Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rosewater (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hungers for more such verve.

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

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Theory of Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

He calculates forward, on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Ian at

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Week of Nov. 28 - Dec. 4 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

At Tropic Cinema the Drama of People Triumphs Over Time and Space

By Shirrel Rhoades

If you recently saw "Interstellar," you’ll be tempted to go buy a ticket to "The Theory of Everything" just to better understand the science behind the outer-space epic about Black Holes. But you’d be wrong. While the new film at the Tropic is certainly about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it doesn’t deal with Quantum Mechanics or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Instead, it focuses on Hawking’s love life before he got confined to a motorized wheelchair.
In "The Theory of Everything," Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking and Felicity Jones his first wife Jane in this love story set against a growing physical disability (Lou Gehrig's Disease). St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it "a brainy bio that exerts a gravitational pull on the heartstrings." And Miami Herald says it "keeps you focused on the soul of a man trapped inside a malfunctioning body."

"Birdman" brilliantly casts Michael Keaton (former star of those "Batman" movies) as a fading actor who starred as a superhero known as "Birdman." To resuscitate his fading career, he seeks to put on a Broadway play. Boston Globe calls the film "a jaw-dropping stylistic wow that spins, pirouettes, turns inside out, and miraculously stays aloft for two hours." And Detroit News says it "challenges, surprises and dazzles while still working at the edges of a frazzled mind."

"Whiplash" pits a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) against an overbearing music teacher (J.K. Simmons), a clash of artistic development in this high-voltage drama. Your Movies says "the final confrontation between gifted student and tyrannical teacher comes quickly, then ends on an equally sudden if just about perfect note." And ReelViews describes it as "brutal and horrific yet compelling."

"St. Vincent" finds the good in a grumpy old man (Bill Murray) who does a horrid job of babysitting the kid next door. Three Movie Buffs calls it "A showcase for Bill Murray." And concludes, "If there were a grumpy old man who lived next door to every latch-key kid in America, we'd have a lot more well-adjusted children in the world."

Space and time? Go have a good time at the movies.




The Theory of Everything (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"The Theory of Everything" Doesn’t Cover Everything

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Even if you’ve never read "A Brief History of Time," you know Stephen Hawking is a genius. After all, you’ve seen him making guest appearances in his motorized wheelchair on TV’s "The Big Bang Theory." He’s kinda the poster boy for theoretical physicists everywhere.
He was the first scientist to set forth a cosmology explained by a union of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
You might think people admire Stephen Hawking because he carries on despite being almost totally paralyzed by a motor neuron disorder related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease). But that’s not it. We admire him because he’s so darn smarter than we are. A Brainiac.

But as we learn in "The Theory of Everything" -- the new movie about Hawking that’s currently showing at the Tropic Cinema -- he doesn’t know any more about women than other guys.  
Don’t confuse this one with the 2007 documentary that’s also titled "Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything." Originally broadcast on TV’s Discovery Science as "Master of the Universe," that earlier documentary explored Hawking’s theories about the nature of the universe.

Instead, this new feature film explores the nature of his love life. That is, his early love life, just as he and his fiancé learn that he has ALS. Their romance worked out to some degree: they produced three children.

Jane Wilde was the literature student Hawking fell for while studying at Cambridge in the ‘60s. This biopic is based on her memoir titled "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen." It’s a sweet, courageous love story … if we put out of our mind that he’s now on Wife Number Two and Jane has gone on to remarry also.

In "The Theory of Everything," we have Eddie Redmayne playing the famous British-born scientist. You’ll remember Eddie as the enamored young man in "My Week with Marilyn" or as heroic Marius in "Les Misérables."

And Felicity Jones plays Jane. She’s been acclaimed for her roles as the mistress of Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman" and as the British exchange student in "Breathe In." But more of you will recognize her for her appearance in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."

"The Theory of Everything" doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Black Holes or Quantum Mechanics or space or time. Instead it focuses on the "science" of love, giving us the bad along with the good. Both Stephen and Jane are revealed to have flaws. No surprise there. We all do.

As directed by James Marsh (he won an Oscar for his documentary "Man on a Wire"), the film sometimes seems to forget the unique mind it’s chronicling, instead concentrating on a formulaic story about a relationship struggling under adverse medical circumstance.

Nonetheless, Eddie Redmayne gives the performance of his young career. Conforming to the twisted physicality and the recognizable tics, he captures his subject well. Oscar bait, to be sure.

As one wag described the film, it’s "A Beautiful Mind" meets "My Left Foot."
A nod must go to Benoît Delhomme’s gorgeous cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s resounding score. It manipulates us well, conjuring up a tear or two.

Word is, after viewing a rough-cut of the film, tears had to be wiped from Stephen Hawking’s eyes. The 72-year-old genius was pleased enough to allow the filmmakers to use his copyrighted computer-generated voice for the movie’s later lines.
Just how accurate is this depiction of perhaps the world’s greatest living scientist? After watching it, Stephen Hawking pronounced it "largely genuine

Whiplash (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Whiplash" Delivers Jazzy Mentor-Mentee Bash

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

We like being a fly on the wall. While we may not like intense face-to-face confrontations, observing them can be fascinating. Power struggles are much easier to take when you’re not the one being domineered.

"Whiplash" gives us a terrific (in both senses of the word) drama, the relationship between a prodigy jazz drummer and his overbearing teacher. It’s a talky movie in the sense of "The Lion In Winter" or "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf" … but it manages to be something of a thriller too. 
Here we meet Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) who falls under the influence of legendary Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the music maestro at prestigious Manhattan conservatory. At their first encounter, Fletcher is dismissive, making the boy think he’s missed his one chance to impress the teacher. But no so. Fletcher’s style is abusive mind games, pushing his students beyond their seeming ability.

To make its point, the movie uses the apocryphal story of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head one night when he messed up, the violent act pushing him to the breaking point at which he became Bird.

Director Damien Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench") uses this metaphor to pose the question of how far a teacher should go to unleash the greatness in a student. Without the violence of that cymbal, would Charlie Parker have gone on to make music history? Did it take more than the threat of failure to get through to him?

Fletcher throws furniture, calls his students names, brutally challenges them. He physically tortures Andrew, forcing him to repeat drum solos until his hands bleed. He drives his students. He believes that the too most discouraging words you can say to a student is "Good job."

Is he a monster … or a mentor?

"Whiplash" is still playing at the Tropic Cinema. 
Not-quite-30--year-old Damien Chazelle is a writer-turned-turned director who has a thing for music, particularly jazz. His first movie, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," was about a jazz trumpeter in search of a more outgoing lover. He wrote the screenplay for "Grand Piano." And he’s currently directing a film he wrote called "La La Land," the story of a jazz pianist (Miles Teller again) who falls for a young actress (Emma Watson) in Los Angeles.

"Whiplash" actually started off as a short film with J.K. Simons ("Juno," TV’s "The Closer") as a band teacher, before he remade it into a feature film.
There is an old saying that a mentor must eventually kill off his mentee when he’s no longer a pupil, but a threat. Or vice versa.

Here we get to be a fly on the wall.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Birdman (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The eccentric and semi-reclusive actor Michael Keaton gives a breakthrough performance as the one-time action star Riggan Thomson in Alajandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman". Riggan is a mainstream actor, attempting a Broadway run, with his adaptation of Raymond Carver's fiction. Thomson  is driven dyspeptic and ulcerated by low self esteem. Perhaps as a joking commentary of Keaton's own role as The Batman, Riggan attempts to dismiss his Pop history while at the same time wanting to protect his legacy. The actor is surrounded by mediocrity, from the egocentric method actor (Edward Norton) to his slacker daughter (Emma Stone) and his hen-pecking ex girl (Andrea Riseborough) and feels stifled. Enclosed within the corridors of the shabby but time honored theater, Riggan is a Minotaur lost in a maze. While the dialogue feels intentionally long winded and circular, Keaton is transformative as an acidic and fuming big bad wolf trapped in the exhausting fairy tale that is his life.

The acting is stellar, but where the film really succeeds is in its magical realism as menacing buildings threaten to overtake him, echoing the fantasies of Terry Gilliam. Riddled with self doubt, Riggan nonetheless has the aggressive yet fanciful ability of telekinesis, hurling objects against the wall in menace.

It is possible in watching the film to dispense with the plot, and just let the kaleidoscopic verve of the Hitchcockian cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki absorb your eye. Shot in one continuous take throughout the two hours, Lubezki shows us an inferno of Broadway, peopled with pale and eerie creatures reminiscent of Hieronomous Bosch.

The final piece d'resistance of "Birdman" is in giving Riggan something of the great Antonin Artaud in making the theater a violent and propulsive act.

Like a cartoony and surreal shaman, Riggan executes a Taoist pantomime, highlighting a double world that exists within our routine shadow play.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has given us a spellbinding quasi-autobiography with "Whiplash", zeroing in on a young music student with heart, intensity and a squeamish sense of  detail.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is enrolled as a jazz drummer at a prestigious  New York school. His footsteps are hesitant and half hearted. Like Franz Kafka he is pale and timidly-toned, invariably looking over his shoulder, for the aggressive onslaught of sheet music that attack his eyes like a family of bats. Andrew is small and hunched despite his muscular form. The camera is often low to the ground. Andrew sees flies buzz about. Shiny saxophones and trumpets seem like lusty monsters that exhale asthmatically, needy and selfish. The soundproof walls transform into sheets of medieval iron. With these microscopic details that singularly make the film, we have echoes of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan".

The terrified and drooling Andrew crosses paths with the snarling and militant Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) Fletcher makes "Bad Santa" into Mister Rogers. He is uncompromising, violent and frenetically scary. He would be right at home in "Apocalypse Now".

An earnest and diligent pupil is no match for the beast that is Fletcher who just misses being dressed in the smoke of satan.

Enduring insult after insult to the point of collapse, Andrew drums on, sweating and puffy like a refugee from war.

In a few brilliant strokes like an angry Expressionist painting there are gobs of blood on cymbals. The student tapes his hands like Jake LaMotta before a fight. Andrew becomes a machine to the point of callously  dismissing his girlfriend Nicole  (Melissa Benoist)

As tense as this story is, there are moments of beauty. The drum set is as much of a sorcerer's conjuring box that pulses with valentine life as it is something to be feared and conquered.

The music itself is a force in this film which features Hank Levy's Whiplash and Ellington's Caravan.

While it at times it flirts with a malevolent toxicity and harshness that is very nearly grotesque, this is J.K. Simmons's best film to date. Just when you think Fletcher is about to grow permanent horns, he backs away and becomes human.

Andrew too is very, very vulnerable with a kind of Black Majick within as he becomes an absolute Judge Dredd of drumming, bloody and deliberate.

While such scenes veer into acidic comedy in the tradition of the gore soaked Amy in the recent "Gone Girl," with the kid just short of leaving his skin by his drum box, the moments of Andrew leaving an empty and dim hall, his shoulders whittled down in exhaustion recall the solitary of Edward Hopper or a painting of the ashcan school.

These painterly moments of melancholy and heroic motion is reason enough to guard your neck and see "Whiplash", despite a Grand Guignol shade of Buddy Rich.

Write Ian at

Friday, November 21, 2014

Week of November 21- 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers a Dark and Funny Brew

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

With three powerful new films, and one strong holdover, Tropic Cinema gets serious -- in the tone of its new films.
"Rosewater" is political satirist Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, and no, it’s not a comedy. Instead he gives us the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was held for 118 days in Tehran. Kaplan vs. Kaplan calls it "a compelling film that reveals much about the Iranian ideology, and the paranoia of its leaders." Schmoes Knows says it’s "an incredible experience." And Flick Fhilosopher adds, "Jon Stewart's first film is passionate and principled, as I expected, but also hopeful, almost serene, and even gently amusing, which I did not."

"Whiplash" is the dramatic story of a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who falls under the tutelage of an old master (J.K. Simmons) at a prestigious music school. Newsday describes it as "primarily two actors and a jazz score, but the result is a crackling good drama that feels almost like a thriller." And Tampa Bay Times calls it a "musical drama with a Hitchcock heart, a minor-key thriller set to a double time swing beat."

"Birdman" is a comedy, but a decidedly black one. A washed-up movie star (Michael Keaton) tries to revive his career by putting on a Broadway play. The pressure mounts and reality fades. The Miami Herald observes, "’Birdman’ takes advantage of every facet of Keaton's talent, from his knack for absurdist comedy to his seemingly effortless ability to tap into graceful profundity without making a big show of it." And the Toledo Blade says, "Regardless of his connection to the role, Keaton is transformative and mesmerizing, altering in moments almost every audience preconception."

Holding over is another dark comedy, "St. Vincent." An old curmudgeon (Bill Murray) takes on a babysitting job, dragging his young ward to inappropriate places such as the horse track and bars. He’s mean, but lovable (sort of). Ozus' World Movie Reviews notes "Bill Murray plays the grouchy old man as well as anybody in Hollywood." San Francisco Chronicle grouses, "One of these days, someone should make a movie about a really nasty old guy who, by the end of the story, is still a nasty old guy." And amNewYork concludes, "It's a chance for Murray to act the hell out of a juicy part."

Dark and funny -- a strong brew at the Tropic.


Birdman (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
"Birdman" Soars At the Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Michael Keaton starred in two "Batman" movies, and then dropped out of the franchise to do smaller films. That was over twenty years ago. Now he pops up in a black comedy titled "Birdman," which happens to be about "a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise."

Sounds like art imitating life.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" is currently spreading its wings at the Tropic Cinema.

With it, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu presents the cautionary tale of an actor struggling to remain relevant. Riggan Thomas (Keaton) hopes to revive his career by putting on a Broadway play.

Assisting him in this quest is his flamboyant producer (Zach Galifianakis) and bedraggled druggie daughter (Emma Stone). They gather up a cast that consists of his sexy girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), a newbie Broadway actress (Naomi Watts), and a puffed-up leading man (Edward Norton).

The conceit of this film is that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar-winner for "Gravity") filmed it in what appears to be one long continuous take. Like Hitchcock’s "Rope." At 119 minutes that’s a heckuva flight for "Birdman."

But the question remains, will Michael Keaton … uh, I mean, Riggan Thomas … succeed in resuscitating his flagging career?

Here, it’s a race between opening night and a meltdown, as we watch our Birdman slowly lose his grip on reality.

Will his "Super-Realism" -- as a New York Times theater critic dubs his unexpected, showstopper acting technique -- save the day. Or will it give flight to Birdman.

Rosewater (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
Jon Stewart Gets Serious with "Rosewater"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Jon Stewart is a comedian, but he tackles thorny political subjects on "The Daily Show." So it’s not too surprising that he chose to get serious for a moment, taking the summer off to direct a movie about BBC journalist Maziar Bahari’s 118-day detainment in Iran.

Maziar Bahari has been a frequent guest on Stewart’s TV show.

"Rosewater" -- the title of Stewart’s film -- is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

In 2009, Bahari was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, supposedly because of a satirical interview he gave on "The Daily Show" about Iran’s presidential election.

During his time in Evin Prison, he was tortured and interrogated. Usually blindfolded, the only distinguishing feature of his interrogator was the small of rosewater cologne. Hence, the film’s name.

Filmed in Jordan (as a stand-in for Tehran), "Rosewater" stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal ("A Little Bit of Heaven") as Bahari. Kim Bodnia is the character known as Rosewater.

Being this film is based on true events detailed in Maziar bahari’s memoir "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival," it’s no spoiler to tell you he was finally released following pressure from Newsweek Magazine, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and his pregnant fiancé.

For his release, he was required to pay $300,000 bail, provide a video confession, and promise to spy on a list of Western journalists for the Revolutionary Guard. When he renounced his confession after returning to London, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to thirteen-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and 74 lashes. Despite threats to bring him back to Iran "in a bag," he remains at large and cooperated with Stewart in the making of this movie.
Stewart’s use of news footage of a debate between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and one of his challengers, and video showing the violence against protestors of the contested election results, adds a sense of verisimilitude.
But he’s still a first-time director finding his way, despite a little coaching from the sidelines by Hollywood wunderkind J. J. Abrams ("Star Trek," etc.).

Nevertheless, Iran’s State TV has accused Jon Stewart (né Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) of using Zionist backing for the little $10-million movie. Note: "Rosewater" was fully financed by Oddlot Entertainment, which has given us such movies as "The Way Way Back," "Ender’s Game," and "Draft Day".

Stewart was also accused of being a "CIA superspy."
Good material for "The Daily Show."




Saturday, November 15, 2014

Week of November 17-20 After the Film Festival (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Lures You Back Into the Theater

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we recuperate from non-stop movies at the Key West Film Festival, Tropic Cinema gives us new reasons to go back into the theater. Although a shortened week, the lineup is noteworthy.

“St. Vincent” offers a pitch-perfect performance from Bill Murray as a grumpy old guy who takes the youngster next door to the racetrack, bars, and other questionable activities without knowledge of the boy’s mother (Melissa McCarthy). He gets rewarded with “sainthood.” Aisle Seat calls it “a funny, charming, feel-good movie that rises above a few clichés.” And amNewYork notes, “It’s a chance for Murray to act the hell out of a juicy part.”

Another not-so-nice character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal is “Nightcrawler.” A wannabe TV news cameraman, he becomes the ultimate immoral ambulance chaser in this indictment of the TV news industry. sums it up, “Crashes and crime scenes are his bread and butter. He is driven. He is innovative. He is happy. He is also a monster -- a fiend who preys on people at their weakest and worst moments.”

Catch “Gone Girl” is you haven’t already. This missing-wife story is one of the best movies of the year, with Ben Affleck as the husband under suspicion and Rosamund Pike as the wife who indicts him by her diary. Fan the Fire calls it “a dark and intelligent thriller.” And 2UE That Movie Show adds, “’Gone Girl’ lives up to the hype.”

A heartwarming courtroom movie is “The Judge,” with Robert Downey, Jr. as a slick big-city lawyer back in his hometown to defend his estranged father, the local judge, in a murder trial. Denver Post says, “There are a number of fine reasons to see the courtroom-meets-family melodrama The Judge. As you might suspect, two stand out: actors Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.” And Daily Star calls it “Downey Jr.’s meatiest role in years.”

“Fury” is a war movie starring Brad Pitt as a tank commander behind enemy lines in Germany. Lots of action here as he and his men stand their ground. New Yorker says it’s “literally visceral -- a kind of war horror film, which is, of course, what good combat films should be.” And ABC Radio Brisbane concludes, “Like other war films, ‘Fury’ covers the familiar themes of heroism, comradery and brutality. It's also tapping into our love of underdog stories.”

There you have it -- five good reasons to go back to the movies this week.

Fury (Rhoades)

“Fury” Is Really
About People –
Not Tanks

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

While I’m not a big fan of war movies – or war itself, for that matter –it is a subject that has, does, and will affect so many people’s lives. As William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.” But sometimes a war movie can be good entertainment.

“Fury” – the new Brad Pitt film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema – takes its name from a M4A3EB Sherman tank commanded by a hotshot sergeant and his 5-man crew.

In this World War II actioner, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt with a jarhead haircut) is a man who fought Nazis in Africa and is now pursuing then behind Germany lines, lumbering along in his old workhorse tank. When it gets disabled, and 300 German soldiers are approaching, including a bunch of heavier German tanks, Wardaddy decides to stand his ground.

There’s the expected dramatic interplay between Wardaddy and his crew, particular a younger recruit (Logan Lerman) who’s questioning his courage, but it’s the battles you came to see. Bomb blasts and the boom of that 75mm turret-mounted gun atop the Fury -- you’ll find it all in this war film written and directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”).

Also in the cast are Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Scott Eastwood (Clint’s son).

There’s a message here about courage under fire, but this unsentimental telling will entertain you with the sheer intensity of its battle scenes. 

Somehow it seems fitting that William Tecumseh Sherman had a tank named after him.

Nightcrawler (Rhoades)

Gyllenhaal Slithers
To the Screen in

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I knew a National Inquirer reporter who was so aggressive he once asked a car-accident victim, “How does it feel to be dying?”

That’s the state of ambulance-chasing journalism you encounter in “Nightcrawler,” the new Jake Gyllenhaal film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema. It’s a bleak, perhaps satiric look at a nocturnal low-life who reinvents himself as a freelance newsman, prowling nighttime Los Angeles with a camcorder in search of salable stories.

The local TV station’s graveyard-shift news editor (Rene Russo) wants blood. “The perfect story,” she says, “is a screaming woman with her throat cut running down a street in a good neighborhood.”

Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to oblige. He thinks nothing of dragging a body out of a crashed car so the wounds shine in the headlights. It makes for better television, right?

As an older, more seasoned cameraman (Bill Paxton) puts it, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Lou is ever the money-driven entrepreneur. He hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed) and trains him by reciting inane mantras from the self-help books he reads. To Lou, empathy is a false commodity. A triple homicide in the home up in the hills is merely an existential scene to be filmed for television news.

“Nightcrawler” is the directing debut of veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”). Here he’s telling us something about the voyeuristic nature of desensitized television audiences. And perhaps something about movie audiences too. After all, we’re sitting here watching this titillating cautionary tale, a postmodern version of “Broadcast News” and “Network.”

Jake Gyllenhaal lost weight for this role, transforming himself into a ghoulish nightcrawler, a vampirish figure who prefers the darkness. His twisted, twitchy persona will remind you of a Norman Bates with J-school ambitions, a man whose morality has withered for lack of daylight.

Yet there’s a certain manic vulnerability to his sociopathy.

At one point Lou stares at the backdrop of the LA skyline in the news studio. “On TV it looks so real,” he says, almost puzzled by the disparity between the unbridled quest for network ratings and immorality.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Key West Film Festival 2014 (Brockway)

Key West Film Fest highlights 2014
by Ian Brockway

The Key West Film Festival brings a spectrum of choices each year that parallels our island's eccentricity and this year is no exception. Color, mood and pathos is found in abundance.

Marisa Tomei
To start with director Adam Rapp (Winter Passing) directs Marisa Tomei in "Loitering With Intent," a comedy drama focusing on the ins and outs of Hollywood in all of its tinsel foibles. Tomei will also be a featured guest at the festival.

The festival will also showcase  the work of  Leon Ichaso, a master of gritty realism who infuses his work with an intensity informed by exile from his native Cuba. The film "Pinero" with its amphetamine collaged style, is a must see.

Also showing are some provocative existential dramas.

"5 to 7" from director Victor Levin and staring Anton Yelchin (Only Lovers Left Alive) centers on the stress of an extramarital affair in the realm of French politics. "Little Accidents"  by Sara Colangelo details a moral dilemma, involving a missing teen, and the film "Human Capital" is a riveting character study of one ruthless family by Paolo Virzì. "Ecotherms" is a seething examination of Miami's hedonistic youth by filmmaker Monica Pena.

There are many quirky documentaries to be sought out.

Dock Ellis
"No No: A Dockumentary" tops the list highlighting the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis who achieved bizarre fame for having pitched a no hitter on acid. For true crime fans, "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest" is about the notorious Houdini of Florida, who brought fame to himself with his outrageous prison misadventures, too numerous to count. Chinese food lovers can taste "The Search for General Tso" about the origin and impact of the famed chicken recipe.

If magic is your bag, you can train your eyes upon "Honest Liar," about the life of magician James Randi, who is now a skeptic of all things that go boo and bump about on All Hallows' Eve.

Benedict Cumberbatch
And, last but certainly not least, there are two eagerly awaited films: one details history, while the other has a content and digital bestiary all its own. "The Imitation Game" stars Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame, playing the mathematician Alan Turing who was crucial in cracking the Enigma code during World War II. Terry Gilliam's uncompromising "Zero Theorem" conjures some anarchist alchemy. Gilliam once again stands alone with his concocted paradise of whimsy and tech-fear.

The Key West Film Festival is a true plural-eyed feast of visions sure to please every hungry eye on the island during this highly anticipated and festive week. Click here for the full lineup.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 8, 2014

St. Vincent (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

St. Vincent

Bill Murray has played a wide variety of surly and offbeat characters often in his comprehensive career. He is so consistent in this vein, that he has an entire vocabulary of quirk moving through his body.  And, in "St. Vincent" by director Theodore Melfi, the actor doesn't disappoint.

Murray plays Vincent, an aloof and surly man who is a Vietnam vet who has seen much and doesn't care to see much more. One night, he drowsily prepares a slapdash dinner, liberally laced with booze, cutting himself and hitting his head on the fridge and kitchen counter. Vincent falls to the floor, knocked cold and bloody.

He is awakened by loud voices and a single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) coupled with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Vincent wants nothing to do with Maggie or Oliver. But as Vincent's tree is maimed and his fence is knocked to splinters, he is fatefully involved. Vincent agrees to watch Oliver for a solid fee.

The theme of this film, although executed many times before as the buddy or eccentric mentor film, works perfectly. Murray as a somewhat pickled and smoky character has never been more natural, funny or softly nuanced. The rapport that develops between Murray and newcomer Lieberher feels like life itself.

Oliver is a full fledged character, neither silly, too serious or cynical, but simply a kid, with his own pre-adolescent wishes and fears. Murray too, is patterned with a richness as varied as the many wrinkles on his face. Although often aloof, irritable and tight in a sadness he never loses his sense of ease. His Vincent is akin to a figure in a Tom Waits song drawn with a loose and comic wildness, together with a kind of whimsy found in a Popeye comic that is almost musical. The mere sight of Vincent attempting to dance expresses a range of poetry between the body and mind.

Melissa McCarthy does a wonderful turn in toning down her usual aggressive and uncouth persona and consequently has never been more comical or charming. Chris O' Dowd delivers splendidly as an understated, yet cheerfully sarcastic teacher at a private school and he thankfully eases any nightmares you may have endured since his last eerie portrayal in "Calvalry". Naomi Watts appears as a Russian stripper Daka, although her character feels a bit anemic and  ready made.

The heart of the film, though,  lies in the rich give and take between Murray and Lieberher that mixes together to make a compelling elixir for any ill that assails you.  The film is unpretentiously in the tradition  of films like "My Bodyguard", "Uncle Buck" and "Bad Words". It contains some very textured irreverence  that recalls a less acidic "Bad Santa" and as much good cheer, ( if not more) than  the recent hit "Pride".

Yet the real magic is in the performance of Bill Murray, who makes everything old in this deflated yet entertaining sourpuss, seem new once more.

Write Ian at

Friday, November 7, 2014

Week of November 7 - 12 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

From Cynical Comedy to Taut Thriller Tropic Cinema Delivers

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

You can count on Tropic Cinema to entertain. And that it does this week!
"St. Vincent" gives us Bill Murray as a cantankerous and misanthropic old crank named Vincent, who winds up as an afterschool babysitter for the kid next door. Not exactly the ideal role model, but Murray’s affability shines through with a saint-like glow. "One of these days, someone should make a movie about a really nasty old guy who, by the end of the story, is still a nasty old guy," observes San Francisco chronicle. And MLive says, "Bill Murray’s performance goes far beyond the irony of laughing at an old man who wears his cynicism on his sleeve."

"The Judge" is a grumpy old jurist, the father of a hotshot defense attorney. Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. take on these adversarial roles in a family drama that’s winning. New York Magazine says, "The script has its bright patches, the setting is picturesque, and the cast is full of actors you'll want to see."

"Kill the Messenger" happens both literally and figuratively in the based-on-a-true-story about Gary Webb, a whistleblowing journalist who exposed the CIA’s connection to drug smuggling. Detroit News calls it a "an admirable journalism thriller that takes on a lot of big subjects." And says, "This taut drama becomes a treasure trove for conspiracy buffs with its exploration of government propaganda, spin doctors and cover-ups."

Plenty of killing takes place in "The Equalizer," with Denzel Washington as an ex-covert ops guy who takes on the Russian mob when they mess with his friends. The amNewYork says, "There are few actors more commanding than Washington when he’s taking out bad guys." And Cleveland Plain Dealer declares, "Denzel does not disappoint."

In "Gone Girl" you’re not sure who’s been killed when a wife disappears. Did her husband do it? Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play he-said she-said in this outstanding thriller. says, "This is one of those rare, elusive endeavors that contains nearly every important quality I cherish about moviemaking." And Flicks says, "This superior thriller arrives at a time when Hollywood mostly seems to have forgotten how to make 'em."

"Before I Go to Sleep" is another husband-wife thriller, with Nicole Kidman as a woman with amnesia and Colin Firth as the husband she wakes up to anew every day. Ozus’ World Movie Reviews calls it "An imponderable and grim psychological thriller." And Detroit News concludes, "It isn’t Hitchcock, but it will do." 

St. Vincent (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies 

Bill Murray Wears Crooked Halo As "St. Vincent"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Bill Murray is impossible to dislike. An easygoing, droll comedian, we grew up watching him on Saturday Night Live. And we loved the lovable doofuses he played in his early movies -- from "Caddyshack" to "Stripes" to "Ghostbusters" -- and forgave him when he tried to turn serious in films like "The Razor’s Edge."

We didn’t mind when he played a misanthrope in "Scrooged" because we knew that by the end-credits he would see the light and hoist Tiny Tim onto his shoulders. Or in "Groundhog Day" we knew he’d do it over and over till he got it right.

As he got older, he took on tougher roles -- "Lost In Translation," "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," "Broken Flowers." But that was okay because he wore well.
Now Bill Murray gives us "St. Vincent," which is billed as a comedy. But it is not. Here he plays a mean-spirited, cantankerous, bawdy, rude, dishonest, drunken, unkempt, chain-smoking, conniving, greedy, whore-mongering, obnoxious, cranky curmudgeon. Did I mention he doesn’t like people?
He’s not a nice guy. And he’s only liked by a sourpuss Persian cat and the forlorn kid next door.

It’s the kid (12-year-old Jaeden Lieberher) who serves as the catalyst for the predictable story, one that is as familiar as "The Kid" or "The Karate Kid." A grumpy old man who befriends an inept young boy, helping him overcome obstacles.

Going through a divorce, a new neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) has little choice but hire Vincent as an unlikely babysitter. He takes the kid to the track, goes drinking in a dive bar, introduces him to a Lady of the Evening ("A woman who works at night?"), teaches him how to fight dirty.

Okay, maybe Vincent has a few socially redeeming qualities. He visits his wife who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, her mistaking him for a doctor. He helps a pregnant Russian stripper. And he protects the boy against bullies.

That’s why by movie’s end he is dubbed St. Vincent of Sheepshead Bay -- part of an Everyday Saints program by a priest (Chris O’Dowd) at the kid’s school.

Yet, at the end of the movie there’s no epiphany. Still a not-nice grouch, Vincent lolls in a broken-down lounge chair while watering his grassless lawn with a hose and singing along to a Bob Dylan song during the end-credits.

"St. Vincent" is now playing at the Tropic Cinema.

So why bother seeing this movie about a mean old man?

Great performances. Bill Murray is pitch-perfect as Vincent. Melissa McCarthy underplays her part with precision. Naomi Watts surprises us with a comic turn as the pregnant stripper. And Jaeden Lieberher is a natural as the kid who looks up to this disreputable old bastard.

And despite this being a rather sad story, you’ll laugh. In fact, you’ll guffaw. And maybe shed a tear.

No, you just can’t help but like Bill Murray even when he’s being unlikable.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kill The Messenger (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Kill the Messenger

Jeremy Renner gives a raw and visceral performance as Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in "Kill the Messenger" by director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.). Leave it to Renner, the combustible actor of "The Hurt Locker" to bring a real verve to this man who was clearly hunted and vilified because of his searing journalism and his book Dark Alliance.

It is 1996 and Bill Clinton is in the White House. Gary Webb is a small time reporter. No one pays much attention to him. Webb writes a story about drug dealers being stripped of their rights and houses even after they are acquitted. His news office takes notice and he scores a hit.

One day he gets a surprise call from a gangster's moll, the seductive Coral Baca (Paz Vega) who has a body like an infinity sign. Baca tells Webb that she has proof that her man possesses grand jury testimony about dealers getting crack into the country and selling it to the CIA to provide cash for a dirty war, specifically to fight the Contras in Nicaragua.

Webb confronts DA Russell Dodson (excellently played by Barry Pepper, one of the best unsung actors today) and he is as smarmy as they come. Webb travels to Central America and interviews Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) who gives him some cryptic news. He then goes to a Swiss banker Hansjorg Baier, (Brett Rice)  who becomes indispensable. He is corpulent, dapper and smooth with more Highsmithic ability than Chester McFarland from "The Two Faces of January".

With enough information, Webb writes with silver speed on wings of light. In one notable scene, he pummels the air with his big brassy arms and lets out a primal scream. In his moments of restless energy he seems like John Belushi or maybe Hunter Thompson ( after all both were truth-tellers, albeit with different mediums). Webb's story breaks as is and he is treated as a celeb or an enfant terrible almost on the level with a Truman Capote. Everyone wants him from 60 Minutes on down.

Then the noose tightens.

This is tightly crafted with more spooks than any sociopathic scare fest. The later scenes containing some soundless cement jawed agents are both as otherworldly and as creepily tangible as anything depicted in "The Matrix".

Renner is flawless as a gutsy but down to earth journalist who becomes literally asphyxiated by his reporting with no real outlet for his work. Through it all he tries to hold on in loving his caring wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) who becomes increasingly put off by his covert journeys.

Oliver Platt appears as a sycophantic boss who is all charm when Webb is on top and then full  of aversion and petty belittlement for him when the media backs away.

Granted "The Hurt Locker" was Jeremy Renner's breakthrough, but you will remember this actor just as much for this role. Through Renner's  incarnation, we feel the weight on Webb's shoulders as a textural experience.

The most disturbing thing in the film is that it shows an American agency, namely the CIA, acting with impunity and squashing this man in its path as the rest of the country is suddenly overwhelmed in the voluptual blindness of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

There was more virulent national poison afoot and "Kill the Messenger" deserves its rightful place among other films like "All the President's Men" and "State of Play" for its part in exposing a genuine toxicity with tension and grace.

Write Ian at

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Before I Sleep (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Before I Go To Sleep

Rowan Joffé (Brighton Rock) offers an entertaining if cliche-bound thriller with echoes of "Momento" in "Before I Go To Sleep." The film, which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, also has traces of  "Suspicion" as well, given Kidman's very paranoia.

Here Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up with the handsome sleeping Ben (Colin Firth)

Normally, for most this would not be a problem.

But Christine doesn't know who Ben is. He explains somewhat laconically that she has had an head injury years ago and they have been married for about fourteen years.

Christine is flabbergasted.

Ben leaves a daily itinerary on a board with important details written out step by step.

Christine moves through the modern house as if stuck in molasses and Ben is almost a cigar store Indian given his stony immobility.

Christine gets calls from her doctor (Mark Strong) who explains that she has a video journal in a camera located in a drawer.

Christine locates the object and watches clips of herself ( ala "Twelve Monkeys") relate that she does have amnesia and more disturbingly, that she will forget the day's events as soon as she falls into sleep each night with no recall the next morning.

Still even more frightening, the video version of  Christine feels someone is out to kill her.

Consequently, a domestic noose of sorts seems to tighten around her, within the house and the people she spies. As we can guess, trust becomes hazardous.

Directors like Hitchcock (Suspicion) Roman Polanski (Repulsion) and  George Cukor (Gaslight) have worked masterfully with the premise of the harried or hysterical wife and Rowan Joffé pays adequate homage.

The film also does well, skillfully blending in past and present events and subversively altering Firth's handsome and iconic actor's image. Here, Firth gives us an odd and passive sorrow combined with a reckless sardonic quality. Best of all, the film highlights Firth as a man with the capacity to be both eerie and insipid.

However, after the first jolt, the melodrama is so heightened, bold and loud that there is little juice left for subsequent surprises.

The film would have fared better with softer and creepier scares. Some of the shocks are foreshadowed by jarring noises or blunt equipment just out of reach in the manner of any network Tv shocker.

The oft-filmed story of the woman with nowhere to run has such a rich cinema history that the twists and turns in "Before I Go to Sleep" seem a bit slumberous.

The one lasting element remains the emotional power of Kidman and Firth who perform all of the loud reversals  onscreen as if for the first time, almost conceptually as a kind of film within a film.

By itself though, "Before I Go To Sleep" suffers a bit from a déjà vu that it shares with its other more original, cinematic cousins.

Write Ian at