Saturday, February 28, 2015

American Sniper (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

American Sniper

The much talked about "American Sniper" by Clint Eastwood has arrived at The Tropic.

Although controversial, the film is unsurpassed and near virtuosic in showing the man / soldier Chris Kyle as a young boy infatuated by the cowboy way, until he transforms into the driven and devoted Navy SEAL (played with gripping detail by Bradley Cooper), the most "lethal" sniper in US military history with over a hundred fifty kills.

Kyle begins in Texas attending rodeos. This passage is reminiscent of "Dallas Buyers Club" in its naturalistic detail and its intense view of a young man with his horse. We also see Kyle as a boy as his dad (Ben Reed) talks to him about the danger of being a wolf, i.e., an aggressive bully. The next shot of Kyle is of a man, half shaded by the shield of his hat: a superhero --- The White Knight.

Eastwood employs the pop art of a cowboy together with beautiful cinematography rich in shadow and sun to portray a small town realm where things should and usually do go Right. The imagery quotes current cinema while also touching upon Clint Eastwood's western legacy.

When a U.S. Embassy is attacked in 1998, Kyle goes to enlist and begins SEAL training. A resolved and pragmatic Kyle endures hostile badgering and great discomfort in camp. As if made of stainless steel, he powers through, one enemy, one goal in mind. Kyle becomes a skilled rifleman. In the film, the act is akin to archery and near an art, and this is the controversy.

The pathos and nerve of this story is that it unfolds seamlessly as a fable of one man who is driven to protect and defend at all cost. The music score itself is a force in the film as sweeping violins mutate into the harsh grating tones of a sharp synthesizer or sonic guillotine. Like Hitchcock, Eastwood is giving a nod to his audience hinting at his "might makes right" persona, while illustrating this hostile world.

Above everything, we are shown Kyle as he is, quite and almost passive in public, yet with the ability to quip to the people he knows. At times, he is playful and charming and he moves with an unassuming, yet fluid gait. His wife Taya (Sienna Miller) struggles with needing him at home and knowing what he must do as Chris Kyle.

Though at times the villainous  Iraqis seem out of a graphic novel, as when his enemy, The Sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik),  assembles his gun, consumed by his duty to protect his side. But Chris Kyle is no supernatural person, seeped in magic light. His actions are genuine; he knows he has a talent as a sniper but he takes no hungering pleasure in killing.

It is Eastwood's episodic camera that elevates and puts this worthy person into the warm shade of a Norman Rockwell at the start. Troubling it is to see that Kyle wants to return to combat again, lest we forget that his utmost duty is to his fellow soldier.

Eastwood gives his protagonist the note of a Tall Tale in one scene as Kyle surprises Taya with a toy gun which deftly recalls Eastwood's past.

Bradley Cooper is uncanny in this stand-alone role as he fills Chris Kyle with verve, self-deprecation and more than a bit of fear. Taya may think that the man she loves is a stranger sitting alone with an odd, noisy but empty TV and almost striking a dog, but Kyle's story has resonated with the public.  Except for the flat tones that the Iraqis are given in the film, the day to day life of this man driven in his service is clearly portrayed.

No matter what your view is of the Gulf War, Kyle's life deserves to be told and above all else this film's awareness of PTSD is well handled and given no handwringing or sentimentality.

The film is a mirror. Pacifists might see it  lean as an anti-war meditation while vets may see it as a solid honor to heroes, a reckoning, and a record of what did and what is still happening.

"American Sniper" is all these things.

In addition to being a reflection, the positive thing in this bold and graphic tale is that it may well bridge a necessary gap between servicemen and civilians.

A hero story this is and rightly so, yet with  terror as well as tribute.

Compellingly, too, "American Sniper" is just as much about Eastwood and his symbols as it is about the earthy and honest Chris Kyle.

Write Ian at

Friday, February 27, 2015

Week of February 27 - March 5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview
Tropic Cinema and the Oscar Aftermath

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Admit it, there were a few Oscar contenders you missed. Now you’d like to go back and see them, to discover for yourself why these movies deserved Hollywood’s highest accolade. Well, Tropic Cinema offers that second chance to see a handful of noteworthy films.

"Birdman" is flying high after its four Oscar wins for Best Picture, Best director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Here Michael Keaton plays it close to the bone as a former superhero movie star who gave it all up, but now wants to make a comeback in a troubled Broadway play. The one-shot cinematography while not new (think: "Snake Eyes" or "Rope" or "Russian Ark") wowed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters. The Mercury sees it as "a slick delivery vehicle for a philosophically detailed existential crisis story, with life imitating art imitating life." and Filmink describes it as "admirably daring and filled with wonderfully vivid performances."

"Whiplash" also ruled with three Oscars, notable a Best Supporting Actor nod to the familiar face of J.K. Simmons ("Juno," TV’s "The Closer," those Farmer’s Insurance TV commercials), along with golden statuettes for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. He plays an overbearing music teacher driving students beyond their abilities. Daily Express tell us, "Simmons is unnervingly good as a teacher who rules by fear and the final showdown provides as gripping a climax as you will see all year." And The Ooh Tray calls it "as close to a perfect film as you're likely to see."

Still playing at the Tropic is "Still Alice," the Alzheimer’s film that won Julienne Moore an Academy Award as Best Actress. Here we follow the gradual loss of self-awareness by a famed linguistics professor who is afflicted with this terrible disease. Not a cheerful story, but definitely well acted by Miss Moore. Times-Picayune declares, "Julianne Moore isn't merely good in the lead role. She's devastatingly, heartbreakingly good." And Austin American-Statesman advises, "The focus on Alzheimer’s might be off-putting, but don’t let that stop you from seeing Julianne Moore."

Nominated for eight Oscars, "The Imitation Game" won for Best Adapted Screenplay. This is the story of WWII code breaker Alan Turning, masterfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Houston Press says, "Cumberbatch gives a performance that is, by turns, awkward, triumphant, and heartbreaking." And Monsters and Critics calls it "a rich performance with the pathos and drama of a new age of technology set within the hardships of war."
Back again is "The Theory of Everything," with Best Actor Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne as famed physicist Stephen Hawking. Cinema Signal tells us, "In a biopic-heavy Oscar season, Redmayne’s crack performance pays homage to a man who has advanced the studies of quantum mechanics, general relativity and black hole radiation." And Concrete Playground sees the movie as "a fitting reminder that beyond the extraordinary maths lies a man: mortal, flawed and confounded by love."

And taking aim is "American Sniper," with six Oscar nominations (and winning Best Sound Editing). Here we have Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Dial M for Movies says, "Amongst all the praise and criticism of the film, one thing that is certain -- Bradley Cooper succeeds in bringing Chris Kyle's patriotism and private battles to the screen." And Movie Habit notes that the film "rivets our attention while giving us plenty to think about."

And, of course, there’s "Mr. Turner," nominated for four Academy Awards. This is a biopic starring Timothy Spall as curmudgeonly British painter J.M.W. Turner. Charlotte Observer says, "Turner's great oils and watercolors ... seem indistinct at first but consist of a wealth of details that eventually merge into a clear picture. Mike Leigh’s movie does the same, building a full portrait from a series of vignettes." And Austin American-Statesman sees it as "an absolutely luminous film."

So there you have it. Don’t miss this chance to see (or re-see) some of this year’s Oscar winners and nominees.



Mr. Turner (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

"Mr. Turner" Shares A Painter’s Vision

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’d recognize a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner if you saw one in a museum. Those fuzzy, hazy, out-of-focus landscapes have a style all their own, as you may recall from Art Appreciation 101.
A British Romanticist painter, J. M. W. Turner (17751851) is often called "the painter of light" (no,
we’re not taking about Thomas Kinkaid, that commercial poseur who tried to claim the title.) Turner once had himself strapped to the mast of a ship during a snowstorm so he could get the light just right in his painting.

Some art critics describe his work as a precursor to Impressionism. Others have called his paintings abstract.

British director Mike Leigh, OBE, has made a biographical drama about the noted painter. Simply called "Mr. Turner," it is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

As a filmmaker Leigh has given us dramas like "Secrets & Lies," musicals like "Topsy-Turvy," and comedies like "Happy-Go-Lucky." He’s known for using improvisation to develop his stories. Being that he studied theater at the Camberwell School of Art, and also at the Central School of Art and Design, it’s safe to assume a few smudges of art history rubbed off. So now we have "Mr. Turner."

Leigh describes his films as "real life unfolding under extenuating circumstances." So perhaps it’s a tad unusual for him to do a biopic about a painter whose life is a matter of historical record.

In "Mr. Turner" we encounter the famous painter (played by Timothy Spall) during his later years. And we learn of the two women in his life, his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) who he has children with, and his seaside landlady (Marion Bailey) with whom he also has a sexual relationship. He is celebrated by the Royal Academy of Arts and at the same time viewed as an unpleasant grouch.

"Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall’s great achievement is showing us how the artist approached the physical business of painting," says Sir Nicolas Sarota, director of the Tate Galleries in England. "But they also convey the spirit of a man whose reputation as a curmudgeon is unwarranted, given his passionate interest in people and the world around him."

Passionate interest? Well, at least when it comes to his housekeeper and landlady.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mr. Turner (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall gives a stellar performance in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" about (who else) the wondrous romanticist painter, J.M.W. Turner, who put Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime into visual terms and prefigured abstract art in his sweeping canvases where sea and sky merge into one, a mixing in of motion and color.

Here is Turner waddling down the square, his head and body composed of two compartmented boxes. Complete with his art box around his neck, he appears a resolute and stubborn mobile mixed media machine, ready to paint. His face is permanently molded in a challenge, sculpted with a pallet knife. A battle has commenced.

Turner is consumed by work. He is constantly interrupted by Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), his first lover and mother of his two daughters, whom he sadly ignores.

Work is all that matters.

Turner does have a devoted housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who he orders about and takes sexual advantage of. Hannah loves him but Turner does  not reciprocate. Needless to say, in one blunt sex scene, Turner is no smooth talker.

He frequently grunts and not only during sex.

The painter does have one solid friend in his father (Paul Jesson) and their dialogue exchanges are as funny as they are earthy. Spall's Turner is the only character I know to date whose grunts convey a whole range of meaning.

On and on, Turner paints in his house and on the field. He is obsessed with finding the foremost expression of Nature in his brush.

As his round brick form bounces away from comments of other artists and critics, his face is composed in a plaster of paris scowl, a mask cloaking the sensitive person beneath.

The artist like a lethargic cannonball manages to sway away from most intruders except for the desperate painter Haydon (Martin Savage) who angrily refuses, then accepts, Turner's loan of fifty pounds.

Overwhelmed by domestic drama and the cry of a public that dooes not understand Turner's mixes of craze and color, he takes refuge in Chelsea. He manages to hit it off with an unassuming landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). Turner moves in with Booth, allowing him to explore the wilds of sea and sky, unfettered.

The film actually shows what it might be like to be this man. We see him stroke, spit and claw into the canvas, creating real mountains of texture and weight.

It does not hold back either, showing Turner hacking  away, battling with bronchitis, his lungs full of lead and cold rain, a by product of his times lashed to the mast in a snowstorm to capture the atmosphere as it moves and swirls.

"Mr. Turner" does well in showing the complete being not only as a person and a creator but also as a fragile cabinet of a being,  shuttered in and almost shattered by the death of his father.

Turner, was a kind of psychic painter.  Our millennial age of savage hurricanes, winter storms and tsunamis could just as well have been his time. Near the end of the film, Turner witnesses an early camera and remarks with a grunt, "They'll be carrying around those little boxes about instead of portfolios."

With a little imagination, Turner's boxes could even extend to today's iPhones.

Write Ian at

Sent from my iPhone

Friday, February 20, 2015

Week of February 20 - February 26 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Showcases Oscar Contenders
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications Newspaper Chain

Each week we take a brief look at movies playing at the Tropic Cinema and add comments from film critics. But those comments become more significant as we approach Oscar season. Sunday night is/was the 87th annual Academy Awards presentation and Tropic predictably offers some contenders in its gotta-watch lineup.
"Birdman" is being touted for Best Picture and Best Director (among nine nominations in all, a tie with "The Grand Budapest Hotel"). This almost-true story of a former comic-book-movie star trying to make a comeback fits star Michael Keaton like a cape and cowl. 3AW observes. "Michael Keaton is astounding in this brilliantly conjured piece of stream-of-consciousness cinema by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu...Prepare to be enthralled, dazzled, delighted and disturbed." And The Vine notes, "The Birdman/ Batman thing is a cool hook that ties in well with the public perception of Keaton's career." The Australian adds, "You are unlikely to see a better American film this year."

"Still Alice" may be a story about early-onset Alzheimer’s but Julianne Moore’s performance is (dare I say it?) unforgettable. She’s up for a Best Actress Oscar. Cleveland Plain Dealer proclaims, "Yes, Julianne Moore will win the Oscar. And yes, this in one depressing film." The Times-Picayune agrees, "Julianne Moore isn't merely good in the lead role. She's devastatingly, heartbreakingly good…."

"Whiplash" gives us a Best Supporting Actor contender, J.K. Simmons. He’s a tough-love mentor to an aspiring jazz drummer. Simmons deserves it, having paid his dues in various TV cop shows and insurance commercials. Daily Express tells us, "Simmons is unnervingly good as a teacher who rules by fear and the final showdown provides as gripping a climax as you will see all year." And calls the film "utterly brilliant and intense."

"The Imitation Game" offers Benedict Cumberbatch in a role that has garnered him a Best Actor nomination, that of British code breaker Alan Turning. While he’s my pick, it’ll probably go to Eddie Redmayne or Michael Keaton (see above). Houston Press says, "Cumberbatch gives a performance that is, by turns, awkward, triumphant, and heartbreaking." And The Standard calls the film "impressive, particularly due to Cumberbatch."

"A Most Violent Year" showcases great performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as an immigrant family trying to make it in New York in 1981. Groucho Reviews describes it as "an unsettling examination of moral drift, over a year in the life of a man and a generation in the life of a country." Cleveland Plain Dealer says, "In case you hadn't noticed yet, Oscar Isaac is the real deal." And Movie Habit calls the film "well acted and smart."

"Mr. Turner" is new to the screen this week, the compelling portrait of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall takes on the role of Turner with proper grumpiness. Movie Habit calls it a "portrait of the artist as a troll." Newsday notes, "Mike Leigh’s biopic is so richly detailed that it feels like a documentary." And Movie Chambers concludes, "Director Mike Leigh and actor Timothy Spall have painted their own masterpiece."

Okay, check your list of Oscar picks. Then make sure you catch these great performances being showcased at the Tropic.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Oscars At The Tropic (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Ever Been to the Oscars?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Hey, movie buffs -- ever been to the Oscars? You know, the annual lovefest that Hollywood throws each year for itself, handing out little golden statuettes as prizes for Best Picture, Best Actor, etc.

The Red Carpet interviews, the haut-couture gowns, the arm candy, the whoopla is almost as much fun as listening to the winners burble acceptance speeches that sometimes come out "You like me, you really like me!"

This Sunday the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will bring us the 87th Academy Awards presentations.

But you don’t have to fly to the West Coast to enjoy the festivities.

Key West’s Tropic Cinema again brings the Oscars to you -- live!

On February 22, the Tropic offers two ways to enjoy the 2015 Oscars:

A limited number of VIP tickets will admit moviegoers to a 6 p.m. champagne reception, along with food, and special seating in the Carper Theater … plus a gift swag bag. Just like being in Tinseltown.

And those who want to forego the VIP experience can join in at 7 p.m., receiving two drink tickets and hors d’ouevres along with the show.

Both Tropic members and non-members can plan on joining their friends watching the Red Carpet interviews, the Oscar presentations, the speeches by the winners, while rooting for your favorite movies of the year to win.

Man on Wire (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Philippe Petit Is the "Man On Wire"

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Philippe Petit is more sure-footed than most people. He’s a High Wire Artist. Yes, he’s that guy who walked across the wire from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other back in 1974.

The young Frenchman didn’t exactly have permission to do that. He danced on that thin wire without
a safety net for nearly an hour before he was arrested. His daring act has been called the "artistic crime of the century."

He merely calls it "le coup."

Filmmaker James Marsh made a documentary about it, appropriately titled "Man On Wire."

Having crossed between those twin towers some 1,350-feet above New York City’s streets, Philippe now finds himself in Key West, a town where six-story La Concha is the tallest downtown building.

"I’m here incognito," he quips. Having briefly passed through Key West on two previous occasions, he thought it would be a good place to go write his 11th book, The Key West Diary, while waiting for the snows to melt at his Catskills hideaway in upstate New York. He lives there most of the year, a quiet place to practice walking the tightrope in the "world’s smallest theater," a 6’ x 7’ arena inside a post and beam barn that he built with his own hands using 18th Century tools and methods. Philippe is also an Artist-in-Residence of the largest gothic cathedral in the world, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Starting off as a street performer in Paris, he was a juggler and magician before mastering the tightrope. He admits taking a few spills during practice when he was young, but "never while performing, else I wouldn’t be here to talk with you," he grins. After all, the elfin redhead performs without a safety net.

Dangerous? "I get a little anxious when I see the film," he says of his walk across the 7/8"-thick wire between the two 110-story-high towers.

Why does he perform such risky feats without a net? "You wouldn’t put a leash on a bird," he replies as if that explains everything. He describes feeling "absolutely free" when performing on a high wire.

You don’t have to go to the top of a tall building to meet Philippe Petit. He’ll greet you at ground level this coming Tuesday after a special screening of "Man On Wire" at the Tropic Cinema, where he will give a Q&A following the film.

You might want to ask him to perform a magic trick. He carries a handy coin given to him by German filmmaker Werner Herzog for just such contingencies. Or you may want to ask him why a seemingly sensible man might want to walk, dance, lean back, or lay down while on a wire suspended more than a quarter mile in the air.

And if you get him talking, he’ll tell you about a new 3-D Robert Zemeckis movie coming out this fall with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing him in "The Walk." He taught the actor to walk the tightrope for the movie. "He has a talent for it," mused Philippe Petit. "He became me."


New York Film Critics Series: BLUEBIRD (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

NYFC’s "Bluebird" Lands at Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What I like about these one-night-only movies presented at the Tropic Cinema as part of the ongoing New York Film Critics Series is what follows the film.

After each NYFCS screening (usually a film that’s being shown in advance of its normal release date) we get to meet the directors and stars.

Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers acts as our host, interviewing the participants in the movie that we’ve just seen. It’s captured live in-person, and then piped to the Tropic’s screen.

This Tuesday night NYFCS presents a private preview screening of "Bluebird," a film starring Amy Morton and John Slattery. You’ve seen Amy play George Clooney’s sister in "Up in the Air." And everyone is familiar with John from his role on TV’s "Mad Men."

"Bluebird" is a drama about a school bus driver whose momentary distraction brings near-tragedy to a snowy community in Maine.

Writer-director Lance Edmands is himself a native of Maine, so the nuances of the so-called Pine Tree State are spot-on.

Slattery who was born in Boston rises to the occasion, as does Morton who hails from Illinois. Acting, it’s called.

Peter Travers draws the details from this trio in his after-film interview. Sometimes meeting the stars is as interesting as watching the film.


Still Alice (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Still Alice” Is Still Sad

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What could be more tragic than a linguistic professor who begins to forget words? Well … one with early onset Alzheimer’s.

That’s the premise of “Still Alice,” a film based on the bestselling novel by Lisa Genova.

“Still Alice” stars Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a comfortably married linguistics professor with three grown children whose life is upended at age 50 when she learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Moore’s performance has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. After four previous Oscar nominations, Moore is considered a frontrunner for a golden statuette in Sunday’s 87th Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science presentations.

You can still catch “Still Alice” at the Tropic Cinema.

This sad story follows Alice as she discovers the cause of her forgetfulness and fights to retain her sense of who she is. Her family is impacted as they trace the gene that foretells this type of Alzheimer’s.

Alice begins to hide word clues for her to find (kinda like the way tattoos were used in “Momento”), and even prepares a video reminding herself to commit suicide when she can’t remember who she is.

The producers called in a consultant, an Oklahoma man named Ron Grant who suffers from the disease. For now, Grant has some measure of control over who he is -- but that won’t last long.

“The day will come eventually when I don’t, but right now, I do,” says Grant , who was 55 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“The filmmakers just wanted to get some information on what it’s like living with the disease so that they could try to as accurately as possible portray what it’s like,” he adds.

When a couple of friends told me they were off to see “Still Alice,” I responded, “Enjoy the film” -- then retracted my words. “Enjoy” is not the right description for this tragic drama. But Julianne Moore deserves an Academy Award.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Most Violent Year (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

A Most Violent Year

The new film by auteur J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost ) is a case study in urban working class and gangster films, with quotes from De Palma, Coppola and John G. Alvidsen.

Indeed, the first few frames of "A Most Violent Year" showing Abel (Oscar Isaac) running down a derelict New York City street circa 1981 are reminiscent of "Rocky".

This is no accident.

We will soon see that Abel, an aspiring Standard Oil Company tycoon, will run for his life.

Though corruption is rife in his field, Abel is at pains to do business correctly and efficiently. There is just one catch that threatens to stop up his flow of polite decorum and, more seriously, his cash flow: his truck drivers are being beaten and thrown from their trucks.

Thousands of gallons of fuel are lost.

This torments the dapper and usually soft spoken Abel (who possesses the aura of a young Michael
Corleone in The Godfather) no end. Who is responsible and how best to handle this aggression? Matters are further complicated by the fact that his moll-like wife (Jessica Chastain) is materialistic and the couple has just purchased a palatial mansion at the city's edge. When an adorable young driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) is pummeled bloody within an inch of his life, Abel, a resolute pacifist, refuses an aggressive path. His wife begins to belittle and undermine his potency.

Preferring to talk civilly, Abel seeks the help of the D.A. Lawrence (David Oyelowo) who is smarmy and reticent, but also tells him that an investigation will begin focusing on his ethics.

Comedian Albert Brooks appears in a dramatic role and gives a fine portrayal of a fishy and needling lawyer.

Abel soon runs out of avenues to explore in the hopes of quelling the savagery that seethes around him, barely under the surface.

This film holds its own in the company of classic noir. A dinner scene and a barber scene speak in tribute to the work of Francis Ford Coppola. If this is not enough, the subway scenes recall "Dressed to Kill" and the seedy grime  depicted in "The French Connection."

Although the accents of past films are many and various, this work is eccentric and individual. We are active spectators in this urban jungle, where the soft yet hypnotically threatening protagonist Abel, whose punches are too often pulled, is equipped with a stare that can reach for miles and kill.

This is Oscar Isaac's most vivid role. In playing a natty, seemingly gentle man who murders with his cappuccino cream eyes but does little in action, Abel is right up there with the creations of Nicholas Ray or Camus's anti-hero Meursault.

This film makes a masterful trifecta, working as either a thriller, a period piece or a comment on film classics. But better still, as a  kind of financial noir, (a Chandor obsession).  

"A Most Violent Year" shows its fists in clear view and never fails to keep you guessing.

Write Ian at

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Still Alice (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Still Alice

"Still Alice," based on a Lisa Genova novel, unfolds swiftly and inexorably like a horror film. Alice (Julianne Moore) is a high-pressure  professor of linguistics. She teaches at Columbia University. Students and faculty alike hang on her every word. Then one morning, during a lecture and seemingly at random, she suddenly can't find the words.

Alec Baldwin once again is in-type as a hassled distant control freak of a husband who can't make sense of it all, while Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart are her self-absorbed daughters, Anna and Lydia.

Step by step, we learn of Alice's quirks, habits and solid routine. She is a doer, a woman of studious action. Her face is like a wedge of confrontation in some scenes. Invariably, she is ready to face the day, letting it roll smoothly beneath her feet.

During a birthday party she mixes up the name of her daughter Anna's fiancé. Carried by the joy of the moment, she doesn't think anything of it.

Then after not finding obvious words during a routine lecture, she visits a neurologist (Stephen Kunken). After a series of name and word tests, the doctor orders a PET scan.

The diagnosis of Alzheimer's, especially at first, appears malevolent and arbitrary, akin to an evil spirit. But then, Alice steels herself, writing lists on a kitchen blackboard and elsewhere. She becomes like Alice in Wonderland, creating labels and names for her own personal objects that mutate before her like odd mushrooms. In one segment, puffy and pillow-like tablets, transform into angry red gumdrops and candy, now threatening because of losing description.

The open flexibility in Alice's face becomes a granite ax, white on white. She faces a uncertain sea, at war with a field of forgetfulness.

As in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," family members distance themselves. John, the husband, takes a position at Mayo Clinic and Anna is preoccupied with being a new mom.

The iron of the film is due to Moore who at times resembles a warrior shark, while at others she is a bereft young girl that misplaced her reflection beyond hope.

Credit should be given to director Wash Westmoreland who gives us just enough information with small scenes that crackle with a rapidity of motion similar to suspense. He also has the good sense to leave out the inclement weather of sentimentality for the most part.

At its core, Alice stands at the ready, come what may. In one instant, she is Sherlock Holmes, patient and clinical, only to suddenly change into a kind of Rosemary Woodhouse (of Rosemary's Baby), a caring mother terrified and unhinged by an insidious blankness not to be understood or deserved.

Through the ordeal we never lose the humanness of Alice as a person. This is the charm  of "Still Alice," elevating it above a kind of medical scare film and pointing to Julianne Moore in a singular performance that is worthy of an Oscar.

Write Ian at

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Week of February 13 to February 19 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Crowds in Oscar Nominees

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Fifteen films crowd the four screens at the Tropic Cinema this week. Of course, I’m counting the ten Oscar shorts that are being previewed before the big Academy Award event on February 22. And five other award-worthy feature films.
New this week is "Still Alice," with its star Julianne Moore up for an Academy Award as Best Actress. Here is the story of a woman slowly succoring to a form of Alzheimer’s, while trying to hold onto who she is. Film Threat says, "A mind is a terrible thing to watch waste away and rarely has the horror of losing one’s inner self to Alzheimer's been conveyed as precisely and powerfully as it is here," while Movie Chambers adds "Moore's performance as an early onset Alzheimer's patient is arguably her best. And, that takes into account four earlier Oscar nominations."

Also new is "A Most Violent Year," starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as an immigrant couple in New York in 1981, facing a clash of values. Groucho Reviews calls it "An unsettling examination of moral drift, over a year in the life of a man and a generation in the life of a country." And Nerdist calls it "A crime story, a character study, and a really kick-ass pressure cooker."

"Birdman" is still flying high at the Tropic with 9 Oscar nominations. Michael Keaton plays a role close to home as a former superhero movie star trying to reestablish himself as a serious actor. 3AW notes, "Michael Keaton is astounding in this brilliantly conjured piece of stream-of-consciousness cinema by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ... Prepare to be enthralled, dazzled, delighted and disturbed." And Filmink agrees that it’s "admirably daring and filled with wonderfully vivid performances."

"The Imitation Game" holds its own with 8 Oscar nods. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a masterful performance as the British mathematician who helped crack the Nazi Enigma code. East Bay Express sees it as "solid historical drama about someone who changed the world but is unknown today." And Commercial Appeal elaborates, calling it "a highly entertaining, immaculately produced drama about a genius-hero whose stiff-upper-lip resolve can't block a kick in the teeth when, years after the war, he is prosecuted for the 'crime' of homosexuality."

"Two Days, One Night" is up for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Starring previous Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, it tells of a woman who over a weekend must convince her co-workers to let her keep her job. Austin Chronicle calls it "contemporary social realism at its finest, portraying the complicated moral landscape we're constantly navigating and the difficult decisions this modern world has invariably wrought." And Creative Loafing concurs that "this harrowing drama derives most of its power from a knockout performance by Marion Cotillard."

And, of course, there are Oscar Shorts, five nominated short animation films, and five nominated live action shorts. What a potpourri! The Patriot Ledger says, "True, most of these films deal with depressing subject matter like illness, loneliness and government suppression, but just about all of them inspire hope and belief in the human spirit." And Mark Leeper Reviews sums it up, "One source for all the nominated films."

So go ahead, set a personal record by catching fifteen films in one short week!





A Most Violent Year (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies
Was 1981 in NYC "A Most Violent Year"?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
I lived in New York City in 1981, but I don’t recall ever encountering any danger. Yet statistics show that it was a violent year in the city's history.
But the most violent?

Certainly, the City has had its episodes of violence. In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death while onlookers failed to come to her rescue. In the summer of 1976 Son of Sam followed his dog’s orders to kill people. In 1982 a black subway worker was beaten to death by a white mob. In late 1984 Bernie Goetz took justice into his own hands, shooting four muggers on a Manhattan train. In 1989 a female Central Park jogger was assaulted by five juveniles. And 1991 saw riots in Crown Heights.

A new film titled "A Most Violent Year" focuses on the year 1981. This period piece is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The film’s promotion claims that this was the most violent year in the City’s history. Not so. Fact is, 1991 was the year with the highest murder rate in New York, a total of 2,245. By comparison, 1981 only had 1,826.
Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, "A Most Violent Year" tells about an immigrant family trying to protect their business as the City’s violence escalates. Some moviegoers complain that there is no story. Maybe not much of one, but instead you have a fascinating character study of an "honorable man" trying to retain his honor amid a corrupt environment.
The violence in the title is not about murder and muggings, but more about the "violence" of two codes of life colliding.

Abel Morales (Isaac) built his home oil business with hard work and determination, his pursuit of the American Dream. But when hijackings threaten his family’s way of life, he will push back however is necessary.

"My husband's an honorable man. We are not who you think we are," warns Abel’s wife (Chastain). "…So if I were you, I would start treating us with a little more respect or I guarantee he will make it his mission in life to ruin you."

Yes, there’s plenty of tension and nuance in this understated crime drama. So if you’re looking for a Martin Scorsese gangster flick, try something else. But if you want some superb acting and personal drama, writer-director J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call"") delivers the goods.

Julian says, "I feel … vulnerable."

"Good," replies Abel. "Because you are vulnerable. We all are."
Maybe not so much as we once was. Last year murders had been reduced to 326 in New York City.



Monday, February 9, 2015

2015 Oscar Shorts: Animated (Brockway)

The 2015 Oscar Shorts: Animation

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

As with magic, in the free associative realm of animation, anything is possible. In this universe, the earthly constraints of gravity, of time and space, suddenly melt into irrelevance.

This is certainly true of the animated shorts this year which offer a selection that is rich and diverse.

To start, director Torill Kove gives us "Me and My Moulton," a vignette of three daughters in an ultra-controlling family who want a high tech bike. The charm of this piece is in its slight humor. The dad is a kind of Walter Mitty blind in one eye, with dreams of valor and machismo. When other fathers are joining the army, this parent is obsessing over Picasso and modern furniture. The middle daughter, who wants a "normal" childhood develops a psychosomatic illness. The bright simplicity of line offers verve and affection to what could have been ho hum.

Next, in a Disney venture, there is "Feast," about a small puppy with food on his tongue. Simply told and visually popping, this is more than just a salivary tale. As the dog journeys with his owner, he gobbles plate after plate with immediate lust. One day by chance, when his owner is bitten by romance, he goes on a date accompanied by nouvelle cuisine and parsley. Winston, the puppy, is disgusted. After a time, his owner is single once more and the epicurean puppy resolves to return the parsley to his owner's beloved. Although it is cutesy and sentimental, the bouncy and carbonated visuals, a Disney trademark, never fail to beguile.

From Britain there is the daring "The Bigger Picture" by directors Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees, who employ life-size canvases in their figures which recall Jonathan Borofsky and de Kooning. The narrative concerns two brothers, one ambitious and the other not so, engaged in sibling rivalry. Every instance hits like a punch, each flicker evolves into the spark of a masterwork, while the story gives able tribute to the likes of Samuel Beckett. Do not miss this one.

Also not to be overlooked is "The Dam Keeper," about an apocalyptic and bullied pig who literally
holds life together in his cloven hooves. The animation with its rich golden oranges and deep blues is captivating enough, but it is the story about a generous and giving piglet invariably harassed and teased as he toils alone in a solitary mill that held me in place. This fable is as poignant as it is punchy.

Then, lastly for consideration, is the gallows humor of  "A Single Life" from the Netherlands directing team of Jobs, Joris and Marieke. Vibrant, sly and uncompromisingly irreverent, using all of a mere two minutes, it says it all and you won't be wanting the 45 rpm record depicted in this playful, yet sardonic tale.

Some honorable mention goes to "Bus Story" about a hopeful bus driver who gives a sour curmudgeon something to really worry about, "Footprints" by Plymton -- an O. Henry-like episode of revenge, "Sweet Cocoon" about a vain caterpillar that turns into an incarnadine Diva, and finally "Duet" a singularly rapid but overly pretty coming of age mood piece that gives tribute to Disney with big eyes and pouting mouse looks.

This year's sorcery seems to break from the past. There are no Grufallos and decidedly  more grim grins but this is all to the better. The philosophic shadow play  makes for much provocation and some high dazzle which one should dare to see.

Write Ian at

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015 Oscar Shorts:Live Action (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 2015 Oscar Shorts: Live Action

With the Oscar Live Action Shorts, one can usually count on rich characters from around the world. This year's entries are no exception. Once again, the entries lean towards existentialism and haunt, but there is also no lack of comedy.

In Hu Wei's "Butter Lamp" from China, families from a Tibetan village are photographed with various backdrops. Sometimes they are in Disneyland, or an electronic market. At other times, the family members are under a banner of chairman Mao. During one scene, a grandfather is photographed in a sparkling leisure suit as a young boy almost strangles a yak. The film teases our perceptions, do we respond to the inhabitants differently when posed with alternate backdrops?

Next, from Northern Ireland, "Boogaloo and Graham" tell the story of two boys raising spunky baby chicks amid the harshness of the IRA. The violence of 1970s Belfast is touched upon with most of the momentum and energy going to these wisecracking brothers as they raise two ordinary chickens. With its cute and quirky repartee between father and son, it is a bit of The Little Rascals mixed with the natural realism of "In the Name of the Father." Although the most frivolous of the selection, it provides solid chuckles.

For some tense viewing from the UK, there is "The Phone Call" detailing a sad call at a crisis center. Sally Hawkins stars as a counselor who takes the call and actor Jim Broadbent is the presence on the other end. The receiver gets more and more absorbed by the strangely breaking yet energetic voice. The flavor of this film owes a debt to Michael Haneke of "Amour."

"Parvaneh" is an immigration themed drama about an Afghan teen (Nissa Kashani) who wants to send money to her sick grandfather by any means. The sheltered girl is tantalized by the neon glamour of cosmetics and western fashion, in addition to being befriended by a goth girl (Cheryl Graf) who takes her to a Switzerland rave party, but danger still lurks everywhere. Mascara only temporarily cloaks the uncertainty.  

Apprehension is alive and well in a most successful offering by Israel entitled "Aya" about a young woman (Sarah Adler) who decides to give a reserved music critic  (Ulrich Thompsen) a chauffeur ride, entirely by chance. While things start easily enough, Aya is keen to play an odd cat and mouse power play with her random passenger. The film's director Oded Binnun keeps us guessing, is she a sociopath or a fragile soul tired of routine. In its happenstance, playful quirkiness and mystery, this short clearly  outshines the others.

However, regardless of taste and preference, this year's shorts, true to form, offer something for every eye.

Write ian at

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Two Days, One Night (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Two Days, One Night

The Belgian Dardenne brothers have scored a hit with "Two Days, One Night" which is tense and constricting, unfolding and seeming to pulse like a horror film, akin to Roman Polanski.

Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a Belgian woman who works at a solar energy plant. One day she wakes drowsily to find out that her job is in question. Unknown to her, a vote was held, brought about by superior Jean-Marc (Oliver Gourmet) who tells the crew that they will get a bonus if Sandra is laid off, as she is the so called "weakest link." Understandably, she is shaken and sick by the news. Through the course of the story, it comes to light that Sandra battles with clinical depression and is under constant threat of being undermined in skill and importance.

She resolves to journey house to house, in a journey to overturn the vote and have another ballot.

Marion Cotillard is wonderful here, clearly deserving of her Best Actress Oscar Nomination. She is a mass of quivering muscle, a tight and grooved interpretation of a Kathe Kollwitz woodcut. Her very forehead ripples with pain and ache.

Each house-visit is a guilty step even though Sandra has done nothing at all to deserve her circumstance. Every face pities and accuses. Only her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) supports her and even he grows distant by the worry, anxiety and need.

In one scene, Sandra pleads her case which enrages a co-worker and causes him to strike an innocent colleague.  As he falls unconscious. Sandra grows increasingly anxious and guilty as she becomes the unwitting conjurer of domestic violence and ill-will.

In her red bow tie shirt, she is a spool of maternal twine, falling beyond repair, her face a rictus of sensitivity and care.

Her friend Anne (Christelle Cornil) leaves her husband over the situation.

Although a noose tightly closes in claustrophobia and distrust, especially when Sandra shuts the coffin-like workplace door, the events in "Two Days, One Night" are no "Black Swan" scare-fest, but very plausible.

The predicament slowly unfolds with one meeting after the other, with all encounters springing discontent without warning.

This film is the most vivid interpretation of Kafka that I have found. Sandra's last seen step over the asphalt reveals a rip in the black road, a single cement scar.

Creepily, the sight will have you wishing for the more fantastical fictions of Gregor Samsa, rather than the fears and arbitrary dramas of life itself.

Write Ian at

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Week of February 6 to February 12 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

The Long and Short of It at Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Each year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hands out Oscars for the best short films. This week at the Tropic you can see many of this year’s nominations.
There are two shorts presentations, Animation and Live Action, each offering five short films that have been nominated for an Oscar. The animation styles are varied, with entries from both Disney and unknowns. The live action covers topics ranging from a crisis-ridden phone call to an Afghan man facing a foreign environment. "True, most of these films deal with depressing subject matter like illness, loneliness and government suppression, but just about all of them inspire hope and belief in the human spirit," says the Patriot Ledger of the Oscar Nominated Animation Shorts. And Playback:sti notes, "The nominated live-action shorts this year are an international and multilingual lot, as they usually are (and as nominated feature films usually are not)..."

 Also new to Tropic Screens is "Two Days, One Night," a feature film starring Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard as a woman who loses her job after an extended hospital stay. San Diego Reader proclaims, "Wonderbrothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne return with a tale of heroic struggle against an ordinary disaster." And Boston Globe explains, "Coursing underneath the film’s calm, observant surface is a fury at a system that sets people in the same leaky boat at each other’s throats."

Still showing is "Birdman," the incredible one-cinematic take film about an out-of-mind movie star (perfectly cast as Michael Keaton) trying to stage a comeback with a Broadway play. Filmink calls it "admirably daring and filled with wonderfully vivid performances," while The Mercury describes it as "a slick delivery vehicle for a philosophically detailed existential crisis story, with life imitating art imitating life."

If you haven’t seen "The Imitation Game," do it now. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of British code-breaker Alan Turing is nothing short of brilliant. Not only did he help break the WWII Nazi encryptions, he invented the computer in the process. Houston Press says, "Cumberbatch gives a performance that is, by turns, awkward, triumphant, and heartbreaking." And reminds us that it’s "enthralling history unveiled in this well-acted film."

And if you want some wacky noirish fun, you can catch "Inherent Vice," starring Joaquin Phoenix as a stoner private detective searching for a missing millionaire. Daily Express describes it as "a faithful adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel that feels as if a labyrinthine Raymond Chandler thriller has been thrown into a cocktail shaker with Alice In Wonderland. And Empire Magazine advises us to "just relax and let this beautiful, haunting, hilarious, chaotic, irritating and possibly profound tragicomedy wash over you."

There you have it, the long and short of it this week at the Tropic.


Oscar Nominated Short Films (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Oscar Shorts Are Bigger Deal Than They May Seem

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Movie reviews generally focus on one film at a time, but when it comes to the short films that have been nominated for an Oscar, we do them en masse. Not because each short film doesn’t deserve a separate appraisal (they are as diverse and individual as items at a yard sale), but because that’s the way they tend to get shown -- grouped together.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science sorts these shorts into three categories: documentary, animation, and live action. And each grouping is released to movie theaters as a one-sitting program.

Two of these programs are being shown at the Tropic Cinema this week. Think of them as a preview for those who want to have a better chance of winning the office Oscar pool.

Sitting documentary shorts aside for the moment, we’ll take a peak at the two categories that are playing on the Tropic’s screens -- animation and live action.

First, let’s simply list them for your reference (and scorekeeping if you like):

Animated Short Film nominees; "The Bigger Picture," directed by Daisy Jacobs; "The Dam Keeper," directed by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi; "Feast," directed by Patrick Osborne; "Me and My Moulton," directed by Torill Kove; and "A Single Life," directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen.

Live Action Short Film nominees: "Aya," directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis; "Boogaloo and Graham," directed by Michael Lennox; "Butter Lamp," directed by Hu Wei; "Parvaneh," directed by Talkhon Hamzavi; and "The Phone Call," directed by Mat Kirkby.

Total running time for the five animated shorts is 47 minutes. For the five live action shorts, 1 hour 53 minutes.

Pay attention, for these little-seen films are the ones that usually trip up your otherwise perfect score when betting on the Oscar winners.

Unlike those feature-length animation films that are up for a golden statuette ("Big Hero 6," "How to Train Your Dragon 2," "The Boxtrolls," "Song of the Sea," and "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" -- I’m betting on "Hero 6," which is based on a Marvel comic book), animation shorts are often more serious and not necessarily aimed at kids. 

For example, "The Bigger Picture" is a rather somber tale about two brothers who are squabbling over the care for their aging mother.

And "The Dam Keeper" features a pig who is subjected to bullying by the other animals. There’s a message here.

"A Single Life" examines the passage of time, with a woman skipping backwards and forwards in her life. It amounts to an uncomfortable examination of mortality.

In "Me and My Moulton," the mood gets a little lighter as one of the daughters in a Norwegian family recalls her childhood during the ‘60s.

Not unexpectedly, the fifth animation short is cuter than the others, being it’s a cartoon from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Called "Feast," it presents an ever-hungry canine racing through a dozen or so dog years.

The live action shorts are more of a grab bag, some featuring the faces and voices of notable actors.

"The Phone Call" gives us Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins in a drama about an agonizing call to a crisis center.

"Boogaloo and Graham" focuses on two brothers in Northern Ireland who love their pet chickens.

"Butter Lamp" is a mysterious film about a Tibetian photographer who gets into the picture with his subjects.

In "Aya" we find two strangers talking in a car.

And "Parvaneh" presents a bewildered young Afghanistan refugee wandering around Zurich.

Which of these ten films will strike gold as Best Animation Short and Best Live Action Short when the 87th Academy Awards is telecast? Your guess is as good as mine. But on the night of February 22nd I’ll be at the annual red-carpet Oscar party at the Tropic Cinema to find out.