Saturday, October 31, 2015

Crimson Peak (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Crimson Peak


Grand Gru-meister Guillermo del Toro has returned to All Hallows' Eve with "Crimson Peak," a beautifully rendered tribute to H.P. Lovecraft and Hammer films. Not only is the film delicious to look at, chock full of rousing yellows, opulent oranges, scathing scarlets and sable effluvia, it also has some satisfying scares.

It is England in the year 1901. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) strives to be the next Mary Shelley and writes nightshade stories in flowing elegant handwriting. At her father's office she meets the dashingly pale and sensitive Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston)

Thomas is immediately entranced by the equally pale and breathy Edith.

There is only one catch.

Edith's father (Jim Beaver) does not care one iota for Thomas, and he cares even less for Thomas' sister, the hissing and secretive Lucile (Jessica Chastain.)

No matter. Thomas looks dreamy into Edith's eyes, rhapsodizing about the future and his new iron extraction machine.

Meanwhile, the Dad hires a detective to trail the strange and dubious Sharpes.

First off, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is sensational with each color and setting lighting upon your eye in a delight. One is wonderfully at home as much in the pages of Edith Wharton as in Mary Shelley. The costumes swirl upon the eye like jasmine flowers from Jane Austen's garden.

There is also some appropriate anxiety in this period film about the new technologies of steam and locomotion. Sharpe's machine looks like a medieval blood letting device: iron, metal, gears and spikes feature prominently. Photography is a realm of shadows and something to fear.

Though these first devices are right out of Arthur Conan Doyle, later events are current to this millenium. There is a grisly bathroom scene recalling Kubrick's "The Shining." A David Lynch influence is also in evidence. During a summery park scene reminiscent of  Seurat's Sunday Afternoon, a horde of ants devour a group of butterflies.

Above all, however, the film is more closely akin to Lovecraft than to Jane Austen or any cerebral surrealist from our age. One Allerdale Hall sinks from the weight of an incarnadine goo, perhaps cosmic perhaps not. Ghosts and goblins turn, tumble and warn while our Alice in Weirdland, grows increasingly pale with laborious respiration.

Though the events might run a bit light for outright horror, the trappings and melodrama are perfectly eye-shutting and suspenseful. Hiddleston is a perfect incarnation of a Shelleyan Romantic while Jessica Chastain is a cimmerian menace, more moth-like than human.

This makes a welcome return to Del Toro's baroque bestiary of scarifying forms. Well-told, while hitting all of the nocturnal notes, "Crimson Peak" is a lurid valentine to the legacy of Hammer Films. In its very over-use of blood and gore, it is perhaps, a blackly comic stab at Tarrantino as much as it is a sopping red badge of personal courage.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, October 30, 2015

Week of Oct. 30 to Nov. 5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

From True Stories to Scary Tales, Tropic Cinema Delivers Variety

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Seven is your lucky number, that being the variety of films showing this week at Tropic Cinema.

 Number One in the lineup is “Truth,” based on the true story about how CBS-TV anchor Dan Rather and “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes got fired for running an unvetted story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Here we have Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes, star power a-plenty. The Miami Herald calls it “an apologia for the critical errors made by Mary Mapes, an award-winning producer for CBS News….” Seattle Times finds it “mesmerizing, entirely because of Blanchett; this is one of those movie-star performances in which every detail, every gesture feels right.” And Chicago Sun-Times notes, “Redford does a terrific job of capturing Rather’s on-air cadence and his larger-than-life off-air persona.”

Second up is “The Intern,” a sweet comedy about a retiree who takes an internship with a dot-com company headed by a vulnerable young woman. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway are winning in those respective roles. The Atlantic describes it as “a gentle, enjoyable fantasy-and certainly director Nancy Meyers’s best film in more than a decade.” And Cine Premiere observes, “The chemistry between Hathaway and De Niro feels sincere and is what keeps the story up and going.”

Bring your sweater to see “Everest 3D,” the true-life drama about climbers who face death on the world’s highest mountain (29,029 feet). The expedition includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, and John Hawkes. WOW247 says it’s “worth seeing for its terrifying action sequences and its stunning visuals.” And Dark Horizons calls it “a welcome throwback to the testosterone-heavy adventure flicks of past decades.”

“Sicario” follows a young FBI agent as she joins a task force on the trail of a Mexican drug lord. Emily Blunt and Josh  Brolin lead the chase. Cinenceuntro finds it to be “a powerful, tense and exciting movie that also boasts great performances.” And the Ooh Tray sees it as “a story designed to crush your idealism and open your eyes; objectives resoundingly achieved.”

Bill Murray fans will want to catch “Rock the Kasbah,” the comedy about a loser talent manager who winds up on a tour of Afghanistan where he discovers a new singer. Los Angeles Times says it has “an acclaimed film director, a legendary comic actor, lots of fun rock and pop songs, and a noble story at its core.” And Examiner proclaims, “Bill Murray is as fantastic as ever….”

For those of you in the Halloween spirit, there’s “Hotel Transylvania 2,” the animated romp featuring your favorite ghoulies and monsters -- Dracula (Adam Sandler), Frankenstein (Kevin James), Phantom of the Opera (Jon Lovitz), and more -- all gathered at their favorite resort. Daily Telegram says, “Like the first entry in this animated Sony Pictures franchise, the film is spirited, engaging, and has an idea: it’s about mutual tensions between the undead and the living, who have forged a truce up in the Carpathians.” And Movie Crypt sums it up, “Essentially, if you enjoyed the original, you’ll enjoy the sequel, but it's more of the same.”

“Crimson Peak” is Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic romance about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who marries an Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) who lives with his strange sister (Jessica Chastain) in a spooky old mansion. Cinegarage calls it “one of the most violent love stories ever told....” And Butaca Ancha concludes, “Visually and narratively Del Toro achieves to bring influences of Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophus, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and many other great directors without loosing his own signature and style.”

Seven films filling four screens. Lucky you.

srhoades@aol.com

Truth (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies


“Truth”
Be Told


Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades


Whether or not this movie is the truth depends on who you ask. CBS denies its accuracy and refuses to run ads for it. But Mary Mapes stands by the story.

She and CBS have had this problem before.

“Truth” -- the film opening this week at the Tropic Cinema -- is based on Mapes’s set-the-record-straight book “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the privilege of Power.”

As you will recall, Mary Mapes is the “60 Minutes” producer who was fired, along with news icon Dan Rather, over a debunked report on George W. Bush’s preferential National Guard service. There are those who say the story was true even if the source was suspect.

The charge was that that Mapes and Rather didn’t do enough homework and ran a faulty story as a segment of the highly revered TV new magazine.

A TV pro, Mapes’ journalistic scoops included exposing the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Karla Faye Tucker’s death row interview, and tracking down Senator Strom Thurman’s black illegitimate daughter. And Dan Rather was the award-winning anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1981-2005.

In this retelling of the event that set off a firestorm and got them fired, Cate Blanchet stars as Mapes, a close-enough clone of the blonde CBS news chief. And Robert Redford steps in to portray Rather. The real newsman likes to joke that he and the handsome actor were separated at birth. They’ve been hitting the red carpet together -- which would imply Rather stands behind THIS version of the truth.

Directed by noted screenwriter James Vanderbilt, “Truth” traces how Mapes and Rather came across the so-called Killian Documents exposing the President’s shirker military service, gave it onlt a superficial vetting, then ran with the story.

Was it a set up? Or sloppy journalism? Were Mapes and Rather the victims of a witchhunt? Or guilty as charged? Was the punishment too severe for a respected news professional and a beloved CBS anchorman? Or justified in a zero-tolerance world? What would Brian Williams say about it?

The scandal is a perfect J-school case for discussing journalistic ethics and procedures. After the movie, you’re sure to be debating the subject with your friends over a cup of coffee.

srhoades@aol.com

Crimson Peak (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Is “Crimson Peak”
Gothic Romance
Or Horror Movie?

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

In Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” we encounter Edith Cushing, a gifted 19th-Century authoress who we’re told doesn’t write ghost stories, but stories that happen to have ghosts in them. Thus we might conclude that this isn’t really a horror film, but merely a movie filled to excess with horror trappings – fluttering spirits, howling wind, flickering candelabras, and walls that seem to ooze blood – a garish backdrop for what del Toro insists on calling a gothic romance.

Sure, Edith sees the wraith of her dead mother and other apparitions. “They’re really metaphors,” Edith explains.

In the same way, we’re to assume all this spooky stuff is simply a method for del Toro to indulge his macabre storytelling. The director-writer says he wants this film to honor “the grand dames” of the haunted house genre – Robert Wise’s “The Haunting,” Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

“Crimson Peak” is currently creeping out audiences at Tropic Cinema.

Here, Edith (Mia Wasikowska swathed in yellow frocks amid others in dark, somber attire) is a sensitive young lady who gets swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a penniless baronet who lives with his weird sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in a crumbling ancestral estate in northern England. This eerie domain lends its name to the movie, “Crimson Peak.”

Following her father’s mysterious death, Edith marries Thomas and goes to live with him and his sister at spooky ol’ Crimson Peak. Turns out, the mansion is situated above an old clay mine that leaches a red goo into the pipes, drips down the walls, and bubbles up through the floorboards. An environmental disaster no doubt. And maybe more.

As it turns out, Thomas and Lucille share a dark secret. And that’s the point of the movie: That Edith’s charming new husband is not who he appears to be.  We’ve seen this theme in movies ranging from “Rebecca” to “Suspicion.” Or “Bluebeard.”

Concerned by a private detective’s report, Edith’s old suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) sets out to England on a mission to rescue her from possible endangerment. But will this quiet, shy man be a match for Thomas’s crazy-as-a-bedbug, wild-eyed, raven-haired, butcher knife-wielding sister?

At times it’s difficult to tell the blood from the red clay.

As one of the wraiths hisses, “Beware of Crimson Peak!” Consider yourself forewarned.

srhoades@aol.com

Cindy Williams at the Triopic (Rhoades)

Cindy Williams to Speak

After “American Graffiti”

Interviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Meet Cindy Williams. You may think of her as Shirley Fenney, that cute, wacky sidekick of Laverne DeFazio.

Cindy’s the Grand Marshal for this year’s Fantasy Fest Parade. And she’ll be making a special appearance Friday night at the Tropic Cinema for a conversation with me and the audience following a special 7 p.m. showing of “American Graffiti.”

Like you, I grew up with Laverne and Shirley, those two Milwaukee roomies who worked as bottlecappers at the Shotz Brewery and hung out with geeky guys like Lenny, Squiggy, and Carmine. Even the Fonz made a few appearances.

Cindy and her pal Penny Marshall starred as the title characters on “Laverne and Shirley,” the popular television show that ran from 1976-1983. It was a spinoff of “Happy Days,” a TV show created by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall.

The girls were busily working as writing partners on a script for a never-produced song-and-dance movie titled “My Country Tis of Thee” when they got a call from Penny’s brother, saying “Happy Days” needed two fast girls who looked like they “dated the fleet” for an episode. They did the bit, then returned to their writing. A few weeks later they got a call saying the network liked the characters and wanted to do a spinoff. And just like that, Cindy and Penny were famous television stars.

“It was life-changing,” says Cindy Williams. “Going from obscurity to everybody knowing your face. Moving to the head of the line. One week borrowing money from your mother to pay the rent, the next you’re paying her mortgage. Being able to donate to charities and tithe in church. Being able to go out and buy a car.”

But Cindy heeded her mother’s advice: “You have to be levelheaded or you’ll wind up in the poorhouse.”

“She was right about that,” Cindy laughed, as we were reminiscing about those happy days. “I didn’t think that was gong to be the case, that I’d always be on top, but Henry Winkler gave me the heads-up that it didn’t work that way.”

Cindy still reflects that perky dark-haired, big-eyed girl who won America’s heart as Shirley Feeney. She’s fun to talk with. Particularly when recalling her early days of success.

Cindy stays in touch with her old friends. “I see Henry a lot,” she says. “Penny, too.” And she talks to Ron Howard (“Ronnie” to her) and others. As for Eddie Mekka (that’s Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa to you), she and he have appeared together in stage productions of “Grease” and “It Had to be You.” Coming up next is a production of “Beau Geste” together.

Cindy’s new book is titled “Shirley, I Jest.” She describes it as “little anecdotes about my life. Upbeat and fun and mirthful.”

In it, she recalls the time her grandmother bought a black-and-white television set. Four-year-old Cindy would watch “Search for Tomorrow,” “Arthur Godfrey Time,” and “Jackie Gleason.” She would act out the TV shows, even mimicking the Lucky Strike cigarette commercials.

It paid off. In high school she won a place in the talent contest by performing a Bob Newhart routine, “The Driving Instructor.” That led to school plays, along with a classmate named Sally Field. After studying at Los Angeles City College, waitressing jobs started to be replaced by roles in TV shows like “Barefoot in the Park” and “Nanny in the Professor.” That led to low-budget movie roles like that of a girl being eaten by a monster in “Beware the Blob.” Returning from Spain where she’d been shooting a small part in “Travels with My Aunt,” she got a call to audition for a movie by some new guy named George Lucas, a little film called “American Graffiti.” She was so tired from jetlag that she had to use the script when paired for a test with Ron Howard. She got the part and the remainder is history.

“American Graffiti” … “More American Graffiti” … “Happy Days” … “Laverne and Shirley” … Cindy Williams has always been attracted to nostalgia. Now she’s part of our memories.

srhoades@aol.co

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rock the Kasbah (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Rock the Kasbah

In what could have been a glib and smart re-creation of a Bob Hope road movie, director Barry Levinson has a worthy idea in "Rock the Kasbah" about a debauched music producer who wants to bridge the cultural gap between Afghanistan and America. Sadly, Levinson loses his footing, and the story as a whole is a figment rather than a solid film throughout.

Bill Murray as producer Richie Lanz starts out unsteady, glazed and mumbling with a tie dye bandana and a wobbly gait. At times he seems to mimic his quirky and far more vivid performance in "Where the Buffalo Roam."

Murray verbally drifts with long pauses. Even in playing a spaced out, fed up character, his timing is off and plays half heartedly.

Still, Bill Murray is Bill Murray and even at a  quarter of his power, he remains charismatic. Lanz, we can tell even before the opening credits, is at rock bottom. He has lost custody of his daughter and has no prospects. He goes to a karoake bar with his friend Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel). A drunk man gives him an idea to take Ronnie on the road to entertain the troops in Kabul.

He lands with Ronnie in Kabul and she leaves without him knowing, taking his passport and money. Lanz is beside himself. At a bar, he meets a mercenary (Bruce Willis) and two black market weapons men (Scott Caan and Danny McBride). McBride hollers and yells in a crass manner, acting a stereotype of an Ugly American while Caan plays like a teenager. The two actors are barely on screen for five minutes.

At a club, he meets the fetching escort Merci (Kate Hudson.) After a few mildly funny one liners in the tradition of a teen sex comedy. Lanz sweats it out in silence and is seen in drag which plays too silly to be funny.

During a night walk, he hears the surreal sound of a melodious voice. It is the veiled  Salima (Leem Lubany) singing a pop song. She scatters like a bird. Surely he can represent her. This could be his big break.

The main problem with the film is its mixture in tone. Is it a road movie? A weird farce? Or a poignant comedy drama? The story floats in and out in aspect and color like a mirage, uncertain as to its path. Murray himself seems half in this masque. During the first hour, he is listless and passive. Only when he meets the enchanting Salima, does his role get some voltage.

For the most part too, the roles are thinly drawn with stereotypes: the terse soldier, the angry Arab, the obnoxious American. The start of the film spends too much time with these sketchy appearances and this dilutes whatever edge the film might have had.

Leem Lubany as Salima makes a striking role especially in her singing of "Peace Train" but any pathos is so bogged down by the one dimensional role of her harsh father (Fahim Fazli) that it seems more of a comedy than something meaningful especially when the actor knocks down an ice cream cone with burning eyes.

 "Rock the Kasbah" is a missed opportunity. There are a couple good moments to be found. Notably in the dialogue when Lanz says that Afghanistan is a shell game of sorts between the Taliban and CIA. The cinematography by Sean Bobbit (12 Years A Slave) is also terrific, depicting Afghanistan as a mountainous cloak of purple and gold illuminated by the glow of TV sets. Lastly there is a fine score, peppered by Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens).

It is a pity that the shaky tone and silly shenanigans cast a shadow over all, needlessly currying what would make an already spicy dish. Most of the goings-on might have you saying in pashto, "poh nə shwum" وه نه شوم  or more likely in English, "I don't understand."

The iconic Bill hasn't traveled far enough East in this all too dirivative outing from Remembrance of Murrays Past.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Monday, October 26, 2015

Freeheld (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Freeheld

"Freeheld"  by Peter Sollett and based on Cynthia Wade's 2007 documentary of the same name, is a vital story about pension rights granted to same sex couples, regardless of whether they are married.

The story concerns Laurel Hester, an Ocean City, New Jersey police officer and her fight to transfer her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. As a true life story, it is a matter of respect and equality, as poignant as it is powerful. As a feature film however, it plays like a Lifetime    TV network movie.

Julianne Moore is solidly believable as Hester. She is tough without being coarse, direct yet sensitive. On her beat, she oversees a drug deal and is struck on the head.  Hester still gets her man.

At a volleyball game, she meets Stacie, a nonchalant and laconic young lady. The two develop a rapport. During an amusement park date, after fending off three muggers, they kiss. Both of them, presumably, are attracted to what the other possesses.

Moore perfectly embodies Hester. Ellen Page, although physically resembling Andree, feels too much like the actor Ellen Page, in her usual round-eyed looks and passive expression.

Hester and Andree cuddle and spoon often but beyond that, not much is revealed. Who are they as a couple and what makes them unique? There is not much here.

During a romantic evening, Hester feels a pain. A pulled muscle. She goes to the doctor, calling back before a party.

Cancer.

As if by rote we see the usual progression: a saddened police department and forced smiles followed by support.

But then the bombshell. Hester's working partner Wells (Michael Shannon) visits her and discovers Stacie is her girlfriend. He is upset and beside himself, but swallows his ego.

By the very next scene, all is accepted. Hester wishes  her pension transfered to her girlfriend, Stacie Andree. The office is dumbfounded.

A sensitive Wells as portrayed by Shannon has some energy here. The actor has some cutting lines for his homophobic co-workers.

But then Steve Carell appears as the earnest but lighthearted founder of Garden State Equality, and plays his scene for fun punchlines, waving his arms and hamming it up. He comes off a bit too silly.

There is a good story here. But it remains stuck in a melodrama of molasses, in its stock roles, without venturing into vivacity or celebration.

By midway we are given tearful hospital scenes and hearings and the usual bigotry from the freeholders without any contemplative variation.

Every character is either morose or resolute, with little introspection or variety in emotion.

Yes, the freeholders are backward. Of course, Steven, Stacie and Wells are doing the right, positive and just thing. But as a narrative film, all of these actions beg for more.

Though it is most definately an arresting subject with Julianne Moore doing her best, "Freehold" feels held back, serialized into a somber soap opera and leaves one underwhelmed.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Everest (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Everest

A mountain peak can be analogous to a creature, a biblical Leviathan perhaps, or a Moby Dick born from ice. In its most basic form The Summit is an expression of Inconquerable Nature, a testament to the supremacy of the terrestrial world. The idea that man can somehow conquer such peaks and reach formidable heights have inspired us for centuries and inflamed our collective Mind.

The top of Everest is arguably the largest and most lethal of these challenges.

"Everest" by director Baltasar Kormáku (2 Guns) is about one such scaling trek led by climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a leader from another group. The two are joined by a macho doctor,  Beck (Josh Brolin) and a mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes)

A seasoned climber from Japan, Naoko (Yasuko Namba) also joins the group. The two set up base camp and become almost instantly threatened, first by fear and what ifs (as in a horror film) and then by happenstance.

For good tidings, they attend a zen ceremony, but right from the start, one understands that there are no certainties. The film does an excellent job in building suspense. Hall's wife (Kiera Knightley) is pregnant, while Beck's spouse (Robin Wright) is an anxious wreck and their wants and worries are well illustrated. Still, iron Will comes to the fore with testosterone and estrogen alike. The groups must conquer the peak. Why?

Simply because the Everest exists.

Much like Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss did in "Jaws," the groups check and re-check their supplies and begin a hard and laborious journey, but it starts smoothly enough.

Then weather hits and the melodrama begins. The groups cough and writhe under the sheer magnitude of the ice face that transforms into a literal monster with frozen teeth. All drama aside, the film showcases superior 3D effects that put us right alongside some nervous hands and feet. One cringes with every step and the blinding temperatures are even sensed, so immersive is the depiction.

A rare thing it is to see the insidious condition of frostbite so vividly. It invades upon the face like a red sin, in comparison to Lovecraft or Poe the blight is unforgiving.

Emily Watson gives an emotive perfomance as the den mother at the camp, desperately trying to hold everyone and everything together, sanity being the least of problems.

Despite some predictable action with shaky bridges and numb hands, the sequences remain thrilling and reactive, very much like a real ascent. One watches "Everest" with a sense of actual panic. The peak stands alone as a white juggernaut, a triangle of sky as well as ice. The great rise is transformed from an abstract idea to be achieved into a sliding  Succubus by the power of ego and fear. Men and women are tossed down without mercy and the ice shelves become sculptures of flesh for those doomed to plunge, either by anoxia or arrogance.

Doug and Naoko in particular, are icy spacemen driven into lightness by a lack of oxygen. Both plant flags into this frozen moon, in a direct parallel to Apollo 11. Desire outsteps all logic or reason.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sicario (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Sicario

 Hard hitting and noirish director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) scores once again with "Sicario" about FBI relations in Mexico. Emily Blunt stars as Agent Kate Macer, a tough unsentimental woman who gradually becomes overwhelmelmed by the amoral actions around her.

During a raid in Arizona, she discovers several bodies buried under the sheetrock ala Edgar Allan Poe. Driven to make progress in the drug trade, she is sent by her supervisor (Victor Garber) to work with Matt Graver, (Josh Brolin) an undercover CIA man. Graver is cynical and as hard as cement, on the trail of Diaz, a cartel boss.

Graver has one lethal weapon, one Alejandro, (Benicio del Toro ) a cold and deliberate killing machine. Macer grows increasingly horrified by the gruesome events she sees including naked men hung from posts and a Wild West style shootout in the middle of a busy highway. When she attempts to decompress with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) she unwittingly meets up with Ted (Jon Bernthal) a violent henchman.

Macer is aghast with shock. del Toro turns in another deadpan and eerie performance as a frightful and sadistic killer, a kind of half Joker, half Equalizer, born sour. When he smiles, it is never a party. There is also another Joker connection to Alejandro: his daughter was thrown into a vat of acid.

Emily Blunt is especially good as an agent who strives to do her best in an amorally savage and blood-gushing world. Though Kate's existence becomes squared with pain and fear, she carries on in the tradition of Maya from "Zero Dark Thirty" and the iconic Clarice in "Silence of The Lambs."

The primary stars of the show remain the cinematography by Roger Deakins where the wilds of Mexico resemble the surface of the moon, and the director who has raises the compelling comparison between violence and yearning to be a big shot to a kid's soccer game.

The percussive kicks of the ball are indistinguishable from the rounds of a gun. "Sicario" is yet another satisfying film from Villeneuve. The director seldom holds back and this jolting film does not disappoint. Villeneuve often creates his own geometric realm, where human sensitivity is absent and the normal boundaries of right and wrong no longer carry direction.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Week of October 23 - 29 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Murray to Depp, De Niro to Blunt, Brolin to Moore,
You’ll Find Your Favorite Stars at the Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

You don’t have to be an astronomer to see the stars. Simply buy yourself a ticket to the Tropic Cinema.

“Rock the Kasbah” follows Bill Murray to Afghanistan, where he plays an inept rock manager on tour with his last remaining client. But then he discovers a talented singer who might just be his ticket to success. The Wrap observes, “Bill Murray is Bill Murray is Bill Murray in a comedy that’s little more than a schtick delivery system with some third-act personal growth thrown in for good measure.” And JoBlo’s Movie Emporium decides, “Bill Murray’s performance and some good bits in the first half make it ultimately worth checking-out.”

“Black Mass” gives us Johnny Depp in the balding guise of gangster Whitey Bulger. In this true story, we discover Bulger was using the FBI to advance his South Boston crime spree. Mountain Xpress says, “It’s well-made. It boasts a lot of good actors. It proves (if proof were needed) that Johnny Depp can underplay.” And 3AW concludes that it’s “a grim, sturdy crime tract that owes everything to Depp's immersive portrayal.”

“The Intern” presents Robert De Niro as a retiree who accepts an intern position with an e-commerce start-up. Ann Hathaway plays the young founder who learns that age and experience also count. En Filme deems it “a light comedy that offers great entertainment and also touches on women’s rights and the elderly at the workplace …” while Cine Premiere observes, “The chemistry between Hathaway and De Niro feels sincere and is what keeps the story up and going.”

“Everest 3D” recounts a tragic climb that results in several deaths. Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal headline this chilly ascent. El Financiero notes that “director Baltasar Kormákur’s film excels because it never romanticizes the mountain and he doesn’t drag out the last moments of those who died in it.” Contactmusic.com declares it has “visually stunning imagery and a solid A-list cast.” And Seven Days happily finds that it “splits the difference between documentary reenactment and hyped-up Hollywood drama.”

“Sicario” delivers Emily Blunt as a conscience-driven FBI agent assigned to a task force on the hunt for a Mexican drug lord.” Q Network Film Desk calls it “a powerful experience that forces us into a violent confrontation with our own ethical worldview, challenging any tidy notions of right and wrong.” Spirituality and Practice describes it as “a tense drama.” And Daily Express says the film “pulls no punches.”

“Freeheld” offers up a love story about a decorated New Jersey police detective diagnosed with cancer who wants to leave her pension to her partner. But the forces that be -- Freeholders -- try to block this. Boston Herald tells us, “Director Peter Sollett wisely keeps the focus on the two very private women at the center of a storm that never should have broken.” And Sacramento News & Review proclaims, “The story is righteous and Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are strong … all to the movie's credit.”

And “The Walk 3D” plays to your vertigo while recreating Philippe Petit’s historic high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Balancing on the wire is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the daring French tightrope walker. Reforma says, “Not only is director Robert Zemeckis a master of SFX and storytelling, in this one we really get the experience of a lifetime.” Naret News calls it “a heart-stopping spectacular.” And Philippe Petit says of Gordon-Levitt’s performance: “He became me.”

There you have it, lots of stargazing at the Tropic Cinema.

srhoades@aol.com

Rock the Kasbah (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Bill Murray Repeats Familiar Plot In “Rock the Kasbah”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

First, let me say I’d watch any movie with Bill Murray. But a comedy set in Afghanistan, a country still embroiled in America’s longest war, resulting in 2,326 US military deaths, 20,083 wounded, and 1,173 civilian contractor fatalities -- not to mention tens of thousands Afghani deaths?

You’re not laughing.

Too soon?

In “Rock the Kasbah,” Bill Murray -- the Saturday night Live alum who went on to star in movies ranging from “Stripes” to ”Ghostbusters” to “Lost in Translation” -- plays down-and-out Richie Lanz, a talent agent who takes his last remaining client on a USO tour in Afghanistan.

Murray’s joined in the cast by Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Kelly Lynch, and Danny McBride. Along with Fahim Fazil, Sameer Ali Khan, and Arian Moayed.

Barry Levinson (he won an Oscar for “Rain Man”) directs.

“Rock the Kasbah” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The story: Through a series of mishaps, Richie finds himself stranded in Kabul without a penny in his pocket or even his passport. But as the movie’s tagline says, “Opportunity rocks when you least expect it.”

Dusty and disheveled, Richie discovers a young Afghani girl with a remarkable singing voice and regains his success by entering her on a popular television show in Afghanistan, an Islamic version of “American Idol.”

Come on, you might say, a TV show like “American Idol” in the Middle East? Who’s going to believe that?

As it turns out, there is one -- “Afghan Star.”

Nosing around, here’s what I turned up through a friendly blogger: “Many years ago,” my TV-watching pal says, “some idle channel surfing landed me at a fascinating documentary about the show ‘Afghan Star’ … It was unbelievable! The men competing wore suits and ties and the pop song lyrics were so stilted, owing presumably, to the puritanical Muslim culture; they had to sing about ‘watching my lovely lady walking.’ It was cringeworthy.

“And the big controversy in the film was that one of the two women finalists was planning to dance during her song, which would have been a scandal. These women were wrapped from head to foot with only a small portion of their faces showing and the daring one did a silly bouncy little walk across the stage for a few seconds as she sang, sending the entire country into riots, moral panic and social convulsions. Her opponent capitalized on this by denouncing her as a whore and it was reported that her family had to leave their village under death threats … I’m guessing someone else saw this documentary and it inspired this movie.”

Maybe.

But then again screenwriter Mitch Glazer might have hatched the idea after catching a midnight rerun of “The Sapphires,” that 2012 indie film about a down-on-his-luck talent scout who discovers four aboriginal sisters who sing remarkably well and sets off on a tour of war-torn Vietnam with his new girl group.

But who cares.

After “Groundhog Day,” I’m used to seeing Bill Murray repeat things over and over and over again.

srhoades@aol.com

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Intern (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Intern

Director Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated) may not push the envelope but she makes warm and pleasant films that make easeful reflections upon our world, along with light  commentary.

She is well in form again with "The Intern" as Ben, a retired septuagenarian (Robert De Niro), starts a new job with an online clothing company, to stay active and refreshed.

Though the story is quite rote and routine, the film is briskly amusing. The honest charm that De Niro gives to this stock character actually repels cynicism, despite all.

Ben is stuck in a comfortable rut. He lives in a spacious Brooklyn apartment, however unrealistic this may seem. His wife passed away years ago and though he misses her, Ben has transcended this loss. Yet he is restless and unable to cope with the abundance of hours ahead of him.

The life of a couch potato is not for Ben. During a walk, he sees a bulletin, asking for company interns aged 65 and over. He makes a video interview and gets the job.

On the first day, Ben is suprised to see rows and rows of laptops with no one addressing the other person face to face. Ben seems at sea, but soon his personal warmth disarms these millenials and he begins a rapport with many.

Jules (Anne Hathaway) the chattering self centered company founder, sees empathy as a waste of time.

The crux of the plot concerns Ben in his attempt to connect with Jules and more importantly his later goals, regarding work and life.  Much fun is made of Ben being an older man surrounded by a young crowd.

A cinematic parallel can be made between De Niro's Ben and John Belushi's role of Earl Keese in "Neighbors." The physical resemblance is striking, yet a main difference is that De Niro is no dark comic figure here. His Ben is pleasant, almost ego-less and eager to help. He is stable, usually calm and seemingly above chaos---a universal Everyman.

De Niro the actor appears for a moment in one chuckle-inducing scene when he looks at his face in the mirror, getting ready for work. His famously psychotic line of  "You talkin ta me?" has transformed into a gentle "Hi," from a gray flannel suit. One might not wish it were true, but Travis Bickle is now Teddy Bear.

The actor has enough sly and easy lines to keep the momentum going. There is one scene that is thrown in for the Judd Apatow set when Ben is given a chair massage by a sensual Renee Russo, but though this feels easy and derivative, De Niro plays it so honestly that it comes off as very funny.

Hathaway also gives a shot of realism to these opiate sequence, though her smiles and tears are given well inside the bounds. Still, there is much formula in this mix. One moment has Ben trying to steal a laptop for Jules so things don't sour with her mother. De Niro scowls and mugs in his inimitable way. In another, he befriends Jules' all too adorable kid (JoJo Kushner ) and takes her to a birthday party.

In a third cinematic deja vu, Ben witnesses Jules'  insipid hubby (Anders Holm) cheating on her. Here we go again.

The spare and minimalist performance by De Niro, combined with his rapid repartee, however, is the saving grace of this film. He disarms rationale making this man into a tangible person rather than a Disney-era delusion.

Fans of Nancy Meyers oeuvre will be well tickled by "The Intern," yet another Metropolitan comedy that won't shock or surprise but thankfully doesn't stagnate in boredom either.

After all, who doesn't love those Tribeca-tossing shoulders or that squinty smile? De Niro turns ordinary empathy into an art.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mississippi Grind (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mississippi Grind

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) places us in the disturbing world of gambling addiction. Like the two main characters, we grow increasingly anxious and are never certain as to where we are going. The film, "Mississippi Grind" does for gambling what "Leaving Las Vegas" did for alcoholism.

As unsettling as the story is, it is also very human and undeniably mysterious.

In Iowa, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) a compulsive gambler is shaking with tremors, down and out. In walks the sly and confident Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) who is as flirtatious with cards as he is with women. During a quick poker game at a small casino, Gerry wins. Because of this happenstance, Gerry gets the fixed idea that Curtis is his good luck charm. The two plan to go to New Orleans together, gambling along the way, stopping at last to make a big score.

After this first win, Curtis takes his leave and Gerry is stabbed in the gut and robbed of his winnings. The next morning, the phone calls commence. There are insistent voices asking Gerry about money. His bookie (Alfre Woodard) gives him a hard shoulder.

The noose tightens.

One of the most upsetting aspects of the film is the fact that Gerry is powerless, hooked by his lust for chance and his fixation for the younger and nonchalant Curtis.

Disquieting too is the hint that Curtis, despite his glib and carefree aura is not all that skilled or pulled together. The pair is hooked in co-dependency.

Although Ryan Reynolds gives his best performance in a film to date, (gone are the wisecracks, absent is the gullible good boy persona) the film is three-quarters Ben Mendelsohn who is unshakeably pained and painful to watch. He has a jumpy and depressive live-wire torment that borders the supernatural. Gerry is dry and dessicated, perpetually thirsty with wishes that can never be quenched.

Mendelsohn's spastic, sporadic cries as well as his babbling rolls actually carry the taste of what it is to be addicted. Add an intoxicating Blues soundtrack featuring songs by Little Royal, John Lee Hooker and Memphis Minnie along with some shots of old roadside bars, gone to seed and one witnesses a quirky but very real film that exposes our lustful underbelly.

In its sadness that has the melancholy glee of a story by Charles Bukowski, "Mississippi Grind" makes an estranged cousin to John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy."

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Black Mass (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Black Mass

American cinema has a rich history of gangster films. Francis Ford Coppola made his mark with "The Godfather" trilogy. Then there was Martin Scorsese with "Casino" and "Goodfellas". De Palma also has made his stylistic contribution with "Scarface," an epic tale of a thug who reaches the top by brute force and intimidation alone.

 In this tradition is director Scott Cooper's "Black Mass," a kind of character study of James "Whitey" Bulger, the lethal gangster from South Boston.

The film is told in flashback from numerous Bulger henchmen.

The first sight of the head gangleader is quite scary. Bulger holds court at Triple O's Lounge. As played by Johnny Depp, he is silver eyed and dead-skinned with a pallor of alien green. One cold fish. Nothing gets past him and diplomacy is not his strong point.

Through the course of the story, Bulger seethes with intermittent rage. FBI agent  John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) who knows Bulger since childhood, asks him to be an informant and help bag the Angiulo Brothers.  Because of this, in addition to local bonds, Bulger is nearly immune from prosecution, although he sadistically murders with impunity.

The film does well in showing how a seedy menace is woven within the soil of day to day life. From legislation, the FBI, Sunday Mass, the St Patrick's Day parade and the family dinner, Bulger is insulated and encapsulated in a green quilt known as South Boston. Bulger is further safeguarded by his brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch ) a Massachusetts State Senate President.

One scene in particular is quite unsettling. During a party, Connolly's disgusted wife (Julianne Nicholson) retires to bed, reading The Exorcist. The door is opened by Jimmy himself. His eyes are demonic and cold. His face contorts in menace very much like little Regan. This is no accident. The cinematography too, with stark diagonal lines and its deeply saturated townhouses streaked in black, recalls the Halloween classic.

The church is hinted upon but never fully explored. When Bulger attends his mother's funeral it is a bland affair with the gangster peering like a vulture upon the mortal preceedings. A crucifix and stained glass is shown later and the two images are anemic and colorless. The singular act of human care that this villain demonstrates is in the care of his sick son. Once the child is completely immersed in illness, the demon portion of Jimmy assumes  full control.

Suggested too, is the compelling concept that Bulger is his brother's toxic twin perhaps, always in the background seeking favors, advice or news. These too suggestions, though never explicity stated are all the more intriguing

Eerily, he often kills in the bright of day, without warning juxtaposed with cheerful Miami Beach colors. Take special caution if Bulger says that you are good with him. He often strikes quickly to the sound of screaming children, putting all in panic. In this way the film is most like "Jaws." A summer day can easily bring blood.

Though at times Depp feels a bit kitschy in this role, given that he wears a pair of orange sunglasses ala Hunter Thompson together with his Pazazu glare, he is clearly having more fun here than Linda Blair ever did. Depp's portrayal is quite visceral almost like a cinema vampire of old, but thankfully, he falls short of chewing any scenery.

Though the trappings are more than familiar, "Black Mass" is a fitting addition to the genre with its appropriate gloom and another unrestrained performance by Johnny Depp who captures the chill of this man with the intimacy of an evil twin.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Week of October 16 - 22 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Six Films Tug Your Heart This Week at Tropic Cinema
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

This week’s film selections at the Tropic range from a look at two down-on-their-luck gamblers on a road trip to a drama about a frustrated guy fighting for his family’s home, from a take-your-breath-away thriller about an illegal high-wire walk to a riveting documentary about the global movement that grew out of an assassination attempt on a 15-year-old girl, from a dark tale about Boston gangsters to a warm-and-fuzzy comedy about the generational gap.

“Mississippi Grind” finds two compulsive gamblers (Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn) heading to New Orleans for a big poker game, with a lot of stops at riverboat casinos along the way. This heartbreaking odyssey meanders along like the mighty Mississippi as you get to know these likeable losers. Mountain Xpress declares, “Edging close to greatness, this is a very good -- albeit rather sad -- character study about friendship, addiction and the hope for redemption -- or the next closest thing.” And Leonard Maltin assures us, “The combination of Reynolds and Mendelsohn makes this a sure bet...”

“99 Homes” is the heart-wrenching story of a family who lose their home in a sleazy foreclosure and how the son (Andrew Garfield) fights back by joining the enemy. Newsday calls it “A gripping dramatic thriller about the winners and losers in America's game of mortgage roulette.” And Minneapolis Star Tribune goes even further to say, “This is a film of palpable anger, a finger on the pulse of modern America crafted by a team of rare ability to awaken outrage.”

Based on a 1974 true-life event, “The Walk 3D” gives us the heart-stopping feat of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who broke into the World Trade Center in order to walk between the twin towers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a convincing Petit as he balances precariously on a wire strung 110 stories above the ground -- or at least it sure looks that way. Film Threat says, “Having digitally rebuilt the city with astonishing historical accuracy, director Robert Zemeckis stages Petit’s 45 minutes on a cable, 1,600 feet above the street, as one of the most lovely, terrifying, suspenseful and joyous sequences in movie history.” And Urban Cinefile calls it, “A glorious edge-of-seat affair.”

“He Named Me Malala” is the heart-felt documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for attending school. As you know, she survived to start a worldwide movement promoting education for girls. Boston Globe observes, “The film is worthy, obviously, and it forces us to think about the prices paid by our unexpected heroes.” And Philadelphia Inquirer tells us, “It's quite a story, and if director Davis Guggenheim goes overboard in the telling of it, that's perfectly understandable.”

“Black Mass” is the true chronicle of Whitey Bulger, the South Boston crime boss who had the FBI in his pocket. Heartthrob Johnny Depp shaves back his head to give him the sinister look of Bulger to prove his acting chops. ABC Radio Brisbane agrees that “this is the best performance we've seen from Johnny Depp in a while. He’s created a character who will keep you on your toes throughout the whole film.” And Sydney Morning Herald adds, “[Depp] is evidently having a fine time -- and if his aim is to make our flesh creep, from his perspective at least ‘Black Mass’ must be reckoned a success.”

“The Intern” stars Robert De Niro as a 70-year-old retiree who takes a menial job at an e-commerce company headed by youngish Anne Hathaway. While there’s a wide gap in ages, there’s no distance in humanity as the intern becomes the teacher. The Atlantic says, “Thanks largely to performances by De Niro and Hathaway, ‘The Intern’ is a gentle, enjoyable fantasy -- and certainly director Nancy Meyers’s best film in more than a decade.” And Concrete Playground describes it as “A heartwarming tale of friendship and a constructive engagement with feminism and gender inequality.”

Six films from the heart. Enjoy them!

srhoades@aol.com

Mississippi Grind (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Mississippi Grind” Doesn’t Take Big Gamble
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You might think you flipped the channel to a classic movie bingeathon, because if you blink you’ll mistake “Mississippi Grind” for one of those ‘70s flicks about high-stakes gamblers or one of those gritty road pictures.

No, you’re not watching George Segal and Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s “California Split” (1974), or Steve McQueen in Norman Jewison’s “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), or James Caan in James Toback’s “The Gambler” (1974).

Instead, this is a throwback movie about a pair of compulsive gamblers traveling from Dubuque to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans.

“Mississippi Grind” is playing its hand at the Tropic Cinema.

Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds star as the two inveterate gamblers. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a down-on-his-luck real estate agent looking to hit it big. He thinks he’s found his lucky charm when he meets up with Curtis (Reynolds), a slick charmer who knows his way around a poker table.

Curtis agrees to stake Gerry to a few grand and they head for the big game in the Big Easy, but they can’t help but stop for a few riverboat games along the way.

Not a twist-and-turn con game or a high-powered action film, co-directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) give us instead a character piece that pays homage to those old buddy pictures.

The film rolls along slowly like the Mississippi that gives it its name. As Gerry and Curtis head toward New Orleans, with Delta blues playing in the background, we sit back and enjoy the ride.

Not flashy filmmakers, Boden and Fleck are content to share with us some emotional truths about flawed humanity. It’s a winning hand.

srhoades@aol.com

Black Mass (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Black Mass” Enshrines Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friends from Bawston whisper the name of Whitey Bulger as if praying to a saint. There’s a reverential air when speaking of the murderous gangster who once controlled South Boston. Maybe that’s why this new film about him is called “Black Mass.”

A black mass is a celebration of evil, a ritual that’s an inversion of tradition Catholic mass. The film’s title comes from a book by two Boston Globe reporters, “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.”

James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. was the crime boss of a crew of Irish mobsters known as the Winter Hill Gang. Jimmy Bulger rose to power in the ‘70s after spending nine years in prison and having survived Boston’s bloody Killeen-Mullen gang war.

Fighting for territory with the Patriarca crime family, Bulger said, “If they want to play checkers, we’ll play chess.” So he became an FBI informant, feeding the Feds info about the Mafia group that controlled New England. In return, it’s claimed the Feebies turned a blind eye to the Winter Hill Gang’s illegal activities.

Protected by FBI agents John Connolly and John Morris, Bulger escaped an indictment that sent Howie Winter to prison, leaving Whitey and his partner Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi in charge. Bulger reigned for 17 years.

Tipped off by Connolly that the Justice Department was handing down a sealed warrant for his arrest, Bulger went on the lam in 1994. Disappearing for 16 years, he was apprehended a few years ago, living the life of a nondescript retiree in Santa Monica, California. The FBI had put a $2-million reward on his head, second only to Osama bin Laden on their Most Wanted list.

Now we have the cinematic version, starring none other than Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. For the role, Depp shaved back his hair and practiced a Boston accent. He tried to meet with Bulger, but the prisoner (serving two life-plus-five-years sentences in a high-security federal prison in Sumpterville, Florida) declined to see him. Instead, Bulger’s attorney visited the film’s set to advise on the accuracy of Depp’s portrayal.

“Black Mass” -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- chronicles Bulger’s years as an FBI informant and how he manipulated his FBI handlers to eradicate rivals in the Boston underworld. Lots of people get shot and/or beat up in this telling. After all, Whitey was indicted for killing 19 people.

The film co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, Massachusetts State Senator William “Billy” Bulger. Also populating the cast are such notables as Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, and Peter Sarsgaard.

Whether it was stunt casting to transform handsome heartthrob Johnny Depp into an unlikable balding criminal, or the lure of big-bucks financing with Depp’s name attached to the project, or the actor’s desire to prove he’s more than a pretty boy, or his fascination with playing criminal types (“Donnie Brasco,” “Blow,” Public Enemies”), or a change of pace from those silly Captain Jack Sparrow movies, he’s an odd choice. It’s hard to see Whitey Bulger on the screen instead of Johnny Depp in weird makeup.

srhoades@aol.com


The Intern (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Intern” Pits Aging De Niro and Youthful Hathaway
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As we Baby Boomers get older, and jobs get scarcer, and techie entrepreneurs get younger, this is a timely movie.

In “The Intern” -- the new Nancy Meyers comedy currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- aging Robert De Niro portrays a guy participating in a community outreach program for seniors.

Here we meet a retiree named Ben Whittaker (that’s our not-so-raging bull) who has been hired as an intern reporting to the dynamic young founder of an e-commerce fashion business. Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway, back in the Devil-Wears-Prada business) sees the irony of having a 70-year-old intern, but discovers she needs his help when co-workers attempt to push her out of the company’s CEO seat.

A sweet but predictable plot. As one blogger on the Internet Movie Database Message Board put it, “Yes you pretty much know what you’ll get after watching the trailer but still it’s a Nancy Meyer film. A sign there is both quality and heart beyond it. And De Niro and Hathaway seems to be a good pairing.”

Indeed they are. But director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “Something’s Gotta Give”) originally approached her old friend Jack Nicholson for the role of Ben. And Reese Witherspoon was locked in for the role of Jules.

And at another time the movie was slated to star Michael Caine and Tina Fey.

But schedules in Hollywood are difficult to juggle and casts get changed.

“I’m glad you also see the humor in this,” says Jules when she meets her new intern.

“Be hard not to,” responds Ben, standing there, a dignified older man in suit and tie amid a gaggle of twentysomethings wearing sweaters and jeans.

“How have men gone in one generation from Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to …?” Jules nods toward her shaggy, unkempt nerdy staff.

“Oh boy,” Ben/De Niro says, rolling his eyes.

Some fans think a fine dramatic actor like De Niro is selling out by appearing in silly comedies like “Meet the Fockers,” “Grudge Match,” and this.

Another blogger goes so far as to revision this movie for De Niro: “He needs to team with Scorsese in ‘Bus Driver,’ about a pissed-off transit employee who has insufficient funds to retire, and has no tolerance for metro drivers who don’t signal, kids who sneak on without paying, and modern pimps.”

“Do you really think that De Niro chooses this over something from Scorsese?” chides a third blogger. “When you’re 70 years old you don’t get offered the same kind of roles that you do when you're 30.”

“Pacino, Ford, Hoffman, Redford, etc. were busy,” smirks another.

“These old actors are past their prime, past major billings,” someone else pipes up.

“They take what they get, not what they want,” opines another young blogger.

There it is, just like in the movie. Youth versus experience. But as the movie’s poster proclaims, “Experience Never Gets Old.”

srhoades@aol.com

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

He Named Me Malala (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

He Named Me Malala

Malala, as she is known, has been much in the news and rightly so. Recently, she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Her Nobel Peace Prize awarded at 16, was incredible enough, but she disarmed the audience with her quirky humor and her elaborate and teasing card trick.

The appearance was important. It showed Malala Yousafzai as a giddy and open youngster, full of fun, not only as a serious activist or a symbol of righteousness. In short, Malala is a person of flesh and blood,  very human and easily relatable.

This accessibility is evident in the documentary "He Named Me Malala" by Davis Guggenheim.

Malala's father, a school owner and poet, named her after Malalai, a female Afghan freedom fighter who died during the Battle of Maiwand. Like her namesake, Malala was destined to be fearless and outspoken. At age 11, in Pakistan, she started her own blog and spoke out for girl's education. She gave TV interviews. The Taliban threatened her with death and shot her at 14 years old.

This comprehensive film shows Malala as steadfast and driven but also able to laugh as a kid at heart. She is fond of playfully slapping her brother, Khushal. Together the two look at websites and oogle at Roger Federer. Otherwise, she works on a speech.

Though iron-willed and determined, Malala's other self exists throughout: a being  of lightness and color as symbolized by her bright hijab. Her schedule is restless and relentless as she spans the globe. After the shooting, Malala relocated to Britain. She is clearly tickled and a bit intimidated. A mixture of emotions. Malala yearns to return to Pakistan to see her house, but is afraid of a lethal retailiation.

The content of this film is brisk, vivid and informative with lots of telling detail. However, the sequence of events do zip a bit too rapidly back and forth, oscillating between the present day, 2013, 2011 and then back to the present, making the story choppy, dreamlike and somewhat hard to follow.

Malala's father is well in evidence here, yet her mother is a cypher, and nearly anonymous. This is strange, given that the film is about women under a toxic threat with the power of change. One wants for more.

Gradually the narrative emerges as an all too anxious and dangerous story as Malala makes event after dizzying event, with the Taliban bombing schools and threatening death to girls anywhere if they choose an education.

Insidiously, we see young men and women discredit and dismiss Malala (the youngest Nobel recepient in history) as a manipulated fiction. This is as heartbreaking as it is Orwellian and scary.

Periodically, the film is perfectly accented by haunting animation, which makes Malala's thoughts into concrete images of colored sand. Most evocative by far, is the concept  of a speaking voice igniting swirls of fire that tumble and roll into Islamic calligraphy. A falling or defeated voice creates black birds or sorrowful ashes in its wake.

Despite her battles with a philosophic enemy, she springs ahead as a proud Muslim woman in favor of education. Malala is no karmic fatalist. More proactively, as stressed in "He Named Me Malala",  she conjures her own luck that is as resillient and organic as a jasmine flower.

Wrestling with life, Malala ultimately made it through. As she says, "My father only named me, but I made my choice."

Thus, Malala is an existentialist in the most positive of senses and continues on.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Monday, October 12, 2015

Meet the Patels (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Meet the Patels

"Meet the Patels" by Geeta Patel and her brother Ravi, an actor, is a buoyant and charming documentary about the quest for romantic harmony.

Ravi Patel is a self deprecating Indian American. He seems happily enamored with his girlfriend Audrey. All seems bliss but in their second year, Ravi gets cold feet. Audrey is not Indian and as he has kept the romance secret. Fearing his parents' disaproval and probable wrath, Ravi breaks off the relationship.

He agrees to go with his parents to India for holiday. During the vacation his father and mother begin to question him about marriage. They needle him and he reluctantly agrees to accept advice. Ravi's mother is a matchmaker for clients and friends. Ravi's single status is an embarrassment.

His quest takes him out of L.A. across the country and beyond to Ontario. He likes one girl, but she doesn't call back. His father Vasant sends him profiles of ladies that are as cold as resumes. He joins Match.com, all the while thinking of Audrey. Guilt weighs upon him.

Ravi's parents are as lively as any family in a Woody Allen comedy. They constantly invade his sense of privacy. At times the henpecking very nearly reaches hysteria. Ravi is used to sweating it out under a mother's prodding.

What can Ravi do? For the most part he is cool under some paternal screws. Exhaustingly, it is revealed that Amor is a dizzying process of first impressions and intent. The profiles are handed out to scores upon scores of relatives: uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, neices, neighbors and grand-uncles. Then there are the parties, conventions, events and weddings.

Tons of eligible ladies float by in glitter-breasted saris. The parents insist on a traditional Indian wedding, which in their mind means an arranged marriage to an Indian girl. But Ravi is unmoved.

The camerawork by Ravi's sister Geeta is quirky and feels intentionally askew, but unlike "The Blair Witch Project" or  TV's The Office, the wave like motions echo the humor of Ravi Patel and compliment his charm.

Refreshingly, there are some tense moments. In one scene, Ravi talks haltingly in a phone call to his ex girlfriend. The scene is full of uncomfortable pauses, hesitance and teasing sarcasm. It is a singularly vivid and striking episode.

One gets the sense that this tightly knit and far reaching Patel family is composed of Gujarati Godfathers, though considerably warmer and more benevolent than The Corleones.

There are some comical animated sequences that off-set the tensions, reminicent of the film "American Splendor" in  effervescent black and white.

Geeta Patel's touch is skillful, having the ability to give the camera its verve and highlighting the drama while remaining ghostly and unobtrusive. Her shared plight of singlehood is only revealed on the periphery and breathlessly we can only think that another round of maternal clawing awaits.

The tone of "Meet the Patels" is funny and exuberant with an abundance of carbonation. But it also has a palpable sense of claustrophobia within a family web.

Along with a mother's light bemusement is an iron hand of judgment, just as quick to give withering cuts to her son, as dispense Cupid's arrow.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Sunday, October 11, 2015

99 Homes (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

99 Homes

Director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) puts us dead center (with the emphasis on dead) in the foreclosure business with his new film "99 Homes". The film is a gritty and authentic look at the financial crisis in Florida.

Andrew Garfield (Spiderman) is Dennis, a struggling construction worker and single father in Orlando just trying to keep his equilibrium. Dennis lives with his mom (Laura Dern) in the family home. He has a young son Connor (Noah Lomax).

One day, Richard Carver (Michael Shannon ) a granite-faced realtor, knocks on the door accompanied by the cops. Dennis and his family are served an eviction notice by the bank and ordered to leave. Dennis is stupefied; the judge had told him that he had a thirty day window to appeal foreclosure and he interpreted that as a small reprieve.

Carver is terse and unmoved, his body a stone wall. Under hysterics, the three hastily pack under the aloof eyes of the officers. All other belongings are kicked to the curb. The trio move into a sparse day glo motel with no hint of a future. Family tensions rise.

Michael Shannon is at his monstrous best but he is no cartoon villain, only a hard human capitalist at his worst. There is the barest sliver of a heart here, better to call it a sickle.

The primal faced Carver with his sunken brow, toys with Dennis' good nature in a sly manipulation. Who knows what awaits this average guarded man who slopes along with uneven shoulders, a man who still believes in the unshakeble order of right and wrong. Suffice to say, this is similar territory from the dog eat dog realm of "Glengarry Glen Ross." The symbolism of Orlando homes crowded together as matchbooks over a blue sky as Carver grinds his teeth like a nurse shark in beige slacks is right on target. His menace doesn't come with fins but rather the slickness of a sable Infiniti.

Garfield too, is totally realized in his role of an Everyman who is hit--a human tuning fork quivering past any sane frequency.

The film has a deft touch in showing the connection between greed, money and sexual lust. In one scene, during a preamble to oral sex, Carver gyrates and roars like a werewolf on Viagra. The moment is selfishly savage, comical, and even a bit sad.

Melodrama aside, the bite of "99 Homes" is very real and it all points to the most base in ourselves. To see Michael Shannon is to witness a face creased in monetary War for its own sake.

Bahrani expresses his story with well formed anxiety and danger. The first rate acting by Garfield and Shannon, in particular, contain all of the surprise that is necessary. More directly, such voltage is most likely, all that we can humanly handle.

Write Ian at inafree1@yahoo.com

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Walk (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an immersive preformance in Robert Zemeckis' film "The Walk," detailing a formative quest of the famed wire walker, Philippe Petit. The film is richly told, helped in no small measure by the breathless and wonderful 3D showing a living New York City.

Petit's beginnings are theatrical indeed. As a youngster in Paris, he was a street performer doing a kind a mime where he drew a circle around himself and remained silent within the orb. He would not tolerate any one to enter his realm, often stepping upon others.

One day with his wire act, he meets the vivacious Annie (Charlotte Le Bon.) Romance blooms.

During a performance, Petit cracks a tooth. After he is treated brusquely by a man in the waiting room, he sees the World Trade Center, then under construction, in a magazine. His tooth pain vanishes.

Like a muralist in seeing a masterwork upon a white wall, Petit sees a single line between two high points wherever he goes. In the Trade Center, the artist discovered his muse. He yearns to walk on a wire between the two buildings over one thousand feet from the city below.

The film does an excellent job portraying Philippe Petit as a more than subversive artist of the body, using balance, equilibrium and the power of the unexpected as his tools. There is also more than a sprig of Surrealism in his soul.

The film's first highlights are its Chaplinesque tones, showing the daredevil as a bohemian trickster, bumping and rolling, startling children and catching others off guard. The city of Paris in 1972 mirrors this carnival sense as well: motley people loiter in the street, folk singers strum Leonard Cohen on guitars and the police are hated.

Ben Kingsley appears as Papa Rudy, a master acrobat who advises him in his dream that Petit calls a "coup". No one except his girlfriend Annie thinks he can do such a thing.

The marvel of "The Walk" is that it expresses Petit's act as it was intended: a walk upon a wire that was interpreted as both entertainment and an act of civil disobedience. It can also be seen as a yearning to be one with Nature, a very literal journey to become a part of inner and outer space. In a few scenes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is shown as a black asterisk against the sky, scoring a revolution of human Will. The virtuosic perspective, dizzying and very nearly shocking, puts you within one heartbeat of Petit on his tread.

But that is not all. The last piece de resistance is a shot of the Trade Center as a shining compass that is singed at the edges as if burnt by the sun. Poignantly, Petit says in a voiceover that his pass to the observation deck of the building is meant to last forever.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com

Friday, October 9, 2015

Week of October 9 - 15 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tightrope Walkers, Educational Crusaders, and Computer Nerds
Lead a Parade of Interesting Characters at the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

“The Walk” is a breathtaking 3D biopic based on Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the
twin towers of the World Trade Center. Playing Petit, likeable Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrates his newly acquired French and tightrope-walking skill. “This is the kind of unbelievable true story that you couldn’t make up if you tried,” says Bullz-Eye.com. And Indie London promises, “It won’t fail to impress.”

“He Named Me Malala” is a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani girl who got shot by the Taliban simply for attending school. That set her off on a global crusade that led to a Nobel Peace
Prize. Boston Globe says, “The film forces us to think about the prices paid by our unexpected heroes.” And Toronto Star notes, “It’s impossible not to feel affection for and protective of this young woman.”

In “99 Homes” a conscience-tormented guy helps a sleazy realtor foreclose on people’s homes. New Yorker calls it “a simplistic but stirring morality play centered on the pressure point of the savings-and-loan crisis.” And Toronto Star tells us, “Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield make for an incendiary combo, as a predatory realtor and his desperate protégé.”

“Meet the Patels” is the true story of Ravi Patel’s quest to come up with a wife. Seattle Times calls it “a touching, funny documentary about family and cultural forces putting pressure on a first-generation Indian-American man to do what should come naturally: find love and a life partner.” And Detroit News says it’s “just plain fun to watch.”

“Phoenix” is a postwar mystery about a concentration-camp survivor who isn’t recognized by her husband when she returns to Berlin. Salt Lake City Weekly observes: “Hitchcock’s Vertigo has been invoked repeatedly as a comparison for Christian Petzold’s mesmerizing drama, but while he’s adapting a French novel that has already been turned into a film once before, absolutely nothing here feels second-hand.” And Advocate sees it as “a deftly executed, suspenseful drama.”

“Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine” is an award-winning documentary that demonstrates the genius of the creator of Apple computers as well as recognizing his personal flaws. Philadelphia Inquirer opines that it “brings home the complexities and contradictions of the man.” And TheWrap calls the film “wholly engrossing.”

Fascinating people, fascinating stories.
srhoades@aol.com





The Walk (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Joseph-Gordon-Levitt Takes “The Walk”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in February I met Philippe Petite, the high-wire artist who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center one misty August morning in 1974. We were discussing “Man On Wire,” the documentary about his amazing feat. Being French he calls it “le coup.”

At the time he told me about a feature film in the works, a 3D epic by Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) that would dramatize the event. Simply titled “The Walk,” it would star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“The Dark Knight Rises”) as Philippe.

Now “The Walk” is showing at the Tropic Cinema.

Although Philippe Petit owns a hideaway in upstate New York, he spends a lot of time in Key West. But he took some time off to help with the film’s technical aspects ... like teaching the young actor how to walk the tightrope. “After two weeks, we put a wire up 6-feet high, 30-feet long, and he did a single crossing by himself,” Philippe says like a proud papa. “He actually was very good.”

For the role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt also had to perfect a Parisian accent. That’s because Philippe started off as a street performer in Paris, working as a juggler and magician before mastering the tightrope. Gordon-Levitt’s French Canadian co-star Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”) helped him with nuances of the language, being that she makes her home in Paris.

“The Walk” unfolds like a heist film. Philippe Petit and his cohorts break into the World Trade Center with the help of an inside man, a flamboyant mustachioed insurance executive named Barry Greenhouse (played by Steve Valentine).

At the time Greenhouse was working on the 82nd floor of the South Tower, the highest occupied level in the WTC. He’d met Philippe Petit in Paris. “This kid comes along with a top hat and a unicycle, then slings a rope between a couple of trees,” he recalls the encounter. “I think he not only walked on it, he rode the unicycle. Is that possible?”

Greenhouse provided the fake identification, equipment storage, and access to the towers. “I didn’t think it through too much,” he admits. “Philippe sucks you in.”

Petit and one of his accomplices -- a guy who is afraid of heights --hid for hours on the top floor of the World Trade Center under a tarp to elude watchmen. Then after a number of heart-stopping mishaps, he walks onto the 7/8”-thick wire he’d strung between the two 110-story-high towers.

Voila!

Why would you want to see “The Walk” if you’ve already seen the masterful Oscar-winning documentary, “Man On Wire”? Simply for the thrills.

The use of 3D and green screens will make you think you’re up there a quarter-mile above the street on a razor-thin wire with Philippe Petit.

While the narration by Joseph Gordon-Levitt sitting atop the Statue of Liberty may be a bit over the top, his performance -- like the elfin redhead he’s portraying -- is charming. And his high-wire artistry shows skill.

“He has a talent for it,” says Philippe Petit. “He became me.”
srhoades@aol.com



He Named Me Malala (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“He Named Me Malala” Profiles Pakistani Heroine
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Who hasn’t heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot for attending school?

Born in Mingora, a town in the Swat District of northwest Pakistan, her father named her after Afghani folk hero Malalai of Malwand.

An outspoken opponent of the Taliban’s efforts to restrict education for females, Malala’s father ran a school adjacent to the family’s home.

The Taliban had banned television and music. Women were not allowed to go shopping. And they warned Ziauddin Yousafzai to close his schools. The terrorist group had already blown up more than a hundred girls’ schools.

Under a pseudonym his daughter was writing a blog for the BBC Urdu service, detailing her life under Taliban occupation in Swat. In 2011, she received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize and was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. After she was revealed as the author of the BBC blog, Taliban leaders vowed to kill her.

On October 9, 2012, a masked gunman climbed aboard her school bus, asked for Malala by name, and shot her in the head. Critically wounded, she was transported to a hospital in the United Kingdom that specializes in military injuries. As we know, she survived.

The Taliban’s attempt to kill Malala received worldwide condemnation and led to Pakistan’s Right To Free and Compulsory Education Bill.

Starting the Malala Fund, she became a global advocate for “the millions of girls being denied a formal education because of social, economic, legal and political factors.” And she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like her namesake, Malala became a heroine.

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala” tells her story. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The film’s tagline is a quote from Malala: “One child, one teacher, one book & one pen can change the world.” Despite the admonition, she seems intent on doing that single-handedly. Her advocacy has grown into an international movement.

“I don’t want to be thought of as the girl who was shot by the Taliban but the girl who fought for education,” she says. “This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”

Guggenheim’s credits include such feature films as “Training Day” and TV programs like “Alias,” “24,” “ER,” and “Deadwood.” He is the only filmmaker to have three different documentaries that rank among the top 100 highest-grossing documentaries of all time (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “It Might Get Loud,” and “Waiting for ‘Superman’”).

Malala has been called “the most famous teenager in the world.” She’s been awarded about a zillion honors. Time Magazine has featured her on multiple occasions as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. She’s becoming something of an Islamic version of Mother Teresa.

“He Named Me Malala” is an interesting profile. But she might just be misnamed. The word Malala means “grief-stricken.” With her positive message for young women, she seems anything but that.

srhoades@aol.com

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine (Brockway)


Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine

An Apple computer was part of my childhood during the mid seventies and throughout my high school years. Like many others, I remember playing those bright and primitive games, similar to Atari on my Apple II. I typed my first stories on it even though I had no gift for computers or science. Typing was not a chore, creativity felt liquid and the act of pushing the keyboard was simply fun to do.

Because I liked Apple so much, I thought about the founders Steve Jobs and Wozniak as homegrown creators, making computers in their home garage. I did not think of Apple as a company in the corporate sense, only as two friends making something as mad scientists. As naive as this was, perhaps there is a shred of truth here. After all, the early Apples were not boxy, they had rounded edges. And because they were so easy to use, they seemed almost like a friend, or at least a machine with a semblance of sympathy. 

"Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine"  a documentary by Alex Gibney is about Jobs, the premier creator of Apple Computer.

The initial scenes are filmed from 2011, at Jobs' passing from cancer. Lines of people hurl white roses at Apple stores around the world and take out their iPhones to display a candle. Hoards of people are moved to tears. His mourning was akin to the Beatles. Was Jobs, a techno John Lennon of sorts?

The answer is a resounding no, but he did have an artist's eye in making computers easy to use and live with.

Jobs started as a counterculture boy with an interest in buddhism and literature. He met Wozniak at Hewlett Packard and they made their own simple blue square devices capable of mimicking phone calls and filching from AT&T. 

Afterwords, Jobs went to Atari and constructed the paddle game, Breakout. He had the idea that computers could be intimate and personal, either a tool or perhaps a companion.

Despite his tech verve, Jobs felt a kind of outlier. He went to India. Back in California he met with Kobun, a monk, who said he was too smart. 

Apple, the company, was born. The film traces Jobs' early days and his rise. Gradually, he gets more and more rigid and powerful. He loses Apple and then returns to it ten years later, saving it from dissolution. 

Jarring it is to learn of Jobs' harsh and icy selfishness. When he learns of being a father, he storms out and takes his girlfriend Chrisann to court, relenting only after a paternity test. Having no interest in fatherhood, he names his new computer Lisa, after his daughter.

Decades later, enamored of the Sony Walkman, Jobs has the idea for a small music machine.

The iPod arrives, then the iPhone. Both are small very personal machines that at times seem to carress the hand.

Sadly, in the film, Jobs is vengeful and authoritarian, without mercy. During the chance accident of a iPhone left behind, a factory worker in China kills himself in shame and a tech reporter is threatened by the inventor when he discovers a lost prototype of the iPhone 4 in a bar. Sent by Apple, a security force invades the writer's home.

One gets the feeling that Jobs immerses himself in the universe of the electronic device for security. 
In life, Steve Jobs took the cold neutrality of zen to the extreme. He eschewed the public and the human, in his pursuit of making the perfect tech machine, a prosthetic bridge between art design and digital utility. Indeed as Alex Gibney intones in a voiceover, it is no mistake that when one first spies an iPhone, there is a black reflective surface. 

We face ourselves.

Difficult to watch, but strikingly compelling and seductive like Job's own products, "The Man In the Machine" might prove as toxic as a computer virus to die hard fans, but it makes a vivid study, as poetic in detail as it is darkly bitten with humor in showing this inventor with a charisma as purposefully imagined as his cupid-like and  infectious devices.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.com