Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week of May 30 to June 5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Romances, Epics, Dramas, Documentaries  --
Something for Everybody at the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

A vampire romance, a comic-book adventure, and a historical drama highlight this week’s films at the Tropic Cinema. That is to say, a film by an acclaimed indie director, a mainstream blockbuster, and a British historical piece … something for everybody!

“Only Lovers Left Alive” is the latest offering by idiosyncratic filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (“Mystery Train,” “Night on Earth”). Here we have the story of two vampires (Tim Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), still in love after all those centuries. Detroit News says, “Somehow it's all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch declares that it “breathes new and intriguing life into the vampire genre.” And Miami Herald sums up the plot: “Even vampires get the blues.”

Marvel’s “Amazing Spider-Man 2” swings into the Tropic with the further adventures of the your favorite superhero, Spidey (Andrew Garfield). Here he faces Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan). Richard Roeper observes that it has an “overstuffed plot and too many villains, but the visual effects pop, and Garfield/Stone are still better than Maguire/Dunst.” And Baret News describes it as “a Marvel-ously entertaining franchise that miraculously just keeps on giving and giving!” And

You can still catch “Belle,” the historical drama about the illegitimate daughter of a slave (portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was raised as a British aristocrat. Based on a true story, it tells how Belle’s uncle, the Lord Magistrate (Tom Wilkinson), helped abolish slavery in England.. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says, “Its ‘Downton Abbey’ settings, dresses like tiered and frosted wedding cakes, romance-novel décolletage, men in powdered wigs and elaborate 18th-century courtship rituals may be the stuff of Jane Austen, but the story is decidedly not.” And Viginia Pilot calls it “a wonderfully informative film while being entertaining at the same time.”

Holding over is “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s look at the foibles of a fancy L.A. cook who insults a food critic. Philadelphia Inquirer calls it a “bouncy paean to the culinary arts.” And Sacramento Bee tells us it’s “savvy but not cynical, soaked in atmosphere … Favreau's return to independent film immerses its audience in its likable lead character's failures, triumphs and food.”

And speaking of food, “Fed Up” is a documentary that will change the way you eat. This warning takes on your sweet tooth and the dangers of sugar in 80% of the foods found on your supermarket shelves. Chicago Sun-Times notes, “Director Stephanie Soechtig gathers activists, doctors, kids, lobbyists, parents, politicians, reporters and teachers -- all with different stakes.” And Christian Science Monitor advises, “You don't want to be downing Raisinets while watching this film.”

From bloodsuckers to candy suckers, that’s a wide range this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Only Lovers Left Alive,”
A Biting Film by Jim Jarmusch

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of our favorite musicians turned out to be vampires. Consider their wan complexions, goth attire, and nighttime habits. Mick Jagger and David Bowie are still rocking as if they will live forever, surviving on the blood of their fans. Maybe Ziggy Stardust didn’t fall to earth, but instead rose from a crypt.

That’s the premise of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the Jim Jarmusch film that’s playing at the Tropic -- a musician who is in fact a vampire.

Jarmusch is known for his unhurried, minimalist style of filmmaking. His idiosyncratic works include “Stranger than Paradise” (credited with launching the American independent film movement), “Mystery Train”  (winner of Best Artistic Achievement at Cannes), and “Broken Flowers” (winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes).

He describes his films as “looking at America through a foreigner’s eyes.” In “Only Lovers Left Alive” he does that, but the foreigner here is a vampire. In fact, several of them.

After living for centuries, a famous musician named Adam (Tim Hiddleston) is hiding away in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit. Having become world-weary, Adam survives on blood bank donations supplied to him by a doctor (Jeffrey Wright). Because she’s worried about him, his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) flies to Detroit from her home in Tangiers. They lounge around eating blood popsicles and playing chess, but this idyllic reunion is interrupted when Eve’s younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) joins them. However, a hematophagic faux pas by the younger sister sends them fleeing to Tangiers where they hook up with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a fellow vampire who’s feeling under the weather after snacking on some bad blood. But soon enough, these only lovers left alive start to feel hunger pangs. So what choices do they have? As that fast-food slogan says, You gotta eat!

Jim Jarmusch should be congratulated on his casting. Who looks more the part of modern-day vampires than Tim Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, and John Hurt? Etiolated and pallid, they’re the very image of anemic bloodsuckers.

Tilda Swinton, who has worked with Jarmusch on numerous occasions, refers to him as a “rock star.” Point in fact, he has often worked as a musician. Even today he plays with a group called SQÜRL. That band’s cover of Wanda Jackson’s 1961 song “Funnel of Love” opens this film.

In 2005 the American Film Institute hosted a retrospective titled “The Sad and Beautiful World of Jim Jarmusch.” Even so, the celebrated director laments, “I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t feel tied to my time.”

Jarmusch’s pal Jozef van Wissem describes “Only Lovers Left Alive” as “a very personal film, maybe even autobiographical.”

Years ago, I used to see Jim Jarmusch hanging out in SoHo cafés, easily recognizable by his gaunt features and upswept hair, eyes hidden behind dark keep-out-the-sunlight shades. Come to think of it, he could have passed for a lonely urban vampire in search of his next meal.

Maybe he found it. “Only Lovers Left Alive” turns out to be a delicious repast.

Spider-Man 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Amazing Spider-Man 2”
Swings into Theaters

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A few years back I donated my No. 1 issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” to a college library. Yes, I think it was literature, of sorts. While my ol’ friend Stan Lee didn’t realize he was doing anything more than cranking out comic books, he inadvertently created an archetype -- establishing the mantra that “With great power must also come great responsibility!”

How do I know it’s literature? Because Voltaire said it first.

That’s what comic books are all about, retelling amazing stories until they’re entrenched in popular culture. Even if you crib from a French philosopher.

Peter Parker (A/K/A Spider-Man), the web-swinging vigilante who serves as the flagship character of Marvel Comics, is back on the big screen in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” It’s now playing at your friendly neighborhood  Tropic Cinema.

Sure, you’ve already seen that second Spider-Man sequel starring Toby McGuire. But this blockbuster, the second outing in the rebooted franchise, stars Andrew Garfield. In comic books, we tend to tell the story over and over. Fans are like children asking their grandfather to reread their favorite bedtime story night after night.

In this retelling, Spidey (Garfield) meets up with the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), his most popular nemesis. When I was publisher of Marvel Comics we used to say a superhero was only as good as the supervillain he faced. And the Goblin’s a good bad guy.

However, just to be sure, in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” director Marc Webb also throws in a sparking Electro (Jamie Foxx) and sets up armor-plated Rhino (Paul Giamatti) for the next sequel.

As the love interest we have Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), but -- no spoiler alert necessary -- every fanboy on the planet knows we killed her off in the comic books.

Here also is the mystery of Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), the couple who left him an orphan when their plane crashed. He now lives with his Aunt May (Sally Field).

So what sets this version of Spider-Man apart from all those movies that came before? The story gets a little more refined with each retelling. And the CGI animation gets better and better, with Spidey’s swinging from building to building on the streets of New York seeming even more realistic. And his battle in Time Square with Electro will knock your socks off.

Stan Lee once told me why he set the Spider-Man stories in New York City instead of some pretend place like Metropolis or Gotham City. “I wanted people to look out their window and almost expect to see Spider-Man come swinging by.”

But I didn’t have to look out my window … because every Friday morning Spidey dropped by my office, leading a parade of kids on a tour of Marvel Comics. Sweet.

Fed Up (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Fed Up

In what might seem a nutritional horror film claustrophobically envisioned by Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier where M&Ms attack in a deluge, creating a wall of deceptively cheerful but enervating Lego blocks and soda gurgles up in acidic malevolence like the snow depicted in the films "Antichrist" and "Nymphomaniac," here is director Stephanie Soechtig's "Fed Up," specifically about the ubiquity of processed foods and how this amalgamated animal is killing us.

Sugar in all its forms is a white winter queen and childhood obesity is an epidemic.

Brady Kluge is a teen in North Carolina. He is overweight but active and has tried everything. Girls have teased him, wanting Brady to run as he is the fattest in class.

Maggie Valentine is another. She has also tried to lose, exercising compulsively, swimming three times a week, but in vain. Maggie's self esteem is crushed and she often cries. Wesley Randall is yet one more. He is nearly a hundred pounds overweight. Randall has the attitude of a scientist, eerily self aware despite his youth.

All of these kids have sought medical help. The professionals urge dietary changes and exercise, a withdrawal of sugar and fat.

Little helps. One singular teen scarily achieves desperate success by opting for bariatric surgery.

The consensus of the experts depicted in this film are that our government food machine is insidious and very out to get us. Corn syrup is a sucrose lie that changes shape with the ability to assume many forms like a finger licking Lucifer usurping our strength and changing our metabolic processes. A calorie from an almond according to officials cited is not the same as a calorie from a seductive and devilishly labeled Coke or Pepsi. An almond has fiber to break down the sugar, but a soft drink is highly concentrated without fiber. The liquid goes right to the liver and puts all organs in overdrive, furiously producing fat. According to the film, our metabolism and hormone levels become changed with three dangers very possible: obesity, diabetes and cancer.

But all was not always gloom and doom. In the mid 1960s, George McGovern helmed a very proactive study, telling of these toxins and suggesting regulations. The industries of meat and sugar banded together to squash the study, deflecting attention away from processed foods and putting it into exercise, diet and personal responsibility.

Walter Cronkite subtly plugged sugar as well as TV shoes not to mention the benevolent attack of cartoons on Saturday morning. The 1970s brought the Pop Art age of sugar, the sinister and sweet.

President Bill Clinton appears, apologetically to his credit, to say he missed an opportunity and underestimated the processed food threat.

The Obama administration while seeming at first to be unabashedly radical in its wanting to impose well needed and stringent restrictions on school lunches, scared the GOP and food lobbyists. The once revolutionary minded Michelle Obama has accepted help from sugar and meat industries and now the emphasis is on the symptom of obesity itself rather than the root cause which is food itself. In the refusal to correctly name our demon, the exorcism is futile, leaving an empty glucose of glossolalia behind.

Journalist and cultural food critic Michael Pollan is the film's priest and rightly so. His message is simple: "Cook. Don't eat processed foods."

But the engine of highly manipulated  food, like our hunger for consumerism, grinds on with a supernatural power. In watching "Fed Up", it is hard not to feel as if we are already submerged by sugar's refined Juggernaut of many faces.

While its true that some of the film borrows from "Super Size Me" in the way the children are metabolically menaced, the constrictive peril is original and daring. We feel the blight.

As a young boy, my dad took me to see Ronald McDonald at a mall. His seemingly yellow suit hit me like a smile.

"Hey, what took you so long! I've been waiting for you."

It was an odd moment due to his familiarity, coupled with the contrast of the bright baggy suit he wore against the gray New Jersey mall.

I hesitated. Perhaps it was not all in summer cheer, maybe he had ulterior motives: to get me indoctrinated, to get me hooked despite time spent in my mom's garden.

In watching "Fed Up" we might not know of a fail safe solution, but in this's technologically tactile, yet abstract age, the path is clear enough.

Let us dare to feel our food.

Write Ian at

Monday, May 26, 2014

Belle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Amma Asante (A Way of Life) tackles matters of social stratification and racism during the late 1700s in "Belle". The film is a luxuriant, hard hitting and poignant study on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate bi-racial daughter of a Royal Navy officer, John Lindsay and her struggle for not just noble esteem, but human equality.

In an instant we are plunged in a realm of Dickens. All is damp, gray and brown. Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) rescues Belle as a child from an anonymous mass of forgotten children, promising a life of comfort and privilege.

All is not so.

The ladies of the house chatter snidely about her ethnicity like prejudiced poultry. The young adult Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) looks over her shoulder despite her satin surroundings. Her foster parent, Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) clearly adores her, but condescends that she cannot join the family at dinners.

Belle is treated as a sister by Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) but is placed in the carnivorous lion's den of hatred by the repulsive James Ashford (Tom Felton). Ashford is a monster who gives actual reptiles a bad name.

The buoyancy here is in the spirit of Belle who stays above the morass of misery with an almost objective aplomb.

To complicate matters, Murray is held to rule on a negligent ship that held slaves and has the power to either pull the plug on the flagrantly abusive ship, and its abominable human trafficking or keep it in business.

Belle becomes a covert investigator of sorts, uncovering slave documents all the while trapped in a preplanned marriage with the square headed and blank Lord Ashford (Alex Jennings). Belle is the calm center in the alternately toxic and nattering storm about money and fashion.

She alone has grace and a humanist awareness.

While parts of the "Belle" might mirror a Jane Austen melodrama, or even a Twilight with the dashing Mr. Davinier (Sam Reid) and Belle's heavenly melting eyes, we take it all in because of Belle's direct verve contained in the performance of  Mbatha-Raw.

One scene in particular stands above the rest:

Belle is leaning by a meadow when Felton's Ashford is absinthe with hate and dull envy. Belle exists at once as a progressive Pre-Raphaelite painting put into life, a new Ophelia for not just the past millennium but ours as well. As a force of restraint and magnetism, Belle and actress Gugu Mbatha-raw make a compellingly watchable, triumphant pair.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chef (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


From the testosterone-fueled director Jon Favreau of Iron Man fame,  "Chef" is a colorful character study, part travelogue, part family drama that goes down as light as a plate of profiteroles.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a single minded chef who bears a resemblance to painter Julian Schnabel. In this role, Favreau appears a cross between chefs Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain. He is a ranging iconoclast. The tattoos on his arms parallel grill marks and burns, the many years spent cooking and creating behind an infernal kitchen, not only making food but also a gritty business, of chopping, lifting, grinding, mixing and simply sweating.

At the first second, Carl brings in an entire pig wrapped in plastic. The animal is cold, pink and white. This is almost like Tony Soprano about to ice a rival and that is Favreau's point. Cooking is a harsh business. Chefs can bring life and poetry to what is often carnivorous or no longer living. The director doesn't pull his punches in the rough and tumble realm of those who cook.

Carl is restless. He wants to let loose and create as the punk rocker of rotisserie or The Slash of sweetbreads, but his right angled restauranteur Riva (Dustin Hoffman) won't give him creative freedom.

When a supercilious and snobby critic (Oliver Platt) is rumored to appear, Carl wants to showcase his transformative and unconventional dishes, but Riva won't hear of it.

Carl's hands are tied and he is eviscerated by the critic in an online review. After having a public meltdown on the floor that is almost as freewheeling as a WWF smackdown in terms of vocal power, Carl quits.

He meets with his ex (a slightly muted Sofia Vergara) who urges him to try a food truck and cook without bounds.

While on the surface of things, the drama might be fluffy and transparent, the film has a molten center, not only in the richness of Carl and his energy for the culture and ritual of being a chef, but also in the bond he yearns for, with his ten year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

Not one character is a cartoon here from the earthy John Leguizamo as a line cook to Robert Downey, Jr. who is effete and sycophantic here as Carl's former rival turned ally.

Along with the cozy pressed bread underdog story is Carl's (and Jon Favreau's) love for the color and rhythm of food and its diverse ingredients that carry the story.

The shots of beef and savory vegetables sizzling in prisms of succulence fire upon the eyes in nothing less than machine gun fire. The montages one after the other, in rapid loops hit you like a dance. This is one film where we can almost feel a root's texture and the meat will make you hungry.

Each locale from Texas to Miami and New Orleans has a unique form. With just a few spare scenes Favreau tells us what it might be like to cook in these places and we are there. Our lips almost kiss a beignet.

More importantly though, "Chef" gives us a smattering of the peril behind the line and the shared circus music of what food and its eccentric ingredients can be, shared between a father and son.

The wildness of food's terrain with its nourishing chemistry, and the necessity of an indigenous meal remains in defiance of a twittering and fritter-less cyberspace.

Write Ian at

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Week of May 23 to May 29 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Serves Up an Entertaining Stew

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

What’s cooking at the Tropic? Well, a tasty entrée is “Chef,” the new dramedy by John Favreau. Returning to his indie roots after the success of his “Iron Man” blockbusters, Favreau direct, produces, writes, and stars in this delicious story about a hot L.A. chef (Favreau) who gets fired for insulting a food critic. Philadelphia Inquirer says, “Jon Favreau’s bouncy paean to the culinary arts wins you over in a stridently upbeat, crowd-pleasing way...” And SSG Syndicate calls it “a succulent, sweetly simmering amusement.”

Another main course is “Belle,” based on the eponymous historical character, Dido Elizabeth Belle. This 19th-Century mixed-race aristocrat (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) faces a staid British society that ostracizes Belle because of her illegitimate birth while at the same time recognizing the power of her great uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Denver Post says “Luminous British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings a hope and intelligent hunger to Dido. She’s loved by her family enough to have a sense of belonging but hemmed in by broader cultural realities to experience moments of unease.” And Movie Habit tells us that it “gives an Austen-like treatment to a historically important story.”

“The Railway Man” serves up Oscar-winner Colin Firth as a British World War II vet who remains haunted by his ill treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war. Is it ever too late to seek justice? Seattle Times says, “The truth of what happened to him is devastating; the truth of how he found forgiveness in his soul is astonishing.” And East Bay Express describes it as an “old-fashioned, sorrowful WWII drama that shows an even grimmer side of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ story.”

Still on the menu is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s stylized story of a European concierge who’s comically on the lam for murder. You’ll enjoy trying to recognize the supporting cast under their layers of makeup. The Denver Post says, “If a movie can be elegantly zany, this wholly imaginative, assured fable of a legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), his protégé Zero (Tony Revolori), and the murder of a countess, is it.” And The Standard adds, “An argument could be made that this is Wes Anderson’s best film.”

For those looking for a second helping of blockbuster entertainment, here’s Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 3-D. In this epic non-stop-action adventure, a newly-thawed-out Cap meets up with a nemesis from his past. Vulture notes, “Beneath the expensive, computer-generated business of this second Captain America installment is a bracing, old-style conspiracy thriller made extra-scary by new technology and the increasingly ugly trade-offs of a post-9/11 world.” And The Atlantic concludes, “A movie that is, in the best sense of the word, a Marvel.”

So have a hardy cinematic helping.

Belle (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Belle” Speaks of Equality and Romance

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

An odd painting used to hang in Kenwood House outside of London, a portrait of a proper English lady and standing beside her a beautiful woman of color wearing a feathered turban. That they were equals can be determined by the fact that they are pictured at the same eye-line. This 1779 neoclassical painting, attributed to Johann Zoffany, depicts Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth.

Dido was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsey, sent to live with his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. Despite the girl’s ethnicity, Lord Mansfield raised her to be an aristocrat alongside her orphaned cousin.

What makes this interesting is that Mansfield served as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. And as such he was called upon to rule in the Somersett’s Case, a legal matter involving an escaped slave. Rather than recuse himself because of his ward Dido (technically, a slave because of her African mother), he ruled that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political … it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.”

Abolitionists of the time took this to mean that slavery was abolished in England.

While Lord Mansfield’s ruling was a little vague, he did take the precaution of formally giving Dido Belle her freedom.

That aside, “Belle” -- the movie now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- spends more time examining Dido Belle’s romance with John Davinier. Actually a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, in the movie he’s said to be a lawyer. No wonder Lord Mansfield worried that she was marrying below her station.

Belle is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the beautiful actress who starred in TV’s short-lived “Undercovers” series). Tom Wilkerson (“In the Bedroom”) and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”) take on the roles of Lord and Lady Mansfield. Miranda Richardson (“Damage”) is cast as Lady Ashford. Sarah Gadon (“Cosmopolis”) is seen as cousin Elizabeth. And Sam Reid (“The Railway Man”) has the part of John Davinier.

Director Amma Asante is herself a woman of color. Born in London to Ghanaian parents, she began her career on television as a child actress (BBC1’s long-running “Grange Hall”) but switched to the other side of the camera during her teens, becoming a screenwriter and producer. “Belle” is her second turn at directing a feature film.

Recently “Belle” was given a special showing at the United Nations as part of its commemorative events on the transatlantic slave trade. And Asante was picked by BAFTA as a Brit to Watch.

As for “Belle,” her life was an interesting paradox, that of an heiress and at the same time a social pariah … more due to her illegitimate birth than being black.

In the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “All men are created equal,” yet he kept slaves. William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield gave an illegitimate slave girl her freedom and raised her as an aristocrat.

Apparently, equality is not as simple as appearing at eye level in a painting.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Railway Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 
The Railway Man

Director Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man" about the real life torture of British soldier, Eric Lomax, detained for five years during WWII, by the Japanese has a strong solid performance by Colin Firth. The actor possesses an understated strength that's impossible to deny. Yet the film as an entertainment and an historical memoir in a dramatic format, suffers from a heavy handed treatment, a manipulation of heartwrenchings, that feels pre-digested and preachy.
Firth stars as Lomax, a retired and somewhat reserved man obsessed by trains. Coming back from a rail-centric auction concerning a rare book, he meets the bright and charming Patti (Nicole Kidman). Not much is given about her except that she is a nurse and she loves Eric deeply. All things seem pink and rosy, until she notices a severe withdrawal impulse in Eric, combined with fits of anger and anxiety. 
He is predisposed to hoarding and when pressed he shuts down all communication. At times, Eric is shown shrieking and tangled on the floor.

Frustrated and anxious, Patti meets with Eric's best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) who tells her that some men endure  things. He tells Patti to accept the unknown in Eric's heart. 
Meanwhile, Eric has terrible PTSD episodes and flashbacks as a tortured captive by the Kempeitai and more specifically by a man known as Mr. Nagase played as a young man by Tanroh Ishida. Eric is horribly beaten and brutally water boarded. Every bone in his body appears shattered. He is caged and thrown into a black cell, left to die. His crime is covertly building a radio.
Eric is found by Allied Forces but he is a silhouette of his former self. He joins a support group led by Finlay but can't integrate. 
Finlay tells him that Nagase is alive and giving railway tours, earning a living as a docent in a war museum. Eric is urged to confront Nagase and kill him.
Firth has verve and veracity throughout with much of the emotional tension given in restrained nonverbal passages which make the somewhat formulaic events of pain sweat and savage violence something more than just a shriek-fest on par with Eli Roth of torture porn.
Skarsgard, also, is riveting as the blunt confidant, his face a mask of passivity with ice blue eyes that wait for an unavoidable abyss. With his smoky, quasi-sarcastic voice, he is the embodiment of circumstance without moral judgment akin to actor Max von Sydow.
But when Eric goes on his quest with a knife to settle the score, facing his torturer, the now mellow Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), events go more bronchially-imperiled than Bronson, and events swerve into a little "Death Wish." Instead of moving to a more daring and thoughtful key, the music swells to Spielberg's shores and letters are written with more torture interspersed in flashbacks. Tender words are exchanged and reflected upon with knives "plunged in the heart," all this while the "hate must stop."
The message is well taken and worthwhile. Yet with all the bone crunching (as real as it is)  pensive looks on cue blended so homogeneously with a floating orchestration, this account feels more a generic Hollywood war film  and less like a unique experience, meaningful and engaged. Firth is energized and sincere and Sanada matches him step for step, as a grateful echo, but with such platitudes it all feels spun in a predictable loop.
Given that there have been so many war films on torture, "The Railway Man" thirsts for a bit of arrhythmic haiku to couple with its very real sensorily-numbing newsreel horrors.

Write Ian at

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Locke (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Tom Hardy, who is known for his aggressive and usually villainous roles (Bane, of The Dark Knight Rises), is a singular force of pathos, want and frustration here. He wonderfully handles the drama with the camera watching and indeed, makes it seem effortless.

Hardy is the lone star in director Steven Knight's insular and existential film "Locke." Hardy plays a Type A construction foreman who is rapidly going to pieces. While at first he has urges to go home to his wife Katrina, Locke resolves to attend to his one-time mistress Bethan, who is in the middle of having his baby at a London hospital. Though he falls short of professing his love for her, he feels bound to her and as she is needy and more than a bit fragile, Locke steels himself. In his controlling mind it is the right thing to do. After all, his name is Locke and he seals things up so that no air or wobbly emotion escapes.

To complicate matters, he resigns himself to being a no show at work as we would suspect, but his peers are only informed at the last minute and this makes for a whole heap of tempestuous tempers, given that the paperwork for Locke's milestone building is not yet approved.

The foreman's upper crust auto becomes a both an elitist life preserver and a crushing vice as events and egos expand and collapse around him with only a car phone as a transmitting beacon and  anchor.

The voice of Bethan (Olivia Colman) gets increasingly anxious, while Katrina (Ruth Wilson) is devastated. Locke's assistant Donal (Andrew Scott) is drunk and lackadaisical and his kids are too consumed by football to be much help.

Borrowing icy cues from Patricia Highsmith, J.G. Ballard and Steven Spielberg's eerie debut film "Duel," "Locke" depicts a man in an expensive rolling prison of sorts as the camera jitters and jags with every bump, wrenching to the left and right, compensating for each curve. As Locke is battered and jostled violently about in the car, director Knight seems to blackly parody Hardy's usual outings as the boxer and tough guy.

The man behind the wheel tries his best to pull it together but even during those instances where he is a stolid rock with the uncertainty of anger surrounding him, his very teeth  are transformed into abacus beads that calculate the odds, specifically  of not getting his way, whether he arrives as a top dog, or a scumbag without legacy, be it a child or a building to add to his masculine name.

Locke's BMW transcends into a Hitchcockian last refuge, a sable jet that is light and quick but oddly slow moving, a vehicle that is at first glance all speed and space, lighted like a capsule, yet stuck in the black morass of traffic and domestic argument, with all elements spiraling downward in ribbons of resentment.

The night is a thread that Locke must reach to reclaim his equilibrium restoring himself as a man in power.

Stephen Knight's success is in showing this bound man, deep in the noir of life, shut in a modern yet minimalist ark. There are no invisible Boogeymen, outside forces of evil or external dilemmas shown. Locke's irons were made by his own weak mental hand. As a consequence, his normally strong male fingers can only perfunctorily wipe a runny nose incoming with a cold.

Write Ian at

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers Aka "Captain America" in a sequel to his first outing.

In this film, with an obvious nod to the 1970s political thriller films, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made a deal with a senior SHIELD leader and military zealot Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to install a preemptive strike missile system worldwide.

But not everything is tight and right in Avenger Land.

After a botched rescue mission involving Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and  Captain, Rogers contemplates giving up the Avenger team. He dons a hoodie and acts the role of civilian.

While doing some errands, Nick Fury  comes under a startling and epinephrine-filled attack within his impervious SUV that is worthy of a rip-roaring Saturday matinee or a whip crack by Indiana Jones. While the artillery spent is ear-numbing, the sheer invention of the onslaught is so tense that it borders the black humored and zany. The car chase alone races along the lines of Steve McQueen and Friedkin's "The French Connection." With races such as these, the film directors Joe and Anthony Russo are in good company.

Fury is forced to take refuge in Rogers' pad as he is badly wounded due to what can only be described as a bone crushing.

The Captain takes off after the assailant, a "winter soldier" who is three-quarters man with a metal arm (Sebastian Stan). This villain has dark goth looks reminiscent of Eric Draven in "The Crow."

He is unstoppable.

Needless to say, Captain is bereft.

Gradually it comes to light that Mr. Pierce is up to no good,  mad with power. Rogers and Black Widow find a secret SHIELD bunker from WWII that actually doubles as a station for neo-nazi operations. In a nice touch that echoes the cliffhangers of Spielberg and George Lucas, Black Widow ridicules the cumbersome 1960s era mainframes only to realize with an amazed horror that they pulse with a contemporary vibrance once a memory stick is inserted.

Lo and behold, the wheedling and weasel-like countenance of the notorious nazi Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) appears, albeit in a crudely digital but strikingly more creepy form. Zola remains as ever, the binary visage that you love to hate.

There is a solid subplot involving the main villain's past when he was a dear friend of Rogers during wartime that provides suspense and tension.

However, when Pierce's true colors come into play, this chapter of the red white and blue grows a little anemic with a the frequently played show of uber firepower between Good and Evil. The 70s flavor of "Three Days of The Condor" is touched upon, but some refreshing ambiguity to balance the all too familiar war machines in the air would be well served.

In spite of this, the singular hero of Captain America is near impossible to repel. Just the sight of him scampering about in retro allure is enough to overwhelm you with an ebullience of red and navy blue. Not since the original run of "Star Wars" has there been such a buoyant, suspenseful and enjoyable group of films.

Write Ian at

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Week of May 16 to May 22 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Catch Up on Some Terrific Films at the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This is a week of second chances at the Tropic Cinema.

If you missed the New York Film Critics Series advanced showing of “Locke,” here’s another chance to see it. This is a quiet drama about a married man whose life is crumbling around him as he drives through the night toward London to see his pregnant girlfriend. Tom Hardy’s one-man performance (assisted by a few voices on his cell phone) is riveting … even without any action sequences or settings other than the interior of a car. The Denver Post says, “The mistakes that have him in the driver’s seat, but hardly in control, are terribly human and all too familiar.”

On the other hand, if you’ve been hankering for some slam-bam 3-D action adventure, you can catch this second run of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Starring Chris Evans as Cap, this is one of the best of Marvel’s superhero blockbusters. Columbus Alive calls it “a layered and paranoid espionage thriller, what you'd get if John le Carre took a stab at the superhero genre.” And Cinema Signals says it “may be the most thoughtful instance of character depth in a comic-born action extravaganza.”

Still playing at the Tropic is the so-called Woody Allen movie “Fading Gigolo.” Fact is, this sex comedy was actually written by, directed by, and stars John Turturro. “It’s like a Woody Allen movie -- same music, same shtick -- but without the uneasy moral takeaways,” explains Big Hollywood. Woody merely co-stars, playing a nebbish bookseller who decides to pimp out his pal (Turturro) to lovelorn women (Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara among them). Cleveland Plain Dealer describes it as “a sweet, touching film (though a tad contrived at times) that provides some good laughs.”

And, yes, you can still see “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Perhaps Wes Anderson’s best movie, this stylized fantasy tells of a European hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is falsely accused of murder (Tilda Swinton being the supposed victim). 3AW calls it “another visually scrumptious cinematic doily from America’s master of over-designed whimsy.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes, “After feeding on this sweet buffet, sated cinephiles will want to call the front desk to extend their stay.”

However, if you’ve already caught up on all those movies, there’s also new fare at the Tropic. “The Railway Man” is based on a true story of a WWII vet (Oscar-winner Colin Firth) still tormented by his treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war. So he contemplates the age-old question: Is revenge a dish best served cold? Toronto Star observes, “The quality of mercy isn’t just strained … it’s measured out by the teaspoonful.” And Seattle Times adds, “The truth of what happened to him is devastating; the truth of how he found forgiveness in his soul is astonishing.”

Yes, life does offer second chances -- especially at the movies.

The Railway Man (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Railway Man” Recalls WWII Trauma

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think: “Bridge on the River Kwai” meets “The Debt.” At least that’s the way a Hollywood pitch might have gone. However, “The Railway Man” -- the new British-Australian war film that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is actually an adaptation of an autobiographical book by Eric Lomax.

During World War II, Lomax was a British soldier captured by the Japanese. Sent to a POW camp, he was forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway and endure horrible torture at the hands of the enemy. He saw comrades beaten and murdered by the Kempeitai (the secret police of the Imperial Japanese Army). Having faced this kind of trauma, it’s understandable he was a mental train wreck after the war. His wife and best friend try to help, but it’s a problem only to be solved by Lomax facing his demons -- mainly a cruel Japanese officer named Takashi Nagase.

The film toggles back-and-forth from past to present with Jeremy Irvine playing the young Lomax and Oscar-winner Colin Firth as the older man. Sam Reid is the wartime version of his friend and Stellan Skarsgård the older. Tanroh Ishida is the younger Nagase and Hiroyuki Sanada is the aged foe. Also, Nicole Kidman is the caring wife.

What happens when Lomax tracks down his former captor, now leading a quiet life as a museum curator? Will a brutal act of revenge allow Lomax to let go of “a lifetime of bitterness and hate”?

That is the crux of the story.

Colin Firth met with 91-year-old Eric Lomax to get a feel for his character. Did Lomax find peace? Does he regret his actions?

“We do sometimes see stories about what it’s like coming home from war, but we very rarely see stories about what it’s like decades later,” says Firth “This is not just a portrait of suffering. It’s about relationships ... how that damage interacts with intimate relationships, with love.”

Ah yes, the love of a good woman. An immutable balm.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Captain America” Returns to the Screen

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Here I go again, writing about another movie based on the superhero characters I used to publish at Marvel Comics. Captain America was the super patriot, created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon back when America faced World War II. As you fanboys will recall, Cap (né Steve Rogers) was a 90-pound weakling who got injected with a super serum that turned him into an invincible, shield-wielding soldier.

The Marvel editors got him from that era to this by freezing him in an ice floe, later to be thawed out. This was even before Walt Disney could say cryogenics or make a movie called “Frozen.” Note: Disney now owns Marvel.

This new blockbuster film is titled “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Having had it run in New Town, you can now catch it at the Tropic Cinema.

Again we have Chris Evans starring as Cap, his third outing in the role. This one is a sequel to “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And it introduces a mystery superhero, a nemesis who seems out to thwart Cap -- the titular Winter Soldier.

Fans of the Captain America comic books might know this interloper’s identity, another comeback from the old days, but we won’t deliver a spoiler here.

The point is, as we used to say at Marvel, nobody ever really stays dead in comics. To wit, Captain America frozen in the ice floe. And a few years ago, headlines were made when Marvel killed Cap off in its comic books -- but he was later resurrected because movies were waiting to be made. Like this one.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the ninth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a group of movies thematically related, as if part of one bigger story ... just the way comic books work, with all the action in all the titles taking place within the fictional Marvel Universe.

This latest movie pits Cap against real-world politics, taking its inspiration from NSA spying, drone warfare, and Wikileaks secrets.

Scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the “Winter Soldier” storyline kills off Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), brings back the Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), casts suspicions on the super espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., offers up the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), introduces an Algerian pirate (Georges St. Pierre), recalls Cap’s old sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and trots out a member of the World Security Council (yes, Robert Redford).

And you can count on my ol’ friend Stan Lee making one of his famous cameo appearances, this time as a security guard at the Smithsonian. ‘Nuff said.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Anita (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Frieda Lee Mock (Wrestling with Angels) starts her documentary on professor Anita Hill off with a bang, as she records Hill getting an unexpected call from Ginny Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, asking her to apologize after some twenty plus years. Ginny's voice, deceptively sweet and amiable, carries a scary threat underneath: "I was wondering if you might think about an apology to my husband. Have a wonderful day, Anita."

These first few minutes are as riveting as it gets, as tense as any DePalma thriller, and all the more disquieting for its sudden bluntness.

Things have never been the same for Anita Hill since she spoke out during  the nomination for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, alleging sexual harassment in 1991. Hill was Thomas' assistant during his years at the U.S. Equal Employment  Opportunity Commission which handles cases of workplace discrimination. Thomas made several advances and was rebuffed. He then allegedly tried to engage Hill in lascivious talk detailing Thomas' prowess in the bedroom, his penis size and sex with animals with increasingly demeaning talk about Hill's breasts.

She grew humiliated and brought it to the attention of the committee with only the intent to raise a reservation and a complaint against Thomas' character. Hill did not pursue, nor was she interested in, any litigation.

At the time she was in Oklahoma, as far from Washington as the outer reaches of Space, with no thought of public drama. Hill watched herself on TV. But tension was rising by the second.

She was called into testify against Clarence Thomas who was in the process of being groomed for the Supreme Court.

Hill, like a re-interpretation from The Trial, was forced to rehash all of Thomas' lewd porno behavior from talk of cocks and coke bottles, from beasts to big breasts in the most degrading of dialogues.

She did not know what awaited her from one moment to the next.

Hill became the subject of demeaning jokes from "Saturday Night Live" onward.

Biden brought Hill to the stand only to withdraw later and call the case closed due to Thomas' deliberate racial manipulation of the hearings, equating the proceedings to a lynching.

 Clarence Thomas was sworn in at a vote of 52-48 and Hill was branded a pariah by a testosterone-twisted Washington.

"Anita" is engaging throughout and tense at others and will pull at your gut. The sight of Hill's family as they deliberately and sternly file in The Capitol behind Hill hits you square in the sternum.

A highlight that cannot be over stressed, is the bright tranquility  of Anita Hill herself who carries on with a great galvanism of energy, verve and modest charm. She emerges not as a bitter person but rather a wise joy, educating others through her post hearing odyssey.

Do not let your possible presumptions delude you. "Anita" is no sour grapes story, but rather because of its calm namesake, a lifting up to a mature and sensitive enlightenment.

Write Ian at

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fading Gigolo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Fading Gigolo

In director John Turturro's (Passione) fifth film "Fading Gigolo," you might think you just stepped into Woody Allen's Yiddish yore.

And you would almost be right.

John Turturro stars here in his own unapologetically silly story about an under-employed New York florist, Fioravante and his meek but imaginative, excitable friend, Murray, a septuagenarian bookseller (Woody Allen).  Fioravante is in need of money, without a place to stay. Through an overheard conversation with a doctor, Murray gets the idea to make Fioravante into an instant  escort to secure his friend's expenses.

Allen gives many one liners some of them funny and others a bit flat, mostly hamming up the oft-repeated concept of his own nebbish and unassuming persona transformed (somewhat) into a figure of importance.

As if to take a cue from Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm'" Murray has a black step-family and while this could well have some meaning and humor, not one of his family members are given any depth.

Allen's role is chiefly delivered to give an excitable and aghast counter to Fioravante's zen passivity. One line that works is about Fioravante's sex appeal and mentions Mick Jagger. "Look at Mick...he's old and when he opens his mouth, he's a horror but he's got have it."

It is Allen's delivery that will make you laugh even if the stumbling  cajoling attitude is all too familiar.

Suffice to say, Murray convinces Fioravante to be beefcake for hire. Our sensitive hunk turns up at appointment after appointment, ravished by a cougar cartoon in the form of Sharon Stone and the Jessica Rabbit racked Sofia Vergara whose breasts qualify for soft porn.

A soft spoken and self-absorbed Orthodox widow, Avigal, (Vanessa Paradis)  who teaches at a yeshiva is drawn to the interior Fioravante and makes an appointment. Chemistry sparks. Paradis with a singular verve does excellently in this role as a sheltered and yearning woman who struggles to let her actual hair fly unrestrained, forbidden under orthodox rule. These scenes alone have a vibrant heart.

This poignance gets bogged down however, by a stale and tepid bit involving Murray getting hauled in by the Shomrim guards to face excommunication. While this might raise a titter or two among those unschooled in Allen's oeuvre, even the most steadfast of the auteur's fans will find this trite, as Allen has done this bumbling and Kafkaesque Why-me shtick before facing  a grizzled and scornful council of rabbis.

Turturro plays it sincerely enough in the title role but we are given only sketchy details as to what really matters to this man who can go from cold Casanova to a blossoming and introspective romantic with an acrobatic agility. What of Fioravante's past? Murray's? Or  Dovi's, the Shomrim guard. As Avigal  is the only full fleshed character, what unfolds is a New Yorker cartoon.

As light as these exchanges are Turturro and Allen do have amiable charm which goes a while, despite things going a little too wack in Williamsburg.

The most heartfelt subtext to "Fading Gigolo" is the grimness of favorite hangouts closing down and disappearing, from soda counter, bistro and bookshop, permanently and forever. Forget the brash women and the hesitant happenstance. The real pathos here is a nostalgia for a lost New York.  Fioravante functions best as a poetic sentinel: inward, yet fiery, wanting to protect the last of his beloved neighborhood's urban seltzer.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Nymphomaniac: Volume II

When we last left Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) she was entrenched in a philosophical debate with her rescuer of sorts, a Mr. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and unable to feel any erotic sensation.

In this second installment, she intently relates more of her story. She is stuck in neutral with her hubby (Shia LaBeouf) and at a loss. She becomes increasingly despondent. Gainsbourg's role echoes her previous outing in "Antichrist". Joe seeks out a sexual misadventure soliciting sexual company with two African men. Passive and silent, she observes a hostile argument and in barely a minutes time, she is sitting bemused between a pair of erect penises. The position of the bed and the erect members turns the screen into an x-rated Matisse tableau. Frustrated and bereft, Joe joins a twelve step program and strips her room of all color and charm.

This fails when she verbally eviscerates the group. What a woman.

Joe has a baby but just when any other mother might have a yen for flowers, an overhead reflection shows the baby smiling devilishly with animal eyes in a hint of Rosemary.

Needless to say, the mother bond is not established.

Joe falls in with a creepy laconic fish (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott) who specializes in sadism. She is literally in knots as Bell's methadone monster only slightly licks his lips. While this is told, Seligman appears more and more excited, yet he tells an oddly mundane counter story about a doomed mountain climber with only shoelaces to save himself.

Suffice to say these two characters are left in their own solipsistic bubbles, within a room of brown flypaper, disinterested and never connecting with each other.

As usual there are some poetic passages. Seligman falls from an ocean of books, his body spinning ala Hitchcock. Joe was once a kind of sexual saint, her body levitating in the style of a Ken Russell music opera, but now she is cynical, bruised and battered, purple with piss.

The cyclic philosophic banter reaches an almost absurdist pitch as the two characters are each on their own trajectory: Joe driven to reach a nirvana of amorality and Seligman obsessed with theological history and numerology, using any obscure fact necessary to wake himself from his doughy torpidity.

At the end, director von Trier  appears to toy sadistically with his detractors by showing Jo's infant Marcel about to take the plunge below as in "Antichrist". Or perhaps it's a personal exorcism. Either way, von Trier does his best to push buttons.

We also have a snide Willem Dafoe as a loan shark, along with the eerie cult actor Udo Keir as a waiter who comically witnesses some scandalously falling spoons but hardly says a word.

With the last of "Nymphomaniac" we still don't know quite what drives these crepuscular characters and maybe we don't need to. As in the work of Michael Haneke, von Trier leaves the work to us and the questions left make the momentum, be it either Manichean or impartial in origin.

Write Ian at

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Week of May 9 to May 15 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Woody to Wes, Nic to Anita -- Tropic Cinema Introduces Great Characters

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

The Tropic continues to be the theater of choice for Woody Allen movies … even when they’re not by Woodie Allen.

“Fading Gigolo” is actually a comedy by actor-writer-director John Turturro even though it seems a lot like a Woody Allen movie. Perhaps that’s because it co-stars Woody Allen. This is the whimsical story of a man (Turturro) who becomes a male prostitute to earn money to help his needy friend (Allen).

Arizona Republic agrees that it’s “a slight, minor comedy that feels like something Woody Allen might have come up with on a lazy afternoon.” And ReelView calls it “a slight movie but enjoyable nevertheless….”

For those of you who saw Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I,” here is more of the same with “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.” It’s the conclusion of his tale about Joe (played by both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin), a woman addicted to sex. Stellan Skarsgård serves as her “father confessor” in this graphic chronicle.

Detroit News notes, “It’s funny, it’s lewd, it’s disturbing, it’s odd, it’s extremely graphic, it’s brutal. And if you can handle all that, it’s pretty good.” And Entertainment Weekly tells us Volume II is “a notch more watchable than Volume I.”

Also we have “Anita,” a documentary by filmmaker Freida Mock profiling Anita Hill, the woman who dared to speak out about now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Film Journal International observes “Hill’s enduring strength and character is the emotional center, but the scandal's residual trashiness, enduring mystery and elusive justice up the entertainment quotient.” And calls it “a serviceable, at times riveting documentary.”

For nature lovers, the Disney film “Bears” is still showing. You get to amble along with a mother grizzly and her two cubs in the Alaskan wilderness. As you can expect, the cinematography is spectacular. New York Times adds, “Despite the bracing beauty of the wilderness, and the respite provided by cubs at play, the movie is primarily a sobering treatise on survival.” And L.A. Biz sees it as “awesome in the classic sense of the word.”

You still have a last chance to see “Joe,” the new drama starring Nicolas Cage in the title role. Here, in one of his better acting roles, he’s an ex-con trying to help a boy (Tye Sheridan) being abused by his alcoholic lowlife dad. Movie Habit says, “Finally, a worthy Nicolas Cage performance.” And NPR adds, “For Nicolas Cage, whose dumb, rant-for-hire projects have lately been making audiences forget how good he can be, ‘Joe’ is more than a rescue - it’s a re-birth.”

And don’t miss “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the new Wes Anderson fantasy about the concierge of a grand hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering his elderly paramour (Tilda Swinton). Like all Anderson films you’ll either love it or hate it … no middle ground. Me, I plan to go see it again!

St. Louis Post-Dispatch says, “After feeding on this sweet buffet, sated cinephiles will want to call the front desk to extend their stay.” And The Standard proclaims, “An argument could be made that this is Wes Anderson’s best film.”

Great characters all. And they’re visiting this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Fading Gigolo (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Woody Allen Is Not
A “Fading Gigolo”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Q. When is a Woody Allen movie not a Woody Allen movie?

A. When it’s made by John Turturro.

That’s “Fading Gigolo,” the new comedy (kinda) that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Written, directed, and starring John Turturro, you’d think this story about a guy who services a lot of women would be his vanity project alone. But he takes our eye off the balling (yes, a deliberate pun) by casting Woody Allen as his sidekick.

We love Woody Allen’s annual movies (well, the earlier funny ones, if you want to buy into the cliché he created for himself in “Stardust Memories”), but these days the Woodman (not a deliberate pun) comes with a lot of baggage.

Even if we ignore the string of romances with his leading ladies (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, et al.), there’s the seduction of his partner’s stepdaughter (Soon-Yi Previn), now his wife. And that’s compounded by recent allegations of child molestation by Mia Farrow’s daughter Dylan.

Facts or fictions, Woody might be well served to stay away from sex comedies for a while.

But his pal John Turturro has pulled him into this story about a not-so-handsome older Lothario named Fioravante (that’s Turturro’s role) who decides to sell his stud services to women in order to raise money for his needy friend Murray (that’s Woody Allen’s role). To help the cause Murray acts as Fioravante’s manager (read: pimp).

Masquerading as a Woody Allen comedy, “Fading Gigolo” is a sex romp with a serious message. Here, we follow Fioravante’s trysts until he meets up with a grieving Jewish widow (Vanessa Paradis), the woman who is a game changer.

If we ignore the unlikely premise of John Turturro as a successful gigolo, there are still other plot points to overcome. That a doctor (Sharon Stone) would ask a patient to hook her up with a male prostitute is stretching it. And that a Colombian bombshell like Sofia Vergara would need to pay a man for sex is downright laughable.

Well, I suppose this is a comedy.

Turturro seems to have watched “Zelig” a few times too many, for here he’s trying to transform himself in a poor man’s Woody Allen. By aiding and abetting, are we to assume Woody’s passing on the baton? Or just pimping him out?

Nymphomaniac: Vol II

Front Row at the Movies

“Nymphomaniac 2” Offers
A Sexual Companion Piece

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I suppose this can be considered a twofer review, one that covers both “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” (which recently played at the Tropic Cinema) and “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II” (which is playing there now).

Danish director Lars von Trier (“Melancholia,” “Antichrist”) continues his quest to be the bad boy of international cinema by giving us a porn film masquerading as serious drama. We know it’s supposed to be serious because he has recruited such legitimate stars as Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Jamie Bell, and Willem Dafoe. But the storytelling rests on the shoulders of two of his regular players, Stellan Skarsgård and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

A serious actor associated with The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Stellan Skarsgård is also the father of Alexander Skarsgård (TV’s “True Blood”). And winner of a César Award as “Most Promising Actress,” Charlotte Gainsbourg is the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg.

“Nymphomaniac” is the two-part story of (as the title titillatingly promises) a sexually obsessed woman named Joe. To make the point, von Trier shows Joe (from child to adulthood) having sex. Graphically, so this is not a movie for prudish viewers. Stacy Martin is cast as the younger Joe; Charlotte Gainsbourg is the older version.

In Volume I, we learn how a daddy’s girl (Christian Slater plays the father) progresses from masturbation to unpleasant first-time sex (with a scruffy Shia LaBeouf) to ten guys a night. In Volume II, we learn how Joe came to be in the care of Seligman (kind and patient Stellan Skarsgård), a somewhat mysterious figure in Volume I.

This account is being told to Seligman by the battered older Joe. Think: “One Thousand and One Nights,” a latter-day Scheherazade spinning her stories.

Given the explicitness of her roles in Lars von Trier’s films, Gainsbourg is quick to say, “I like to play roles different from myself so I can hide behind them.”

And Skarsgård adds, “The main pleasure of working with Lars is that you feel absolutely free and safe, and you can’t fail because if you (mess) up it’s considered good...”

Well, up to a point.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Bears (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Disneynature's "Bears" is another satisfying virtual safari by the directing team of Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey of "African Cats" fame.

This adventure places us deep in the coastal ranges of Alaska in Winter. Like Lilliputian explorers, we are imbedded with a family of three brown bears. With the first intense shot, it is unclear whether these are bears or hirsute extraterrestrials from another star. Fur, marbled eyes of brown and pink snouts dominate the screen. But yes, these are three bears in the mode of a quasi fairy tale but very well done.

Sky, the mother, is a single parent. She alone must provide for her two cubs: Scout, a male and Amber, a female. Existentially, alone and together, the three face incredible obstacles to survive a first year. The cinematography is breathtaking rivaling any epic film of the past and present. The mountain peaks alone are as sensational and towering as anything depicted in this past year's hit "Gravity".

 Mary Shelley, Byron and even Captain America himself would turn purple with envy.

Despite the live action, the film progresses in the manner of an animated feature. Both Scout and Amber are photographed with cuddly lenses as if to have darting and roundish eyes. At one point Scout dances in an almost human fashion.

When the wolf appears, he is slope nosed, and slouch-footed. One can almost hear as if by telepathy, the voice of Jeremy Irons.

Despite such anthropomorphism and a folksy armchair narration by actor John C. Reilly, the action doesn't coddle its audience. But given its lack of savage pathos, that its predecessors "Chimpanzee" and "African Cats" contained, this bestial outing is clearly for kids. The only spilled blood is from some sacrificial salmon.

The most remarkable scenes are when Sky and her cubs are left in the wide expanses of white snow where they do resemble an actual human family, perhaps on vacation, or better yet and more realistically on a camping trip, determined to find the way home.

In this case, our single parent family is trying their best to reach a pool, brimming with quivering fish.

No matter what your maturation stage is, the appeal of "Bears" is delightfully universal, with or without a booster seat.

Write Ian at

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Joe (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Get ready to tighten your belts and squint your eyes. We haven't seen the last of Southern Gothic and more of those stiff legged, lumbering men who are brash and big with hearts of gold. We get it all again here (as in Mud) and in David Gordon Green's adaptation of  Larry Brown's "Joe", this makes a good and gritty holiday in a hollow once more.

We have Joe (played with some rehabilitative gusto by Nicolas Cage) an over the hill, overwrought labor foreman hired to clear huge trees with sweat and poison. Joe isn't a bad guy but he has a problem with stopping his rages. He's been in trouble with cops and he's stuck in neutral. He doesn't go out. He smokes and has a gray cough.

One day, a curious and energetic boy named Gary ( Tye Sheridan of Mud fame, somewhat predictably) comes to see Joe about a job. He reluctantly takes Gary on, sensing the kid needs a break.

During a half boring and half tense time with his alcoholic and violent father (Gary Poulter) the boy unwittingly confronts Joe's near Satanic nemesis Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins). After a very cathartic scene where Gary stands up for himself, the boy gets more and more interested in the Man Alone Joe, as well as wanting protection from his increasingly scary, albeit wizened father.

Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage have a terrific chemistry and although Sheridan plays his teen role with much of the same stock that he gave in "Mud, the harmony the two share is hard to resist.

"Joe" has wonderful touches of detail. This is an anemic Mississippi, with pale and rusty washboards for windows and doors while the dogs are even paler and blood is cheaper than food. The rooms are brown with sepia heat and the people within stumble with drugs, sleep and apathy, all equally toxic.

Nicolas Cage is nimbly authentic on his own. Filmgoers and critics alike can take heart that Cage is here in full force, playing a genuinely believable character of substance rather than an action-jittering cartoon. Let us hope than this is a renaissance for the veteran actor and not a fluke.

As good as Nicolas Cage is, he is nearly outshined by a brutally venomous and an also helplessly and creepily maudlin Gary Poulter, who is all the more frightening for his stooping physique. This is Poulter's first and last film, who sadly died from drowning after production.

Last but not least, there is the roguish and supernaturally sour Willie, the monster-man who just won't go away (played as Gothic as-all-get-out by Blevins)

Even with all the usual crepuscular critters cooking a grim roux from "Winter's Bone" and "Mud", the two main characters, Joe and Gary have plunged into a boggy morality tale full of friendship and frenzy.

"Joe" has as much heart and warmth within in it as it does some sad horror, and it will definitely curl your beard and put stubble on your chest, regardless of gender.

Write Ian at

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Week of May 2 to May 8 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

From Bears to Baddies, Tropic Cinema Screens Some Terrific New Indies

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Nobody documents nature better than DisneyNature. This independent label was founded by The Walt Disney Studios in 2008. Since then it has given us intimate glimpses of African cats, flamingoes, chimpanzees, oceans, even the earth itself. Now we get an up-close look at bears. Narrated by John C. Riley, “Bears” follows a family of grizzlies living in the coastal region of Alaska. The film follows a mother and her two cubs for a year as they roam this great northern wilderness. Atlantic City Weekly says, “Nature movie fans will enjoy seeing the incredible cinematography of these magnificent creatures in the wild.” And Globe and Mail notes, “All this is heartwarming, in a bloody, ursine-centric way.”

“Joe” is the story of an ex-con (Nicolas Cage) looking to redeem himself. That opportunity comes when he befriends a youngster (Tye Sheridan) who is being abused by his not-so-likable lowlife dad (Gary Poulter). But is Joe willing to pay the price? Rolling Stone observes, “The film belongs to Cage. You can feel his compassion as Joe defies the reduced options of his life. There’s not an unfelt moment in Cage’s performance. Or in the movie.” Cinemalogue calls it “... a dynamic examination of masculinity and redemption about complex characters whose macho posturing masks an inner vulnerability.” And Shared Darkness sees it as “a tender, lyrical slice of underclass drama.”

“The Lunchbox” looks at the dabbawalas system of delivering lunchboxes in Mumbai. In this Indian indie, a mixed-up delivery put a lonely accountant (Irrfan Khan) and a sad housewife (Nimrat Kaur) into an epistolary letter-swapping romance. Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it “a feast of delights, one of the best stories about the connection between food and love the movies have ever seen. And Time Out agrees that “it's carried off with charm and wit.”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” offers dozen of stars (mostly unrecognizable in their stage makeup), but the name on the marquee is director Wes Anderson. Here, Ralph Fiennes plays the amorous concierge of a fading grand hotel who is unjustly accused of murder. This stylistic comedy is among Anderson’s best -- even counting “The Royal Tanenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch tells us, “After feeding on this sweet buffet, sated cinephiles will want to call the front desk to extend their stay.” And Concrete Playground calls it “eloquent, offbeat and charming.”

“Dom Hemingway” gives Jude Law the chance to play an unlikeable baddie, a drunken, brawling ex-con out to collect for keeping his mouth shut in prison. Forget about the money, can he reestablish a relationship with his grown daughter? Miami Herald says the film is “often viciously funny, and every time you think the movie has run out of steam, it spins things in a new direction.” And Fresno Bee concludes, “The brutal emotions of the script mixed with the untethered performances make it the kind of movie that viewers will either deeply hate or passionately love.”

You will want to see them all of these -- bears to baddies.

Chef {Rhoades)

Advance Screening of Jon Favreau’s “Chef”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If it weren’t so good, you’d say it's a vanity project. After all “Chef” is a movie written by Jon Favreau, directed by Jon Favreau, and starring Jon Favreau. BTW, he produced it too.

You get to do projects like that when you’ve directed two “Iron Man” blockbusters that grossed well over $1 billion.

But here he’s thinking more like “Iron Chef.” It’s the story of a chef in a fancy LA restaurant (played by Favreau) who quit after his boss (Dustin Hoffman) insists he cook a special menu for a visiting food critic (Oliver Platt). After all, Chef Carl Casper has his creative integrity to protect and he’s not going to serve dishes he doesn’t believe in.

So he winds up heading back to Miami, the hometown where his son and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) live, hoping to reinvent himself. With the help of his pal (John Leguizamo) he buys a take-out taco truck that he intends to drive back to LA, selling his spicy delectables along the way.

Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson show up for cameos in “Chef” too. But if you’ve directed them in “Iron Man 2” they’re likely to do you a favor.

“Chef” -- showing next Tuesday night at the Tropic Cinema -- is another advance screening in the New York Film Critics series, one-night-only live simulcasts in HD, with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers interviewing Favreau and others from a stage in NYC. Audiences in participating theaters around the country can text questions to be answered by Favreau after the showing of the movie.

For instant, you might ask why he chose to do this little dramedy instead of “Iron Man 4 or 5.” His answer might be: “With most movies you get to make, especially the big ones, you're dealing with a much younger audience and usually escapism. I wanted to make something about the lessons of life and about reality, not something that takes you out of it.”

Or he might be more candid: “A script hit me, and I wrote it in like two weeks. That was the first time that had happened to me since ‘Swingers.’ I'm not the type that can just write something from nothing once a year. It has to land on me fully formed. It all clicked.”

And he had the clout to do it.

Joe (Rhoades)

Homeless Man Steals
Scenes from Nic Cage
In Indie Drama “Joe”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Life is unfair. What if you were a homeless alcoholic, but you got a shot to co-star in a movie with Nicolas Cage? And what if the critics, those usually cynical, give-no-quarter jabberwockies, called your acting “stunning” and “one of the great one-shot performances in the history of the cinema”? And what if you’re found dead in a shallow stream before the film was ever released?

That’s the true story of Gary Poulter, a homeless man who was living on the streets of Austin, TX, when a casting director spotted him.

Next thing you know, he’s playing opposite an Oscar winner and giving what Entertainment Weekly calls a scene-stealing performance.

In “Joe” -- the dark Southern Gothic indie film directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”) -- you might call it type casting. Poulter plays an alkie degenerate who beats up his son, pimps out his daughter, and threatens Joe (Nic Cage) when he tries to intercede.

The eponymous Joe is a self-destructive ex-con trying to do the right thing. He befriends a boy (Tye Sheridan, the kid from “Mud”) who comes from an abusive household. The boy’s father (Poulter) is a mean drunk who squares off against Joe like a striking rattlesnake. Is Joe willing to stand up for his young friend, even if it risks his going back to prison? We’ll see.

Cage, who because of financial problems has been taking every two-bit role he’s offered, finally settles into a good one. His acting returns to the level of “Leaving Las Vegas,” this being his best star-turn in years.

Tye Sheridan, who acquitted himself well in “Mud,” holding his own against another Oscar-winner, Matthew McConaughey, proves it wasn’t a fluke by holding his own against Cage.

And Gary Poulter matches them both scene-for-scene in this three-way tour de force.

Drowning in three feet of water after a night of heavy drinking, Poulter had struggled with substance abuse since he was a teenager. Two years ago he was in jail. Having been fired from a traveling circus for stealing, he wound up sleeping of the streets.

“He was like the damn devil,” says his younger sister, Maria MacGuire. “It was just a shame that he wasted his life the way he did.”

Not a great eulogy. But he did one thing right, co-starring in “Joe.” Catch it at the Tropic Cinema and see if you agree.