Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Interview (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Interview

Alas, here is "The Interview", the film you never thought you would see because of threats to theater chains and the Sony hacking scandal which was triggered by North Korea getting a whiff of this very buffoonery, and vowing "merciless" 9-11 style retaliations or at least, more hacking.

Recently all theater chains pulled the film which prompted calls of outrage by George Clooney along with his petition, left mute and unsigned.

Yet amid much back and forth, it is now released in over 300 theaters not to mention online for all to view.

The film, excluding the controversy, could be described as a 21st century Three Stooges feature, titled "Kim Jong-un Gets A Sock to the Moon".

We have a TV tabloid king Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his apprehensive producer Aaron (Seth Rogen). After an interview with Eminem (playing himself) as he comes out as gay, while Rob Lowe comes out as bald, the two yearn to do something more. This is a good thing since neither Eminem nor Rob Lowe are funny.

 A sudden communication is found by Aaron which tells of Kim Jong-un's worship of  Skylark's show. Skylark is floored. He dreams of fame, fortune and respect if only he can somehow get an exclusive with the dictator.

After an ecstasy orgy, Dave and Aaron are abruptly awakened by the CIA who want the duo to covertly assassinate the leader by a poison handshake.

The best of the humor comes from Rogen and Franco together, who have some genuinely funny repartee. The discussion on "honeypotting" is a millennial version of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?"

When the couple does meet Kim Jong (Randall Park) they are aghast. He is gentle, self deprecating, soft and effeminate.

He painfully wants to be liked.

Jong-un is starstruck by the tv host and takes him on a 24 hour party (but of course). There are tanks, there are hot girls, and add to that sex and basketball too, in a nod to Dennis Rodman.

Park's performance is often funny. The Katy Perry exchange grows on you because both Franco and Park are irreverent and play it straight. Such moments contain the best of the film.

However when Kim Jong is affronted and has a temper tantrum, vowing to blow up America, "The Interview" becomes a bit self conscious in reaching for convention and flattens out. The second half tries too hard. One can almost guess when the guns start blasting, the bullets fly and the tanks start rolling.

The story flows best, as did "This Is the End" when employing its rapid outrageous repartee between Rogen and Franco about sex and other things, but mostly sex.

In the last scenes, the film imposes its moral with gore and fire, and goes ho hum.

That being said, the wild nonsense   associations---especially at the beginning--- are laugh out loud funny and the film will no doubt achieve a cult following, hands down. Although Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have created a minor  diversion compared to Charlie Chaplin's  "The Great Dictator," both films share a history of being prohibited and censored.

And, if nothing else, "The Interview" in consequence and content, both ridicules and illuminates our bizarre but very real Mel Brooks-ish predicament when an extremely silly comedy can infuriate a power-mad leader of a country.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Big Eyes (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton has created a hermetic world unique to himself. You will never find his suburbs in Wayne, New Jersey; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Baltimore, Maryland or anywhere else on earth. As seen in films like "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" and the animated "Frankenweenie," Burton's version of the American Dream and its symbols, notably the split level house, is idiosyncratic and primed for lunacy.

In "Big Eyes" one will find those same notes from the 50s and 60s. Indeed, they are his hallmarks.

The film details the true story of Margaret  Keane, born as Margaret Doris Hawkins, known for her portraits done in the early 1960s of cherubic children with huge dark and pooling eyes that are as large as Siamese cats. The distinctive eyes are like rivers or dark marbles formed from the blood of burnt sienna. Among critics her paintings were labeled as cheap, pandering and kitschy in the worst way. Nevertheless she achieved iconic fame.

But nothing is easy.

Margaret (Amy Adams) begins, stifled by a controlling husband that we never see but nonetheless can sense, given the conformist environment. The Burtonesque houses hover in the background like ominous  mushrooms of pale gray and ivory bone.

When she motors away with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, the screen's palette becomes a terrain of brilliant yellows, sky blues and emerald greens. Here is the wife starting anew and heading for San Francisco, determined to paint.

During an outdoor art show, she meets the fast talking gadabout Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Margaret is swept by his charm and seeming worldliness even though his paintings lack character.

Faced with a bitter custody battle, she agrees to hastily marry Walter.

She paints incessantly.

Walter goes to gallery after gallery with his own work but gets nastily rejected. On a whim, he brings Margaret's "waifs" and gets art space in a nightclub. Through Walter's ingratiating but frenzied salesmanship, her paintings get noticed.

One day during a showing, Walter lets it slip, that he in fact, is the painter. Margaret is aghast, but because the work is making money, she relents.

The ruse of her husband Walter Keane as the artist is a dilemma that almost destroys Margaret.

Waltz is terrific as the hyper, smarmy and ultimately psychotic Walter. Under Burton's direction, what at first was once slick with affection is transformed into a petty, annoying and angry caw of a man, making a genuine American Gothic. Adams too, does excellently as the interior and somewhat passive creator with a surreptitious feline intelligence. With her role as the scofflaw creator, Amy Adams subverts the stereotype of the 1960s housewife.

"Big Eyes" is Tim Burton's 1950s period film, showing a young woman of vision (however schmaltzy) striking against status quo and convention. The recognizable Burton elements are here: there is a good scene in a grocery store showing all customers having "Keane Eyes" as Margaret picks up a Campbell's soup can (in a tribute to Andy Warhol). And its scares you want Walter Keane is almost as pathological as Jack Torrance in "The Shining."

Like John Waters, all of Burton's work is about odd people striking out to make their own eccentric path under the pastel weight of the 50s. Here we have a genuine Margaret Scissorhands of a sort battling against a jealous alcoholic worthy of Poe. As Walter Keane, Christoph Waltz makes an frightening yet comical antihero and indeed, one to watch.

Although we might have a nightmare before paradise once again, set against the backdrop of a vibrantly hued Honolulu, we also have the introverted but buoyant Margaret to show us the glee within the gloom.

Alas, in true Burton fashion, quirk always wins out : Walter Keene died in 2000, consumed by anger, bankrupt and alone, while Margaret still lives on at age 86, to paint another day.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Imitation Game (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Imitation Game

Despite a reserved "Masterpiece Theatre" tone and some ultra attentive enunciations, Swedish director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) delivers an excellent portrait of the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game."

Turing's machine  broke the Nazi war code during WWII. He saved thousands of lives and reportedly curtailed the war by at least two years. Because of his homosexuality, Turing was execrably and brutally treated after the war and sentenced to a chemical castration program, essentially de-evolving him into a human shell.

As Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch creates a tour de force of drama that is masterful and self contained. He is at once witty and shy, halting yet glib. As Turing, Cumberbatch becomes a frosty chameleon, quick with daring and sure in verbal cuts but ultimately frightened and at times frozen in terror by the evasive confrontation of other mortals.

During the beginning of the film, Turing's interview by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) is a jabbing and comical study in oneupmanship that rivals Monty Python.

But all is not a volley of laughs.

We see a young Turing (Alex Lawther) at school, paralyzed with complete terror as he is nailed under a wooden trap door. The depiction is very close to being buried alive; he kicks and claws to no avail.

Somehow, by sheer will, he survived the torment of others.

His favorite saying, in paraphrase, is that people "enjoy violence because it gives them pleasure, but take away the pleasure and the act is left hollow".

The words serve him well.

Turing gets a post at Bletchley Park as a cryptologist, in the hopes of breaking Enigma, the impossible German code. He is ruthless in his drive, firing many key members. He holds a formidable crossword contest. Enter Joan Clarke, played with verve by Kiera Knightley who becomes Turing's left, if not right-hand, second in command.

Tyldum's tight and poetic direction oscillates between the logician's relentless puzzle graphing and the haunt of his romantically repressed past, even showing these two paths as irrevocably fused---a code within itself. In one scene, the Turing boy makes a declaration of love in encryption for Christopher (Jack Bannon). Turing rushes outside amid a huge crush of boys. Christopher never comes.

This scene combined with the previous mentioned floorboard scene is heart wrenching in anxiety and pathos, reminiscent of Alan Parker's "Pink Floyd---The Wall" in its flavor of melancholy along with the bluntness of cruelty in children.

One gets the definite feeling that although he is  treated as "the other," pursued, hunted as quarry by the morally judgmental Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) and disgustingly persecuted, Turing alone has the upper hand. Like a Mark Zuckerberg or the cinematic fiction of a Julian Assange, Turing's isolating and spacey tunnel vision is a filter that puts him one step ahead of the others.

And perhaps in his final days, he managed it. Turing's biographers Andrew Hodges and David Leavitt apparently suggest that Turing, faced with forced castration, took a bite of a poison apple in a re-creation of Snow White---his favorite fairy tale---forging a last stand of poetic mystery over the sadness of life.

Whatever the case, "The Imitation Game" is a fitting tribute to a man who lived by his own helix of humanity. Alan Turing was indeed a force of nature whose calculations won the war. If that was not enough, his graphed visions essentially produced what evolved into our modern computers. Turing emerges as a spirit-hero rising above convention, a logarithm ahead of moral insanity and pervasive ignorance.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Week of Dec. 25 to Jan. 1 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Defies North Korea

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week Tropic Cinema opened “The Interview,” the comedy that got Sony Pictures hacked and threatened by North Korea. Seems Kim Jong-un, that country’s Supreme Leader, can’t take a joke.

Plus two other great films join the schedule along with two holdovers.

“The Interview” is a silly movie about Seth Rogan and James Franco attempting to assassinate the North Korean dictator as a favor to the CIA. Philadelphia Inquirer says, “The film is not a dangerous weapon, or a tool for anti-Korean propaganda. It does kill, but with comedy.” And the San Francisco Chronicle describes the film: “Imagine ‘Harold and Kumar Go to North Korea,’ or ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent North Korean Adventure’ or even ‘The Road to Pyongyang’ starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. You get the idea.”

One of the best films of the year, “The Imitation Game” opened also. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, the British mathematician who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma encryption machine by inventing the computer. But it has a tragic ending. Hey, no spoiler alert needed because this is based on history. Dallas Morning News says, “It would be hard to foul up the story of Alan Turing, and thankfully ‘The Imitation Game’ doesn’t.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes, “Cumberbatch is moviedom’s man of the moment, and with this painfully human performance, the actor who has specialized in difficult geniuses finally cracks the code of compassion.”

Also opening is “Big Eyes,” the Tim Burton film about the guy who painted those distinctive big-eyed Keane pictures. Wait, we mean the woman who ... Turns out, that was the problem, both husband and wife (played Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams on screen) taking credit for the popular artwork. Beliefnet calls it, “A very good film about very bad art.” And Film Racket observes, “Burton pulls back on his traditional Goth goofiness to give these characters and their story the respect they deserve.”

Holding over is “Wild,” the outdoorsy drama with Reese Witherspoon as a woman hiking the length of the Pacific Coast. Her life falling apart, this is a way of coming to terms with herself. Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “What do you do when your heroine is tough but emotionally hurt, bright but glib, grown but immature? Make a film about her that is both painful and uplifting.” And Tucson Weekly proclaims, “I hope this the start of a long, good run of quality films for Witherspoon.”

And still with us is “The Theory of Everything,” a love story based on the courtship of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane. Creative Loafing says, “Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are perfect as Stephen and Jane, providing the humor, strength and emotion required in any marriage, whether it’s a real one or a reel one.” And Miami Herald says, “Redmayne makes you forget you’re watching an actor put himself through punishing contortions. He keeps you focused on the soul of a man trapped inside a malfunctioning body.”

Talk about must-see films -- they’re at the Tropic.


The Interview (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Tropic Cinema to Screen
“The Interview” on Christmas Day

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Everybody watching the 6 o’clock news knows about the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures by North Korea, a protest over a silly Seth Rogan - James Franco movie in which they fictionally set out to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the bombastic roly-poly boy ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Playing dirty, North Korean hackers released emails in which Sony’s studio heads insulted just about everyone within a stone’s throw of Hollywood – Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and many others. Even President Obama got dissed.

The hackers also “stole” a couple of movies, releasing them on the Internet.

Then came a threat of violence if Sony released “The Interview.” Major theater chains started canceling bookings – so Sony buckled and pulled the picture.

President Obama chided the studio for giving in, vowing to respond in kind to Pyongyang’s cyber-attack. Next thing you know, key North Korean websites found themselves shut down for 9 1/2 hours by mysterious “outages.” The US State Department had no comment.

Gathering its resolve, Sony is now releasing “The Interview” in select theaters on Christmas Day.

Key West’s Tropic Cinema is one of those theaters, shifting around its lineup of films to accommodate this late entry.

Does that mean Key West will become a target for North Korea hackers? Should we worry that our computers will get melted down in retaliation?

Probably not.

Turns out, Kim Jong-un’s late father was a big movie buff. Who knows, maybe after the petulant boy-ruler sees himself as a “star” in this sure-to-be-big-box-office comedy, he’ll take it as a compliment. Maybe contemplate a backup career if this dictator thing doesn’t work out.

If not, we can hold Kim Jong-un’s buddy Dennis Rodman as a hostage till the Supreme Leader promises to simply buy a ticket to see Sony’s next film rather than hacking if off the Internet.


Big Eyes (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Big Eyes” --
Here’s Looking
At You, Kid!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My mother had a reproduction of a Keane painting on a wall of our house back in the ‘50s. It was kinda eerie, a little girl with eyes as big as saucers.

Reminded me of a scary folktale my grandfather used to tell about dogs with big eyes and bigger eyes and biggest eyes. The story (and the painting) gave me nightmares.

But my mother admired her good taste in art.

Everybody knew this guy Walter Keane was talented. After all, his paintings sold. Reproductions of his paintings sold. Postcards of his paintings sold. The style was unique.

Trouble was, Walter Keane didn’t paint them. His wife Margaret did.

Given a true story about a fraudulent artist known for his saucer-eyed children, who would you choose to direct a movie version of the story? Sounds like a perfect assignment for Tim Burton.

After all, he’s the guy who gave us “Ed Wood,” a movie about a so-bad-he’s-good moviemaker. And “Sweeny Todd,” a movie about a barber who chopped people up for stew. And “Alice in Wonderland,” a surreal tale about … well, you get the idea. Tim Burton is the man for the job.

To tell this retro story about a man who takes credit for his wife’s (bad) painting, Burton has Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) and five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams (“American Hustle”) to play bickering Walter and Margaret.

The fact that he appeared on television talk shows taking credit for her art broke up the marriage. They even wound up in court. It’s all here in the movie.

“Big Eyes” can be seen at the Tropic Cinema.

A psychologist once told me that big eyes in a painting were an indication of paranoia. But like the old saying, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.

In Margaret Keane’s case, her no-good hubby was.


The Imitation Game (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Imitation Game”
Gives You Something
To Think About

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As I sit here typing on my computer, I have to remind myself I don’t owe this device to Steve Jobs. The guy to thank is a British mathematician named Alan Turing.

Turing invented the computer as a tool for cracking German code during World War II. He succeeded, decrypting the supposedly unbreakable Enigma machines that the Nazi used to communicate their troop movements.

But it wasn’t easy.

First of all, nobody wanted to hire him. After all, he was an odd duck. Arrogant, not a team player, a little off. He got the job by going over his military boss’s head, straight to Winston Churchill. He defied them by hiring a woman, a mathematician almost as smart as he was (maybe smarter).

He had this idea for a newfangled machine that could think faster than Enigma. Most of his co-workers thought he was a crackpot, but eventually they came around.

Some coworkers at the Government Code and Cypher School suspected him of being a spy. Or his girlfriend (the woman he hired). Something was off.

Yes, he had a secret. But it wasn’t that.

A historical fact (spoiler alert?), it turns out he was gay. And his thanks for cracking the code that saved millions of lives was chemical castration. The law in England at the time. Tragic, but true.

The movie about this is called “The Imitation Game.” It’s playing at the Tropic.

Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Fifth Estate,” “August Osage County”) portrays Turing to a T. A brilliant performance as always.

Keira Knightly (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) is Joan Clarke, the woman in question. A solid performance as usual.

Back in 2011, “The Imitation Game” was considered the best unproduced screenplay in Hollywood (the so-called Black List). It finally fell into the hands of Black Bear Productions, who attached Norwegian director Morten Tyldum to the picture. In a bidding war against five other studios, the Weinstein brothers picked it up.

It won “The People’s Choice Award for Best Film” at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s indeed one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

The title comes from a 1950 paper Alan Turing wrote about artificial intelligence. It began: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’ This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think.’”

After seeing the movie, you’ll be asking yourself, “Can people think straight?”


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interstellar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Christopher Nolan of the popular "Dark Knight" films hits us again with a punchy, existential outer space epic that is one part cowboy film and one part enigmatic voyage.
Astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot and farmer, coping with the spoils of his land. While the location is never explicitly identified, it is safe to say that it somewhere Midwest.  The main crop, after all, is corn.

 All is not the Emerald City however; the field is under a blight. Nolan consulted documentarian Ken Burns (The Dust Bowl) in creating these details and in its interpretation of a menacing Nature, Nolan's "Interstellar" is nothing short of marvelous. 

Cooper cannot make ends meet and his family is becoming ill. Despite this being the age of the iPad, we may as well be in the realm of Dorothy Gale's sepia Kansas. This gives the film a striking and evocative edge. Nostalgic, poignant and emotional, the visuals quote directly from a diverse film history.

When seeing a drone, Cooper flips out and runs for the fields. His daughter Murphy (McKenzie Foy) thinks she sleeps with a poltergeist, as books and toys fly off the shelves occasionally. In the manner of an M. Night Shyamalan film, Cooper becomes obsessed and drives to NORAD. Murphy hops on board. Cooper approaches the fence. There is a jolting buzz and a blinding terrible white light. But our hero, Coop, is fine. As it turns out, he is being briefed by NASA and asked to participate in a mission: Earth is becoming extinct and another planet must be found suitable for human residency.

Although the film evokes E.T.,  2001, and 3:10 to Yuma with its suspenseful tension and Western style climaxes, the philosophical puzzles are uniquely Christopher Nolan. 

McConaughey is terrific as the bronze space traveler as torn apart from being a single dad as he is from G force.

Another highlight is the forceful battle of life and death between Cooper and the egotistical Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) all set on the wastes of a hostile ice planet, which in reality, is set in Iceland .

"Interstellar" in the mode of a 21st century cliffhanger will never fail to keep you guessing. Yes, the casting of Anne Hathaway is reminiscent of a certain Sigourney Weaver heroine and certain set pieces imitate the "Alien" franchise but Nolan still has enough sleight of hand in his quantum thrills to make it both contemplative and tense. The sight of a single huge wave, Lucifer horned like a leviathan is a sensation, and the last of "Interstellar" sneaks up on us with an unexpected punch, making a fitting retro "Twilight Zone" episode, while also speaking of our primal human impulse of love and the perils of loss.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Wild (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) gives us another collaged and stream of consciousness trip in "Wild." Both the book and the film are based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, detailing her life on the Pacific Crest Trail as she journeyed up it in the effort to re-assemble and re-assert her being.

Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed as a pale, hatchet-like hiker who is both worried and fearless. Every gesture, every motion she makes brings pain, and in this incarnation Witherspoon is an indigenous, ambulatory Christ figure, her blood mixed with the thorny berries that she picks from a tree.
Strayed is driven, each individual act is a hindrance or an obstacle. Her pack, named Monster, is gargantuan. Like a huge man-hand, it presses upon her, squashing her into a blonde thimble. If that is not enough, her foot is a bloody pulp, blistering and scorched.

Still, she carries on.

Through it all, her mother (Laura Dern) sustains her, a spirit of memory.

True to form, director Vallee delivers wondrous poetic verve, at times almost reaching the anxiety of a phantasmagoria. Strayed is both driven and pursued by the element of blood. The blood of a unfortunately killed horse, the blood jabbed from a needle during her drug addiction, and the blood of her mother, dream-drenched by guilt. A hiker she is, but she is also a dream walker, half vodoo princess, half day-of-the-dead observer and participant.

The film is subversive in the fact that even under a heroin haze, Strayed remains in control and powerful with her quest clearly in place. The men in the film, from Cheryl's ex Paul (Thomas Sadowski ), to fellow hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and farmer Frank (W. Earl Brown) are either passive, neutral or generic. And if the men are not in retrograde they are quickly stripped of desire under Cheryl's gaze as in the case of the hopeful ranger (Brian Van Holt) or the predatory and wolfish T.J. (Charles Baker). This is a film where women are made for power and men are either meek, mundane or seen as abusive.

The omnipotence of feminine power comes to the fore.

Vallee gives a tribute provocatively as well: in  one scene, a fox appears, fixing Strayed with a piercing but questioning look. Given the heavy snow and the dark pointed woods, this moment is right out of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist."

The film can also be seen as a more benign and naturalist version of "Gone Girl." Like Amy, Cheryl is constantly patronized, though all the while, she alone has a plan in her head. Mystery is paramount and just as in Gillian Flynn's story, the men here remain stumped and mystified by Cheryl's resilience in a desert terrain.

"Wild" creates a rich satisfying prism of a woman walking between the shades. It is Reese Witherspoon's strongest film, and under Vallee's direction her fun-loving debutante persona all but disappears.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Week of December 19 - 25 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Bridges Time and Space With Six Great Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From the vastness of interstellar space to the intimate mystery of a missing wife, Tropic Cinema stretches time and space with six films this week.
Aptly titled "Interstellar" is an epic sci-fi thriller from "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan. In it, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway go into space and cross through a wormhole in the fabric of time in search of a new home for dying earth. Richard Roeper describes it as "One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen." And MediaMike concurs, "A remarkable achievement in filmmaking that will have you on the edge of your seat."

Surprisingly, "The Theory of Everything" is not about wormholes and interstellar black holes. Rather, it’s the study of a young genius in love, before health issue alter his life. Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife-to-be Jane (Felicity Jones) find romance at Cambridge amid his theories about time and space … and love. Newsday says, "This is rich material for the film’s lead actors, and both are superb." Miami Herald adds, "Redmayne makes you forget you’re watching an actor put himself through punishing contortions."

"Gone Girl" returns by popular demand, a taut mystery about a husband (Ben Affleck) suspected of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). Directed by David Fincher, it’s one of the best films of the year. The Atlantic says, "What Fincher does better than almost anyone is create moody, meticulously crafted thrillers that straddle the divide between genre and art." And Antagony & Ecstasy calls it "something close to a mechanically flawless thriller."

Brand-new is "Wild," the story of a woman (Reese Witherspoon) making a thousand-mile trek up the Pacific Coast in search of herself. Denver Post says, "Not since June Carter Cash in ‘Walk the Line’ has Witherspoon been so present to a character. Her Cheryl is funny and messy, wounded but not without survival instincts." And Las Vegas Weekly adds, "The flashbacks intertwine beautifully with the present-day scenes, and Witherspoon's performance is full of vulnerability and regret."

"Birdman" continues to amaze audiences, with Michael Keaton playing a movie star very much like himself, trying to redeem himself with a Broadway play after starring in comic-book blockbusters. US Weekly observes, "The brazenly off-kilter comedy offers a blistering look at how an industry rat race can decimate a man's self-worth." And Tri-City Herald gushes, "Michael Keaton is a solid lock for the year’s best male actor, his supporting cast is incredible and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s play-like film is a must-see."

And "St. Vincent" is a great character study from Bill Murray, playing it straight as a crusty curmudgeon who agrees to babysit the hapless kid who moves in next door. A saint-like performance. Urban Cinephile observes, "Let’s face it: who else could make a heavy-drinking, gambling, cursing man with a pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend and squashed-face Persian cat so likeable?" And Empire Magazine calls it "Murray’s finest, funniest, meatiest performance since ‘Lost In Translation’ …"


Wild (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Reese Witherspoon Does Walkabout In "Wild"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

We often talk about Hollywood stars who can "carry" a movie. Well, Reese Witherspoon has joined those ranks.

Being the only person on screen for long stretches of "Wild," Witherspoon will either hold your attention or lose you. Fortunately, her gritty, honest performance latches onto you like mud that’s difficult to wash off.

Witherspoon -- once the dainty princess in those "Legally Blonde" movies -- proves she can carry a backpack too.
Following a bad divorce and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed (played by Witherspoon) decides to take a thousand-mile trek along the Pacific Coast National Scenic Trail, walking from the California desert to Oregon all by herself.

"Wild" is playing at the Tropic Cinema if you want to join her on this arduous journey of self-discovery.

Based on a book by Cheryl Strayed, "Wild" falls somewhere between "a grief memoir and a travelogue." This solitary walkabout is fueled by a bit of advice from her late mother about "putting yourself in the way of beauty."

In the movie, Reese Witherspoon does just that, presenting a panting, sweaty, unglamorous hiker confronting a panorama of scenic wonder -- majestic mountains, snow-covered vistas, lakes, verdant forests, ribbons of highway, rock-strewn trails.

Fact is, a person’s troubles do get kinda dwarfed when put against the vast backdrop of Mother Nature.

In the wilderness, a torn toenail takes on greater significance than her once-upon-a-time sex life. Needless to say, the men she encounters along the way are somewhat taken aback to see a lone woman hiking in the wilderness.

Cheryl’s journey is punctuated with free-associative memories about her childhood, her disintegrating marriage, her relationships, offering up more of a mosaic of her life than a connect-the-dots plotline. Her mother (played by Laura Dern) appears almost as a magical apparition in her on-the-trail memories.

Closely following the book’s structure, director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") begins the story smack in the middle of the journey. Surprisingly, the film’s complicated flashback structure works, letting us share the solitary thoughts of this world-weary traveler as clearly as if we were rattling around inside her head.

Cheryl Strayed, we discover, is not seeking redemption by this monk-like pilgrimage. Rather, she’s looking for self-acceptance. Learning to live with herself.

That’s a good goal for all of us.

As an actress, Reese Witherspoon seems to have found it.





Interstellar (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Christopher Nolan Gets Spacey With "Interstellar"
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Director Christopher Nolan (the "Dark Knight" trilogy) must have read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as binge-watching Morgan Freeman’s "Through the Wormhole" TV documentary, before sitting down with his brother Jonathan to co-write the screenplay for his latest movie, a science fiction blockbuster called "Interstellar."

The epic storyline is built around several principles of relativity such as distant simultaneity and time dilation. These mind-bending concepts are old hat to any nerdy kid who grew up reading Analog Science Fiction Magazine, but it is -- ahem -- relatively new for moviegoers to see these premises in a big-screen, state-of-the-art, special-effects production told with the "merchant of awe" verve of Christopher Nolan.

"Interstellar" is now awing audiences at Tropic Cinema.

In it, we have Matthew McConaughey taking on the Buzz Lightyear role of a man who goes into interstellar space to save life on earth.

"We’re not meant to save the world," Michael Caine corrects him. "We’re meant to leave it."

McConaughey starts off the movie as an engineer turned Texas farmer trying to survive a dystopian dust bowl caused by a plague that killed off all the livestock on earth. One day he and his daughter stumble upon a crashed space probe and while returning it to a decimated NASA base near Los Angeles he gets shanghaied into manning an interstellar space mission, flying through a wormhole in search of a new planet to which people on dying earth can migrate. 
Well, sure enough, he and co-pilot Ann Hathaway find one, an icy landscape that looks very much like the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland. But will our duo ever make it back to earth in time to save its inhabitants?

Okay, I know this is starting to sound like a Buck Rogers space opera, but Nolan swears he was influenced more by "2001: A Space Odyssey." He says he was going for the same sort of scientific accuracy with "Interstellar."
As the New York Times once put it, "Nolan’s movies require this thick quotient of reality to support his looping plots…"

Just to make sure the film got it right, Nolan hired theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant for the film. A former Caltech professor, Thorne says, "For the depictions of the wormholes and the black hole … I worked out the equations that would enable tracing of light rays as they traveled through a wormhole or around a black hole -- so what you see is based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity."

Told you.

Nolan also invited former astronaut Marsha Ivins onto the set to double-check his lost-in-space accuracy.

But "Interstellar" still comes back to Stanley Kubrick’s "2001," a film Nolan’s father took him to see when he was 7. He started making his own little movies with a borrowed Super 8 camera soon after that. 
Nolan says, "Someone, an adult, once told me that the meaning of ‘2001’ was that going into outer space is like going deep into yourself. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. In fact I have no idea what ‘2001’ is really about. But I tried to make a film now that would be like that, a quest film like ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’ "

This balancing act is how Christopher Nolan’s films manage to become both mainstream blockbusters and objects of cult appeal.



Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear White People (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Dear White People

In style and content, Justin Simien's "Dear White People" speaks about the daring and influence of Spike Lee as much as addresses Obama's intent for harmony. In big bold images akin to a graphic novel, the director places his audience within the pastoral yet claustrophobic realm of Winchester College, an Ivy League institution.

With dry tones reminiscent of Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," college radio host Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) presents a biting show titled "Dear White People" and a newsletter  "Ebony and Ivy."  As a protest, she  runs for head of her residence, wanting to make the hall exclusively for black students.

This sets off an acidic war with Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner) an  aloof and narcissistic boy, the son of the college president.

Coco (Teyona Parris) is the princess-like student who wants to uphold stratification and keep the status quo of Winchester just as it is.

Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is the bookish outsider with a wild Afro who is approached to get the story on the racial tension through these hallowed halls.

No one gets off easy in this film. Every character presents a ruse, a masquerade or a mania, and the film empties its ammunition upon every persona and type. All of the characters bite and jab  one another with the exception of Lionel, who is a walker on the fringe. Every person becomes embroiled in a nest of scorpions.

Sly is the concoction reserved for Obama whose complacency and hopes are well lampooned: his positivity is jabbed upon in Samantha's film "The Re-Birth of a Nation" showing people in white face makeup, disappointed in the Obama Dream.

The most corrosive accents are engineered for Spike Lee's oeuvre as his charged characters are satirized by turning  obsessive and narrow in intent. There are still shots of silent men in rigid impassivity as if in parody of and tribute to "Do The Right Thing".

A party scene presents  racism with an appropriate stinging sleaziness, showing humans locked in their own stereotypical prisons of cartoons, ill-realism and coercion. With Obama in office or not, racism rears its filthy anemic head under the All Hallows' Eve of inappropriate kitsch, and Money, its green-eyed cousin, waits to brand itself and consume every person regardless of  his or her persona or spirit.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Week of December 12 - 18 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Seven Films Fill Tropic Cinema’s Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Seven Film keep the four screens at the Tropic Cinema flickering! And they offer a wide variety of stories -- all of them must-sees.
Back by popular demand is "Gone Girl," one of the best thrillers of the year. This is the one where a husband (Ben Affleck) is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike), based on the diary that’s discovered after she goes missing. But you can count on plenty of twists and turns. Spectrum calls it "a dark, disturbing walk down the aisle of matrimonial madness, and an unforgettable one at that." Movie Dearest tells us it’s "the best, most satisfying mystery/psychological thriller in a long time." And 2UE promises that it "lives up to the hype."

"Force Majeure" is another look at family dynamics, as a Swedish family gets caught in an avalanche while having lunch in a ski lodge in the French Alps. Laramie Movie Scope describes it as "an emotionally powerful film about the struggles of people to deal with the restrictions and limitations of traditional male and female roles in modern marriage." And Oregonian says, "The laughter it provokes may be uneasy, but the ultimate emotional impact is quite real."

"The Theory of Everything" starts off as the tale of a young genius in love, but it takes a darker turn when he comes down with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This, of course, is a biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane (well played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones). Detroit News sees it as "intimate scenes from a very specific and challenging marriage, warts, black holes and all." And St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it "a brainy bio that exerts a gravitational pull on the heartstrings."

"St. Vincent" is a character study about a gnarly misanthrope (played perfectly by Bill Murray) who babysits his neighbor’s kid with questionable results. ContactMusic.com says, "Bill Murray shines in this story of a cynical grump whose life is changed by his friendship with a bright young kid." And Times observes, "Bill Murray eases into the role of cantankerous curmudgeon Vincent like it’s a pair of threadbare old board shorts that he’s had since the mid-1980s."

"Birdman" is a different kind of character study, one with a dash of the surreal. A washed-up actor (played close to the bone by Michael Keaton) tries to resuscitate his career with a Broadway play. Film Comment says, "What this extraordinary work does best is drop us into the mind of an actor beset by insecurities, vanity-project hubris, and that inner critic who simply won’t shut up, whisking us up into a dazzling, dizzyingly subjective whirlwind." And New Yorker sees it as "a white elephant of a movie that conceals a mouse of timid wisdom."

"Dear White People" hold up a satiric mirror to race relations, looking at how four black college students handle their oh-so-white classmates. What are they willing do to fit in? ScreenRant describes it as "a strong debut for a newcomer director, who tackles sensitive racial and cultural topics with wit, sensitivity, and thoughtful commentary." And Globe and Mail calls it "‘Do the Right Thing’ for the Obama generation…"

"Citizenfour" is a different kind of film, a documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Love him or hate him, you’ll learn about what he uncovered straight from his lips to your ears. Film Threat declares, "What an astonishing, immeasurably important historical document this is -- on top of being a lock for the Best Documentary Oscar." And Toronto Star says, "It’s one of the most riveting films you’ll see this year." Amen.

Seven films, that’s only seeing one movie a day. You can do it.


Dear White People (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies 

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No escaping it, my skin is whiter than Captain Ahab’s whale. So I guess this movie is talking to me. It’s titled "Dear White People," just in case I didn’t get the message right away.

Directed by Justin Simien, it tells the story of four black students attending a predominately white university. Although he calls it Winchester University in the film, he based it on his days attending Chapman University.

Since I have some graduate credits from Chapman University, I am now sure he’s talking to me.

Seems the students take umbrage over a white fraternity throwing a blackface party. I can understand that. Although I was pretty good-natured about the time a black friend of mine came to a party as a blonde-wigged Marilyn Monroe.

Simien understands there are things that need to be worked out between white and blacks. Some people compare him to filmmaker Spike Lee. But he objects to that, preferring to liken himself to Woody Allen and Ingmar Berman, a couple of white dudes if I remember correctly.

"Dear White People" is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
This is Justin Simien’s first feature film. It picked up the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Variety Magazine named him one of "10 Directors to Watch."

I’m watching him.

I think that’s what he wants me to do.

He’s got a good satiric sensibility.

He asks some hard questions without pretending to have all the answers. He has good insights about what it’s like to be black in a "white" world. As well he might.

My old friend Melvin Van Peebles did this 44 years ago in another way, with "Watermelon Man," the story of a bigoted white man who wakes up to find he’s now black.

Melvin once called me -- the great white whale -- "family."
I’m pleased Justin Simien chose to tell me his story. It’s really about not sacrificing your own identity in order to fit it. Maybe if I listen politely to his message he will call me "bro"…?




Sunday, December 7, 2014

Force Majeure (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Force Majeure

As a director Ruben Östlund is not one to pull away from disturbing themes. His previous film "Play" (2011) is about a group of black kids who rob a group of white kids for a lark. The film ignited a heated racial controversy among both critics and audiences.

In the company of Lars von Trier and the Austrian born Michael Haneke, Östlund handles painful drama and invariably pushes our moral buttons without any concession or apology.

And he doesn't relent here.

In "Force Majeure" we have a Swedish middle class family on a ski vacation. From the get go, the children are crabby and irritated and the parents are taciturn and self absorbed, paying more attention to their phones.

To break the routine the family goes to a ski-side resort lunch. High peaks tower above them like huge snowy beards left from Santa's sabbatical. The view is breathtaking. They chatter in holiday bliss. Suddenly, without warning there is an explosion. Fireworks perhaps. No, it is a controlled avalanche says the father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) but the explosion roars closer and the snow tumbles onward. Then with a sense of irrational horror and disbelief, everything goes white. The outside restaurant shrieks in terror.

This  one scene is heart-stoppingly terrible and beautiful at once. In impact and peril,  this passage recalls something of Hitchcock's "The Birds" or "North by Northwest" given its initial start of black humor only to end in a sudden punch of incomprehension and anxiety. After several minutes, the turmoil settles, visibility is restored. But the mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) realizes that Tomas took off and ran without a word during the chaos.

Ebba keeps this to herself at first, but a hidden resentment builds.

The couple grows gradually distant from one another as do the children: the grabby Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and the willful Vera (Clara Wettergren).

The film is masterful in illustrating a family under siege with each other. The resort dappled in an ethereal nocturnal navy blue light, seems drawn from a satanic Tin-Tin serial. The towering snowy mountains while at first taken from the palate of the warm and  sugary Kinkade, abruptly transform into a series of jagged points from a hostile planet, claustrophobic and strange.

This is a family displaced.

Even the acquaintances are full of criticism, petty reactions and suspicion. Room 413 has a Kubrickian malevolence reminiscent of  "The Shining".

Although the theme of a family breaking apart is nothing new by any stretch, Östlund gives wonderful details that sting like lashes from a whip, all the more potent in genius for their short impact. Consider, the drone hitting a visitor in the stomach during a tense moral debate or a soporific bus driver who drives with an oddly lethal and careless intent  through a steep mountain, not to mention a creepy housekeeper hovering with a vacant, fixed stare of complete disinterest.

Even those that appear the most mature and rational at first, including the measured and pragmatic Mats (Kristofer Hivju) becomes bestial and immature.

Brace yourself. In watching "Force Majuere" nature itself is neutral in mortal affairs and  transgressive hearts rule the day.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Citizenfour (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Most are familiar with the NSA scandal because of revelations such as the fact that Verizon and AT & T have submitted indiscriminate phone records of random innocent citizens under the guise of the Patriot Act since 9-11. But this overreach is especially damning to the Obama administration. As a candidate in 2007, Obama said,  in paraphrase, that a president has no moral justification for these actions.

How I wish Obama had stuck to his conviction but, sadly, he did not.

"Citizenfour" is a documentary by Laura Poitras about  this very real abuse, and it also provides a gripping portrait of the man some love to discredit, and some champion: Edward Snowden, a former government NSA agent and now an exile.

As a story, it is as eerie as anything by "Gone Girl" director David Fincher.

Director Poitras  is contacted by truth seeker Glenn Greenwald as a result of her reportage, and their communication is encrypted. After seeing glimpses of Snowden as little more than a fractal phantom or a digital wraith, Poitras has a chance to meet the man in Hong Kong at a high-rise hotel.

After a series of laconic emails Snowden is revealed and the abrupt sight of him in daylight is a bit like seeing an exotic leopard for the first time.

He is open and direct, far from shy, yet with no apparent hunger for fame. He declares unapologetically that he had to tell the American people that they were, and still are, being watched and tracked with impunity.

While Obama once had a hands off policy and would not think of reaching into privacy matters, he now sees Snowden as an anti-patriot of sorts and criminalizes him in no uncertain terms.

Former NSA agent Bill Benney corroborates Snowden's position: that Verizon and by extension, the Obama administration, indeed harvested millions of private phone records, and shopping receipts from Amazon.com, without cause and without discrimination.

Such acts appear horridly blatant and painfully hard to justify.

The most striking passages of this film occur when we see Edward as a kind of 21st century Shelley figure, typing away on his laptop, then moving quickly to the bathroom, a techo-Turkish wrap on his head. Snowden is frequently shown lazing upon a glacially white bed, his legs curled under him, his long ivory fingers his only prized possession, propelled in motion.

There is existential humor too, as Snowden is constantly harassed by phone, with Selena Gomez on TV, only to be interrupted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer announcing Snowden as Public Enemy #1. Pale and iced, a languid Edward moves to the bathroom with eye drops and hair gel, transforming himself into a neo-romantic figure of sorts. Donning a black coat, he strives to shade his face. He is part Isadore Ducasse combined with a dash of Guy Fawkes creating an all disturbing truth.

Our final sight of Snowden is in a Moscow apartment as he hovers over soup, almost daring the American public to consider him an ordinary citizen, were it not for the huge pot on the stove that bubbles away like some sort of sorcerer's cauldron, not to mention the huge green winding houseplant that is carnivorous and alive--a pulsating anarchist aloe.

The most provocative moment of all in "Citizenfour" (in addition to Edward Snowden on a Megatron screen next to a Coach store) is the sight of a clinically dispassionate Obama flatly discrediting Snowden as criminally unpatriotic.

Time will tell. As Shelley wrote, "Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate're it touches; and obedience, bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men..."  Where we once had Byron, Keats and Chatterton highlighting the evils of conformity and the tread of status quo, we now have the ice pale personages of Julian Assange and Ed Snowden rising from the binary ethosphere to point the errs of our age.

Write Ian at ianfree1@icloud.com

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Week of Dec. 5 - 11 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Takes a Look at Interesting Characters

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week at the Tropic Cinema the focus is on interesting characters – real, almost real, and fictional.

One of the real ones is NSA leaker Edward Snowden, also known by the cryptogram Citizenfour. Thus "Citizenfour" is the title of this important documentary by Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who flew to Hong Kong to interview him face-to-face. Commercial Appeal says, "Whether you consider Snowden a traitor or hero or something in between, the movie is striking in its immediacy and access and terrifying in its implications." Miami Herald adds that the film "plays like a thriller as it chronicles a complex and vitally important chapter in our history." And Minneapolis Star Tribune opines, "This documentary offers plenty of fuel for a long, ongoing debate."

Although not a documentary, another real subject is theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything." Here we learn what he was like at Cambridge before he developed ALS, back when he was courting his first wife. St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it "a brainy bio that exerts a gravitational pull on the heartstrings." And Creative Loafing says, "Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are perfect as Stephen and Jane, providing the humor, strength and emotion required in any marriage, whether it's a real one or a reel one."

"Birdman" is almost real, in that Michael Keaton plays a character very much like himself, the former star of a superhero movie franchise who dropped out to do less memorable roles, and now wants to redeem his career. Film Threat says, "I can’t think of a movie with as much to say about the warped symbiosis between show business and society…" And amNewYork observes "Keaton has tapped into something truly special and deeply personal here and emerged at the helm of a movie that’s a hall of mirrors that reveals a lot about us all."

In "St. Vincent" Bill Murray plays a grumpy old man that only he could play so well, a guy tasked with babysitting the kid next door at near disastrous results. Globe and Mail notes, "‘St. Vincent’ is no conventional hagiography but it’s the movie world’s equivalent -- a star vehicle." And Three Movie Buffs call it "a showcase for Bill Murray."

New to screens is "Force Majeure," a surprisingly funny story about a Swedish family trapped in an avalanche. Chicago Tribune calls it "both funny and sad, often in the same glance-averted instant." Ozus’ World Movie Reviews sees it as a "witty satire on masculinity and morality." And Laramie Movie Scope describes it as "an emotionally powerful film about the struggles of people to deal with the restrictions and limitations of traditional male and female roles in modern marriage."

There you have it, five great character studies in five must-see movies … all playing out their stories at the Tropic.




CitizenFour (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Edward Snowden Is "Citizenfour"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No doubt the NSA knew Laura Poitras was making this documentary. After all, that’s what this film is about: NSA’s surveillance programs.
You’ve heard all those stories about Edward Snowden, the low-level high-school-dropout consultant who blew the whistle on the government’s snooping. And you either think he’s an American hero or a traitor hiding out in Russia. But what you know is from what you’ve been told by the media – pro and con.

Now hear the words straight from Snowden’s mouth and make a more informed assessment about this guy who first identified himself to Poitras as Citizenfour.

Why Poitras? She’d already made two films about government intrusion – "My Country, My Country" (2006) and "The Oath" (2010).

In January 2013, she was working on a film about post-9/11 abuses of national security when she started receiving encrypted emails from this Citizenfour, claiming to have evidence of NSA’s spying on Americans.

At first he remained anonymous, refusing a face-to-face meeting. But Poitras insisted, saying, "I really want to meet you, and I want to bring my camera." And he responded, "No, I’m not the story. It should be about the issues."

With Poitras’s reassurances, he finally relented. So she flew to Hong Kong along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill to meet this Deep Throat, who turned out to be Edward Snowden.

"Once my camera came out in Hong Kong, everyone knew that was going to happen. And nobody asked me to stop. This was a pretty extraordinary set of circumstances. I think he didn’t know day-to-day what would happen to him, and how he would get through this time. So it was kind of an all-in moment. He’d taken so many risks that the camera just became another part of it."

Greenwald and MacAskill quizzed Snowden as he sat there in his room at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. Camera rolling, he told his story.

"He’s been totally consistent in that he feels these things should not be secret," Poitras says. "If the government is going to do this, then the public has a right to know."

With Snowden supplying them with classified documents, Glenn Greenwald broke the story in The Guardian in June 2013.

Thanks to some skillful editing and the backing of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich," "The Informant!"), Laura Poitras went on to produce "Citizenfour," the tell-all that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

"I come out of the tradition of cinema verite, where you follow events as they unfold before your eyes, in real time. And when you do, you get all the drama and uncertainty that comes along with life," explain Poitras. "In this case, going to Hong Kong and being in the room with Snowden … this is a person at the point of absolute no return. It has inherent drama. He’s made these decisions that have brought him to this point. So why would somebody make this choice, and what are their motivations, and how can you cope with that kind of stress? All those things are allowed to become part of the film."

So where does Ed Snowden come out in this film? As pretty much human. "Yes, this is a film about NSA and surveillance," nods Laura Poitras. "But it’s also a film about humans — about people who take great personal risks. How do they do that, and what are the consequences?"







Monday, December 1, 2014

"Whiplash" Seen From A Professional Viewpoint (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Whiplash" Seen From A Professional Viewpoint

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When reviewing films that are about a specialized activity -- like music, for instance -- a critic must ask himself if he’s qualified to comment on a subject where he or she has little expertise. Sure, we understand what makes a good film. And we all walk away knowing whether we’ve been entertained or not. But how well did the director or screenwriter portray the subject?

"Whiplash" -- still playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is a film like that, a tense drama between a young jazz drummer and his tough-than-toenails teacher. Wondering how realistic it is, I decided to call on an expert, a jazz percussionist you may have seen play around town, Hal Howland.

After viewing the film, he commented: "As a portrayal of a young man trying to realize his potential despite self-defeating work habits and the damaging influence of a sadistic teacher, the award-winning ‘Whiplash’ is a success. But the film’s outrageous vision of life in a music conservatory nullifies its apparently sincere message.

"As a drummer, young Miles Teller (who shines in the teen romance ‘The Spectacular Now’) is a fine actor: Teller obviously can play some of the furious drumming heard on the soundtrack, though nearly all of it is mimed on screen. The film’s depiction of the pressure teachers and judges place on drummers at college jazz-band competitions is not far off the mark: being a big-band drummer, charged with keeping eighteen freewheeling musicians together through incessant changes in mood, tempo, dynamics, and meter can be a bit like driving a crowded bus through a blizzard.

"And Damien Chazelle’s fast-paced direction provides some dazzling close-ups of musicians and their shiny instruments. (The saturated product placement of second-rate musical equipment suggests that the major manufacturers declined to associate themselves with this project.)

"But the bombastic performance of J. K. Simmons (hilarious in the Coen brothers’ spy spoof ‘Burn after Reading’) as a vulgar, bigoted, violently abusive jazz-ensemble director who urges his pupils to value speed and flamboyance over musical sensitivity is unbelievable and counterproductive. No teacher who behaves as Simmons’s character does would survive his first year in the classroom, yet we are expected to accept this belligerent jerk as mentor to the finest jazz students in the world.

"Professional musicians tend to avoid watching music movies because Hollywood mangles so many facts and technical details. Like Elijah Wood’s ludicrous recent ‘Grand Piano,’ Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ may soon join the long list of dramatic films so bad that their creators are tempted to reintroduce them as comedies."

Hmm, I’ll take Hal Howland’s word for it. In addition to being a jazz musician, he’s the author of "The Human Drummer: Thoughts on the Life Percussive."




Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rosewater (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The daring news pioneer Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, gives his directorial debut with the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist from Canada and Iran who appeared on Stewart's show as a joke. Interviewed by funnyman Jason Jones, Behari was actually accused of being a spy. He was  imprisoned by the Iranian government and placed in solitary for 118 days.

While the direction is fluid and earnest with color and heart, the restrained tone gives it a somewhat tepid feel in the mode of an hour-long documentary.

Behari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is based in London. Upon awaking he receives a tip from his friend Hamid (Arian Moayed)  to cover the 2009 election in Iran. Behari speaks to progressive Mousavi supporters while also posing questions to the iron clad Ahmadinejad campaign. Along the way he agrees to be mock interviewed by Jason Jones who asks his opinions of his country as a spy for the CIA.

The next morning he is apprehended blindfolded and taken to prison in front of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo)

Mahari is tortured. Understandably he is terrified, in a Kafkaesque circumstance with no comprehension of what happened.

Most of the action takes place in a small bare cell and this is where the action stalls a bit with much of the episodes seeming unduly repetitive and slow in motion almost to the point of visual haiku. True to subject it may be, but as cinema experience, it makes for sleepy viewing.

Despite some soporific side effects, there is slickness to be found within the first time director's camera. As Mahari moves through downtown London images of his life pulse and slide about across the sides of buildings in the manner of Blade Runner or the sly poignance found in the work of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil".

Another highlight is the acting of Kim Bodnia as Mahari's ruthless interrogator.

For the most part though, the action follows convention with Mahari held in confinement to absolute silence as he cries out with little visual relief.

There is, however, one beautiful and crazy scene where Garcia Bernal dances in solitary to Leonard Cohen that almost makes the film.

One hungers for more such verve.

Stewart's first film is an effective account of the human spirit and it is certainly worthwhile especially if you know little of Iran's tumultuous election. As an engrossing film, however, "Rosewater" feels half hearted and sketchy, having the feel of an effort, rather than a deep exploration.

Write Ian at ianfree1@iclound.com

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Theory of Everything

Physicist Stephen Hawking is very much a popular and a pop art figure, deep within our consciousness. He has been on countless documentaries. He was a character on The Simpsons and he has appeared on recent Star Trek tv episodes. Much like Carl Sagan or Albert Einstein, Hawking has put a friendly and approachable face upon what is often dense, technical and hard to grasp: the subject of quantum mechanics.

Now, in "The Theory of Everything" by James Marsh (Man on Wire) we have a film that attests to the physicist's celebrity in our mind's eye, our curiosity and our hearts.

Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a Phd student at Cambridge. He his quiet but not reserved. Hawking rides his bike with a manic intensity. He swills beer, plays pinball and has a cat-like ability to step on a chessboard and not disturb the pieces.

From the very first, his days are filled with locomotion.

At a party he meets the debutante Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) a literature student, and a connection is made even though Jane is a catholic and Stephen is an atheist.

One day, Hawking is jogging to his studies. He slips and tumbles to the hard, unforgiving pavement. His large black glasses crack like the windshield of a fighter plane. They tell him he has a motor-neuron disease, ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease) with two years to live.

He calculates forward, on and on.

The narrative is touching in its own right, but where the film really soars is  in its cinematography by Benoit Delhomme which puts Redmayne's  Hawking into a painterly post-impressionist landscape as colorfully eccentric as anything by Van Gogh or Toulouse Lautrec where fireworks spin like pinwheels and satin gloves vibrate and throb into blue stars. In its golden Easter tones, there is also something of Maxfield Parrish here or perhaps even Peter Pan of a sort. Of a man who in many ways was forced to transcend  the natural earth of things to trace the start of time.

The film does well also in showing Hawking the man, very driven and somewhat underhanded, secretive and disloyal in his personal life. As his marriage breaks in Jane's flirtation with Hawking's new aide Jonathan (Charlie Cox) a new assistant Elaine (Maxine Peake) comes on the scene. With the publication of Hawking's book it appears that the couple has patched things up. Alas, a button is pressed on Hawking's synthesizer which voices: I invited Elaine to come with me to America.

At the film's beginning,both he and Jane make cosmological valentines. Then comes resentment, a pregnancy with paternity in question accompanied by a gradual shoving off of intimacy, but never disrespect.The film clearly reveals the libidinous imp behind Hawking's winning smile.

Through it all, he races on, in great muscular tension with purgatorial  pulling and snapping, within a chair and without, while he strives to find an equation to explain not only the beginning of atoms, but the moment when they also may cease to be.

Even when his relationships implode, Hawking becomes a 20th century Blake's compass encircling our universe.

With "The Theory of Everything" James Marsh does as well with the somewhat quirky Hawking as he did with the French daredevil Philippe Petit. Here, Stephen Hawking is a very human and very witty man, just as romantic, calculating, nervy, and underhanded as he is iconic and myth-making.

Write Ian at ianfree1@iclound.com