Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Book Thief (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Book Thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Ian at

All Is Lost (Wanous)

Redford never misses in gripping 'All is Lost'

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Week of November 29 to December 5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Serves Up a Thanksgiving Film Feast.

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cook Communications Film Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book Thief (Rhoades)

“The Book Thief” Sugarcoats Its View of War

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All Is Lost (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

All Is Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 23, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

12 Years a Slave

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

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

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

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

Nor should he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Ian at

Friday, November 22, 2013

Week of November 22 to November 28 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Adds Two Terrific New Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Is Lost (Rhoades)

“All Is Lost” Has Much to Discover

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

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

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

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

Okay, here goes.

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

Until he awakens to a boat filling with water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might change.

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

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

12 Years A Slave (Rhoades)

McQueen Had Mission With “12 Years a Slave”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

This is a true story based on an 1853 book titled “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.”

That pretty much sums up the new Steve McQueen movie “12 Years a Slave” -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

But the movie is more than that. Starring British actor Chiwetelu Umeadi “Chiwetel” Ejiofor as the aforementioned Solomon Northup, it’s a paeon to our thirst for freedom.

Along with Ejiofor, you’ll encounter Michael Fassbender as a cruel plantation owner; Benedict Cumberbatch as a mild-mannered slave owner; Brad Pitt as a Canadian carpenter; Quvenzhané Wallis as Northup’s daughter; along with supporting performances by Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Dano.

McQueen’s purpose was to help us address that blot on American history -- slavery. “I went into this film to try to embrace the issue, and master it, and make it mine, as such,” he says. “I was trying to look for a way into the tale, and the way in for me was the story of a free man who gets caught into slavery. And, what I liked about that was that everybody can relate to being taken away from your family, so you're on that journey with him.”

Did the Brit-born director accomplish his mission? “I think the film has begun to help, because people are talking about slavery again,” he said. “We need to just try to keep it in focus and try to have that conversation. It’s a difficult one, but a necessary one.”

In “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen forces us to watch such atrocities as hangings, whippings, and rape.
“Survive, survive, survive, that’s the biggest thing,” says McQueen. "Ultimately I’m here today because some members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They had to deal with it by simply surviving.”

Talk about man’s inhumanity to man. This is a movie that will seriously break your heart.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

2013 Key West Film Festival (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Key West Film Festival

Variety was the order of the day at this year's Key West Film Festival with as many diverse characters as there are far flung locations.

First,  Jeffrey Schwarz's "I Am Divine" was shown together with stand up routines by the famed cinematic barista of bad taste John Waters, who proved to be just as surrealistic and slimy-sweet as ever. John Waters is a organic auteur of scandal and emotion, a glib and witty maestro with an Oscar Wilde touch. Waters is a rare thing running directly from the well of William Castle who stands alone in today's age of empty sensation and CGI. Monsters and creatures from space are not his bag. Waters is concerned with eccentricity, individuality and the courage it takes to shock and be offensive.

Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary is about the comedian Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) and his progression from shocking underground comic actor to mainstream success story until his untimely death (some say due to heart problems from his excess weight and binge eating). The documentary is affectionate, comprehensive and bittersweet. As a whole, it makes a fitting tribute to a wonderful charismatic and privately churning person, gone all too soon. The film is irreverent and sweetly subversive in all the right places. As Divine's mother says proudly, "my son loved his cake." How could you not love that line!

Divine was teased as a young boy in school for being fat and effeminate. He learned to channel his hurt into outlandish tirades against late 1960's suburbia. He met Waters and started in movies, dressing in drag as a parody of a BBW femme fatale of filth and evil.  This is a singular documentary that highlights Divine's life with character and grace. Fittingly, the story shines like silver tinsel on an artificial Christmas Tree.

Next, "Sal" directed by actor James Franco, is an existential study on a day in the life of Sal Mineo who achieved absolute fame and cult status with "A Rebel Without a Cause" and "Exodus". Sal is a notoriously misunderstood Hollywood star who worked for total authenticity and heart in his roles. Because of his openness about being gay, coupled by his murder, delivered by a gory stabbing, Mineo was thought to be a seedy and perverse man. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. "Sal" reveals Mineo as he is: optimistic, warm, energetic and a bit naive about The System, jaded and bent to wear him down. Actor Val Lauren gives a poignant and facially detailed performance of this kind man and Franco's camera is unflinchingly closeup, hyper-intense and almost Warholesque in showing the day to day details of the man haunted by his shade of a once cute boy, the heart throb in Technicolor.

Interestingly, the actor Val Lauren also appears in Travis Mathews' episodic "Interior. Leather Bar" (co-directed by Franco), an experimental film using the so called "lost" footage of William Friedkin's  "Cruisin'" as a beginning. Rather than a story, the film is a sociological study of just what makes moviegoers feel uncomfortable about watching gay couples onscreen. The film retains a definite Warhol screen-test flavor. The camera follows Lauren like an obsessed fan and the actor goes through considerable awkwardness and discomfort as he considers various intimacies of porn. The highlight of this Mapplethorpic poster film in miniature is Lauren's goggle-eyed gasp of astonishment with a tincture of fear as he watches such slurping and sucking. The real trick of the film is that it makes the bondage of sex not all that shocking while Matthews' cruisin camera appears nostalgic and almost quaint. Aside from Lauren's laughable dancing (a deliberate statement of uneasiness in itself), the film makes for heady stuff.

If a 1970s leather bar is not your scene, there was some kitsch and horror to be found in "Escape from Tomorrow" about demons in Disneyworld. Director Randy Moore has a crisply compelling black & white vision and his scenes of forced happiness and cheer echo a David  Lynch pin of Lars von Trier. But by midway, the striking eeriness that seems so refreshing goes south into a "Westworld" of "Soylent Green" and we find ourselves in pedestrian territory. The glaring scenes of forced good nature are creepy enough and they would make Diane Arbus proud. Why the need for black eyed demons, blood and androids? The sight of tourists funneled in as zombies to the Happiest Place on Earth is enough.

There are two fine documentaries also. "Let the Fire Burn" focuses on the racially charged Move fire in West Philadelphia during 1985. The tragedy was an inexcusable fiasco and 600 neighborhood homes were scorched and lost. As disturbing as this film is, it is necessary and relevant through the awareness it produces upon us---lest we forget.

"El Yaque, Pueblo de Campeones" by Javier Chuecos is a stirring and heartfelt study on the sport of windsurfing that focuses on four masters: Cheo, Campello, Yoli and Gollito. The film is especially adept at illustrating the drive to succeed combined with the ritual of faith in the country of Venezuela, despite the fact that the nation gives pitiful support to these star athletes.

If you crave more mainstream fare Matt Dillion has a solid outing in "Sunlight Jr." playing a five-o-clock shadowed man in a wheelchair who tries to keep his male equilibrium intact despite a some dingy horizons as a hopeful father on Medicaid.

Less strong, yet with some artful flairs is the Wonderland-ish "The Truth about Emanuelle." Part David Lynch with a bit of the cult film "Heathers" thrown in, this suburban cobbler of the macabre is all over the place and fades into kitsch pretty fast with a creepy plastic doll that (yes indeed) changes expression. Although Jennifer Biel is no method actor, the Stepford Wife art direction does evoke some campy, if anemic chills.

And with some favorites like Paul Haggis, Mariel Hemingway  and Terry George appearing, this festival was nothing short of a psychological yet ultimately visual voyage, highlighting the educational and epic power of film to change our assumptions and enrich our human scope.

Once again, The Key West Film Festival created a broad canvas. It's tentatively scheduled for Nov. 12-16 next year, so mark your calendars.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Big Sur (2013 Film Fest) ( Rhoades)

Front row at the Movies

Jack Kerouac
At “Big Sur”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Before there were hippies, America had beatniks. This was a stereotypical description of members of the so-called Beat Generation. The phrase Beat Generation was introduced in 1948 by writer Jack Kerouac to describe the “underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York.” This countercultural literary phenomenon eventually spread to San Francisco, where it incorporated drugs, sexual experimentation, and Eastern religions.

It was marked by such writers and poets as Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and of course Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac became famous for his autobiographical books “On the Road,” “The Subterraneans,” and “The Dharma Bums,” among others.

“Big Sur” was Kerouac’s 1962 novel, a fictional recounting of his stay in a cabin owned by Ferlinghetti at Bixby Canyon in Big Sur. The protagonist in the book is called Jack Duluoz, an alter ego for Kerouac.

As directed by Michael Polish (“The Astronaut Farmer”), the film calls the characters by their real names: Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady. They have a common mistress, Billie.

The trips to Big Sur were intended to help Kerouac recuperate from the pressures of sudden fame following publication of “On the Road.” Instead, he faced a nervous breakdown on his third visit.

Jean-Marc Barr (“Dogville”) takes on the persona of Kerouac; Josh Lucas (“Stealth”) assumes the role of Cassady; and Kate Bosworth (“Superman Returns”) is cast as Billie. Also we have Radha Mitchell as Cassady’s wife Carolyn; Balthazar Getty as Michael McClure; and Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“Big Sur” is playing at the Tropic Cinema, an offering in this week’s Key West Film Festival.

Michael Polish and his brother Mark usually make movies together. But for this outing Michael goes it alone -- acting as director, co-producer, and writer.

He found it hard to turn a Kerouac novel into a movie. “How is this going to work? Because there’s no punctuation, the dialogue’s very sparse between people… He’s got this prose that’s incredibly tricky because he’s a language spinner. How are we going to put this all into one movie? Because the essence of it – of a person going crazy after fame – is very enticing to an artist at any level, to watch somebody go in that downward spiral is fascinating. But how are we going to do this different? And I thought if I stayed true to his inner mind and words from back to front, from beginning to end, at least people would know exactly what he was going through in his head.”

Michael Polish pulled it off, nonetheless.

Mariel Hemingway Interview - 2013 Film Festival

Another Hemingway Returns for Key West Film Festival

By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communication Film Critic

Mariel Hemingway says the first time she realized her grandfather was someone special, more than just a writer whose picture hung in her family’s hallway, was when she went to school -- the Ernest Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum, Idaho. “He must have been somebody important to have a school named after him,” she thought to herself.

Growing up in Idaho, she hiked, rode, climbed -- a real tomboy. “I think my father wanted a boy,” she laughed as she reminisced about her childhood. Her dad was Jack Hemingway, eldest son of the great writer. Jack was known for his love of the outdoors, a devout fly fisherman. “A love of nature,” she said. “I think I got that from him.”

She sees nature as a way to stay at peace, a way of find your balance in life. She recently wrote a book about it with her partner Bobby Williams, titled “Running With Nature.” She and the noted stuntman met on a hike.

Starting off her acting career by co-starring in “Lipstick” with her late sister Margaux, she went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Among her many other films were “Personal Best,” “Mean Season,” “Star 80,” and “Creator” (“Peter O’Toole was crazy as a loon,” she says fondly).

Now Mariel Hemingway is appearing in a documentary called ‘Running From Crazy.” It’s a look at her famous family’s history, rife with “at least seven suicides,” bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse.

Ernest Hemingway shot himself a few months before Mariel was born. Her sister Margaux overdosed on phenobarbital. Great Uncle Leicester committed suicide with a gunshot to the head.

“These are taboo subjects,” Mariel maintains. “But the film gives people permission to talk about these things.”

Why make such a revealing film? “I did it because I was very curious myself,” she says. “And I wanted my children to know about these family secrets.” But she also saw it as a way to help other people come to terms with mental issues.

A friend of hers at the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) suggested this documentary about her family.

“Are you out of your mind?” Mariel responded. “They’re all crazy.”

“But that’s the point,” her friend replied.

When director Barbara Kopple (a two-time Oscar-winner for “Harlan County USA” and “American Dream”) expressed interest, Mariel Hemingway began to take the project seriously. Oprah was an executive producer.

Mariel’s biggest astonishment in making the film was discovering footage her sister Margaux had shot of the family. “This uncut unseen footage that my sister did was a surprise for me. Listening to her talk about her pain gave me a new appreciation for what she was going through.”

In the documentary Mariel recalls her dysfunctional parents, the drinking, the fights, her father taking refuge in their basement while young Mariel dutifully cleaned up the broken glass and blood as if it were a normal nightly ritual.

Mariel Hemingway will be in Key West to present “Running From Crazy” at the upcoming Key West Film Festival, November 13 through 17.

Her actress daughter Dree Hemingway was a guest at last year’s Key West film Festival, appearing in her debut film “Starlet.”

Looking back Mariel Hemingway finds it hard to believe she’s only visited Key West twice before. “My first trip was twenty years ago, briefly. I came back a couple of years ago. It was good fun.”

Now she returns to the island where her famous grandfather remains a legend, his image plastered on saloons, T-shirts, and his one-time home. She brings her family’s untold story. “It’s a dark history of the family,” she says. “But it’s also an uplifting film.”

The Counselor (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Counselor

The legend Ridley Scott teams up with author Cormac McCarthy in "The Counselor", a Coen Brothers-ish amorality tale of drugs, dilemmas, cacti and kooks. With so much iconic talent behind the writing, this film should be an instant classic. Unfortunately, at times you might run for the instant coffee. The film skitters and scatters like so much Uzi fire with laborious exposition, long pauses, some wordy philosophy, and smatterings of silliness that do not seem to add or enhance all that much to the story.

Visually, the film is exquisite however with long shots of ochre vistas as rich as the paintings of Mark Rothko or the color-fields of Barnett Newman. Smoking trucks appear like elephants humped on the yellow horizon as mascara-eyed cheetahs pant on the ground in Rodeo Drive collars.

The provocative Javier Bardem plays a drug kingpin Reiner, and he is striking enough despite his babble about women and sex talk. His hair stands straight up as if electrified and his character appears to wear overlarge chef pants. His role is part Joker from "The Dark Knight" and part Gomez Addams. Never has their been such an odd mixture of the strange and the silly, with all of his igauna-skinned barefoot lazing and lounging by the pool. Bardem doesn't do all that much but perhaps he doesn't have to. His role recalls Brando in some of his quirky, offbeat roles and the sight of him is almost enough.

The terrific Michael Fassbender plays the title role as the counselor, a supposed advocate for prison inmates dealt a bad turn. He is a blank page, a cypher in off white and beige, who nonetheless grows gradually scaly.

I have to admit he plays it perfectly as a man in a gray cyber suit who stares at his macbook passively and decides to be in on a drug fencing deal and a partner to Reiner's laundering club.

The cardinal sin here is the acting of Cameron Diaz who although initially exciting, delivers her lines with  such an uninteresting flatness and monotone, she makes it seem as if she is parodying a sitcom or drive in movie. Even if that is the case, her inflection is so sterile and her face so poker-still, she is not quite convincing. So she is an ice queen, a cold cat of hard flashing appearances. We get it, but the flash seems uninspired with such dull toned lines like "Truth has no temperature". Sure.

As a 21st century Veronica Lake, Malkina (which translates as 'evil cat') is a little less than dramatically Wilde, excluding a Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) type scene which merges porn techniques with a car windshield.

When the dialogue winds down and the noose tightens a bit along with the gore, we get a passable if pedestrian haunted-hunted man play of perspiration and panic in the tradition of a "Blood Simple" or a "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia". This is not an awful or embarrassing crime-play of cold fish. It is only that it is repetitive as we have seen such shadowed and mean men before, pursued and panting along the harsh and bright valleys with no one to stop and hear.

Such Tex Mex terror and rosacea runs hum-drum. "The Counselor" is not originally noir or stirring in this abstract age.

One exception is Ruben Blades who gives a good outing as a voice on the phone with a string of advice that is a zen mix of Camus, almost reaching something poetic.

For the most part however, aside for some cool and crisp cinematography, these outwardly loud but inwardly cold and cruel characters are all cowpokes and preening dommes that we have seen before in other Cohen/Capotesque or De Palma-derived epics. There is even Brad Pitt here, acting too Brad and too Pitt.

At sunset's end, the two gorgeous cats seem to have more dynamic anima and pathos within their pelts than any of these high-hatted players.

Write Ian at

Sunday, November 10, 2013

John Waters Interview - 2013 Film Fest

John Waters Talks Rats, Tennessee Williams, and This Filthy World

By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communication Film Critic

Mink Stole has appeared in every single movie made by John Waters (but one). But when I knew her she went by the name of Nancy. She was my receptionist in the late ‘70s, never mentioning that she’d just starred in “Desperate Living.” But I recognized her when I went to see the John Waters masterpiece in a neighborhood art house.

You’ll remember “Desperate Living,” the funky film that opens with a cooked rat on a dinner plate. It’s Mink’s hands serving up this tasty repast.

“We actually cooked that rat,” John Waters laughed when talking with me about his upcoming visit to Key West. He’ll be doing his monologue, “This Filthy World,” on November 14th at the San Carlos. It will immediately follow the screening of the Jeffrey Schwarz film, “I Am Divine.”

With Waters’ gaunt features and pencil-thin moustache, he might remind you at first glance of actor Steve Buscemi. “People are always saying to me, ‘I loved you in Fargo,”” chuckles Waters. One year he actually used Buscemi’s photo on his Christmas card. “It’s an old joke between us. His wife thinks it’s hilarious.”

John Waters says he’s looking forward to coming back to Key West. He used to visit often, back when his star Divine was here.

“I used to walk past Tennessee Williams’ house,” he reminisces. “But I never met him.”

He pauses. “I did see him one night with a bunch of people in a restaurant. But he looked very inebriated, so I decided that was not the night to meet him.”

Waters credits Tennessee Williams as changing his life. “He really did save my life when I was a boy.” He came across a book by Williams in the library. It showed him there was indeed another world out there, different from the drab existence he knew.

Perhaps it was “This Filthy World,” the place he likes to talk about in his stand-up show.

“But now I want to be an insider because everybody else wants to be an outsider,” he quips.

John Waters has been described as a filmmaker, actor, stand-up comedian, journalist, visual artist, and art collector. But just how does he see himself? “I think a writer,” he decides on the spur. “I’d never make a movie I didn’t write.” From his screenplays to his monologues to his books, “I write my spoken words.”

His upcoming book is titled “Carsick.” He tells of his adventures hitchhiking across America at age 66. “I’d forgotten you sometimes stand there for ten hours waiting for a car.” He made the trip with 21 rides over 10 days.

He only saw one other hitchhiker along the way, following Route 70. He urged his driver not to stop. “I didn’t want to share,” he says, holding back a smile.

Was hitchhiking ever scary? Only in his imagination, detailed in the opening chapters of the book. “I’m afraid to stay home,” he counters. “I have a fear of NOT flying.”

Relaxing in a posh London hotel as we talked, his surroundings were quite different from those he endured on the road. He began naming the best and worst roadside motels -- but looked quite content with Covent Gardens where he was taking a break from his non-stop travel schedule.

Will he visit the Tennessee Williams exhibit while in Key West, paying his respect to his unmet mentor? We’ll see. That brings the conversation back to our mutual friend Mink Stole, who is currently starring in a play by Tennessee Williams -- a dark comedy called “The Mutilated.”

“We talk all the time,” he says of Mink Stole. But promised to email her right away to tell her he’d met someone she used to work with.

As for John Waters, he likes doing things on his own terms -- such as his stand-up routine. “I’ve had some great stuff happen in my life,” he grins. “This is all gravy.”

Val Lauren Interview - 2013 Film Fest

Val Lauren Stars In “Sal” at KW Film Festival

By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

Val Lauren was destined to play Sal Mineo in a movie. He just didn’t know it at the time.

“Sal” will be featured among those films screening at the second annual Key West Film Festival. Val has the title role.

Raised in Woodland Hills, just outside of Hollywood, it’s not unusual he got interested in acting. But he credits his mother with introducing him to those great ‘50s and ‘60s movies -- and stars like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, and James Dean.

While studying at Playhouse West, he met another young actor named James Franco. “We started out together,” nods Val Lauren. “His car had broken down and he was staying with me part of the time.”

He remembers Franco getting the call to audition for a TV movie called “James Dean.” The two actors would meet at Jerry’s Deli after each audition call back.

To prepare, Franco immersed himself in James Dean. “I guess you could say I was his right-hand man on all the research,” says Val Lauren.

One day the director offered Lauren a small, uncredited part in the film. At the table reading, each actor would say his or her character’s name. When it came to Lauren, the odd man out, he would jokingly say, “My name is Val and I’m playing Sal Mineo.”

However, Sal Mineo’s character wasn’t in the movie. And, as it turned out, Lauren’s tiny scene got “lost on the cutting room floor.”

Then, a decade later, out of the blue he got a text message from his pal James Franco saying: “You’re going to play Sal Mineo -- cool?”

“Cool,” he responded.

Franco had gotten interested in Sal Mineo while doing his research for the 2001 “James Dean” movie.

Sal Mineo was a young heartthrob, but would later become the first openly gay movie star. Nominated for two Oscars (“Rebel Without a Cause” and “Exodus”), he appeared in such classic films as “Giant,” “The Gene Krupa Story,” “Crime in the Streets,” and “The Longest Day.” But at 37, he was stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment building.

The irony was that Sal Mineo -- nicknamed “The Switchblade Kid” from a movie role -- died by thief wielding a knife.

James Franco optioned the book by Michael Gregg Michaud. When pitching the movie, he described it as “an unconventional movie about unconventional man who led an unconventional life.”

As Lauren explains, “We get to know him through the very last day of his life.”

Acknowledging all his research, Val Lauren also received a story credit on “Sal.” “I didn’t even know that was the case until we were at the Venice Film Festival and the credits started rolling. I looked over at James and he had a smirk on his face. A surprise gift.”

Val Lauren also will be appearing in “Interior. Leather Bar,” another film by James Franco that’s showing at the Key West Film Festival. And he’s filmed “The Last Knights” with Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen in Prague.

Lauren’s also wrapping up another project with James Franco based on “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He smiles at the small world we live in. “I’ve never been to Key West,” says Val Lauren. “I can’t wait to see the island, the beaches, the house where Tennessee Williams lived.”

He notes that he once posed for a snapshot outside the apartment Tennessee Williams used in New Orleans. “Maybe I can get a picture of me standing in front of his house in Key West. Start a photo album.”

Paul Haggis Interview - 2013 Film Fest Screenwriters' Spotlight

Filmmaker Paul Haggis Turns Tropic Spotlight Onto Screenwriters

By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications film Critic

For a big-deal super-duper Hollywood double-Oscar-winner, Paul Haggis comes across like a regular joe. Sipping on a cup of coffee, his MacBook Pro open on a nearby table, relaxing there in Toronto’s Ritz Carlton, he was looking over his itinerary: Key West, Haiti, back home to New York. A big balding man with a stubbly chin, he’s fairly recognizable. But he was checked into the hotel under his own name. And when asked, he handed out his personal email address as if it were no big deal.

Pausing, he chatted easily about his upcoming trip to Key West, part of the Tropic Cinema’s Screenwriters’ Spotlight. A highlight of the second annual Key West Film Festival, it will feature writer-directors Paul Haggis and Terry George, along with several of their films followed by a director’s Q & A.

The series kicks off on November 14th with Terry George presenting Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a real-life story about the IRA, adapted for the screen by George.

Then on November 15th Paul Haggis presents “Crash,” his powerful film about racism and cultural breakdown in America. The film stars Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Brendan Fraser, and Ryan Phillippe. “Crash” won Haggis Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

On November 16th Haggis gives us “In the Valley of Elah,” an Iraq War epic starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon.

And November 17th offers a double feature, with Haggis’ "The Next Three days," a vigilante thriller starring Russell Crowe, and George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” a look at war-torn Africa starring Don Cheadle.

Paul Haggis is excited about his first trip to Key West. “My friend Terry George asked me to do it, so how could I say no?”

The Screenwriters’ Spotlight appeals to him. “I like to see writers get more credit,” he says. “They spend months or years shaping a script. Sometimes it’s on spec. A movie may become successful, but the writers are quickly forgotten. It’s nice to see them finally get some attention.”

Although Paul Haggis has both directed and produced films, he mostly thinks of himself as a screenwriter. “I loved telling stories from the time I was a child,” he laughs, “although that’s not always a good thing. But in my case it was. My parents encouraged me to do so.”

“I always wanted to make movies,” he says. Sounding like a kid who finally got to go to Disneyland. Now he’s at the top of his game.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“I grew up in Canada. My parents owned Gallery Theater. I wrote plays while working with my dad in construction. They encouraged me to go to Hollywood and try writing movie scripts.”

So he moved there at age 22. His parents sent him $100 a week for the first year to help him survive. “I worked as a furniture mover, all kinds of jobs,” he recalls. “But I kept hammering away at my writing. After four or five years I got my first television assignment.”

He labored on sitcoms ranging from “Different Strokes” to “One Day at a Time” to “Facts of Life.” As he puts it, “I earned a very good living as a very bad writer.”

But his craft improved. He credits work on TV’s “thirtysomething” in the ‘80s as a changing point. “Working with Marshal Herskovitz forced me to up my game. I became a better writer.”

He became a better person too. Famously breaking away from his church to support gay marriage, he’s also stepped up to the plate on other social causes. Sponsoring schools in Haiti, helping people in El Salvador and Chile.

“I don’t know how we turn out how we turn out,” he shrugs off any praise. “You do what you can.”

He thinks about it. “If anything, I’d credit America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago Seven, Kent State. I wanted to be a part of all that. Just watching it in many ways formed me.”

He heard of a doctor working in the slums of Haiti. “I went to find him, stayed with him a while. It changed my life.”

As founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, he helped found Haiti’s first high school. It now has 2,000 students. Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones offered “We Are the World” money in support.

“We absorbed a film school,” says Haggis. “Graduating film students are actually getting work. We’ve booked over a million dollars so far.”

While Haggis’ films often have a moral center, (“Crash” deals with race and class) he says the intent is “to look into my own life.”

“First you have to tell a good story,” he points out. “But making people think is a good thing too.”

As for his work as a scriptwriter -- Oscars, Emmys, and all that -- he says, “I’ve been very lucky to have my work recognized.”

Indeed, it has. That’s the very reason he’ll be at the Tropic.

GMO OMG (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Jeremy Seifert forces us to take a good hard look at our basic foodstuffs. In this case, corn. As it turns out, we may be under attack by the ubiquitous and subtle threat of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in virtually all our foods. No this is not a Soderbergh or J. J. Abrams sci fi thriller. This is "GMO OMG" a documentary that examines the conquest of the Monsanto corporation on nearly all of The Americas and the Caribbean.

At the time of Haiti's earthquake, Monsanto offered to give the country plantable seeds as a sustainable food source. Haiti promptly rejected the offer, burning the seeds in protest. They reasoned that such a genetically modified and corporate seed would strip the crops of their history, essentially wiping out or at least profoundly diluting their national culture.

It was a successful revolt so far.

No hard sanctioned science is yet available about GMOs and what they actually are, however the overall academic consensus is that these crops are patented and injected with some hi-tech and almost postmodern pesticides.

According to the documentary, nearly 80% of all corn and soy crops use GMOs or GMO by-products with  a GMO frequency of near 90% with processed foods.

Seifert is a quirky, organically concerned person . Like most, he was  indifferent to GMOs, he accepted them and didn't know what they were.

Then as a new parent (and because his son was crazy about seeds) he began to wonder.

This starts a personal odyssey for Seifert who journeys in protest for answers across the globe, often with his sleepy family in tow. Seifert goes to Paris, to Washington, and Norway.    Like the director Michael Moore, he travels to Monsanto headquarters and is firmly asked to leave. During the film, he takes a kaleidoscopic Ken Kesey approach to his anxiety, dressing up his kids in bio-hazard suits, complete with ventilators and the occasional appearance of GMO goggles which look like a fever dream from a Parrot Head convention. Seifert rightly reasons that new beginnings do start with the young and as a father he strives to make an accessible and festive environmental circus.

Although the outcome of GMOs are not definitive in the mainstream, the French scientist Dr. Gilles-Eric Séralini conducted a two year study on white rats and found a prevalence in tumors and a high percentage of kidney and liver problems in males.

The reasons for engineered crops initially, may well have started harmlessly enough. A field free of bugs and predators with a high yield is tempting. But as "GMO OMG" proposes, this may well have been a Frankenstein's bargain with economic greed as the galvanic charge. We have pests and weeds that are chemical Juggernauts, growing stronger than ever, and the Monsanto company is monopolizing and trademarking nature itself.

The adhesive that holds "GMO OMG"  together is the slickly arresting yet homemade texture of the film with striking animation which resembles a video by Gotye or Beck.

Seifert makes a compelling case to not turn back but move forward, utilizing the technology to go completely organic again as we did in 1800. According to the Rodale Report, in an independent UK study organic crops are proven to be more effective in conditions of climate change and to double their yield in ten years.

In watching "OMG GMO", you might actually feel your skin tighten and curl as you existentially peer into your popcorn bag for an unreachable answer, grown for Godot.

As Orwellian and strange as this unsavory dilemma is, one should not hold one's salivary tongue hostage. The choice may be divided by two: one as a spliced and genetically fed human with limited knowledge of crop diversity, or the other, to speak up for the free-range and spectral universe of the bean or the seed which spins rooted in the solid ground, as multifarious as stars.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Week of November 8 to November 14 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic’s Films Deliver Documentary to Drama, Action to Comedy

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

New to Tropic Cinema this week is a documentary about another concern to reach our dinner plate -- genetically engineered foods. Known as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), these altered seeds, fruits, and vegetables are rarely labeled as such. What’s more, these so-called Frankenseeds are starting to contaminate non-GMO crops. Director Jeremy Seifert’s “GMO OMG” shows that he is worried about his children’s future. “With the cinematography and its family-centric approach, it takes what could have been a dry subject and broadens its appeal,” says The Playlist. “Eye-opening, compelling and accessible to the laymen,” decides NYC Movie Guru.

Also new to Tropic screens is “Captain Phillips,” a high-seas thriller based on the true story of the MV Maersk Alabama. Tom Hanks in the title role faces off against Somalia-born newcomer Barkhad Abdi as Somali pirates take over the ship. Rolling Stone says, “This is acting of the highest order in a movie that raises the bar on what a true-life action thriller can do.” And Detroit News opines, “This is one of the year's best movies.”

You can also catch “The Counselor,” a stylish Ridley Scott thriller based on an original Cormac McCarthy screenplay (he gave us “No Country for Old Men”). Michael Fassbender plays the unnamed attorney who gets mixed up in a Colombian drug deal; Javier Bardem is his manic business associate; and Brad Pitt is a sleazy go-between. None of them fare too well in this bad bargain. Art Fuse says, “This is one fine neo-noir, expertly directed by Ridley Scott with a host of superlative star turns.” And Urban Cinefile adds, “Intriguing from the get-go, Ridley Scott's superbly directed thriller distinguishes itself by its complex, colorful and mostly bad characters.”

Still playing is “Last Vegas,” a geriatric romp for Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline as they enjoy a bachelor party in Glitter Gulch. Toronto Star says, “De Niro and Douglas weirdly play versions of their real selves, while Freeman and Kline ham it up as if they're auditioning for a reality show called Gramps Gone Wild,” while Richard Roeper observes, “This is the like "The Hangover Part 43.”

And on Thursday, the 2013 Key West Film Festival opens for its long weekend run!

Pick your mood. Tropic Cinema can satisfy it.

Captain Phillips (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Captain Phillips

Despite the director Paul Greengrass (United 93) getting a little heat from Maersk Alabama's actual crew-members, the director, in telling of their harrowing piracy attack, is a masterful virtuoso. Just as in the previous "United 93" about the tragic flight during 9/11, we are a claustrophobic observer, a captive fly with no other recourse but to watch humans in peril.

Tom Hanks yet again plays a forthright, direct and compassionate character, this time in the man of Captain Phillips who is at the helm of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship transporting food and supplies around the Horn of Africa.

As portrayed by Hanks Phillips is a master of preemptive caution: he checks gauges, codes and locks, and goes through every inch of the ship. He doesn't suffer fools gladly as the saying goes and has no tolerance for goofs.

Phillips is professional to a fault. You would hardly think in watching him that anything bad is going to happen. A nervous and jumpy camera is the only clue. In a Greengrass film, this apprehensive but cool camera is as recognizable as Hitchcock.

Wait...there it is... a pixel on the radar that almost looks like a skull and crossbones and it's coming closer. The director captures the eerie unreality of the moment perfectly, an event much talked about perhaps but never thought of as something real, not to this ship, not to Captain Phillips. The moment when Tom Hanks looks through the binoculars and sees what's coming is a moment of acute panic and we all feel it. It recalls the best of William Friedkin and Spielberg but it is even more effective for evoking the insecurity that we may not, in actuality, be in a comfortable movie theater.

As if in a dream, we watch what unfolds, powerless to move, as two skiffs move closer and closer. Time seems to stand still sopped in a molasses of panic.

The ship is duly boarded after a near escape with a sense of danger, dread and depression that is all but unavoidable.

Abduwali Muse (played with startling authenticity by Barkhad Abdi) and three of his men pirate the ship, armed as they are with machine guns. The crew has scurried into the engine hold unseen.

At this point, many directors might steer this film into more macho waters with the salt of Bronson and Eastwood. But thankfully, this film is an existential analysis of captive and hijacker, of the pursuer and the pursued and how each of the men repeatedly change and transform their conditions. Enslaved by a warlord with little food and sustainability, left in an ocean depleted of fish by American companies, Muse has no choice but to act as a desperate, bullet-crazy pirate for money. Somalia has been raped. The entire film is gripping, but the parts that stand out above the rest, are the episodes when Phillips and Muse recognize their fragility within one another and, even their shared humanness and victimization.

The Somalian Muse, although by no means sympathetic is a pirate and try as we might---given his circumstances---it is difficult to harshly condemn him. Muse's mantra: "Do not worry Irish, it will be okay. Nothing to worry about."(repeated again by a Navy medic at the end of the film) is a zen koan, existential and surreal. Muse grows to respect Phillips and Phillips respects Muse. Shared violence and terminal struggle carries its own intimacy.

By the time the Navy ships gather, surrounding the bobbing orange lifeboat, in the style of a John Wayne moment of reckoning, we feel the pirates' pathetic condition and sense  a nihilism.

The last scenes of "Captain Phillips" and Barkhad Abdi, shackled, sweating, wild-eyed and shaking, have much in common with a frightened deer. How much can we judge these pirates, without any sense of stability, economic or otherwise?

Captain Richard Phillips and his crew are outstanding heroes who went above the call and experienced what it is to be human in danger. But Abduwali Muse and others like him, are also in a fight for their lives with any sense of legacy or self respect, left bereft with no sense of attainment.

"Captain Phillips" is a sweeping yet introspective study. The most disturbing thing in this film, is the reality that there are no winners here and that all things are delivered by chance and one fateful spell of caprice.

Write Ian at

GMO OMG (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies


Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No, it’s not alien crop circles that have farmers in a panic. It’s the genetically created seeds from Monsanto that have them and others worried. These so-called Frankenseeds are contaminating non-GMO crops. Taking the offensive, the food giant has been suing farmers with infected crops for stealing their patented seeds.

In return, the Public Patent Foundation filed suit on behalf of 270,000 people from sixty organic and sustainable businesses and trade associations, seeking to invalidate Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seeds.

Some say this protest threatens a much-needed agricultural biotech revolution. Others see it as the global food system being hijacked. Advocacy groups such as Greenpeace argue that the risks of GMO food have not been adequately identified.

GMO (“genetically modified organisms”) refers to foods that have been genetically engineered to introduce changes into their DNA.

Commercial sale of genetically modified foods began in 1994, when Calgene first marketed its Flavr Savr tomatoes, a crop genetically altered to delay its ripening. Two years later Monsanto acquired a majority interest in the company.

Monsanto began aggressively moving into the vegetable seed arena in 2005 by acquiring California-based Seminis, giving it control over more than 30 percent of the North American vegetable seed market (as well as more than 20 percent of the world’s tomato seed market).

“GMO OMG” -- a new documentary playing at the Tropic Cinema -- makes the point that with genetically modified foods we are “unwittingly participating in the largest experiment ever conducted on human beings.”

Each of us unknowingly consumes genetically modified foods on a daily basis. Some groups are rallying for such foods to be labeled as such. Monsanto objects.

Director Jeremy Seifert offers a layman’s look at the world of industrial agriculture as he explores the loss of seed diversity and the potential risks from the genetic manipulation of food. In doing so, he tells the story of a father’s discovery of the impact of GMOs to his 3 young children.

“GMO OMG” will give you (ahem) food for thought, no matter what your position on genetically modified foods: a solution to the world food crisis or a hidden danger to our health.

The Counselor (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Counselor” -
A Cormac McCarthy
Morality Play

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy (né Charles McCarthy) spans genres, his books ranging from Southern Gothic to Westerns to Post Apocalyptic. Most have been adapted into movies.

These include “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Road,” “Child of God,” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Now McCarthy has written his first original screenplay, a “lurid, adrenaline-fueled thriller” titled “The Counselor.” Yes, he’s also adapted it into a novel, but it was conceived as a movie about an attorney (i.e. a counselor) who gets involved with drug dealers.

“The Counselor” is now playing at Tropic Cinema.

Directed by action-movie maestro Ridley Scott, “The Counselor” delivers a great cast: Michael Fassbender as said counselor; Penélope Cruz as his sultry but naïve girlfriend; Brad Pitt as a disreputable middleman; Cameron Diaz as a feline bad girl; Javier Bardem (Cruz’s real-life husband) as Diaz’s dangerous partner; along with Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, and Bruno Ganz. Plus Rubén Blades as Jefe.

It’s a non-stop ride as the greedy lawyer gets in over his head with bad guys (and gals). A septic tank truck filled with cocaine is being moved from Columbia to Chicago, a risky scheme.

Fassbender gives his usual square-jawed performance as the unnamed lawyer, while Cruz and Diaz offer an erotic pairing. Pitt adds to the scenery. And Bardem gives us a menacing but more manic villain than his Oscar-winning role in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

“You need some courage within yourself,” says Bardem, “to really jump into Comac McCarthy’s world and dig in. Because you may see things or hear things that you don’t want to hear or face about human nature.”

Known for dense Biblical prose and dialogue-heavy scenes, McCarthy says he wrote the screenplay in five weeks as “a break from the two novels he was working on.”

The Wall Street Journal reports: Some have pronounced it a brilliant and profound morality tale in league with his novel “No Country for Old Men.” Others have dismissed it as “the worst thing McCarthy has ever written.”

Note: This is the first time Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem have appeared together since they met while filming Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” However, they do not share any scenes in “The Counselor.”

Captain Phillips (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Captain Phillips” Offers
Profile In Courage

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You may remember the headlines, a US cargo ship captured by Somali pirates in April of 2009. The ship’s captain, a longtime merchant marine named Richard Phillips, was being held captive in a 28-foot lifeboat by four pirates.

This was the first successful pirate seizure of a US ship since the 19th Century when Blackbeard and Captain Kidd were plying their nefarious trade off America. In this case, the MV Maersk Alabama was captured in the Gulf of Aden, 240 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, when it was boarded by armed men. After some resistance, the pirates wound up holding the ship’s captain at gunpoint inside a lifeboat.

“I did not foresee a good ending,” recalls Captain Phillips, “because I saw the determination that the pirates had, and they weren’t going to give me up. I was hoping for a rescue, but I thought the chances were slim-to-none that that would be successful.”

An event like this, you know it had to become a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks. “Captain Phillips” is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Legacy”) says he sees Phillips as the quintessential Everyman: “An ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, kidnapped on the high seas . . . Can the Navy get there in time? What’s he going to do in a confined space with four men who are intent on taking him back to Somalia, ransoming him to the highest bidder?”

Hanks makes a brave Captain Phillips, but it is the leader of the pirates who all but steals the show (not to mention the cargo ship). The pirate named Muse is played by Barkhad Abdi, an unknown Somali-American with no real acting experience. He and three buddies answered a casting call, mainly hoping to get to see Tom Hanks. Abdi got the role but didn’t meet Hanks until months later when the cameras were rolling.

“The first time I actually see Tom is the first time that I see him in the movie,” says Abdi.

Tom Hanks recalls that first meeting, the scene when the pirates take over the ship. “Boom! Next thing we know some very scary guys were pointing guns in our faces, screaming at us.”

“They came through that door and they just had power and energy and intensity and commitment,” the director describes the scary scene. “I could see in Tom’s face he was in it for real.”

“It was a pretty terrifying and exciting moment all at the same time,” admits Hanks. “I found them so convincing that my lower lip began to tremble a little bit and the hair was standing on the back of my neck . . . You cannot believe your eyes that someone is that skinny and that scary and that fast and has that much malevolence and seriousness in their eyes.”

As Abdi -- playing the pirate named Muse -- approached Hanks, he ad-libbed what was to be the powerful line in the movie: “Look at me. I’m the captain now.”

Barkhad Abdi was born in Somalia but has lived in Minneapolis since he was 14. He understands the global conflict between haves and the have-nots.

In real life, US naval warships surrounded the vessel and took out three of the four pirates with coordinated SEAL sniper shots. The surviving pirate leader, Abduwali Abdiqadir Muse, was sentenced to 34 years in a US prison in 2011.

Phillips was hailed as a hero for serving himself up as a hostage to save his crew. President Obama feted him at the White House to honor his courage.

Despite his ordeal, fourteen months later Phillips quietly shipped back out to sea. But now his ships carry three to four armed guards onboard as a precaution.

Ironically, the shipping line itself has been hit with a $50-million lawsuit – brought by the very crewmen whose lives Captain Phillips is credited with saving. They claim he put them at risk by ignoring more than seven warnings that the Maersk Alabama was too deep into the danger zone.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Screenwriters' Spotlight - KW Film Fest 2013

A TROPIC ALERT - Coming November 14-17
by Ian Brockway

The Tropic Cinema proudly offers its Screenwriters' Spotlight featuring the esteemed writer-directors Paul Haggis and Terry George with a presentation of several  films, followed by a director's Q & A.

The series starts November 14 with acclaimed writer Terry George presenting  Jim Sheridan's "In the Name of the Father." This real life story about the IRA, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, was adapted for the screen with a wonderfully stirring and provocative script by Mr. George.

On November 15th Paul Haggis will present the powerful "Crash" (2004), his rhythmic and interlocking character study about cultural breakdowns, racism and ego. The film stars Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillippe, and it is as unsettling as it is pensive and engrossing. The film won Best Picture back in 2004 and it is just as timely today as it highlights our collective terrors and regrets regarding race and the moral quandaries that make us human.

November 16th brings us Haggis' presentation of  "In the Valley of Elah." Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, it focuses on a grieving father's search for his son's killer, his son being an Iraq War soldier.

Two films round out the series on November 17, starting with Haggis' presentation of "The Next Three days" starring Russell Crowe. This film is a vigilante thriller about a teacher who takes matters into his own hands to get satisfaction. Haggis' quick and facile direction gives the story a hint of Kafka that elevates it above the everyday to make it universal.  The human condition, its catharsis and angst are Haggis hallmarks, as recognizable as Scorsese and Hitchcock.

Terry George will follow with "Hotel Rwanda" arguably Terry George's most famous film to date, starring Don Cheadle  in a master performance.

In addition to fielding Q&A's after each film, the two directors will be joined by Judy Blume for discussion sessions on Friday and Saturday mornings.

Please do not miss these terrific films and an opportunity to meet these two versatile cinematic and literary minds.

Full details at

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Fifth Estate (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Fifth Estate

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Twilight Saga) no doubt has attempted an ambitious subject in the foundation of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. However, midway through "The Fifth Estate,"Condon springs a leak and the story quickly becomes a slumberous affair instead of a provocation.

We have the British heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange who does well enough as the eerie, twitching and aloof anarchist who wants to both bring out the Truth and assail the government. He is part Mark Zuckerberg and a technocratic Andy Warhol. Despite the film's flaws, I will admit that for placing us within the mood  of Assange---- that of space and abstraction---Cumberbatch is excellent.

One sight of Assange at the computer,a pale specter, is all it takes to connect us. He has information embedded in ciphers that will wake up the American people about Afghanistan involving needless civilian murders. And this is compelling, if only the film could have maintained this signal.

"The Fifth Estate" loses its emotional intensity like the pouring of sleep through an hourglass by its jerky camera and its soporific techno jargon about redaction and emails and chat rooms, combined with the patchwork of some pedestrian graphics, illustrating the flow of binary code on laptops. In its plodding dialogue and merging of cyber codes, the film resembles a CSI episode more than a blockbuster about the realm of The Whistleblower. The film loses its engagement by focusing about the look of WikiLeaks rather than the mind of the man. There is so much zoom and drift between realms that this "Fifth Estate" seems more like a collage than a thoughtful expose. The film repeatedly shows a revolving corridor of desks and computers on a sandy beach and while I can appreciate a certain Dalinian intent here, the mundane speech about patching in and losing addresses bogs down the impact.

The best bits of the film, highlight the discontent between Assange's partner (Daniel Bruhl) and Assange himself as a frozen fish with only the release of documents on his mind. Also good are the small scenes that show Assange as a slinky amphibian, sequestering himself between the cracks and crevices of a hackers' workshop, soaking up information like a human Brillo pad, intently silver and efficiently pale. In one scene Assange is plastered along the wall of a nightclub---his face vibrating in neon pink and red. The days of Warhol, Lou Reed and even the garage quaintness of  Steve Jobs are over. We are in a new Velvet  Underground age where techies manipulate and pour over information like Liquitex paint as the new artists. If nothing else, this is what The Fifth Estate handles well.

For the most part, there is so much keystroking and digital scrambling, that the man Assange is lost in the method. The film tries too hard. Only a few key strokes is all that would have been needed to show this provocative man (dancing herky-jerky like a loose noodle overridden with work and fear) and not as he is perceived as a silent man in a screen.

In this case, less setting would have led to more power.

Write Ian at

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Last Vegas (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Last Vegas

Hey guys, if you can stand Michael Douglas giving a perpetually strained look on his face as if he just read the latest  New York Post and Robert  De Niro looking glum and befuddled ( but curiously adorable) as an old New York toughie then this is a film for you. You guessed it---all the seasoned Hollywood legends are here  (Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman)  in "Last Vegas" a 'Bucket List' style comedy with mere hints from "The Hangover".

These four Hollywood greats play childhood friends in Brooklyn for over 50 years.

One day, Billy (Douglas) who is now a big shot exec obsessed with virility calls up his three near argentine amigos to announce his marriage to a blonde preppy girl, 40 years his junior. The friends suggest a Vegas wedding and some hopeful middle- gray mayhem is planned.

Sam (Kevin Kline) and Archie (Morgan Freeman) try to entice the likable curmudgeon Billy to go with them, but he is mildly agoraphobic still lamenting the loss of his wife Sophie. You know the scenario: De Niro plays a more benign version of the role he delivered from "Silver Linings Playbook".

 With a sitcom immediacy, the three agree to go and try to raise hell. The jokes breeze by easily enough with a giggling carbonated smoothness and despite some of the silliness, there is a chemistry and warmth that is hard to ignore.

The titters and sight gags are so much in evidence that the film displays a quality that is untutored and dare I say, sweet. When Morgan Freeman tumbles out a window that is only a couple of inches from the ground (in a bit that is right out of "The Little Rascals" or a Mack Sennett short) it isfunny because Freeman does it with such a nonchalance.

And when all four are together poolside as bikini judges (in a scene which isn't funny by itself) they have such a lack of self consciousness that it produces a giggle.

Yes, the Viagra quips and the ogling of young babes get repetitive as cinematic corn syrup and filler, but these actors maintain a comic adhesive between themselves to make everything amiable like a family that you instantly recognize  and love to see.

Kevin Kline is perfectly on key as the professorial Steve Martinish character and Morgan Freeman is just what you might expect as a gentlemanly, (but quietly wild) man of Cool.

What plays badly is a scene where the old boys pour vodka in the mouths of a squad of babes, and the obligatory "young drunk girl" scene, but despite the formulaic insertions (which are legion) some glib dialogue saves the night.

Through it all, "Last Vegas" is a fizzy chuckle. Even though these heavies don't stretch their acting joints, there remains a pleasant seltzer to their scene. We are so familiar with these characters that you might not mind the Hollywood hi-jinx and hoopla. And it is  a good thing that there are no "Wild Hogs" or "Old Dogs" here, but just think how refreshing it could have  been had these beloved actors played against type and done something really wild.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Out In The Dark (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Out in the Dark

Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) exposes the terrors of the heart in "Out in the Dark", an engaging drama about two men in love: one Israeli, the other Palestinian. This natural and homespun film uses some of the apprehension found in a Patricia Highsmith novel: there are men in dark corners, smarmy people and claustrophobic families. But more importantly, the film is authentic without resorting to melodrama. Stylistically, "Out in the Dark" is a cousin to the excellent film "Keep the Lights on" (2011). Both films confront societal pressures, confining mores and the occult secrecy of sex.

At a bar, Arabic medical student Nimr (Nicolas Jacob) catches the eye of Israeli lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni). After some banter about getting a drink, they become hooked to each other. When a friend Mustapha (Loal Nofi) gets shot in the head for being a collaborator, Nimr feels more and more panicked, not only for the Arab - Palestinian bloodshed, but for being a gay man in a society infused with prejudice and hate. To make matters worse, Nimr's macho brother has connections to extremist groups, and has a stock of automatic weapons.

Both Aloni and Jacob shine as two lovers on the run. Nimr illustrates a bohemian existence to some extent while Roy is almost completely entrenched in the bureaucratic realm of offices and corridors. Whenever these two meet in covert collaboration, however, a place of peaceful darkness is born.

In each progressive scene, as family members become more and more shaded with intolerance and hatred, we feel the walls close in.

What once seemed a welcoming Tel Aviv garden of sex and belonging, albeit left to cluttered rooftops, hidden from the heterosexual gaze, soon becomes an Orwellian nightmare of violence and manipulation. Such is the state of things.

In arguably the most devastating scene, we watch in horror as Nimr's seemingly passive brother becomes inflamed with bigotry and militancy when he shoves a pistol in Nimr's face and exiles him from the family.

This is not a political film and most of its dramatic energy comes from the secret of romance in a landscape gone mad with xenophobia. The Palestinian / Israeli conflict serves to enhance the peril of being gay in a society riddled with hate and taboo.

The film's final escape plan of Nimr's yacht might even suggest Tom Ripley's nautical and existential flight to Italy sans any sociopathic tendencies.

Write Ian at