Thursday, February 27, 2014

Week of February 28 to March 6 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Oscar Countdown at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

We’ve X’ed off the days on our calendar and the 86th Academy Awards is almost here. This year’s host is Ellen DeGeneres, that bobbed-hair out-of-the-closet television talk-show host who can make you laugh, cry, and connect.

Tropic Cinema has been leading up to the big event by screening nominated movies, documentaries, and shorts, giving you the opportunity to pick your own favorites. And on March 2nd the Tropic will host its annual Oscars party, with a live simulcast of the Red Carpet parade and the awarding of those coveted golden statuettes.

This week you still have a chance to catch several Oscar contenders showing on the Tropic’s screens.

“American Hustle,” with its ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and the four Best Acting categories, is still playing. A dark comedy about swindlers pressed into service by the FBI, it stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence. Denver Post writes that “Director David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer grab hold of the FBI's long-time Abscam sting … as their kernel of truth, then Jiffy Pop it like mad.” And Passionate Moviegoers says, “Compulsively watchable, it's a crime film that dances.”

Also playing is “Philomena,” with four Oscar nods, inkling Best Picture and Best Actress. Dame Judi Dench takes the title role, an Irish woman in search of the son given away by nuns. Q Network Film Desk proclaims it “Equal parts uplifting tearjerker, odd-couple comedy, and righteous screed against abuse of power in the name of religion.” And Movie Habit says, “Dench triumphs.”

“12 Years a Slave” is up for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and the two supporting acting slots. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives us a strong performance as a free black man who was abducted into slavery in 1841. Movie Talk notes that the film “tackles America's primal sin of slavery with unflinching honesty,” And San Francisco Chronicle says, “It makes the unimaginable imaginable.”

Disney’s “Frozen” has been nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. This retelling of “The Snow Queen” fairy tale will dazzle adults and kids alike. Cinema sight calls it “a sweet, charming, musically diverse film.’ And tells us, “While the journey may seem overly familiar, the destination has some surprises in store.”

Rounding out the Tropic’s lineup is “Girl on a Bicycle,” the German comedy about a bus driver caught in a tug-of-war between his fiancée and a pretty girl on a bicycle. Arizona Republic sees it as “More dippy than romantic or funny.” And McClatchy-Tribune News Service notes its “Pretty actors and pretty Paris locations.”

And new this week is “Gloria,” the award-winning Chilean-Spanish film about a woman of a certain age. Paulina García has the title role, a 58-year-old woman looking for love. The Nation calls it “a feel-good movie that you don't have to feel bad for liking.” And Urban Cinefile says García gives “a knock-out performance.”

Hurry up! The Oscars are being handed out on Sunday night.

Gloria (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

”Gloria” Examines Women of a Certain Age

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A woman of a certain age. The phrase denotes a woman no longer young, but not quite old. It’s a period that can promise more angst than encountered in puberty.

The phrase can be traced back to 1754. A 1979  book titled "Women of a Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self" pegged it at 35 to 54. The New York Times has defined it as the age of 50 to 55.

In “Gloria” – the Chilean-Spanish film playing at the Tropic Cinema – the titular protagonist is 58, a divorcee with grown children on her own, lonely and looking for love.

Gloria (brilliantly played by Paulina García, a performance that garnered her the Silver Bear Best Actress Award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.) immerses herself in a whirlwind of singles’ parties. Eventually, she meets up with a guy named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), an ex-naval officer seven years her senior. Attracted to him, Gloria imagines a permanent relationship, but first before that can happen she has to deal with her own view of these so-called Golden Years.

Paulina García got her start in Chilean telenovelas, but has gone on to become recognized as a film actress, theater director, and playwright.

At 54, does she identify with Gloria? “If you’re asking about how I most identify with her,” says García, “I think it’s the passage where she moves from being a supporting role in other people’s lives to having a lead part in her own.”

The pivotal point in the film is “about realizing the moment in time in your life when you take control of it,” says Paulina García.

Kidnapped for Christ (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Kidnapped for Christ” To Capture Audiences
With “4 Nights 4 Justices”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Kate Logan didn’t expect to make an exposé when she started her documentary about a rehab camp for misguided teens located in the jungles of the Dominican Republic.

But what she discovered was a Christian reform school designed to deprogram gays and other teens who didn’t fit societal norms.

As one kid tells it, “One morning I woke up, two guys were at my house. Both my parents are standing there, saying, ‘We love you David, we love you.’ They tied a belt around my waist, dragged me with the belt to their car. I got sent down here because I am gay and my parents they just weren’t okay with that.”

Friends were told he was visiting family, he was across the country. They wanted to know if he was okay. But word was not forthcoming. He was simply “gone.”

Against his will, David found himself at Escuela Caribe, an outpost in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. Terrified, he faced the rigors of this American-run Christian behavior modification program.

“Culture shock,” one school official called it.

“I feel like I’m going to lose my mind here,” David says on camera.

Julia Scheeres, a former student at Escuela Caribe and author of the book “Jesus Land,” describes it as “a dumping ground for wealthy evangelicals who have problem teenagers.”

“Escuela Caribe was a place that terrified me while I was there and that still gives me nightmares,” says Scheeres, who was sent there after she was caught having sex with her high school boyfriend.

“Kidnapped for Christ” takes its name from a comment by one of the students: “I still consider being held at Escuela Caribe to be a kidnapping.”

A devout Christian film student who had worked as a missionary abroad, Kate Logan began filming at Escuela Caribe in 2006, hoping to document how the school introduces kids to foreign cultures. In the beginning Logan’s naïve about what’s going on, shocked as she witnesses the school's ritualistic horrors.

Rather than a cultural exchange (the students weren’t even allowed to speak to native Dominicans), Logan discovered “the staff's Orwellian monitoring of letters sent home, of paddle beatings and prolonged isolation periods administered for minor infractions to arbitrary rules.”

When Escuela Caribe became suspicious of Logan’s shifting viewpoint, the film project ground to a halt. Threats from the school and from David’s parents put it on hold. But Escuela Caribe closed its doors in 2011, so the story can now be told.

“Kidnapped for Christ” will be showing at the Tropic Cinema on March 4th as the first film in this year’s “4 Nights 4 Justice” series. And Kate Logan will be on hand to introduce her film, answer any questions, and describe how her documentary flipped from positive to negative.

“4 Nights 4 Justice” is a series of four films spread out over the course of several weeks, allowing every film and filmmaker to get lots of attention. The event is sponsored by a grant made available by the Mike Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment.

Michael Dively, a former Key West resident and Tropic Cinema volunteer, created an endowment at the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys to promote social justice and diversity. For the second year in a row, Tropic Cinema won a grant for its powerful “4 Nights 4 Justice” series. In addition to “Kidnapped for Christ,” the Tropic will screen three other award-winning films in the coming weeks.

On her way down to meet with Key West audiences after a similar screening in Ohio, Kate says, “I am quite sure I will like Key West better than Cleveland! I have an idea of the weather I'll face there in March.”

We promised her sunshine. And no behavior modification on an island that invites people to “Come As You Are.”.

Oscars at the Tropic (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Oscars at the Tropic Delivers a Red Carpet View

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

For those people who haven’t been invited to Vanity Fair’s lavish Hollywood Oscar party on March 2nd, go to the Tropic Cinema. Each year, Key West’s independent movie theater celebrates the Academy Awards with its own Red Carpet event.

This is the 86nd Oscar ceremony brought to us by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. The Tropic’s party starts off at 7 p.m. with a live simulcast of the Red Carpet parade at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater. There will be cocktails (first drink free) and hors d’ouevres in the Sussman Lounge. And all your friends, chattering about the night’s nominees.

At 8:30 p.m. the Academy Awards presentation can be viewed in the comfort of the Carper Theater. A cash bar and sweets will be available in the Lounge.

Tickets are $35 for members, $40 for non-members. And Oscar ballets are $5 each.

This year nine films are up for Best Picture: “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” All have been shown on the Tropic’s four screens.

Best Actor nominees are Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Matthew McConaughey. And Best Actress nods went to Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep.

While “American Hustle” is the frontrunner in my crystal ball, don’t count out Streep. The Academy may just want to prove wrong her last year’s statement that you wouldn’t likely see her up there on the podium again.

How good is my crystal ball? We’ll just have to watch the big screen to see who takes home all those golden statuettes.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Academy Awards 2014 (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets: Oscar Thoughts
by Ian Brockway

The Oscars will no doubt be a laugh a minute this year, hosted by the glibly self-deprecating and warmly sarcastic Ellen DeGeneres. With its focus on true stories of struggle, be it by land, sea, space and the FDA, there will indeed, be something for everyone.

The shocking surprise of the Oscars has to be the fact that "All Is Lost" is largely ignored as is Lee Daniels' "The Butler".

Taken together, this is a crime. There is no logical reason that these films should be ignored.

Even though this speaks of drama, and fishiness, you can bet that there will be no shortage of suspense. Will they give the big categories to "Gravity" even though space-themed films usually don't win in the Best Picture or Best Director categories?

This would be a near first.

Will "The Act of Killing" be too much for the Academy to handle as audiences usually have an aversion to genuinely violent and true material?

In the Best Actor category, I think Matthew McConaughey will take it. He truly evolved into Ron Woodroof, although it will be close as Chiwetel Ejiofor may be an upset.

In perhaps the easiest category to predict, "Blue Jasmine" Cate Blanchett seems to soar above the rest as a winner for Best Actress, even though there are no neophytes here. All candidates excel and Judi Dench is no slouch.

Best Supporting Actor will have some tension to be sure. All are terrific choices. Still, I'm betting on newcomer Barkhad Abdi, for his frightening, gritty and poignant role as a driven pirate in "Captain Phillips".

The Best Supporting Actress is nervously to close to call. I predict a nail-biter between Jennifer Lawrence   (American Hustle) and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) but Nyong'o will flip the odds. Lawrence better get a spare bottle of Rosalyn's polish to keep her cool.

Although there have been many interesting documentaries this year, my wheels are on the disturbing and transgressive "The Act of Killing". This film ranks as one of the most visceral and affecting films that I have ever seen in this category and it ultimately blurs the line between nonfiction, fiction and recorded events. The more it tries to mask itself in its repulsive characters, the more eerie it becomes.

In the category of Best Director, Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) is near certain to score, although its also just as probable that Steve McQueen will prove another upset with his unsparing account of "12 Years a Slave".

Although I know that The Oscars historically eschew space-centered films, my spirit is grounded for "Gravity" as Best Picture, as I hope against hope, though the gold muscles will most likely be lifted to "The Wolf of Wall Street".

Surprises are no rarity to The Academy though, and anything goes.

No matter who the winner is, rest assured, the pageantry will be displayed in full with a bubbling of champagne and sarcasm, including (hopefully) a fine and well deserved tribute given to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman---the riskiest and most accomplished actor of our age.
See it all on the big screen at the Tropic's annual Oscar Party starting at 7:00pm.
Write Ian at

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Girl on a Bicycle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Girl on a Bicycle

Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) tries his hand at French romantic comedy and comes up with some gloppy  pommes frites. "Girl on a Bicycle" is more of a pastiche than a  film, with lots of silly scenes that don't make much sense and ultimately tax your patience.

Paolo (Vincento Amato) is a Paris tour guide in the style of an Alberto Benigni character who blandly scoffs at Paris architecture. He goes around and around the city and doesn't seem to like his job (or maybe this  film) very much.

The jokes are few.

He is about to be engaged to a German flight attendant Greta (Nora Tschirner) who is likable enough, but Paulo is all of a mess when he attempts to propose. Somehow, for reasons that confound me, they  decide to forgo the romantic dinner and order pizza and play home video games.

On tour duty, Paolo spies the eye of Cecile, the girl on the bicycle (Louise Monot)

They share some soupy smiles with Cecile even waving her hand and her hair in slow motion in the style of a shampoo commercial.

Even though there is no reason for Paolo to have roaming eyes, he can't seem to get the girl out of his psychological hair, and in one ridiculous scene, he waves in front of Greta when they are engaged in sex.

Cecile is a model who does commercials and she gets fired for dropping soap in a tub.  The irksome soap ends up hitting the director in the nose, making it bloody.

Paulo again sees Cecile but can't manage to open a door and speak  clearly. He follows her in pursuit and finally drives into her.

At the hospital, he is assumed to be the hubby and is given responsibility of the adorable kids and of being nurse to Cecile.  The kids don't ask questions as they need a father and much running time is used up with Paulo sneaking out at odd hours and being "Mr. Mom."

These scenes grow tedious, bogging the film down, thrown up as fluffy echoes from countless other films.

In one scene, Cecile drops to the floor, attempting a bathroom entrance. In another, she gets on a moped and inexplicably, in the manner of "Laurel and Hardy" or  "The Money Pit" gets propelled from an upstairs window only to get bounced from an awning and put into the arms of one boozy paramour.

This is the romantic equivalent  of a truck hitting a fruit stand, killing any comic charm.

The biggest flaw though is that these characters are themselves uninspired and offhand, sketched without much mystery or spirit, half fleshed from other stories. Celine is drawn from "Amelie," Paulo from "Life is Beautiful" and we have a sloppy, ne'er do well slacker from the roles of Steve Coogan.

The camera is picturesque at times, but aside from the Arc de Triomphe, there is not much of Paris to see here.

Granted "Girl on a Bicycle" is an attempt to recapture the fluff of the 50s, be it Audrey Hepburn, perhaps, or the farces of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, but even the most trifling of comedies don't play off as unfunny as the ones here.

Many midnights (and even afternoons) in Paris have fared so much better.

Write Ian at

Friday, February 21, 2014

Week of February 21 to February 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Continues to Be Oscar Central

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications Film Critic

Are you ready for the Oscars on March 2nd? Tropic Cinema continues its campaign to help you catch many of the Academy Award contenders.

Back by popular demand is “Philomena,” the story of a disgraced journalist helping an Irish woman search for her child given away for adoption by the nuns. Steve Coogan wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay and stars as the journalist. Dame Judi Dench is up for Best Actress in the title role. The film also received nods for Best Picture and Best Original Score. Washington Post observes, “At its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.” And Sly Fox sees it as “a poignant meditation on motherhood.”

Also returning is director Steve McQueen’s powerful drama, “12 Years a Slave.” This is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated for his moving portrayal of Northup. Movie Talk says the film “tackles America’s primal sin of slavery with unflinching honesty.” And Concrete Playground calls it “An unflinching, uncomfortable and entirely necessary modern classic.”

“August: Osage County” holds over, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts vying for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The pair spar following a death in the family in this drama about a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan. Sky Movies says, “You'll find something to empathize with even if you don't want to.” And Dark Horizon notes “The movie is wholly an actors' vehicle.”

Disney’s “Frozen” retells a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the Snow Queen, earning Oscar nods as Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song (“Let It Go”). FILMINK says, “The expected Disney components are on display, from gleaming imagery to catchy songs to engaging humor.”

“American Hustle” leads the pack, with a staggering ten Academy Award nominations -- Best Picture, all four Best Acting slots (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence), Best Director (David O. Russell), plus Costume Design, Editing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay). Screenwize says, “Wide characters, deep storytelling, bad hair and a great 1970s soundtrack fill this stylishly seductive comedy about small time con artists working their way up the food chain.” Passionate Moviegoer calls it “compulsively watchable.”

And for those less interested in the 86th Academy Awards, “Girl on a Bicycle” offers a sex farce about a bus driver playing papa with a French model’s kids without his fiancée’s knowledge. The New York Times tells us “It's all light as a feather, with Jeremy Leven, the writer and director, landing some good multinational jokes along the way.”

The Tropic keeps us up-to-date on must-see movies.

Girl on a Bicycle (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Girl on a Bicycle” An Object of Desire

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Watching “Girl on a Bicycle” I’m reminded of the title of that classic film by Luis Buñuel, “Cet obscur objet du désir.” That translates as “That Obscure Object of Desire.”

That’s what a girl on a bicycle becomes when an Italian tour bus driver named Paolo (Vincenzo Amato) bumps into her. Literally.

No matter that he’s just become engaged to his longtime girlfriend Greta (Nora Tschirner), a German flight attendant.

After watching the pretty French model flitting around a picture-postcard Paris on her Velo, Paolo is infatuated. And when she winds up in the hospital due to the bus mishap, he pretends to be her husband in order to visit her there.

Reality sets in when Paolo discovers that she’s a single mother with no one to watch the kids. So he winds up playing man of the house while Cecile (Louise Monot) recovers, looking after this passel of children who begin calling him “Papa.”

Meanwhile, he has his fiancé to juggle. Not so easy as she starts to get suspicious of his unexplained absences.

Can Paolo survive this double life of deceit?

The idea is that we’ll be amused watching him try in this old-school romantic comedy.

Vincenzo Amato plays his character as fumbling and clueless. Nora Tschirner fumes nicely. And Louise Monot mostly has to look pretty as the object of desire. Paddy Considine pops up as a friend who dispenses bad relationship advice.

That said, “Girl on a Bicycle” needs a little more air in its tires. Director Jeremy Leven works hard to keep us engaged in this loopy tale of a man whose straying eye gets him in a pickle. But this stereotypical premise of romanticizing duplicitous behavior seems flat at times.

Or maybe we’re simply expecting more from the director who gave us the brilliant comedy “Don Juan DeMarco” with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando. Admittedly, that’s a hard act to follow.

In the twenty years between these two films, Levin has fared well as a screenwriter, with such credits as “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “The Notebook,” and “Real Steel.”

Jeremy Levin and his psychotherapist wife divide their time between Connecticut, New York, and Paris. I wonder if she eyes him carefully when a pretty girl on a bicycle rides by on the Champs-Élysées.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

American Hustle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 1970s  have had a hold on many directors from Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), Spielberg (Munich) to Paul Thomas Anderson  (Boogie Nights).

The latest of these 1970s scam flicks  is David O. Russell's semi-predictable "American Hustle" about the 1978 ABSCAM ruse involving casino playoffs and fake sheiks.

Christian Bale delivers an inspired turn in the mode of Heath Ledger's Joker as his AstroTurf toupee gets pasted, glued and done over again, shooting off in all directions. Playing con artist, loan shark and shifty art dealer Irving Rosenfeld, Bale takes on the body of a polyester jackal, resembling a bit of Michael Shannon's Kuklinski.

Emotionally, Rosenfeld is little more than a bully. He does have a gift of gab though that makes people feel comfortable and chummy.

Somehow he catches the eye of starry-eyed nymph Sydney (Amy Adams) and she is bewitched by Irving's shifty spontaneity and smarmy charms. Sydney seduces Irving and he discovers that she also has a knack for manipulation. They start a loan scam operation with Sydney pretending to be related to British aristocracy and high powered banking houses. They deal in near useless art and disingenuous deals , making thousands. Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) gets wind of the couple but can only finger the moll.

Soon Richie too becomes genuinely infatuated by Sydney.

The slippery progression follows most 1970's big shot scam films: an ambitious and violent type A brute wants to impress and becomes nouveau riche, all the while getting more and more anxious and jittery.

The apprehension and adhesion comes from the cat and mouse game of who is finally fooling whom and Russell has the good knuckles to know that all should not be revealed till last call. Does Sydney really care for Richie? Or will she blow the cover on Irving?

Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as a Irving's squeaky materialist Long Island wife Rosalyn with a nail polish fetish. In her role she is a selfish feline with an edge of Betty Boop, although Lawrence is no dated cartoon. She is a complete person of the 70s Jersey Shore era when people really did think of Atlantic City as a Shangri-La by the sea.

There is also Jeremy Renner as a Camden mayor with an arcing pompadour, and a nearly invisible Robert De Niro as a nonplussed but deadly (of course) gangster who wants casinos.

The film goes a bit too tepid midway with much back and forth, gesturing a scheme here and a scheme there. Hotel rooms and briefcases are bantered, bartered and talked about. So much chatter and hemming and hawing does go a long way and this slows the pace.

Still, the love-scam rectangle between Irving, Sydney, Richie and Rosalyn make the action claustrophobic with an almost giddy frisson to keep it moving.

Lawrence in particular is a creature frightening and slick, forcing Bale's character into a weak jellyfish of an Iceman, forever wincing and blighted.

"American Hustle" has a likable smoothness in its motion and tone and well displays an entertaining looseness. We tangibly feel the jumps and even the textures in this period of disco and panic.

Yet what a wild  film it would have been if director Louis Malle had had his way in 1982, in "Moon Over Miami" with the late John Belushi in Bale's role. With this provocative pair, the story might have reached both comical and risky heights, creating one real sleight of hand.

Pondering such impossible might-have-beens give an added edge to Bale's performance and highlight the  American Hustles that audiences are still fascinated with.
Write Ian at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Frozen (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Frozen" by Walt Disney Studios is a brisk and lively tale loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen and highlights the verve of Jennifer Lee, the first female director of a Disney animation studio vehicle.

Elsa, princess of Arendelle is born with the gift of magic. She adores her younger sister Anna and they are inseparable, playing together in the creation of snow beings. Because of an unfortunate accident during one of the conjurings, Anna hits her head with a presumed concussion.

The royal consensus is that Elsa's magic is growing icily caustic and malevolent and she must shield her hands from the public with blue rubber gloves.

Anna recovers but Elsa blames herself for her sister's past impact with a hard and jagged splinter of ice and she goes into exile, closing the castle gates.

Elsa becomes the bipolar queen of the North Pole of sorts, afraid of her shadow self.

This is a very sensitive and emotional meditation about positive and negative human impulses symbolized by magic. With dialogue like "stay away...I'm dangerous" Elsa's struggle parallels something of a serious illness.

Despite some psychological overtones which make the film all the more interesting, "Frozen" is no downer. There are rousing musical numbers, notably "Let It Go" which is up for an Academy Award this year with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

The song itself is a semi-Nietzschean  statement of embracing one's "dark" side and making sorcery work  positively.

But all is not philosophical. There are lots of belly laughs to be had with a gentle Viking (Bolt director Chris Williams) and a self deprecating snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) in the mode of comedian Buddy Hackett. Olaf is an unavoidable laugh riot with his detachable, balled body and an unrequited love for summer.

The film skillfully weaves Hans Christian Andersen with "Sleeping Beauty". And, but not least, there is an unmistakeable nod to singer Bonnie Raitt when Anna's bright red hair is streaked with frosts of winter.

One can in fact see "Frozen" as a country western tangle of tears: two sisters torn apart by a God-given gift that leads to woe, with Anna between two men (the disingenuous  Hans and the earnest but gullible Owen Wilson-ish Kristoff) left in the condition of perpetual winter. Even  Kristoff is unemployed with no one buying his ice.

Taylor Swift, take notes!

All comparison aside it is best to just enjoy "Frozen" as it is, a thoughtful and emotive fantasy that proves jaunty and entertaining with a spirit far from lukewarm.

Write Ian at

Friday, February 14, 2014

Oscar Short (Wanous)

Tropic screens wide variety of short Oscar hopefuls

"Oscar-Nominated Short Films," not rated, playing at the Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St., Key West.

Academy Award season is upon us -- the Oscars are presented March 2 -- and the Hollywood promotion machine is in full swing.

It's hard to miss the ads that appear everywhere -- on television, in newspapers and magazines, online -- and most of the Oscar-nominated films are easily seen in local theaters. But until recently, it has been nearly impossible to view the short films that have been nominated.

Thankfully, the past couple of years, Hollywood has started making the eligible short films available for wide theatrical release. The short-film categories -- animated, live-action and documentary -- are now packaged into three feature-length films and the result is that viewing the often-missed shorts is now almost as easy as seeing the major films.

The animated films are a mixed bag of ideas that range from amusing to surreal to confusing. They vary in length from six to 30 minutes and while some are better than others, all sow that a good director doesn't necessarily need 90 minutes to tell a great story.

Daniel Sousa's "Feral" tells the story of a young boy raised in the wild who has trouble fitting into modern city life and soon reverts to his untamed ways. The animation is minimal, almost child-like, but effectively tells the tale with no dialogue.

Disney's "Get A Horse" is a wonderful homage to the original Mickey Mouse cartoons that cleverly blends black and white and color animation in a fun way. From France comes "Mr. Hublot," a stunning view of a mechanical world where nuts and bolts comprise almost everything, and adopting a stray pet can have unexpected consequences.

"Possessions" is from Japan and is an artistic masterpiece of color and shape about a laborer caught in a storm who takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned temple.

The most satisfying of the animated films is an adaptation of Julia Donaldson's best-selling classic children's book "Room On the Broom." It tells the story of a friendly witch who can't say no to anyone wanting to hitch a ride on her magic broom. The animation is delightfully whimsical and viewers won't be able to resist its charms.

The live-action films are more emotional and moving but there are some very funny nominees, too. The most touching is "Helium" from Denmark. In it, a scared young boy is in hospice care and a janitor tries to ease his fear of dying by telling him about the land of Helium, a magical place that lies beyond this world. Rare will be the viewer with a dry eye after watching this one.

"Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me)" comes from Spain and is a gut-wrenching story of Spanish aid workers in Africa that is frighteningly real yet somehow hopeful. "The Voorman Problem" features English actors Martin Freeman ("Sherlock," "The Hobbit") and Tom Hollander ("Hanna," "Valkyrie") in a wickedly delicious tale of a problem prisoner who thinks he's God.

"Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)" is a too-real story that drops viewers into the midst of a domestic-abuse case where a mother and two children are trying to escape the abusive husband's grasp.

"Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)" is from Finland and is the funniest by far of all the nominees. An alarm clock signals the start of a mad dash to get to the church on time for a wedding. But things aren't what they seem and the result is a hilarious take on the difference between weddings and funerals.

These shorts are imaginative, ingenious and inventive. Some will grab viewers better than others but they all deserve the recognition the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given them.

We Lift You Up (Rhoades)

“We Lift You Up” Celebrates Black History Month

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1926 the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History chose the second week in February as Negro History Week, because it marked the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. This was the precursor to Black History Month, the event we currently celebrate.

This expansion into Black History Month was recognized in 1976 as part of America’s Bicentennial,. President Gerald Ford urged that we "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The United Kingdom officially recognized Black History Month in 1987 and Canada came on board in 1995.

Key West’s Tropic Cinema is in the midst of its annual homage to Black History Month, a program that includes a series of Spike Lee films. While you may have missed “Do the Right Thing,” coming up on successive Monday nights is “Get on the Bus” and “Inside Man.”

However, the centerpiece of this Black History Month celebration is an event called “We Lift You Up,” a partnership between Trinity Presbyterian Church and Tropic Cinema.

Beginning at 2:30 this coming Sunday is a “Soul Food and Caribbean Feast Like None Other” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Fellowship Hall and Garden. That’s followed at 4 p.m. at the Tropic by a performance of the Heavenly Express Gospel Group of Miami. And at 4:30 the Tropic will host a screening of “A Family Thing,” a dramedy starring James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall.

This poignant little film tells of a Southerner (Duval) who learns that he is half-black and has a brother living in Chicago. The pilgrimage to meet his black family doesn’t go smoothly, as his half-brother (Jones) blames that side of the family for his mother’s death during childbirth. The confrontations are expected and the outcome predictable … but when you get two old pros like James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall on the screen, you can be sure you’ll be riveted by their performances.

Tickets to the “We Lift You Up” event include supper, concert, and the film.

Week of February 14 to February 20 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Four Screens Filled With Oscar Nominees at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Offering more Oscar-nominated films than you can count on two hands, Tropic Cinema is determined to prepare you for this year’s Academy Awards. And, as usual, that March 2nd event will rate a red-carpet celebration at the Tropic.

The three collections of films you’ll f’sure want to catch are the Oscar Nominated Shorts. Where else are you going to see them in advance of the Academy Awards ceremony? Here we have five short animated films (“Feral,” “Get a Horse!,” “Mr. Hublot,” “Possessions,” and “Room on the Broom”), five short documentaries (“CaveDigger,” “Facing Fear,” “Karama Has No Walls,” “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” and “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall”), and five short live action films (“That Wasn’t Me,” “Just Before Losing Everything,” “Helium,” “The Voorman Problem,” and “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything”). The New York Times proclaims these shorts “especially outstanding.”

Returning to the Tropic following its advance showing as part of the New York Film Critics series is David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” Based on the infamous ABSCAM sting, this dark comedy stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. An odds-on favorite, it’s up for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Production Design. Quad City Times calls it “smart, sophisticated and slick.”

“August: Osage County” continues its familial battles with Meryl Streep as the acerbic mother and Julia Roberts as her embittered eldest daughter. Both nominated for Academy Awards, the two great actresses are pitted against each other like a later-day clash between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Media Mike calls it “a two hour showcase of talent.” And ReelViews says it’s “all about the acting.

Disney’s “Frozen,” is the animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Jonathan Groff, the fairy tale’s up for Best Animated Feature and Best Song (“Let It Go”). Baret News describes the film as “a touching tale of sisterhood.” Rolling Stone says it takes the lead in the Oscar race “by default.”

And you better put on your reading glasses for “The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellezza”), the subtitled contender for Best Foreign Language Film. This Italian masterpiece will remind you of a less ferial “La Dolce Vita” as an aging socialite (magnificently portrayed by Toni Servillo) looks back on his wasted life. Globe and Mail sees it as “an utterly ravishing portrait of listless luxuriance, a fantasy of decadent wealth and beauty.”

And “Labor Day” lingers at the Tropic like a summer memory, with Josh Brolin as an escaped convict who steals the hearts of his captives (Kate Winslet and Gatlin Griffith). Great chemistry between the stars overcomes any threats of sentimentality or mawkishness. Christian Science Monitor dubs it “Engagingly sappy.” And Total Film declares it as “first-rate work from Winslet and Brolin.”

The 86th Academy Awards is fast upon us. You’ll want to catch these films while you can.

American Hustle (Rhoades)

“American Hustle” Hustles Back to Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

There’s no con job here: You'll enjoy the movie “American Hustle.”

This dark comedy returns to the Tropic Cinema following its earlier preview as part of the innovative NY Film Critics Series.

“American Hustle” gives us a con man named Irving Rosenfeld, a paunchy conniver with an elaborate comb-over. A woman named Sydney is his partner and lover, a sexy faux-Brit with a larcenous heart. They are being coerced by an FBI agent into working a scam on a New Jersey politico. The wild card is Irving’s unpredictable wife.

Director and co-writer David O. Russell draws on the stars of two of his previous hits. Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro from “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Here, Bale and Adams are the tricksters; Bradley Cooper is the ambitious Feebie; and Jeremy Renner is one of the targets of their elaborate scheme.

“American Hustle” is a fictionalized telling of the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, an FBI operation that began as an investigation of trafficking in stolen property, but was later expanded to include political corruption.

Christian Bale gained 40 pounds, got himself an elaborate comb-over and slouched to play Irving. The actor ended up herniating two of his disks in the process. It was well worth the effort, for he’s garnered an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

As a matter of fact, “American Hustle” has collected ten Oscar nods, including Best Picture and Best Director. What’s more it’s the second film in 32 years to be nominated in the four acting categories. The other film was “Silver Linings Playbook,” also by David O. Russell, and also starring Cooper and Lawrence.

Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice?

Frozen (Rhoades)

Disney’s “Frozen” Thaws a Fairy Tale

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Just when you thought Disney had exhausted the genre, the House of Mouse has come up with yet another animated “princess” movie -- this one featuring one with cryokinetic powers.

That means she can create snow and ice.

Although it’s titled “Frozen,” this new offering is actually a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”

This marks Disney’s new habit of giving old fairytales new, grabby titles. Thus, “Rapunzel” became “Tangled.”

“Frozen” is currently adding to the air conditioning at the Tropic Cinema.

In this loosely adapted story we actually have two princesses, Elsa and Anna. Elsa is set to be queen, but exiles herself when her snow-making powers throw the kingdom into a perpetual winter. The evil Duke of Weselton tries to take over by branding Elsa as a monster (not entirely off base). However, young Anna treks through the snow in search of her missing sister, relying on the help of a mountain man and a reindeer.

Oh yes, Anna and her companions encounter a snowman along the way, a frozen custard of a character who keeps coming apart and rolling and tumbling and having trouble with his carrot-nose. The comic relief.

Idina Menzel voices Elsa, while Kristen Bell speaks for Anna. Jonathan Groff brings the mountain man Kristoff to life, Alan Tudyk provides a voice for the Duke, and Josh Gad gives us the funny snowman.

As far back as 1943, Disney wanted to do a film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” but “couldn't find a way to adapt and relate the Snow Queen character to modern audiences.” Was she good … or bad … or just misunderstood?

“That’s the whole point,” says Idina Menzel of her role. “How we tend to judge people we don’t know well enough, and what our preconceived notion of their character is and how people are misunderstood, that those of us who are unknown or mysterious to us can be scary until we get to know them and see where everything’s coming from.”

Idina Menzel is best known for her stage role as a witch in “Wicked.” Kristen Bell made her mark as TV’s plucky “Veronica Mars.” Josh Gab has experience with cold weather, having voiced a part in “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”

Producer Peter Del Vecho says adapting “The Snow Queen” wasn’t easy. “Hans Christian Andersen’s original version … is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her.”

Yes, they had to alter the familiar fairy tale to get that point across. “’Inspired by’ means exactly that,” says Del Vecho. “There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscar Shorts: Documentary (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Oscar Shorts: Documentary

Existentialism, forgiveness and the bend and sway of the heart are the themes of the year in the Documentary Short category. Your cinematic eyes are guaranteed to travel far and no selection here is ephemeral or short sighted.

From Canada, "The Woman in Number 6, is a biographical vignette of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor at 109. Like a musical zen mistress with a bit of Ghandi and perhaps a hint of Yoda, Sommer has the facility to hover above nearly every traumatic event in her life and continue playing Chopin at the piano. At 40, the Nazis sent her to Theresienstadt where she played over 100 concerts all under the blight of impending death. Alice survived. Her husband died in Dachau in 1944. Alice's son lived to become a cellist. The only time she is moved to tears is when she recounts his passing in 2001. As a young girl she went on walks with Kafka and Mahler. Faced with the Third Reich she showed a buoyancy and resilience to carry on as if the grey shock of death had no position within her.

She plays with music as her beacon. Her trademark smile as a centenarian, makes the Dalai Lama seem like a sourpuss and your heart will soar with every remark Alice Sommer makes.

"Karama Has No Walls" from Yemen, is an unsettling firsthand account of the protests in Sanaa. The film, featuring real time footage from smartphones, records a landscape no less apocalyptic than a Goya canvas. We might wish that the camera moved away in the maelstrom of blood, fire, and blacked out eyes, all too extinguished.

But it does not.

Here is a film where a smartphone is a divining rod of truth, depicting a "Friday of Anger" in which a huge fire became conducted by thug and security forces with much blood spilled, including the shooting of a young boy, and the gory loss of his eyes.

"Facing Fear" recounts the story of Matthew Boger, who as a male hustler was attacked by Tim Zaal, a neo-nazi by a boot in the face. Twenty five years latter they meet again, seemingly by accident. Boger, who as a young teen was violently rejected from his mother for coming out, wrestles with revenge. He was left for dead, bleeding on a dark L.A. street. At first Tim is an uncommunicative cement bull, yet somehow he apologizes, and both of them collaborate on a presentation. Boger who has a lightning scar on his nose (which could be an ironic SS insignia) is a real life Harry Potter- --his slow smile a testament against violence. Both Zaal and Boger appear to see something of themselves in each other and recognize their shadow-selves. Zaal alone, however, feels the most fragile. As Zaal is covered with Aryan tattoos and walking with a cane, he limps along, heavily pressed within the angry outlines of his history. Yet despite all, Tim makes a conscious choice to exhale and pursue a friendship with Matthew, albeit shaken by guilt.

"Cave Digger" highlights the offbeat sculptural work of Ra Paulette who creates huge caves from holes in northern New Mexico. Paulette, who may well be a spiritual contemporary to Edward Leedskalnin in his Coral Castle, works without fail through a romantic trial and crushing disappointment to create huge hollowed out structures that look like space capsules left by H.R. Giger. Paulette is one man, single minded in intent, unfettered by business or agreements. Through every setback, he digs and digs, obsessed by creating a mirrored retreat for a desert goddess known only by him that commerce cannot call.

Finally, there is a taut portrait entitled  "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" describing the existence of prison lifer Hall, incarcerated for the murder of a drug dealer. Hall was not a sympathetic character before prison. He was a violent man and an angry bigot, yet as he is shown here, withered and struggling with pneumonia, your heart may very well pull for him. While it is true that Hall murdered a man without remorse in the manner of a vigilante, prison has blanched the beast inside him. It comes as a surprise, too, that he is a WWII veteran and that he has a heart and a very present (if wobbly) moral center. Hall with his cauliflower nose and interested yet stubborn eyes, wants to live as long as he can. Especially poignant though, is Hall's bond with one black inmate in particular, Herky, who stays with him in hospice, through all spells of isolation and last moments.

Once, Hall was shell of anger, but now he is an accepting and even brave pale plant of a human, chatting and making some sarcastic small talk with Herky, and the nurses, with a wit almost on par with Hunter S. Thompson.

The sight of James Hall, seeking any and every wisp of oxygen he can find, with his angry and jagged tattoos still in plain sight, has split his being into two: one ignorant and repulsive, the other kind and gentle--a man at his end.

This disparity hits like a one two punch and if I had to pick, "Prison Terminal" would be a winner.

These documentaries make an eclectic and eccentric tapestry. Although short in duration, each selection by itself is as rich and fulfilling as any feature. The Documentary Short upholds its place as one of the year's strongest and most provocative Oscar categories.

Write Ian at

Monday, February 10, 2014

Oscar Shorts Animated (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Oscar Shorts: Animation

In contrast to last year's animated shorts that were rather darkly outlined and shaded in doom, this season's crop takes a light turn. Regardless of the fact that there is a wisecracking ostrich and a cynical giraffe in the manner of Billy Crystal and David Letterman, all the entries possess an energy and punch that hits like a ball of wasabi paste.

Disney is king in Laura Macmullan's frenetic and inventive "Get a Horse!" featuring a vintage 1928 Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The story begins with a  black and white screen which contains all the best of vintage Disney, then Mickey breaks through the "screen" to save his beloved from a Bluto style bull- like villain. The 1928 portion of the film is in essence,  the best of Betty Boop era humor. As the film progresses, more and more cacophony and motion arise, producing a madcap jumble. While this might be nerve wracking to some, the effects and colors are spectacular, bringing the concepts of  2D and 3D into opposing rhythms, harmonies and disconnects between 1928 and 2014. The sight of Mickey with an iPhone alone is a moment of animated history.  Fans of Walt can rejoice as the speech of Mickey, arises from the man himself, albeit posthumously. Despite the controversy raised from some critics, that the new Disney undermines the former 1928 version, it's safe to say that the long ago genius of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is alive and well.

Next, "Mr. Hublot" by Laurent Witz features realms by sculptor Stephane Halleux. Mr. Hublot, (in a seeming tribute to Jean-Pierre Jeunet) resembles a minion from "Despicable Me". He is a pale button with mechanical goggles who busies about adding machines and watches tv. His landscape is cluttered and gray. One bleak day, he happens upon a puppy, who eats and eats and eats. Drama commences when the animal turns into a monstrous, if docile beast, taking up every available space. The energy of this film comes from its total commitment to a world dominated by machines and Orwellian gray metal. Nearly every sooty building is for sale or in foreclosure and Hublot soldiers on, at times more interested in TV than the dog. Like an animated Joseph K. from The Trial, this nervous nub of a man, takes all happenstance as inevitable and seems to prefer passivity.

Daniel Sousa's "Feral" is a touching "wild child" tale of a boy who exists within Nature. Borrowing elements from gothic vampire tales, this is a brisk study of the hardship of forcing society upon the indigenous. The animation  is moody and stirring, recalling something of the southern gothic in the pairing of black church steeples with triangular killing teeth, not to mention a dark circle of claustrophobic and watchful children.

The Japanese entry "Possessions" by Shuhei Morita, echoes Kurosawa in its philosophy of magic, passion and intent.  In a genuine Kaidan or ghost tale, we have discarded umbrellas that are vividly infused with ghosts and a hunter is left mute and fettered. If you can forgive one annoying frog, the art and color is spellbinding and this is probably the most poetic animated short you will see. It seems that the only thing that the fabrics and umbrellas want is to be remembered with respect, as long ago symbols of beauty and utility. Indeed, this film will make you believe that a cloak has just as much butterfly allure as a geisha.

Once again, the creators of "The Gruffalo" are back at it in "Room on the Broom", a quirky benevolent Halloween tale, where a red haired witch has her yoga mat and seems ready for the Lilith Fair. Along her travels she meets an honest dog, an obsessively clean frog, and a passive bird in their somewhat Homeric journey. Although "The Gruffalo" struck me as too cutesy, this new film voiced by Simon Pegg actually had me laughing. And the glibly sarcastic tomcat steals the show.

Last but not least, there are some special mentions, the best of them being the deeply existential "The Missing Scarf" voiced by George Takei of Star Trek and "A La Francaise" featuring a 19th Century French aristocracy seen as pompous  and supercilious hens and roosters. Both of these "mentions" have a pulse and an anarchist spirit that threaten to overshadow the above mentioned Oscar shorts.

In keeping with tradition, the animated shorts as a group present a satisfying fantasia for every mood or mind that you may be in.

Write Ian at

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oscar Shorts Live Action (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Oscar Shorts: Live Action

This year's Live Action Oscar shorts, introduced by director Steve McQueen and actor Matthew Modine among others, administer a healthy dose of existential apprehension and quirky fun.

They don't disappoint.
From Denmark, Anders Walter directs "Helium", a somewhat lighthearted magical fantasy about a young boy (Pelle Falk Krusbaek) who is terminally ill, and a fanciful orderly (Caspar Crump) who delivers hope thru a Wizard of Oz story. Thankfully this is no sappy vignette. Krusbaek and Crump have such a chemistry that all sentiment promptly evaporates. The visuals are striking creating huge mansions that float on clouds.

Here we have a Maxfield Parrish in motion with a bit of Terry Gilliam thrown in for good measure. By himself little Albert seems taken right out of a Tintin book.

From the UK, Mark Gill's  "The  Voorman Problem" plays tongue in cheek with theology. Doctor Williams (Martin Freeman) is sent to evaluate an hospital inmate (Tom Hollander) who believes that he is God. While the premise might seem like Monty Python, Hollander plays the condition completely straight, which gives his position gravity as well as transgression. Williams becomes more and more vexed while Voorman grows increasingly more convincing, even lending his position a bit of poignance. Hollander is as daring as Anthony Hopkins in this role and he soon turns all question of  authenticity on its head.

A final eerie haunt is delivered by the ominous sounds of chanting that go on continuously during the interrogation. "The Voorman Problem" produces a perfect hybrid of uncertainty and black humor sure to please.

As far as the Oscar goes, my pick would have to be France's gripping entry ,"Just Before Losing Everything" by Xavier Legrande. This film is absolutely harrowing reminiscent of Michael Haneke. A mother (Lea Drucker) is forced to flee her violent husband with her two children in tow. We never see the husband (Denis Menochet) overtly aggressive. Every impulse is implied with his eyes---a pair of two slumbering black bulls waiting to pounce. Just as in a crime thriller, this film is an impressionistic and taut Rorschach of emotion that will take you right to the brink of ambiguity and beyond. You might want to place this in the realm of noir, but this is simply life on the edge where authority may or may not be ineffectual.

A similar danger persists in Spain's "That Wasn't Me," helmed by Esteban Crespo. The extremely violent story is a sociological tale of atrocity set in Sierra Leone. A group of doctors on a healing mission are taken hostage by a savage warlord. While initially compelling, this piece is rife with bloody cliches (ala Captain Phillips) and its all too self conscious finale of a young soldier making amends seems taken straight from the  script of "Blood Diamond."  A true story no doubt this is, but as to the matter of offering  any insight, a less force fed resolution, would have been welcome.

Finally, from Finland, "Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" by Selma Vilhunen, provides some welcome comic relief, depicting a family's wedding preparation that goes from bad to worse. This rollicking short is nothing less than madcap. The story rivals the best of British comedy while the narrative is colorful, lively and brisk. The sheer verve in entertainment it possesses, compressed in such an intimate scope, is unmatched.

While I think you can bet all the gold on France this year, these annual shorts---true to form and intent--- are diverse and thoughtful. Each one is its own insular realm, if not completely profound.

Write Ian at

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Great Beauty (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Great Beauty

Paulo Sorrentino (This Must Be the Place) gives us a rich feast of a film that will remind many of Fellini, but also has markings of Barbet Schroeder's edgy and existential "Our Lady of the Assassins."

Here too, in "The Great Beauty", we have an aging writer, Jep (Toni Servillo) who dresses like an old Matador of Hedonism in a pristine Panama hat. He wanders the streets very much a part of 21st century Rome in his waking life, but he also slopes about as a tired wolf in a dream by Dali, lost in heavy reveries, watching nuns and priests go through their routine tasks. As catholic as his daylight meanderings are, by night he is crushed by the lust and fat of wanton flesh at a dance club. Sometimes Jep smiles lightly but often he is pained, gulping air like some exotic pinstriped fish, bereft of water.

The author slowly smolders with thoughts of his young ego. His contemporaries nip and jab at him asking him if or when he plans to write another novel as he did decades ago?

Jep is now a journalist covering party after party and endless art openings, all with dubious impact on him.

Day after day, he takes strolls through Rome while his innermost mind is vexed by the loss of his first love, reason unknown. The girl who rebuffed his kiss but also tantalized him with a lure stands as a benevolent medusa to him like The Mona Lisa or Dali's Gala. Jep's love is a siren of shadows and rocks. She is often pictured in heavy blue light among some churning surf.

Perhaps to provoke, or to ignite his imagination, Jep takes a casual lover, the nonchalant escort Ramona (Sabrina Ferrilli). Each party they seem to attend appears more fleshy than the last, and the author's friends continue to taunt and cajole him, sometimes nastily.

Jep waits for the moment when he finally drifts to sleep and a bright blue sea appears on his bedroom ceiling.

When Ramona abruptly dies, the author feels unhinged for a second time and once again drifts in close orbit with papal personages, specifically an eerie and intimidating centenarian Saint (Giusi Merli). No one knows what to say to The Saint who despite her tremendous frailty, has a psychic hold on nearly everyone. Although aged and immobile, she swings her feet in a childlike way.

Jep's response to The Saint is indifferent. Perhaps she knows of his youthful licentiousness, but then again, perhaps not. She sleeps next to him on the hard floor curled like the letter C. Struck by curiosity, he questions an exorcist priest (Roberto Herlitzka) and receives only a distracted mumble.

In one scene, the frightening Saint holds court with a flamboyance of flamingoes. She exhales towards them and the birds instantly take flight. In another, Jep witnesses a huge giraffe that just as quickly vanishes when the author's back is turned.

Jep, like a Mediterranean cypher is able to float through many realms and scenarios, almost anonymously. In the company of humans, he absorbs the infinite to and fro passively with eventuality, while his interior is eaten up with the enfant terrible he once was and the man he is at present.

"The Great Beauty" contains a true carnival of souls with many visual quotes that rival any literary tale of magical realism. The city of Rome is a character in itself as exotic and seamy as a leatherette bestiary.

Here you will find a banquet of poetic vibrations and varied tones, where a Cardinal is just as wild and oddly out of place as a pagan-beaked flamingo. No resident, be he footed or feathered, holds any exclusive weight.

Write Ian at

Friday, February 7, 2014

Week of February 7 to February 13 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Academy Award Nominees Line Up at Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Gearing up for the Academy Awards, the Tropic Cinema is showing a frontrunner for Best Foreign Language film, previewing another Best Foreign Language Film contender, screening the Oscar nominated shorts (animation, life action, and documentary), holding over a multiple-nominated drama, and continuing a sentimental favorite.

“The Great Beauty” is Italy’s entry as Best Foreign Language Film. It’s the story of a 65-year-old wastrel reflecting back on his life. Some compare its societal view as being reminiscent of “La Dolce Vita.” Tampa Bay Times says, “Cut from similarly sexy and satirical cloth as Federico Fellini's masterworks a half-century ago, Paolo Sorrentino's movie glides like reverie, probing the emptiness that can result from living a full life.” LarsenOnFilm sees it as "...a sumptuous elegy." And Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls it “intelligently observed and staggeringly beautiful.”

On Tuesday night there’s a one-off showing of “Broken Circle Breakdown,” a Belgian film that’s also up for Best Foreign Language Film. It introduces us to Didier and Elisa, a couple who bluegrass music and share the heartbreak of a sickly daughter. Chicago Reader says it “swings like a pendulum between elation and despair.” And Times-Picayune notes “it is at turns sweet, romantic, funny and heartbreaking.”

Also showing are the Oscar nominated shorts. These include such entries as Mickey Mouse going on a wagon ride, a friendly witch and her cat flying off on a broom, Mr. Hublot receiving a robot pet, an aid worker encountering an African child soldier, a woman finding refuge from her abusive husband, a 109-year-old pianist, a gay man encountering a Neo-Nazi who attacked him when he was a teen, an environmental sculptor who carves sandstone caves in New Mexico. And more. New York Times declares, “The animated shorts are especially outstanding.“ And Philadelphia Inquirer says “See them all ... You won't be sorry.”

“August: Osage County” is holding over. This is an epic battle between two great actresses, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, as mother and daughter in a family wracked by a suicide. As the relatives gather, sparks fly in this generational battle for control. notes that “Tracy Letts adapts his own prize-winning play into a blistering depiction of one of cinema's most dysfunctional families ever.” And ReelViews observes that it’s “all about the acting.”

And still playing is “Labor Day,” the romantic drama about an escaped murderer (Josh Brolin) who falls for his captive (Kate Winslet) and her son. And on this lingering Labor Day in 1987, the feelings are reciprocated. Leonard Maltin says, “Kate Winslet is completely believable as a woman who can no longer face even the simplest tasks and Josh Brolin brings both warmth and effortless authority to his character.” NewsBlaze calls it “a defiant romance.” And FILMINK tells us that it’s “surprisingly effective material for the filmmaker, who reveals that he also possesses a deft hand when it comes to relaying big, earnest emotions.”

Not a one of these films should be missed.

2014 Oscar One-Offs (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

One Offs Offer Oscar Previews

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Tropic Cinema’s programming director Scot Hoard (let’s give him a hand of applause) calls them “One Offs,” meaning one-time showings of films that have been nominated in this year’s Academy Awards.

You just missed Tuesday night’s sneak peek of “The Hunt,” one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. In this Danish entry, Mads Mikkelsen plays a schoolteacher whose life in a small community is turned upside down by an innocent little lie.

 But don’t despair, there’s more One Offs to come.

On February 11 you can see “Broken Circle Breakdown,” another candidate for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the stage play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, this new Belgian film by Felix van Groeningen explores the lives of Didier and Elisa who share a passion for bluegrass music and their sickly daughter Maybelle.

And on February 18 you can watch a Best Documentary nominee called “Act of Killing.” Back in the ‘60s Anwar Congo and his Indonesian death squads helped kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. But now these mass murderers are appearing in films, playing gangsters and yodeling cowboys.

Also, on February 25 you can catch “Cutie and the Boxer,” another film that’s up for Best Documentary. Here, 80-year-old painter Ushio Shinohara (“the Boxer”) and his wife Noriko (“Cutie”) joust for recognition as he preps for a comeback exhibit and she flaunts her illustrations that depict their chaotic life together.

After that, you get ready to celebrate the 86th Academy Awards on March 2. Held at the Dolby Theater (formerly known as the Kodak Theatre) in Los Angeles, the ceremony will be televised to more than 200 countries.

As happens each year, the Tropic Cinema will show the Oscars presentation live in its Carper Theater. Bubbly will flow as you watch the Red Carpet interviews and discover which actors and films will take home a golden statuette.

Talk about a One Off.

The Great Beauty (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Great Beauty”
Is Art Imitating Life

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote from Céline’s “Journey to the End of Night” introduces “The Great Beauty” (Italian title “La grande bellezza”), likely to be the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

A story of alienation and excess in today’s Rome, “The Great Beauty” is now showing at the Tropic Cinema.

In it, we meet Jep Gambardella, an aging socialite who has coasted through life on the strength of a novel he wrote in his twenties. Now celebrating his 65th birthday party in his lavish apartment overlooking Rome’s Coliseum, he comes to reflect back on his comfortable but meaningless life. Going for a stroll through the city streets, he recalls his first love, his sense of loneliness, and a vapid life.

The film’s contrast between the beauty of the city and the lack of beauty of the people we encounter is deliberate.

Toni Servillo (“Viva la libertà,” “Il Divo”) inhabits the character of Jep. He was selected as best actor at the 26th European Film Awards for this role.

Think of “The Great Beauty” as a modern-day version of “La Dolce Vita.”

“It was not my intention to imitate Fellini, but I know that the idea of this movie worked in the same context as some of his, but 50 years later,” nods director Paolo Sorrentino.

He describes “La Dolce Vita” as a film that tries to understand the meaning of life in a world that is losing this meaning. “That is a sensation I can feel right now in Rome, the sense that life is futile, that you can’t find a real sense of purpose. This is the feeling of my movie.”

Sorrentino observes that society has gotten worse since Fellini made his landmark masterpiece. “I think the vulgarity is more accentuated, as is the loss of the sense of ‘pudore,’ of shame or modesty or reserve.”

In fact, Sorrentino considers his film as a case of art imitating life.

“The Great Beauty” has been selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.

It’s been 15 years since an Italian movie (Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful”) won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. “I think it would be hypocritical of me to say I don’t care about winning, because if you are there, you want to win,” says Paolo Sorrentino. “As a European, I feel great admiration for the huge capacity that Americans have to create a show around this awards season. So I would be very happy to be there as a protagonist, if only for once.”

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reflections on Space (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets: Reflections on Space

By Ian Brockway

In my opinion, there has never been a more perfect parallel to outer space than the experience of going to the movies. Both Space and the cinema are windows to other lands, cultures and emotions. Even a movie seat is a small capsule, enveloped in darkness that hurls through the reaches of imagination, waiting to transport us and transpose us within the constellations of Another, be it a mind, a voice or a rhythm.

My earliest visual memory was the idea of David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth". The image of Bowie with his deep fire-red hair hit me emotionally when my mom said I looked like him.

I was little and pale. Bowie and his sense of cool otherness appealed to me.

Was I really like him? I wondered.

I first noticed the cinema as a vehicle for otherness in watching "Star Wars". Because I felt bottled up in my wheelchair, I felt a freedom in watching George Lucas' own personal cyberiad or more specifically, his own philosophy of darkness and light and the merging kinship between man and machine. True, "Star Wars" was a space opera, and quite soapy. But it treated space and its outer reaches as real and tangible places that I felt I could touch.

My body within a metal chair no longer mattered and I was thrilled.

The next film to make me leap in my seat was E.T.
I delighted in Spielberg's flair, and the way he brought the exoticism of a cuddly alien to the small town suburbs. He made extraterrestrials seem like wise children, and made the 'far out' universal. And as I was faced with a summer in an orthopedic clinic to painfully straighten my crooked and tight ankles, "E.T." proved a vivid elixir.

When I grew a little older, I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" at a Key West drive-in. I didn't completely understand it, but felt it as a piece of music. I remember seeing a space station seeming to whirl and hover next to a palm tree, as the smell of salt and a puff of wind hit my nose. I was fascinated by the somewhat spooky monotone of Hal and the metallic face of Keir Dullea. But to my teenage senses, what did it mean?

I received an eerie vibration, detached and somewhat scary.

At 14, at a Key West Cobb Cinema with red lipstick cellophane-wrapped seats and silver curtains, I experienced the preview to "Alien" and became acutely fearful of the single cracked egg revealing (echoes of The Exorcist?) a lime green vapor.

I saw the complete film at age 19, and with my sensual chemistry firing, I witnessed the athletic figure of Sigourney Weaver as she faced a very frightening metallic creature that looked like something out of Dante's inferno and modern art. I ignored the scares and fantasized about Ripley in repose aboard the white ship Nostromo.
"Alien" was essentially a "Halloween" in space but I loved the surrealistically white environs of the ship, presided over by Ripley, a heroine of power, resilience and an obvious, but also reserved, sexual allure.

In 2012, I saw Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" which did recapture the wonderful apprehensive aura of the original "Alien" so many years ago. Yet instead of Ripley, there was Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) aboard another white ship, still pursued by a Dante demon.

Now, in 2014, there is "Gravity" directed by Alfonso Cuaron, which is as much about the struggle to remain human in a void, as it is about chaos. It is the first film (in my view) since Kubrick's "2001" that treats the condition of Space as an existential predicament. There are no boogeymen or sculptural monsters here. Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) battles her own imps of memory and regret---all during some violent spinning---before carrying on to survival. The 3D is no gimmick. "Gravity" is a total, immersive experience that will take a well deserved place in the speculative  canon, if not The Oscars.

Despite Gravity's virtuosic  slickness, one can even detect an innocence in its sheer energy. In Stone's capsule, a still from Georges Méliès "A Voyage to the Moon" is tacked on the wall. In its joyful use of technology,  there is a tether from Georges Méliès to Alfonso Cuaron, just as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are attached together in their own interstellar tango.

In watching "Gravity" I was aloft and unhinged, drifting in my own space chair, unbound by doomsday concerns of my critical anemia or my sinus conditions.

I was breathing freely within an emotional landscape of imagination, that is not reality but part of it, the liquid condition of  The Cinema---a wondrous space of In Between.

Write Ian at