Sunday, September 27, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Straight Outta Compton

There have been countless films about rap music and the realities of violence, but "Straight Outta Compton" by F. Gary Gray, (Set It Off, Friday) gets it right.

The film is an epic tale and a portrait of the beginnings of NWA, the infamous and famous rap group of the late 1980s.  Most important and a rare thing in mainstream cinema, this is no glamorized  depiction of a life in rap, money and luxury, but a thoughtful film about several musicians who push art and self-expression, alongside their own imps of Ego.

From the first image, the film gets under your skin with nervousness. Eric aka Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) is in the midst of selling drugs. The police arrive with an armored truck and a battering ram. Easy-E escapes.

Though the scene is quite tense, the abrupt threat of this huge metal menace upon this little house is absurdist and surreal. Even the California night sky has it out for Eric like an all consuming curtain. We then see Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) who lives with mom and has a club job as a DJ. The pair meets up with  O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (played by Cube's son O'Shea Jackson) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.)

One day the four compile their notebooks together and spontaneously record a song. Dre and Ice Cube love E's immediacy. A track is born.

They meet Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to manage them and they agree.

After witnessing numerous incidents of police brutality and being targeted themselves while recording a first album,  the group pen a song titled "Fuck Tha Police" which is incendiary, aggressive and shocking making the force sweat by the very first beat.

During concerts they are forbidden to play the song, a parallel to The Doors' "Light My Fire" on Ed Sullivan. Venomous police scream at them, while the FBI threatens them with legal action.

All of the action in the film is throbbing and immediate. Danger lurks in every corner. Parties are shown with the hollow luxury of Ancient Greece as flesh wobbles like warm butter along crystal pools. Paul Giamatti sags in a lounge chair. In his emerald green and gold linen shirt, he is an iguana scaled  over with five hundred dollar bills, lying in wait for his next lunge.

While E at first wants to settle with some spilled blood, Heller coaches him that the best way to attack is through the financial method of a lawsuit.

The men settle with the linguistic bloodletting of rap, the kind that destroys friendships.

Perhaps the most existential figure is Eric with beastly cops on one side and Emperor Shug Knight on the other. The very lights of LA conspire against him. After a hateful falling out with Cube, which produces some of the most fiery works, Eric  alone reaches out for reconciliation.

The film to its credit spares nothing in authenticity and detail. No role is hyped or sanitized. One will get the visceral feeling that this is the late 80s thru early 90s as time passed, as if a fly on a wall.

These musicians are no saints, nor are they criminals or villains. Above all they are journalists who used rhyme instead of a word processor, driven to tell of their city experiences, despite everything nearly imploding around them during the sad horror of Rodney King and race riots.

"Straight Outta Compton" rolls smoothly along as a sizzling and intense kaleidoscopic journey that feels as anxious as the characters within. While many might see gangsta rap as a hostile form, its creation clearly gave these artists their peace and tranquility.

Curiously, the music score in itself is often an anodyne to the chaos throughout. Within the dark and bouncing rhythms one is impressed by the presence of this form, its vividness and its power to convey a self awareness, however gratuitous or savage.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

 Pawn Sacrifice


Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond) directs a sweaty and intense portrait of Grandmaster chess player Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice".

This sweeping biopic reminiscent of Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind" is told with bits of flashback, focusing on the young man Fischer enthralled by the sheer variety of game moves and frightened by the encroachment of others. The film spends most of its energy in the late 1960s and early 70s, when the U.S. was involved in a cold war with the Soviet Union and Fischer had his sights set on Boris Spassky.

As played by Tobey Maguire, Fischer is pale tense and fretful having the impression of Kafka. He is just as anxious with human silhouettes against a door as he is transcendent in the sacred game. His stress was not without basis. As a kid in the 1950s, his mother was involved in communism.

Fischer grew up under the spectral eye of ghosts.  Days are for rehearsing moves and going to the bookstore for biographies and manuals, while nights are for goblins.  Given this terror, and conflict with his mother  (Robin Weigert) chess is his only solace. Fischer rejects human contact and intimacy. When shaking hands with an opponent, it is as if he is touching a cold fish, his face a sheet of blank paper.

He becomes consumed with the idea of facing Boris Spassky and defeating him. Fischer becomes a literal chess machine, executing most moves in seconds.

When he meets a nonchalant and preening Spassky (Liev Schrieber), the film acquires the apprehensive allure of a James Bond film. Fischer is confrontational and aggressive while Spassky is either offhand or bemused with his adversary, often seeming as if he just arrived from a spa treatment.

The crux of the film shows Fischer with rock star fame as he is poised in battle with Boris, in a war of his own, mostly with himself.  Shocking it is to see the quiet boy emerge into an unbending, harsh and arrogant man. Fischer was a hero at a time of wars: one hot, one cold when America needed a national shot of hope.

If he wins, and he usually does, Fisher's face is deflated or passive, far from elation. Most interesting are the scenes depicting Fischer as fragile, worried about his mother while rejecting her contact.

He piques the interest of Donna (Evelyne Brochu) who offers sex but once in bed, a robotic Fisher reveals that chess is his only lover.

Fischer's lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhberg) hires Bobby's childhood rival, Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) now a priest, to keep an eye on the increasingly phobic Bobby. The two go over moves in their heads, further emphasizing that chess is both a love and a sacred ritual.

The singular most striking element is that Fischer feels personally attacked when losing a game, betrayed as if a cuckold. In one telling moment, he loses and exiles himself to lonely beach. The lone pensive figure clothed and sitting in a suit and tie upon the flat and vacant beach creates a Dali tableau.

Chess made a spiteful love and ultimately unhinged Bobby Fischer, who became obsessive and delusional, yet still revered in game circles. Tobey Maguire is wholly this man and it is clearly his best role in years. Although the contents are glossy at times with little notion of mental causes and effects, we get a full sense of this master and how he was perceived on the pop chessboard.

The biggest trick of "Pawn Sacrifice" is that we pull for this cool and impersonal young man and imbue him with the glare of an underdog, despite his increasing selfishness.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Week of Sept. 25 - Oct. 1 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Half-Dozen Films Deliver Messages at the Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Chess games, life lessons, overcoming adversity -- there are messages imbedded in this week’s films at Tropic Cinema. You can take them to heart. Or just sit back and enjoy the stories.

“Pawn Sacrifice” returns us to the 1972 World Chess Championship, a Cold War battle between American genius Bobby Fischer and Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. Fischer won. Tobey Maguire delivers a believable portrait of Fischer, an oddball fighting an even bigger bout with mental illness. New York Magazine says, “The suspense of ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is getting Fischer sane enough
so that he can sit down across from his opponent and focus.” And Chicago Sun-Times calls it “an enthralling piece of mainstream entertainment that captures the essence of Fischer's mad genius, perfectly recreates the tenor of the times, and works as a legit sports movie about the great game of chess.”

Comedian Lily Tomlin gets serious (kinda) in “Grandma,” where she’s a cranky old lady taking her pregnant unmarried granddaughter under her wing. Seattle Times calls it, “short, tart, yet
unexpectedly sweet.” And Miami Herald says, “Tomlin is a wonder, the embodiment of a woman who isn’t at all melancholy or remorseful as she slides into her golden years.”

“Learning to Drive” puts Patricia Clarkson behind the wheel in this lessons-to-be-learned dramedy. Here, a distraught woman is taking driving lesson from an Indian cabbie (Sir Ben Kingsley) as both sort out their lives. Philadelphia Inquirer says, “It’s a small, artfully crafted thing, but it resonates in
big ways.” And Detroit News notes that it’s “precisely the sort of adult-themed, intelligent and heartfelt film it wants to be, with Clarkson and Kingsley wonderfully on point.”

 “A Walk in the Woods” gives us Robert Redford and Nick Nolte on foot, retelling the funny story of two old duffers who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. “Like the book upon which it's based, Robert Redford's latest is a film of small but continual pleasures -- an amiable amble that's almost
impossible to dislike,” says Daily Mirror. And America Magazine tells us the film “has a redemptive tone, a gentle lesson about aging and limitations and never giving up despite any required climb, uphill or otherwise.”

You don’t have to ask the unPC question -- what N.W.A. stands for? “Straight Outta Compton” will tell you. This biopic traces the rise of the famous hip hop musical group from the downtrodden neighborhood of Compton, California, to worldwide success. ABC Radio Brisbane says, “To someone unfamiliar with the American rap scene, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ will provide an
absorbing look at a group of flawed, yet wonderfully talented artists.” 3AW comments, “An amusing hook to the story is how it goes from being about the music to being about the music business.” And The Popcorn Junkie sums it up, “History is written by victorious billionaire rappers.”

“Stonewall” recreates the 1969 riots that kicked off the gay rights movement in New York City. Centered around the Stonewall Inn, the film takes literary license in telling the story through a fictional character called Danny Winters (played by Jeremy Irvine). Hollywood Reporter says, “Not
the most imaginative or politically trenchant retelling, but entertaining and at times quite moving.” And Guardian concludes, “Director Roland Emmerich, who put his own money into making the film, should be cheered for giving it a shot.”

All in all, an interesting collection of “message” films. But each with an intriguing story behind it.

srhoades@aol.com

Pawn Sacrifice (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Pawn Sacrifice” Is Cold War Chess
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Forgive my boasting, but I once beat the chess champion of Pensacola, Florida. He fell for the Fool’s Mate, the shortest possible chess game ending in mate (1.f3 e5 2.g4 Qh4#). I learned this move by
reading a book called “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.”

As Fischer advised, “In chess so much depends on opening theory.” As it happened, my opponent was thinking so far ahead he didn’t recognize this simple opening gambit.

Robert James “Bobby” Fischer is considered to be the greatest chess player of all time. But as he saw it, he was “an all around genius who just happens to play chess,”

At 13 he won the so-called Game of the Century. By 20 he won the US Championship with 11-11, the only perfect score in the history of the tournament.

In 1972 he captured the World Chess Championship from USSR grandmaster Boris Spassky. The event was trumpeted as a Cold War confrontation between Russia and the US.

That’s the subject of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the new biopic playing at Tropic Cinema. It stars Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man”) as Fischer and Liev Schrieber (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) as Spassky.

Directed by Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “Love & Other Drugs”), Maguire gives a convincing portrayal of this chess prodigy caught between two superpowers, barely able to keep his own madness in check.

It’s that old trope about the thin line between madness and genius.

The Soviets had held a monopoly on the World Chess Championship since 1948. According to Victor Baturinsky, head of Soviet Chess Sports Committee, at the time the Soviet leadership had only one goal: How to stop Fischer from becoming World Champion.

The American government saw this as a national challenge. The pressure to win was enormous. Their attempted manipulations fed into Bobby Fischer’s growing paranoia. It took a phone call from Henry Kissinger to talk him into playing.

Already showing signs of mental instability, Fischer set forth rigid conditions on everything from TV cameras to special lighting to the chair cushions. He showed up in Iceland for the match only hours short of forfeiture. After a rocky start, Fischer prevailed to become the 11th World Chess Champion.

As Spassky admits, “I was the strongest from 1964 to 1970, but in 1971 Fischer was already stronger.”

Afterwards, Fischer became a recluse, refusing to defend his title.

Oddly enough, he and Boris Spassky became friends and exchanged letters. In 1992, they met in an unofficial rematch and Fischer won again. As Spassky put it, “When you play Bobby, it is not a question if you win or lose. It is a question if you survive.”

Fischer’s participation in this rematch violated a US embargo. To avoid a charge of tax evasion, he lived in Hungary, Germany, the Philippines, and other countries. With his American passport revoked, he was detained for over eight months in Japan, until Iceland granted him citizenship.

Slipping deeper into mental illness, Fischer became vocally anti-Semitic (although his mother was in fact Jewish). And he continued to rail against the US, saying, “The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians.” He hated ready-made suits and button-down collars. He feared his chess opponents were trying to poison him. He applauded 9/11 and hoped a military coup in the US would lead to the closing of Jewish synagogues. Crazy stuff.

As a result, the US Chess Federation expelled him.

Although probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Bobby Fischer never engaged in psychotherapy with any mental health professional. “I don’t believe in psychology,” the troubled genius defended his position.

Bobby Fischer died in 2004.

Now 78 years old, Boris Spassky says, “I still speak to Bobby in my dreams.”

srhoades@aol.com

Grandma (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Lily Tomlin Serves Up Slice of Life In “Grandma”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Lily Tomlin was too good a comedian for us to forget her funny characters -- Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator; Edith Ann, the bratty five-year-old; and the Tasteful Lady. She made us guffaw with her sketches on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Carol Burnett,” and “Saturday Night Live.”  Her Broadway monologues won awards. We loved all those laugh-filled movies like “9 to 5,” “Big Business,” and “All of Me.”

So despite her fine dramatic turns in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” and Franco Zefferini’s “Tea With Mussolini” … or her serious TV appearances in “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Damages,” and that four-year stint on “The West Wing” … we still think of her as a comedienne who acts rather than an actor who could be funny.

It’s a prejudice that many performers who started out in comedy have to struggle to overcome. Think: Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Bill Murray.

But with Lily Tomlin’s new movie -- “Grandma,” now showing at the Tropic Cinema -- she bridges that gap, doing a very funny job of acting. This is Lily Tomlin’s first starring role in 27 years.

Here, she plays Elle, a lesbian poet who has broken up with her partner (Judy Greer). “You’re a footnote,” Elle sloughs her off. But she’s a tough cookie with a marshmallow center.

When Elle learns that her 18-year-old unmarried granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is pregnant, and needs a quick $600 for an abortion, she takes the girl under her wing. The two set off on a road trip in Elle’s old 1955 Dodge Royal, calling on friends in search of a loan. This stirs up old memories, as well as puzzles the girl’s dominating no-nonsense mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

They cross paths with Sage’s doofus boyfriend (Nat Woolf), a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), a tightfisted shop owner (the late Elizabeth Pena), and Elle’s ex-husband (laconic Sam Elliott).

At just 78 minutes, it’s a short movie. But it manages to cram in some big themes: abortion, lesbianism, trannies, family dynamics, and death.

No, this is not a pie-baking Norman Rockwell grandmother we’re dealing with in this story. Elle is a character close to Lily Tomlin’s own sensibilities -- gay, misanthropic, sarcastic, driven. It’s hard to tell she’s acting in this slice-of-life dramedy. But isn’t that the definition of a good performance?

srhoades@aol.com

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Learning to Drive (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Learning to Drive


Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" based on a New Yorker article of the same name by Katha Politt, is warm and engaging by turns.

Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is a literary agent bowled over by an abrupt breakup. Feeling guilty that she is unable to drive and limited in her visits to her daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer) Wendy decides to enroll in driving lessons.

Darwan (Ben Kingsley) arrives at her New York apartment as promised, but Wendy distracted and upset by separation and possible divorce, is far from the road. Darwan is insistent. He convinces her to merely sit in the car to get a sense of the wheel. Wendy is a tough student; she is absentminded and frequently daydreams. One can't blame her.

What follows is a likable and direct character comedy of how these two people handle  situations and become friends.

Darwan is calm and deliberate though he lives in constant paranoia of being thought of as a terrorist among the ignorant. He happens to be a Sikh, and consequently has  a turban.

Though this is usually lukewarm material, Clarkson and Kingsley have a solid urgency speaking with such careful detail that their characters hold weight in spite of it all. Darwan, tranquil and measured, will abruptly break into hoots of laughter. He is as serious as he is accepting. Darwan is also obsessively careful and well worn by hardship.

Though it would be naive to say we have not seen this character before, (the wise and comforting outsider) Kingsley embodies this man so completely that he gives more flesh in his form.

Wendy too, is a type: The harried divorcee. Again, however, Clarkson's role is so quietly nuanced and honest that we are taken in.

Only the role of Jasleen ( Sarita Chaudhury) feels a bit underwhelming as Darwan's wife in an arranged marriage. While it is well established that she is sheltered and at sea with American culture, we don't get much of an idea of who Jasleen really is, beyond someone left out. One sees her go from nearly total isolation to smiling at a house party.

Such abruptness is hardly realistic.

Also, given our worldwide technological immersion, would Jasleen really mistake Spanish for English? I doubt it.

This reservation aside, Kingsley and Clarkson are the main pulse of the story as they revolve around each other as cross-cultural satellites, gently pushing and pulling, exchanging parcels of collected thought and happenstance.

While one wishes for haunt and mystery, there is enough shared wildness in Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson to make one wonder: What If?

Though "Learning to Drive" might have a  light appearance, its interior is pleasant,  natural and textured. As an unfussy portrait of the give and take involved in friendship, it coasts across the screen with a breezy acceleration, sure to please.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Best of Enemies (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Best of Enemies

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon have directed a documentary "Best of Enemies" that captures an era. It features two larger than life figures  that were thriving when our 1960 TV sets were truly windows into the world. Through the verbal pummeling of William F.  Buckley from the right and Gore Vidal from the left, our microwave like sets sizzled like baked potatoes and were set aflame.

There were just three networks and the smaller third, ABC, was failing. In 1968, the  network was left out from covering the national conventions and needed a boost. Why not get Gore Vidal to debate Buckley, the nation's foremost conservative?

A group of ten televised debates were confirmed, covering both the democratic and republican conventions. Vidal, a kind of underdog against Buckley, studied intently for his attack while the  showman of The Right, waited for the strike.

The film is glib, concise and eye-popping at times. The events are given in short entertaining bursts rather like a collage in motion. Though we may very well be overburdened by politics of late, this film is no tedious draught upon the brain. The drama unfolds with a swift potency and doesn't belabor or lag upon extraneous detail.

Here is Gore Vidal, a Byronic figure who abhors labels of any kind, be they definitions of sexual orientation or ledgers of rule. In Rome, he takes to his oratory olive grove on a cliff's edge. As the sea smiles sardonically below, Vidal sharpens his manicured nails.

In the other corner is Buckley, a self made patrician, Yale alumnus, and editor of the National Review who upholds Law and Order in capital letters. His sophisticated easy drawl at times, obscures toxicity within. One can clearly see how this evolved into gripping TV, like nothing seen in a box before or since.

During the Chicago convention, the streets were crumbling with screaming yippees and police brutality. In one single notorious instant when Buckley derided the protestors in their raising of the Vietcong flag, Vidal quipped that Buckley was a "crypto-nazi." Buckley snapped back at Vidal, snarling "queer!"  and threatening bodily harm.

At the time, this was perilously close to hate speech.

A very personal war was declared that Buckley never forgot until the moment of death. The two sparred in Esquire magazine with countering articles and litigation.

The startling thing is the realization that these two grandiose gladiators are mirrors of  the other: both Buckley and Vidal are elitist and long nosed with speech of silver and above the rough and tumble fray. Each one perhaps saw their verbal energies in the other and increased the vitriol, the volume and the hate.

"Best of Enemies" hints that the only winners were the TV viewers who were universally informed, captivated and entertained in watching something that was half voyeurism, half bloodsport.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Grandma (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Grandma

Director Paul Weitz (Admission) and comic actor Lily Tomlin have a soaring hit on their hands with "Grandma," a genuinely funny character study with a heady dose of biting humor.

Tomlin plays Ellie Reid, a respected poet who  has gone a shade sour, eaten up by happenstance and life's bitters, which have made a highball hard to swallow. Reid has just broken up with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and is singed with hurt, despite putting up a callous front.

Enter her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who is just pregnant with no where to turn.

The film is a spare, crackling and pointed portrait of a friendship. It does not squander its energies with the use of laughable montages, music or exposition. Instead, it goes right to the heart and gives its gusto to these two characters who are increasingly compelling as the story progresses.

Tomlin has never been better. Her role as Ellie is as freewheeling and irreverent as anything penned by Larry David from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Better still, she is no urban send up. She has the persona of a genuine bohemian with her leather jacket, cinder black eyes and stern face. Ellie is obsessed that the literary arts are no longer held in as high esteem as they once were and more disheartening still, young people do not read.

Julia Garner is quirky and convincing as the young relative who gives and attacks as much as she gets. There are many funny scenes, but most of the riotous material comes from Tomlin's dialogue which is as unapologetic as it is irreverent.

This is a film that does not resort to silly jokes, pratfalls, aping faces or bathroom humor to get its jokes, but mere behavior. There is no need for a catchy ear-candy score. This film is just as it should be, sharp and simple: a story about a grandmother and grandchild which echoes the naturalist character films of the 1970s from "Harold & Maude" on down.

Sam Elliott has another solid outing as Ellie's jilted love while Laverne Cox is her catty confidant and Marcia Gay Harding is Sage's ultra controlling mother.

This film deserves even more credit for retaining its air of mystery and surprise throughout. Ellie is very much a woman on the run who pines for escape; life has left her beaten and bereft. Though a shared goal, Ellie not only recognizes the charm of today's generation, but also accepts her own joyful volatility.

Bouncy, refreshing and tart in joy, "Grandma" is as existential as it is effervescent. Best of all, it doubles both as a poignant sketch of two people thriving in a dilemma and a laugh out loud comedy.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Week of Sept. 18 - 24 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Old Friends and New -- Tropic Cinema Presents Both
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Some old familiar faces -- Gore Vidal, Lily Tomlin, Ben Kingsley, and Robert Redford -- make new film appearances along with cinematic newcomers on Tropic screens.

An oft-time visitor to Key West, Gore Vidal was a witty pundit, brilliant novelist, and two-time
political candidate. He gained national attention from his battle of words and ideas with erudite commentator, big-word author, and conservative publisher William F. Buckley, Jr. You might call
them “Best of Enemies,” the title of a new documentary about their televised debates during the 1968 National Conventions. “Reminds us how thrilling and provocative an intelligent debate can be,” KPBS.org applauds the film. Detroit News posits, “Did anyone win? Most say Vidal, since Buckley descended to physical threats.” And Illinois Times sums it up as “a riveting look at a TV revolution.”

No longer the snorting telephone operator Ernestine or the precocious Edith Ann, Lily Tomlin has become a grandma. Not in real life, but in her latest film role. In “Grandma” she’s a feisty mentor to
her pregnant, unmarried granddaughter (Julia Garner). St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls it “a small film, but one with huge things to say about the meaning of family and the value of living on one's own terms.” And Miami Herald says, “Tomlin is a wonder, the embodiment of a woman who isn't at all melancholy or remorseful as she slides into her golden years.”

As the title suggests, “Learning to Drive” gives us Patricia Clarkson as a woman taking driving lessons from an Indian cabbie. And Sir Ben Kingsley is the instructor. Nut we learn more about moving forward in life than about motoring. Philadelphia Inquirer tells us it’s “a story of companionship, loneliness, resilience. It's a small, artfully crafted thing, but it resonates in big ways.” And San Diego Union-Tribune terms it “charming and often very funny.”

A different mode of transportation is found in “A Walk in the Woods,” a comedy about two aging curmudgeons (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. Tampa Bay Times muses, “Darned if Redford’s easy charm and Nolte’s gravelly lack of it aren't enticing throughout.” And Laramie Movie Scope says that “it is worth joining these two guys on this trip.”

For more pulse-pounding action, here’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Base on the ‘60s TV show, this Guy Ritchie film is a stylish retelling of the adventures of two dashing spies, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer). Reforma says, “With great action sequences and unbelievable chemistry between its two leads, the movie is everything a spy film should be.” And Chilango.com agrees that it’s “a good spy movie that doesn't disappoint.”

Docs, comedies, dramas, actioners -- a great selection at the Tropic

srhoades@aol.com

Learning to Drive (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Learning to Drive” Moves Life Forward
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think of it as “Driving Miss Daisy” from a new cultural point of view. Oscar-nominee Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a middle-age book editor who gets dumped by her husband, so she wants to console herself by visiting her daughter who lives upstate. Problem is, Wendy doesn’t know how to drive.

Ergo: “Learning to Drive” is the meaningful title of this dramedy directed by Isabel Coixet. It’s parked at the Tropic this week.

To get these driving lessons Wendy turns to a Sikh cab driver named Dawan. This is where the film’s metaphor comes in: that we all need to “learn to drive” our life. That is, move forward. These funny, brittle, chatty driving lessons give Wendy -- and Dawan -- the impetus to do that.

Patricia Clarkson is perhaps the finest American actress short of Meryl Street. And playing her daughter in this film is Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Mamie’s sister).

Cast as the Indian cabbie is Sir Ben Kingsley, the British actor forever typecast by his Academy Award-winning role as “Gandhi.” However, Sir Ben has legitimate claims to playing an Indian. Although he was born in Yorkford, England, his real name is Krishna Pandit Bhanji. His father was a medical doctor from Kenya, son of a spice trader from India.

“Learning to Drive” is a beautifully acted tale of friendship. Sensitive and nuanced, the relationship between the emotionally reckless driving student and the steadfast teacher dealing with an arranged marriage is worth the trip.

srhoades@aol.com






Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Walk in the Woods (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

A Walk in the Woods

Unflappably light, breezy and amusing although with some cringing moments, Ken Kwapis's "A Walk in The Woods" comes though like a conservation-themed version of "Wild Hogs."

The seasoned actors Robert Redford and Nick Nolte do have magnetism, but the story loses its tread about halfway down the path.

Redford plays real life author Bill Bryson, who wrote the book on which this film is based. Bryson, a successful writer by any standards, feels claustrophobic in his suburban New Hampshire existence. After appearing on a horribly shallow talk show and going to a funeral, he goes for a short walk and is struck by the simplicity of nature.

Bryson has an epiphany: why not hike the Appalachian Trail? His wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is strongly against it but Bryson makes plans anyway. Having no candidates for a partner, he contacts Stephen Katz (Nolte), his old traveling buddy, who flies to meet him. Bryson is shocked; Katz is flushed, trembling wheezy, overweight and grossly unprepared for the hike.

The large and sputtering Katz regales the Bryson family with crude tales of young Bryson's flirtations, much to Catherine's discomfort at the family table.

Needless to say, the odd pair walk off and hit the trail with Bryson appropriately attired while Katz looks like an unmade bed, and into the path they go.

Nolte and Redford have good chemistry. There are some humorous one-liners to be counted on as numerous pitfalls befall them. But beyond that, nothing much of interest takes place. There is scarcely little mystery or wonder as one might reasonably expect from two old friends encountering such a voyage. Instead, Bryson and Katz, do a lot of joking about women and age, with Katz huffing and puffing like a big red wolf to the point where it makes one unsettled and nervous. More sillily, there are some falls on cliff edges that appear right out of "The Three Stooges."

There is a cliche bear scene which feels like a spoof rather than something insightful, given such awesome creatures.

In dialogue, however, Nolte's sandpaper-thrush voice gives a jolt to what is a stereotypical role and his deadpan humor is right on point, which balances Redford's spacey sarcasm.

There would have been more than enough material for a solid comedy and a story of a friendship. Instead, the film goes for quick slapstick with Katz tumbling out a window, running from a homicidal husband, falling from bunk beds and collapsing into streams.

One appearance with comic energy was Kristen Schaal as an annoying rapid talker who invariably points out the negative in the two men. There is a good moment also as the two become marooned in a trench; they gaze at the stars and realistically converse. More often than not however, the film is filled with episodes involving camps and inns, and quasi-kooky people full of quick escapes and sweaty faces.

Not much of it, sadly, has anything to do with the magic of the trail or how the two really feel about each other, beyond the exchange of "Bryson, remember the time.."

On the plus side, the cinematography by John Bailey shows the Appalachian Trail in all of its verdant gorgeousness and the music by Nathan Larson offers some earthy blues that complement a landscape of rusty greens.

A Walk in the Woods" is an idyll rather than a trek, with most of the richness brought to the surface by Redford and Nolte's off-hand humor. What could have been fertile in friendship is undermined in a feverishly incidental and all too physical tone.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Monday, September 14, 2015

Meru (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Meru

There have been many cinematic stories about quests and man's hope to rival Nature.   "28 Hours" was a recent one. And in years past, there were "Deliverance," "Jeremiah Johnson," "Moby Dick" and countless others.

"Meru" is one documentary containing all of the  psychological elements found in an epic film, most notably ambition and obsession, or the wish to equal nature with a human footprint if only for a moment. This stirring documentary by climber Jimmy Chin is a kind of autobiography, detailing his journey in trying to reach The Shark's Fin, the most lethal peak in The Himalayas.

Chin endured great peril in trying to reach the mountain ridge as did head climber Conrad Anker and crew member Renan Ozturk who suffered a fractured skull in a ski accident.

This film is as terrifying in moments as a glacial version of "Jaws." The three mortal men struggle against huge walls of ice which are as intimidating as a gargantuan monolith by artist Richard Serra. Against these blinding white lanes, the men---muscles bulging---look like toiling carpenter ants--carrying their metal tools which look as insignificant as so many silver charms on a doll's wrist. Positioned upon the cosmos perhaps the tools are indeed vodou talismans to a frozen veve for safe passage.

At 25,000 feet, the trio spends weeks suspended on the side of a cliff, with only a tent to shield them. They endure frostbite and crises far worse.

Most intriguing is the family history presented. All three climbers seem obsessive. Conrad Anker wants to climb Meru in part to avenge his partner Alex who lost his life on a trek upwards. Jimmy Chin was badgered by his father into thinking he made a folly of his career. And Renan Ozturk broke his neck.

There is a moment in the film when the camera is accelerated. This shows the compulsive training that it takes to exist alongside Meru as Ozturk drags heavy tires with his waist and does scores of pushups and leg lifts. It is "Rocky" a la Stanley Kubrick.

Though the three rise up worthy of the challenge, the grail like endeavor demands a nearly soul-squelching cost.

The last shot of the ridge in black and purple like an illustration from Wagner or Frank Frazetta seems full of malice and evil, yet it is unfathomably beautiful, for just existing.

Though there have been countless films on the subject of mountain scaling, the narrative stands on its own for its awareness of sports obsession and the magnetic power of this icy juggernaut which consumes men, literally and spiritually. More arrestingly though, is the fact that both Chin and Ozturk crafted this film (as director and cinematographer respectively) at a time when they were very  nearly broken.

"Meru" is a wincing testament to Edmund Burke's Sublime. Underneath the film's otherworldly majesty, lies an unrequited love for a lethal juggernaut that inhabits mortal minds and a cautionary tale hinting of the Supernatural.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Listen to Me, Marlon (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Listen to Me, Marlon

Actor Marlon Brando was a force of nature and worked his entire life to constantly change  his earthly charismatic form, to keep his audience guessing in whatever project he chose. Uniformity, convention, and the routine were repugnant to him and even repulsive.

This chimerical quality of Brando is evident in the very first shot of the documentary "Listen to Me, Marlon" by  director Stevan Riley,  showing a digitalized image of the actor's talking facial features which were done by Scott Billups, an effects man and a friend of the actor, in the hopes of possibly and conceptually resurrecting his persona to star in posthumous films.

It is a wonderful and startling image that sums up the entire film to come. The head, unmistakably Brando's resembles both a Greek statue and a cyborg made of fractals or sand. This in itself is haunting, given the fact that in the film Brando says that his life will become "no more significant than sand." Seen in this way, Brando's head floating in space as a thespian satellite becomes the actor's killing joke, mocking us a bit, but also challenging us to the future and egging us on.

This marvelous and engaging film is told entirely in the actor's own voice from a cache of self hypnosis tapes that the actor repeatedly went to for catharsis and support, in addition to other taped reflections. Over the recordings, we see segments from the actor's life in formative career moments.

What might have been hum-drum in other hands is exuberant and full of motion here, having its own rhythm and syncopation with Brando's inimitable speech.

We learn of his hatred and fear for his violent father which was in itself an engine for dramatic progress. As a young man from Nebraska, he made it to New York, with "holes in his pockets and holes in his brain." He took to the street and studied people, attempting to guess their personalities, and how each person thought, merely from appearances.

He sought the muse of drama to get the affection he never received from his parents, but it proved a cruel surrogate.

Gradually, the film moves away from the Technicolor flora of Marlon Brando's "Guys and Dolls" to show an empty room cluttered with tapes, bongo drums and the digitized Brando face as a raving and isolated wraith from the future, a new age King Lear.

After the glare of"The Godfather" and the oranges of Tahiti faded, Brando became disenchanted with Hollywood for projecting very similar fare film after film and eliciting the predictable responses from audiences.

The whole reason he went into acting, he says, was to make something new with his own face as the stage. On fire by Civil Rights causes but then feeling claustrophobic and ridiculed, the actor isolates himself in limbo, between Tahiti and Mulholland Drive. The actor looks everywhere for tranquility.

He takes a role again with Coppola, this time as Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now".  And again, he is vehemently dissatisfied.

Good actors are liars to Brando. Lying is part and parcel to survival.

Throughout the film Brando is here in the flesh with a collage of colorful imagery. The mythic man voices his anger and frustration in using acting as an agent for change, both public and personal, but fears he is nothing but a serviceman making silly films, echoing his disembodied face that utters ,"all alone I be-weep my outcast state" from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 as if on an endless loop.

The actor is forced from reclusion by his son being charged for murder. Later, his daughter commits suicide.

There is scarce little for Brando to do, except to melt into the liquid drips of technology, reborn as a Marlon Headroom. "Until next time, now...sleep..." The head utters in deadpan parallel to Kurtz's famous line, "The horror...the horror."

It is a heartbreaking exclamation to a great documentary, that also oddly works as wondrous fiction given the sheer scope of this artist's life and reflection.

Sad as his denouement was, the last utterance of "Listen to me, Marlon" has a glimmer of reconciliation and triumph. Perhaps the ultimate metamorphosis and truth that Marlon restlessly sought is to be found in this eerie, computer generated talking head.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo is at it again in Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ," based on the 1964 TV series. Although the film has the usual briefcase tipping and shadowy men slinking around dark corners of any spy film, Richie's take has a staccato and breezy style with some bits of dark humor  that create an amusing, if fleeting, romp.

Solo (Henry Cavill) is a criminal taken in by the CIA and made an agent. He has a person  of interest, so to speak, in the spirited Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a scientist who was a fearsome villain but now is a US collaborator. Solo sticks close to Teller on orders to acquire intelligence on her Nazi relatives, most importantly, Teller's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth).

As in the series, Solo is paired with Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

In typical Guy Ritchie form, the film is dependably smooth and bubbly, sliding in a slick rhythm with lots of running back and forth. Solo resembles Don Draper: slicked hair, jutting chin and gray flannel eyes. He does most of the talking, about parties and how to get his man. Kuryakin is passive and slumbering, except when he gets mad and goes into a storm of rage. There is a compelling bit involving a watch.

Just when our eyes might glaze over from bits of intrigue and gadgetry as in countless Bond films, director Ritchie gives juice to this pedestrian tale of intrigue with his trademark sardonic wit. The life of a spy may proceed in due course but it is still a desperate world.

As stock as Solo and Kuryakin are, Gaby Teller is opaque, spunky and vivacious, not easy to read. When she talks of fashion she speaks with the tongue of an ocelot, full of secrets like actress Simone Simon from "The Cat People." The narrative goes by like a graphic novel in quick, easy bursts of action. The best scenes are the ones featuring close combat followed by a single nonchalant glance.

There is a touch of the surreal as well. Often action in the foreground unfolds slowly, when  moments later, a fire suddenly occurs hinting at the matter of fact absurdity of life.

Slick and ephemeral "The Man From U.N.C.L.E. " may be, but some deadpan touches make a fitting tribute to this television-era dossier, almost bringing the glare of Robert Vaughn back in vogue.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, September 11, 2015

Week of Sept. 11 - 17 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Thrills, Humor, and True Stories Fill Tropic Screens

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Doing nothing but watching reruns of “Law and Order” on TV? Avoid the brain rot of repetitive viewing. Get out and see a new film at the Tropic Cinema.

Well worth your time is “Meru,” a breathtaking documentary about three experienced climbers (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk) attempting to scale the Shark's Fin on 21,000-foot-high Mount Meru in Northern India. But this true story comes off with all the nail-biting excitement of a feature film, with twists and turns and character development and cinematography that will take
your breath away. Arizona Republic calls it “thrilling, harrowing.” Newcity describes it as “achingly beautiful, eye-widening...” Kaplan vs. Kaplan says, “The film's combination of post-climb interviews and real-time footage provides the moviegoer with a unique perspective of these men. In a mere 90 minutes, we get to know them on a strangely personal level that other documentaries rarely achieve.”

Another nature outing is “A Walk in the Woods,” a somewhat-humorous film based on a true story. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte portray two inept (read: fat and out of shape) guys who set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine. A walk in the woods it’s not. SSG Syndicate calls it,
“Sensitive and scenic, it's an amiable amble with two crusty curmudgeons…” Aisle Seat describes it as “Grumpy Old Men in the wild.” And Truthdig tells us, “Everyone will have a reasonably good time without muddying their boots.”

A different kind of walkabout is found in “Mistress America,” an indie film by Noah Baumbach about two step-sisters-to-be (Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke) strolling around New York City in search of madcap adventure. Fort Wayne Weekly says, “If your taste in humor runs to the sophisticated, Mistress America is a decent late-summer bet.” Advocate calls it “funny and poignant.” And Detroit News terms it, “thoughtful and real while consistently riotous.”

Crazy is more scary in “The Gift,” a suspense thriller starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall as a couple who become concerned about a weirdo (director/co-star Joel Edgerton) who pops up from the
past.  Rip It Up says, “All in all, a very entertaining and disquieting psychological drama that
demonstrates that Edgerton certainly has (ahem) a gift.” And RealViews adds, “Clever and atmospheric, the film has enough twists to keep the average viewer guessing.”

A documentary of a different kind is “Listen to Me Marlon,” a compilation of private tape recording made over his lifetime by legendary Method actor Marlon Brando. This is about as personal a portrait
as you can get short of climbing into someone else’s skin. The Village Voice calls Stevan Riley’s doc “a masterpiece. And Boston Globe notes, “It's as if Riley has ushered us into the darkened chamber of the actor's memories, where Brando himself can whisper in our ear.”

If you want your adventure more tongue-in-cheek predictable, catch “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a spy thriller based on the old TV show. This time around Henry Cavill ("Man of Steel") and Armie Hammer ("The Lone Ranger") co-star as Napoleon Solo and his reluctant Russian sidekick Illya
Kuryakin. Out to save the world, they rely on the assistance of an untrustworthy femme fatale (Alicia Vikander). Dark Horizon says, “It's a brisk, smart, fun action comedy that takes the premise of the 1964-68 TV series, replaces the dated campiness with effortless cool, and dresses it in slick '60s period detail that makes Mad Men look amateurish in comparison.” And Butaca Ancha calls this latest Guy Ritchie movie “a spectacle worth seeing.”

And for the best action film of the summer, there’s “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” fifth in this franchise also based on an old TV show. The draw in this spy tale is Tom Cruise doing his own stunts and Rebecca Ferguson in a strong role as a disavowed British agent. Indie London calls it “a
blockbuster that expertly combines exhilarating visual thrills with the kind of intricate storyline that requires viewers to pay attention. It also treads a nice line between the drama and the humor.” SF Weekly agrees that “the introduction of British agent Ilsa Faust to the mix suggests that this may be one of the only ongoing spy concerns that actually know how to use female characters.”  And International Business Times says the film “is able to truly wow in several fleeting scenes of espionage and huzzah moments.”

See, lots to choose from. An antidote to television reruns.

srhoades@aol.com



A Walk In The Woods (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Redford and Nolte Take a Bumbling “Walk In the Woods”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

William McGuire Bryson is best known for his humorous travel books. Having spent most of his adult life in England, he and his wife returned to his native New Hampshire in 1995. Bored, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.

With his wife insisting that he take along a friend for safety, he wound up with an old acquaintance, “a crude, overweight recovering alcoholic,” Just great. Less than 25% of those who start hiking the
trail in Georgia ever make it all way through Maine.

No spoilers here about how this mismatched duo did in their quest. But Bryson wrote a book about it, titled “A Walk In the Woods.”

Now Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are starring in a movie based on the book -- also titled “A Walk in the Woods.” This week you can join them on this trek at the Tropic Cinema without even getting a blister on your foot.

In his late 40s at the time of this walkabout, the bearded and somewhat chubby Bill Bryson bears little resemblance to still-handsome nearly 80-year-old Robert Redford.

It’s hard to judge how well Nick Nolte resembles Bryson’s hiking companion, because “Stephen Katz” is a pseudonym. When Redford first optioned the book, he’d hoped his old buddy Paul Newman would again be his co-star. But Nolte has a more authentically dilapidated look.

Why this book? “I don’t know when I’ve read a book that I laughed so loud,” says Redford. “Also, it’s a chance to take a look at the country ... The backdrop is pretty terrific, if you stop to think of all the visuals that are possible as they go along that trail.”

“A Walk In the Woods” was filmed mostly in Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia.  The Appalachian Trail begins in that park.

Despite his age, Redford seems eager to prove his vitality. Two years ago he took on the physically demanding role of a sailor lost at sea in “All Is Lost.” Now this.

Being Redford’s film, of course it premiered at Sundance Film Festival this past January.

Don’t expect it to be quite as introspective as Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild,” a film based on Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. “A Walk In the Woods” is a buddy film, an almost-funny comedy about two out-of-shape guys bumbling along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Truth is, it’s closer to that Weather Channel TV show, “Fat Guys In the Woods.”

srhoades@aol.com

Listen To Me Marlon (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Brando Speaks to You in “Listen to Me Marlon”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Whether you admire the sexy and primal Marlon Brando of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or the bloated and powerful Brando in “The Godfather,” you’ll agree that he was one of America’s most
formidable actors.

A little-known secret: In 2002 he hosted a ten-day acting class attended by some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. A scheme to raise money to pay for his Tahitian island, it was filmed but never released.

Turns out, Marlon Brando also taped a lot of his personal life -- “at home, in business meetings, during hypnosis, in therapy, and during press interviews.” These too were kept private.

Till now.

A new documentary called “Listen to Me Marlon” has stitched together a number of these previously unreleased audiotapes, along with a potpourri of visual images, to provide a fly-on-the-wall insider look at the great actor. You can catch it at the Tropic Cinema.

More than a second-hand bio, this is Brando in Brando’s own words. Recorded over the course of his lifetime, you get Marlon’s personal insights about his films (he was ashamed of “The Countess From Hong Kong”), about his family (he regretted that he didn’t do more to save his troubled son who served 10 years for murdering his sister’s husband), about his relationships (17 children by 15 women).

Here there are no interviews, no talking heads -- just Brando’s voice talking to you (well, maybe at times to himself).

Documentarian Stevan Riley produced “Listen to Me Marlon” with the full cooperation of Brando’s Estate. Will you learn more about the world’s greatest Method actor? Yes. But you’ll still walk out of the theater shaking your head over the colossal burnout that bridged Stanley Kowalski and Don Vito Corleone.

Next, show us those videotapes from his ten-day acting workshop.

srhoades@aol.com

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Has Suave New Cast
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Forget about all those movie spy organizations like Impossible Mission Force, S.H.I.E.L.D., CONTROL, SPECTRE, and The Ministry.

Make way for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, That’s U.N.C.L.E., for short.

Napoleon Solo and his Ukrainian sidekick Illya Kuryakin are U.N.C.L.E.’s two best agents, in case you don’t remember the TV show that ran from 1964 to 1968. It starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

Now for the movie version of  “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” we have Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. This 007 wannabe is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

You will recognize Cavill as the latest Superman. Hammer was The Lone Ranger. Now they team up as those suave, sophisticated spies Solo and Kuryakin.

Back in the ‘60s there were 105 episodes of the TV series. Eight feature-length motion pictures were cobbled together from episodes of the show.

Surprisingly, this new movie reboot has a fairly threadbare plot: Solo and Kuryakin’s mission is to stop a mysterious international criminal organization bent on destabilizing the world through a proliferation of nuclear weapons. You’d think that out of 105 TV episodes there would be more creative ideas to draw from.

Director Guy Richie co-wrote the script with Lionel Wigram (best known as an executive producer of the “Harry Potter” films), so he has no one to blame but himself.

Nonetheless Richie makes the best of it. After all, he’s a pro, having given us “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and those entertaining “Sherlock Holmes” films starring Robert Downey, Jr. And you can count on him telling the story with style.

Here two former adversaries are forced to work together to stop a terrorist organization with Nazi ties. These cardboard villains, led by fashion-plate Victoria Vinciguerra (Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki), have built an A-bomb.

Set in 1963, we get a revisionist look at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which has to be put on hold in order to avert this threat of a worldwide nuclear catastrophe.

The boys try to infiltrate the terrorists through the daughter of a missing East German scientist. However, it turns out Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who starred in “Ex Machina”) isn’t so easy to find herself. But when she turns up, she’s a handful.

There follows gunplay, explosions, car chases, speeding boats, racing off-road vehicles, rappelling down a cable, and fistfights … although much of the fighting is between former enemies Solo and Kuryakin. Frenemies, as Cavill call them.

Robert Vaughn, the original Napoleon Solo, says, “In the 40 years since the show went off the air, every year somebody has said they were going to make a new The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie and no one ever did until this one, so it was quite surprising.”

As for Henry Cavill filling his old shoes, Vaughn says, “He’s an attractive actor. I’ve seen him wearing the Superman suit.” Here, clothing-wise, it’s more like “Mad Men” with violence.

Vaughn adds, “The main thing he has to have to make the character work is a sense of humor. That’s what we always said … no matter how dire the situations were, the humor was the thing that helped us prevail.”

Henry Cavill gets that. His website proclaims, “Solo is an action hero who is as bemused as he is formidable. And Cavill, with his elegant sexiness and habit of fighting bad guys while wearing impeccable suits, evokes the nonchalance of Cary Grant in the classic ‘North by Northwest.’”

Well that … or a page from GQ Magazine.


srhoades@aol.com


Monday, September 7, 2015

Ant-Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Ant-Man

Marvel's "Ant-Man" directed by Peyton Reed (The Break-Up) is now in the Tropic building. Thanks to the everyman persona of Paul Rudd from Judd Apatow fame, the film has a wonderful charm which works well as a comedy as much as an adventure.

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is a physicist and entomologist who is hard at work with a formula for miniaturization, presumably to bring the molecular realm together with our own. Pym is not supported by his selfish peers.

Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, House of Cards) is a former student of Pym's, who now (of course) is mad with power. Cross takes over Pym's beloved company with dreams of war-lust. Zounds! What can stop him?

Certainly, we have yet another good vs. evil conundrum, but the story is greatly helped by tremendous effects (which give some Disney credit to the reality of quantum physics) and healthy doses of refreshing humor.

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, the former jailbird but earnest dad, has never been better with just the right blend of self deprecation and wild sarcasm. Stoll, too, seems to have a lot of fun, mincing for the camera as a smarmy bad guy accompanied by all the fanfare of a Saturday Matinee.

The film delivers a retro feel of Kitsch and Circumstance. The suit for one, resembles the scarlet and silver days of Flash Gordon in his heyday of the 1930s.

Stoll, in his amarillo and sable alter ego, Yellow Jacket, has the danger of something vague and difficult to define, recalling the Creature Features from the 50's as well as a smattering of Lovecraft.

The action is the shade from Spielberg of old.

In one scene, Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket fight it out during a backyard party. One false move has Yellow Jacket flying into a hanging bug zapper. The combat scenes are as comic has they are entertaining. This is one film that actually feels and sounds like a comic. During such segments, the whole audience bubbled into laughter.

This is a rare thing in an explosive hero film as there have been so many.

"Ant Man" is both heartfelt and nonchalant by turns, yet full of  real surprise.

The episodic narrative moves swiftly in apprehension like a campy serial. We are not bogged down by pseudo-scientific explanations. Events merely happen as they do as in a Max Fleischer cartoon.

When Scott robs a two ton safe, there is not much fuss; it merely freezes and explodes like over-baked bread.

Silliness aside, there is also some poignance when Pym describes the sub-atomic world as a place where all that you love ceases to exist when time and space lose their finite power.

Say what you will about all of the electrifying tumbles, but for a pop art film, this touches on the profound. When our reluctant hero Lang is in that position, hearing the voice of his daughter, it is just as potent as any James Cameron thriller.

Also well done is the emphasis that the story places on the importance of ants in our natural world. Corny it may be, but whenever Lang or Pym interact with or speak of the insect world, it is with a sense of awe and respect.

As we are faced with a very real decline in our bee population, this is a very progressive and compelling awareness to have in an escapist film, especially as it is aimed for younger audiences.

Michael Pena as Lang's friend Luis provides good comedy in his own right. He's a henchman who gets so excited, he can't stop talking in long-winded bursts. Engaging as well is Abby Ryder Fortson as Lang's stereotypically cute daughter Cassie. In her role, she has genuine chemistry with Rudd and her pluck recalls the Spielberg sweeties of Drew Barrymore and Heather O' Rourke.

For added "ah-has", SNL's Garrett Morris who played Ant-Man in a seasonal sketch, has a cameo.  

The most miraculous aspect to "Ant-Man" is that it tells a conventional story with a smoothness and free whimsy that also recognizes the wonder of the natural world. Underneath all of the explosive punching is the idea that our universe is interconnected and dependent on all life, from Tony Stark to tortoise beetles.

This underlying concept is no small trifle.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation

Ethan Hunt ( Tom Cruise) is as red faced and sweaty as ever in "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation."

Here again, he gets a beating and takes it on the chin, exuding as much smirky confidence as Indiana Jones without snakes. And even though we have seen the bicep bashes and the tendon-tearing tumbles all before, it makes for some satisfying butter-crunches to go with your popcorn.

After a near torturous few moments with a sadist named the "bone doctor" Hunt goes to a vintage record store, shoulders bulging, and is given a vinyl record where he is told of  his next mission.

It seems the IMF has been informing on its members, while Hunt is persona non grata. Meanwhile there is a reptilian Syndicate baddie, Lane (Sean Harris) who has gone rogue, hence the film's title.

How or why this happened is not all that important and one doesn't need to see the previous films to enjoy this chapter. Suffice to say, our strapped and sweaty Hunt has to maneuver (or Man-euver) away from multiple baddies, that is, several men and one woman with a gun.

After a few near escapes, Hunt is on the trail of a digital disc that looks like a zip drive, but  the real fun to be had is in the cat and mouse chasing and the madcap combat scenes.

If the over confident Tom doesn't get you as he hangs off the side of a plane, in Total Cruise Mode, there is one terrific tease-tilting scene where Ethan Hunt stealthily leaps ladder after ladder while a full Puccini opera is going on below him. Absurdly, the more Hunt is punched, the more he smirks. And it is testament to the charisma of the actor Cruise that we take it all in, in enjoyable bursts and happily so.

Hunt is obsessed by a dangerous woman Ilsa, (Rebecca Ferguson) who may or may not be lethal. Though her Bond Girl type has often been seen, Ferguson has a smoky vivacious quality that equals Cruise and fills the screen.

Though the trappings of the film are pure Broccoli, it is the Hollywood ham of Cruise himself that makes this outing satisfying and meaty. Who else but Ethan Hunt / Tom Cruise is able to survive a face fracturing crash and then take off on a methamphetamine motorcycle along the roads of Morocco that turn and twist like Arabic scroll. In an earlier scene, a car crashes into the cliche of a fruit stand, but rather than a bore it comes of as Camp.

Given that the franchise has endured episodes, director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) can dispense with explanation and logic, speeding full throttle into dizzy escape. Fortunately, "Rogue Nation" doesn't hold its punches while Tom Cruise has a fun sometimes silly and cultish charm, all the more entrancing by his self-conscious awareness.

Yes, we have seen this bunch before with co-stars Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and  Ving Rhames, and there is nothing really new. Yet the action is swift and clever and the devil-may-who-cares attitude that Cruise has perfected will have you mugging for the camera as well.

Finally, the last scene is singular perfection, a perfect "just desserts" that skirts along the edges of an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Mistress America (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mistress America

Noah Baumbach is best known for his melancholic indie comedies that have a glib and facile quickness. Character-wise they are usually edgy, idiosyncratic and rich in personality, almost like a graphic novel.

His latest "Mistress America" is no exception.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) has moved into a dorm at Columbia. She doesn't fit in. At her mom's urging, Tracy half-heartedly dials Brooke (Greta Gerwig), whose father is marrying Tracy's mom.

Tracy agrees to meet at Times Square.

From first impression, Brooke is a true Renaissance girl. She has seen it all and done it twice over. She is charming, chatty and only thirty. Brooke has supersonic speech faster than a multi-tasker on thirty espressos and she never allows anyone to reply.

Despite this flaw, she appears much in demand by the hipster crowd and seemingly has it all together.

Regardless of her endless chatter, Tracy likes her. Perhaps she is fascinated or lonely, but more than likely, it is a little of both.

Brooke is obsessed by her ex-fiance's new wife, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) believing that the woman stole her t-shirt design concept, in addition to her beau, Dylan (Michael Chernus).

Brooke leads a spontaneous confrontation with Mamie-Claire, believing it to be the key to getting her life back and starting a new restaurant. A comedy of errors ensues involving her bohemian acquaintances who are all grouped together as in a surrealist film by Luis Bunuel. There is Tony (Matthew Shear), an icy writer painfully seeking attention, his jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and a verbally cutting lawyer (
Cindy Cheung )

Brooke oscillates in friendship from warmth to indifference and it is unclear what truly holds Brooke and Tracy together. The two are not entirely likable by themselves. Brooke is egocentric and vain. Tracy is introverted, passive and clearly a bit of a voyeur. Mixed together they make an odd absinthe, jumpy, volatile and hard to discern at bottom.

The most witty moments are the party scenes involving Dylan and Brooke. She is clearly a mess, but the more incoherent she becomes, the more Dylan becomes smitten by her, making a spoof of what is hip, meaningful and of the moment.  In his  mad ardor for Brooke, Michael Chernus as Dylan in steals the show.

Like most of Baumbach's character films, "Mistress America" works at you softly and almost lullingly around the periphery, only to make you wonder in an instant and pull you in.

Underneath Tracy's predictable Woody Allen voiceover, there is mystery. Who is using whom? What is the nature of dysfunction and its possible meaningful role in a friendship?

These questions and some vibrantly comic dialogue make solid entertainment which will poke at you in its gentleness coupled with its understated quirks.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Week of Sept. 4 - 10 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Gives You a Choice of Film Genres
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Cooke Communications

Tropic Cinema covers a wide swath of film genres this week -- dramedy, psychological thriller, musical drama, feminist comedy, superhero blockbuster, and A-list action adventure. Take your pick.

“Mistress America” is a new indie film from Noah Baumbach starring his talented girlfriend Greta Gerwig. Here gal-about-town Brooke (Gerwig) wanders around NYC with her soon-to-be stepsister
(Lola Kirke), bringing the timid college freshman out of her shell with a series of questionable misadventures. One Guy’s Opinion sees it as “a sharp, sophisticated modern screwball comedy with an underlying strain of poignancy.” And St. Louis Post-Dispatch says, “It confirms that Gerwig is among the brightest talents on the cinema scene.”

“The Gift” shows Jason Bateman in a new light, not as the comedian but as a serious actor. His character’s past catches up with him when he bumps into an old high school acquaintance known as
Gordo the Weirdo (director/co-star Joel Edgerton). 3AW says, “What starts out as a standard psycho drama soon develops into a deliciously malicious tale of deceit and secrecy, ridden with some ingenious left turns.” And MediaMikes describes it as “full of great scares and even greater performances.”

“Ricki and the Flash” proves Meryl Streep can play anything (including an electric guitar). As an aging rock singer who abandoned her family in search of fame, she must return to Indianapolis to
comfort her daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) who is going through a bad divorce. The List says, “Meryl is a goddess, there are some laughs and the sing-along climax is sweetly joyous.” Herald Sun tells us, “It is another deeply immersive performance from Streep that repeatedly lifts this bittersweet comedy-drama hybrid out of the doldrums.” And Sydney Morning Herald calls it “likeable and surprisingly low-key.”

“Trainwreck” will cause you to laugh out loud (and wince a few times) watching Amy Schumer make her movie mark as a commitment-phobic magazine writer who meets a guy worth getting serious about (Bill Hader). ABC Radio says, “It's a fun, crude comedy with an outrageous central
character and plenty of great one-liners.” And En La Butaca says, “Director Judd Apatow’s newest comedy is his best work in years.”

“Ant-Man 3D” is the new comic book movie based on a little-known Marvel superhero who can shrink to the size of an ant. In this first outing, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas) must keep a mad tycoon from selling this top-secret shrinkage technology
to the bad guys. Indie London says, “It may boast the world’s smallest superhero but Marvel’s Ant-Man is big on fun and ingenuity.” And Junkee explains, “Ant-Man is entertaining because it uses big-movie tricks without big-movie hyperbole.”

“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” may be the best action movie of the year, once again starring Tom Cruise as the IMF spy who can’t be stopped. Cruise does his own stunts as usual, this time hanging off the side of an airplane and holding his breath underwater for, well, impossible lengths. GQ Magazine observes, “Director Christopher McQuarrie steps in with a thriller that mixes old-
fashioned spy movie tropes with state-of-the-art action beats and a rich helping of wit.” SF Weekly adds, “The introduction of British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) to the mix suggests that this may be one of the only ongoing spy concerns that actually know how to use female characters.” And Cinefantastique concludes, “The ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail…).”

What to see? Depends on your mood. But rest assured, there’s not a bad movie among them.

srhoades@aol.com

Mistress America (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Baumbach-Gerwig Team Tailor Makes “Mistress America”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Talk about it being hard to please your parents, movie director-screenwriter Noah Baumbach has it bad. He’s the son of two film critics, Georgia Brown and Jonathan Baumbach.

Noah has given us “The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha,” and “While We’re Young,” among other films.

His newest -- currently screening at Tropic Cinema -- is titled “Mistress America.” He co-wrote it
with actress Greta Gerwig, who also stars in the film. This is not their first waltz together. They have been in a relationship since 2011.

Here, Gerwig plays a flaky young woman who shakes up the life of her lonely college-girl almost-stepsister (Lola Kirke). Her sis-to-be says, “I'm so impressed by you and so worried for you at the same time.”

It’s a thoughtful screwball comedy.

Gerwig’s roots are in indie films, as are Noah Baumbach’s. She says, “Some of the independent movies that make money have a very specific thing that you can tell audiences they'll feel about it. ‘This will make you feel so happy.’ ‘This will make you feel something about your family’.”

What can you expect from “Mistress America”? Gerwig tells us it’s “a comedy about dream-chasing, score-settling, makeshift families, and cat-stealing.”

The characters are not so likable, but they win you over nonetheless.

Variety says, “Greta Gerwig shines in a tailor-made role …” Well, of course she does. Didn’t we tell you she co-wrote it?

She says, “So much of writing is like baking a cake. I can't tell you where the sugar is.”

Maybe her impetuous, wacky character doesn’t have much sugar, but sometimes we find lemon twist can be quite tasty.

srhoades@aol.com




Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Tom Cruise Measures Up In “Mission Impossible 5”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Would you pay ten bucks to see Tom Cruise hanging from an airplane? You bet. Because the A-List actor does his own stunts in “Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation.”

You won’t take your eyes off the screen.

Who would have thought cute, smiley, dimpled Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, standing only 5 feet 7 tall, would become the best action star in movies today?

5 feet 7 -- that’s even shorter than Sylvester Stallone (“Rambo,” “Rocky”) who claims a lofty height of 5-10. Note: Screenwriter William Goldman swears that Stallone is really “67 inches (5-feet-7), dripping wet.”

Not that height is required for Hollywood success.

Al Pacino is only 5-6 tall. So is tough-guy Danny Trejo. As was Alan Ladd, requiring the villain to stand in a hole while filming the face-off in “Shane.”

Kung Fu star Jet Li measures a diminutive 5-5 tall. So did James Cagney. Michael J. Fox is 5-4. Kevin Hart is 5-2 if we stretch it. Of course Danny DeVito is 4-11. And Peter Dinklage is 4-4, but he is technically a dwarf.


Without the magic of movies Daniel Radcliff is a mere 5-5. So is Dustin Hoffman. Richard Dreyfuss is only 5-4. And Scarlett Johansson stands 5 foot 3 in her stocking feet.

Ralph Keyes, author of a book titled “The Height of Your Life” calls Hollywood the Land of the Lilliput, noting that many actors are vertically challenged. “Here’s the deal as I finally figured it out,” Keyes says. “Entertainment in general is a haven for smaller guys. I think you have to be able to present yourself and be expressive to be an actor, but if you grow up average size or taller, then you don’t grow up with such a need to be forceful or expressive.”

A BBC documentary about 5-foot-5 Mel Brooks is titled “I Thought I Was Taller."

As for Tom Cruise, he seems taller on the screen.

And his new film “Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation” is looking large at the box office. It’s now playing at Tropic Cinema.

In this fifth installment of the movie franchise that’s based on an old 1966 TV show, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his trusty sidekicks (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames) must thwart an international group of assassins known as The Syndicate. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) has been disbanded (by Alex Baldwin) and so it’s up to Hunt to save the day by riding motorcycles like a deranged daredevil, racing BMWs like a death-wish demolition derby driver, busting through 12 feet of concrete and plunging into 70,000 gallons of pressurized water without an oxygen tank, fighting big guys hand-to-hand like a black-belt martial art champion, and … yes, hanging onto the side of an Airbus A400M while in flight. 5,000 feet in the air. Without a stunt double.

You’ll love it.

Action enough to leave your heart pounding for thirty minutes after you leave the theater. Or so it seemed.

Take my advice: Forget about that loony Tom Cruise who hopped up-and-down on Oprah’s couch. Forget about that fanatical Scientologist Tom Cruise. Forget about Randy Newman’s song about “Short People.” Just give 131 minutes to IMF agent Ethan Hawk and you won’t be disappointed.

Trust me, you’ll get ten bucks worth of thrills.

srhoades@aol.com

Ant Man 3D (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Marvel’s “Ant Man” Fills the Screen
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Marvel Comics has over 5,000 characters … and the superhero movies from Marvel Studios seem determined to work their way through them one by one.

This time up it’s “Ant-Man.”

This superhero was created back in 1962 by Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, along with Jack “The King” Kirby. The original story in Tales to Astonish #27 was aptly titled “The Man in the Ant Hill.”

Back when I was publisher of Marvel Comics, we used a “character wheel” to determine whether a new character was original enough to pay incentives to its creator(s). The four criteria were new name, new look, new civilian identity, and new powers. Ant-Man qualified on all four counts, of course.

Here was Dr. Hank Pym, a scientist who developed the technology to shrink himself down to the size of an ant. And as his size diminished, his strength increased. Guess that’s why a tiny ant can carry a huge twig or lump of bread many times its weight.

In typical comic book fashion, Marvel even had Ant-Man morph into Giant Man (hey, all you had to do was add a “gi” to his name), Goliath, Yellowjacket, and the Wasp. And over time Hank Pym gave way to a new Ant-Man, a thief named Scott Lang. He first appeared as the new Ant-Man in Marvel Premiere #47.

Meanwhile others assumed the roles of those spin-off insect-themed superheroes Yellowjacket and the Wasp.

In this new “Ant-Man” movie – with its larger-than-life appearance on the screens at Tropic Cinema – Michael Douglas plays an older Hank Pym. And Paul Rudd stars as current Ant-Man, Scott Lang.

Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as a follow-up to the recent “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” we find Scott and his mentor trying to protect the Ant-Man technology from falling into the wrong hands. It involves Lang pulling off a clever heist.

Along with Hank Pym (Douglas) and Scott Lang (Rudd), we have Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll), the future Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Lang’s sizeable daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and various supporting players (Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, and Judy Greer) to keep things moving.

My ol’ pal Stan Lee is pleased to see this underutilized superhero get his own movie. He once told me he was disappointed Ant-Man had never caught on like Spider-Man.

Stan the Man later elaborated, “I loved Ant-Man, but the stories were never really successful. In order for Ant-Man to be successful, he had to be drawn this small next to big things and you would be getting pictures that were visually interesting. The artists who drew him, no matter how much I kept reminding them, they kept forgetting that fact. They would draw him standing on a tabletop and they would draw a heroic-looking guy. I would say, ‘Draw a matchbook cover next to him, so we see the difference in size.’ But they kept forgetting. So when you would look at the panels, you thought you were looking at a normal guy wearing an underwear costume like all of them. It didn’t have the interest.”

Hollywood’s Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) F/X can take care of that problem.

As for me, I always had a soft spot for Ant-Man. At one of my first Marvel editorial conferences, we put the teams of writers and artists through training exercises. In one, each of us was assigned a character (the name pinned to the back of our shirts) and we had to guess by asking questions which superhero we had. Mine? You guessed it, Ant-Man.

srhoades@aol.com