves off Outside Log Cabins on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii. He was the first non-Hawaiian to win the prestigious Eddie Aikau Memorial at Waimea Bay in 2001.
Clarke-Jones and his tow partner Tony Ray met as 18-year-old surfer bums back in 1983. “We were both into big waves. It was our first passion,” recalls Ray. “We both tried tow-in surfing with other people once or twice. There were these spots on the North Shore (of Oahu) where you couldn’t really paddle because it was too dangerous, it was too far out. You’d get seasons and seasons of that, where you'd see these waves but couldn’t surf them, it was really frustrating.”
Now at 45, Ross Clarke-Jones worries about being edged out in a younger man’s game. So he’s enjoying a last hoorah as the subject of a new documentary called “Storm Surfers 3-D.” It’s currently thrilling audiences waves at the Tropic Cinema.
“Storm Surfers 3-D” follows Aussie tow-surfing legend Ross Clarke-Jones and two-time world champion Tom Carroll on their quest to ride the biggest and most dangerous wave they can find.
With the help of surf forecaster Ben Matson, they track and chase giant storms across the Great Southern Ocean -- from the coasts of southern Tasmania to South Africa to the Hawaii Pipeline surf reef, before finally riding an untouched spot at Turtle Dove Shoal, roughly 50 miles off the coast of Perth, Western Australia.
Think: “Endless Summer” in 3-D.
As one moviegoer describes the film’s opening sequence: “Veteran Australian big-wave surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones are nearly 50 miles out at sea, looking to ride a series of waves. Carroll starts out but then in a moment of imbalance he is lost below the waves, fate unknown. After a minute, he resurfaces, bruised but not beaten and prepared to try the wave again.”
The film follows Carroll and Clarke-Jones and during the 2011 winter big-wave season. Along the way they join forces with other big wave surfers like Paul Morgan, Mark Mathews and Paul “Antman” Paterson. There’s even a special appearance by the greatest surfer of all time, Kelly Slater.
With the film’s cutting-edge 3-D technology, you’ll feel like you’re there out on the water with them, facing freezing conditions and near-death experiences, heading toward a wave bigger than an apartment building. You’ll be holding your breath in anticipation.
“Among big wave surfers, Ross is right on top,” says his pal Tony Ray. “When it gets really extreme, not too many guys would match him. He just loves it.”
You will too. From the dry safety of your theater seat.

World War Z (Rhoades)

Brad Pitt Fights
Zombies In
“World War Z”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As a film critic, I’ve always maintained that movies are a mirror of our society. They reflect the current zeitgeist that defines our times.
For example, the musicals during the Great Depression. The film noir of the ’40s. The anti-hero movies of the ’60s.
So what is it with all those apocalyptic movies we’ve been seeing lately?
“The Road.” “The Book of Eli.” “Warm Bodies.” “Zombieland.” “Resident Evil: Retribution.” “After Earth.” “Oblivion.” “Another World.” “Battle of the Damned.” “New Order.” “Red Dawn.” “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “Cloud Atlas.” “Seeking a Friend at the End of the World.” “This Is the End.”
With more to come: “Elysium.” “Pacific Rim.” “Curio Shop.” “Snowpiercer.” “The World’s End.” “After the World Ended.” “Ender’s Game.” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
And this week, “World War Z.”
Do we have such a bleak outlook for our future?
And what is behind it? Not nuclear anxiety. What then? Economic unease? The destruction of the Middle Class? Lack of confidence in our governments? Or some sort of eerie prescience?
In “World War Z” – the Brad Pitt opus that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema – we find a retired United Nations guy racing around the world trying to contain a zombie pandemic.
Gerry Lane (Pitt) is torn between his mission to save the world and saving his family as he battles this scourge “that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.”
Based on the Max Brooks novel, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” the film is action heavy. Pitt running, jumping, fighting, scrambling over dead bodies. However, it bears little resemblance to the book. As one insider puts it, “This is a case of a studio liking a title and building a brand-new high concept around it after they buy the rights. Love it or hate it, this ‘World War Z’ is its own thing.”
“We started with a really interesting book about this idea of a worldwide pandemic and what happens if you wake up one morning and everything that's important to you is suddenly rendered useless,” explains Brad Pitt. He describes it as “the most intense thing you’re gonna see all summer.”
The scale of the film’s mayhem is ambitious. It offers an around-the-world tour, as Pitt races from zombie hotspot to zombie hotspot – Philadelphia to New York to New Jersey to Korea to Israel to Wales.
These hive-minded zombies are a faceless onslaught, coming at us wave after wave. There’s little Brad Pitt’s character can do but run.
One moviegoer called it “a horror film for people who don’t like horror films.” True enough.
With zombie culture at a high nowadays, both on TV and in movies, “World War Z” looks like it could be the “Lawrence of Arabia” of undead flicks. As directed by Marc Foster (“Quantum of Solace”), this big-budget summer movie is intended to be the start of a franchise. We’ll see.
If the film has a major flaw, it Gerry Lane’s cardboard cutout family – wife, kids – that offers little contrast between the living and the living dead. In a film that spends so little time on character, it’s hard to care if any of these people survive. Or make us want to hang around for a sequel.
Maybe it really is the end.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Much Ado About Nothing

Here is a new interpretation of Shakespeare for the Millennial set. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) has given us his own version of Much Ado About Nothing. Instead of doublets we see expensive Brooks Brothers type suits and heavy watches. Most everyone is at leisure with oneupmanship and sips champagne. These characters are at ease with superficiality and Ralph Lauren. Hardly anyone works.

Filmed in sumptuous black and white, Whedon emphasizes the sexuality and villainy of the original play, despite this being a comedy of errors, so to speak. There are some nefarious and formidable characters here. Many of them confront actual mirrors and become fractured in two---part Shakespeare, part "The Matrix" with a bit of noir thrown in for good measure. When these characters withdraw guns, the weapons are as threatening and alien as if fashioned by David Cronenberg.

As a villain, we have the square-jawed and black-suited Don John (Sean Maher) who, in keeping with the original story, is a malcontent who wants to foil the love plan between Claudio (Fran Kranz)  and Hero (Jillian Morgeze). We also have the egotistical Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and a selfish and self-righteous Beatrice (Amy Acker). Suffice to say, that Leonato (Clark Gregg) teases Benedick while Don John viciously sets up Claudio to think Hero a wanton and unfaithful commoner.

What seems a conceptual exercise of surface over content gradually builds in suspense and drama worthy of an Adrian Lyne thriller. The polished mirrors and steel frames that the characters are confined within become the hard shelled casings that contain their virulent and weaponized emotions. The spacey violence of Bret Easton Ellis would feel right at home.

In Shakespeare, words are supernatural wizardry. As the poison jokes unfold, the toxin tongues of the few become little more than clown's confetti by play's end. Hats off to Joss Whedon for revealing some dark magic behind Shakespeare's motley ruse.

Write Ian at

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Week of July 6 to July 12 (Rhoades)

Tropic Cinema’s Lineup Is Hot As a Firecracker

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Now that you’ve been satiated with mustard-laden Fourth of July hot dogs and ear-shattering fireworks, it’s time to settle down again with an entertaining movie. And this week the Tropic Cinema has a wonderful selection to choose among.
Top of my list is “Before Midnight,” the third film in Robert Linklater’s trilogy about an American guy and a French gamin who meet on a train in the first film (“Before Sunrise”), reunite nine years later in the second film (“Before Sunset”), and now another nine years later are married (“Before Midnight”). Yes, I couldn’t resist checking in on Jesse and Celine (played each time by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). You should too. Flick Filosopher calls it “Witty, wise, and -- most important of all -- truly romantic in ways that movies usually aren’t.” Ozus’ World opines that “the acting, the dialogue and direction are superb.” And Birmingham Mail says, “Hawke and Delpy are as believably real as any screen couple can ever be.”
Also worth your time is “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare’s comedy as told in modern-times by Josh Whedon. Yep, he’s the guy who directed the “Marvel’s Avengers” blockbuster, but don’t let that deter you from thinking he can’t handle the Bard. Detroit News tells us that it’s “a delightful mix of the modern and the Elizabethan, a sort of do-it-yourself re-imagination of a true comic classic.” And Chicago Sun-Times says, “The magic holds. It holds from beginning to end.”
You still have “The East,” Britt Mayling’s tale about an investigator who infiltrates an eco-terrorist group only to discover she agrees with them. Little White Lies describes it as “a zeitgeist-grabbing indie spy thriller exploring the rise of techno-savvy anti-authoritarian movements lurking in the darkest recesses of the Internet.” And Boston Globe nails it as “a watchably confused eco-thriller that's never sure who its heroes are.”
Also as a late show you can catch Sofia Coppola’s flashy film about “The Bling Ring,” five wealthy-but-not-wise kids who burglarize celebrities’ homes just for the fun of it. No, it doesn’t end well for them, as you may recall from the newspaper headlines about this true story. Time Out calls it “a funny, snarky, bang-on portrayal of the freakiness of celeb obsession.” And Richard Roeper reminds us that “Emma Watson is comedic gold.”
Rounding it out the lineup is “This Is the End,” the apocalyptic comedy where a number of real-life comics (including Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson) party at James Franco’s mansion while the world comes to an end. Slate declares, “True to its subject matter, it’s as funny as hell.” Quad City Times calls it “profane, shocking, and absolutely hysterical.” And the Guardian sees it as “just one great big goofy joke.”
Just like those recent Fourth of July firecrackers, you’re sure to get a bang out of these five flicks.

Much Ado About Nothing (Rhoades)

“Avengers” Director Makes
“Much Ado About Nothing”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” has to take the prize for the most self-deprecating title of all time. Of course, there’s much to ado about. Written around 1598 or 1599, this play is considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. As the critics describe it, the masterpiece “combines elements of robust hilarity with more serious meditations on honor, shame, and court politics.” In short, it’s a joyful comedy that ends with multiple marriages and no deaths.
The play has been filmed several times, going back to a 1913 silent version. The first sound version was the highly acclaimed 1993 film by Kenneth Branagh. The 2001 Hindi film “Dil Chahta Hai” was a loose adaptation of the play.
Now we have a new rendition directed by wunderkind Josh Whedon. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
You might think Josh Whedon an odd choice to be putting on a play by Shakespeare. After all, he’s the warped mind behind that “Buffy the Vampire Killer” TV show and its “Angel” spinoff. And he created the sci-fi TV show “Firefly.” Also he directed the sci-fi movie “Serenity” and the horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods.” What’s more, he has written numerous comic books, ranging from Dark Horse’s “Fray” to Marvel’s “Astonishing X-Men.”
Oh yes, he also wrote and directed “Marvel’s Avengers,” the $1.5 billion blockbuster that is the third highest grossing film of all time.
So why Shakespeare?
It was a pet project.
“Over the years Whedon had colleagues over to sit in his den and read Shakespeare aloud,” confides a friend. “It was kind of a palate-cleanser -- and a goad to do better in their own work.”
“You would just go over on a Sunday in flip flops and a t-shirt and read the plays, and there was something really relaxing and special about it,” recalls actress Amy Acker. “We had talked about doing something to share these readings, he’s always said ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we could film these somehow?’”
No one took him seriously.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a modern-day adaption of Shakespeare, kind of like a home movie filmed at Whedon’s Santa Monica house using a handful of American actors. Mostly young actors who’ve appeared in his TV shows.
“It’s a big collaboration,” says Amy Acker. “I think that’s why he cast so many people that he had worked with before, because it was a sure-hand way for him being able to throw out ideas and everyone feeling comfortable to bring their own stuff.”
Watching the film, you’d think Shakespeare’s verse is the way they normally talk.
The shoot only took 12 days.
Amy Acker and Alex Denisof play the bickering ex-lovers Beatrice and Benedict. Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz are cast as Hero and Claudio, who are plotting to keep Beatrice and Benedict apart. Nathan Fillion plays constable Dogberry like a TV cop.
“Nobody really knew it was going to be a real movie,” swears Acker.
“I thought he was going to film us sitting around reading, nods Fillion. “I thought, This will be low pressure!”
Kranz agrees. “I really believed that too. Then the first A.D. emailed me asking for my social security, and I wrote back, ‘Are we getting paid for this?’”
Not much it turns out.
“I spent more on babysitters than whatever that check was,” admits Denisof. “But I’d do it all again.”
The result is possibly the best cinematic version ever of a Shakespeare comedy.
Much ado about nothing indeed.

This Is the Ed (Rhoades)

The Last Word on
“This Is the End”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My wife is reading a book called “The Age of Miracles,” in which the world is coming to an end. And I just watched “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” a touching romance with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley facing … well, you know what.
Now we have a new movie called “This Is the End,” a funny romp in which a frat-boy array of Hollywood stars encounters the apocalypse.
Like those doomsayers say, the end is near … because “This Is the End” is playing this week at Tropic Cinema.
In this wonky premise, a bunch of young actors are partying at James Franco’s mansion when they learn that the world is falling apart outside.
Taking refuge inside Franco’s fortress-like house, the guests battle cabin fever, each other, and dwindling food supplies that reduces Emma Watson to eating ketchup packets and rats. Also, as an aside, they’re forced to examine the true meaning of friendship.
The real-life actors in this not-so-real story include Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Craig Robinson, Aziz Ansari, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Danny McBride, Rihanna, the Backstreet Boys, even Jason Segel in an uncredited role.
Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, it’s based on a short film called “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse.” However, this feature version was plumped up with plenty of “Pineapple Express” type jokes. Make sure you’ve got the kind of funny bone that enjoys humor about genitals, drugs, and religion.
Keep in mind, Rogen and Goldberg have been affectionately called “connoisseurs of bad taste.” Also, “juvenile and sophomoric.” And worse.
Fanboys are having a mixed reaction. One example: “Just saw it. Unbelievably funny.” Another example: “Just came back from watching this mess … what a disappointment.” And still another: “It’s non-stop laughing from the opening scene to closing.”
Trying to classify “This Is the End,” one mystified film critic termed it a “stoner/celebrity culture/end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it comedy.” That’s pretty accurate.
Rogen’s posse deserves credit for submitting to this excruciating self-parody. What another observer called “insightful skewering of a celebrity-obsessed culture.” That’s pretty accurate too.
In the end, it’s a funnier-than-usual bromance in the Judd Apatow style. And that’s my last word.

Before Midnight (Rhoades)

“Before Midnight”
Is Part Three of
A Relationship

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Don’t you feel like you know them -- Jesse and Celine? After all, you first met them back in 1995 in in Richard Linklater’s film “Before Sunrise.” You remember, the one where a young American guy bumps into a young French woman on a train and they get off in Vienna, and spend the night walking around, talking about life and love.
Not much happens in this minimalist film, but you’ve never been so entranced by a conversation since you had dinner with Andre.
Ethan Hawke is memorable as Jesse and Julie Delpy is perfect as Celine. He the cynic who’s really a romantic underneath that thinly disguised exterior; she the romantic who fears her feelings. We fall in love along with them, but accept the bittersweet ending where they go their separate ways, vowing to meet again in six months.
Of course they won’t.
Being the world’s most patient director, Linklater picked up the story again nine years later, when his 2004 film “Before Sunset” reunited the couple. Now a bestselling novelist, Jesse is doing a reading at a bookstore in Paris when guess who shows up in the audience ... so they briefly reunite while waiting for his plane home.
Since their first meeting Jesse has married and has a son; Celine has a boyfriend. Neither is particularly satisfied. That old spark is still there between them. Celine imitates a Nina Simone song, saying, “Baby … you are gonna miss that plane.”
He does.
That’s where this third movie, made nine years after the second one, picks up.
“Before Midnight” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Here, we meet Jesse and Celine -- now together, the parents of twins. Having spent the summer on the Greek Peloponnese with Jesse’s son from his first marriage, the couple picks up their ongoing conversation. He’s still a successful novelist; she’s at a career crossroads. Friends treat them to a hotel room to give them time alone, to talk. They do.
Will the relationship last? Will we get another sequel in nine years? Do we feel like we’ve been part of a long relationship? Do we better understand about life and love?
You go see it and decide. Better still, take someone you care about. The two of you can talk about it afterwards.

This Is the End (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

This Is the End

For those who like the madcap comedy film, here is one that makes the genre of madcap proud. The understated but self consciously titled, "This Is the End" is simple and pedestrian, rooted in American pop culture but deceptively so. The film slips, slides, knocks and bangs about noisily like a tripping teenager, but it gets under your ticklish skin and you will be laughing in seconds.

Judd Apatow alumnus Jay Baruchel travels by plane to visit Seth Rogen. Baruchel is a city boy and he detests L.A. Because Baruchel has such an itchy, self doubting and passive appearance in the manner of Larry David, this is funny from the get go. Baruchel would be comical watching paint dry. Hijinks is almost unnecessary.

Rogen, feeling that his long ago friend is drifting apart from him, supplies him with pot and a smorgasbord of munchies in addition to 3D television. We see a high speed montage of Rogen and his friend engaged in silly adolescent horseplay, perhaps in a spoof of  "A Clockwork Orange". After a few hours, Rogen suggests they attend a party at James Franco's house. Baruchel hates the idea. Hideous and insincere stars are going to be there, including Baruchel's rival, Jonah Hill. But Rogen begs, and Jay reluctantly agrees.

When the two approach, they are astonished with envy. Franco's house is a mansion with gigantic walls; it resembles something out of Frank Gehry or it could stand in for Tony Stark's fortress in "Iron Man".

The party is packed with other Apatow actors:  Michael Cera is bitchy and snorting coke while Jason Segal is spaced out and talking about eating. And Rihanna is here smiling.  Baruchel is put off and leaves to search a convenience store.

Abruptly with jarring menace there is a huge explosion with strange beams of light pulling people up into the night sky.

At the very least an earthquake is in progress.

Complete chaos follows with many of the Apatow alumni gorily disappearing.

Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, an effete Jonah Hill and the comic Craig Robinson are left to fend for themselves. While the plot is thin, the one liners are a laugh a second, with plenty irreverence and spoofing of Hollywood movie culture. Baruchel and Hill are a riot as they constantly dig into each other, while the crass Danny Mcbride is outrageous in his near offensiveness. There is one exchange between Mcbride and Franco that is blissfully crude: a ten minute tirade on masturbating and orgasms as weaponry. There is also an "Exorcist" segment with a possessed Jonah Hill who solidly lampoons Linda Blair, which personally delivered some healthy  catharsis to me.

Not since "Ghostbusters" has there been a comedy so associative and free-wheeling. The plot episodes as humorous as they are, are not nearly as funny as the repartee and glib banter. "This Is the End" succeeds because it does not over think its story or get bogged in by causes, effects, or exposition.

The ensemble cast story directed by "Superbad" writer Evan Goldberg and based on a short film written by Rogen, is hysterical and "tight" because it has the good sense to just let go.

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Before Midnight (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Before Midnight

Richard Linklater sets out another chapter in his philosophic odyssey with "Before Midnight". This is the third outing for Linklater's questioning romantics featuring the spiky haired Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the free loving and bright eyed French girl Celine (Julie Delpy) who resembles a honey drop.

We have grown up with the vivacious Celine who is relentlessly curious and self deprecating. Celine is so familiar in "Before Sunrise" (1995) and the second, "Before Sunset" (2004) that we instantly feel as if we know her. This is equally true of Jesse who is arty, idealist and brimming with nervousness.

In the previous outings Jesse was a kind of Kerouac Romeo with a penchant for anguish in leave-takings. Somehow these two continent-crossed characters have always managed to find each other and to be equally vexed by the other as if by magic and that is part of the appeal of these films. They meet. They are star-struck. They converse. And Europe rolls on in its buttery orbit.

In this latest episode Jesse is in a Greek airport blighted by worry and self doubt as he puts his son Henry (Seamus Davey- Fitzpatrick) on a plane back to Chicago. Jesse is consumed that Henry is growing up miles and miles away. Worse, he feels he is an inadequate father.

Gone is the reckless Jesse. There are deep creases in his face. What was once creative energy is now a tic and he is more than a little paranoid. Jesse still wants to accomplish things but there is a heaviness about him.

Jesse and Celine have two daughters together now which are a joy yet within that bliss there are wraiths of resentment, coupled with a fear of the unknown.

Celine has the opportunity for a high-profile government job in Paris, regarding wind turbines, while Jesse is self-absorbed wanting to spend his days with Henry, even if it means dealing with an ex wife who we never see. Celine is beside herself, thinking it a sign that their relationship is over. While trying to joke, she boils with an inner rage.

The pull of the film derives from the fact that Hawke and Delpy are so easy to watch. We know them so well that we feel we are eavesdropping. They tease and banter, they rib and tickle with a warm, graceful ease.

Watch for Celine's fellatio gesture inside a church. She's still a kid at heart.

Then a clap of surprise.

Jesse and Celine actually fight. All is not a bed of Vienna pastry . Yes some of the fighting is a bit vicious. Jesse says at one point that Celine "fucked up his life", but the progression is organic enough that it doesn't seem mean spirited. These are two characters who love each other, while Jesse in particular, tries to outrun Father Time.

The actors  are two mirrors of each other and their rhythmic dialogue is crisp and snapping. Although this narrative runs on a darker Mediterranean thread than the other films, the intriguing thing is that we can see the ghosts of Jesse and Celine as they were back in 1995 and track their vexing adventure. As they wind through the Grecian streets, we see a young pale leg and Jesse's mature graying beard together with his lined face. Then the camera pans down almost absentmindedly to show the battered leather sneaker of youth.

A tease of time passed.

Is it 1995, 2004 or 2013? "Before Midnight" is Linklater's Edward Albee  answer to youthful bohemia, in which the spirits of childhood are transformed into adult-shaped poltergeists. An amorous Walpurgis night becomes a wink from Jesse's brow and vice versa. The fun here is in seeing old acquaintances again. But better still, Richard Linklater dares to show his beloved characters both happy and satisfied, but also gripped by a fearful melancholy and the dread of what may come.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Bling Ring (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Bling Ring

The iconoclastic Sophia Coppola (Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation) undertakes a tabloid exposé  in "The Bling Ring". It tells the story of teens who burglarize celebrity houses in and around Hollywood Hills. The group of  kids violated several exclusive homes, notably the residences of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and reality star Audrina Patridge. In 2008, for roughly a year, the band stole jewelry, clothes and shoes totaling some three million dollars. The film is based on an actual Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales.

The film centers on ringleader Rachel Lee (here fictionalized as Rebecca Ahn and played by Katie Chang) and Nick Prugo (named Marc Hall and portrayed by Israel Broussard).

Marc is portrayed as pie faced and pasty with not much spunk. Rebecca is narcissistic and fame-obsessed. The  laconic and glum kids meet at a party and begin to steal from unlocked cars as if to create spontaneity. They invariably find wads of cash in expensive wallets and go on shopping sprees.

The two kids have parents that are spaced out and monotone. Marc's dad shuffles around like a living statue while  we hardly see Rebecca's mother. Browsing the net, they get the idea that the home of Paris Hilton would be easy to access.

The key is under the mat.

What follows is a mind-boggling visual catalogue of Hilton's Liberace-like  home in the manner of  prose by Bret Easton Ellis. There are huge walk-in  closets of sequined and lame dresses and infinite rows of shoes stacked like Jaguar automobiles. Diamond bracelets cover every surface like sand or cocaine left for dust by an amnesiac billionaire.

They invade her house repeatedly and lounge about before exiting. The pair begin to brag about their swag, recruiting their friends who are equally catty, selfish and near-sociopathic.

Emma Watson (Harry Potter) appears as a mirror-image of Rebecca, fetishizing Lindsay Lohan's irresponsibility, style, her lipgloss and her see-thru dresses.

 Director Coppola does a fine job in illustrating the vacuity of juvenile crime under the glare of celebrity culture. The film is essentially a phosphorescent montage of break-ins with intermissions of cocaine trails that curl across the screen like bejeweled but depressed snakes.

Leslie Mann delivers well as a Good & Plenty-toned Stepford mom who is brainwashed by Rhonda Byrne's 'The Secret' self help book. Mann's scenes almost reach a John Waters' style of fun and glibness and they uncover some of the film's irreverence.

Perhaps the best line, though, belongs to  Emma Watson. When told that the FBI questioned the victims, her character asks excitedly  "What did Lindsay say?"

"The Bling Ring" withholds judgement or reasons for the juvenile crimes. It is possible that Coppola meant to show these episodes as a space capsule of superficiality.

But many will simply huff and conclude "What a bunch of brats."

The film's solipsistic tone and subject (with diamonds like so many ice-cubes on a tray handled by these nonchalant doe-eyed children) emits that response.

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