Thursday, July 31, 2014

What If (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“What If”
Radcliffe Met Kazan

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Daniel Radcliffe refuses to be typecast as a boy wizard. Despite starring in the “Harry Potter” franchise, the second highest grossing series in film history, he has worked hard at breaking that magic mold.

For example, he showed his twinkie live on Broadway in “Equus.” He played a gay poet in “Kill Your Darlings.” He’s set to play Igor in a new version of “Frankenstein.” And now he’s starring in a movie called “What If.”

“What If,” indeed. This film is the latest advanced preview in the New York Film Critics series. It’s showing this coming Wednesday night at the Tropic Cinema.

Radcliffe’s new foray is a romantic comedy. The original title was “The F Word.”

No, you naughty reader … F stands for Friend, that dreaded designation in any male-female relationship.

Fifty years ago “When Harry Met Sally” was arguing that a man and woman cannot be friends without sex rearing its ugly head. “What If” argues that “the Friend Zone” is the Sargasso Sea for potential relationships.

Here, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) falls for Chantry (Zoe Kazan) only to discover that she already has a boyfriend, so he has no other choice than be her “friend.” Or not.

Needless to say, the movie is about Wallace trying to escape from the Friend Zone. And no spoiler alert is needed to remind you that this is a cute boy-gets-girl rom-com.

Week of August 1 to August 7 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Gives You Mystery, Love, Music, and Magic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Headlining this week at the Tropic is “A Most Wanted Man,” a John Le Carre spy story starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last film role. Set in Hamburg, a spymaster has 72 hours to recruit an agent before his own colleagues kill him. Dark and murky and complex are the hallmarks of Le Carre, who was once a real-life British intelligence agent. Metro Times says “A fitting showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman's tousled talents ... and a sad epitaph of a title for one of Hollywood's most talented character actors.” And NYC Movie Guru calls it “an intelligent slow-burn thriller.”

“Bicycling With Moliere” gives us a popular actor (Lambert Wilson) trying to recruit a retired thespian (Fabrice Luchini) to co-star in Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” but the cranky old boy has become a recluse himself, preferring to cycle around Île de Ré, rather than again facing an audience. LA Times tells us “It deals lightly with topics like ego, friendship, rivalry and love, and it does so within the context of an exploration of the personal and professional lives of a pair of actors.” And Washington Post says it “gives some insight into the way art imitates life, and also the way life informs art.”

Hard to believe, but it’s the 50th Anniversary of “When Harry Met Sally,” that classic boy-meets-girl romantic comedy by director Rob Reiner. His latest film, “And So It Goes,” is also a rom-com, but rather than a youthful Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan combo, here we have an elderly Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. He’s a cranky realtor, she’s a weepy widow -- but together they find a middle ground that will resonate with Baby Boomers. Richard Roeper calls it “the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.” And summarizes it as “Curmudgeon Finds Humanity.”

Baby Boomers will also enjoy “Jersey Boys,” Clint Eastwood’s paean to the doo-wop music of the ‘60s. This musical biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons will have you tapping your toes as you follow the up-and-down career of the boys from New Jersey. Crikey says “when Jersey Boys hits its stride it reveals a lightness of touch uncharacteristic of Eastwood's oeuvre.” And Total Film calls it “a solid watch that seeks to deepen the emotion of the jukebox musical.”

Thirtysomethings will go for “Begin Again,” a musical rom-com about a British songwriter (Keira Knightley) who gets discovered by a down-and-out music producer (Mark Ruffalo) after her hunky boyfriend (Adam Levine) dumps her for a singing career. says, “The wholesome, hopeful, let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm may sound hokey but it's actually infectiously joyful.” And Quad City Times tells us it’s “an exquisite film by John Carney, who wrought the equally superb 'Once.'”

“Tammy” is a mother-and-daughter road trip with the magical combination of Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. Star-Democrat notes that this film is “more character-based than the typical summer comedy.” And the Virginian-Pilot adds that it “forgoes cheap laughs in favor of heart.”

Real magic is the backdrop for “Maleficent,” the Snow White fairy tale as seen from the viewpoint of the wicked enchantress (Angelina Jolie). says it “remains surprisingly faithful to the original while recreating the title character...” And observes: “Disney's #1 villain...they've turned her into a glorified nanny and a prankster.”

Seven diverse movies playing at the Tropic. As they say, “variety is the spice of life” … and movies!

A Most Wanted Man (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“A Most Wanted Man”
Is Philip Seymour Hoffman

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

David Cornwell was a minor functionary for British intelligence back in the ‘50s and ’60s, and he learned his tradecraft (that’s spy techniques to the uninitiated) so well that he began writing complex, dark, and highly accurate espionage novels under the pseudonym of John Le Carré. His books were required reading for the KGB.

His 26 titles have included “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,’ “The Constant Gardner,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” At least nine have been made into movies.

His 2008 spy novel “A Most Wanted Man” has been translated into film by Dutch director Anton Corbijn. A photographer turned filmmaker, Corbijn has tackled murky spy stories before, most notably “The American” starring George Clooney.

“A Most Wanted Man” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

This time around the LeCarré story is set in Hamburg, the German port city where Mohammed Atta and his cronies planned 9/11. Amid this stewpot of paranoia, we have a secret anti-terrorism team headed by a disheveled, hard-drinking German spymaster named Günter Bachmann (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bachmann is trying to develop some intelligence assets, but his patience and strategic approach is in competition with his counterpart Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a hardliner who prefers to arrest ‘em rather than recruit ‘em.

They clash over a 26-year-old half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who has ties with Islamic terror cells and a hotshot human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams).

Bachmann lays a careful trap with the help of a dodgy banker (Willem Dafoe), a CIA agent (Robin Wright), and the lawyer, a complex scheme that has to be pulled off in 72 hours.

They all come together in the murky morality territory so familiar to LeCarré readers.

As the CIA agent explains, they’re just trying “to make the world a safer place.”

Good luck with that.

Here you have a coterie of American actors affecting foreign accents. Chief among them is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. While he serves as star of this dark and dyspeptic thriller, he was known as “probably the most in-demand character actor of his generation.”

Once director Joel Schumacher said of him, "The bad news is that Philip won't be a $25-million star. The good news is that he'll work for the rest of his life." He did, dying in February 2014 from “acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine.”

A friend of mine dated him in the ‘80s when he was first starting out as a stage actor. But she broke up with him because of the heavy cocaine addiction he’d developed while studying acting at NYU.

He later cleaned up his act, had a 14-year relationship with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, but fell off the wagon during the wrap party for his film “The Master.”

“A Most Wanted Man” is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. Its title suggests a testimonial for the star. But it’s not the monument his career deserves.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

And So It Goes (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

And So It Goes

As fate would have it, this month marks the 25th anniversary of a little 'platform' sleeper with a Greenwich Village word of mouth that is now part of our kosher cinema history. The film is "When Harry Met Sally".

It is well deserved.

The film had a daring deceptively simple structure. This was a smallish neighborhood borough film about two quirky quasi-neurotic people phobic in romance but uniquely finding desire for each other in the process. The film was cosy without being clunky with enough meaning and fun in its dialogue to actually speak about these characters (Billy Crystal's Harry Burns and Meg Ryan's Sally Bright) as  real people with unique and anxiously-charmed wishes and apprehensions.

The film snuck up on most of us and established Rob Reiner (an already provocative director with Stand by Me) as a consistently thoughtful and respected artist.

Furthermore, " When Harry Met Sally" paved the way for a New York sensibility to arrive to TV through "Seinfeld", a show whose long ago transmissions are still felt and seen today.

Now in 2014, here is "And So It Goes", a film that might have had all of the best intentions and has been anticipated from every baby boomer from the five boroughs and beyond, hoping to give some visual Viagra to the quirky but poignant cosmopolitan Rom-Com genre that has made Reiner and director James L. Brooks famous.

The film is also written by Mark Andrus (As Good as It Gets).

Oren Little (Michael Douglas) is a seersucker sourpuss realtor in Connecticut who stomps about in loafers.

Oren is used to getting his way.

When the camera moves on him, he is about to show his house for sale and is charmlessly insensitive if not outright rude to a black and hispanic couple.

No one really likes Oren but fellow peer Claire, (Frances Sternhagen) has a playful affection for him, given his veteran status.

Oren mopes around his family cottage, Little Shangri-La and is a snarky nuisance. His chief annoyance is a meaty Rottweiler who enjoys pooping on his lawn.

Enter the estranged and wet noodle son Luke (Scott Shepard), an insipid ex addict who is somehow implicated in a financial scam, and  about to go to the slammer.

Luke haphazardly (and inauthentically)  hands off his daughter Sarah (a cute Sterling Jerins) to his grouch dad, even though they have zero contact.

Leah, an empathetic widow and neighbor (Diane Keaton) falls for Sarah and reluctantly agrees to temporarily help Oren shoulder the load.

Leah is a mediocre singer at a cafe who ludicrously sobs at the drop of a fedora hat, waves her arms and wears silly Cyndi Lauper type outfits for no particular reason.

What follows are some milquetoast entanglements and tepid antics regarding Oren wanting to sell his house while being a good Grand and falling for the introspective but wild underneath, Leah.

A breezy romance is well and good, (goodness knows Reiner has earned his whimsical cred) but nothing much happens here.

Oren sputters and mutters, rolling his eyes with a now trademark Michael Douglas smirk. Oren is a soft-shoe patina of  the more evocative Jack Nicholson, James L Brooks-ish roles of the angry alpha man.

One scene with Sarah's addicted mother plays as sappy melodrama with a buggy mom all but going thunk on the sidewalk when Sarah comes to the lower tenement apartment.

Not one character (with the minor exception of Sarah) is fleshed out in a meaningful or real way. Douglas is such an obvious blend  of Nicholson and his own Gekko incarnation that he reads as a bland saltine figure.

Keaton is a worldly but weepy widow who largely emotes onstage but none of it is very compelling as Keaton's role also, too self consciously echoes other Brooks outings.

Rob Reiner is reduced to an amorous patsy who has a pratfall in the mode of Laurel & Hardy. This irrational silliness, combined with an unfunny baby delivery which feels dashed and inserted for quick smirks, doesn't play very brightly.

If "When Harry Met Sally" is a delicious  pastrami at Katz's Deli,  "And So It Goes" makes a  "meh" tempeh of pastoral comforts, sure to please only the most steadfast of urbanite Reiner fans.

Write Ian at

Friday, July 25, 2014

Week of July 25 to July 31 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Six ‘Holdover’ Films at the Tropic Cinema -- Some New to You!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Remember that long-ago slogan one of the television networks used to promote its summer reruns? “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

Well, I’d say the same thing about this week’s movie lineup at the Tropic Cinema. Most of this week’s films are holdovers from the week before … but if you haven’t seen one of these movies yet, it’s new to you.

“Begin Again” begins again this week, telling the story of a British songwriting duo (Keira Knightley and Adam Levine) who come to New York only to break up. As you might expect in a musical rom-com, Greta (Knightley) is discovered by a down-and-out music producer (Mark Ruffalo) and gets her big breakthrough. The New Yorker tells us it’s “another sappy but engaging musical fable from the Irish writer and director John Carney, who made ‘Once.’" But as adds, “The wholesome, hopeful, let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm may sound hokey but it's actually infectiously joyful.”

“Jersey Boys” delivers plenty of music too. This biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons traces their history from Jersey streets to the heights of success and down again. Not surprisingly, Atlantic City Weekly opines, “The movie is a rollercoaster ride that soars on the wings of the incredible music and then crashes into the mob element.” But as Laramie Movie Scope points out, “Fortunately, the music is very good and John Lloyd Young (who plays Frankie Valli) is a fine singer.”

“Maleficent” gives us the Snow White fairy tale from the other viewpoint -- that of the wicked enchantress (Angelina Jolie). Richard Roeper describes it as “admittedly great-looking, sometimes creepy.” And Christian Science Monitor tells us, “Disney was smart enough to cast Jolie. She has a genuinely heroic presence.”

“Snowpiercer” is a futuristic fairy tale, in a sense. Survivors of an end-of-the-world ice age ride a supertrain that’s compartmentalized by haves and have-nots. Chicago Sun-Times says, “The future is miserably dystopian as usual in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, but at least it's thoughtful, stylishly crafted, high-speed misery that keeps on hurtling relentlessly forward -- even though there's nowhere to go.” And Cinema Crazed calls it “a thought provoking science fiction masterpiece...”

“22 Jump Street” is the sequel to (you guessed it) “21 Jump Street,” an action comedy about two undercover policemen who pass themselves off as students. Channing Tatum plays the jock cop and Jonah Hill is the nerdy one. Dark Horizon observes that “the jokes are fresh and more often than not manage to produce some big laughs,” while Herald Sun concludes, “All you really need to know is that it's the cleverest sequel to a dumb movie of all time.”

And returning after its one-night stand as a New York Film Critics selection is “And So It Goes.” This geriatric rom-com pits an acerbic real estate broker (Michael Douglas) against a widowed singer (Diane Keaton) in this battle of the sexes from director Rob Reiner. Slant Magazine snipes, “It pairs Diane Keaton with Michael Douglas to simulate the sort of second-chance AARP romance that's intended to stimulate grizzled audiences who see one movie in theaters every three or four years.” But Hollywood Reporter reports that “the picture wins you over.”

All in all -- a great collection of “return engagements.” Make sure you don’t miss them.

Child of God (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

James Franco
Gets Attention With
“Child of God”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Actor James Franco is often referred to is a modern-day Renaissance Man. True, he acts, directs, producers, hosts the Academy Awards (well, sort of), does multimedia performance art, and writes books.

As you might expect, he’s better at some things than others.

But the 36-year-old actor is smart like a fox. He keeps his name before the public. And so we forget his flubs as soon as they are replaced by successes.

Recently, he seems to be stepping back a tad. For instance, going back to school.

He says, “I’ve been perceived as this guy yelling, ‘Hey, look at me. I want attention.’ I’m not going to school to get articles written about me. I’m just going to school. But the fact that I’m going to school or that someone takes a picture of me sleeping is like, ‘We’re gonna jump on that and criticize him for his antics.’ What antics? I write. I make movies. I’m going to school. I hosted the Oscars. I take these projects seriously.”

When he does something, he does it in a big way: He moved to New York to simultaneously attend graduate school at Columbia University’s MFA writing program, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and an MFA program for poetry at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. And after getting his MFA at Columbia, he enrolled as a PhD student in English at Yale and has audited classes at Rhode Island School of Design.

Busy guy, he’s also stepped back a tad on a couple of his film projects, merely taking a secondary role rather than starring. While producing Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” (based on his short story collection), he merely took the role of a licentious soccer coach. And in “Child of God” -- a film he directed -- he only plays a supporting role as Jerry.

As the most recent offering from the New York Film Critics series, “Child of God” will be showing next Wednesday night at the Tropic Cinema. As always with NYFC, you’re previewing the film ahead of its scheduled release date.

“Child of God” is based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, the reclusive novelist who gave us “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Road,” and “No Country for Old Men.” He won a Pulitzer for “The Road,” and the movie based on “No Country for Old Men” snagged four Academy Awards. McCarthy has hopes for James Franco’s version of “Child of God.”

In it, a protagonist named Lester Ballard is this so-called child of God, a 27-year-old squatter living in an abandoned house in rural Tennessee hill country. When his domicile is auctioned off, he’s reduced to sharing a shack with the body of a dead girl he finds in a car.

Sort of like a latter-day Carl von Cosel of Key West’s “Undying Love” infamy.

After the shack burns down, this necrophiliac pattern continues for Ballard (portrayed by Scott Haze). Only now he helps matters along by killing young women for this bizarre companionship.

The idea is that Lester Ballard is a child of God (and therefore worthy of our attention) because he’s “much like yourself perhaps.”

Gee, I hope not.

“It is pretty crazy,” admits James Franco. “It’s not that I, in my own life, find dead bodies particularly sexy or anything like that, but in a film, it allows you, in a very extreme way, to deal with a character whose imagination has gone to a crazy place.”

A recent celebrity roast on Comedy Central left the following impressions of James Franco. In his own words: “So if I look at that, it’s that people maybe think I’m gay (not true), they didn’t like my performance at the Oscars (true), and they think I’m very into myself (true enough) … and I squint a lot (well, yeah).”

How does he explain his publicity mongering? “Attention seems to be the name of the game when it comes to social networking,” he grins. “It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.”

Ergo, James Franco is a powerful force in Hollywood.

22 Jump Street (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Count on “22 Jump Street”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The producers of “22 Jump Street” obviously have a high opinion of the movie’s potential audience: That they can count over 20. Proof of this theory? The original movie was titled “21 Jump Street” (after the TV show it’s based on), and by making this one “22 Jump Street” they have cleverly signaled that it’s a sequel.

Simple math.

While neither of these two movies feature Johnny Depp (he starred in the TV show), the producers make do with hunky Channing Tatum and funny Jonah Hill. They are supposed to be undercover cops posing as students. In the first outing they pass as a couple of mature-looking high school kids; in the second they’re pretending to be college boys.

“22 Jump Street” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Forget the TV show. It was a serious police procedural crime drama. These new versions are what we like to call action comedies -- a combination of bullets and jokes.

Channing Tatum gets to show us he’s funnier than you’d think. And Jonah Hill gets to pretend he’s a fearless he-man. Both are a bit of a stretch.

In the first movie, Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill) are an underachieving jock and a nerdy bookworm who team up at police academy. Assigned to infiltrate the local high school, they take on an unruly motorcycle gang.

Second time around is even funnier. Jenko and Schmidt move across the street (to 22 Jump Street -- get it?), where their old captain (played by Ice Cube in both movies) assigns them to go undercover again. They’re looking for a drug dealer known as Ghost (Peter Stormare), a baddie who’s peddling a deadly concoction known as WHYPHY to college kids.

Spoiler alert: They get him.

At the end of the movie, the two doofuses are being asked to infiltrate a med school. But stay on for the credits: it gets better. They are shown infiltrating a culinary school, a dance academy, a flight school, a seminary, and a space camp (“2121 Jump Street,” it’s called). We’re told these are movie spinoffs. We even get an animated series, video games, and toys.

But that’s all pretend.

While the “21 Jump Street” TV show ran for 103 episodes, this movie franchise might be good for one more sequel.

“23 Jump Street” anyone?

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Attack of the B’s with
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we all know, a B movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture not intended for art houses. So what’s one doing at the Tropic Cinema?

Well, Saturday mornings in July have been devoted to Attack of the B’s. And what better example of a B movie than “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”?

This 1964 cult classic has it all: Kris Kringle, invaders from outer space, and a diatribe against watching mind-rotting television. (Okay, maybe we’d throw in Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum if there’s ever a remake.)

“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” regularly finds itself on the list of the worst films ever made. Matter of fact, it was included in the book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”

For those of you who like this sort of silliness, we have Mom Martian and King Martian worrying that their children watch too much Earth TV, particularly KID-TV’s interview with Santa Claus at the North Pole. An elder named Chochem (a Yiddish word meaning “genius”) advises them to provide the kids with a Santa Claus of their own … so Momar and Kimar decide to abduct Earth’s jolly old elf. Who better to play Santa Claus than Santa Claus?

Easier said than done, given the number of fake Santas standing on the street corners on this neighboring planet. And even more of a challenge when a Martian villain named Volder sets out to thwart their plan of coming up with a Martian Santa.

We admit it’s all pretty dumb. But it’s a perfect selection to top of a month-long series of B-movies. We like to call them Killer B’s.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dean Deblois' "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a lively, extraordinarily detailed and thoughtful sequel that doesn't pander to kids.

Here again we have the Luke Skywalkeresque young viking Hiccup, (Jay Baruchel) who lives in the idyllic village of Berk, a colorful place in symbiotic bliss with all dragons. In the manner of Avatar's planet Pandora, days upon days pass undisturbed, until our protagonist , atop his beloved cute but sometimes eerie friend Toothless (part vampire bat, part dog from The NeverEnding Story)  ventures into foreign territory and discovers a ruined fort.

Hiccup unwittingly ignites the greed of Eret (Kit Harington) who blames the young man for the devastation and worse, seeks to capture all of the dragons he can manage, to prove his devotion to the teeth-gnashing ogre Drago (Djimon Hounsou).

Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is instantly apprehensive fearing a war. He wants a preemptive. The son, urges pacifism, determined to change this minion's mind.

The animation is fluid and first rate (humorously echoing both "Avatar" and Keebler elves) while the story, being a metaphor for terrorism, first strikes and old guilts going  unfinished, is very emotional and perhaps fit for only the most precocious of Tweens.

Drago, looking a cross between a vulture and Al Pacino in "Scarface" is a bit scary as is a huge dragon under an Evil spell that resembles a leviathan from The Book of Revelation.

As jolting as this might be for small kids,it is colorfully compelling in its attention to detail and the patience it has to tell a story.

There is a poignant and somewhat formidable reunion between mother and son that keeps you guessing.

Mom (voiced by Cate Blanchett) is far from ordinary, wearing wondrous garb reminiscent of a Kokopelli.

Above all, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a complete realm with its own culture, symbology and ritual. And as it is so facile in its often rapid fire imagery, you might miss the rich detail. This is a universe ruled by the mystical world of dragons. Despite the animation, its environment seems no less tangible or abstract than our own.

Sequels to most films usually possess less artful magic than their predecessor. "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is, I'll soothsay, a resonant and charmed exception to the rule.

Write Ian at

Monday, July 21, 2014

22 Jump Street (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

22 Jump Street

This sequel to "21 Jump Street" directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) features many gags in the key of the first outing with Schmidt (Jonah Hill) acting the awkward but resourceful non-athletic guy. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is Schmidt's opposite: the good looking but clueless Lunk.

During the first twenty minutes, it is very easy to give a hee ha ho hum as Schmidt and Jenko fall off a truck and are attacked by a giant octopus and then they grimly impersonate gang members.

The first chapter covered much of these same ground with these two in their first routine, trying to act cool in their geeky "adult student" ruse.

The couple is again set up with the all too serious Dickson (Ice Cube) with a mission to track down a drug dealer, this time at a university.

Right away, most of the students know what's up, but decide to humor these pasty patsies.

A pair of comical twins (Kenny and Keith Lucas) are very funny, who speak and do everything in anticipation of one another.

Jenko and Schmidt giggle, mug and wring hands. Jenko falls in with a dense but well-meaning block of blond named Zook (Wyatt Russell), a football star. Schmidt finds a girlfriend in the sparkling art major, Maya (Amber Stevens).

As things progress, Jenko gets to like the high praise he receives with football and hints to Schmidt that he wants to stop working closely, if at all. Schmidt feels rebuffed and hurt as if the two were lovers. This is the main joke and drive of the film through all of the neon Spring Break silliness and it works very well, because Hill and Tatum play it so straight.

Jonah Hill has an odd, soft and corny nervousness that makes his Persona and he yet again uses it to Apatow affect. It is actually conceivable that Schmidt  misses his nonchalant but square partner.

Yet it is comedienne Jillian Bell who steals the show as Mercedes, a snarky and acidic roommate, fond of firearms and brutality while being girly. An absurdist "kissing fight" between Bell and Hill had me laughing the most.

No surprise since her character has the best lines.

The film boasts a dozen cameos from Queen Latifah, Patton Oswalt, Rob Riggle and Bill Hader (SNL), but most of them are stiff. There is a funny bit during the end credits with Seth Rogen being taken for Jonah Hill and I wish there were more of these.

While fans of the first film might see what's coming before the next bullet hits, it is the awkward partnership / boyfriend subplot that saves this sequel from being a canned laugh.

Granted much of "22 Jump Street" feels prefab, especially at the beginning with noise, neon, bullets and bling all going splat, but Schmidt, in yearning for his Bro Jenko, create an offhand chemistry that is almost a statement on self conscious feelings and homophobia.

Write Ian at

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Life Itself (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Life Itself

Roger Ebert is probably the single person most responsible for bringing the culture of film debate from the the academic realm to the masses. Before Ebert, cinema culture and argument was thought an elitist and snobby art form, inaccessible to the workaday public.

Through his congenial enthusiasm for film and his vibrant weekly show which was co-chaired with critic Gene Siskel, Ebert made film opinions fun and even necessary. At once, both an ingredient and a mirror of life.

"In Life Itself," a documentary by Steve James, (Prefontaine, Hoop Dreams) we get a solid texture of Roger Ebert, the person, including his wishes, his wanderings, his Shangri-las and his fears.

Eschewing a linear path, the film is a kaleidoscope of Ebert's life in totality. We see him first in a hospital bed as he fights complications from cancer of the jaw. Ebert can neither speak, drink or eat--- a difficult toxin to  accept and a harsh twist of fate for such a glib and verbally flexible man who won the Pulitzer Prize. But rather than wallow, he types away. As he describes it, he was surrounded by words all of his life. Language is Ebert's  constellation and it always will be. In this new beginning, nothing has changed.

It is Roger Ebert's new chair, connected to his words like an umbilical cord that bring him back as a young man working the sports beat for The News-Gazette as he burned the midnight oil.

In 1963, he became Editor-in-Chief  for The Daily Illini, writing a scathing and eloquent lament for the horrendous bombing death of four Birmingham girls at the hands of white supremacists. During the Kennedy Assassination, Roger literally "stopped the presses" as there was a cartoon of a rooster holding a gun adjacent to the murder of JFK spread.

Ebert became a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and he gained a following for being energetic, honest and brutal, but not acidic, if a film asked for it.

He went to bars, sought the company of hookers, held court, fearlessly bragged and drank more, even to the point of collapse.

Later Ebert would join AA. And he was one of the first to be vocal about his alcoholism.

Language could never steer him wrong.

Ebert met the soft porn wizard, Russ Meyer,  became bamboozled by big breasts and wrote a screenplay.

In 1975, PBS approached him to do a tv show. It became Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Roger looked like a hedgehog in big round glasses and heavy sweater, while Gene came across as a pedantic know-it-all, as far away from the average person as he was tall. Yet both of them made film accessible and, better yet, entertaining.

The cinema salon, untethered by education or degrees was now in the suburban living room.

The most fun in "Life Itself" comes from the verbal combat between Roger and Gene. Roger despises Gene's more hard line opinions, while Gene calls him an "asshole". They disagree on many films from "Full Metal Jacket" to "Blue Velvet."

It is fun to watch such cellulose burn with Siskel leaping from his chair and Ebert percolating in snarls of fury.

The film hints that Ebert may have been jealous of Siskel's more outwardly prolific life (e.g. family and acceptance in The Playboy Mansion).

But who knows. As Ebert is an inspiration to a once coke-addicted Scorsese, and a life affirming beacon to Werner Herzog, I think Roger had him beat.

While there is little mention of the bawdy Ebert who no doubt worked closely with Russ Meyer and The Sex Pistols and no mention of the young one who got interested in film through reading Mad Magazine, "Life Itself" is wonderful in showing Ebert as he is.

Above all else it shows a comprehensive and human cinematic mind racing against time to meet the next article.

Roger is spurred on by the voluptual love and full falsetto romance (and who wouldn't be) of Chaz Ebert and their film savvy children.

While some of the medically intimate details make hard viewing, coupled with Chaz's flowing tears, "Life Itself" does not dwell in sadness.

Roger Ebert, in a parallel to the physicist Stephen Hawking, has given a quantum leap bringing the often esoteric language of cinema with coherence to nearly everyone worldwide.

This is enough of a gift, but a more lasting one, remains Ebert's belief that the cinema is a emotive motion-filled and transcendent experience, necessary in creating channels of empathy along with the forging of roots to better ourselves as thinking people, brave in whatever obsessions we might have.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snowpiercer (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


One can imagine Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) pulsing with manic manga energy, his head covered with ink-black shooting stars as he traveled to his favorite comic book store absolutely possessed by a graphic novel about an apocalyptic train entitled Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrande and Jean-Marc Rochette.

"Snowpiercer" is the result, produced by the master of Korean suspense Park Chan-wook.

In a very Orwellian tale reminiscent of  "The Hunger Games,, there is an environmental experiment to combat global warming that goes horribly wrong. Most of humanity perishes frozen to death without food, except those who are sequestered in a huge rattling train. The poor are at the tail end of the perpetual machine while the upper classes reside in their own mobile suites at the front.

We spend our time with the impoverished. All is dark, dirty and smelly, in keeping with so many dystopian stories.

There is a big, strapping idealistic young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) a nervous mom (Octavia Spencer) and Gilliam, an aging man of wisdom who has seen it all (played by John Hurt, of course). All of these people are caterwauling in cacophony. Some hobble and wince,  bleeding badly, screaming, maimed, and barely able to stand. Babies are hidden in big coffee cans and shoved aside. Some seem lucky enough to eat and scarf up an excremental jello made from a mash of roaches. A man's arm is sadistically thrust through a porthole in a brutal yank that wrenches the extremity all but loose from the body.

This is a bit overzealous and  absurd and after thirty five minutes one might want to leap from the movie seat as the eye has little to go on.

But just as squeamishness begins, a shrewish, over the top prime minister enters (Tilda Swinton) to liven things up. This minister is nothing less than a Ralph Steadman illustration in three dimensions, horrible and hissy in her hatred, yet comically apoplectic. Her silver-brown eyes roll and stare in fury. Swinton is a snarling, rabid schoolmarm with steroids.

Curtis decides to lead a revolt. After all, the goon guards have guns with no shells. The train is alternately plunged in darkness and plied with torches, all resulting in a bloodbath that doesn't add much to the story.

The gang moves through different areas of the train with the chattering minister as hostage.

The upper classes are ensconced in a perpetual smorgasbord of variety. There is a glassed in aquarium that functions as a residential sushi bar. Some of the residents laze forever in smoking jackets and leather settees. Others preen before sunlit cosmetic counters while a Winter Death impassively waits outside.

In the film's most eerie chapter, sugary faced children merrily express their disgust for the poor in a few Sesame Street-type sing alongs, while sitting in brightly toned classrooms.

The gang's only hope is a zombie-like locksmith brought back from the dead, Namgoong  (Song Kang-ho). who wants drugs.

Despite "Snowpiercer" being bloody, excessively rich in grunting and far fetched, it is also poetic and decadent. The verdant green groves of the elitists, punch across the blinding whiteness of snow like haiku.

A megalomaniac with no neck who bears a generic resemblance to many politicians, makes an anxious villain. And for good measure there is a stentorian Ed Harris who effects a man  behind a  gate persona, appearing as Hugh Hefner in a smoking jacket.

Director Park Chan-wook (Lady Vengeance) definitely leaves his mark as the producer of this film, especially as it has a crafty, psychic siren, Yona (Go Ah-sung) in its ultimate center.

If you can wait out the squishes, squirms and squirts from an ax battle (that would make Mel Gibson turn red) and a jetting or too of blood in a dark orgy of ultraviolence, the smooth, rhythmic transitions from one scene to the next, combined with the images of a gray purgatory and an opiate heaven make "Snowpiercer" a  matinee that  folds upon the eye like disparate origami, in forms that are sometimes predictable and jarring in tone while still others are scarily festive with a giddy sarcasm.

Write Ian at

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Week of July 18 to July 24 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

The Crowded Screens at the Tropic Cinema -- We Love It!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

How many movies can you squeeze onto four movie screens? This week the answer to that puzzle is seven, nearly two per theater at the Tropic Cinema.

These seven films showing at the Tropic range from holdovers to second runs to brand new offerings.

If you haven’t heard Keira Knightley sing, there’s still time. Director John Carney’s “Begin Again” is holding over. This musical traces a Brit songwriter’s lovelorn visit to New York City. Film Racket calls it “a light and dancing comedy about fresh starts.” And adds, “The wholesome, hopeful, let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm may sound hokey but it's actually infectiously joyful.”

Also holding over is another tuneful movie, “Jersey Boys.” Clint Eastwood directed this biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. All of those doo-wop song you love are here in this film based on the Broadway play. Total Film calls it “a solid watch that seeks to deepen the emotion of the jukebox musical.” And The Standard gives it “an extra star for its excellent songs.”

You also have another chance to see “Maleficent,” the Snow White fairy tale seen from the viewpoint of the wicked enchantress. And Angelina Jolie makes such a beautiful witch. Irish Independent says, “It's a spectacular thing, the sets and shots matching Jolie's remarkable face.” And advises you to “watch Angelina Jolie devour of the scenery in the role she was born for. The camp factor alone is worth the price of admission.”

Another fanciful ride is “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the animated sequel to that story about the Viking boy who befriends a flying, fire-breathing dragon. SFX Magazine says, “Bigger, braver and even more visually rewarding than the original, it’s an ambitious attempt to extend the scope of its predecessor without sacrificing the charm, humor and excitement that made that so appealing.” And opines that it’s “quite possibly the best action-adventure movie of the year.” High praise indeed.

“22 Jump Street” is another sequel about those sophomoric undercover cops played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Chicago Reader exudes, “This sequel to the hit action comedy ‘21 Jump Street’ is better all around: the pacing is more consistent, the sight gags more imaginative, the self-referential jokes sharper.” And SSG Syndicate calls it “subversively satisfying.”

End-of-the-Word sci-fi is found in “Snowpiercer,” the dystopian tale about a supertrain that carries the survivors of a global warming disaster on an endless journey. New Yorker pronounces it as being “Violent, often absurd, but full of brilliant surprises.” Newsday describes it as “a summer movie with a social conscience.” And Three Movie Buffs call it “one of the few surprises of the summer and one that deserves a much wider audience.”

Last but not least (as they say) is “Life Itself,” a documentary that allows us to better know the late film critic Roger Ebert. He was a man who knew how to get the most out of life itself. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “a story that is by turns personal, funny, painful, and transcendent.” CinemaDope finds it “fascinating, engaging, and life-affirming ‒ without being in the least mawkish.” And Us Weekly concludes, “As this riveting documentary proves, two thumbs up made up only a small part of the total man.”

Seven films, count ‘em. That’s many pleasurable hours in a darkened theater letting your imagination enjoy the feast.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Is an Age-Old Viking Tale

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If you plan to train a dragon, you’d better know what kind you have. Eastern dragons (Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Vietnam, etc.) tend to resemble big snakes, while Western dragons (European, Greek, Slavic, etc.) often have wings. Many breathe fire like a reptilian flamethrower.

The name itself entered the language in the early 13th Century. It comes from the Latin “draco,” meaning “huge serpent.”

No, Godzilla is not considered a dragon.

Dragons appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 1800 BC), a Babylonian poem that is considered the first great work of literature. A dragon is also featured in Beowulf (circa 975 BC), the Scandinavian tale of a hero who defeats a monster but is later killed by a … well, you know.

The DreamWorks animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon” tells the adventures of a young Viking named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, son of Stoick the Vast, leader of the Viking island of Berk. He finds and trains a dragon he calls toothless. It’s one of those flying dragons.

Now there’s a sequel -- playing at the Tropic Cinema --  titled “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” In it, we have the further adventures of Hiccup and Toothless. As director Dean DeBlois describes it: “At the end of last film, all these Vikings who were previously somewhat landlocked are now on the backs of dragons so the entire Northern Hemisphere opens up to them. And with that Hiccup’s curiosity increases, the map expands and inevitably they are going to come across new dragons and new cultures.”

Seems that an insane conqueror called Drago Bludvist is amassing an army of dragons. In pursuit of Draco, Hiccup encounters his long lost mother. They face Draco and his Bewilderbeast, (an alpha dragon that controls others of its species, including Toothless). Before it’s over, the boy is forced to become a man, assuming his role as leader of the Vikings.

Yes, it involves lots of flying dragons, battles, and a Viking funeral.

Comedian Jay Baruchel does the voice of Hiccup. Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett give us the voices of Hiccup’s mom and dad. Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig round out the cast. Djimon Hounsou is the evil dragon hunter Drago Bludvist.

There’s a third entry in the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise scheduled for 2016.

Snowpiecer (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Dig Deep For
Sci-Fi Message

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What if you crossed “The Polar Express” with “The Hunger Games”? Maybe threw in the social commentary of Orwell’s “1984.” You’d get the new apocalyptic action thriller called “Snowpiercer.”

If you’re a sci-fi fan with an ability for suspension of disbelief, you’re going to love it. If you’re a grounded action fan who demands a logical plot, you’ll grumble at the surreal-like fantasy with plot holes large enough to drive a train through.

“Snowpiercer” -- currently getting up steam at the Tropic Cinema -- is about a train that’s carrying the last remnants of humanity after a failed global warming cure brings on an ice age that wipes out life as we know it.

Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jean-Marc Rochette, it’s a bleak film as brought to the screen by Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

A Noah’s ark supertrain transverses the globe, powered by a perpetual-motion engine, carrying the survivors in this snowbound doomsday story. After running for 17 straight years, a strict social class system has been imposed on the train’s passengers, the poor in the rear cars, the train’s inventor Wilford (Ed Harris) and his upper-class cronies upfront next to the engine. (Read: A cinematic microcosm of society.) Turns out, the people in the front of the train can’t survive without the children of the back, and those in the back can’t survive without the food from the front, a “perfect” symbiotic relationship.

The story has a young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who is trying to get past all the security guards in order to reach the front section of the train where Wilford lives in luxury. Curtis’s quest is part of a proposed revolution, an uprising of the have-nots. Lots of social commentary here, designed to keep moviegoers talking about “Snowpiercer” for years to come -- maybe even until 2031, the year in which the movie is set.

This is Bong’s first English-language film, so forgive the script faux pas. But he’s good a delivering action scenes, such as the bloody episode with ax-wielding guards going at it the attacking rebels.

The train is populated by many well-known actors -- from John Hurt to Octavia Spencer -- as well as some of Bong’s favorite compatriots -- Kang-ho Song to Ah-sung Ko. Alison Pill is a scene-stealer. And you won’t recognize Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for John C. Reilly.

Enumerating all the plot holes would require too many spoilers. So suspend your disbelief and take a ride on the Snowpiercer if you like end-of-the-world thrillers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Chinese Puzzle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Chinese Puzzle

From director Cedric Klapisch (L'Auberge Espagnole) comes the third film in the director's superb apartment trilogy, that is as lively as it is thoughtful with a colorful retro palate.

"Chinese Puzzle" follows the characters in the first "Russian Dolls. . Xavier (Romain Duris) is overwhelmed by his attempt at balancing the sensual and the cerebral. To make matters bad, Xavier has writer's block. To make them worse, his marriage of ten years to Wendy (Kelly Reilly) is now allé à merde. Where before she was warm now there is only cold formality.

Wendy tells Xavier that she has met another man, the generic John (Peter Hermann) and is taking the two kids.

Understandably, Xavier is devastated. He resolves to follow her to New York.

But nothing is easy. Xavier has no place to crash. After much rushing about. He finds comfort in old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France). Isabelle asks Xavier to be a sperm donor. She wants a child with Ju (Sandrine Holt). Xavier agrees and in return stays in Ju's college apartment.

In the city, Xavier is finding little leg room for opportunity as a non-citizen of the U.S.

One day, he is en route to visit his kids when the taxi driver (Phil Nee) gets into a violent altercation. Xavier calls the police and gets help.

Deeply in gratitude, the driver gives his blessing for a marriage for citizenship with Xavier and his daughter Nancy (Li Jun Li)

Xavier is a wreck.

He conjures conversation with Schopenhauer and Hegel.

To throw another wrench in the works, we have a former vixen (Audrey Tatou) who still has the hots for Xavier.

Romain Duris is a joy to watch having an interesting bemused quality that almost recalls Cary Grant in "North by Northwest."

Xavier is always running.

This prismatic and retro-looking film becomes a zany statement on the perils of immigration, and the positive change that can be made if an when we have a more workable policy, forged with sensitivity instead of suspicion.

The animated sequences are slick and lively and while some of the fugues recall early Woody Allen, the comic bits have meat. The legends are more than mere philosophic shades.

"Chinese Puzzle" is a blocked construction of vignettes in flashback that make a zany French counterpart to Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight." We have grown with the befuddled, bemused and breakneck Xavier. His contemplation on time along with the animated colors, will give your eyes a dazzle of joy and light thoughts that stay with you. Like the films of John Turturro, this "Chinese Puzzle" is of a New York deep in its happiness, where all problems are depicted in buoyancy and every eccentric (whether in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens ) works together.

Write Ian at

Monday, July 14, 2014

Begin Again (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Begin Again

Irish wunderkind John Carney scores another warm but existential hit that is a quasi follow-up to the beloved and very successful "Once."

In this film, we are again inside the perilous environment of music and romance with cinematography appropriately muted in coffee tones. But this time, Carney trades in Dublin for New York City.

The compelling Mark Ruffalo is Dan Mulligan, an arrogant and volatile record producer who made his own company from the ground up. Dan is going through a bad spell: his behavior is increasingly aggressive and he can't hold it together. He is fired and takes to a crummy apartment but it is more accurate to say Dan is homeless.

At a bohemian bar, Dan is startled out of his bourbon fugue by the striking raw qualities of the unstructured Greta (Keira Knightley) who coos and whispers in the tradition of a Norah Jones. Dan is like an addled Santa Claus, he's so used to being morose that he can't quite imagine what he hears, but he is awake. The song hits him like belladonna. Dan is a Bacchus, struck by a formation of faraway suns.

He tries to get the modest Greta to record a demo but she has no interest, thinking Dan a ne'er do well.

In a way, that is what he is.

Dan is persuasive enough to make Greta sleep on the concept and Dan is saved from a heartsick hovel at least for the time being.

The surprise of a new sound keeps Dan from despair, he is a kind of Clement Greenberg of the music world, seeing melody in terms of imagery and color. There is a playful interlude where we see instruments coming to life that recalls Disney's Fantasia segment, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice".

Along with this vexation, Dan tries to smooth things over with his non plussed self-absorbed daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and a slightly damp alternative ex wife (Catherine Keener).

As a kind of parallel to Jon Favreau's hit film "Chef", Dan has to convince others that he is worth it and strikes out on his own encountering a medley of semi eccentric characters, including the feverishly tattooed and Minion-like CeeLo Green with a street angel's voice.

Actor James Corden steals the show as the hyperactive and rambling Steve, a loyal friend of Greta's who belts out his songs in a roaring voice.

The core of this sonic morality tale however, lies  with Mark Ruffalo who is a contradictory stew of emotions with the movement of knotty choices showing throughout his face. At times he is a sorrowful bear, bothered and buzzed by his disappointments. At others, he is a mad imp, charmed and changed by the non polarizing thrum of a live band, garage made, ungrounded by pre-packaged effects.

Anti-pop fans might well get a kick out of the handsome  Adam Levine  who plays Greta's narcissistic boyfriend Dave, selling out by film's end. In one scene, Levine sports a huge bushy and black beard, perhaps as a tongue in cheek tribute to "Inside Llewyn Davis".

Although some aspects make for Carney's usual stomping grounds, (this is, after all another underdog musician story), Carney weaves such innocence within his characters as they spin their high energy tunes, you can't fail to miss its percussive feeling and may well spill a cymbal-full of tears.

"Begin Again" is a well crafted intimate valentine which almost creates an alternate world where the garishness of Autotune effects are unheard of and those bohemian musicians in cafés are still king. When you see the band Beatle-bound on a skyscraper roof, the water-works are sure to start. At such a point, it is deliriously easy to make the leap, believing against rationale that the MusicWorld has left the guitar, the cello and the drums untouched, to imagine that a Second Coming of a rattling and handmade music is somehow possible in the Mainstream and is sure to re-ascend soon.

Write Ian at

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Venus in Fur (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski's adaptation of David Ives' Off Broadway play "Venus in Fur" makes a fine and eerie witches' cauldron of festive menace. Brimming with sex and repressed sensation, this psychological story within a story is a  dark circus hat of tricks, and its sleight of hand will keep you guessing until the last pinch.

Playwright Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace) is running late after a long day running auditions for his adaptation of a scandalous novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch who is credited with havng popularized sado-masochism in the late 1800s.

All Novacheck wants is to leave and join his fiancée, but he is hindered by a violent storm that rages outside.

As if delivered by a squall, Vanda Jourdain (Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner) enters the dark theater with great cacophony. She is voluptuous and brash, peppering the harried Novacheck with questions and nonsense. She wants to audition for The part, the proper society lady who is a temptress under wraps also named Vanda.

The author wants no part of it.

Vanda stalls Novacheck, first with small talk then with little personal details from her. He is further distracted by the overt carnal sights of Vanda's leather outfit glimpsed askance. Just as he attempts to answer his cellphone during a horrid clap of thunder, Vanda transforms into character as the upper class lady of leisure and Novacheck becomes instantly mesmerized.

He is hooked.

Each time the author attempts to break away from the hyper Vanda and return home, she gives him more dialogue and he is both enchanted and aghast, finding it impossible to end a scene.

Vanda sometimes breaks character, telling of intimate details. Novacheck is both mortified and stuck by adoration by turns, often in the space of seconds.

Vanda is a shapeshifter, part chattering chipmunk, part serpent and a series of knots appear, born of longing, curiosity and aggression.

In this two-person play, Seigner and Amalric are terrific with a porous and slick chemistry.

Seigner is a churning physical engine of gesture and suggestion, who can turn into a lounging vixen of bedroom butter quicker than a dash of mascara.

 Amalric is excellent as a man who is all nerves, an anxious and spring-loaded pen without release or expression. There is something of Dirk Bogarde in his role as a taciturn and sometimes willing cypher, a blank page.

What is genuine and real between these characters and who remains the most authentic?

The role reversals and rapid speeches become dizzying in their very deviltry. Despite these schizoid conundrums, though, the tension never wavers.

In style and structure, the mania of the narrative may remind some of Ken Russell's adaptation of Wilde's "Salome" with all of its decadent teasing.

Fans of Polanski's oeuvre will be well rewarded as the master hallmarks are all here: a slate grey sky, a warlock's pot campily echoing "Rosemary's Baby" (along with the mention of a baby's sable wrap). There is a claustrophobic sense of space that will bring to mind "Repulsion" and some transgenderism that speaks of "The Tenant."

Who else but Roman Polanski can depict a leather thigh-high boot as some living selfish animal that is also forlorn and sad, where a curve of lipstick becomes a sign of Old Nick?

The director hits upon these elements like sacred runes. Indeed, they have become entrenched within him as part of a personal vocabulary. But rather than shaking our heads, we seem to want more.

"Venus in Fur" continues the auteur's often singular, but usually provocative hallow feast.

In showing a man driven catatonic in horror and absurdity, the exiled and hermetic creator appears to joke his audience into submission and we fall.

Once more, Polanski's conjuring trick is to give both belly laughs and Beelzebub (a combination of the silly and the almost scary) equal measure.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Jersey Boys (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" has arrived in patent leather. The film is Eastwood's cinematic version of the popular Broadway Musical based on Frankie Valli and his group The Four Seasons. The story starts swiftly with excellent cinematography that is appropriately muted in palette and semi sepia-toned in keeping with Eastwood's style.

The score proves this film's anchor which is effervescent and gleefully  soaring.

Seasons member Tommy (Vincent Piazza) appears onscreen as a "Goodfellas" version of Rod Serling telling us of all the trouble The Boys are in as young kids. Indeed, the band mates talk to the camera in the manner of "House of Cards."

Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is a lookout to robbing a safe with a high, bell like voice. Nick (Michael Lomenda) is the tall baritone and Tommy makes a shifty wheeler dealer.

The dialogue is snappy with lots of Jersey slang. At times, the repartee is so rapid it almost runs the risk of being a parody of itself especially given that this is such frequently travelled terrain via Scorsese and "The Sopranos." There is a heap of knitted eyebrows, squinty eyes, and gun level smirks slanting sideways with lots of lines like "Frankie, you kiddin?"  When the gang does get entangled with the cops, the drama is more reminiscent of  "The Bowery Boys" than a punchy "Mean Streets." In one scene, Valli gets hit by a small book.

The period, however, is handled with a terrific slickness. The cars shine like rolling pastry on licorice wheels. The boys have hair that is high, slick and grooved like a record.

This is a period right before the shaky rush of the 60s, before the folk beats of the anti-status quo  questioned all in its path. The youth was still holding onto pink, pastel, coke, martinis and debutante balls. The Beatles are  unheard of and the only man in a suit Frankie wants to conquer is Sinatra.

This is well captured and there are fine flourishes, mainly in the encroachment of Jazz music and its stream of consciousness, which like abstract paintings on awall, Valli doesn't comprehend. Valli holds on to his doo-wop leaps like something sacred and hermetic---a sound of clean lines gliding smoothly through space creating an audible version of a Lincoln Continental shooting down the Newark highway.

There is much metro area melodrama as Frankie meets with mafioso Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who is somewhat comical in puffy hair. With his pale manner and a cumulus doo, Walken almost makes a Dracula Don. Frankie and the boys meet a virtuosic songwriter, Bob Gaudio and during a chance bowling alley meeting with future Scorsese sidekick, Joe Pesci, (Joey Russo) The Four Seasons are made.

While the police business and some family caterwauling in the narrative have little spunk, given soft-shoes, the principle actors have spirit. This chemistry together with rousing music throughout, puts all in champagne city.

Just when we are bogged down by Frankie's low valleys, his voice hits and we are brought back to that time of a bubbling turn and swish.

"Jersey Boys" might have benefitted from a more unapologetic fist and a blacker shoe, but Eastwood renders the period well with even something touching in Valli's determined wise-guy grin.

Write Ian at

Friday, July 11, 2014

Week of July 11 to July 17 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Musicals, Rom-Coms, and S&M -- What More Could the Tropic Offer?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

On my iPhone I have some of my favorite music. Among the various albums you’ll find “Once,” the soundtrack from that same-named movie directed by John Carney, bassist with the Irish rock band The Flames. Well, he’s done it again, this time a bigger-budget musical called “Begin Again.” It stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo as a new songwriting team that comes together after her old beau dumps her. Time Out says, “What makes it special is that it’s not another romance about finding a man. It’s about finding your people, about being a bit lost in your twenties.”

“Venus In Fur” is a different kind of love story, based on the erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. An actress named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) audits for a part about a dominatrix, one she seems born to play. Los Angeles Times describes it as “a whip-smart dissection of gender politics via some teasing S&M.” And New Yorker observes, “Ever the alchemist, Roman Polanski continues his quest for the process whereby theatre is transmuted and reforged into film.”

“Chinese Puzzle” is well named. In it, a middle-aged Asian guy moves to New York to be near his children … only to discover that life is puzzling. tells us, “French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch keeps the tone light and the serious themes just under the surface as he revisits the lively characters from ‘The Spanish Apartment’ (2002) and ‘Russian Dolls’ (2005).” And Movie Talk observes that “the farcical episodes have a fizzy zest.”

“Chef” continues to showcase the talents of Jon Favreau as a high-profile chef who winds up driving a taco truck after getting fired from a classy L.A. eatery. Redemption comes with a new chance at life, replete with a second chance at fatherhood. Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “It’s a refreshing change of pace from typical summer fare, a story not framed around the skeleton of an old TV series or designed as a tie-in to Hasbro toys.” And Times (UK) calls it “a foodie-gasm of a film.”

“Maleficent” is the Snow White fairy tale retold from the viewpoint of a misunderstood enchantress. With Angelina Jolie in the title role, I think we can come up with a little empathy. says it “remains surprisingly faithful to the original while recreating the title character.” And Irish Independent observes that “it’s a spectacular thing, the sets and shots matching Jolie’s remarkable face.”

“Jersey Boys” is a musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Season. You’ll love the songs, but you’ve gotta admit it’s a surprising offering from jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood. Leonard Maltin describes it as “a rags-to-riches tale with glimpses behind the scenes of the music business.” And Crikey notes that when the film “hits its stride it reveals a lightness of touch uncharacteristic of Eastwood’s oeuvre.”

Angelina Jolie telling fairy tales; Clint Eastwood doing doo-wop; Roman Polanski offering sexual tension; John Carney delivering a tuneful Keira Knightley -- movies always surprise us.

Begin Again (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Begin Again” Is
A Familiar Tune

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Yes, Keira Knightley can sing. And no, it’s not in a musical version of a Jane Austen novel.

“Begin Again” is a tuneful rom-com that harkens back to those old ‘40s musicals like “The Barkleys of Broadway” or “Blue Skies.” But properly updated for today’s sensibilities. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Here we have a Brit songwriting duo, Greta and Dave (Keira Knightley and Adam Levine), who go to New York to make their mark on the music world. A long-time couple, Greta is happy for Dave when he lands a deal with a major record label.

But this wouldn’t be much of a movie plot, if writer-director John Carney had left it at that.

So let’s add a little turmoil: All this success goes to Dave’s head and (surprise, surprise!) he winds up in the arms of another woman. Poor Greta, cast aside like a rag doll. And thus Dave becomes known as her “no-good ex-boyfriend.”

Apparently John Carney learned his plotting from watching those old musicals. Enter Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck record exec. Drinking and all that. He happens upon the forlorn girl singing in an East Village club. Next thing you know, they are a successful songwriting team (“a mutually transformative relationship” as the press kit calls it). There’s no big spoiler in telling you that love blooms amidst a summer cityscape in New York.

And you’ll enjoy the soundtrack. Several songs are performed by Keira Knightley (“Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” “Lost Stars,” et al.). Sexy hunk Adam Levine has his moments too (“No One Else Like You,” “Higher Place”). Mark Ruffalo, not so much. But he adds his scruffy “good guy” presence.

Rapper CeeLo Green pops up as Trouble Gum. He delivers several numbers (“Horny,” “Your Next Move,” “Women Of The World”).

You will also meet Dan’s former business partner (hip hop artist Mos Def), his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and his rebellious daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).

Even John Carney (you’ll remember him as the director of “Once” … I have its soundtrack on my iPhone) lends his hand to the songwriting. The end credits acknowledge his input on “Like A Fool” and “Step You Can’t Take Back.” Keep in mind, Dublin-born Carney’s no amateur at this; he used to be bassist with the Irish rock band The Flames.

As one of Keira Knightley’s songs puts it, by the end of the story she’s “Coming Up Roses.” That song was written by Carney’s old collaborator on the movie “Once,” The Flames’ frontman Glen Hansard.

Think of “Begin Again” as being similar to “Once,” but with a bigger budget and famous stars.

Yes, Keira Knightley can sing. And it’s very entertaining. But with her “little girl” voice, she’d best keep her day job as an actress.

Jersey Boys (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Jersey Boys” -- From Newark
To Broadway To Hollywood

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio (you’ll know him as Frankie Valli of The Four Season) was born in Newark, New Jersey -- so that makes him a “Jersey Boy.”

Frankie was known for his powerful falsetto voice, a memorable, raise-the-hairs-on-your-arm sound on such hits as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” In all, he had nearly 40 Top 40 Hits.

Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1999, they made the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

So it’s not so surprising that a Broadway musical based on Valli and his backup group followed in 2005. It was called -- you guessed it -- “Jersey Boys.” What’s known as a jukebox musical, this is a production that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score.

Now along comes the film version -- also called “Jersey Boys” -- showing this week at the Tropic Cinema. What’s so surprising about this is that the movie was directed by grumpy old man Clint Eastwood.

Everybody knows Eastwood (the onetime spaghetti western star) loves music. Jazz, to be specific. His “Play Misty for Me” was built around the Errol Garner instrumental. His “Bird” looked at the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. He also produced films about jazzmen Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck.

But who knew he was a fan of a white doo-wop group like The Four Seasons?

“The rock era was not my favorite,” Eastwood admits. “But the novelty songs they did were a cut above most rock ‘n’ roll stuff.”

Here we have a biopic about some New Jersey boys from the wrong side of the tracks (Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi) who came up with a new sound, thanks to the three-octave vocal chords of one Frankie Castelluccio. With a little coaching by Massi. And a few tips from Joe Pesci.

“We grew up with Joe,” says Gaudio. “He’s an excellent guitar player and singer. It’s a damn shame he made it as an actor.”

At the heart of the story is how a code of honor these four guys learned on the streets of Newark helped them survive gambling debts, Mafia threats, and personal disasters.

They sold an estimated 175 million records. Yet at one point they were $1.4 million in debt.

According to screenwriter Marshall Brickman, “It’s a classic American story. It’s rags to riches, and back to rags.”

Or as Clint Eastwood laconically puts it, “It’s a drama that revolves around a singing group.”

The veteran actor/director admits he doesn’t think of “Jersey Boys” as a musical. “The Four Seasons had all these hit songs, but they were juvenile delinquents,” he says. “They were just guys from the neighborhood -- a place where, if you were a singer, you were looked down upon as strange, unless you were Sinatra.”

Eastman tapped John Lloyd Young, who played Frankie Valli in the original Broadway production to star in the film version. After all, Young had won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of the rock ‘n’ roll icon.

Clint Eastwood insisted on live musical performances while filming his movie. “I wanted to really showcase their talents by having them hit the high notes live,” he says. “In the old days everything was pre-recorded and the actors would just lip-sync, but I said, ‘No, we’ll just do it live’ so the emotion, the facial expressions match the song.”

Many years ago I watched Eastwood lip-sync songs during the filming of “Paint Your Wagon.” A loudspeaker blared out the lyrics while he pretended to sing. Constantly flubbing the lines, his mouth didn’t always match the music. No, he didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience, based on his profane asides each time the director called for a retake.

Eastwood shrugs, “I just thought these fellows had done it so many times on stage, there’s no reason they shouldn’t just do it live.” After all, John Lloyd Young had been in over 1200 performances of the play.

The 13th longest running show in Broadway history, “Jersey Boys” won four 2006 Tony Awards including Best Musical, and the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

Valli, now 80, weighs in on the unlikely success of “Jersey Boys.” As he sees it, “We were out of the public eye for a long time; we hardly did interviews … When we were trying to get ‘Jersey Boys’ off the ground, I’d get, ‘The Four Seasons? Who’s going to care? There’s the Beatles, there’s the Rolling Stones.’ But people know those stories. Here was a story no one knew.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Grand Seduction (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Grand Seduction

Don McKellar (Childstar) delivers a pleasant and cozy lark in "The Grand Seduction", a remake of the French 2003 comedy "Seducing Dr. Lewis" by Jean-François Pouliot. Set in Newfoundland and Labrador, the film has echoes of other farces "Waking Ned Devine", "The Mouse That Roared" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming". All of these films hinge on either money, saving face or both.

Here, Murray (Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges) is a down and out fisherman in a barnacled harbor. Over  bottles of ale, Murray attempts to motivate the woolly, ginned up and pickled residents, all to no avail. These sweater loafers have scarcely a chance, it seems, in recapturing the respect they once had as a working fishery.

Murray gets an epiphany. If the harbor can hire a willing doctor these    weedy folks can become a functioning community and further entice an oil plant to move in, giving back Tickle Head's standard of living.

Enter the young six pack of abs, Dr. Lewis, (Taylor Kitsch) a kind of Dudley Do-Right cosmetic surgeon. Lewis is blackmailed into trying the harbor community out for size, halting his plans to attend to a boy needing surgery in a big Canadian metropolis.

Through some nasty eavesdropping, Murray discovers that the doctor loves cricket and young women. Murray convinces the inhabitants to learn cricket, possibly luring the dashing but dense Lewis to stay.

The main fun in the hijinks is in seeing just how far Murray will go and in watching the actor Brendan Gleeson get more and more worked up as he did so wonderfully in "The Guard" and "In Bruges".

With this outing, Gleeson is a bit less hostile and there is a warm twinkle in the eye, but he is still magnetic, providing the expected bouts of volatility. Gleeson makes a fine orange-haired Popeye of sorts and no matter what he does, he propels the eye, usually becoming the highlight of many films.

As fate would have it, Popeye himself---Robin Williams--- was rumored to have been offered this role but backed out.

All to the good. Gleeson gives his role an understated quality that the manic Williams does not always show. Gleeson is truly the engine in this film.

Taylor Kitsch gives a somewhat watery performance as the bland but good natured "outsider". His role is a hybrid of Ben Braddock (The Graduate) given his nerves around the detached postal clerk Kathleen (Liane Balaban) and George Kellerman (The Out of Towners). The doctor hates everything about this fishing village of sorts and nothing goes right.

Although at times the goings-on feel like TV's "Northern Exposure" there are hints of madcap glee: microphones go haywire with feedback and the people conspire to double their occupancy by going from bar to church in order to fool the oil CEO, they don makeshift cricket attire from bedsheets.

There is a monotone, dry as Wonder Bread accountant (Mark Critch) and an old salt (Gordon Pinsent). These characters are fuzzy and warmly comical. While they don't emote any leaps or charges, the eccentrics are instantly recognizable and will give a knowing chuckle.

However, if its full belly laughs you are after, they will be given by Brendan Gleeson who once again offers some upside down irreverence  combined with some Santa Claus good feeling. There is an abundance of whiskey-worn vibration within his cheeks and forehead---an elixir of sadness and hope.

He just might bring a tear to the eye.

"The Grand Seduction" makes satisfying viewing to those who like warm films with a light heart in the tradition of "Angel's Share" and "Chocolat".

The sweeping oyster-gray cinematography by itself is excellent, highlighting Newfoundland and Labrador's quaint and leaning allure. This jam-jam cookie of a film makes for an airy repast and you'll be sure to shamble out of your seat with a smile.

Write Ian at

Citizen Koch (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

 Citizen Koch

Watch out! Here is a film scarier than "Jaws". Michael Moore producer Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) directs the punchy "Citizen Koch" about the autocratic Koch brothers and their supernatural hatred for President Obama and also, by extension, all political engines that don't spin their way, which is to the Right.

The patriarch, Fred Koch was a founder of the harshly conservative John Birch Society, that formed in 1958 as a McCarthy-era war against Communism, or we can at least infer by the documentary, anyone deemed contrary by the hard Right.

The documentary gives us a smidgen of the Reagan 80s taking us to the knife-sharpening attacks against Hillary Clinton during 2007.

By then the Koch brothers pumped money into the Tea Party, and Sarah Palin sprouted to life, (or death) with a voice carrion-shrill and even grating in her absolute disgust for Obama.

The signs came out like vulture talons: Obama the Joker-freak, Obama the Dishonest African, Obama the Socialist Black Panther wanting to overthrow the American white man. Such signs seem scrawled in excrement and no doubt they are just as offensive.

Despite all the antiquated Frankensteinian mob behavior, their party's one term blood lust came to nothing and Obama was elected for a second term.

The film also highlights the deadpan and charmless maneuvers of Governor Scott Walker as he promises to lift up the American worker and sneakily strips away unions of collective bargaining. Teachers stage an all night hearing. Walker and his men leave the building.

A grass-roots backlash begins with murmurs of a recall. The swell looks promising but in the end, Koch Cash proves mightier than the sword.

At times, "Citizen Koch" plays like a Stephen King horror in the mode of "The Shining". Consider that every year The Kochs give an annual retreat at a hotel mansion with turrets and all. Even the color scheme is brown and grim. They also saunter about California golf courses, becoming scaly chameleons according to whatever suits their leather-fat ideals. Many of the men have hard hair and this could be a sequel to "The Stepford Wives".

Money goes well with plaid.

The most compelling part of the film is in the character of Buddy Roemer, the former Governor of Louisiana. Once a die hard Republican, he now feels his party has left him behind. He intends to run against the Max Headroom-like Mitt Romney, for the glare of candidacy, but he can't get a billionaire bankroll and his offices are vacant and listless. The Koch irons will not let him debate. Roemer is an inverse twin of Ralph Nader, forced out of the cash podium, a new self deprecating Everyman and a Mr. Smith. Part of Roemer might be sincere, but if events were different, would he champion the average person?

Money is a steamroller under Koch's brass knuckles and as both a corporate entity and brothers, they have the abundance of power.

Seen in this way, the Koch family is a shiver of sharks, mindless in morality and compromise.

When we are shown veterans scowling into the camera and working out, the atmosphere is cubist in claustrophobia and tension. The screen bubbles in anger. You might want to shake them, informing that its not too late to create a world that they want to see. But even as a woodsy couple scrambles to the polls with the hope of recalling Scott Walker, the supernally dark aura of Charles Koch is close at hand, veiled and unseen, like a right-edgy  Wizard of Oz.

Few of us have known this formidable but nebulous man, with his many fingers stretching like an octopus, over his influence of NPR and PBS as he talks of planting rabble rousers in a recording.

The Koch family as a group almost succeeded in making this very film, known as "Citizen Koch" become marginal, unviewable and ultimately insignificant.

Write Ian at

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Week of July 4 to July 10 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

An Eclectic Lineup at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Canada’s such an interesting country. Lots of movies get made there because of the tax credits. That’s why New York City sometimes looks suspiciously like Toronto in films. Canada even has films made in French that require subtitles. So it’s not surprising that Canada has been known to do English-language remakes of its own Québécois  films.

Take “La grande seduction,” for instance. A sweet little Quebec-made film about a fishing village located on the north coast. It tells the story of a dried-up little town trying to bring in industry by having a resident doctor. But how to get one? Turns out this keeper has been remade in English, with the town relocated to Newfoundland. This redo is called (you guessed it) “The Grand Seduction.” Washington Post calls it “a fish-out-of-water fable set within a fabulously scenic backdrop, against which wholesome humor and a thoroughgoing humanist streak play out and intertwine with gentle, unforced ease.” And Reeling Reviews describes it as “Doc Hollywood” by way of “Local Hero.”

Another put-a-smile-on-your-face film is “Chef,” actor-director-producer Jon Favreau’s paean to haute cuisine. Still playing at the Tropic, it tells of a big-time chef (Favreau) who loses his job after a run-in with a food critic (Oliver Platt). sees it as “a perceptive crowd-pleaser that could satisfy both the brain and the tongue.” And Movie Talk finds it to be “a mouth-watering treat.”

“Obvious Child” is a different kind of rom-com, the story of a wannabe stand-up comic who gets preggers by a passing stranger. Here, the obvious child is her, not the unwanted fetus. Toronto Star says director Gillian Robespierre deserves “ high praise for tackling a story with such a difficult subject at its heart, with a combination of grace, humor and courage.” And Columbus Alive calls it the “obvious frontrunner for indie comedy of the year.”

For the kids (of all ages, as they say) you have “Maleficent,” the 3D retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the witch’s viewpoint. Angelina Jolie make a beautiful, not-so-evil, misunderstood queen. The Boston Herald asks, “Is there anyone better suited to playing an enchantress?” sees it as “a family-friendly Disney adventure.” And New Yorker notes that “it treads carefully, and all too kindly, in the footsteps of ‘Wicked’.”

Another fantasy outing is “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the time-travel adventures of Marvel’s Wolverine superhero (Hugh Jackman). Leonard Maltin calls it “vibrant and entertaining.” While Denver Post observes, “Perhaps more than any other superhero franchise, X-Men captures the overlapping fantasies of being unique yet not alone, and of being a hero but also being saved.”

Another pulse-pounder is the re-release of “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg’s classic don’t-go-in-the-water tale about a Great White shark that wants to eat our three heroes (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw). Village Voice terms it “a near Hitchcockian exercise in transference of guilt and making the audience pay for its illicit pleasures.” And Digital Spy sees it as “a masterclass in blockbuster entertainment -- a tense, exciting thriller that redefined contemporary cinema.”

For fans of teen romance, there’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” a tearjerker based on the bestselling book by John Green. The chemistry between the young lovers Hazel and Gus (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) is winning. New Yorker says, “The film dodges most of the pitfalls of clichéd cancer dramas with humor and natural warmth.” And Birmingham Post sums it up, “Our emotional responses feel like the human equivalent of thunder and lightning in a film anchored with the key line: ‘If you want the rainbow you have to deal with the rain’.”

And rounding out the slate is a documentary called “Citizen Koch,” the revealing portrait of those zillionaire Koch brothers who are funding the right-wing political agenda. St. Louis Post Dispatch tells us that “most of the movie is a backgrounder on the Citizens United case, in which a deeply divided Supreme Court opened the door to truckloads of campaign cash from tycoons and corporations.” Paste Magazine says, “The dark lessons this engrossing nonfiction film holds ... are terribly important ones.” And Boston Globe calls it “preaching to the choir.”

Whew! Quite an eclectic lineup of films this week at the Tropic.

The Grand Seduction (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Grand Seduction”
Will Do Just That

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Some small towns are in danger of simply drying up and blowing away. After all, North America is riddled with ghost towns as testament to this fact.

But how can today’s town fathers counter this?

One solution is to bring in industry. A factory, say.

That’s the plan of Tickle Cove, a small harbor town that wants to recruit a factory to save it from financial collapse. Most of its 125 denizens live on government welfare checks, no longer fishing now that the cod are gone.

But as we discover in “The Grand Seduction” -- the comedy that’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- convincing a new petrochemical recycling plant to set up shop in Tickle Cove requires a “package.” You see, when a major business brings new workers to a town, it needs certain amenities.

Mainly, a town doctor.

So the self-appointed new mayor Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) sets out to find the town a doctor. He finagles Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) into serving out a month of mandated community service in Tickle Cove, but how does one turn this temporary position into a permanent residency?

That’s where the title comes in -- The Grand Seduction.

The town tries its best to please Dr. Lewis so that he’ll stay. The tactics: Auction off a virgin? Offer a little bribery? Suck up to the doctor in a big way?

Unfortunately, the good doctor is a city slicker who loves jazz and cricket, hates fishing, and has a perfectly good fiancée waiting for him back home.

Will the seduction work?

Well, this is a heartwarming comedy.

Actually, it’s a remake of a 2003 Québécois  film called “Seducing Dr. Lewis” (French title: “La grande seduction”).

Switching the new film’s locale from the French-speaking village Ste-Marie-la-Mauderne on the north coast of Quebec to Tickle Cove in Newfoundland was an inconsequential shift -- other than the lack of subtitles. And the beautiful scenery. The story remains the same.

Irish-born Brendan Gleeson (“In Burges,” “Braveheart”) is always a charming character actor. Taylor Kitsch comes off as warm and likeable (a resurrection from his “John Carter” disaster with Disney). And Gordon Pinsent (TV’s “Barbar”) won Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Canadian Screen Awards for this movie.

Yes, you will be seduced in grand style by “The Grand Seduction.”

Maleficent (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Special effects maestro Robert Stromberg, known as Uncle Rob, has rendered a great experience in his directorial debut, which unfolds as a classic Disney liquid sky of dreams pulsing with heart, energy and something of old Hollywood allure that has not been seen since "The Wizard of Oz".

Angelina Jolie is electric in the title role as the anti-hero dominatrix Maleficent. Here she is a dark queen par excellence, who gives Tim Curry's Darkness -- as depicted in Ridley Scott's "Legend" -- a run for his money.

Maleficent's origins are lusty, benevolent and big hearted in strength, as she starts out as queen of the moors, having dominion over the faeries and all things green and rooted.

As an ivory-blushed teen played by Ella Purnell, she is an emerald honey-drop with skin fairer than fair and eyes that speak of opiate kingdoms without words. With great arcing forest-colored, espresso-dappled wings, Maleficent towers above all as a cool fever dream painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and inked by Disney himself.

The smolderingly icy Maleficent burns unconditionally, giving and hot when smitten by the teen Stefan (Michael Higgins) and the bounds of loved are forged, although anemically, without iron.

But alas, the tensions between humans and faeries increase and the two lovers part feathers and extremities without explanation.

A grizzled argentine King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) becomes absorbed by envy and strikes a war with the faeries. Sadly, he entices Stefan to do his bidding in exchange for nobility.

While at first intending to warn his beloved, Stefan becomes possessed in selfishness and does some unthinkable clipping.

Suffice to say our young bejeweled Juliet is bereft and betrayed and she transforms into a sable seductress, grown mature in a viscous oily absence of light, only now malleable in hate.

She crashes a darling infant's christening and under the guise of a gift, utters a curse, all due to a once lovely and winged lover shorn with scorn.

The cherubic cutie in the cradle is no other than Sleeping Beauty and you will be hard pressed to find a more photogenic baby anywhere (except perhaps in the recent "Neighbors"). This cooing darling even sneezes adorably as periwinkle blue butterflies alight on her nose.

You can't beat that.

As baby Aurora grows up, she believes Maleficent to be her Faery Godmother. A push and pull develops.

Does Maleficent go all evil in overdrive to protect herself, or does she become an antihero guardian to this young princess who is the epitome of golden-eyed positivity with eyes of sky and stream?

"Malificent" the film is richly wondrous and multi-layered with echoes of  Dante, Faust and the masterful epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this film we have a brambling brouhaha of nature in revolt, a Disney version of Edmund Burke's Sublime as an awesome jolt---confusingly chaotic in terror, a place without a bottom or top.

This is what rejection can bring.

The repulsively sweaty and snarling adult Stefan (the villainous actor Sharlito Copley from District 9) is more horrible than Malificent can ever be. When she is under chains, Jolie takes the form of all of our most beloved and sympathetic creatures from The Wicked Witch, to Irina in 1942's "Cat People" and King Kong. In torment, weight and sadness, she covers it all.

Angelina Jolie's last crowning in "Maleficent" is that she has shown this woman-entity to be more than the purple and green shades found in her Walt Disney complexion. She reveals the spite under her hero and the sadness beneath the Grim Domme's objectivist splendor. Above all, her Maleficent is humanist and earthy. And this fetishistic Maxfield Parrish tale of faeries and All Hallows' Eve hearts, ripped and torn asunder, is all the better for her. Jolie's conjurer's art through gesture and expression almost reaches the heights of lysergic acid even without the tasteful flourish of 3D.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 5, 2014

And So It Goes (Rhoades)

“And So It Goes”

Is Age Appropriate

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

 Here comes another preview (thanks to the New York Film Critics program) at a new movie before its national release -- this time “And So It Goes.” (/Wed. July 9 at 7:00pm)

This rom-com starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton is a testament to America’s swelling audience of baby boomers. No, we’re not interested in Romeo-and-Juliet teen romances. Not even comedies about the mating habits of twenty- or thirtysomethings. Even midlife dramedies are well behind us.

Now we’re into rom-coms featuring grandparents like many of us. Besides, our favorite movie stars have grown older too.

Take almost-70-year-old Michael Douglas and 68-year-old Diane Keaton. We remember when he was romancing the stone and she was goofy Annie Hall. But, of course, we were younger then too.

With “And So It Goes” -- a one-night-only advance screening scheduled for July 9th at the Tropic Cinema -- we have Douglas as a hot-shot realtor whose estranged son drops off a ten-year-old granddaughter in his care. But for a workaholic guy like him there is property to be sold and deals to be closed and, well, he just doesn’t have time to babysit a young girl he hardly knows. So he enlists the help of his next-door neighbor, played by Keaton.

 A precocious young actress, Sterling Jerins plays the granddaughter. She’s the McGuffin (if we can borrow the Hitchcock term for a romantic comedy), the device that sets the story in motion. But the movie is really about two older folks who are brought together by these awkward circumstances.

This is Diane Keaton’s first movie with Michael Douglas. “It’s really surprising that they haven’t worked together,” says director Rob Reiner, who worked with Douglas in 1995s “The American President.”

Reiner (Meathead from Archie Bunker days) is no meathead when it comes to making movies. He gave us “When Harry Met Sally,” “The American President,” and “The Princess Bride.” All three of these films are ranked by the American Film Institute as among the Top 100 Love Stories. So Douglas and Keaton are in good hands.

Rob Reiner will be on hand (via streaming video) to talk about making “And So It Goes,” a terrific feature of these New York Film Critic presentations.

Rob Reiner says, “I’m married and everything, but I know what it feels like to be at that age and hoping that your life’s not over when you’re in your 60s … you’re looking for that one more great romance … I don’t think there are many films out there – romantic films for people of our age.”

But that’s changing as we all get older. And so it goes.