Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Gift (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Gift

Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor turned director, who is most known for his gangster roles, strikes the perfect key in his  debut "The Gift".  This striking film is also oddly thoughtful and will keep you hooked from beginning to end.

Jason Bateman plays Simon, an upwardly mobile man in a security firm. After looking to buy a spacious house with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), Simon bumps into a shy high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton) who gazes at Simon, as if hypnotized. Simon, embarrassed that he doesn't immediately recall the acquaintance, makes a cursory promise to get together, though not thinking for a moment that they will actually meet.

That night there is a gift at the door: an expensive bottle of wine.

But why?

The next day, Robyn is alone at home and a pale, black clothed man is at the door. Gordo. He asks for Simon. Robyn says he is at work, but offers him a house tour. The next day there is a gift of fish in the koi pond.

This spooks Simon to no end as it means that Gordo violated Simon and his wife's personal space. That night, the three of them have dinner that goes pleasantly enough despite some awkwardness.

The following day, Gordo again visits and asks for Simon. Robyn invites Gordo to stay for tea. In the kitchen, Gordo sees the word "Weirdo" under his phone number. Simon braces himself for some tense conflict, but rather than seeming hurt, Gordo invites the couple to dinner at his house.

The two are stupefied by the reaction which is intensified further by the fact that Gordo lives in a sprawling mansion, befitting Maria Shriver.

Just as suddenly as he warmly receives his guests, Gordo announces that he must take care of a work related issue and that he will return within five minutes. Simon and Robyn are speechless.

Gordo half admits to Simon that his well to do persona that he projected to them has been false.

Feeling manipulated and taken advantage of, Simon tells Gordo that he doesn't want his friendship or gifts.

This is difficult as Gordo is self deprecating, complimentary, and by all accounts, a kind person.

Though it has elements of Adrian Lynne's "Fatal Attraction" and Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", the apprehension is given a fresh originality because we are not given all of the jolts at once. The strangeness is delivered primarily through the acting and not by jumpy scares. Edgerton is terrific and nearly iconic as this singularly odd, dark haired man with the bottomless espresso toned eyes, who is not savage nor gentle but oddly soft and made passive by the bitters of the past.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are spot on as well in their roles as the obsessive career man and the empathetic and deliberate wife.

The conjuring trick of the film is that you almost sympathize with the spaced out Gordo. Moreover,  final scene, which hits like the snap of a noose  might have you thinking of "Rosemary's Baby".

"The Gift," while having a few referential quotes from other films has a flair and energy, appropriating from affection and not affectation. The story is karmically creepy with its own eccentricity and never loses its punch.

Write Ian at

Diary of a Teenage Girl (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The rich and vibrant film "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" by Marielle Heller is based on the controversial and groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name. This wild narrative has definite texture and unfolds with a loose freedom very similar to the way a graphic novel reads.

Minnie (Bel Powley) is an awkward and idealistic fifteen year old girl who aspires to be an artist. She begins to idolize her mom's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Asked to go with him on an outing, she unwittingly excites him during some innocent teasing and then voices desire for him.

They have sex in the car.

The two carry on sexually under the nose of the bohemian mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Minnie's sole confessor (to a point) is a tape recorder, where she ruminates and spins poetic anecdotes.

What would be unsavory and disturbing is here taken as a matter of personal development and creativity, juxtaposed as it is with Minnie's growth as a free illustrator.

This odd girl is no Lolita and Monroe is no pervert. Rather, what is stressed is the existence of two sensual creatures caught in a bind.

More startling still is the idea that to be someone truly creative is to be highly sexual. Minnie's work parallels her sexual awakening. Whenever she has sex, she creates a new illustration.

The girl goes from place to place. She is called crazy and a nymphomaniac. To escape judgment, she initializes a correspondence with Illustrator Aline Kominsky, wife of Robert Crumb. As this is the 1970s in San Francisco, Kominsky replies by mail.

The strange narrative is helped along by the fantastical animation of Sara Gunnarsdottir, which is highly influenced by Kominsky.  Gunnarsdottir reportedly did so many panels for the film that she injured her arm.

Kristen Wiig is quite good here, as is Skarsgard, and both characters seem more loony and out of touch than Minnie herself. She alone is the most level, with an intrinsic awareness of the inter-being between art and life.

While seeming disquieting and moody, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"  is a very accurate portrait of the 70's, in addition to a vivid character drama. Much like Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" which also takes place in San Francisco, this is about a creative woman being pushed and pulled. But where Burton moralizes in his story of Margaret Keane, director Marielle Heller gives us an existential hellion with a pagan sense of creativity, and gives us the liberty to come to our own resolutions.

Write Ian at

Friday, August 28, 2015

Week of Aug, 28 - Sept. 3 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

From Thrills to Giggles, Sex to Song, Tropic Cinema Entertains Us!
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Tropic Cinema again covers wide ground, with films that raise goosebumps, tickles the funny bone, and mildly shock. A good assortment.

A dark psychological thriller, “The Gift” shows us a different side of Jason Bateman -- not his usual droll comedic persona. Here he’s a seemingly successful married man who bumps into an old high school acquaintance who might just have a score to settle. ReelViews warns that “the film has enough twists to keep the average viewer guessing.” And Mountain Xpress adds that it’s “a well-judged, slickly-made thriller that mostly eschews the trappings of the genre for more psychological unease and a disturbingly dark vision of the world.”

“Diary of a Teenage Girl” delivers a razzle-dazzle look into the lovelife of (as the title promises) a teenage girl. Bel Powley makes a spectacular debut as said teen. Boston Globe declares the dramedy “a breakthrough moment in the culture in that it depicts youthful female sexuality ... not just with the unapologetic frankness the boys usually get, but with an awareness of all the places a girl's urges will take her ...” Minneapolis Star Tribune calls it an “artful portrayal of adolescence from a girl's point of view.” And Seattle Times says it “hits exactly the right tone.”

“Minions 3D” offers an animated adventure for kids large and small, a prequel to “Despicable Me” in which those little yellow henchmen are looking for a villain to serve. Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) seems to fill the bill. Q Network Film Deck describes it as “enjoyable in all the right ways.” And Chicago Reader thinks the film has “gusto.”

Comedienne Amy Schumer teamed up with Judd Apatow for her first film, “Trainwreck.” Anything but, this fresh outing features a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em gal (Schumer) who doesn’t know how to handle it when she meets Mr. Right (Bill Hader). calls it “a fresh spin on familiar territory that's freewheeling and insightful and full of love.” And amNewYork says, “It’s very funny and very smart, much like its creator.”

Meryl Streep proves she can handle any role you throw at her, this time as an aging rock singer with family problems in “Ricky and the Flash.” Sydney Morning Herald sees it as “likeable and surprisingly low-key,” while Herald Sun calls it “another deeply immersive performance from Streep that repeatedly lifts this bittersweet comedy-drama hybrid out of the doldrums.”

A wide assortment, f’sure. And entertaining, absolutely!

The Gift (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Gift” Is Non-Returnable
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Are there any old high school chums you’d just as soon forget? You know, some old acquaintance you don’t want popping up in the middle of  your nice quiet life to remind you of your shortcomings
in the past?

That’s the plot of “The Gift,” a psychological thriller that’s raising goosebumps at the Tropic Cinema.

Simon and his wife Kate (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are doing just fine, thank you very much, before Gordo the Weirdo (Joel Edgerton) shows up. The guy’s like chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe, impossible to get rid of. He keeps dropping by to give them gifts.

But something’s not right. Gordo’s stories don’t quite hold together. He’s a little off. Simon mocks him to Kate, then breaks off this renewed contact.

Yet Gordo seems to be lingering in the background. Kate is convinced he’s coming into their home in secret. She suspects him when her koi fish die and the family dog goes missing.

So Kate begins looking into Gordo’s past, talking to his old high school classmates. In the process, she discovers some disturbing things about her own husband. Is he not the man she thought he was? Did he deliberately fabricate lies about Gordo? Did he lie to get a new promotion? Is he the father she wants for the baby she’s expecting?

Or is Gordo a master of revenge, a clever manipulator out to even the score for old not-forgotten wrongs?

Or is Kate, still fragile from a previous miscarriage, simply letting her imagination run away with her? Delusional or paranoid?

My gift to you: I’m not telling.

But as Gordo says, “You may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Ricki and the Flash

Music is extremely important to Jonathan Demme. This shows time and time again in his wide and varied repertoire. He directed  concert films for both the Talking Heads and Neil Young. Music is also vital in bringing his fluid and wondrous film "Something Wild" (1986) to life in all of its glib and savvy freedom.

It remains a pity and a missed opportunity that this earlier feeling of spiritual wilderness and wonder is not found in "Ricki and the Flash" despite the usual likable and earnest efforts of Meryl Streep.

Streep plays Linda Rendazzo aka Ricki, an old rocker a bit in the style of Bonnie Raitt or Ronstadt  who (you guessed it) is down on her luck and plays her heart out, night after night in a worn honky-tonk bar for crumbs. Though the plot trappings are out of a Lifetime movie, Streep does have magnetism and an easy charm. While it is a stretch to see her decked out in the jewels of nightshade, and ringed from head to toe, she makes it.

The first frames of the film are greatly and almost magically helped by some swift camera motions and lively song choices. The songs are sung in Streep's actual voice and this is no small thing. The initial segment is full of motion and color in its depiction of motley hijinks with numerous barflies scampering about. Such moments are among the best in the film.

Out of the blue Ricki's ex Peter (Kevin Kline) calls to say that their daughter Julie (Meryl Streep's real life daughter, Mamie Gummer)  is in a crisis over a broken marriage. Ricki reluctantly travels to Peter's family to give support.

Fireworks commence, of course.

The problem is not the principal actors. It is just with so much melodrama and heavy hearts, the plot doesn't go anywhere very interesting.

Once more, as in so many family encounter films, we have the absent or lapsed mother wishing she could have made things better, but who was never there when it counted. As if on cue, there are routine shouts, unmade beds and guest rooms with an affectionate dog, no less.

Kevin Kline as the ex hubby, speaks with an elitist mumble as he has in so many other films. They are not convincing as a pair either then or now. He feels soporific and a bit dazed by the role. When he puts his head in Ricki's lap, nearly overcome by her boozy charms, it seems silly rather than poignant, like a bit from his previous Errol Flynn.

In nearly every scene, there is some kind of confrontation or showdown, from Peter and Peter's buoyant wife (Audra McDonald) to her sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) to Julie and even Ricki's boyfriend (music star Rick Springfield)

The handwringing drama gets thick and predictable and feels comical, instead of provoking any insights or new thoughts.

The light easeful tone and Ricki's  jabbing one liners do have spirit and Ricki does have some chemistry with Springfield, especially during the smooth and excellent music bits.

Yes, Ricki is a damaged lady with a good heart. All right, she laments not being a mother.  But aside from these moralizations, what is truly unique about her? We have had nearly identical stories from Cher's "Burlesque" to Pacino's  "Danny Collins" and Jeff Bridges "Crazy Heart".

Why not make a film simply about music and the musician without all the soupy drama? There is more than enough thrill in the songs alone and for a director who no doubt cares deeply about the chimerical qualities of the musical arts, we are led to expect more lively fare and not the same old strums.

Write Ian at

Monday, August 24, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Infinitely Polar Bear

In echoing the comic style of Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) director Maya Forbes delivers an entertaining, yet stirring film, "Infinitely Polar Bear" about her father and his struggle. The film co-stars Forbes' daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky in a striking performance.

The energetic actor Mark Ruffalo is Cam, a sensitive and loving father from a wealthy family who happens to have Bipolar Disorder which is kept hidden from his kids, Amelia (Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).

When the mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana) decides to pursue her MBA, she asks Cam to take over the care of the kids while she takes classes in New York City.

Although just released from the hospital, Cam is thrilled to take over the chief duties, especially since he has hopes, as any husband would, that the family will heal from its crisis.

At first things go swimmingly, but then the daily routine, together with domestic stresses begin to take its toll on Cam.

He goes off his medication.

Although at times it does feel as though Ruffalo chews the scenery a bit and overacts during his outbursts, the film is strongly held together by the principal players, Ruffalo, Saldana, and the young actors Wolodarsky and Aufderheide.

The cult actor Kier Dullea from "2001" gives a surprise outing as Cam's concerned and sexist father.  But there is a more direct Kubrick reference in the film to see. In one scene, the daughters are shown at the end of a long hallway. The perspective is playfully appropriated from "The Shining." This makes the incidents both jolting and funny at once, increasing the impact.

Though the events are jarring, this is no noisy melodrama; the scenes are well balanced with many soft and telling images. We truly get a feel of the love in this family and Cam, despite his roaring quakes (Alas, the actor has played The Hulk), is no monster.

That said, the arguments are so concussive and abrupt that it feels like a dark comedy rather than a sensitive study of a family.

Just when one might think everything will fly off the rails as in a gross-out comedy however, pathos arrives to pull all into a proper tone, as when the errant dad returns to baleful eyes.

The best segments are when Cam is shown as a painfully conscientious father. He is unhinged and dangerously accelerating as if becoming a mad scientist. To the film's credit, one also clearly sees the charisma of Cam and the unyielding joy that his daughters have with him.

Solid as well is the agile way Cam is portrayed during confrontations. Obnoxious,  explosive and off-putting, yet with more than a bit of charm, Ruffalo has the perfect aura of light laced with lunacy. He also quite viscerally defends his wife with an authentic mania.  In this, the film succeeds punchily and well.

It is only at the film's final scene that the momentum slips. It could have been a more potent and heroic valentine without its heartstring knot.

Despite its garnish of icing, Ruffalo's charge is impossible to dismiss and in its display of a compassionate family under duress, the sentimental gush is minor. Greatly brought to satisfying heights through its cast, "Infinitely Polar Bear" is no routine or detached voyage.

Write Ian at

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The End of the Tour (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The End of the Tour

The writer David Foster Wallace dedicated himself to portraying a fractured and nervous kind of reality, one governed by television media and machines. His novel Infinite Jest, an opus of one thousand pages, was critically   praised but misunderstood by many, and left unread by more than a few.

Wallace, by most accounts, proved  uncompromising with his very person. He was self deprecating, harsh and critical. Such aspects come across, and then some, in "The End of the Tour" by director James Ponsoldt.

In the film, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jessie Eisenberg) is fed up with fluff articles and wants to do something big. Since Lipsky is a fan of Infinite Jest, he asks to do a piece on the author.
At the height of winter, Lipsky travels many miles to meet him in at a college town in central Illinois. A baggy clothed mushy man with stubble meets him in the snow. It is Wallace.

Though socially anxious, Wallace (Jason Segel) nonetheless makes an effort to be a good host. Tension begins. The author is suspicious of the reporter's zest, and Lipsky doesn't know how to go forward with the lit celebrity.

The two agree to dinner at a diner.

The pulse of this film is within the body of Jason Segel, who is primarily known for his comic roles. Rather than go for quirk, circumstance and odd laughs, Segel is quite interior, focused and intense. He captures wonderfully the rapid, yet stuttering and sometimes pained cadence that Wallace had in his few tv interviews. Within Segel's pointed and poignant verbose drips, the wordy essence of the actual Wallace is here as a ghost in the flesh.

The story is no mere situational drama. This film is one where we actually get a sense, through words and gestures, of what it might feel like to create in writing, with all of the pushing and pulling and self doubt.

Through many car trips, the evasive author brings his defenses down and a rapport develops.

There are comic moments as the unkempt author shuffles into a strait-laced and immaculate bookstore, or the moment when the two face a conservative and super- cheery driver (Joan Cusack).

The core of the film though exists between Segel and Eisenberg together who go through the full range of emotion, from curiosity and hero-worship, to anxiety, duplicity and betrayal, only to come back full circle again as in the full scope of a friendship.

Rather than a conventional road trip film, this is a road film of emotion. In the hesitant threads of Jason Segel's impassioned speech together with Eisenberg's shock and passivity, the film creates a present day version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" along with other character films of the 60s and 70s, when dialogue was king.

Rather than spilling the beans all at once, we learn of Wallace and Lipsky a bit at a time. The story unfolds like a mystery, as real life often does, given the variables of surprise and chance.

Above all, one truly gets a sensation of who these real life people were at the time. This is a rare thing.

While not a comic film, Segel, a former puppeteer, uses his big, lanky body to good effect in showing the spatial discomfort of this man. At the final scene, we see Segel's Wallace dance wildly in a church hall, as if to portray the author restless and relentless in the attempt to unspool himself from media's  shackles and invite a Dionysus to take hold of him.

The last scenes of the two men leaving are all the more pensive with melancholy, since we know that Wallace committed suicide, presumably gripped by doubt and depression.

Although, this is a very sad finality, "The End of the Tour" is not a sad film. It is a portrait of a friendship.

 Jessie Eisenberg is a kind of straight man, while Jason Segel is nothing less than a human marionette, bravely giving us a sample of David Foster Wallace as he once lived upon the earth---an inwardly spinning, often funny and exhaustive creature held together by the tangible and textured physicality of words.

Write Ian at

The Stanford Prison Experiment (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who has never shied away from touchy subjects, including  religion (C.O.G) and phone sex (Easier with Practice), pushes even further, giving us "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Although it has elements of a period piece on the 1970s, the film, in style and content, especially with its muted brown and orange colors, bears a striking resemblance to "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a film about terror, manipulation and sexual violence.

In this true-story film we are put at Stanford in the 70s. A psychologist Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) is looking for students to participate in a study involving the acts of people in confining situations and the effects of mass behavior.

The first frames of the film show very clinical shots of a typewriter followed by ink presses and linotypes running multiple copies of an ad asking for candidates, along with bottles of india ink and rubber cement. All of the objects resemble evidence in a serial killer's lab. Although it primarily features inanimate things, it creates a most intriguing few minutes which make us wonder who the culprit is and his reasons for publishing the notice.

Zimbardo receives several student applicants who are screened and told they are to act as either prisoners or guards for fifteen dollars a day during a two week period in the university hall. Most of them prefer the option of prisoner. They are not told when the study will begin. The guards and inmates are determined by a flip of the coin.

Late one summer day, seemingly at random, the participants are arrested by actual police on made up charges and taken to a makeshift Stanford prison with real bars.

The prisoners are badgered and made to strip naked by the other student guards. Humiliations commence.

Though the events are horrifying and beyond fathoming, the most disquieting aspect is in the character of Dr. Zimbardo, who ardently believes that all trauma and stress can be absorbed by science and controlled. We watch him oscillate from confidence and exhilaration, to arrogance, worry and then panic.

He makes a Faustian bargain.

Actor Erza Miller ( The Perks of Being a Wallflower) gives a visceral and emotive performance as Daniel, the first student who attempts to escape.

Compelling too, is Michael Angarano as Christopher, a student guard who imitates a grotesque version of Strother Martin from "Cool Hand Luke".

As in the aforementioned film "Compliance," initial commonplace events warp into a dreamy incomprehension and one may indeed ponder the reptile that lies within us all, given specific circumstances. Sleep deprivation, terror and physical harm being only a few.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" has a sudden stark and dreamlike quality that echoes Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke and it is all the more upsetting because it occurred, lasting only four days due to the mental health of the participants and disrupting the stability of all parties involved.

A testament to the power of this film, I left the theater looking at passersby strangely, pondering their inner nature while trying see the paradisiacal sadist that just might dwell within.

Write Ian at

Friday, August 21, 2015

Week of August 21 - 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Gets High Marks for Movies About Highs and Lows
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week’s Tropic screenings feature emotional highs and lows. All infinitely interesting.

“The End of the Tour” is an intellectual treat, the reenactment of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s five-day parry-and-thrust interview with David Foster Wallace, the acclaimed author of “Infinite Jest.” Jesse Eisenberg spent time with Lipsky to get the portrayal just right, and Jason Segel nails Wallace (they even look alike). Journal and Courier calls it “a compelling character study of
young men with different outlooks on fame and celebrity.” And Fort Worth Weekly says it’s “the best movie I can remember about clinical depression. It isn’t depressing, though. Its overall effect is rather exhilarating.”

“Infinitely Polar Bear” gives us Mark Ruffalo as a manic-depressive who becomes the primary caregiver for his two daughters while his wife gets her MBA. Routine helps stabilize his bipolar
condition, but rambunctious daughters are all but his undoing. Detroit News notes, “Ruffalo is generally wonderful at finding the tone and mood of a character …” And Tulsa World sees it as “a welcome bit of personal storytelling in which the only thing at stake for this family is everything.”

“Ricki and the Flash” offers up Meryl Streep as an unconventional mom, an aging rock musician who must go back home to help her daughter who is suicidally distraught over an impending divorce. This musical dramedy features Mamie Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) as the estranged offspring. Reel Talk Movie Reviews says, “Meryl Streep’s amazing rock-and-roll performance makes this movie something very special indeed.” And ReelViews adds, “The movie is mature in the way it handles the regrets of absentee parents and the ways in which their children relate to them.”

“The Stamford Prison Experiment” recreates a college psych professor’s test in which students play the parts of prison guards and prisoners with unexpected results. Chicago Reader says, “Billy Crudup
gives a fine performance as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who engineered the whole thing and was then pulled into his own power trip.” And Philadelphia Inquirer concludes, “Watching these young men brutalize each other is troubling enough, but perhaps the film’s most interesting angle is how the experiment changes more than its subjects.”

“Minions” is a prequel about those little yellow cartoon characters that you met in “Despicable Me.” Here they look for a worthy villain to serve, coming up with dastardly Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Globe and Mail declares, “With its episodic stream of slapstick gags, ‘Minions’ has moments of piquant absurdity, but mostly its shrill-but-cutesy anarchy works as a visual sugar rush for the preschool set.” And Starburst decides it’s “almost complete nonsense, but it’s good natured, enjoyable nonsense nonetheless.”

And having the last laugh is “Trainwreck,” the Judd Apatow comedy about a commitment-phobic magazine writer (Amy Schumer) who meets Mr. Right. The Scotsman observes, “There’s little doubt that Schumer is a star in the making with a point of view and plenty to say.” Chicago Sun Times agrees, “Schumer's performance is a tour de force of razor-sharp comedic timing.” And Digital Spy calls it “a heartfelt, consistently funny film that deftly sidesteps its potential clichés at every turn.”

All in all, this selection of movies deserves high marks.

Ricki and the Flash (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Ricki and the Flash” Pits Meryl Streep Against Her Daughter
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“Is there any role Meryl Streep can’t play?” asked one of my friends as we watched her morph into an aging rock singer in “Ricki and the Flash.”

The answer is apparently, no.

Generally acknowledged to be the best female actor since Katherine Hepburn (and maybe even better than Kate), she has earned 19 Academy Award nominations in the past three and a half decades, more than any other performer. Of those, she won three -- Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), Best Actress for “Sophie's Choice” (1982), and Best Actress for “The Iron Lady” (2011). And she’s the most-nominated performer in Golden Globe history.

Streep started out in theater, but Robert De Niro’s performance in “Taxi Driver” made her declare, “That's the kind of actor I want to be when I grow up.” Her first movie role came in “Julia” (1977) where she appeared in a flashback sequence. As synchronicity would have it, it was De Niro who recommended her for a part in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), the role of a "vague, stock girlfriend" which snagged her an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress.

At that time Streep was so unknown that when we put her on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1980 (I was a VP with the magazine) it was our worst seller of the year. But by the following year she gave us the Best Selling cover after picking up an Academy Award for “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” She was on her way to greatness.

Her range? We’ve seen her play everything from a French Lieutenant’s woman to a Polish immigrant forced to decide which of her children would live, from a Danish woman who enters into a loveless marriage and moves to East Africa to a New York City food writer married to a philandering man, from a romantic Italian war bride who has a 4-day affair with a photographer in Madison County to a devilish high priestess of fashion, from Julia Child to Margret Thatcher, from the life-embracing mama of a Greek bride to a cancer-stricken matriarch in Osage County. Even a wicked witch with green skin.

And now a never-quite-made-it rocker.

In “Ricki and the Flash” -- now showing at Tropic Cinema -- Meryl Streep portrays “a non-traditional mother” who abandoned her husband and three children to pursue her dream of being a rock star.

After a failed album and little success, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) has been reduced to nightly gigs at the Salt Well in Tarzana, California, while not quite making ends meet as a cashier at Total Foods during the day. That is, until she gets a call from ex-hubby Pete (Kevin Kline) saying she’s needed back in Indianapolis because her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is going through a bad divorce.

Turns out, it’s worse than she expected. Julie has tried to off herself with sleeping pills, one son (Sebastian Stan) is getting married without inviting her to the wedding, and the other son (Nick Westgate) has announced he’s gay. What’s more, Pete’s second wife (Audra McDonald) thinks the former Linda Brummel is not needed there after all these years as an absentee mother.

When we first meet Ricki, bringing down the house singing “American Girl” with her cover band The Flash, she’s mindful of an aging Bonnie Raitt or a wannabe Stevie Nicks. Clad in leather, braided blond hair, having a fling with her guitarist Greg (real deal Rick Springfield), she’s a sad sight, but easy enough to accept. However, when she hits Indy, we realize she’s a fish out of water, an outsider in the family that gathers there in the fancy McMansion, having moved on without her.

Yes, it’s a testament to Meryl Streep’s talent that she can give us an unsympathetic character, a mother who put her own dreams ahead of her family, and yet make us root for her.

In this trifling bittersweet comedy written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”) and directed by Jonathan Deme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Stop Making Sense”), we know it’s going to be a happy-as-it-can-be ending, finalizing with a joyous musical performance that does for music by Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen what “Mama Mia!” did for ABBA’s bouncy tunes. All played, according to the credits, by Ricki and the Flash.

Note: The filming was delayed so Streep could learn to play the rhythm guitar (coached by Neil Young), knowing that she’d be doing her own singing and playing with the band: Rick Springfield (remember “Jessie’s Girl”?), Funkadelic keyboarder Bernie Worrell, bassist Rick Rosas, and Eagles drummer Joe Vitale. As a result, Streep’s rendition of “Cold One” will likely be up for a Best Song Oscar.

Aside from the music, the main reason to see this movie is to watch Streep playing opposite her real-life daughter Mamie Gummer. Obviously, the young actress inherited her mother’s genes -- both for acting talent and sisterly looks. Hair askew, no makeup, she’s designed to look as plain as her heavily mascaraed mama looks glamorous ... but she easily holds her own.

And she makes us understand the film’s message: “It’s not the kids’ job to love you, it’s your job to love them.”

Monday, August 17, 2015

Minions (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


For those of us who want to participate in a million minion march, "Minions," the "Despicable Me" prequel has arrived, smoothly directed by Kyle Balda (The Lorax).

Bright and energetic, this animated tale in vivacious 3D, describes the origin of minions, those pill shaped, chattering, overall-wearing creatures that make us laugh in spite of all.

The story is off to a flying leap thanks to the wondrous voiceover by Geoffrey Rush, who speaks in a hybrid of Masterpiece Theater and "Pirates of the Caribbean." We see the prancing yellow M&M-like creatures through all eras of history. The groupie latch onto a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then they follow a brute caveman who makes the mistake of slapping a huge bear with a flyswatter.

That doesn't work out.

In the Dark Ages, they follow a Vlad the Impaler, personified as Dracula. Wanting to impress him, they pull the blinds back to show him a birthday cake in full sunlight.

He turns to powder in an instant.

All the minions want is a villain to aid.

They make their way to New York, during the tumultuous 1960s and witness a TV commercial from Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) a blend of Cruella de Vil and Cat Woman.

The ambulatory yellow lozenges have their work cut out for them.

There are solid helpings of irreverent jokes here which are almost (but not quite) at the level of "Trainwreck," but the main draw is the minions themselves as they scamper, jump and sputter their way to a life of obsequiousness. Speaking in a jumble of Spanish and French, very much like the painter Dali, it is a feast of delight to watch them as they make their own meaning out of chaos.

Less thrilling are the long chase sequences, with lots of explosions and crashes, which tend to drown out the unique quirkiness of this story that hinge on the confusion of verbal communication and novel, unexpected sight gags.

When the minions are yelling and running around every curve and corner, the film ceases to become truly madcap or as fun as its beginning, borrowing cues from many action films, including "The Avengers."

But, just when one's eyes feel as if they might zone out, a quip is heard by British funnyman Steve Coogan that makes everything rise to the occasion once more.

The best of "Minions" are the beings themselves, sans plot or motivation. These diminutive amarillo-toned people who lust after bananas, may be an acquired taste but there is something inherently Dadaist in their shredded verbiage coupled with a hapless, yet curiously joyful circumstance.

Minions they may be, but they are also human.

Write Ian at

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Trainwreck (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The subversive comic Amy Schumer has arrived in "Trainwreck" the latest relationship comedy directed by Judd Apatow.

Schumer is Amy Townsend, an outspoken and brash magazine writer whose life just hasn't been exactly right.  She always manages to say just the wrong thing. Right from the get-go, she is in conflict with the domineering and catty magazine head, Dianna (a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton). Dianna boils over and assigns Amy to cover a sports story. Amy bristles.

To escape her woe, not least of which is a rivalry with her sister, Kim (Brie Larson) Amy drinks, has numerous one night stands and hurls insults, all to escape her existence.

Schumer is the screenwriter here and like Woody Allen before her, she uses impressionistic bits from her own life. Her father, played by Colin Quinn, contracts MS and her boyfriend played by wrestler John Cena is clearly based on Amy's own past beau Dolph Ziggler.

While the story, concerning the struggle of a cynical and promiscuous bratty woman, might be nothing new in Apatow's world, it is the weird and honest charisma of Schumer herself that holds us to the screen. As a person, she occupies the middle realm between cute and strange, between what is attractive and off putting. As a personality, Schumer is an outlier, saying what most every girl wants to say, but is pressed to discard or delay. Her comedy is usually percussive and immediate and it is in good effect in this outing, her first film role.

Amy meets her subject, a seemingly milquetoast Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) . As bumpy as the interview is, the doctor and Amy have an interest and agree to go to dinner after a comical office tour.

The two spend an increasing amount of time together with quirk and accord, but Amy's dysfunctional defenses rise to the fore, causing Aaron great distress.

In the character of Amy, one gets a more realistic picture of selfishness as depicted by Kristen Wiig in "Welcome to Me," which attempted to display a similar darkly humorous tone. Here, the key is perfect. When Amy walks out on Aaron's award ceremony, she does not apologize and is clearly damaged and dangerous.

Though the plot sometimes follows routine including an all too silly intervention scene with Chris Evert, Marv Albert and a wooden Matthew Broderick, many of the segments are sharp and cutting. With an eerie tone reminiscent of "Play It Again, Sam" Amy Schumer's best material occurs in a movie theater when her blunt bruiser boyfriend gets into a reluctant fight with another couple over an hysterical war of words.

Another visceral bit occurs in a hospital. When Amy witnesses knee surgery, she instantly vomits green goo on the window. Alas, the actress does resemble Linda Blair, to the point of Aaron mentioning it in conversation.

There is also a disquieting part, involving a teen intern (Erza Miller) who wants to be sexually hit while crying out for his mother.

Amy is duped into consent and fired.

In every social situation, Amy is the iconoclast and irritant, a usual type in many "shock" comedies. But here is the twist: she is one hundred percent real and believable.

Basketball superstar LeBron James is here and does well. His lines are funny and he has a quick repartee.

Amusing celebrity cameos aside, the real adhesive is the chemistry between Schumer and Hader who make the outrageousness into some entertaining physics of cause and effect.

Devotees of Judd Apatow will recognize his usual championed advice for couples to stay together at all cost. Amy Schumer gives the usual monogamous message of "Trainwreck" a spaced out and refreshing flavor. By employing the autobiographical artillery of Woody Allen, she fires back at her circumstances and even aims a jab at Allen himself. A combative comedy under the guise of the conventional, Amy Schumer alone is a solitary soldier. Compelling, feckless and awkward, she refuses any apology, which makes this comic and actor all the more watchable.

Write Ian at

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cartel Land (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Cartel Land

Pop culture is obsessed with the mechanics of drug production. Both "Escobar" by  Andrea Di Stefano and "Savages" directed by  Oliver Stone were two scarifying films about drug gangs, and TV's "Breaking Bad" made history for its existential antics.

"Cartel Land" by director Matthew Heineman is a punchy and acidic look at Knights Templar, a meth cartel along the Arizona border where there are no easy answers.

The violence from the Templar has brought Tim Foley into action. He's part of  Arizona Recon, a group committed to root out drug workers and bring them to some karmic justice via guns and brute force. To some Foley is an amoral vigilante, but to others he is a Batman of the desert, locating drugs and their makers and hauling them in, dead or alive.

His life is a waiting game of cat and mouse, endless hours of stillness.  It is thankless work in a dusty and cramped space, while some journalists malign is efforts, labeling him as reactionary with anti-government leanings.

Then there is  Dr. Mireles, a gentle doctor by day and a paramilitary anti drug leader during odd hours. Gray and soft spoken with a billowy mustache, he has the aura of the writer Ambrose Bierce. His goal is to persuade with words as well as bullets and to take back Tepalcatepec as well as other locations along the Michoacan coast. He has had several family members murdered by the Knights Templar.

He never sleeps.

Second in command is Papa Smurf, a stocky  ball of a man who likes to rule with his rifle. Although the Autodefensas as they are called do liberate neighborhoods from crime, residents are understandably filled with fear and anxiety, not liking the violence and expecting retaliation.

Indeed, the Templar appear to have the upper hand. Each night they stir a witchy brew of stupefying narcotics for all to consume. Powder hangs in the night air creating an wraith of toxic dust.

The Autodefensas race through the streets and haul people from their dwellings, sometimes right from the sidewalk without reason or cause. They browbeat with guns and sexual taunts and punches those who look suspicious . Some blatantly break laws, invading homes at random and taking what they want, while fetishizing guns and blood.

It becomes a push-pull game with residents caught in a nervous noose.

It is Dr. Mireles alone who comes off as most sincere, although outside of his work he sneakily has numerous affairs under the gaze of his steady wife. Mireles is passionate and charismatic, clearly caring about his people.

Papa Smurf has ties to the cartel with a new rifle funded by a nightshade government.

Disquieting it is though to see the doctor in the right, then abruptly turn a corner to adultery and betray his wife.

Mireles suffered partial paralysis due to an airplane accident and some say the Templar are to blame.

Meanwhile, the Autodefensas have sensual and riotous parties, filled with salsa dancing and the machismo display of shiny pearl handled weaponry.

The flow of this documentary is brisk and dizzying with plenty of gut-wrenching episodes, not least of them featuring a paramilitary officer sadistically pistol whipping a man, a presumed Templar, accompanied by his screaming daughter.

Tim Foley lies in wait along the rocks, his face becoming indistinguishable from the red clay beneath him. His drive is cathartic growing like a cactus and bristling from the anger of a father.

Despite his skill and homespun technology, though, it does appear that the Knights Templar still maintain an advantage. For within their toxic cauldron, a menacing mist rises, a swirl of seductive poison. The infinite shapes of destruction that flicker in "Cartel Land" are legion and not for innocent eyes.

Write Ian at

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Week of August 14 - 20 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Eight -- Count ‘em -- Movies On Four Tropic Screens
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film critic, Cooke Communication

How do they do it, squeeze eight movies onto four screens? Needless to say, Tropic Cinema is a master at juggling showings. And not a single double feature, although one could do a movie marathon if stamina allowed.

New this week is “Testament of Youth,” the WWI memoir of British author Vera Brittain. Starring Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”), the film traces the war experiences of Vera and her Oxford University friends. It’s considered one of the “finest true-life accounts of the war.” Montreal Gazette calls it “a powerful story of the lunacy of war and its devastating consequences, but also one that refuses to dwell in despair and seeks to impart a message of hope - no matter how futile that dream has become.” And Daily Telegraph warns, “Don't expect to come away from this beautiful and impactful film unshaken.”

For a more modern drama -- or is it a comedy? -- you’ll want to catch “Tangerine,” the tale of a transgender hooker out to wreak havoc on her unfaithful boyfriend. Taking place on a Christmas Eve at Hollywood’s Donut Time eatery, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her pal, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are looking to put some hurt on Chester and his new gal. Arizona Republic says, “Rodriguez and Taylor are terrific. Their confidence is infectious, yet they never let us forget the challenges their lives offer.” And Larsenonfilm notes that the iPhone-filmed movie “has humor, tawdriness and a strange, persistent beauty.”

Another kind of relationship is put under the microscope in “Trainwreck,” the new Amy Schumer comedy about a commitment-phobic magazine writer who meets Mr. Right (Bill Hader, in this case). The laughs come from examining that love-‘em-and-leave-‘em attitude from a female viewpoint. Total Film says, “Amy Schumer is a force to be reckoned with.” And ABC Radio observes, “Schumer has balanced her naturally subversive sense of humor with the demands of true ruthless commercialism.”

Speaking of relationships, there’s Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” another of those older-man-younger-woman tales so close to the filmmaker’s own life. Here a college philosophy prof (Joaquin Phoenix) has great sex with one of his students (Emma Stone) after he decides to murder a stranger. Guess nobody told him Viagra was less risky. Capital Times crows, “Beautifully shot and more narratively disciplined than some of Allen's later films, it shows there's life in the old dog yet.” However, the Advocate sees it as “more for Woody Allen completists than general audiences.”

Jake Gyllenhaal is still duking it out in “Southpaw,” the boxing comeback story. You’ll have a ringside seat to a great performance from muscled-up Jake. Cambridge Day agrees: “Gyllenhaal, who clearly relished getting into tip-top shape (he's ripped and shirtless throughout) for the project, gives it his thespian all.” And Urban Cinefile adds, “With the story’s emotional heart as compelling as its bloody fight sequences, ‘Southpaw’ is a powerhouse of a film.”

Action of another kind is found in “Jurassic World,” another installment in the Jurassic Park series about rampaging dinosaurs. This time it's a genetically modified beast that seems intent on devouring visitors to the island theme park. Desert News calls it “a fun summer ride.” And Cinefantastique proclaims, “Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory.”

Want a good giggle? Try “Minions,” the animated movie about those bumbling yellow henchmen you met in “Despicable Me.” Looking for a villain to serve, they latch onto Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) at a baddie convention in Orlando. Starburst calls it “almost complete nonsense, but it's good natured, enjoyable nonsense nonetheless.” And Globe and Mail describes it as “a visual sugar rush for the preschool set.”

Ready for a dose of grim reality? Try “Cartel Land,” a documentary about the vigilantes who fight the Mexican drug cartels. The film focuses on Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, among other gun-toting do-gooders. One Guys Opinion tells us, “Vigilantism on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. line is the subject of Mathhew Heineman’s powerful but curiously diffuse documentary.” Boston Globe says, “Even if it leaves you wanting more, ‘Cartel Land’ deserves to be seen.” And New York Magazine calls it “one of the year’s most important documentaries ...”

Eight films -- dramas to comedies, animation to documentaries -- all of them gotta-see movies.

Trainwreck (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Trainwreck” Is Not a Trainwreck
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Amy Schumer is a fast-rising comedienne, best known for her Comedy Central series called “Inside Amy Schumer.” As much as she talks about her private parts on the show, it is aptly titled.

Now she’s hit the big time, coming to the attention of comedymeister Judd Apatow, who is directing her first film, “Trainwreck.” Needless to say, she wrote the script herself.

“Trainwreck” is rolling them in the aisles at Tropic Cinema.

It’s the story of a commitment-phobic young woman who eschews matrimony for a no-holds-barred lifestyle. “I’m just a modern chick who does what she wants,” Amy says. That includes charity work. “I slept with a lot of fat guys in college,” she describes her good deeds.

You see, Amy’s divorce-bitter dad (Colin Quinn) taught her that “monogamy isn’t realistic.” So what happens when this good-time gal meets the right man?

As a magazine writer, Amy sets out to interview a successful sports doctor (SNL alum Bill Hader), not prepared to fall for the guy. But she is taken by the doc’s charming naiveté. How many women has he slept with? “I’ve slept with three,” he says. “I’ve slept with three women too,” Amy replies.

Like on her Comedy Central sketch show, Schumer surrounds herself with recognizable stars. Here we have Tilda Swinton, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, wrestler John Cena, among others.

The director takes some credit for the casting. Always the last kid picked on a team, Apatow says he grew up hating athletes. Now he likes hiring them for movies so he can boss them around on set. This time it’s basketball great LeBron James. “LeBron’s greatest strength as an actor is that he showed up on time,” quips Apatow.

Schumer wrote LeBron James’s part with him in mind, although Barkhad Abdi was originally cast in the role.

She described her character’s boss as a “Tilda Swinton type,” and Tilda said yes when Apatow called her.

Most importantly, Schumer wrote the script hoping that Judd Apatow would agree to direct it, so she deliberately “wrote in things that would attract him to the project.” It worked. This is the first film Judd Apatow has directed that he didn’t write.

Promoted as “Not Your Mother’s Romantic Comedy,” the success of “Trainwreck” comes from Amy Schumer’s subtly subverting the rom-com formula, turning it into something of a reverse-gender “Jerry Maguire.”

“Trainwreck” is profane, funny, entertaining. It is anything but a trainwreck.

Testament of Youth (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Testament of Youth” Examines Lost Generation
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

British author Vera Brittain came of age during World War I. A young Oxford student, she along with her brother Edward and his friends were swept up in world events. She became a V.A.D. nurse
serving on the front lines; her brother and many of his friends died in the war. Among the losses was her fiancé Roland Leighton.

Life went on and she married and had children and lived a fruitful life. But she documented her youthful tragedy in a 1933 memoir titled “Testament of Youth.” It is considered one of the finest true-life accounts of the war, in that it captured the effects of the war from a domestic point of view, how it impacted the lives of young women like Vera Brittain.

In 1979 it was dramatized as a five-part series on BBC2.

Then, with the encouragement of Vera Brittain’s daughter and her mother’s biographer, a new version was announced in 2009. That film was released in late 2014 as part of the First World War commemorations.

“Testament of Youth” is playing this week at Tropic Cinema.

Alicia Vikander (oddly enough, a Swedish actress) takes on the role of Vera. You saw her in the Academy Award nominated Danish film “A Royal Affair” and more recently as the android in “Ex Machina.” She’s next slated to appear in Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Then in “Adam Jones” with Bradley Cooper and “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne.

Christopher "Kit" Harington (a Brit) shows good chemistry with Vikander as Roland, Vera’s lost love. You know him from TV’s “Game of Thrones.” And you’ve heard his voice in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

Taron Eggerton and Colin Morgan play brother Edward and blinded friend Victor. Dominic West and Emily Watson are the Brittain parents. And Miranda Richardson makes an appearance in a lesser role.

Director James Kent describes it as a profound story of love and loss.

Alicia Vikander says, “I fell in love with Vera. She is a very strong character. It reminds you how much women’s history has changed in 100 years.”

Vera Brittain’s book (and thus the movie) is based in part on a series of correspondences between Vera and her friends, later collected under the title “Letters from a Lost Generation.” A term coined by Gertrude Stein and popularized by Ernest Hemingway, Lost Generation describes those who came of age during World War I. Here the word “lost” means “disoriented, directionless.”

However, Vera Brittain -- often cited as a willful young woman who epitomized early feminism -- was far from directionless. Often described as “rebellious and wise beyond her years,” she knew where she was going; the war just got in the way.

Minions (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Minions” Are Lovable Villains
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The terminology is well understood: Heroes have sidekicks; villains have minions.

Sidekicks are good guys who often provide comic relief or physical backup for a cowboy in a white hat (think: Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette), a superhero (think: Captain America and Bucky), or a private detective (think: Nero Wolf and Archie).

Minions are supposed to be bad guys, often bunglers who assist an archvillain in his evil deeds. But Illumination Entertainment got it kinda wrong when they created the helpers for Gru in those animated “Despicable Me” movies.

Bunglers, yes. But Gru’s minions were cute little guys who looked like yellow kernels of corn wearing goggles. And what’s more, we were supposed to love them!

How wrong could that be?

Well, not very. The first two “Despicable Me” films have grossed over $1.5 billion.

So now we have a third film, a spinoff simply titled “Minions.”

“Minions” -- now playing at Tropic Cinema -- is actually a prequel.

Tracing the role of these little yellow minions throughout history, we see them attach themselves to unsuccessful villain after villain -- Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Egyptian Pharaoh, Dracula, to name a few. By 1968, they are in need of a new master.

So three of the little guys -- Kevin, Stuart, and Bob -- set off to Orlando, Florida, to attend Villain-Con, a convention where baddies go to solicit henchmen. There they meet Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), the world’s first female supervillain. Through Scarlet has many applicants, Bob wins the challenge thanks to a fumble where his teddy bear gets switched for her ruby ring.

Scarlet takes her new minions back to her headquarters in London, where she plans to steal St. Edward’s Crown. Needless to say, things go wrong. Kevin must rescue his pals from being tortured by Scarlet’s husband Herb (voiced by John Hamm), in the process foiling Scarlet from being crowned Queen of England.

And all the other minions come up from Antarctica, after riding in kangaroo pouches to escape a tribe of angry yeti (don’t ask); Kevin shrinks back to normal size after becoming a giant (well, it’s a long story); and we meet young Felonious Gru (setting up the plot for the other movies in the franchise).

In addition to co-directing the film, Pierre Coffin does all the minion voices. Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, and Steve Coogan lend their voices to assorted characters. Steve Carell reprises his role as Gru. And Geoffrey Rush acts as the story’s narrator.

Having been called “America’s Sweetheart,” Academy Award-winner Sandra Bullock decided to play against type in “Minions.” As producer Chris Meledandri puts it, “This is a side to Sandra Bullock we haven't seen before. She is really enjoying playing with this villainy. But underneath there’s a character you cannot help but fall in love with.”

You might say the same about these little yellow minions.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Irrational Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Irrational Man

The Woodman is back for the summer and he treads over predictable forests in "Irrational Man," starring Joaquin Phoenix, who duly delivers Woody Allen's voice and monologue.
Phoenix is professor Abe Lucas at Braylin College, a small Rhode Island campus. He is struck with an acute apathy and a lethargy of spirit. Despite his torpor, he is popular with his students who see enough of his iconoclastic views to admire him.

Chief among his enthusiasts is the idealistic Jill (Emma Stone) who quickly becomes enamored of his nonchalant manner and fatalist opinions. Though romantically secured to handsome but humdrum Roy (Jamie Blackley) who she clearly loves, Jill is hooked on the spontaneous and wobbly professor.

The two spend more and more time together,  displaying a verbal intimacy while remaining physically platonic.

At a lunch visit, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation involving a profoundly bad  judge, one Thomas Spangler ( Tom Kemp), whose custody rulings are causing great pain and distress to a loving mother.

What if I did something to help this situation, thinks Abe. Would my life then have a positive result?

Although the narrative progression is all too familiar considering Allen's legendary oeuvre complete with philosophical quips, questioning voiceovers and the routine angst-ridden drifting, events are helped a bit by the unusual melancholy and subtle mania of Joaquin Phoenix.

This is almost, but not quite enough to make the film a solid and satisfying experience.

There are some good and nearly great scenes here, most notably when Abe is at a party and decides to try Russian Roulette on a whim. In another scene, a volatile and quietly crazed Abe takes Jill through a circus mirror where bodies are distorted in ways that are both shocking and sweet. Which Abe, which Jill is which here? The circus grotesquerie of both characters, although hidden, may rise above the surface at any moment in accordance with happenstance.

This concept in addition to the dialogue between Abe and Jill makes the initial quandary lively and brisk. Add to the mix some evocative cinematography by Darius Khondji, showing Abe standing separate and apart from his  lover Rita (Parker Posey) on the gray and jagged sea ledges of Rhode Island, and it would seem that the maestro does indeed have another winner.

By midway however, the plot and momentum stalls out with endless comings and goings between Abe, Jill and her acquaintances in wondering just what the professor might be up to. Several circular discussions around tables and cafes ensue. Rita is questioned and Jill's parents inquire but the events are treated as superficial whimsy rather than with the preceding moral and provocative import. The melodrama becomes a hint of Agatha Christie rather than Dostoyevsky, given at a snail's pace.

Such is the case that when the act does unfold, it feels too rapid, abrupt and too neatly packaged to be lasting.

Abe's final decision, although recognizable from the previously excellent work "Match Point," does have apprehension, weight and energy. It is only the last stroke, cutely reminiscent of an O. Henry short story that makes everything feel too sewn in the edges with a feeling of being taken.

That said, Woody Allen is a distinctive creator and fans will find much to like here, not least of which is some glib Sartre slinging by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor in good harmony with Emma Stone who acts as the director's superego.

 "Irrational Man" might be too rational in its seriocomic intent, but due solely to the strong leads and some nostalgic angst, the most regular auteur in cinema still manages to have quirk in his questioning.

Write Ian at

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Tangerine (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Sean Baker (Starlet, Greg the Bunny) directs a rollicking tale of foul-mouthed streetwalkers along Hollywood in "Tangerine." The film is madcap, glib and very entertaining, similar in tone to the work of Harmony Korine.

Two transgender sex-workers: Sinn- Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are inseparable. Together, they have a rapport like a modern Abbott & Costello, and the two are the spirit of this film.

Sinn-Dee has recently been released from prison. During a break, Alexandra tells her that her boyfriend / pimp, Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her. Sinn-Dee goes ballistic.

She is bent on revenge.

While the plot is nothing new, the one-liners come at you full throttle. Both Rodriguez and Taylor are first time actors who are actually transgender and they deliver a pulse that carries the film throughout. Together the two create a subversive orbit that is percussive and manic but not without its warm center.

Rodriguez is a diva through and through. As the camera tilts in space, her fingernails alone make her a lioness, stealthy and rough as a cat's tongue and beyond reproach.

Taylor by contrast is cool and icy, almost removed from the fleshy plateau. Although more realistically drawn, the pair have a juicy fantastic quality with an edginess akin to the late Edith Massey and Divine, the famous duo from the great John Waters.

James Ransone, is sharp as well as the pimp you may well love to hate, or at least cringe over.

There is also the zany yet philosophical addition of a self-righteous cab driver with secrets, one Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who resembles De Niro's  Travis Bickle, even to the point of a birthmark on his cheek.

Above all though, the film has a circular freshness in brilliant color, all the more remarkable because the film was entirely shot with two iPhones. Not one conventional camera was used.

This is a film where we really sense the weird day-glow land of Hollywood. Rodriguez and Taylor loom larger than life as two hunted felines and vengeful giantesses in this amphetamine-eyed tale.

The characters are wacky with speeches that wobble upside down and right side up.

"Tangerine" stands out for its sour orange spirit that is never bitter. In its vitality and feeling it owes as much to author Charles Bukowski as it does to other edgy filmmakers who once ruled the day.

Write Ian at

Friday, August 7, 2015

Week of August 7 to August 13 (Rhoades)

Woody Allen Leads New Films At Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

This week Tropic Cinema offers us films about murderous intellectuals, angry trannies, redemptive prizefighters, rampaging dinosaurs, and dead singers.

Take a look:

Allan Stewart Konigsberg makes thought-worthy movies. You probably know him better as Woody Allen. His latest -- a philosophical rumination titled “Irrational Man” -- features Joaquin Phoenix as a college philosophy professor who decides to kill a stranger. That seems to invigorate his sex life with a student (Emma Stone) and a fellow faculty member (Parker Posey). Detroit News says, “At the age of 79, Woody Allen is still a formidable filmmaker (‘Blue Jasmine’ was just two years ago). But he is also, inevitably, Woody Allen.” Boston Globe comments, “In the end, this feeble effort remains tainted, however unfairly, by the creator's personal life. Maybe Allen should have titled it ‘Rationalizing Man.’” And Urban Cinefile sums it up, “With its somewhat cynical view of life, love and sense of purpose, the film plays out beautifully on an intellectual level, while the compelling presence of Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone brings a formidable dynamic.”

“Tangerine” is a movie about an angry ex-con transsexual woman named Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her trans pal (Mya Taylor) who spends Christmas Eve searching for Sin-Dee’s boyfriend (James Ransone) and the straight woman (Mickey O’Hagan) he’s cheating on her with. The Hollywood Reporter described the film as “a singularly delightful girlfriend movie with an attitude.” Arizona Republic observes, “Rodriguez and Taylor are terrific. Their confidence is infectious, yet they never let us forget the challenges their lives offer.” And Newsday calls it a “smart, antic comedy that’s eager to offend.”

“Southpaw” carries over on Tropic screens. Here Jake Gyllenhaal portrays a prizefighter trying to make a comeback, kind of a “Rocky” with grit. New England Movies Weekly comments that this is “a story we’ve seen many times before, but it’s acted with such heart and directed with such skill that it’s hard to resist.” And Quad City Times says, “It punches past boxing clichés.”

Action thriller fans will want to catch “Jurassic World,” the fourth installment in the Jurassic Park series. You guessed it -- a big bad dinosaur terrorizes the island theme park. This time it’s up to an intrepid dino trainer (Chris Pratt) to save the day from this genetically modified Indominus rex. describes it thus: “Dinosaurs escape, people get eaten. Same old story but with bigger dinosaurs.” And ABC Radio Brisbane tells us it’s “worth seeing for the pure spectacle.”

The late Amy Winehouse, that eclectic British songstress who died at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, is profiled in “Amy: The Girl Behind the Name,” a documentary by Asif Kapadia. The film uses a pastiche of home movies, rare footage of recording sessions, unheard recording tracks, videos shot on tour, and interviews to piece together her tormented life and career. describes the doc as being “in-your-face intimate, a tragic rise and fall lit by paparazzi flashbulbs.” Sacramento News & Review sees it as “an extremely powerful and emotionally resonant work, and a stirring testimony to the unique talent and unrealized potential of Amy Winehouse.” And Chicago Daily Herald sums it up as “mostly a celebratory work, laced with the acidic realization that nobody wanted to be a speed bump on the singer's road to self-demise.”

Woody Allen to Amy Winehouse -- take a look.

Irrational Man (Rhoades)

Woody Allen’s
“Irrational Man”
Makes Sense

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The latest Woody Allen movie can be summed up by the title of a 1958 book titled “Irrational Man: A Study In Existential Philosophy.”

In fact, the Woodman appropriates that very title.  His “Irrational Man” is a film about a college philosophy professor who finds himself in an existential crisis.

Woody Allen’s life itself has been one long existential crisis. His comedy shtick was one of nattering neurosis. However, if you peek under the blanket of his jokes, you’ll find an intellectual huddling there in the dark, contemplating the meaning of life. Or lack thereof.

The telling of “Irrational Man” relies on familiar Woody Allen themes: At the small Rhode Island campus of Braylin College, dispirited prof Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix) finds meaning to his life by having an affair with one of his students (Emma Stone).

The older man - younger woman storyline has been recurrent since “Manhattan.” The adoration of a father figure was iconized by “Annie Hall.” The worship of the gamin was reflected in his relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrell … and Soon Yi.

“Irrational Man” is sharing Woody’s personal philosophy at Tropic Cinema.

But the film is in part a Hitchcockian murder mystery. Paunchy, melancholy Abe Lucas decides to randomly (more or less) kill a judge. Kind of like a single-handed crisscross from “Strangers On a Train.” This self-assigned purpose is like Viagra to the soul. And body.

A fellow faculty member (Parker Posey) and his most brilliant student (Stone) are the main beneficiaries of Abe’s renewed sex drive. The audience is spared meaningless philosophy lessons on Kierkegaard.

As Abe tells his students, “much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” So are Woody Allen movies. But they give us pleasure.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Magic Mike XXL (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Magic Mike XXL

Here is "Magic Mike XXL," a sequel that does its best to be a conceptual tribute to the Beach Blanket Bingo films of old, in addition to the dance films of the 80s such as "Breakin'." The content might be skinny as a rail, but the film has enough kitsch and charm to pad its slight form.

Beefcake abounds and for those salivating for a bare torso or two, the second chapter doesn't disappoint.

The Kings of Tampa are without Dallas (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey ) but Mike (Channing Tatum) is summoned to consolidate the gang for a stripper convention.

The story starts with Mike as a furniture maker leaving stripping behind,  except perhaps for the varnishing of tables. But alone in the wood shop, when the croaky riffs of Ginuwine hits the speakers, Mike and his power-drill starts to spin. After all, you can't  expect him to stay still, can you? This is some of the best dancing in the film, similar to Michael Chambers in "Breakin'" from last century, when Turbo danced with a broom. If a broom seemed cool in 1984, why not a drill today?

Say what you will about Tatum's line delivery, the camera loves him. The music fits perfectly with the kinetic foolery on screen that borders on slapstick.

Mike hits the road with Rick (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash ), and Tobias (comedian Gabriel Iglesias).

The dialogue doesn't have much going for it, as it concerns girls, work and the fact that both of those elements are absent. But every liney is given such an flat tone that one can almost predict that this generic speech might soon be recited verbatim as in a Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Just when things get a little sleepy, Mr. Manganiello does a very funny number winding on the floor like a snake to liven things up again. Such a routine makes little sense but this gives the action a strange shot in the arm. You might feel a little like a voyeur. The film has a definite quirk and never takes itself seriously.

The boys stop in Savannah, dropping in on a silly group of risqué performers who simulate sex. Football star Michael Strahan is one of the dancers. The entire floor is shellacked with dollar bills.

Money is everything.

This segment contains a bit of philosophy in spite of itself. Male dancers are healers in this episode hired to make ladies feel good. No need for headaches, though. This is as deep as it gets.

Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) soon appears as a catty MC and does well along with current screen siren Amber Heard as a troubled valentine preoccupied with cake and cross-dressing.

Transparent and shallow as it is with dialogue that would fit General Hospital, the film has an offhand charge and an immediacy that gives it a weird life in spite of its bland nature. With its full closeups of Tatum's shoulders which resemble big screen boulders, the director gives Warhol's worship of Joe Dallesandro a run for his shirt.

Even without the wonder of director Steven Soderbergh who gave the first "Magic Mike" its juice with his arresting camera angles, this outing directed by Gregory Jacobs packs enough punch through its rousing nightshade gyrations.

Just in its abundance of flesh as the characters tumble and whirl about tossing women about like dinosaurs flinging their prey, "Magic Mike XXL" is a mirror of our times. All is in a whirl. Our century is a highly sexualized ADD carnival where voices are both rapid and monotone, virtual possibilities are a hundred fold and the runway over reason, rules the day.

In addition to being a contemporary beach movie, "Magic Mike" and its sequel complements the "Fast and Furious" films. Instead of cars and speed, there is dance, and emotional manipulation as the new machismo, unbound by social mores, yet perfectly in synch with capitalism.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jurassic World (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Jurassic World

The days of the Saturday matinees are here again in "Jurassic World" based on the fictions of author Michael Crichton. Previously helmed by Joe Johnston and originally directed by the man who brought "cliffhangers" back to the cinema, Steven Spielberg, this chapter is helmed by Indie darling Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed).

Two brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) are going to spend time with their bureaucratic Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a new amusement park complex off the coast of Costa Rica, named Jurassic World, a kind of Epcot Center for dinosaurs.

Why the parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) would let their kids go on this trip to begin with is a bit far fetched. But this is a summer film after all.

In true Spielberg fashion, the younger brother Gray is cutely mop-haired, precociously energetic and a die hard fossil fanatic, while Zach can't be bothered. Gray rushes to the gate as if filled with a hundred sodas and Zach lethargically drifts.

While it is no secret about what's coming, this film has a real sense of quickness, escapist joy and most importantly, humor. When the boys go into a capsule for a ride on safari, they are greeted onscreen by Jimmy Fallon who tells them they are completely safe while acting the part of a bumbling scientist in a lab coat.

This segment is one of the best parts in the film.

The great Indian actor Irrfan Khan does well as the zen like owner of Jurassic World and the one character who urges many to recognize the spontaneity and the immediacy of all things.

Chris Pratt is our generically handsome hero-hunk who knows every answer. He is a kind of Jack Cotton from "Romancing the Stone".

Though the plot is outrageous and far from logic, the action never stops. The creatures, too, remain interesting, even though their scaly skins are all too familiar.

Central to the plot and most entertaining is the legendary "Jaws" concept of tourism spun wildly out of control at the expense of human safety and life. Here are throngs of tourists sipping Starbucks coffee as velociraptors gnash their teeth like a Maurice Sendak nightmare.

Keep your eyes peeled for salty songster Jimmy Buffett who rescues his margaritas from disaster before scrambling from the flying people eaters in a cameo. Yes, even Jurassic World comes with a Margaritaville.

Much has been made that this film flies in the face of realism and science in its omission of feathered creatures. But unless you are a purist, don't get your claws distended. This is pure entertainment through and through.

Much of the satisfaction comes from the usual Spielberg touch. A new composer Michael Giacchino includes the original theme by John Williams. Many of the shots are seen from the ground up, another Spielberg touch. Last but not least we have a  pompous overweight man of greed ( Vincent D'onofrio) in charge of defense. Though he is a grown up given authority, he is little more than a baby who wants to be left with his war toys.

No little credit and spirit should be given to both Trevorrow and Pratt in making "Jurassic World" more than a bunch of bare bones. By using their skill together with an affectionate understanding of what it truly means to go to the movies, we might just miss that we have been happily duped, by thinking that everything old is quite new, and even refreshing, once more.

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Amy (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Amy" by director Asif Kapadia (Senna) constructs a stirring and melancholy portrait of the bluesy singer Amy Winehouse who died at 27.

The film, taking a cue from some recent examinations of Kurt Cobain, shows Winehouse frequently in her own words with home movies and recorded video, some of it done covertly it would seem.

This gives the content a nervous and raw feeling that many documentaries lack.

We soon get the feeling that we are along for a jittery, sensitive and often uncomfortable ride, but one that is never boring and builds in apprehension.

We first see Winehouse as a young girl singing with her friend  Juliette and Lauren at a birthday party. Even in this beginning segment, Winehouse is a surprise. A teenager with a voice like Shirley Bassey. She sings at small venues and attracts the attention of famous British producer Simon Fuller. Winehouse was kept as an industry secret but earned a contract with Island Records and formed a harmonious relationship with the spontaneous and risky hip hop producer Salaam Remi.

As the initial voltage of fame hits Winehouse, the tattoos on her arms increase along with her glib tongue and musical prowess.

Despite her youth, she doesn't suffer fools gladly and never holds back.

With her wide eyes, Sharpie lined in black, and red lips, Winehouse looks like a rockabilly version of a WAVE, as if drawn by Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer with a voice of smoke and muslin. Her persona was split in two. On one hand, Amy is the good girl, a dedicated performer, angelic, vulnerable and charming. But on the other, she is serpentine and uncouth, lusty with a pinup sensuality, a siren of broken glass.

We see her beau and fiancé, Blake, who has an aura of actor Malcolm McDowell, alternately love her and cast her aside. He goes to prison to see Amy at the height of her fame in the arms of another man.

Ultimately we see Winehouse under a fragile  light, uncompromisingly wearing her dark makeup which resemble shady quarter notes around her eyes. No matter what, she is driven to give and perform through song.

Through all the rocks and wretchings , Tony Bennett, the iconic cool cat in gray knows her core spirit. To him, Winehouse is a parallel to Ella Fitzgerald.

 When the two collaborate together, her eyes light up in a cat's dazzle.

In later segments, we realize with sadness that this gifted chanteuse is caught and can't escape. The camera moves around her with the hectic motion of a housefly and with a shock we see her tongue turn green from narcotics.

It is hard not to see a bit of a villain in her father who is criticized for pushing himself upon her and telling her that rehab is unnecessary. In truth, Winehouse is squelched by a legion of controlling forces: producers, a father, and a feckless and constricting  boyfriend, all held together by a music industry that sought to turn her into a saucy cartoon penned with inky lines and rough edges.

What arises in "Amy" (regarding the person and the film)  is more poignant. An innocent and nervous young girl is embarrassed by her fame and lusts to sing her cimmerian melodies in private.

Winehouse is a kind of mascara comet held between worlds: one of them contains the gimlet eye of commercialism and hijinks, while the other embodies the curvaceous leap of artful jazz and Sarah Vaughan.

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