Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Fault in Our Stars

In what could be a conceptual exercise in how to make a teen romance  by pulling out all the "Awws!" and "Oh Nos!" and still manage a solid and mostly believable story, here is a star-crossed tale that is compelling with heart, energy and intrigue.

"The Fault in Our Stars", based on the novel by John Green, highlights the chemistry between Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort) as two lovers.

Hazel (but of course) is direct, secretly spunky and sensitive. Augustus is bold, full of fun, reckless and almost Byronic with his sienna curls and alabaster skin. His muscled body speaks of the athlete, but not the overbearing jock.

There is a wrench in these works however.

They both have cancer.

The pulse of the film is that despite this obstacle between them, the disease is not a melodramatic curse that stands alone, but instead an incidental happenstance that pulls them together. Nor is cancer a malignance or a poison, but only a mere hinderance, a troublesome and meddling glue that they both share.

Augustus and Hazel meet in a support group known for its larger-than-life Jesus carpet and soon they are both at it, sharing irreverence with a kindred twinkle in the eye.

Augustus is the initiator, driving with abandon and carrying an unlit cigarette between his teeth. With his sweet sugary smirk that would be arrogant, were he not so adorable and forthright in his Hardy Boys era hijinks. (I strip this cigarette of its power to kill me, he says.)  Augustus is kind of a Kiddie Kerouac--- he's a bad boy without really Being Bad.

The aura is all that matters.

Hazel is precocious, pensive and spiritually wild. She knows literature, quantum physics and the surrealist Rene Magritte. One gets the feeling that her oxygen tank is full of quotations and esoteric studies.

Hazel is starstruck by the offhand brawn and devil-may-care sparkle of her paramour. Of course, we know right away that she'll use up a little more of her tank than usual in no time.

The complementary valentines can do no wrong, seeming to exist in a coloring book suburbia where there is no discontent, no domestic tension, or any iconoclastic drawing outside the lines.

Augustus and Hazel experience very little parental tension. Ever.

Despite this eerie weirdness that Wes Craven has made a horror career out of, the turmoil never ceases to lose its easy, almost charmed compulsion.

Of course, there are those last surprises that we can see coming a mile away, as if on cue : The Romantic Dinner, an "edgy" picnic along a skeleton-shaped park, and last but not least, the glib and sarcastic sidekick, Isaac (played well by Nat Wolff known for his troubled and annoying character roles) .

But it is  the smooth acting that pulls it all together making the obvious heart strings pulled almost secondary to charisma.

The ubiquitous Willem Dafoe does predictably well as a sour-drunk author Van Houten, who is not all that sour in the end. Even if we can sense the adolescent Albee in him well before he swigs, Dafoe and Woodley have enough emotive juice to make it almost new between them.

The final leap of "The Fault in Our Stars is that it does its story with such deliberation in spirit and character that we cease to count the cliches. These are characters almost without the haunt of Sickness, in keeping with smartphones and a well informed cellular knowledge of the body.

As a 21st century "A Little Romance", "The Fault in Our Stars" beguiles in spite of itself and its moments of gasping convention make a creative experiment that both catalogs and pays tribute to those cinematic loves of the past.

Write Ian at

Saturday, June 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The latest installment of "X-Men" is fresh and lively with a tongue in cheek verve. Here again are Professor Charles Xavier, (James McAvoy) Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the hirsute and Broadway-handsome  Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) is getting a mental-fusing vibe that The Mutants are under attack by a band of silver "Terminator" machines known as sentinels.  The cobalt blue siren Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has set out to assassinate a creepy bureaucrat Trask (Peter Dinklage) who, armed with Mutant DNA will start an all out war between the different ones and humans for (what else?) world power.

The now elder magicians of time and space: X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) join forces, reasoning that if Mystique's attempt occurs, a darker fate awaits.

But time travel is very dangerous to the constitution, mutant, angry or otherwise, so they send Wolverine on the cerebral travel table.

After all, the man with the lycanthropic lamb-chops is virtually indestructible.

A nail less-knucked Logan wakes up in 1973 in the company of a seductive  sleeper and the music of Roberta Flack. Paisley and lava lamps abound.

Although a bit reminiscent of the kitschy nostalgia found in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows", the fun is in seeing this furry one in culture shock and he hardly ever looses his cool.

Wolverine lopes from neighborhood to neighborhood convincing the somewhat psychedelic clan that he actually is from the future, sent to set things right.

A younger Shelleyan Xavier is hobbled and addicted to drugs. And a grim Erik (the future Magneto) is in solitary confinement charged with the Kennedy Assassination when in reality he was trying to save him.

Both men are at odds with the woman in blue between them, even though this was a before they are both green with Envy.

The appeal of this film (as with the entire series) is that these numinous folks stand on their own two feet as real beings with heart and not transient or ephemeral CGI freaks. What binds them together in parallel with the often more mutant mortals is passion, love, equilibrium and a desire to keep cruel chance at bay.

In a daring move, writers Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn have set this during the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement thereby blurring the line between man, bland cyborg and monster in the most genuine sense.

There is a gleeful alternate history to ponder with two blue beasties here (Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence) who pull some acrobatic strings in the lavender-smoking palm fronds of a turbulent Vietnam.

There is something comforting in watching a militaristic 1960s come unglued by these iconoclastically striped persons.

In a final madcap dash of social commentary, watch for Raven cloaking herself as President "Tricky Dick" Nixon.

The terrific phantasmagoric element of this story is that the men and women depicted originate from exclusive fauna, each coming into their own to make a heartfelt and hairy string of shape-shifting hippies with a very convincing ability to change the world from beyond the shadows.

Write Ian at

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Week of June 6/27 to July 3 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Awash with Romantic Comedies … and Adventure!

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Rom-coms headline this week at the Tropic Cinema -- one embracing controversy, another an intellectual exercise, and the third is a weeper. But all are about finding love.

“Obvious Child” is both funny and daunting. Sometimes called “the abortion movie,” it’s the story of a would-be stand-up comedian who gets pregnant from a one-night stand. But can she find the man of her dreams in a guy she hardly knows? Newcity exclaims, “Jenny Slate? Here comes a great comedy star in a smart, conversational, bluntly funny, certainly subversive rom-com.” And Toronto Star opines, “Director Gillian Robespierre and company deserve high praise for tackling a story with such a difficult subject at its heart, with a combination of grace, humor and courage.”

Meanwhile, “Words and Pictures” is a showcase for Clive Owen as a writing professor and Juliette Binoche as an art instructor who clash over their chosen fields. But is the argument about words and pictures, or about their burgeoning relationship? Fresno Bee says the film “resonates with a clever and endearing energy that harkens back to the days when Doris Day and Rock Hudson dominated the box office.” And Boston Herald concludes, “The glorious leads make this work.”

Incoming is “The Fault in Our Stars,” the story of two teenagers (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) who meet and fall in love at a cancer support group. Contactmusic.dom says, “Based on the beloved novel by John Green, this film is so squarely slanted toward teen girls that it is likely to annoy everyone else.” Little White Lies counters, “Suck up the saccharine, let it into your heart, and deal with it.”

Still playing is “Chef,” a comedy about renewed romance … and food. Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and stars in this tale of a fancy chef who offends a food critic. The Daily Star says, “This generous, big-hearted, funny and touching little film goes down a treat.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune observes, “It’s a refreshing change of pace from typical summer fare, a story not framed around the skeleton of an old TV series or designed as a tie-in to Hasbro toys.”

Held over is “Ida,” a visually stark Polish film about a woman’s lost identity. About to enter the convent, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) discovers that she’s really named Ida, the daughter of Jewish parents executed by the Nazis. Detroit News says, “In the end, Ida has to confront where she’s come from, decide who she is and who she wants to be. Then again, don’t we all?” And Looking Closer adds, “Anna’s journey will leave her deeply conflicted about what she has seen, just as I feel conflicted about this film. It’s been three weeks, and I can’t stop thinking about her.”

And offering some mind-clearing action is “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” In this story based on a Marvel comic book series, adamantium-clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent into the past to affect events that have led to a war between mutants and robots. Dark Horizons calls it “ambitious and epic in scale and intimate in execution.” And Cinema Crazed declares it to be “a perfectly fine reboot for a series in dire need of one, as well as a very good and exciting X-Men film all around.”

Love, adventure, cancer, unexpected pregnancy, Nazis, and food … it’s all here on the screens at the Tropic.

Obvious Child (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Obvious Child”
Is Not So Obvious

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Hey, how about a funny, uplifting romantic comedy about … abortion?

Now that’s a showstopper.

It’s a topic that’s usually only broached in movies (think: “Juno”), never carried out.

However, Gillian Robespierre is not your everyday filmmaker. Sure, this is her first feature film, but she knows how to turn a cliché inside out as surely as a practiced comic delivering a punchline.

Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” -- now playing at Tropic Cinema -- is not what you might expect. The obvious child of the title isn’t the fetus in question; rather it’s the young woman who isn’t ready to be a mother.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a twentysomething bookstore clerk who’s trying to make it as a standup comic. She plays small clubs in Brooklyn, making fun of her Jewish looks, telling flatulence jokes, and finding humor in her sex life. She sees her own life as subject matter for her act.

But everybody doesn’t laugh. Tired of being the target of her comedy jibes, her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) dumps her. And she gets fired. Well, downsized.

Donna reacts by wallowing in her sorrow. Stalking her old beau. Drinking too much. Her roommate (Gaby Hoffmann) is worried about her. And with good reason. Acting out, Donna engages in a one-night stand with a nice-guy stranger (Jake Lacy).


The pregnancy test glows pink.

There’s never any question that Donna is not ready to become a mom. So the abortion option is the way she chooses to go. And when she finally breaks the news to the straight-laced dude who knocked her up, he agrees it’s her choice.

Unlike Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” there’s no child to circle the wagons around. So will Donna and Max, two polar opposites, come together? Well, it is a rom-com. Right?

Real-life comedienne Jenny Slate, who takes the lead as Donna, will win you over. Slate will be forever remembered as the new Saturday Night Live cast member who said the F-bomb on live TV.

Here, Gillian Robespierre uses the A-bomb. But unlike Slate’s unintentional faux pas, clever, break-the-mold Robespierre is doing it quite deliberately. “Obvious child” is based on a 2009 short film that she made as a trial balloon.

“Calling the movie ‘Obvious Child’ wasn’t an accident,” Robespierre tells us. “We titled it. It felt perfect, because it had a sort of ambiguity to how people were going to see that title. Is Donna an obvious child? Is it just the Paul Simon song in the movie? It’s one of those things where I hate to overanalyze it, but people seem to love to overanalyze it, and I really like that.”

Variety reports that both “pro-choice and pro-life groups are claiming the movie as either an important feminist statement or a dangerous piece of propaganda.”

Yes, “Obvious Child” is controversial. It’s crass; it’s funny; it’s disturbing. But above all it’s a film told with painful honesty from a woman’s point of view.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Wolverine Goes
Time Traveling In
New “X-Men” Film

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Here I go again, reviewing another superhero movie. But it’s not because I used to be publisher of Marvel Comics. It’s because Marvel is cranking out new blockbusters faster than comic books fly off a spinner rack.

This week we have “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” As it happens, this is based on a comic book storyline by Chris Claremont and John Bryne. I recruited Chris back to Marvel’s bullpen in the late ’90s. That was about the same time we were publishing the “Heroes Return” titles, welcoming back our errant characters.

“Days of Future Past” appeared in The Uncanny X-Men #141-142. Its plot deals with a dystopian future where mutants are being hunted down. One of them travels back in time to warn the present-day X-Men about a fatal moment in history that will trigger anti-mutant hysteria if it isn’t altered.

In this new movie version -- currently showing at the Tropic Cinema-- it’s Wolverine who travels back in time, but his tripping is facilitated by Kitty Pryde’s phasing ability.

Directed by Brian Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men”), this is a sequel to “X-Men: First Class.” Aside from the time travel theme, what makes this movie particularly interesting is the two X-Men casts, young and old. One set from the original series, another from the more recent reboot.

Professor X is played by both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy. Magneto is both Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender. Kelsey Grammer and  Nicholas Hoult are Beast. Jennifer Lawrence returns as the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique. Halle Berry is back as the electrifying Storm. Anna Paquin again gives us Rogue. Ellen Page is Kitty Pryde. And, of course, Hugh Jackman provides the lynchpin role of Wolverine, the self-healing mutant with retractable claws and an invincible Adamantium skeleton.

You haven’t seen this many superheroes in a movie since “Marvel’s The Avengers.” But then, the comic book company has over 5,000 trademarked characters to draw on.

Now owned by Disney, Marvel is pulling out all the stops on rolling out its multiple movie franchises. Lately, eyes have been focused on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America”), but all the while the X-Men movies have been steadily rebuilding their creds.

This one will prove to be a fanboy favorite.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ida (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's latest foray into fiction with "Ida" is a gothic character study rife with atmosphere and a matter-of-fact passivity. Filmed in black and white, the trees stand as sable sentinels unable to comment on this deadpan yet tragic drama.

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice in a Polish convent who immerses herself in martyred  parchment. Despite being a young girl, she pathologically submits to her prioress, knocking and twisting herself into messianic positions, she presses on the floor, becoming a human cross, an ecce homo of rigor mortis, just shy of becoming a sainted bas-relief, an organic coin.

Ida is well on her way to being a monochrome pawn on a chessboard of submission.

In order to complete her vows, she is told she must visit her family. On one gray and bitter day that would make David Lynch get out his camera, Ida sets out, trudging expressionlessly. The snow is thick and heavy.

Ida meets her Aunt Wanda who is harsh and pale, resembling a figure from painter Egon Schiele. She tells Ida of her mysterious history, mainly that her parents were murdered during the war. The young and reticent Ida resolves to find the murderer and locate her parents' burial.

The camera moves masterfully through space and the cinematography is first rate. Gradually throughout, Ida is little more than a shadow composed of ceramic, her ambulatory gait making all right angles, full of hesitancy and hunch. As ephemeral as Ida becomes, Wanda is more debauched, her Sharpie-black hair sopped in vodka. Wanda embodies the form of a broken puppet in paper mâché while Ida alternates form as  an ivory chess piece or a firefly trapped in glass.

With just a few expressionist touches of black and ivory gray, the director hints at rather than explicitly reveals these scenes that are both foreboding and spacey and appear to hover before us.

The modernization of the cars as they move through a blank and desolate Poland mock Ida's asceticism. She meets a young sax player (Dawid Ogrodnik) and the Byronic curl of his hair teases her with a sensual materialism.

After many hinderances and fits of indecision, the pair meet a bedridden Szymon (Jerzy Trela) but he is frustratingly laconic. By a vague clue, they confront his morose and granite-eyed son (Adam Szyszkowski) who ensconces himself in a hole of soil, sinister and bottomless.

Ida genuflects and walks on.

Midway in the film, the novice sheds her habit, taking on the slutty guise of Wanda and consorting with the musician. Ida's face and voice change into that of a dominatrix. The jolting feeling echoes Roman Polanski's "The Tenant".

While the uncompromising silence and minimalism given with force in "Ida" is surely not for everyone, (with spare dialogue that almost makes for a silent film) Pawlikowski's sorcery by suggestion is akin to hypnotism. Her images rival oil paintings, a series of clerical still lifes, both mystical and phantasmagoric that border the eerie.

When Ida plods away on her own dark road, her face once again blank with a papal polish, is she actively engaged or a mere automaton?

The final gray streak brings a chill, recalling Bergmann and a frosty spritz of Lars von Trier for good measure.

Write Ian at

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Words and Pictures (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Words and Pictures

Fred Schepisi's summer tale "Words and Pictures" colors a landscape in the genre of a Penny Marshall character study with all floral hues, lightness and charm.

Jack (Clive Owen) is a stubbled and wincing high school English teacher with scorched tweeds. Dina (Juliette Binoche)  is a frosty art dame who, with her alabaster skin, sable hair and cadmium lips resembles a suburban wicked queen from "Malificent".

Jack being a little like Bukowski and Kramer from Seinfeld is quietly cynical and chaotically  spinning by turns. He is either sucking on a lemon or perpetually off balance in a mad dance.

Jack is down and almost out, his post in jeopardy due to his alcoholic antics.

A new rival enters in the form of Dina, a gaunt and angular prickly pear. Her frigid stoicism is as bracing as the splint she wears on her hand to keep her debilitating arthritis at bay.

These two isolated ships break ice by playing reluctant word games and then begin to acidly spar. In class, word gets out that Dina thinks that images take precedence over words while Jack as a literature teacher takes the opposite view. He playfully suggests a contest with their students duking it out in the disciplines of poetry and painting to show superiority of expression.

While aspects of this story do have a paint by number feel, (watch for the character Swint who is almost identical in type and behavior to Fred in "Palo Alto", a smarmy braggart delighting in the misfortune of others, or the fact that Jack has a judgmental son) the drama offered  by Owen and Binoche make a proper impasto.

Watching this actress create her actual real life canvases makes the whole crushed valentine in violet business lively and entertaining. Binoche brings out huge towering brushes on pulleys. She actually throws her body into the paintings here, transforming herself into a long, yet contorted wick spewing ashes of  panic that just might, if she's lucky, point to another place.

This is one film where we can actually feel the lusciousness of buttery paint and get a spark in our eyes---the richness of endless blue, a sizzle of orange, a jet of abundant green.

There are the usual comeuppances here: uptight principals, drunken pitfalls, refused apologies, not to mention a predictable speech about language and painting coming together to form a vibrant and meaningful universe ala "Dead Poets Society".

But even with these ready-made elements, the dramatic authenticity meshed and with some slick editing make "Words and Pictures" a romantic oil pastel that is arresting throughout.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Week of June 20 to June 26 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers a Spectrum of New Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

From a colorful rom-com to a stark black-and-white drama, that’s the range of movies at the Tropic Cinema this week.

“Words and Pictures” stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in a delightful battle of the sexes … and a confrontation between (as the title tells us) words and pictures. He teaches writing, she’s an art instructor. Can these two lonely people connect? BeliefNet calls it “a witty, grown-up love story.” And Leonard Maltin reminds us of “the considerable appeal of its stars and the touch of its director, Fred Schepisi, who maintains a light hand throughout.”

“Ida” is a Polish drama that looks like an album of family photographs -- a paced, thoughtful exploration of who we really are. Here, a novice nun learns that she’s not really Anna, but rather a girl named Ida whose Jewish parents were executed by the Nazis. This sets Anna/Ida (played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) off on a road trip with her acerbic aunt to discover her lost heritage. Minneapolis Star Tribune sees it as “a story of faith and identity, an exquisite, austere drama in a plaintive minor key.” The Jewish Advocate notes the “finely etched character studies of two women, trying to make sense of a discovered or rediscovered Jewish past,” And Philadelphia Inquirer terms it “a masterpiece.”

Still packing them in at the Tropic is “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s homage to food … and hubris. A fancy L.A. chef (Favreau) is fired for insulting a famed food critic, but finds redemption in a battered taco truck. Toronto Star observes, “Favreau has assembled a terrific cast for a road trip that is joyous and revelatory, all set to a great soundtrack ...” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch adds, “Best of all is Favreau. Instead of mass-producing another superhero epic, he has given the overfed public a dish of right-sized comfort food.”

If you’re looking for laughs, try “Neighbors,” a rude, crude, make-you-guffaw frat-boy comedy. Newlyweds (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne) are pitted against the fraternity house next door and their BMOC nemesis (Zac Efron). MediaMike says it “tries to be a cross between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Old School,’ while Film Threat sees it as a funny “leave-your-brain-at-home flick.”

And still wreaking havoc is “Godzilla 3D,” that gigantic Japanese reptile that doesn’t seem deterred by atomic bombs or competing monsters. Brian Cranston and Juliette Binoche make brief appearances as scientists trying to figure out the apocalyptic results of science gone wild. Cinema Sight describes it as “More disaster movie than monster movie, "Godzilla" is a thrilling film with a faint examination of imperialistic hubris.” And Slate says, “It's a smooth, sleek, technologically awe-inspiring 3-D blockbuster with a top-shelf cast…”

Yes, it’s a good week at the Tropic.

Words and Pictures (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Words and Pictures”
Continues Battle of the Sexes

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a motion picture worth? Don’t worry, I promise to keep this review of “Words and Pictures” under a thousand words.

“Words and Pictures” -- now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is rom-com about two teachers. Yes, students, your teachers have love lives too.

One teaches writing (Clive Owen, who has among other roles played Hemingway) and the second teaches art (Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, a French actress who is herself a recognized artist). They clash over which is more important, words or pictures.

She: “Words are lies.”

He: “So words are lies. And pictures are …?”

She: “Do I have to actually say it?”

English teacher Jack Marcus (Owen) is on a downward spiral, his academic career on the line. “What happened to you, Jack? You were our literary star,” says a faculty member.

But things change when new art instructor Dina Delsanto (Binoche) arrives at the upscale prep school. He’s flamboyant; she’s stoic. Both have demons to wrestle with. But opposites attract, so they wind up doing a little wrestling of their own.

It comes down to a contest between (as the title tells you) words and pictures. And their students get involved.

As Jack tells her, “A man is worth more than his words, isn’t he? And a woman more than her pictures?”

“Maybe we’re less than that,” she replies. “Maybe our work is the best of us.”

“I hope not,” he sighs.

The winner? We won’t play spoiler, but needless to say this is a cute battle-of-the-sexes feel-good movie. Maybe not up to the level of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy battling it out in “Woman of the Year” or “Adam’s Rib.” But good fun nonetheless ... with an intellectual touch.

And that’s the word on this picture.

Ida (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Ida” Searches
For Her Past

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My mother (whom I’ve known all my life) is not who I thought she was. Recently, my siblings and I discovered that the name on her birth certificate is different than the one we’ve always called her. “I changed it when I went to school,” she shrugged. “I liked this name better.”

In “Ida” -- the new Polish film playing at the Tropic Cinema -- a young woman named Anna is told by her aunt that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her Jewish parents were murdered by the Nazis.

Well, that’s a shocker for a novice nun about to take her vows.

So Anna/Ida (stunningly portrayed by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) puts her religious quest on hold and undertakes another one … traveling with her aunt (Agata Kulesza) to find the graves of her parents.

Before you can go forward, you sometimes have to make peace with your past. Even a new past.

This is Polish-born, but British-trained and Paris-based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s first film made in Poland. The BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker is best known for “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love.”

“Ida” is told “against the only slightly thawed backdrop of rural Poland in 1961.” And it has the distinctive look of films made in the Sixties.

The opening scenes of nuns refurbishing and raising a statue of Jesus has the stark look of black-and-white photographs from a forgotten family album. Each scene is as thoughtfully composed as a still photograph, unblinking and stark, like it was shot with natural light on old Tri-X film. No dazzling camera tracking or moving about or jittery cinéma vérité grab shots.

As Paweł Pawlikowski explains, “The real inspiration for how this film looks was my impatience with cinema … I wanted to make an anti-cinema film where there are no pointless camera moves, no pointless close-ups. I’m not emotionally excited by the power of cinema’s tricks anymore.”

He adds, “When I watch most films, with some exception, I always ask myself: ‘Why is the camera moving? Why is there a close-up now? Why does this have to be handheld now?’ It was a way of purifying, getting rid of habits, and doing something really simply. Looking at a picture, contemplating it, while not really reading the emotional charge.”

Pawlikowski admits that this is a personal film. “My family’s photo albums from that period also influenced me. Not literally restaging them, but just the atmosphere of these photographs. It’s not like they’re great photographs, but there’s something about them that gave me an impulse to do it like this. That’s how I remember that time, through the prism of early childhood memories, and from family albums.”

So he shot the film with no cuts. “Each scene was done mainly from one angle. We didn’t rearrange lights for each scene. This was the ideal shot for this scene, these are the ideal movements of the actors, so they need to coincide and feed off each other, all in one take.”

“Intentional sparseness” is a phrase that has been used to describe Pawlikowski’s technique. And it’s also a good description of the bleak story about a woman’s search for her true identity.

Maybe I’ll send my mother my screener copy of this film to watch. Then I’ll ask her again who she is.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Neighbors (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


In what might have been a one joke film under less skillful hands, director Nick Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) comes up with a breezy and playful comedy that stays energetic throughout. 

Seth Rogen, this generation's Albert Brooks stars as Mac, a recent dad. He has just moved into an upscale neighborhood with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne).

Everything seems rosy and green within the hedges until huge moving vans appear with the arrival of some towering Greek letters.

Alas, a frat house. Mac and Kelly fear the worst, immediately concerned about noise.

Not wanting to get off on the wrong  foot, they attempt to introduce themselves, equipped with a joint. After all, the last thing they want is to be judged as square.

Teddy (Zac Efron) accepts his neighbors affably enough with some condescension. He humors the couple and their over zealous and embarrassingly obvious slang.  

After some zany proceedings which lampoon Harmony Korine's recent  film "Spring Breakers" as well as other teen party films, Teddy makes Mac promise never to call the cops regarding noise.

Mac passively agrees.

The next night, a cacophony ensues. Mac leaves message after message, all for naught. Strung out and over-tired Mac calls the police thinking that he will remain anonymous.

The authorities bring Teddy to the couple's  door and Teddy is understandably hurt but lets on that things are status quo.

As time goes by however it is clear that things are far from pleasant.

Teddy is a near sociopath, driven to make life as upsetting as possible for the two parents.

As thin as the plot is, the events are fresh and believable with a charming and easy chemistry between Rogen and Byrne. 

Efron has a terrific role here as smarmy as he is clean-cut; he is both sneaky and alluring and there is just a sprig of dark humor which makes it work all the more.

The story makes a kind of parallel to John G. Avildsen's "80s film, Neighbors" starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In that film, Aykroyd played Vic, an obnoxious "Ugly American" type who just couldn't leave Belushi's monotone character alone. Vic, like Teddy, was also unbalanced and prone to rages and volatile moods. In one scene, Vic shoots at Belushi with a rifle and is shown with Nazi literature. 

Whether intentional or not, Efron's character has some of that darkness here. Teddy is a kind of perpetual prep school kid---stunted, narcissistic and craving attention. His only goal: to have a party documented, photographed and put on the wall.

On the whole, "Neighbors" is a slightly dark extra chapter to Tv's  "Undeclared" or the film "Superbad" with Judd Apatow alumni Seth Rogen in his usual self deprecating bearish affability and Christopher Minz-Plasse appearing in the film as a frat baddie. 

Since Stoller has written for Apatow,  Apatow's glibly irreverent but ultimately good natured influence is felt throughout and this is all to the good. 

Once Rogen, Efron and Byrne get on tangents as adversaries there is no stopping this madcap, cyclic farce and the one liners never run away. Who else but Nick Stoller could make fighting with a dildo and Christmas lights funny?

As an Apatow-apostle comedy, the raunchiness is well in evidence, along with a lightness of being that comes when a young couple does the right thing.

And if this makes "Neighbors" a bit too predictable, consider Efron's Teddy as an eerie figure of body worship and partying. Forever encased in the arrogance of an Abercrombie Kid, it feels that Teddy alone will be left  bereft, ultimately isolated from the joys that are possible in being a married adult.

Write Ian at

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Godzilla (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The King of the Monsters is here! Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) has delivered a zesty and pest abundant version of "Godzilla" full of mystery, social consciousness and suspense. Even better, it is a fitting addition to the monster's original legacy.

Seemingly just in time, this gargantuan killer Komodo outing is a metaphor for the reactor failures  during the 2011 earthquake that hit Japan.

Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" plays Brody, (in a possible nod to Sheriff Brody of Jaws) a physicist who is alone in his knowledge of what is Really going on. There are electromagnetic pulses occurring all over Japan and it appears some force or entity is "talking." After a devastating electromagnetic storm that causes nuclear plants to be devastated, Brody knows things aren't right smelling like month old nori.

Brody's wife (Juliette Binoche) goes underground with a group and discovers a huge reptilian fossil that could be an erotic dream designed by H.R. Giger.

Veteran actor Ken Watanabe has a terrific turn as a nuclear scientist who can tell with certainty that this all has a lot to do with mutant amphibians.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy)  plays the reluctant soldier hero driven to preserve the integrity of his father by attempting to go toe to toe with a pair of irradiated insects, but more often than not, he watches from afar.

The strongest part of the film concerns Nature out of balance and Godzilla is a karmic savior, just a bit rubbery but oddly adorable and apparently composed of some very strong kelp.

There are some sweeping scenes of decadent tourists living it up in Vegas, as huge praying mantis creatures have some apocalyptic appetizers with mortals on the menu. At times, "Godzilla" echoes Christian paintings of The Rapture as people fall from immense heights leaping from subways and trains. At one point, there is a skyscraper explosion involving a paratrooper  that recalls 9-11.

As the residents scurry about in terror, Japan is engulfed in black flames while the three leviathans battle in pits within their own scaly psychodrama, creating a kind of Dante's Inferno for the anime set. The decibel crunching fisticuffs contain a perfect blend of comic craziness that is by no means serious but nonetheless possesses a quaint poignance and nostalgic poetry for all beasts grandiose and giddy with gore. Watch for the scene where Godzilla pries open a Mantis's mouth and shoots nuclear fire down the throat. This is a gaudy primordial pissing contest but makes for absolute zany fun making a fine link to the 1954 film.

When Watanabe with great drama and reverence exclaims "Let them fight!," he is crying out for the entire Toho film industry and the monster movie genre as a whole and we cheer along with him.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Week of June 13 to June 19 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Six Terrific Movies Squeezed Onto Four Tropic Cinema Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Wow! Another great week at the Tropic Cinema. We have six films to fill the screens.

“Palo Alto” is a new movie by Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola). Here’s a close-up look at the restless teens in that same-named city. Based on a collection of short stories by actor James Franco, we find a kid named Teddy (Jack Kilmer) doing community service for a DUI, while pining for April (Emma Roberts), a girl involved with the high-school soccer coach. Arizona Republic says it’s “another movie by another Coppola about the lives of the rich, bored and disaffected, but that description sells the movie short.” And observes, “The movie brings back all the emotional flotsam of youth, and lets the viewer scavenge the debris for lost treasure.”

Also new to Tropic screens is “Test,” a story that examines the advent of the AIDs epidemic in 1985 San Francisco. A dancer (Scott Marlowe) finds that anonymous gay sex can be risky. Movie Mezzanine calls it “an evocative portrait of an in-between moment of history, one of the periods where no one is quite sure what’s going on and everything seems to be in question.” And Independent says, “The film pinpoints an important historical moment, and gives some sense of how bad even San Francisco could be for the gay community, less than 30 years ago.”

Another entry is “Neighbors,” where we find a young couple (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne) annoyed by the frat boys (Zac Efron et al.) who party next door. Movie Habit calls it “a gross-out comedy that parties hard.” And Film Threat describes it as “a leave-your-brain-at-home flick.”

“The Immigrant” tells about a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) who is exploited by a New York pimp (Joaquin Phoenix), her only hope being a seedy stage magician (Jeremy Renner). One Guy’s Opinion says it’s “a very melodramatic picture ... yet it's remarkably evocative and compelling, almost compulsively watchable.” And John Hanlon Reviews opines, “Marion Cotillard offers up one of her best performances in this painful but thought-provoking drama.”

Still playing is “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s fable about a hot L.A. chef who gets fired for insulting a powerful food critic, but finds salvation in managing a rundown taco truck. Raleigh News & Observer says, “Like all good foodie movies, ‘Chef’ works not only because of the cooking scenes, but because it is a beautiful portrayal of the passion and love the best chefs have while cooking food for other people.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch adds, “Best of all is Favreau. Instead of mass-producing another superhero epic, he has given the overfed public a dish of right-sized comfort food.”

Finally, we have this year’s big monster movie, “Godzilla.” Shown in 3-D, we encounter the giant reptile fighting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), while a disgraced scientist and his son (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) try figure out what’s going on. Slate tells us “It’s a smooth, sleek, technologically awe-inspiring 3-D blockbuster with a top-shelf cast.” Concrete Playground calls it “a proper-sized blockbuster, where the humans are wholly incidental.” And Reno News and Review sums it up: “THIS IS A GODZILLA MOVIE ... AND IT RULES!!!”

A half-dozen films squeezed onto the Tropic’s four screens … leaving not a moment to have your attention wander.

Godzilla (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Godzilla” Returns
With a Roar

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friend Harry is teaching a college course about … monsters. Yep, those frightening creatures that spawn nightmare. I guess final exams aren’t scary enough.

He asked me to help him think about monster movies that he might show during his Monsters 101.

I replied: “There are monster movies and there are monster movies. You have the classic monster movies from Universal – “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff, “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi,” “The Wolfman” with Lon Chaney, Jr. Then you have the Hammer horror films – “Dracula” with Christopher Lee, “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed,” “Twins of Evil,” etc. You have those silent monster movies like “Nosferatu” and “The Golem.” You have the animal monster movies like “King Kong,” "Mighty Joe Young,” even "Jaws” and “Jurassic Park.” Then you have those monster movies inspired by the Atomic Age – “Them!” with James Arness, “The Blob” with Steve McQueen, “The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms,” “Tarantula,” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.” You have those alien monsters like “The Thing” with James Arness,” “It Came From Outer Space” with Richard Carlson,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with Kevin McCarthy, “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver,” and “Super 8.” You have those human-like monsters found in  “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “American Psycho,” and “Silence of the Lambs.” You have the zombie monsters seen in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2,” Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” and “World War Z” with Brad Pitt. And importantly you have those Japanese tokusatsu movies like “Godzilla,” “Rodan,” and Mothra.” Plus movies about monsters’ offspring such as  “Son of Godzilla,” and “Rebirth of Mothra III.” And those crossover films like  “Godzilla vs. Megalon,” “Godzilla vs. Hedorah,” even that cute animated short titled “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”

I’m thinking about auditing Harry’s class. I like monster movies.

That’s why I went to see the new “Godzilla” movie that’s currently rampaging at Tropic Cinema.

Godzilla first appeared in Ishirō Honda’s 1954 “Gojira.” Produced by Toho Company Ltd., that studio has given us nearly 30 Godzilla movies so far.

This new film from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures is intended to be a reboot of the Godzilla franchise, promising a spate of monster films to come.

The Japanese name for the genre is Kaiju, meaning “strange creature.” Godzilla is surely that. The giant reptile was supposedly the result of the atomic bomb testing in the Pacific.

“Godzilla is definitely a representation of the wrath of nature,” says the new film’s director, Gareth Edwards. “The theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it. You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s the punishment we deserve.”

As a doctor in the film says, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control … and not the other way around.”

This version seems to be a mashup between that little-seen monster in “Cloverfield” and the massive beasts rising from the sea in “Pacific Rim.” But with a dark “Prometheus” feel to this film.

Here Godzilla is essentially an anti-hero, pitted against malevolent creatures (MUTOs, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that threaten the world.

Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) is terrific as a nuclear physicist trying to uncover a conspiracy at a testing site. Aaron Taylor Johnson plays his son, a bomb expert who gets pulled into his father’s crusade. Elizabeth Olsen is the son’s concerned wife. Ken Watanabe is the aforementioned doctor. And David Strathairn leads the military forces trying to nuke the monsters.

The straight-forward plot leads up to what one monster buff calls “the greatest movie monster battle of all time.”

A second fan proclaims: “Best Godzilla movie period.”

Another puts it simply: “Big G is back.”

But you probably have to love monster movies to agree.

I think I’ll take Harry to a screening and see if he gives it an A+ or B-.

Test (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Does “Test”
Pass the Test?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When my gay friends say “test,” they’re usually talking about one in particular. A blood test for HIV.

This test became available in 1985. That’s the year fear started rippling through San Francisco. Rock Hudson was proclaimed on the cover of Newsweek as an AIDS victim. And “The AIDS Show” was running at San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros.

“Test” -- that’s the name of this film written and directed by Chris Mason Johnson -- can be seen at Tropic Cinema.

You can tell it’s meant to be a serious film, because it’s from Serious Productions.

It focuses on Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a lanky, stork-like understudy with a modern dance company.

A fellow dancer named Molly asks him, “Are you really not straight?”

When he confirms his orientation, she blurts, “Aren’t you scared?”

He is.

After all, street graffiti warns about AIDS. Charts illustrate the warning signs of the new disease. A ballerina hesitates to touch her sweaty male counterpart for fear of transmission. Friends are surreptitiously checking their bodies for sarcoma. Anonymous gay sex is becoming risky.

Frankie learns this first-hand after having a fling with Walt (Kristoffer Cusick), a handsome guy he meets in a club while out partying with fellow dancer Todd (Matthew Risch). After several sexual encounters, “Walt Whitman” phones “Frankie Avalon” to confess he tested positive.


So off Frankie goes to Dr. Corbett (Damon K. Sperber) for a test of his own.

Of course, test has a double meaning in this film that one moviegoer described as “a safe-sex public service announcement done with edgy flair.”

As Frankie tells his swarthy, sexy, bearded buddy Todd, the prospect of becoming monogamous is like “some sort of massive unnatural challenge … it’s like a test.”

Many “not straight” moviegoers may choose to ignore the downer theme. There’s more to attract interest here. You can count on plenty of shirtless dance sequences, with muscular guys writhing, posing, twisting, and flexing in a terpsichorean frenzy. Plus soft-core sex and lots of bare buttocks.

You can thank Sidra Bell for the original choreography. And director Chris Mason Johnson (“The New Twenty”) can take credit for the sex scenes.

But even so, we get the message. Frankie spends a lot of time listening to a tape on his Walkman while hanging head-to-the-floor from a dancer’s barre. Life’s upside down, it seems to be saying.

Palo Alto (Rhoades)

Gia Coppola Makes Her First Movie -- “Palo Alto”

Interview by Shirrel Rhoades

Director Gia Coppola sounded quite young on the phone, pausing to take deliveries, make asides, yet remain excited to talk about filmmaking. I assured her we weren’t going to discuss her famous family -- grandfather Francis Ford Coppola, aunt Sofia Coppola, uncle Roman Coppola, cousin Jason Schwartzman, and other cousin Nicolas Cage. Instead, I was curious about her debut film, “Palo Alto.” It opens tomorrow at the Tropic Cinema.

After all, not every 27-year-old high-school dropout gets to direct a major film based on a book by an A-list movie star like James Franco. But Gian-Carla Coppola is no ordinary young woman.

So how did she come to make a movie? It takes more than “My dad’s got a barn; let’s put on a play.”

Getting her GED, Gia attended Bard College, where she studied photography. Feeling kind of burn out, she moved back to Los Angeles “where I was working as a bar back in a restaurant.”

One day she spotted actor James Franco at a neighborhood deli. She didn’t speak to him, but that night bumped into him again at a party. Her mother introduced them, and “he remembered me from the deli.”

She told him how much she’d enjoyed his early-on TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” And he told her about a book he’d written called “Palo Alto,” a collection of loosely related short stories based on his teenage years in that same-named city. Turns out, he was looking for someone to make it into a film.

Well …

“Pick the stories you like,” he said. “Write them in a screenplay format.”

She did. “Reflecting on my own teenage years, I felt I was close enough I could remember them,” says Gia.

James Franco liked her interpretation. He suggested, “Let’s make a test version. Get some of your friends together, take a cheap video camera, and see what you come up with.”

She did. “It was like film training,” she says.

Will this early version eventually appear as a Bonus on the DVD? “No way,” she giggles. “I hated what we made. I’m never letting that one see the light of day.”

However, James Franco thought it showed promise. He gave her the go-ahead.

The hardest part of making the film? “Getting the financing,” she admits. “At one point we had an investor, but he dropped out. Finally, James got fed up and made a movie just to get the money to finance it himself.”

So Gia kept it small. “I had to be a little more inventive,” she says. “The crew was my friends. I’d known Jack Kilmer since he was little. I’d known Emma Roberts; something just kept pushing us together. It somehow worked.”

Jack is the son of Val Kilmer. And Emma is the niece of Julia Roberts. And Gia … well, she has talent too.

 “Palo Alto” is a layered film bout teen angst. April (Emma Roberts) is the shy class virgin who babysits for her licentious soccer coach (James Franco). Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is a would-be artist, doing community service following a DUI accident. His pal Fred (Nat Wolff) is pushy and obnoxious, having hooked up with promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin). As always, the question is who will wind up with whom.

After five years putting together “Palo Alto,” Gia Coppola is now writing, reading scripts, reading books. “I plan to keep making films,” she nods. “I’ve always communicated with pictures. Filmmaking allows me to play with music, set design, costumes, actors, writing.”

She likes that. It’s in her genes.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Million Dollar Arm (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Million Dollar Arm

Disney's "Million Dollar Arm" hits with a surprise in spite of its oft-filmed "underdog" story. It is nothing less than a carbonated and bouncy true and somewhat wild tale of sports agent J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his quest for a baseball star in India.

While Hamm remains as aloof and arrogant as ever in the mode of Don Draper, his character has enough pulse and depth to push all arching eyebrow elitism into the background and deliver charm. This is simply an unpretentious and buoyant drama as is, or at least as it might have been. Though it just might have a few ghosts from "A Christmas Carol" dancing within.

As Disney films go, it does not seem like pop or pablum, never benching or belittling its audience.

Bernstein is up against the wall without clients, spending tv nights with his partner and irreverent friend Ash (Aasif Mandvi). One night he sees the singer Susan Boyle onscreen and then moves to a cricket match in India. Half asleep, Bernstein gets a jolt of Eureka. Why not try to find and invest in an Indian baseball player?

Ash goes along with him but the trick is to get support, let alone find a talented player.

The real flight of the film is its charm and the spirit of its actors Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal as baseball wonders Rinku and Dinesh respectively.

Both actors have a refreshing charge with a lightness that is irresistible and it is impossible not to be carried away by this American pastime account with its Orientalist and curried trimmings.

Not one actor overreaches or upstages in pitch. Even the  predictable Alan Arkin as a grouchy scout works because his outing is spare and not heavily played. Indie darling Lake Bell is present too, as an earnest and bohemian med student and her part is subtle and well placed as a kind of foil to Hamm's Type A character.

An undeniable spark is embodied in Pitobash Tripathy who plays Bernstein's assistant with a bubbling humor that makes it all infectious entertainment.

Another highlight is a fizzy score by Bollywood film maestro A.R. Rahman that gives the music an almost visual and collage-like scope.

Yes, "Million Dollar Arm" is unshakably light and breezy in its multicultural mirth and positivity but it all works like a faultlessly weighted and balanced Mickey Mouse watch fit for one purpose: to be lifted in smiles and propelled in sentiment.

In watching the full motion of this story, there is a touching poignance that our mystery and romance for all things India remain, decades after Edward Said and in spite of our hermetic and technologically abstract age. As kitschy as it is, there is something dreamy, quaint and giddily ornate in the sight of Lake Bell in a Sari walking along a homemade Shangri-La.

"Million Dollar Arm" also makes the somewhat obvious but vital message that differences in spirit and competition become immaterial. A hero's story in India becomes an American tall tale here, but this makes events no less true.

Here is a matinee mandala made by Mickey and composed with orbs of joy. Better still, it has a plot that informs as well as it rises and it is sure to please throughout.

Write Ian at

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Immigrant (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Immigrant

With a story that is unapologetically cold, grim and more understated than the work of Albert Camus, James Gray (Two Lovers) and his  epic "The Immigrant" holds a charge through the vibration of its actors, specifically Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix.

Cotillard stars as Ewa, a young Polish girl who arrives at Ellis Island in 1920s New York. With her tubercular sister in tow, (Angela Sarafyan) Ewa has all the best of hopes for starting anew. But just when it appears that the pair is making headway, Ewa's sister is yanked from the line and the couple are in jeopardy of deportation.

Enter Bruno Weiss (Phoenix) who bribes the administration and becomes Ewa's guardian of sorts. Ewa honestly intends to pull her weight, but while looking around in Bruno's theater drawer, the temptation to steal a bill or two, proves irresistible.

Soon it becomes clear that Weiss is far from a reputable citizen but is in fact a two-bit pimp, who works a prostitution ring under the guise of a vaudeville show.

Worse, Bruno is a violent alcoholic.

During one interlude, Ewa meets Orlando (Jeremy Renner) Bruno's cousin, a small time magician. Orlando develops feelings for Ewa, and Bruno also develops an obsession.

The melodrama quickly runs  as thick as blackstrap molasses.
Not one character is truly likable or dynamic, but the self destructive tensions will keep you going.

The classic cinematography by Darius Khondji of "Midnight in Paris" fame is a conceptual return to the films of Sergio Leone and Francis Ford Coppola with panoramic closeups that are religious in intensity. Every frame is muted as if through sepia, coffee, cigar ash and shadowy motes. There are scenes of overtired harlequins, harlots and curlicued cupids weary with absinthe and mascara. The anemic pinks and purples shown recall the decadent enervation of an era struggling to gain steam, reminiscent of "Cabaret". Visually, the film is masterful, all encompassing of the  period.

It is only Ewa's gullibility that seems far fetched and full of teary pathos of the handwringing variety. Every role in the film is infused with a lethargic spirit and drive.

Bruno himself becomes a twisted grotesque mask, an emotional twin to Paul Dano's role in "Prisoners". At one point, Bruno's face turns black with self hating bitterness.

While the daring in a dark approach to a period piece is well taken, there is no one to root for.

With its flat feeling of lugubriousness, The Immigrant" is an offbeat film that masquerades as a mainstream period drama: a kind of "Midnight Express" for fans of  "Once Upon a Time in America". While it is sure to divide fans of Sergio Leone, the painstaking richness in its grim cause and effect of an America gone syrupy in gloom rather than galore, is nearly poetic.

Write Ian at

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Galapagos Affair

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

From Daniel Geller and Dayna  Goldfine (Ballets Russes) comes a documentary that is nothing less than a real life enactment of "Lord of The Flies".

In 1930, a Nietzschean German doctor Ritter as his anti-capitalist lover Dore Strauch fled Berlin to the Galápagos Islands. Embittered by the bourgeoisie, they settle on Floreana Island, wanting to be solitary and self sufficient. But due to a "Believe It or Not!" hunger for sensation, the couple's  adventures on an untamed island, full of huge tortoises and espresso-black lizards made them known in the German press.

Heinz and Margret Wittmer arrive to settle on a neighboring island with their son Harry who is often sick.

Tensions rise.

Dr. Ritter does not want to be consulted by neighbors, but through gradual social visits and gift exchanges, bonds are forged. A commune of five emerges.

But, there are unwelcome footprints on the spirited and sable earth with the arrival of aspiring entrepreneur von Wagner Bosquet, who declares the neighboring islands her business alone, to build a hotel. This sensual and self important "Baroness" gains the reputation of a libertine and is serialized in pulp stories in the 30s as being a sex crazed seductress with a taste for whips and domination.

After "The Baroness' " henchman began to bicker with the Wittmers and Dr. Ritter, (involving stolen mail and the baroness' murdered donkey), she announces that she is taking a trip to Tahiti. In an eerie omen, she leaves  her lucky copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray behind and has left no signs of departure.

Some have speculated that this Svengali-like siren was murdered.

Stranger still, her assistant, Lorenz took a boat to Santa Cruz, bereft and lost.

His mummified corpse was found months later, almost calcified---a fossil of pain.

This is a lively, gripping tale with haunting footage. Both Ritter and "The Baroness" slowly emerge as an autocratic dictator that may have turned a reluctant submissive under Bosquet's Medusa glare and her leering lazy eyes, akin to those of a panther.

At midpoint,the story lessens in magnetism a bit with mentions of new families coming and going and trying to make it after the disappearances (The De Roys, The Angermeyers) and you might find that you need a smartphone visit to

There are images of "The Baroness" in full pulp sexuality with her nipples visible that are as lurid as a Weird Tales cover or an Edgar Rice Burroughs cliffhanger, but for the most part we are only given impressions of intrigue. What really happened? There is no telling.

One appearance that stands out above the rest is the figure of Fritz Heiber, grandnephew of Fredrich Ritter, who is absolutely riveting in intensity on par with the actor Klaus Kinski. With his mad blond hair and staring devil eyes, he exists as a solitary spectator watching the fall of Heaven.

"The Galapagos Affair" works best in its telling of a numinous isle with cultish characters wishing to strike out on their own, and  almost making a fetish out of nature.

It seems that the Galapagos Tortoise is indeed the guardian of these shores. Woe to those who try to raise an opportune, materialist eye to these creatures and knock on their shells.

Write Ian at

Friday, June 6, 2014

Week of June 6 to June 12 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

A Half-Dozen Films Entertain at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Six movies playing at the Tropic Cinema -- four of them new to its screens, two popular holdovers. A great selection this week for moviegoers.

Leading the lineup is “The Immigrant,” director James Gray’s look back to the ’20s when immigrants were crowding onto Ellis Island, hoping to become part of the American dream. Here, Ewa (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) is the immigrant in question, falling prey to a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix), her only hope being a questionable stage magician (Jeremy Renner). NewCity says, “Memories upon memories upon memories upon legend upon lore upon sorrow upon sacrifice and ache: there is much of another time in James Gray’s great and tender and sublimely sincere, emblematically cinematic ‘The Immigrant.’” And Minneapolis Star Tribune proclaims it as “one of those rare, strikingly beautiful film experiences that transport you to another world.”

“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” takes us back to the ‘30s on the island of Floreana, where a series of disappearances shattered the primeval tranquility. This documentary (voiced by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and others) probes the mystifying crime. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “Darwin meets Hitchcock in this true-crime tale of paradise found and lost.” And the Patriot-Ledger says, “It’s killer in every sense of the word.”

Also new is “Exposed,” a documentary that takes us behind the scenes of modern-day Burlesque, both funny and sexy and above all a new art form. Time Out New York tells us, “The performance footage is indeed eye-popping, though the greatest jolt comes from seeing these larger-than-life iconoclasts stripped of their makeup and armorlike personas.” And New York Times expounds, “While these lubricious entertainers are making political points by pulling American flags from unlikely locations, or dancing a beautiful dark ballet with a severed hand, they’re mostly just interested in showing us a really good time.”

A gentle curve ball from Disney titled “Million Dollar Arm” gives us Jon Hamm as a sports agent out to recruit an Indian cricket player to be a baseball pitcher. Laramie Movie Scope tells us “Although this film is based on a true story, it looks as if the facts were smashed to a paste which was then molded into the exact shape of a typical sports underdog story. It works.” And calls it “A Grand Slam.”

Still playing at the Tropic is “Belle,” a historical drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race woman who was raised to be a British aristocrat, and perhaps influenced the abolition of slavery in England. Miami Herald calls it “an interesting history lesson.” And The Virginian-Pilot adds that it is “a wonderfully informative film while being entertaining at the same time.”

Last up is “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s return to his indie film roots with a story about a fancy L.A, chef who finds his salvation in a refurbished taco truck. Philadelphia Inquirer observes that “Jon Favreau’s bouncy paean to the culinary arts wins you over in a stridently upbeat, crowd-pleasing way...” And Quad City Times concludes that it’s “a fresh, character-driven comedy with a father-son relationship at the center. It’s a recipe for those who are weary of CGI battle scenes.”

Six films, a half-dozen winners!

The Immigrant (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Immigrant”
Is About a Low Life

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My wife’s grandmother came to America through Ellis Island. It wasn’t a sure thing, being admitted to this new land of opportunity. Some were turned away.

In James Gray’s “The Immigrant” -- now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- we meet a woman faced with that threat.

Set in 1921, Ewa (portrayed by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) and her sister flee the war in Poland, traveling to New York to seek a better life. But their American dream turns into a nightmare at Ellis Island.

The sister is quarantined for tuberculosis and Ewa finds herself on the verge of being deported. However, up steps an oily stranger (Joaquin Phoenix) who slips a guard a few dollars to let Ewa go with him. Now in Bruno’s debt, she learns that the job he offers is not that of a chambermaid … in the strictest sense.

Forced into prostitution, she comes to hate Bruno while he’s becoming more drawn to her big-eyed innocent beauty. Ewa’s salvation arrives in the form of Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician billed as Orlando (Jeremy Renner),

At this point, the story turns into a love triangle.

Who will wind up with Ewa, the good bad guy or the bad good guy?

This period melodrama from writer/director James Gray was originally titled “Low Life,” a description of the situation that has ensnared our heroine. This is Gray’s fifth film, and his fourth featuring Joaquin Phoenix (who was cast in “The Yards,” “We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers”).

Gray’s meticulous vision captures the drab, sepia-toned cityscape of New York City of the ’20s -- the brick-front tenements, crowded streets, the sleazy burlesque theater. With its damsel in distress, lustful villain, and chisel-chin leading man, this might have been a movie by D.W. Griffith starring Lillian Gish.

Even the title harkens back to those earlier days. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp starred in a same-named film (“The Immigrant,” 1917).

And like those movies of yore, the stereotypical characters are a tad exaggerated. Noble and self-sacrificing, Ewa is a little too good to be true. The pimp Bruno is a mite too malevolent for a man supposedly in love. And the Houdini-like Orlando is not an entirely convincing rescuer.

All that aside, Marion Cotillard is the draw here, perhaps her best performance since that Academy-Award turn as Edith Piaf. She can do more with her eyes than most actresses can with a steam trunk of shtick.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Only Lovers Left Alive

From the idiosyncratic mind of Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) comes "Only Lovers Left Alive,"  both a meditation on the human condition and a quirky poem to the vampire.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a melancholic avant-garde musician. who lives in a mansion of decaying bohemia in Detroit. He seldom ventures out and his sole interaction is a nightly visit from an obsequious Ian, a kind of Grunge era Renfield character (Anton Yelchin). Ian procures whatever Adam needs from guitars that are as exotic as women to archaic technology and devices from the 40s to the 1980s. As a Luciferic and Shelleyan figure, Adam floats adrift on his isle of analog toys draped in 17th century robes. The endlessness of time is a heavy draught on the brain.

Adam experiences its blight.

His love Eve (Tilda Swinton) is Sufi slumbering in Tangier, all paleness and repose. While superhuman together, they are anemic apart, and pine for one another across space, multiple countries and shared supernal sighs.

Within Adam's heightened romantic stare we sense the desert of minutes and feel its ache. Hiddleston's very terrestrial creature has known most men of spark and sensation and now  this loner holds an ennui of alabaster in his grasp.

This is a film that emotes in its tones much more than it tells through plot or action. As a vampire film, it delivers both the excitement and the loneliness of being alone.

There is humor throughout as Adam is harassed by shadowy and nameless fans not too mention his spacey and amphetamine driven sister in law (Mia Wasikowska) who causes considerable trouble and just won't leave.

John Hurt is also here as a wry and singeing Christopher Marlowe. In a pop art kind of way he makes a Keith Richards counterpart mixed with Paul Bowles and the actor Albert Finney.

In a parallel to Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie",  buried deep within the story is Jarmusch's nostalgia for art eras of Gotham long gone. A contemporary Detroit with its ghostly buildings and wilted green spaces is a metaphor for  Jarmusch's day glo-spooked New York of the 1980s when all in the Empire State vibrated in neon, and both the B52s and Basquiat crackled  going pop.

When Adam reverently speaks of musician Jack White, it is with the energy of a Gomez Addams.

One image that haunts above the rest is the sight of Eve and Adam intertwined in bed. While this is a self conscious quote of the famous John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover, it is just as heartfelt and fitting in its reverence for Annie Leibowitz and a sweet yearning for our photographic images, once refreshing, but now Iphone-refreshed.

As obvious and cloying as these references might seem they make a Jarmuschian collage in keeping with the auteur's method, as personal as Bela's cape.

These are vamps of spirit and mind and when they enter a noisy club and gaze upon the brash masses, we feel their amused scorn behind some Rik Ocasic sunglasses.

No words are necessary.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" succeeds as a mood piece. When fangs rise, it is in an honored recognition rather than a savage bite. These are instances of  pleasured inclusion, putting us into the fold of a collective and revered thrill.

In the center of it all are Swinton and Hiddleston as slinkly folks of velvet and ice. They are no mere bloodletters but beings of pointed poignance and passivity and they stand and slope with a posture that is electrically watchable and just a bit frightening.

Lastly, under a dim Tangier archway, the director gives us our just desserts in upholding the curdle of Hammer films, while also speaking upon the memory of Jim Morrison who snakes within the motions of Lebanese rocker Yasmine Hamdan. Jarmusch is all of a tooth-tease in his last bite, cutting us to the quick and withholding our cinematic satiation but his slight of hand is so well crafted. He remains so unapologetic in bringing us this Proustian Dark Prince parade that we don't mind at all being seduced.

The vampire is director, silver haired unapologetic and uncompromising.

As a child of the night with a camera that doesn't forget, such pensiveness is like a kiss to a lost CBGB. A spasm in silver is a joy forever.

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