Thursday, October 30, 2014

Week of October 30 - November 6 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
Thriller Week at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

There are thrills aplenty this week on Tropic Cinema screens -- from reality-based intrigue to slam-bam action to cerebral puzzlers to edge-of-the-seat courtroom drama.
Want some gritty realism ripped from the front pages? "Kill the Messenger" gives you the true story of a smalltime newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer by exposing the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling on US streets. Jeremy Renner portrays Gary Webb, the journalist who stumbled onto this web of deceit only to be attacked by his colleague at bigger papers. ReviewExpress calls it an "explosive and riveting story." NPR says, "The movie is a lot like the reporting that inspired it: a good introduction to a diabolically tangled tale." And SSG Syndicate sums it up as a "suspenseful political thriller, focusing on the fate of yet another truth-seeking whistleblower."

Too real? Then go see "The Equalizer," the even-the-score action thriller with Denzel Washington as an ex-covert ops guy taking on the Russian mob. While all the bodies pile up, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief in this actioner based on an old TV show. The Virginian Pilot calls its, "tough, brutal and merciless." And Time Magazine tells us, "If ‘The Equalizer’ is the hit it should be, it will give this veteran action star his very first movie franchise."

Want more plot twists? You’ll like "Gone Girl," the story of a husband (Ben Affleck) accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike), but nothing is as it seems in this marriage thriller. Antagony & Ecstasy calls it "something close to a mechanically flawless thriller." And 2UE promises, "This film lives up to the hype."

Not enough head trips? Okay, catch "Before I Go to Sleep," the psychological thriller with Nicole Kidman as an amnesiac wife who can’t quite trust the man who claims to be her husband or the doctor treating her memory loss. Sydney Morning Herald opines, "With David Fincher's ‘Gone Girl’ a bona fide hit, multiplexes will probably soon be flooded with further examples of what is now being referred to as the ‘marriage thriller’." And McClatchy-Tribune News Service adds, "Whatever else this puzzle picture is, or isn't, the three stars turn it into an acting tour de force."

Would you rather have some slick courtroom drama? You’ll like "The Judge," where a high-powered lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) defends his father (Robert Duval), a small-town judge accused of murder. Laramie Movie Scope says, "Director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") gets solid performances out of this fine cast." And Movie Talk adds, "Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are on such mesmerizing, Oscar-baiting form in this old-school family melodrama cum courtroom cliffhanger…"

Maybe you’d rather smile at the culture clash between gay activists and homophobic Welsh miners? "Pride" gives you a true story that happened during the 1984 British miners’ strike. Boston Globe describes it as "A funny, moving, audience-rousing experience, one that comes out of the closet without quite leaving the safety of the Britcom genre." One Guy’s Opinion explains that it’s "a film that deals with serious matters but does so in a way that makes it an irresistible crowd-pleaser." And calls it "as bold and big of an audience-pleaser as I've seen all year, practically determined to reach out from the screen and high-five each ticket-buyer."

Thrills and smiles, action and mind games -- take a deep breath and buy your ticket.

Before I Go to Sleep (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Before I Go to Sleep" A Psychological Puzzler

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Think of it like "Momento" played in reverse -- that is, in a normal time sequence. "Before I Go to Sleep" is a British mystery about amnesia starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Don’t forget to see it.
The story as I remember it: Every morning Christine Lucas (a quivery Kidman) wakes up wondering where she is. A man (Firth) explains that he’s her husband Ben and that she’s suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents the formation of new memories. She’s had the disability ever since being injured in a horrific attack by an unknown assailant several years ago.
She remembers nothing. Fortunately, she gets a daily phone call from her doctor (Mark Strong) reminding her to play a video diary explaining her condition.
When she starts having faint ticklings of memory -- about a friend named Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), a son, a man named Mark -- she determines to solve the puzzle. Everything her husband and the doctor tell her does not jibe. Are they deliberately concealing secrets from her?
This plot will inevitably remind you of Alfred Hitchcock’s "Spellbound." That led one observer to describe the movie as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents 50 First Dates." Another characterized Kidman as "essentially a terrorized Hitchcock blonde in more sensible shoes."
But there’s more to "Before I Go to Sleep" than that.
"The film’s actually very difficult to talk about without spoilers, isn’t it?" groans Colin Firth. "There are so many things you’re supposed not to know. And to actually discuss what any of these characters are, tends to spoil what is supposed to be withheld."

"I’m a huge fan of psychological thrillers," says Nicole Kidman. "I love the intimacy of two or three actors in this sort of genre – I’m always drawn to it."

She adds, "The idea of your partner not being who you think they are: I think it was James Joyce who said someone can tell you something about themselves in ten seconds and you can have lived with them for forty years, and it will change everything."

Kidman researched the syndrome her character has in "Before I Go to Sleep." She assures us, "This is actually a thing that can happen. And your life is made up of memories: once you lose those, who are you?"

This is the second time Firth and Kidman have played husband and wife in a movie, the first being in "The Railway Man." In that film, Firth was the one with psychological problems. In this one, it’s Kidman’s turn.

Why is she drawn to these kinds of films? "My dad’s a psychologist," she confesses.

Kill the Messenger (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Kill the Messenger" Actually Happened

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

"Nobody likes a rat," as the old gangster movies used to teach us. But over time movies came to treat whistleblowers as heroes. Witness "On the Waterfront," "Silkwood," "The Insider," "Michael Clayton," "All the President’s Men," and more recently "The Whistleblower."

Maybe not so much in real life.

Case in point is journalist Gary Webb. While working for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 he wrote a three-part series known as "Dark Alliance," where he exposed CIA involvement in drug trafficking in the US.

Webb showed that Nicaraguan Contras had smuggled large shipments of crack cocaine into Los Angeles and other American cities to help fund their cause. He charged that members of the Reagan administration helped shield inner-city drug dealers from prosecution, allowing this network to raise money for the Contras (because direct governmental funding was prohibited by the Boland Amendment).

Turns out, Webb’s reporting drew a lot of criticism, especially by the rival Los Angeles Times. In an unprecedented tripartite assault, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post launched teams of reporters to explore every perceived flaw in Webb’s story. Even his own newspaper backed away from him.

An internal CIA memo cited this smear campaign as "a ground base of already productive relationships with journalists."

Why would these distinguished newspapers play along? Andrew O’Hehir in writing about "The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism" says, "Webb was an outsider from a Nowheresville paper who made the big boys look bad, and who declined to take dictation from government sources." He had to be punished.
Maybe more than you’d expect. After his career as a mainstream-media journalist was all but destroyed, he wound up as a consultant to the California Assembly Speaker’s Office. On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. It was ruled a suicide.

Hollywood now remembers him as a hero. A new movie called "Kill the Messenger" stars Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner as the maligned journalist. Presented as a tidy thriller, the movie is currently showing at the Tropic Cinema.

Renner gives a fiery performance, doing all those things crusading reporters are known to do: "…stand up to their editors, scream about ethics, slam down their phones, punch the photocopier, and beaver away for the truth."

The strong supporting cast includes Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Rosemary DeWitt, Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, and Ray Liotta

Director Michael Cuesta ("Homeland") mixes real news footage with the heavily scripted scenes, giving the film the sense of verisimilitude it deserves.

You have to keep in mind, this isn’t just an edge-of-your-seat popcorn movie -- it really happened. And you know what? Gary Webb did win a Pulitzer Prize for writing his hard-hitting exposé.



Captain Tony Years (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Captain Tony Speaks Out At Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Most everybody who comes to Key West pays a visit to Captain Tony’s Saloon. But those of us who have lived here for a while valued our visits with the man himself. The late Captain Tarracino was quite a character -- former mayor, barkeeper, fisherman, and outrageous raconteur. A fixture in the eccentric landscape of our city.

Local filmmaker Jeremy P. Hyatt spent a lot of time with Tony, recording his life story, his outrageous philosophical observations, his tall tales, his place in our history. With the help of Nine Pound Lemon Films co-producer Bobbi Degnan, he gives us a documentary titled "Captain Tony Years." It’s playing tonight (Thursday, October 30) only at the Tropic Cinema, followed by a launch party for the DVD at Turtle Kraals.

Proceeds from the showing go to Aids Help. And with a movie ticket stub the drinks are 2-for-1 at the after party.

The film is a slice of Key West history. With a tagline of "From his lips to our ears," we get to hear the best wit and wisdom from one of our more memorable citizen, a New Jersey guy who came to Key West so long ago he became part of the woodwork.

Music in the film is by Don Middlebrook. He will be making an appearance at the Tropic along with Hyatt and crew.

If you never had the opportunity to meet Captain Tony, you can do it here -- on film.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pride (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Pride" is a biopic of a period, specifically 1984 in England, when Margaret Thatcher was unleashing her war against British miners who went on strike.

The film, by theatre director Matthew Warchus (Simpatico), is unapologetically feel-good and hits all notes in a somewhat conventional mode, but with its glib humor and smartness, it is impossible to dislike.

Mark (Ben Schnetzer) is a gay activist in London. His group isn't raising awareness, though they are frequently ridiculed, punched and treated with abuse . One afternoon he hears about the miners' plight and gets an idea: these hard working men are being pushed into the margins with an absent voice just like the GLBT population in Thatcher's England.

Might this be a bond shared between groups, Mark wonders, or a way to make his group recognizable?

Rather than pick a popular mining community and face opposition in London, Mark decides to try Wales, picking a random site on a map. A finger lands on the small town of Onllwyn.

What proceeds is a bit of a road or quest film in the tradition of "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" mixed with a touch of "The Full Monty."

A gang of motley characters ingratiate themselves to the town leaders, use some self-deprecating wit and face struggle and prejudice during the era when AIDS first landed on planet earth, at times causing acute toxicity upon an already virulent homophobia.

There are some arresting subplots, including that of Joe (George MacKay) who finds his own cause under the weight of a constrictive family, a housewife Sian ( Jessica Gunning) who yearns for an exciting cause or a closeted older husband (Bill Nighy).

These three stories blend well in the narrative and are full of tension.

There are also vignettes of light cheerfulness that go the more standard route: the older community leader (Imelda Staunton) who at first is uptight but ends up frolicking and the formerly hateful miner (Kyle Rees) who asks for dancing lessons from the dandy and irreverent actor Jonathan (Dominic West) who makes Tom of Finland Christmas cards. Athough these moments have been told before they are handled easily with pointed humor and are not overwrought.

Where the film succeeds the most however, is in its swift facile movement and its impressionist daubs of pointed color in the capturing of an era. Here dark-eyed kids listen to The Smiths as Margaret Thatcher hovers over red brick row houses like a white gargoyle in fire-orange beehive hair, head-mastering upon every diverse citizen.

Above all the film has the good sense not to bog itself down in a syrupy message. It is a lively and pulsing portrait of a time that has something spontaneous within its episodic surges of whimsy.

Just in one splashy disco scene, "Pride" shows not only some colorful haunt for the 80s, but also that the experience of being accepted on suspicious soil, is a human and universal event.

Write Ian at

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Judge (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Judge

Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) who is known for screwball comedy, tries his hand at more mature material with "The Judge," a hybrid film, mixing John Grisham with family dysfunction.

Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a snide and acidly sarcastic lawyer who clearly doesn't care for many people except his daughter. He is self-important and verbally abusive. His marriage is well on its way to termination.

When his mom dies, Hank returns home to Indiana, grimacing and rolling his eyes.

He clearly doesn't want to face his Calvinist and tight-laced father (Robert Duvall) a respected local judge. After a vitriolic argument, Hank leaves prematurely. Just when he is on board bound for home, he gets an anxious call from his older brother, Glenn (Vincent D'onofrio). His father is accused of a hit and run and the victim, who is struck dead, is someone that he once sentenced to prison.

The acting of Robert Downey Jr. is well in evidence here, as is Duvall as the earthy, no nonsense father. In some ways this story recalls the classic Clint Eastwood film, "Gran Torino" with Duvall's role as the all American aging man standing and battling against a slippery and slipping world. And as Hank, the defiant and self assured son, vainly seeks his father's love while his brother receives all of the attention, the story has an element of "East of Eden".

These are deft touches and both Duvall and Downey have a compelling and vibrant pulse. While possessing a satisfying dramatic tension between them, the plot gets a little bogged down in mawkish convention. Hank is a caregiver to his dad, while his daughter (Emma Tremblay) is cute as can be, but syrupy sweet, and he has an old girlfriend (Vera Famiglia) who was jilted by him.

A bit mainstream too, is a preening and devilish prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton. As Mr. Dickham, Thornton has a collapsible water canister that resembles a barrel from a rifle. The main attractions here are the lively exchanges between Duvall as the hard bitten dad and Downey as the verbally-encircling son. The melodrama is well in force with the old man heading out into a tornado, and there is a passive aggressive brother and another brother (Jeremy Strong)  bullied for his lethargy and his obsession with cameras.

While no actor moves out of his or her typecast zone, and every seasoned player acts as you might expect from other roles,  "The Judge" still has some charged repartee along with a turn of events that manages a shoulder punch of surprise, in spite of its handwringing motion.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Equalizer (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Equalizer

Denzel Washington has been an excellent vigilante and/or sour cop delivering plenty of ice and sarcasm in many films from "Man on Fire" to "2 Guns". Under the direction of Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Washington holds steady and does not disappoint.

"The Equalizer" is based on the vengeful action 80s tv series, created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim, which starred   Edward Woodward.

In this version, Washington is Robert McCall, a pleasant yet compulsively methodical and enigmatic man by turns. McCall works at a Home Depot type store and when his co-workers ask him about his past, he is entertainingly evasive, telling them he used to work for Gladys Knight as one of the Pips.

McCall frequently goes to a Boston diner which is right out of an Edward Hopper painting. He sits by himself and reads works of classic literature. McCall is one man content with himself; he is an incurable insomniac but not a tormented one.

During one night at a lonely literary table, he strikes up some banter with a troubled young woman, Alina (Chloe Grace-Moretz),  an aspiring singer who is working as an escort for the Russian mafia.

McCall witnesses a charmless and grunting thug horribly abusing her.

The next night he goes to the mafia headquarters and, as you can guess, blood is spilled.

This is essentially a good guy / bad guy avenger film, but Denzel Washington is such a presence and his gallows humor in exacting justice goes a long way.

Director Fuqua gives this film a visceral and tense atmosphere, creating an almost vegan nightmare of animal blood, meat, leather and satanic tattoos where porcine men slobber over flesh both living and recently dead.

We know McCall is a good guy per se, but he isn't all that nice. The language of the sociopath has been assimilated within him to be used as a measure of justice so to speak and the film brings this out well.

We are in the realm of something like The Batman, sans cowl and Washington keeps us in thrills as he coolly weighs the scales that were not weighed for him.

There are touches of grim comedy as McCall selects a hardware store hammer while at work and calmly metes out some just desserts. He can use anything at hand from the toxic to the trifling. One gets a thrill in watching this grue-measuring MacGyver.

When McCall returns some blood spattered sunglasses of a restroom-goer to the table under the Lucifer gaze of Nicolai (Marton Csokas), you know the Ray Ban man won't be returning to his meal.

These baddies are so pompous, sadistic and arrogant that the apprehensive pleasure is in wondering just how far McCall will go. In one scene Andri ( Vitaliy Shtabnoy) is so self-assured and callous that McCall promptly ties Andri to the floor, giving away a sizable portion of his cash to his workers.

But don't say McCall is Santa Claus to the victimized, for his gifts are bloody.

Gore is often present and it is gratuitously given. There are punctured, spouting, gurgling throats  and eviscerated guts of all varieties and combinations.

Slippery floors run red.

Yet the one-upmanship of McCall and his horrific hijinks in dispensing justice seems to ameliorate our aversion to such pulp.

Like an odd, blue collar James Bond, there is enough wistful haunt and kinky jabs in Denzel Washington's  performance to make "The Equalizer," a  Creepshow brand of karma that remains wickedly watchable and nearly camp.

Write Ian at

Gone Girl (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Gone Girl

David Fincher's "Gone Girl" has arrived at The Tropic, based on Gillian Flynn's page-zipping novel. Fincher (The Social Network) has wonderfully brought out the alien and isolating quality of this contemporary "surprise" story. The director's trademark visual tints of gray-green and brown are well in evidence here, making every person look as if they are either confined in a computer screen, or have morphed into a group of trapped bugs under smoked glass.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is a lethargic husband. Once, he had the virile curls of a superhero---he was writing well and in love with an effervescent and bubbling Amy (Rosamund Pike) who appears as rare as Tiffany glass. Indeed with the cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, Amy shines, a pale and racy dollop of feminine mercury.

In impressionistic snippets, we get small details of Nick and Amy's marital adventures, complete with steam and motion, as Amy caresses and tears at Nick's clothes almost in the style of an Adrian Lynne (Fatal Attraction) film.

But then, Nick gets laid off. The lovebirds argue and events go south.

On the morning of their anniversary , Nick leaves for work at his bar.

After a talk with his sister (Carrie Coon) he receives a call that his door is left open with his indoor cat outside.

He races home to find his McMansion empty.

Amy is gone.

The film is punchily edited to give a knock in the eye and heart with each image alternately running across your field of vision either like cool syrup, or throttling adrenaline.

Ben Affleck is perfect as the monotone polo shirted Everyman, Nick. He mumbles often and it is a nice touch that, as in the novel, he is a man who is both inhibited and haphazard with his emotions: they just don't match. Nick Dunne is clearly Affleck's best work.

This is a visceral haunt story in the best sense as taut and anxious as "The Silence of the Lambs".

Rosamund Pike too, is terrific. She has the ability to seem like a chimerical spirit, not of the flesh even though she is clearly ambulatory.

Neil Patrick Harris delivers well as a milquetoast creep who lives in a Thomas Kincade style house as if remodeled by Stanley Kubrick.

Also well cast is the acting of Tyler Perry, as a vain but obsessively detailed and controlling lawyer.

Under David Fincher, the overriding and well executed tone is one of remoteness, creepy nonchalance and transgression and we are never sure of what is about to transpire, no matter if it details this couple's past, present or future.

The film has one singular scene that almost outdoes Hitchcock in one anoxic and jarring moment that will sneak up on you quicker than the snap of some nouveau riche bedsheets. But no spoiler here.

"Gone Girl" is kaleidoscopic , spacey, askew and masterful in its millennial noir, but better still, it might have you sincerely disturbed about this particular arc of a shared life and the elements contained within.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Week of October 24 - 30 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Crams 7 Riveting Films Onto Its Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

For an indie theater with 4 screens, the Tropic Cinema is packing them in -- 7 gotta-see-em films playing there this week!
An interesting bit of British history is found in "Pride," the uplifting story about a group of gays and lesbians who traveled to Wales to support striking miners back in 1984. An odd coupling, these flamboyant activists and homophobic miners, you will enjoy watching them find common ground through a dance demo. Boston Globe calls it "A funny, moving, audience-rousing experience, one that comes out of the closet without quite leaving the safety of the Britcom genre." And Philadelphia Inquirer points out that it "takes a footnote in the history of Britain’s crippling yearlong industrial action and gives it a human face."

"Men, Women & Children" holds over, exploring the invasive impact of digital technology on our (sex) life. The families herein (Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, and a great ensemble cast) share their overlapping stories. Movie Habit terms it a "densely populated cautionary tale that offers good performances." And agrees, noting that "there are ideas on our wi-fi culture contained within that deserve exploration…"

"This Is Where I Leave You" offers Jane Fonda as the matriarch overseeing her family (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, and Kathryn Hahn) at a wake. Empire Magazine calls it "a dream cast are on good form in a film that makes you want to call your siblings, but very glad you don't live with them." And Common Sense Media sums it up as "dramedy mines dysfunction for laughs."

You’ll like "The Judge," a courtroom drama with a hotshot lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) returning to a small Indiana town to defend his estranged father (Robert Duval), a judge. The Guardian declares, "There are plenty of emotional fireworks in this big, soupy but entertaining picture, which is obvious Oscar bait." And Denver Post concludes, "There are a number of fine reasons to see the courtroom-meets-family melodrama... As you might suspect, two stand out: actors Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr."

And a little-known Patricia Highsmith book makes it to the screen. "The Two Faces of January" is a thriller about a trio of swindlers on the run in Greece (Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst, and Oscar Isaac). Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it "A stylish directorial debut for screenwriter Hossein Amini." And Seattle Times comments, "Things get awfully twisted under that hot Mediterranean sun."

You’ll get hardcore action in "The Equalizer," starring Denzel Washington as an ex-covert ops guy who takes on the Russian mob. Don’t bet on the bad guys as our hero displays 50 way to kill your enemies. SSG Syndicate observes, "Denzel Washington propels this crime drama, challenging Liam Neeson as the new aging action hero." And Schmoes Knows adds, "Denzel’s performance and the film’s high-voltage action premise make it one to watch this fall season."

And if you haven’t seen it yet (I’ve seen it three times) you’ll definitely want to catch "Gone Girl," the talked-about marital thriller with a husband (Ben Affleck) suspected of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). It has more twists than a serpent. Spectrum calls it "A dark, disturbing walk down the aisle of matrimonial madness, and an unforgettable one at that." Mountain Xpress says, "Deeply cynical, darkly funny, sometimes brutal, very powerful filmmaking that may make you a little queasy, but will almost certainly entertain you to no end." And Flicks sums it up, "This superior thriller arrives at a time when Hollywood mostly seems to have forgotten how to make ‘em."



Pride (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Pride" Supported Welsh Miners

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Here in Key West we understand gay pride. But it’s had its road bumps in other parts of the world.

Take the movie "Pride." Based on a true story, it tells of a group of gays and lesbians who came out in support of striking UK miners in 1984.
British filmmakers do those wonderful movies about small-town characters. To wit, "The Full Monty," "Made in Dagenham," "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain," "About Time," "Tamara Drewe," "Submarine," and "Local Hero."

Despite this Brit pedigree, "Pride" owes its plotline more to Kevin Bacon’s "Footloose" than to Margaret Thatcher's taking on the National Union of Mineworkers.
No matter, we came to see a delightful gay pride movie, not a polemic history lesson.

Here we meet just-out-of-the-closet Joe (George MacKay), a 20-year-old kid who traipses off to London and falls in with a likeminded group who rally around a Northern Irish activist (Ben Schnetzer) who holds meetings at the Soho bookstore of flamboyant Jonathan (Dominic West) and his partner Gethin (Andrew Scott). Next thing you know, this LGSM ("Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners") contingent go marching off to the Welsh village of Onllwyn in the Dulais valley to show their support.

The joke is that these Welsh miners are about the most homophobic group our LDSM friends could ever hope to encounter. But Mark gets the idea of breaking through the icy reception with a benefit concern, a Billy Elliot kind of dance recital that cheers up the dour townsfolk and lifts everyone’s spirits. You know, like in "Footloose."

Many funny moments arise from the uncomfortable situations of these diverse groups learning to work together. This unlikely pairing is the feel-good payoff of the film (because in real life Thatcher crushed the miners’ strike).

All your favorite British character actors here: Bill Nighy ("Love Actually") in an understated performance as a thoughtful council member; Paddy Considine ("Hot Fuzz") as the envoy sent to London to meet with the LGSM; Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") as the leader of the committee; Jessica Gunning ("That Day We Sang") as a tea lady with a feisty attitude; Menna Trussler ("Undertaking Betty") as a bespectacled old biddy; and Lisa Palfrey ("Guest House Paradiso") as a miner's wife who creates trouble with a homophobic glee.

Normally known as a Broadway director, Matthew Warchus ("Ghost: The Musical") helms this gay pride parade with great wit and style. Leave it to him to turn a dismal period in British history into an uplifting story.

As one moviegoer summed it up: "If you don’t laugh, don’t shed a tear, or don’t want to get up and cheer at the end, then you weren’t paying attention during this movie."


The Judge (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
Robert Downy Jr. Doesn’t Judge "The Judge"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Robert Downey Jr. has always been in awe of his dad. That the A-List movie star chooses to keep Jr. as part of his name is a sign of it. His namesake was an indie filmmaker, noted for his brilliant 1969 advertising spoof "Putney Swope" (Robert Jr. was 4 at the time).

"He was a great innovator and a heck of a filmmaker," the actor says of his father. Bob Downey is now 78.

In the movie "The Judge" -- currently showing at Tropic Cinema -- the character played by Robert Downey Jr. is a ruthless big-city attorney who returns to his childhood home in Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral but ends up staying when his estranged father, a local judge played by Robert Duvall, gets arrested for vehicular homicide. Despite their contentious relationship, the son decides to take the case, opposing a determined prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton.

It’s a serious family drama.

The film is the first outing of Team Downey, the production company founded by Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan four years ago.

Downey’s on-camera career started at age 5 when his director dad cast him in underground films that were shot in the family living room. His debut was playing a puppy in a film called "Pound." He describes his childhood as a "boheme pressure-fest." But he says it with affection, unlike his character in "The Judge."

While Bob Sr. introduced the boy to acting, he also introduced him to marijuana. "When my dad and I would do drugs together," he says, "it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how."  His father recalls, "I’d have a little grass or take a little coke to stay up and write and my son would come down in his little pajamas and sit and he’d say ‘If you can do it, why can't I do it?’ And I’d say ‘That’s a good question, but why would you want to do it?’ And he’d say 'Because I don’t want to go to bed either’."

It was a different time. "What a schmuck I was," his father says today. "If I had it to do all over again, I probably wouldn't be doing it myself, let alone allowing him to do it."

As a result, Robert Jr. was a Santa Monica High School dropout whose own drug problems are legendary.

It made him the perfect choice to play Marvel’s substance-abusing billionaire Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. He has one more film left on his Marvel contract, then he plans to work mainly with Team Downey.

The unforgiving son in "The Judge" is unlike the real Robert Downey Jr. "If my father were less of a pioneer," he says, "he probably would have been more of a father, but I wouldn’t be who I was. I think it’s valiant to make mistakes so your children don’t have to."

But sometimes they do anyway.

Robert Downey Jr. is aware how lucky he is. In Tinseltown, where you only get one chance for success, he’s had two or three. And he doesn’t intend to blow it this time around.

So these days he’s playing a very different role than his father’s son.

The Equalizer (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

In "The Equalizer" Denzel Washington Sets Things Right

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Life ain’t fair. Or so it sometimes seems. Therefore we have an innate desire to see justice done.

That’s where "The Equalizer" comes in. A third-party guy -- Deus ex machina, if you will -- who steps in to set things right.
There used to be an old TV program called "The Equalizer," starring British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a covert ops guy who lends his skills to help people in need. He offered his services for free through a newspaper ad that read: "Odds against you? Need help? Call the Equalizer. 212-555-4200."
Well, Woodward died in 2009, so if you’re going to bring the concept to the screen as a new action thriller, who you gonna call? In this case, Denzel Washington.
Here again is Robert McCall (Washington), a Special Forces guy with a shaved head and a big gun. Hoping to put his violent past behind him, he has a change of plans when he encounters a teenaged hooker named Teri (Chloë Grace Maritz) who has been brutally beaten by the Russian mob. Not willing to stand by and allow such abuse, he uses his dangerous skills to set things right. Which leads him to a new career as The Equalizer.

"The Equalizer" is currently knocking heads at Tropic Cinema.

As directed by Antoine Fuqua (he teamed with Denzel Washington on the Oscar-winning cop thriller "Training Day"), you may find the cinematic handling of "The Equalizer" reminiscent other of action pix. Even Matt Damon said, it "reminded me of the Bourne Identity, in that both are sophisticated adult, thriller franchises where the protagonists are capable of high-action exploits, but aren't running around in spandex."

While the film offers all the prerequisite gun battles, explosions, and Rated-R bloodletting, this is still at its core a very character-driven profile of Robert McCall, a mysterious man who had rather keep to himself, but his OCD personality requires him to set wrongs right. One moviegoer accurately described McCall as "a darker hero for a darker time."

Yes, "The Equalizer" is a remake in name only. It’s planned as a two-fisted new film franchise for Denzel Washington. That’s where the money is. A sequel has already been greenlighted.

The Two Faces of January (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Two Faces of January"
A Lesser Known Thriller

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

More than two-dozen films have been based on Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers. The one you might recognize best is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic "Strangers on a Train." Or maybe you’ve read her books about the murderer Tom Ripley (five novels known to followers as The Ripliad).

Although a fan of her novels and short stories, somehow I’d missed "The Two Faces of January," her 1964 tale of murder and deceit in Greece.

But no need to go to the bookstore, now that it has been adapted into a film by Iranian-British director Hossein Amini. "The Two Faces of January" is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Here we meet American con man Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) as they tour Athens. He’s on the lam because of a few Ponzi schemes. This shady couple bumps into a tour guide at the Acropolis who scams tourists. Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac) takes a liking to them because MacFarland reminds him of his dad.

When tracked down by a private detective, MacFarland inadvertently kills him. Rydal helps hide the body. The MacFarlands and their new cohort travel to Crete to buy counterfeit passports. Unable to check into a hotel with papers, they spend the night in a restaurant, Chester drinking while Colette and Rydal flirt. With jealousy rearing its ugly head, it becomes a question of who will kill whom.

Although a talented writer, Patricia Highsmith was a misanthrope who preferred cats to people. She also raised snails.

Knowing they’d been acquainted, I once asked Otto Penzler, owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop, about her. His words were not kind, even though I knew he admired her writing. "She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person," he once said. "I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly."

I found it interesting that she started off writing for comic books, before switching to thriller novels. She once wrote an instructional book titled "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction."

Although I’d missed reading "The Two Faces of January," I learned that it won the Dagger Award by the Crime writers Association of Great Britain in 1964.

"It’s one of her lesser known works," acknowledges Hossein Amini. He read the book while in college. "It appealed to me in a different way in my twenties than it did much later when I was in my 40s," he says. "When I was young, it was Rydal’s story that fascinated me and all his problems with his father, but by the time I got to make the film I was closer to Chester, in how you begin to realize that life didn’t go the way you planned it. So I suddenly understood the side of the older guy. Finding a connection with the characters and going ‘I know how this person feels’ is what makes a successful adaptation, not necessarily to identify things they’ve done -- so that way you can make movies about murderers and bank robbers -- but finding something about them that’s relatable."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Week of October 17 - 23 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview
Tropic Cinema Offers An Array of Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

From cyberspace to outer space, from a walk among the tombstones to a funeral wake, Tropic Cinema offers quite an array of films this week.
"Men, Women & Children" is Jason Reitman’s look at how the digital world has invaded our personal lives. An ensemble cast (Adam Sandler, Judy Geer, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner et al.), each deals with online or mobile sex in his or her own way -- porn sites, sexting, you name it. Seattle Times says the movie is "crowded with characters and subplots, a few of which resonate -- but more often, an individual's story seems lost in the cyberflurry." And Times calls it "an interesting film to be made about our increasingly complex relationship with technology…"

"Guardians of the Galaxy" takes into the Marvel universe with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and a ragtag gang of rocket-powered heroes. Film School Rejects describes it as "A vibrantly exciting, immensely entertaining and frequently hilarious sci-fi adventure." And Vanity Fair says "Guardians bounces with the energy of pure invention."

"This Is Where I Leave You" is a dark comedy about family in mourning (Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, and Tina Fey among them).

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is another actioner starring Liam Neeson, this time as an ex-cop working as an unlicensed private eye, on the trail of kidnappers who prey on drug dealers. Laramie Movie Scope calls it "modern, gritty film noir storytelling." And Richard Roeper dubs it "a stylish and smart thriller."

"Hector and the Search for Happiness" stars Simon Pegg as a British shrink who sets off to China and other faraway ports in search of the meaning of happiness. You know where he finds it, don’t you? Beliefnet describes it as "a gentle fable." And Kaplan vs. Kaplan sums it up as "brilliant."

"The Two Faces of January" wraps up the lineup, a thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac face off in this tale of con artists and intrigue in Greece. Minneapolis Star Tribune sees it as "a stylish directorial debut for screenwriter Hossein Amini." And Birmingham Mail describes it as "a sumptuous film to watch."

You’ll find lots to watch here.

Men, Women & Children (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Men, Women & Children"
Views Invasive Digital World

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Ivan Reitman is a pretty good producer and director. He gave us such classic movies as "Animal House" and "Ghostbusters." But, truth be told, his son is even better.

You’ll know Jason Reitman by such films as "Juno" and "Up In the Air." The structure of his films is usually pretty nimble. And his casting is always spot on. "Juno" gave us Ellen Page as a feisty pregnant teen. "Up In the Air" put George Clooney into first class as an on-the-go corporate hatchet man. His "Thank You for Smoking" offered superb satire, casting craggy old Sam Elliott as the dying Marlboro Man.

Now he gets even more ambitious. Kinda like he can pat his head and rub his belly at the same time, so now he wants to show us he can do it while standing on one foot. So don’t be surprised if he loses his balance a bit.

His new film "Men, Women & Children" -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- is a complex subject with a tangle of storylines about the invasion of the online digital world into our private lives.

As you’d expect, each thread has a notable star:
Don Truby (Adam Sandler) is a dad addicted to online porn. He and his wife (Rosemary Dewitt) have resorted to scheduling sex with each other. She’s considering having an affair with a man (Dennis Haysbert) she met on a dating website. Her husband’s checking out escort services on the web.

Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is a cheerleader who’s into sexting pictures of herself. Her mom (Judy Greer) posts suggestive photos of her daughter in a "private gallery" of a website.

Chris (Travis Trope) edits a video of Hannah, then fumbles sex with her. Nevertheless, she tells all her friends it was great in order to enhance her rep. He returns to watching his dominatrix fetish porn online.

Allison (Elena Kampouris) tans the shape of a heart over her crotch, but when she offers to show it to her boyfriend he tells her to text him a picture instead. She has an eating disorder encouraged by the anorexic community on

Kent (Dean Norris) deletes his son’s online roleplaying game account. Tim (Ansel Elgort) tells his dad he understands why his mom left him for another man.

Patricia (Jennifer Garner) reads her daughter’s chat log to see what the girl’s been up to. She answers emails, pretending to be Brandy (Kaitlin Dever), resulting in her daughter’s boyfriend nearly OD’ing when rejected.

All of this -- and more -- is introduced by the disembodied voice of Emma Thompson while we watch the Voyager Space Probe sail through the galaxy.

Reitman seems to be telling us that all this doesn’t amount to much, just some odd happenings on a little blue dot in the solar system.

Maybe you’ll like it; or maybe you’d rather go home and trawl the Internet for a new porn website.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"A Walk Among the Tombstones"
Another Actioner for Liam Neeson

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

At 62, Irish actor Liam Neeson is an unlikely star to be doing action movies. Not ready for the Geritol, he set a brisk pace with "Taken," followed by "Unknown," "Taken 2" and "Non-Stop."

"I just hope my knees hold up," Neeson quips.

They’re still holding, considering the title of his current flick is "A Walk Among the Tombstones." It’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

Action fans won’t be disappointed. Based on a Laurence Block mystery, he plays Matthew Scudder, a former cop who works as an unlicensed private eye. A recovering alcoholic, Scudder chooses his cases carefully, applying the AA’s 12 Steps to his methodology.

A number of Block’s books have made it to the screen. Back in 1986, Jeff Bridges played Scudder in "8 Million Ways to Die."

In this first Liam Neeson outing, Scudder reluctantly takes on an assignment for a drug dealer whose wife has been kidnapped and murdered. Seems that some psychopaths are targeting family members of drug dealers (hey, they’ve got plenty of money to pay a ransom).

He teams up with an unlikely partner, a spunky street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) who fancies himself a private eye in training. The boy’s unwillingness to follow orders helps Scudder crack the case. You can count of lots of dead bodies.

Yes, Neeson’s knees hold up, but just barely.

Therefore, you can look for "Taken 3" in theaters next spring.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Men, Women & Children (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Men, Women & Children

Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is known for his heartfelt family portraits. His visuals are crisp and his situations are usually pointed and interesting. In his latest "Men, Women & Children," he tackles the ubiquity of smartphone text technology and its blight on suburban American families.

The film is visually striking with cinematography worthy of  "Gravity." The first shot of a NASA satellite approaching the edge of Saturn is stunning with each ring filling the screen. Provocative as well, is the matter of fact voiceover by Emma Thompson in the style of Epcot.

Plot wise however, we have a spineless assortment of characters that do a lot of mumbling and staring into various mobile devices. Adam Sandler  is Don, an unhappy father addicted to the idea of escorts and porn. Jennifer Gardner is an uptight mother from another family who watches her daughter's every move online with the mania of a religious zealot. Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) is Tim, a disaffected football prodigy who is addicted to role playing games, while Judy Greer plays a dominant mom who pushes her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) into Internet soft porn to achieve fame.

Out of the many characters, only Tim shows any tension or intrigue. Tim's nihilism and cosmic existentialism would be of interest if only the role (not to mention the others) had been fleshed out beyond stock characters like petty high schoolers behaving in petty selfishness.

We get it. Kids and their parents can be spaced out, isolated and rotten. This seems universal and well travelled cinematic terrain, which could be revisited, if the film had gone to intriguing places.

It doesn't.

Adam Sandler is a monotone blob of mayonaisse and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is predictably bothered and passive, until she joins an online dating service.

Much of the lithium melodrama goes on an even path with all of these young Caucasians getting into some gossipy Facebook dilemmas. What we see has been hunted and pecked at before, from the films "Palo Alto" and "Disconnect," with tones and emotions that are hacked from more refreshing ensemble films like "Short Cuts" and "Crash".

Every incident here seems stuck in retrograde. Not a single character has enough spunk for the audience to care, no role is mean, acidic, or all that terribly sad to illustrate  any sensory drama. In this story, all monitors display a gray "meh" of content.

A highlight is the slick cinematography by Eric Steelberg who depicts a teen's long nails as touchstones on a smartphone's glittering keyboard and the wood veneer of a door overwhelms our field of vision, analogous to Saturn's spacey, cappuccino-colored rings.

Men, Women & Children" cries out for some iconoclastic narrative in the manner of  a John Waters or a Michael Haneke. The perils of technology and its transformations in  our self expression are profound and worth talking about. But with such Saltine-driven people, it grows difficult to care.

One exception occurs when the voice of Emma Thompson intones about bondage, domination and the moment of orgasm in such prim and proper flat tones as if she were discussing the weather. Perhaps in time, this one weird moment will achieve a cult status.

Write Ian at

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

 A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson has done so many revenge pictures ala Nicolas Cage that he is easy to spoof. He has such an easily recognizable expression: the tired eyes as if filled with cake batter, the knitted brows, the pale granite face that looks like a headstone. His many characters possess an identical body, shambling with jagged lament.

In "A Walk Among the Tombstones" from a novel by Lawrence Block and directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout) there are some of those elements, in force, but the apprehension is so tightly wound with such shifty and rancid characters, that it all manages to work.

Neeson plays Detective Matthew Scudder, a man who is battling demons, mainly alcohol. He is haunted by the moment when he went into a bar during a  brutal shooting and stopped the assailant only to have the bullet ricochet and kill a young girl.

Scudder promptly joined AA.

Now, as a semi-retired investigator, he is a shadowy man who works for gifts, but only, it seems, if he likes you.

An young man Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) contacts the lugubrious investigator saying two men killed his wife after they received ransom money. Scudder is reluctant to help, since it becomes evident that Kristo is a drug dealer but given the sadistic nature of the crime, Scudder agrees to find out all he can.

The apprehension is in the reality that every character is as shady as the next, with some anxious cinematography that recalls "Serpico" and the work of William Friedkin in its harsh lighting along dark streets. There is a gloomy and nonchalant Jonas: a big jelly of a man (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who is alternately criminal and self deprecating.

But above all, the film has quite possibly two of the most sinister characters that have ever been seen since "The Silence of the Lambs." The scariest moment may be one that doesn't show anything Halloween-worthy at all, merely a shot of these two men at the breakfast table in their underwear reading the morning paper.

In the role of TJ, singer Brian   "Astro" Bradley (The X Factor) is excellent as a young homeless kid who worships Scudder. TJ's idolatry mimics a bit of Joey Starrett in "Shane".

Scudder's identification with AA is a nice touch as well with the "twelve steps" becoming a personal metaphor for the detective in his attempt to make things right.

And there is mystery as to why Scudder wants to help in the first place.

As an anti-hero as gray as the dirt path he walks through, Scudder takes on loads of guilt and pain as a fatalistic matter of course. His speech to TJ about guns and self esteem is as somber and sincere as it gets, unusual for a conventional good guy/ bad guy yarn. The lines become blurred by sadness.

" A Walk Among the Tombstones" never stoops to be self-conscious. It is a gritty hide and seek with a gun and does so much with so little. A simple trip down the stairs becomes an invitation to an almost paranormal sense of evil.

But, best of all, the dry-bone delivery of Liam Neeson, which is usually easy fodder for a joke, has never been more appealing.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Two Faces of January (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Two Faces of January

The existential yet exuberant novel "The Two Faces of January" by Patricia Highsmith is now a film by Iranian director Hossein Amini (screenwriter, The Wings of the Dove).

The narrative which is set in Greece, concerns a poetic but obsessive drifter Rydal and his compulsion with a bourgeoise stock scammer named  Chester, who looks like Rydal's recently deceased dad.

In the book, Rydal is entranced by Chester's wife Colette, too, who also happens to have a striking resemblance to Rydal's cousin Agnes, who was romantically involved with him.

Rydal is played by the intense Oscar Isaac, and Chester is inhabited by a teeth-grinding Viggo Mortensen.

While the film adaptation tones down the outlandish desperation of Chester and doesn't mention the Colette / Agnes comparisons together with Rydal's guilt regarding the  bad romance, it succeeds as an acidic noir idyll with the flavor of  "Strangers on a Train" (another Highsmith book and a Hitchcock classic).

Mortensen is well outfitted as the shifty and tense man who is constantly looking out for the police as he goes from one tourist attraction to the next. He is an appropriate white linen shark. As Chester goes to his ritzy hotel in Athens, after a day of sightseeing, he is startled, interrupted in his boozy foreplay by an insistent knock.

A detective waits patiently.

Chester tries to stall him but the investigator doesn't fall for small talk and aims his gun. With deliberate force, Chester kicks the man to the floor and knocks his head into the hard tile.  Chester drags the body out to the hall, but he can't hold the man and loses his grip.

Rydal appears. Chester asks for help, insisting the man is drunk and Rydal readily consents.  Chester quickly asks Rydal to stay with him and a bland Colette (Kirsten Dunst), to act as an interpreter. Chester becomes edgy though feeling that the young pensive man with the dark eyes will turn him in and leave with his wife.

In the role, Mortensen is satisfactorily petty and selfish, although some of the nouveau riche behaviors of the original Chester character are omitted. Oscar Isaac's Rydal is more dishonest and calculating and less spontaneous in this film adaptation. At the start, we see Rydal shortchanging a gullible girl.

Despite these differences from the novel, the film capably weaves some co-dependent tension with Chester and Rydal oscillating between a kind of understanding and a volatile hatred for one another. This pairing is similar to the previous mentioned Hitchcock work with the effete but psychotic Bruno (Robert Walker becoming drawn to the young, dashing tennis star, Guy (Farley Granger).

The best scenes here are the ones in which Viggo Mortensen tries to ignore his sociopathic acts and become a kind of smarmy counselor to Rydal as the young man stares with a steely concentration, alternately seeming dead and wistful in the manner of a David Cronenberg  film.

The locations are fittingly midnight blue and sweeping, crisply brilliant and as ominously dim as one might expect from a Highsmith thriller. Every character is attired well, displaying many a fedora hat and suit as linear as a Parthenon column.

Although the film dispenses with most of the book's darkly comic overtones, "The Two Faces of January" is another handsome addition to the films made from Patricia Highsmith's novels. By the second half especially, the passive aggressive noose tightens, and the young Rydal realizes that he is attracted to  this wincing, self absorbed man (out of habit and guilt) just as much as he is repelled by him.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Philosophy and comedy together are hard to come by and often fleeting in cinema.  But perhaps, I thought, I would find it in "Hector and the Search for Happiness" by Peter Chisholm (Shall we Dance?).

The film stars the self deprecating Simon Pegg, and he is hard not to like. Here he is Hector, an anal retentive and dull psychiatrist. His life is smooth, without pathos or pulse. He has an effervescent girlfriend (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl), and for all the complacency his life has, he is in a rut. He gets angry and abrupt with his love and his patients.

He resolves to go to China to discover the essence of happiness.

What follows is a kind of "Eat Pray Love" for the British humor set. Hector endures one inconvenience after  another: cramped seats and odd occurrences, and even scrambling plates.

In one scene, an intoxicating beauty patiently and seductively prods him about the location of happiness saying it is in the Space of a shared smile with two friends. This is a terrific moment and rarely do you find such daring thought in any film, let alone a comedy.

The seductress abandons Hector. He goes on writing in his journal and drawing about his findings. There is some lively animation that scrolls across the screen like carbonated giggles.

Hector goes to the Himalayas and meets a monk, (Togo Igawa) who is predictably calm and content. He goes to Africa and winds up talking to a drug dealer (Jean Reno)and getting kidnapped by a warlord (Akin Omotoso).

Despite an intriguing premise, the characters don't change beyond their stock roles.  Jean Reno is as gruff and intimidating as ever while the warlord is right out of "Blood Diamond." Given the film's ambition regarding what constitutes happiness should we not get more depth of character aside from an evil boss, a violent dealer or a cynical business man by Stellan Skarsgard (acting similarly to his role in Nymphomaniac)? While we might have gotten something more, here are the same "take it in stride" platitudes from other films we know well: "Benjamin Button" to "Forrest Gump."

The film does give some picaresque fun with its swiftness and likability (via the wonder of Pegg), but it slides into an easy predicable glide soon with Hector acting invariably like a Disney version of the United Nations to virtually everyone. At one point, after being beaten, he shouts "Yippee! I'm Alive!"
People  would just not act that way, even Hector. With all of his cheering and laughter that glaze you with sugar, whatever that was thoughtful and pensive is left behind.

By the second hour, we get a Robert Zemekis film with Hector's brain lighting up like spumoni ice cream which mimics the  Tibetan flags, with everything put right.

"Hector and the Search for Happiness" is fine as entertainment, but its premise seems to make a one-handed clap in its need for a less "It's a Small World' treatment.

Write Ian at

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tusk (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Kevin Smith can usually be counted on for some pointed comic situations full of quirky characters chock full of barbs about the way a youngish crowd communicates, feels, and expresses itself.

"Clerks" was his debut smash: a small film about the funny and lackadaisical events at a convenience store.

Smith also directed "Dogma" an outrageous look at Christianity in all its forms.

Smith has done other notable films. The best of them being often quasi-autobiographical with a wild whimsy, often going on tangents. His films have energy at its core. A color and a spirit.

Smith is understandably inspired by comics. His characters of Jay and Silent Bob are in our cinematic consciousness and for good reason. They are fun to watch and probably in some circles, beloved.

His latest film "Tusk" a horror type story started as a joke on a real podcast. It involves an eccentric older gentleman who lives in an old house, Howard Howe (Michael Parks) and his obsession with a walrus.

Wallace (Justin Long) is an insulting creep who makes horrid fun of people on the net. After being let down by the suicide of an internet curiosity, he spies a bathroom note telling of Howard Howe's adventures.

Wallace is intrigued.

Suffice to say, the mocking sarcastic dude with one bad mustache is held captive in the old house by a psychotic man.

Undoubtably influenced by EC Comics' Weird Tales and films like "Creepshow", it quickly becomes evident that this passive aggressive and unsavory man is a crazed surgeon. Mr. Howe drugs Wallace and gets his tools out, but aside from that nothing much happens at all.

Justin Long has a few snide and biting remarks that carry a few chuckles but he is neither a nice person nor much of an antihero to care for.

He is a mere shmuck.

As for Michael Parks, he is simply sadistic. There is little of Smith's comedy here, and the action runs thin with an "Island of Dr. Moreau" type story. If you want to see this kind of film, try John Frankenheimer's 1996 film.

The acting is unconvincing even by drive in standards as Genesis Rodriguez weeps and tells Wallace's friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) how good she feels with his friendship. There are shots of her in closeup boo-hooing, tears flowing.

Then we have a silly cross eyed Johnny Depp as a homicide cop who bumbles and mumbles in French about bowel movements and farting.

The human-walrus scenes are ludicrous and  too overly campy to give any fun scares, whether in pathos or glee.The 1980s era David Cronenberg would certainly squirm away, embarrassed.

All the Grand Guignol business runs static: a stale Frankenstein tale stuffed in raspberries. All anemic kool aid here with no octane in this punch. "Tusk" has no verve or motion. I suggest that Kevin Smith go back to his storyboard with some stronger THC of Terror and puff away.

You know you're in trouble when the best thing you can say about a film  is a well placed Fleetwood Mac song.

Write Ian at