Thursday, January 30, 2014

Week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 6 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Fills your Calendar with Great Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Flip your calendar ahead to Labor Day. Or back, as the new Jason Reitman film titled “Labor Day” starts off in the year 1987. That weekend a ten-year-old boy and his mother are held hostage by an escaped prisoner ... or are they? Depression is lifted off the mother (Kate Winslet) as their captor (Josh Brolin) touches her heart. But will this unexpected romance survive the manhunt for the stranger who came into their life? Los Angeles Times calls it “a lovely, intimate film about longing and love.” And New Yorker observes, “It looks swell, and Winslet adds another portrait of pained watchfulness to her gallery of suffering heroines.”

The recent death of Pete Seeger reminds us of the early days of folk music. And the Coen brothers’ pay homage to those folk singers who haunted the stage of the Gaslight Club in NY’s Greenwich Village with a film titled “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Oscar Isaac personifies this egocentric musician who treks from McDougal Street to Chicago with a yellow cat named Ulysses … and back. Ending up in the same place. Richard Roeper declares, “The Coen brothers have crafted another unique period piece.” New Statesman sees “its ability to evoke unease or melancholia.” And Atlantic City Weekly says it’s “a movie you chew over days after seeing it.”

Sandra Bullock takes us into space with “Gravity,” the story of astronauts marooned when the space station gets hit by errant debris. Can this medical engineer and her commander (George Clooney) make it back to earth? Denver Post calls it “Nerve-racking, sentimental and thrilling.” And the Verge says, “We’ve seen films set in outer space before, but nothing has ever felt this real.” That’s reinforced by the Tropic’s state-of-the-art 3-D.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives us a shocking portrait of a penny-stock wheeler-dealer in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” With this biting Martin Scorsese satire, we find a rapacious guy who makes Gordon Gekko look like a philanthropist. Hookers, cocaine, stolen money -- it’s a blueprint for a life of debauchery. Until the FBI steps in. Passionate Moviegoers calls it “a modern operatic debauch that leaves its viewer is woozily addicted.” And the Atlantic sees it as “a magnificent black comedy: fast, funny, and remarkably filthy.”

And with “August: Osage County” we visit an out-of-control Oklahoma family. Meryl Streep screeches and screams as the soured-on-life matriarch, while Julia Roberts challenges her as the embittered eldest daughter. notes that “Tracy Letts adapts his own prize-winning play into a blistering depiction of one of cinema's most dysfunctional families ever.” And Daily Mail says, “There is more than enough misery to wallow in, a few good laughs, and lots of marvelous acting to enjoy.”

So put these movies on your calendar. They are all playing at the Tropic.

Labor Day (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Labor Day”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Nicholas Sparks, watch out. Instead of his usual smart comedies (e.g. “Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “Up In the Air”), director Jason Reitman gives us a heartbreaking romantic drama titled “Labor Day.”

As one moviegoer said, “It is a little like a Nicolas Sparks book except with Oscar level acting, directing, cinematography, and screen writing .…”

That translates as Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin being directed by Reitman in a film based on a book by Joyce Maynard.

“Labor Day” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Although mainly aimed at women, guys in the audience will like it too. The story’s about a tough guy who finds love.

Here we have an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) making a connection with the family he’s holding captive.

Adele (Kate Winslet) and her seventh-grader son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) have pretty much given up on their happiness after Adele’s husband abandoned them for a younger wife. But along comes a guy on the lam who highjacks the woman and her son at a discount clothing store, forces them to take him to their ramshackle farm home, ties them up to a chair, and then proceeds to lure mother and son into his own surprisingly emotional world.

No, we’re not talking Stockholm Syndrome. Adele is certainly needy, depressed, and lonely. And Henry wants a father. But they sense something more in Frank than hardened criminality or their own wish fulfillment.

After all, Frank makes a delicious (read: sensuous and gooey) peach pie. He teaches Henry how to play baseball. And while doing odd jobs around the house, he passes himself off as the family’s handyman ... but is obviously becoming more than that on that long Labor Day weekend in 1987.

Steadily, the film moves from “Desperate Hours” territory, closer to the landscape of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Or “Far From Heaven.”

Yet there is plenty of tension as we ponder the outcome. Is this man accused of murdering his wife dangerous? Are there dark secrets to be revealed? Will the cops catch this killer on the loose? What will happen to the mother and son?

This love story is narrated by a grown-up Henry (Toby Maguire), always the outsider looking in. Having become a successful baker, he’s there to give us the film’s sentimental, but satisfying denouement.

At times predictable, the film is also intimate and touching. Remember that it’s based on a same-named book by Joyce Maynard, the writer who lived with J.D. Salinger as a young woman. Among numerous books and essays, she wrote a syndicated column called “Domestic Affairs.” She penned “Labor Day” in 2009, a coming-of-age story that Reitman snapped up for his fifth feature film.

“Some people don’t want to feel uncomfortable,” he says. “And perhaps they’re only going to understand the movie once they’ve had a conversation with a friend about it. This is the kind of movie where it’s not just going to settle immediately. You don’t walk out the door and go, ‘Yay! I wanna go buy the t-shirt,’ you know? I think for some it might be a couple days of talking to your friends who have also seen it or convincing your friends to see it so you can talk about it.”

As it turns out, “Labor Day” is a gorgeous mood piece. The cinematography by Eric Steelberg makes each image look like a Hallmark card. In fact, the film veers awfully close to becoming a Hallmark TV movie. But Jason Reitman carefully brings it in as an art film, deserving of our applause for Winslet and Brolin’s performances.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Labor Day (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Labor Day

"Labor Day" a new retro-set melodrama directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) could be plucked right out of a Lifetime network movie.

Kate Winslet is Adele, a traumatized single mom caring for her spunky and compassionate 13 year old son Henry,  played by Gattlin Griffith. One day while Adele and Henry are grocery shopping they have a fateful run-in with desperate prison escapee, Frank embodied by the rugged Josh Brolin. Frank is bleeding and forceful and Adele is shaky, sweaty and worried, giving lots of panicked looks. Frank won't take no for answer and Adele agrees to give Frank both a ride and access to their house, (and all without a weapon) even though this makes little real-life sense.

There is some entertaining and well done tension between Frank and Adele. Are they prisoners? Is Frank a dangerous man?

There is some mystery and nervousness here.

But soon it becomes apparent that Frank is a sensitive and caring man with little rage or poison in him. Frank does household chores, he maintains the gutters, takes an interest in Henry and is a very sensual baker. In one semi-poetic scene, (which will remind some of the film Ghost, albeit not as corny) Frank mixes fresh peaches with syrup and unleashes dashes of angelic sugar to blend within a caramel toned pie.

There is also a deft shot of Adele and Frank reflected on the screen of Henry's handheld computer game. Such scenes illustrate a visceral time as the action is set in the 1980s when E.T. and Donkey Kong ruled childhood imaginations.

As we might guess, under some Spielberg-speckled stars, Adele and Henry begin to bend and sway under a new half-bliss of domesticity.

Yet given this development, why the ruse of Adele's being bound by rope with her hands taped behind her back? Not to mention the predictable feeding of the captive? Is it so odd that Adele would have a boyfriend stay over at some point?

Winslet and Brolin are solid and convincing in their roles. It is the plot that runs out of room, seeming constricted and all too flat. Brolin is the Wanted Man, Public Enemy #1 it would seem and a good two thirds of the action is spent watching the police and wondering if the large but sweet faced Frank is going to get caught or become a solid family man, not to mention an attentive father.

Such plots have been rendered many times before from Clint Eastwood's "A Perfect World" to countless "bad guy with a heart" TV movies.

By the time the third unwelcome knock on the screen door comes, with Brolin stifling Winslet behind the door, it all appears a matter of course and all surprise evaporates. Of course the townspeople whisper and of course there is a troublesome very unsympathetic neighbor, Evelyn (Brooke Smith) who horribly slaps a teen in a wheelchair (Micah Fowler) for not being able to control his alert in seeing Frank on TV. I doubt this would have happened in reality and especially not without criticism.

Frank, for one, would not have stood for it.

Everything gets all sewed up sentimentally with bittersweet ginger as an aged Frank writes a "Dear Henry" letter and the young son evolves into Tobey Maguire with peach pies in a nationally famous oven.

The actors all do well and good (Kate Winslet in particular) but in such a hum-drum rectangular plot, the players feel as if they are their own narrative prisoners.

With all the sirens, officers and suspicious glances, including a limp natural father (Clark Gregg) there is   little to drive us forward.

Write Ian at

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Inside Llewyn Davis

Joel and Ethan Coen break exotic ground once again with "Inside Llewyn Davis" partly based on the misadventures of folk singer Dave Van Ronk but the film is more concerned with a young man's will to create within an urban circus while nebulous forces conspire against him.

It is 1961. Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Beat singer who has an uneasy rapport with The Gaslight's owner  Pappi (Max Casella). After Llewyn does a very striking Van Ronk number "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me", he goes out to see an acquaintance and is assaulted by a shadowy man with a hat and a cigarette.

Davis has no fixed address and he crashes at a professor's house. The house Tabby cat latches on to him and he is unwittingly locked out.

Davis takes the cat by default and haplessly goes from place to place, from his curmudgeonly agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) to his nasty ex-girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan). Each experience is increasingly more deflating, but Davis resists the mainstream pull at every turn ("If you think music leads to marriage and a house, that's careerist, it's a little square, and a little sad...") and he takes a small gig playing backup on a pop folk song about the current space race. The song (with Justin Timberlake playing a romantic rival) includes silly baritone voice effects. Needless to say, the song is produced, but Davis agrees to record it without royalties.

One day, at his ex's house, the cat escapes; it is lost in the Village streets. After a deadly emasculating visit with Jean in which she says that she wants an abortion just in case she is pregnant with Davis' child ("Everything you touch turns to shit.")  he sees the lost cat at The Cafe Reggio. He returns the cat to the professor's house, but insults the family when asked to play for his supper. Mrs Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) begins screaming hysterically when she realizes it is not the right cat.

Taking the Tabby back, Davis trudges on through every withering look and happenstance.

John Goodman gives another excellent turn as a slimy and effeminate ne'er do well musician with an acidic tongue. Goodman's character of Roland is as rich as something by Flannery O' Connor and he is as toxic as he is comical in a gallows humor tradition.

 Taking a cue from their previous film "A Serious Man" the Coen Brothers expand their own brand on a Kafkaesque condition. Throughout the film, Davis faces identical apartment doors positioned right up against the other, knob to knob while the cat seems to personify guilt,  baggage and choices not taken.

Davis is surrounded and confined by innocuous musical pablum with little social commentary, and inept managers.

 At the film's end, Davis learns that the owner, Pappi (whose name could symbolize status quo as the word "pap" means "food staple") had sex with his girlfriend.

Thus  the noose tightens around Llewyn Davis' guitar with the shadow man cyclically pursuing him along with a passive orange cat.

The final joke might be the sight of one damp and dirty Davis getting kicked in the stomach as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage. But while this portrait is very much Coen and Kafka, it is also a stirring and pointed  journey of a man with a guitar, be he  Van Ronk or someone you conjure up on your own.

Write Ian at

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gravity (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Gravity" at first appears to be an otherworldly tango between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The dance quickly becomes one of survival.

Clooney is astronaut Kowalski with a sharp wit and Bullock is the isolated and tomboyish Ryan. They are sent to initialize and repair a space station. Both of them hotfoot around the bars and levers, Ryan seems a participant in a pratfall, while Kowalski spins about in a jet pack La-Z-Boy chair. He jokes that their fellow spaceman is doing the macarena.

From the very first, you are stuck by the sheer depth and beauty of this film. This is what it might feel like to be in space. Earth is literally suspended in the sable ink, an endless void. While the textured landscape of earth is seen as expressionist swaths of jade green, topaz brown and tangerine paint. Aloft in his chair-like vehicle, Kowalski is far off in the distance, little more than a collection of bone white dust. Closer in view, he takes on the shape of an origami paper box. Then, abruptly upon us, he transforms into the form of an aluminum giant with huge vice-grips for hands.

"Gravity" is one film like "2001" which portrays space and its unknowables as a realm of loneliness and silence.

The sound of country music from Kowalski's headset and Ryan's busy fretting are the only human utterances.

Suddenly within the coziness of duty and work, danger is sounded without warning: some troubling satellite debris is in orbit and on its way.

Kowalski and Ryan batten down the hatches and abort the mission quickly enough it would seem, but they don't count on the sheer onslaught of irregular metal shards that tear at the NASA craft.

Ryan becomes unhinged from the station and spins like a top in black abysmal reaches. She hyperventilates. The situation of the film parallels "All Is Lost". These are characters adrift and fighting for their very survival through happenstance and luck, both good and bad.

There is some humor to be found in Clooney and Bullock lashed together in space, swirling and bouncing in a hellish purgatorial Pasodoble . "Stop staring at me!" Clooney advises, as if to make an inside joke about his Hollywood looks. The two could be lovers on an interplanetary Titanic.

The scene is comical and wrenching  at once.

"Gravity" is no gimmick novelty. The 3D is holistic and all encompassing. It enhances the circumstance of Ryan as she attempts to get to safety and ultimately to earth, rather than being a round of visual rings and tricks. The hull of Ryan's space station is shown as nothing less than a white and corded womb. Wires pulse with life like umbilical cords. Once enclosed, our Superwoman Ryan sheds her skin and becomes reborn. She undulates and stretches her body taking sensual breaths of oxygen. This scene echoes Sigourney Weaver undressing on board in "Alien". It may be eye-candy but this too, is meaningful.

In addition to some teasing, there is also a bit of existentialism. Ryan is left in a metal cork, but the sight of Clooney's vodka-sipping Kowalski spurs her on in a device that contains something of Kubrick and Camus.

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is a visceral and emotional experience that will take you to far limitless visions, not the least of which shows Sandra Bullock as a Saul Bass silhouette, a dark black purple cutout that falls into further darkness. It is a fitting cousin to "2001: A Space Odyssey" where help in rescue is a rare star.

Write Ian at

Friday, January 24, 2014

Week of January 24 to January 30 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Catch the Oscar Buzz at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

As the 86th Academy Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science draws near, we are astounded by how many nominees have played at the Tropic Cinema. Does this mean the Tropic has been showing more “mainstream” films? Or that more “non-mainstream” films are getting award nods?

No matter. The point is, you can see all these great films at the Tropic.

This week we get the new Coen brothers offering, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” While I think it’s a flawed film, it’s one you’ve gotta see -- the story about the early days of folk music in Greenwich Village. Oscar Isaac sings his own song as the titular musician. He’s joined by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Garrett Hedlund -- plus John Goodman as an irascible jazzman. Little White Lies says, “Cold exteriors and warm interiors combine in the Coen brothers’ rhapsodic portrait of a ‘60s folk singer.” 3AW calls it “beguiling, beautiful, funny and sad.” And The List dubs it a “portrayal of male neuroses and failure.”

What goes up must come down … even in space. That’s due to “Gravity,” as Sandra Bullock’s sci-fi adventure is titled. It could have been called “Lost In Space.” Bullock and George Clooney are stranded when their space station is hit by debris. Can they get back to earth? As New Yorker says, “Gravity is not a film of ideas, like Kubrick's techno-mystical 2001, but it's an overwhelming physical experience -- a challenge to the senses that engages every kind of dread.”

Another sci-fi delight is Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the romance between a young man and his computer OS. Joaquin Phoenix falls for the human-like voice in his smartphone (who happens to sound just like Scarlett Johansson). A profound contemplation about relationships. Detroit News sees it as “Delightfully entertaining, if slightly unnerving.” The Mercury says, “In Jonze's hands it is beautifully philosophical and heartfelt.” And Moviedex opines that the film “Poses some big, complex questions, about consciousness, free-will and the limits of human understanding.”

An insightful look at relationships -- the dynamics of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family -- is explored in “August: Osage County.” Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, we find Meryl Streep as the drug-addled matriarch at war with her three daughters follow their father’s suicide. Julia Roberts as the elder sibling match Streep scene for scene in this prairie fire of great acting. ReelViews says it’s “all about the acting.” And Commercial Appeal notes “The grande dame demiurge presiding over this Dust Bowl carnival of souls is, of course, La Streep, who channels the stoned fury of Liz Taylor in ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and the ghoulish glee of Bette Davis in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’”

“The Wolf of Wall Street” makes Gordon Gekko look like a puppy dog. Leonardo DiCaprio approaches his title role as if greed is Gr-r-reat! Nonetheless you will see it as a cautionary tale despite director Martin Scorsese’s obvious glee. Passionate Moviegoer calls it “a modern operatic debauch that leaves its viewer is woozily addicted.” Los Angeles Times observes, “Man, does this movie have a savage bite.” And 2UE That Movie Show concludes, “Scorsese's mastery is undeniable.”

All of these films are up for Oscars in one category or another. Better go see them if you want to know what all the Oscar buzz is about.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Traces Folk Music’s Roots

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Remember that definition of a musician? The guy sleeping on your daughter’s couch.

That’s Llewyn Davis.

Or as a drug-addled jazz player says: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.”

Fan of folk music know that it got its true start in the clubs of Greenwich Village in the early sixties, a time just after Woody Guthrie and right before Bob Dylan.

In this new Coen brothers film -- “Inside Llewyn Davis,” now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- we are given a biographical snapshot of a folk singer named (you guessed it) Llewyn Davis.

The story is told entirely from his egocentric point of view. We meet the titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Next thing we know, Llewyn’s getting the crap beat out of him in the club’s back alley. Demonstrating early on that he just can’t catch a break.

Penniless, Llewyn sleeps on friends’ couches, travels with an orange tabby cat in search of its owners, and aimlessly pursues his lackluster musical career. The title comes from his album, which isn’t selling.

Oscar Isaac sings his own songs, as do his co-stars. Isaac’s sound is smooth and authentic. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, “The Death of Queen Jane,” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” are memorable renditions. T-Bone Burnett (Oscar-winner for “Crazy Hearts”) arranged all the movie’s folk covers.

Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake are seen as folk duo Jean and Jim. They’re testing the waters of mainstream stardom, a life that Llewyn holds in little regard. He sees that dream of a house with a white picket fence as “rather sad.”

Garrett Hedlund plays a cool beat poet known as Johnny Five, Adam Driver gives us a cowboy singer called Al Cody, and Stark Sands delivers a simplistic folk singer named Troy Nelson (who is based on Tom Paxton).

Benjamin Pike makes an appearance as the young Bob Dylan.

F. Murray Abraham portrays a Chicago club owner (based on Albert Grossman, the man who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary.)

And Coen brothers regular John Goodman shows up in the personage of a blustery, coked-up, crutch-wielding jazz hipster named Roland Turner. He’s the one who challenges Llewyn’s claim of being a real musician, describing his talent as playing “three chords on an ukulele.”

While Joel and Ethan Coen may skip from genre to genre, their films often depict quirky outsiders. Llewyn Davis is such a complex and interesting outsider, albeit a character hard to love. He takes little responsibility for his life. His failures are self-made. You’ll find it difficult to root for this self-tortured, struggling artist.

In one scene, Llewyn Davis hits a cat with a car and watches it limp away. This is a mirror of his own existence, beaten up by still limping forward in pursuit of his ambition to become a successful folk singer. A dream that’s never quite fulfilled.

The cold, harsh winter in Greenwich Village emphasizes Llewyn’s weary struggle. Figuratively, he’s been left out in the cold. But it also reflects the tone of this movie, bleak and melancholy, deliberately gloomy.

A failed folk singer, Llewyn Davis is pretty much in the same place at the end of the movie as at the beginning.

That’s the Coen brothers’ existential message, but it’s not a very satisfying one.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel masterfully captures the dark and grey tones of the New York scene. Nominated for an Oscar, he was a last-minute replacement for Roger Deakins who usually shoots the Coens’ movies but was tied up filming the James Bond film, “Skyfall.”

The film was inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk titled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” however Llewyn's story is mostly fiction.

Even so, this is more of a moody, 105-minute character sketch than a movie. While Llewyn’s faux-odyssey has a great Mobius-like symmetry in its telling, there’s no transformation of the main character. In the end, the film goes nowhere. He ends up where he started.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is at best a soulful and poetic portrait of a disgruntled, unyielding man and his music. But it’s slightly out of tune.

Gravity (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

You’ll Fall
For “Gravity”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What goes up must come down. That’s what Sir Isaac Newton taught us. Y’know like an apple falling.

And if you’re up on a space station the fall is just a little farther.

Gravity is a natural phenomenon in which physical objects attract each other. This is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, along with electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear. It affects every solid body, even astronauts

In “Gravity” -- the new dci-fi thriller playing at Tropic Cinema -- Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts trapped in a damaged space shuttle.

This is a survival movie designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. The question is, how do you stay alive when you’re stranded in space, 230 miles above the Earth.

Here we have Dr. Ryan Stone (Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission. Among the crew on the shuttle is Matt Kowalski (cool-as-a-cucumber George Clooney).

What do you do when space debris crashes into the “Explorer,” sending you tumbling through the vacuum of space, away from your ship, with a limited air supply and no communications with Mission Control? What if your crew is now dead, leaving you and the ship’s commander alone up there? Can you make it to the International Space Station? Can you make it from there to the abandoned Chinese space station? Is there an escape capsule there? Can you get back to earth? Or should you just shut off your oxygen supply and gracefully go into that good night?

This may be Sandra Bullock’s meatiest role ever, one that proves her acting chops, golden statuette or not. And George Clooney offers a great support performance, as calm and reassuring as a hallucinated angel.

“Gravity” was co-written, co-produced, co-edited and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men”) with a little help from his son Jonás. The 3-D was designed by Chris Parks. This is definitely a film you will want to see in 3-D.

In the trailer you’ll hear the explosions as the space debris hits the space stations, but those scenes are silent in the movie because as Cuarón reminds us, “There is no sound in space. In the film, we don’t do that.” (Don’t you remember the tagline from that first “Alien” movie: “In space no one can hear you scream”?)

But that’s not true for audiences.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

August: Osage County (Brockway)

August: Osage County

John Wells (The West Wing) takes ambitious ground directing Tracy Letts' portrait of a back-stabbing and conniving family in "August: Osage County." Although this faithful  rendition of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama is executed well, the caterwauling predicaments threaten to grate and grind a bit with a hectically compressed adaptation. Nearly every character is in a tizzy with a tempest, whirling about with an abundance of slides and stumbles. Given the shortened dialogue and watered down poetic drive (albeit understandable in an adaptation)  the plot gives the impression of a poltergeist that is overwhelming to  its host.

That being said, Meryl Streep is a perfect incarnation as the witchy, sable-shrouded and monstrous matriarch, Violet Weston. Streep's interpretation is full and complete and borders the realm of a spiritual possession. Violet is consumed and wizened by pharmaceutical dependence. She has cancer. Far from being retiring, she is a manic, lurching harridan, bent on stripping others of their ego. But Violet is not the only one; such  belittling and emotional castration seems a Weston family trait.

Sam Shepard has a good outing as the passive and used up poet Beverly who just opts out and leaves the family, and Julia Roberts is a magnetic and viscerally biting whirling dervish, battling for control of the hereditary masthead.  A highlight is the horribly frightening and oppressiveWeston house that is as heavy as it is physically unhinged, skillfully personifying the playwright's gothic intent which remains as timely today as it was for Tennessee Williams or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The windows are completely masked with industrial tape. Consequently, the family mills about in thick dust motes sketchily staggering about as penciled shadows, shades of themselves and with others. This alienation within a frenzied center is the core of many a Letts play, and there is enough of it here. Even though its billed as a comedy, it is not as gallows humored as "Killer Joe." The relatives bite, peck, emasculate, humiliate  and shoot absolute bile. The comedy comes from the enforced ruse of a civil dinner under crisis.

A standout is Margo Martindale as a petty manipulator under the guise of the comforter and Abigail Breslin as a laconic, yet surreptitious teen. Everyone is nasty in this bunch. But this is genuine Letts country to be sure and followers of the author will be duly pleased. Even though some of the existential poetry is omitted or given a lightened touch, the film, as a whole entity, is hard to stab at or deflate. The cast and the setting all mix and coalesce in a rare pumpkin roux, capturing the distinctive essence of a  Tracy Letts bloodletting that fans of his dysfunction have come to expect and even crave.

Write Ian at

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Week of January 17 to January 23 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Golden Globes Ain’t Got Nuthin’ on the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Golden Globe winners and nominees abound at the Tropic Cinema. You saw all these stars on the televised awards show. Now go see their filmed performances.

Opening at the Tropic is “August: Osage County,” featuring Golden Globe nominated performances by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Based on the Pulitzer-prizewinning play by Tracy Letts, this is a high-intensity drama about an Oklahoma family reeling over the death of its patriarch. The difficult, drug-addled wife (Streep) squares off with her three daughters (Roberts being the dominant one). The Austin Chronicle notes that “the film’s acting ensemble really kicks out the jams.” And Screen It! calls it “an engaging drama filled with terrific dialogue as well as strong to brilliant performances.”

“Saving Mr. Banks” gives us Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, author of “Mary Poppins.” We last saw Emma on the Golden Globes with her shoes in one hand and a martini in the other. Minneapolis Star Tribune describes it as “a shameless wad of corporate PR, a feel-good, self-serving Disney film about the making of a Disney film.” But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warns you’ll “leave the theater humming the iconic songs.”

“Philomena” stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman searching for the son she gave away 50 years ago, while Steve Coogan plays the disgraced journalist who’s helping her. Yes, we saw Coogan on the Golden Globes accompanied by the real-life Philomena Lee. Cleveland Plain Dealer calls it “a story of hope and faith that survives awful challenges.” And Daily Express opines, “You are unlikely to see a better British film this year.”

“Her” is rom-com about the relationship of man vs. machine. Joaquin Phoenix is a lonely guy who falls for his smart phone, as huskily voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix was on hand at the Golden Globes too, clapping politely as Leonard DiCaprio aced him out for an award. Entertainment Spectrum says, “It's a far cry from your typical relationship, but it is one that will prove how blind love can be and that it truly can make you do crazy things.” And the Popcorn Junkie proclaims, “There just aren’t enough rooftops to shout my love for this film.”

And “The Wolf of Wall Street” features Leonardo DiCaprio as a penny-stock swindler who lives the high-life with his ill-gotten gains. At the Golden Globes Tina and Amy gave DiCaprio a raunchy “supermodel” welcome. As for Martin Scorsese’s film, Passionate Moviegoers calls it “a modern operatic debauch that leaves its viewer is woozily addicted.” New Yorker describes the film as “exquisitely controlled, kinetic energy, complete with a plunging and soaring camera, mercurial and conspicuous special effects, counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale.” And sees it as “a vigorously stylish epic.”

So turn off your TV and head down to the Tropic Cinema to see what all that Golden Globes hoopla was about. And just off the newswire: "Her," "Philomena" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" all have been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.

At Middleton (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“At Middleton” Offers a Live Moment
With Andy Garcia

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

While the Tropic Cinema has a great record for bringing in directors and other film luminaries for us to meet as we watch their movies, Key West (like most non-urban outposts) doesn’t get access to some of the bigger-name actors and directors. You have to live in Los Angeles or New York City to enjoy that privilege.

But that’s changed … in a way.

The Tropic is now hosting the New York Film Critics series, where we get to see live interviews with stars and filmmakers streamed directly to the Tropic’s screen in high-definition simulcast. It’s now a monthly program.

Last month we got an advance preview of “American Hustle” (it won a Golden Globe as 2013’s Best Comedy and been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar) -- as well as watched Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers conduct a live interview with the film’s director, David O. Russell.

This month is no exception. Next Tuesday night at 8 p.m. the Tropic will again host a live broadcast of Travers interviewing director Adam Rogers and stars Andy Garcia and Vera Farminga, while showing “At Middleton.”

“At Middleton” is an offbeat romance for grownups.

Andy Garcia portrays George, a rather dull man who takes his son on a college tour. There he meets Emily, played by Vera Farminga, a spirited woman who has brought her daughter to the old campus to take the tour.

Turns out, George and Emily go against the grain and play hooky, ducking the tour to explore the scenic campus on their own. Yes, love blossoms. That’s no spoiler. I told you this was a romance.

So it’s not the end result, but the afternoon’s journey that you should find engrossing. You could put this in the “Before Midnight” school of talky relationship pictures. Not a bad place to be.

Picked by the AARP Life@50+ Expo as one of its Movies for Grownups, “At Middleton” helps examine the question of not just how we’ve prepared our kids to leave the nest, but how we’ve prepared ourselves.

As one moviegoer observed, “The interaction of the actors — mother and daughter, father and son, strangers meeting and feeling something they never expected — is amusing at times, heartbreaking at others, real and true throughout.”

Mark Ehrenkranz, the producer behind the New York Film Critics series says the NYFCS is dedicated to producing inspiring events in a collaborative environment. “Now everyone throughout the country can enjoy up close and personal moments from major movie stars, producers, writers and directors,” he told me during a recent phone call. “All in the comfort of their own neighborhood theaters.”

You’ll agree as you watch “At Middleton” over a glass of wine at the Tropic, then set back in your plush theatre seat and let Andy Garcia (“The Godfather: Part III,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “City Island”) chat with you about the movie you’ve just seen.

That’s better than talking with your friends around the water cooler the next day. In fact, why not bring them along with you to the Tropic? They would enjoy “meeting” Andy Garcia too!

August: Osage County (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“August: Osage County”
Is About Shifting Power

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Expect Julia Roberts to get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her I’m-in-charge performance in “August: Osage County.” (Yes, I know she was only nominated as Best Supporting Actress in the Golden Globes.) And you can count on Meryl Streep getting a nod for Best Supporting Actress for this riveting drama. (Sorry, Oprah.)

Yes, it’s that good, one of the year’s Top Ten. Number Three, on my list.

“August: Osage County” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

It’s based on the play by Tracy Letts. He also wrote the screenplay for this film version, which is directed by John Wells (TV’s “The West Wing,” “ER”). George Clooney and the Weinstein brothers produced it.

Here, during a hot August in Osage County, Oklahoma, an alcoholic poet named Beverley Weston (Sam Shepard) does himself in. The family gathers around his pill-popping shrew of a wife, Violet (a painfully brilliant performance by Meryl Streep). We have oldest daughter Barbara (stronger than ever Julia Roberts), dealing with a troubled marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) and a vulnerable underage daughter (Abigail Breslin); needy sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) with her flashy fiancé (Dermot Mulroney); her stay-at-home sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); her assertive aunt (Margo Martindale) and stoic uncle (Chris Cooper) and can’t-do-anything-right cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch); and an observant Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham).

With this many family members inside four walls during a hot August summer, expect a collision of personalities.

Violet is mean and woozy, at conflict with her daughters. Barbara has never understood her mother -- or else understood her too well -- and left home early. She’d been her father’s favorite. But not her husband’s.

Karen just wants to get married and honeymoon in Belize. Ivy longs for love and escape from the crazy-quilt household. Aunt Mattie Fae and Uncle Charles are intertwined with the Westons in secretive ways. And the same could be said of their son Little Charles.

“August: Osage County” is about a generational shifting of power. And about the interworkings of a dysfunctional family.

But truth is, the movie is really about delivering powerhouse performances. And the possibility of winning Oscars. Just ask the Bob and Harvey Weinstein. They know something about family power.

Note: Since writing this review, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has announced this year’s Oscar nominees. And it proved me wrong by reversing the nominations I predicted for Meryl Street and Julia Roberts, although they indeed claimed those two top categories. It’s going to be an interesting race with such favorites as Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, Dame Judi Dench, and Sandra Bullock along with Streep in the running for Best Actress. How do you choose?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Her (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Leave it to the auteur enfant terrible Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) to push the bounds of the love story, by  creating a kind of valentine to the late author J.G. Ballard or Orwell.

None other than the dramatic scofflaw Joaquin Phoenix stars as the hesitant and tongue-tied Theodore, an electronic love letter composer. His face is one single knot with a brown mustache that looks like a scrub-brush. His mahogany charcoal-hardened glasses appear welded on his face. Theodore's environment is one of flat, wall screens and corners. His only human interaction is with his longtime college friend Amy (Amy Adams) and his ex-wife's lawyer via phone relay. The rest of the time he is haunted by harmonic memories of his wife (Rooney Mara). Although we don't know what happened between them, we don't need to. Suffice to say, Theodore is left bereft, a shadow of his good natured self, perhaps a bit too passive or a bit too closed when the chips were down.

On a whim, Theodore goes to a software kiosk and purchases a new highly advanced operating system for his devices. He thinks that it is a mere office and word processing program, but soon learns that it is a highly personal and empathic software world with human emotion, complete with a feminine spirit. With the astonishment of Dr. Frankenstein, Theodore realizes that this program (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) has a highly adaptable and sensual intelligence. After some awkward fumbles, he accepts with surprised satisfaction that this may be just as good as having a human girlfriend. The program "Samantha" is eager, interested, and without judgment.

If only Apple's Siri was like this.

After a couple disastrous stabs at human romance: one ridiculous phone call involving a dead cat and one possessive blind date (Olivia Wilde), Theodore gets more attached to "Samantha". She listens. And with one lilt and curl of her beseeching, bewitching voice, Theodore gets sexually aroused.

The two have phone sex of sorts.

Theodore becomes forever connected and wired in, a white microphone in his ear that resembles a hi-tech seashell, a love charm from a cyberspace mermaid. Theodore is seduced by The Call with a smartphone camera in his pocket (patent leather in brown and white) a 21st century clamshell, a wallet of love.

"Samantha" handles all his appointments and the two go on virtual vacations, through parks and winter retreats. They share photos and "Samantha" treats Theodore with emotion and caring, very much as a girlfriend or wife would.

Some humor is had when Theodore's peers press him to bring Samantha around (let's double date!) Phoenix is wonderful as an Everyman both vexed and released by the confusion of this newfound relationship. Sometimes, he is wildly free and untethered. At others he is withering and morose. Theodore seems pursued and blighted by an unseen unknown female, more toxic than his wife. He can only unwind and be himself with his amorous bodiless confidante.

Soon "Samantha" wants more. More human experience, more knowledge, more wanting, simply more.

Theodore is at a loss.

After a catastrophic attempt with a human surrogate for the throaty virtual vixen, "Samantha" becomes less intimate and far removed, so to speak. Her "personality" engages with other clients and systems. One in particular is named after the philosopher Alan Watts, in system form, he is a stentorian academically aloof know- it-all.

What follows is a very visceral scene, and all the success is due to Phoenix who makes it all so believable with a bit of black humor. Not since Gene Kelly, have I seen a person so at ease in his body. Although this is a moment of heartbreak, there is great frenzy and motion here, showing the real crux of loss, as is. Phoenix is running, falling, sliding and he expresses the romantic tragedy in himself as a dance.

The most telling parts of "Her" portray our world as emotionally starved and subservient to super smart machines. But most vivid is the Orwellian character of Theodore and his vexation in wanting "Samantha" to be both human and moral, even empathetic and exclusive. But alas, by  not having a human body or mind, this female-ish system is free from compassionate loyalties.

This is a morality tale that is a little Stanley Kubrick, a bit "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but by film's end, unmistakably all Spike Jonze.

Write Ian at

Friday, January 10, 2014

Week of January 10 thru January 16 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

“Her” Heads Up Great Tropic Lineup

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

For Christmas I got an iPhone 5S just so I could talk with Siri, the disembodied woman who lives inside the smart phone. That’s the theme of “Her,” the story of a lonely guy who gets a phone with an operating system named Samantha. In this rom-com for the high-tech age, you’ll be engrossed in the sweet relationship between the mope (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Flick Filosopher says, “It’s the rise of the machines as romantic dramedy, and the Singularity as romantic tragedy. It’s the nicest, gentlest sci-fi horror film ever.” And John Hanlon Reviews adds that it’s “an intoxicating and profound romantic drama that offers new insights into our dependence on technology.”

For those of you who have been hesitant to see a three-hour movie about a guy who makes Gordon Gekko look like a saint, overcome your resistance because this is Martin Scorsese at his most no-holds-barred filmmaking. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a real-life penny-stock swindler named Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a man who went to prison after bilking millions from investors. But before getting caught, he and his partners let a life of unfettered debauchery, snorting coke, partying with strippers, sailing on a humongous yacht, living the high life. You’ll see it all here in a movie that The Atlantic describes as “a magnificent black comedy: fast, funny, and remarkably filthy.” The New Yorker tells us that  “Scorsese unleashes a furious, yet exquisitely controlled, kinetic energy, complete with a plunging and soaring camera, mercurial and conspicuous special effects, counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale.”

“Saving Mr. Banks” is sticking around to feed you a spoonful of sugar while telling how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) coaxed the movie rights for “Mary Poppins” from its grumpy British author Pamela Travers (brilliantly played by Emma Thompson). Philadelphia Inquirer calls it “smart, delightful.” And The Sun Herald says, “As far as family entertainment goes, there’s very little to fault with this rather delightful and moving picture.”

“Philomena” gives us Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in a true story about a simple Irish woman searching for her lost son with the help of an out-of-work journalist. Passionate Moviegoer sees it as “at once heartbreaking, entertaining and humbling.” And Washington Post notes: “At its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.”

Yes, you’ll find it all here at the Tropic -- evil nuns, Uncle Walt, slick unrepentant hustlers, and an iPhone to love.

Her (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Her” Provides Siri Substitute

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Do you have an iPhone? Y’ know, one of the newer models that has Siri, a helpful artificial intelligence female who apparently lives inside your phone. She’s one smart cookie, able to tell you the nearest place to buy pizza, guide you on your trips, make phone calls for you, look up things, act as a secretary who reminds you of appointments. She can even converse, after a fashion.

But don’t get too close.

Siri’s even programmed to say, “My end user licensing agreement does not include marriage.”

In “Her” -- the new sci-fi romance playing at Tropic Cinema -- a guy named Theodore Twombly gets a new, advanced operating system for his phone. Promising to be an intuitive entity that individualizes itself for each user, the Siri-like voice is called Samantha.

Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely guy, moping over the breakup with his wife. Turns out, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is kinda lonely in that little hard-shell case too. A relationship develops. You might consider it a new form of phone sex, just him and his smart phone.

Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde provide the flesh-and-blood women in this film. Scarlett Johansson was being talked up for an Academy Award, but rules require that more than just an actor’s voice has to appear on-screen to be nominated. Bummer.

Director-writer Spike Jonze got the idea for the movie about ten years ago when he read an article about instant texting with artificial intelligence. Supposedly, the more you talked with it, the smarter it got. Whoa!

But love?

If you ask Siri, “Do you love me?” she will reply, “Let’s just say … you have my utmost admiration.”

But if you persist, Siri will admit, “Well, you’re definitely starting to grow on me.”

So will “Her.”

As Spike Jonze concludes, “A lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory.” Yeah, women are definitely like that.

Wolf Revisited (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Wolf” At The Door

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

From time to time, I take a second look at a movie that needs further edification. Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is such a film, stirring up a hornet’s nest over whether or not it glorifies greed.

Star Leonardo DiCaprio has made a name for himself lately playing über-rich guys on the wrong side of righteousness. “The Great Gatsby” could be a role model for Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And the plantation owner in “Django Unchained” contains the seeds of grandeur at any cost.

But some moviegoers -- notably Christina McDowell, daughter of Washington securities lawyer Thomas Prousalis, who pleaded guilty to engaging in stock fraud in the 1990s, as part of the schemes of Jordan Belfort -- accuses the movie of glorifying crime. After all, the movie doesn’t show Belfort getting his just deserts for all his penny-stock frauds. Well, not enough at any rate.

This seems to stem from the current zeitgeist that movies should demonstrate that Crime Doesn’t Pay (as the old Comics Code required comic books to proclaim).

Problem is, it sometimes does.

And “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on a true story. In the movie, Belfort is sentenced to 36 months. In real life, he served only 22.

Apparently, it’s not enough punishment that Belfort lost his family, lost his millions, lost his mansion, lost his friends whom he ratted out, and was reduced to doing get-rich-quick motivational seminars in Holiday Inns around the country.

Or maybe it’s not the degree of the punishment that bothers us. Maybe it’s that the movie doesn’t portray him as being contrite enough for his maleficences.

After all, we’ve been treated to three hours of screen time where we witness DiCaprio-as-Belfort tossing away hundred-dollar bills, sailing on his 100-plus-foot yacht, snorting cocaine, doing ’ludes, cavorting with naked hookers, thumbing his nose at the FBI, and bilking investors out of billions.

New York magazine critic David Edelstein describes it as “three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible.” True enough.

Bad people are no stranger to Scorsese’s movies. Think: “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “Gangs of New York,” and “Taxi Driver.” And boxer Jake LaMotte is no role model in “Raging Bull,” a film that many critics consider the best movie ever made.

Have we already forgotten the anti-hero movies of the ‘60s? “Bonnie and Clyde” were not good guys … but they did get riddled with bullets for their bank robbing ways.

Problem is, how do you punish people in a movie who got away with it in real like?

Belfort claims to be sorry for all the pain he inflicted on others. He says he wants you to see the movie as a cautionary tale.

“‘Convicted stock swindler’ – it’s like it hurts my heart,” he says. ”I know it was true, but it’s not who I am.”

However, it is.

My wife won’t go see a Woody Allen movie because she disapproves of his tryst and later marriage to an “adopted” daughter. But I can appreciate him as a great filmmaker, even if I disapprove of his personal life.

My wife didn’t go see “The Wolf of Wall Street” because she saw the movie trailer and determined these types of people didn’t interest her. I liked the movie.

No Jordan Belfort didn’t have many redeeming qualities. But did it glorify crime? I don’t think so. No way was I enticed to quit my day job and go bilk people out of their life savings so I could party with wild women on my yacht.

Even without black hats, I can still tell the bad guys from the good guys in movies.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Top Ten for 2013 (Rhoades)

Ten Best Films of 2013

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The year’s Ten Best Films? As film critic Andrew O’Hehir observes, “Everybody who writes about movies dreads making these lists, yet all of us want to read each other’s lists.”

Actually, I compose a Top Ten list every week!

Nonetheless, as Oscar season approaches, these Best of the Year lists pop up like mushrooms. Here’s mine, a personal catalog that ignores likely award-winners and focuses on what I found entertaining.

10. “About Time” -- Not likely to appear on many serious lists, this quirky little comedy about time travel will steal your heart. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) bends time to pursue Mary (Rachel McAdams), but it’s the relationship with his dad (Bill Nighy) that puts a lump in our throat.

9. “Gravity” -- Sandra Bullock adrift in space proves her previous Oscar win wasn’t a fluke. Even the spectacular special effects can’t overpower her near-wordless performance as a stranded astronaut. And George Clooney drops in to give the film gravitas.

8. “The Way Way Back” -- A bittersweet coming-of-age story about a boy and an amusement park. Adrift while his mother kowtows to her new boyfriend, 14-year old Duncan (Liam James) learns confidence from the park’s cool manager (Sam Rockwell).

7. “Philomena” -- A discredited journalist (Steve Coogan) helps an Irish woman (Dame Judi Dench) search for the illegitimate son she lost to the nuns 50 years ago.

6. “12 Years a Slave” -- A free black man is shanghaied into slavery in 1841. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) proves that a man’s impetus to be free is key to his survival. Brad Pitt is on hand to help us deal with white guilt.

5. “Blue Jasmine” -- Woody Allen gives us two half-sisters who have made poor choices in mates. Here, Jasmine and Ginger (Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins) try to deal with their respective reversals of fortune.

4. “Nebraska” -- Woody (Bruce Dern) is a Montana farmer traveling with his son (Will Forte) to the title state hoping to claim a million-dollar sweepstake prize.

3. “August: Osage County” -- A generational shift of power takes place between mother and daughter (Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) in this drama. Based on the stage play, but as real as a family reunion.

2. “American Hustle” -- Loosely based on the infamous ABSCAM affair, a couple of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) make a fool out of an overbearing FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).

1. “Prisoners” -- An almost-perfect mystery as a policeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) helps an angry father (Hugh Jackman) search for his kidnapped daughter. You’ll shut your eyes in parts, but the dramatic rescue lingers on like the sound of a child’s whistle.

Top Films/Performances of 2013 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2014 Award Season

This past year was a "true story"-ish feast. Here are some of my picks for the upcoming awards season. Starting with Best Actor, the heat of the race is between Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's "Her" and Robert Redford for his performance in "All Is Lost". Phoenix is a risk taker and an iconoclast. Redford's performance is also a study in minimalist drama. He does so much just by the force of expression.

In the Best Supporting Actor category, I think Barkhad Abdi will win,  for his earthy sincerity in "Captain Phillips" but Daniel Bruhl is a close second for his eerie transformative performance in "Rush".  Jonah Hill's smarmy and arrogant Donnie in "The Wolf of Wall Street" might even surprise.

For the Best Actress category, Cate Blanchett title role in "Blue Jasmine" may well be a shoo-in. But let's not count out Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers  in "Saving Mr. Banks" or Judi Dench as the eponymous Philomena.

Regarding Supporting Actress, look for June Squibb in "Nebraska" or Sally Hawkins as a touchy sister to Cate Blanchett's Jasmine.

Best Director will prove a closely contested category with such heavy hitters like the legendary Woody Allen, Paul Greengrass, The Coen Brothers, David O. Russell and Alfonso Cuaron. This category is a squeaker and there might even be an upset, being that the diverse and eclectic Spike Jonze is in the mix for his Kubrickian love story "Her". If I had to pick a winner, I would bet on Cuaron or Russell; the Academy often goes for iconic drama masters or blockbuster existential directors who have made an impact.

The category of Best Picture is a toss up of sorts with so many films that are all exceptional standing alone. While that is true, my visual senses are telling me that the champion may well be "Gravity" for its sheer iconic breadth in storytelling combined with a slick and uncompromisingly visceral cinematography. The quirkily authentic "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a contender as well as "Captain Phillips" for the painstaking virtuosic  story that no doubt will make you very uncomfortable---a Greengrass trademark.

While the winners are undetermined as yet, there is no doubt that this was the year of the "true story" film with many tales ( Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even All Is Lost) featuring an elitist "one percenter" under duress, which no doubt can be both a catharsis and a temperature gauge for our national climate. In nearly every film, we watch the mighty and the moneyed fall and root for the underdog in his or her plight. These films clearly express that it's no longer hip to be detached from our collective monsters, fiscal or otherwise.

2014 is a diverse film year with many diverse authentic and meaningful stories.

Watch for upsets.

Write Ian at

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Week of January 3 to January 9 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

New Year Celebrations Continues at Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Tropic Cinema rang in the New Year by holding over four great films -- “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”

“Nebraska” stars the venerable Bruce Dern as a Montana farmer determined to walk to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize he thinks he’s won. Will Forte plays his youngest son, torn between reality and helping his dad achieve his garbled dream. Time Out describes it as “an intimate road movie about one family that also lingers on the landscapes and fabric of an old-time, dying vision of the American Midwest.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune sees it as “a wonderful comedy shot in black-and-white and told in shades of gray.”

“Philomena” offers a terrific performance by Dame Judi Dench as the eponymous Irish woman searching for the son she gave away 50 years ago. Steve Coogan co-stars as the disgraced journalist helping her in this seemingly futile quest. The Washington Post notes that “at its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.” And Passionate moviegoer finds it “at once heartbreaking, entertaining and humbling.”

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese gives us his favorite actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a boiler-room financial manipulator who parties hardy, does drugs and dames, and steal money. Not exactly a cautionary tale, since the aforementioned wolf is barely punished for fleecing the sheep. The Atlantic calls it “a magnificent black comedy: fast, funny, and remarkably filthy.” And tags it as “a cynical, nasty satire.”

In “Saving Mr. Banks,” Tom Hanks takes on the affable persona of Walt Disney, cajoling the rights to “Mary Poppins” from grumpy author Pamela Travers (a great performance by Emma Thompson). Suite 101 says, “It’s every bit the charming confection you expect it to be, but it's also uncommonly and unexpectedly thoughtful about the troubles of the creative mind and the travails of the creative process.” And Denver Post observes, “It's more a spoonful of sugar than medicine for aging baby boomer's souls.”

So celebrate the New Year by catching up on the movies you meant to see in 2013.