Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Hologram for the King (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

A Hologram for the King

"A Hologram for the King," the latest from director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run, Perfume) and based on the novel by Dave Eggers, goes down easy. It is a light bubbly and entertaining film, despite its breezy tone.

Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is a middle aged tech salesman who doesn't feel quite right. He has always known how to handle the business world aside from having to speak to his team about being laid off. But, as luck would have it, Alan is en route to speak to the Saudi king about a hologram system. Things may be looking up.

When he arrives in Saudi Arabia nothing is as it seems. He is late. The king is nowhere to be found and his software personnel are listless and enervated. Alan is vexed at every turn. He confronts the front desk, helmed by the formal Maha (Almira El Sayid). She tells him that his contact is busy and furthermore, the king is not expected. A "Groundhog Day" story arises and this is fun, given that Hanks is so earnest and aghast at every obstacle.

Alan meets Yousef (Alexander Black ) a comical and gregarious cab driver. A rapport develops. He also meets Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a down to earth Danish ex-patriate. She gives him liquor. During a boozy interlude he notices a growth on his back. Enter the alluring yet all-business doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who examines him.

The best parts of the film are those containing a sense of mystery. In the opening scene, Hanks is singing the famous Talking Heads song "Once in A Lifetime" where his house, wife and car dissolve in a puff of purple smoke. In another scene, his computer generates an Image of his daughter that invades his hotel room. These moments give the film a refreshing quickness, full of quirk and zip.

Lively too, is the friendship between Alan and Yousef. Their dialogue is spirited, gently zany and authentic. It is only during the last half of the film, when the doctor and Alan exchange emails and half-intimacies, that the story loses a bit of its momentum. Such voiceovers are the stuff of romantic comedy and the correspondence feels commonplace and deja view, (ala You've Got Mail) balanced against the humor of Yousef and Alan's eerie curiousity for Saudi Arabia and the fine unusual touches.

The alliance between doctor and patient is a little too pat, their tryst a bit too sundry under a sun that never theatens. Actors Hanks and Choudhury have interest and mystique but once they meet and share, the exchanges seem a shade Hallmark. Beyond initial sparks, the two never ignite.

Tom Hanks does handily once more as the sympathetic Everyman, eager to listen and explore.In his many roles, he has turned the expression of earnest surprise into his trademark.  And after all, who better than Hanks to show us that Saudi Arabia need not be threatening and innaccessible?

As swift and Pop as it is, the narrative is a missed opportunity. With its setting and freewheeling happenstance, these characters possess charge and magic. If the film didn't ultimately drift into the realm of romantic convention, "A Hologram for the King" would have made a creative elixir instead of a mirage.

Write Ian at

Friday, April 29, 2016

Week of April 29 to May5 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Delivers Variety in Film Choices

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Everybody in Key West knows the story of Ernest Hemingway, making his home here during the ‘30s, drinking and fishing and carousing at Sloppy Joe’s. But do you know about his many years in Cuba, his life at Finca Vigía outside of Havana, his friendship with a young newspaper reporter named Denne Bart Petitclerc? In “Papa Hemingway In Cuba” Adrian Sparks is a dead-ringer for Papa, Joely Richard is effective as wife Mary, and Giovanni Ribisi is a perfect Ed Myers (as Petriclerc is called in the film). Rolling Stone says, “As the first US film shot in Cuba since Castro came to power in 1959, Papa gives us sights to revel in.” The Newman Times Herald calls it “sincerely written and well acted…” And San Diego Reader concludes, “In the end, it’s a museum piece…”
Director Richard Linklater echoes his earlier film “Dazed and Confused” in “Everybody Wants Some!!” This time around he looks at a day in the life of college kids rather than a return to those high school antics of yore. Associated Press writes, “Linklater’s light touch remains a marvel. Though his characters are often just bouncing from conversation to conversation, night out to night out, the film's direction is never lackadaisical.” And Your Movies says, “It’s the likable cast that will bring constant smiles to the faces of anyone who remembers the freedoms of being young and enjoying them unabashedly.”
Tom Hanks stars in “A Hologram for the King,” the story of a businessman trying to close a deal in Saudi Arabia with the help of a talkative taxi driver (Alexander Black) and a beautiful local doctor (Sarita Choudhury). Entertainment Weekly observes, “If it sounds like ‘Hologram’ is basically about a middle-aged white guy getting his groove back in the Middle East, well, yes, it is that. But if you squint hard enough, it's also a little bit more.” And Spliced Personality adds, “This film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it is at times very good, with an unfussy jewel of a performance by Tom Hanks that’s all the more remarkable for appearing so effortless.”
You’ll meet all the fashionistas in “First Monday in May,” a documentary about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Baz Luhrmann, Andrew Bolton, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Rihanna are on hand for the dazzling event. Chicago Reader describes it as a “gorgeous, gossipy, yet penetrating documentary about the marriage of culture and commerce.” And Salt Lake Tribune notes that here “art and celebrity collide, with celebrity winning.”
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is a sequel to that boisterous comedy about an outsider marrying into an American Greek family. Nia Vardalos and John Corbett return in their original roles, this time getting the parents re-married. Reforma decides that “the movie works because of it’s endearing characters.” And Popcorn Junkie says the film “delights in the dysfunctional wholesomeness of unwieldy families.”
“Miles Ahead” offers an impressionist look at the life of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. This Is London tells us, “Actor Don Cheadle, the star, director and co-writer of this ambitious biopic, doesn’t want to play nicely. He wants to play.” And Daily Express calls it “an incredible journey that touches on aspects of Davis’s life, loves and self-destructive urges in a smoothly handled labor of love.”
Biopics, comedies, documentaries -- what a nice variety to choose from!

From This Day Forward (Rhoades)

Tropic’s 4 Nights 4 Justice:
“From This Day Forward”
Offers Intimate View of
A Transgender Family

Interviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What do you do when you discover your dad prefers to wear dresses? Eight-year-old Sharon Shattuck and her younger sister Laura took it in stride until he started picking them up at school dressed like a woman. “Classmates started asking us a lot of questions,” Sharon recalls with a roll of her eyes.
The two girls had discovered their father’s secret after finding photographs in the trash, pictures of their father wearing a dress and makeup. “Why’s dad dressed like grandma?” her sister asked.
To answer his daughter’s questions, Michael Shattuck stepped into the bedroom and emerged a few minutes later dressed as a woman.
“Being kids, we rolled with it,” shrugs Sharon Shattuck. “We didn’t know it was such a big deal.”
Well, until people started talking. By then, they were living in a small town in northern Michigan. “A Norman Rockwellian town,” she says. “They weren’t ready for Trisha” -- her dad’s new name.
“My mom, Marcia, knew before they got married,” Sharon continues. “And later when he decided to transition, they agreed to stay together. I didn’t understand it then, but this was a true love story.”
Sharon started off to be a botanist, but would end up making short science films. Her Emmy-nominated New York Times series “Animated Life” tells stories of scientific discovery using stringent journalism and paper puppets.
This new documentary about the innerworkings of her transgender family -- “From This Day Forward” – initially was supposed to be about other people’s families. “But then I’d come home and film a little bit of my own family. I ended up changing the focus to my parents, it was a gradual thing.”
“From This Day Forward” is the fourth entry in this year’s 4 Nights 4 Justice, a film series funded by the Mike Dively Foundation for Social Justice. And next Tuesday night Sharon Shattuck will be on stage at Tropic Cinema to introduce her film and answer questions.
“Making this documentary helped me better understand my mother and father,” she says. “I was about to get married and needed to come to terms with my parents’ unusual relationship. How did their love survive against all odds?
She doubts anyone else could have made this film. Her parents would have never given an outsider the same access. “The filming just happened, a little at a time,” she says. “Finally I realized the story was going to be about them.”
What did she learn in the process? “I learned that a relationship between two people is really a personal thing,” says Sharon Shattuck. “And that my parents are still in love.”

Papa Hemingway (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Papa Hemingway”
Brings Cuba to You

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Adrian Sparks has played Ernest Hemingway before, earning him an Ovation Best Actor nod for his 2005 appearance in a play by Pulitzer Prize winning author John deGroot. So he was ready when director Bob Yari tapped him to portray the great writer again, this time in the film “Papa Hemingway in Cuba.”
This one is based on the memoirs of Denne Bart Petitclerc, a young newspaperman who became Ernest Hemingway’s fishing buddy and somewhat protégé. In 1959 Petitclerc had written a gushy fan letter and got an invitation to go fishing in reply.
“Papa Hemingway in Cuba” covers exactly what the title promises, a sensitive look at a famous writer in decline, living at Finca Vigía, his longtime home outside of Havana.
In addition to Adrian Sparks’ spot-on performance as Papa, the film gives us Giovanni Ribisi as Ed Myers (the name Petitclerc gives himself in this telling), Joely Richardson as Papa’s fiery wife Mary, even Mariel Hemingway with a walk-on part as a “woman guest.”
“Papa Hemingway In Cuba” -- now showing at Tropic Cinema -- is the first Hollywood film to be shot in Cuba in 50 years.
I interviewed Bob Yari, Adrian Sparks, and Joely Richardson on stage at the San Carlos Theater during a recent Key West Film Festival. Best known as a movie producer (Oscar-winning “Crash,” among others), Iran-born Bob Yari (né Babar Yaghoubzadeh) decided to cross over to directing with this film. It took him a decade to pull it off, due to the US Embargo and international tensions that date back to the Cold War.
Yari said, “When we first applied for license from the Treasury and State departments they turned us down flat. It took two years of arm wrestling to get approval.”
However, the Cuban government was more cooperative, having long venerated Ernest Hemingway. “They let us shoot in Hemingway’s house, a museum that has been left exactly the way it was the day he left Cuba for the last time. It was really kind of amazing -- visitors to the museum can’t enter the house, they can only look in from the outside. But we were allowed to go inside with an entire film crew.”
The production company never had to build a single set, for the effect of the longtime embargo is that Havana looks almost exactly as it did a half century ago, right down to the antique ‘50s automobiles.
“One of the things about our story is that Cuba is not just a background location,” said Yari. “It’s a character. Hemingway’s love of Cuba and the Cuban people is a big part of all this. I don’t think you could have faked it by shooting anywhere else.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Miles Ahead (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Miles Ahead

On the tail of a trumpet weilded by Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in "Born To Be Blue," here is actor and director Don Cheadle as Miles Davis. This is an all immersive performance and a fine debut film that captures the gusty titan, albeit in one shade of blue. The film, entitled "Miles Ahead," focuses on Davis' exile from his art in the 70s when he endured a five year dry spell.

Davis is marooned in his cluttered house with his easy chair and reel to reel tape recorder. He is in a stagnant funk and pines for the mistress of creativity once again, but the iconic master is imprisoned by his ego and the white powdered jester, cocaine. Davis is roused by a knock on the door revealing a man in a suit: one Dave Braden ( Ewan McGregor), a reporter. Davis punches him and threatens him with a gun. Braden urges him to calm down and says to the musician that he can score some drugs. Davis agrees.

It becomes evident that Davis' paranoia is not unfounded. Business men are after him for new material. One smarmy man in particular, Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants his unreleased practice tape. Davis is undaunted; he stalks about like a lion surrounded by red meat. Though this is not a flattering portrait, Don Cheadle completely inhabits this man in a new self-centered and scaly skin. His interpretation is bold, percussive and without compromise.

As a director, Cheadle shows character and verve, too. The film's imagery is periodically sped up and reversed backward to show the circular winding labyrinth of the musician's life: running from record execs, running from his marriage and running from gangsters. All of this man's life is about running. In this way, the film itself is a collaboration between Cheadle and Davis---an eccentric riff.

Compelling as well is the concept of the musician as anti-hero. Davis fires a gun at those he feels threatened by without hesitation. In one scene, he demands money. Miles tranforms by his own desire into a sizzling reptile in red silk. Cheadle's careful attention to detail brings this forth in bold croaking bursts. Davis' misery is so cyclic and recurring that it almost reaches dark comedy.

He meets the fetching and magnetic dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzi Corinealdi.) The two marry but sadly Taylor becomes a prisoner of Davis' uncontrolled aggression. The man known as Miles is left in a hot and bothered heap.

As vivid as this film is, the story begs for more vignettes of the Master during easier times when he held his trumpet like a third hand and he was as fascile as he was freaky.

The director gives a definitive representation of a genius. "Miles Ahead" may highlight only one half of Davis' face, but within Don Cheadle's whisper lies the full vision of a man who once rolled against the ropes with a scarlet-topped horn.

Write Ian at

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater is an indie auteur known for his rich character studies detailing Texas youth. In 2014's "Boyhood" the director pushed the boundaries of cinema by showing the evolution of a group of actors engaged in one story without a fixed script for over a decade.  The film won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Now with his latest "Everybody Wants Some!!" Linklater returns to the familar territory of young adulthood, as he did in the cult hit "Dazed and Confused" from 1993, which highlighted the 70s. In this outing, it is 1980 right before freshman year of college. Jake (Blake Jenner) is a pitcher set to start on the university team. Despite his good looks and athleticism, however, he is shy around girls. Jake rooms in a sloppy house with his other teammates. There is the arrogant  McReynolds who hates pitchers (Tyler Hoechlin), the cool guy Finn (Glen Powell), and Billy (Will Britain) a well meaning southerner who is mercilessly teased. There is also a trippy stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) with a perpetual smile. Dale  (J. Quinton Johnson) who is the most casual and self-assured of the bunch.

The film is a picaresque medley of portraits as each character interacts with the congenial and innocent Jake. The group drinks a lot of Lone Star beer and talks about girls. The flow of the narrative is most amusing in its evocation of the past. Here Pink Floyd, Devo and Carl Sagan are everywhere, day-glo music videos are just starting and the most important thing is fitting in.

From one party to the next, Jake is a hyper pinball, bounced about and ricocheted into guy after guy. The boys become like wolves, savage and sarcastic. With each passing gathering, the social noose tightens and the freshman is expected to go home with a girl. The sight of the engaging and direct Beverly (Zoey Deutch) becomes the only respite.

The shenanigans depicted are very much in the mode of "Animal House" with phallic and winding insults while the drama is a great deal fluffier than the family dynamic shown in "Boyhood." However, the glossy and vivid moments  here are heartfelt and impactful. The very recitation of "Rapper's Delight"  puts one immediately and meaningfully in the year 1980. And, in a singular dance scene, Linklater shows both the joy and the anxiety of young adulthood by showing his characters just as they are on a floor, spastic in desperation. Wyatt Russell's potted soliloquy steals the show as well as instances, peppered here and there, when events might just move (however slightly) out of one's comfort zone.

Though "Everybody Wants Some!!" stays within gentle bounds as a companion piece to the earlier 1993 film, this second chapter has enough quirk to keep your eyes seeing neon.The best instances are the flashes of worry, and the nonsensical machismo displayed during a college party.

Write Ian at

Friday, April 22, 2016

Week of April 22 - 28 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Ordinary Folks Mingle With Extraordinary On Tropic Screens
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Some filmmakers celebrate the ordinary; others tell stories about the extraordinary. Both hold our attention in the films playing this week at Tropic Cinema.

In “Everybody Wants Some!!” director Richard Linklater dishes up the same approach that worked so well in his earlier “Dazed and Confused.” Here, we witness a day in the life of some ordinary college kids in this amiable non-story. Newsday calls it “Another love letter to the magic hour of adolescence from director Richard Linklater.” And Associated Press says, “Though his characters are often just bouncing from conversation to conversation, night out to night out, the film's direction is never lackadaisical.”

We revisit some old friends with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” In this sequel to one of the most successful rom-coms of all time, a typical Greek American family (headed up by Nia Vardalos and John Corbett) celebrates another wedding in boisterous fashion. Reforma says, “The movie works because of it's endearing characters.” And ReviewExpress assures us of “Non-stop laughs.”
An ordinary sixty-something woman named Doris (none other than Sally Field) starts to feel special when a younger co-worker seemingly returns her attentions. Windy City Times describes it as “a charming ugly duckling story with some surprising and very welcome turns.” And Film Experience observes, “It manages to be both funny and endearing because Field knows to play both the external comedy and the internal drama.”

“Eye In the Sky” looks at the military hawks and dovish government officials who must decide whether to unleash a Hellfire missile on a house hiding potential suicide bombers, at the risk of causing collateral damage. This Is London says, “It’s a tense thriller about a single action, taking place in Nairobi, commanded from London, albeit piloted from Las Vegas - and its presentation of the moral dilemma about whether to strike or not is complex and wrenching.” And Daily Express calls it “a drama that forces the audience to think, take sides and examine their own consciences.”

“Born to Be Blue” is a musical biopic about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (portrayed by Ethan Hawke). This funny Valentine is replete with his troubled life, from heroin addiction to damage to his mouth that nearly ends his career. San Diego Reader observes, “Hawke's performance ably conveys the painful, humble work of climbing back up the mountain, and writer-director Robert Budreau mostly sticks to beauty over prettiness, and the nature of practice over the magic of talent.” And Tulsa World tells us, “There are highs and lows galore, balancing humor and darkness.”

A similar story, “Miles Ahead” gives us an impressionistic look at the life and career of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (played by Don Cheadle), including his struggles with heroin addiction. Journal and Courier says, “As in most biopics, "Miles Ahead" blurs the line between fact and fiction. Does it matter? Davis purists and aficionados may be upset or offended, but for the casual music lover who knows Davis only by name or reputation, the film should prove satisfying.” And St. Louis Post Dispatch sees it as “a jazzy and unconventional tribute to an American icon…”

And “Midnight Special” gives us the quite extraordinary tale of a man (Michael Shannon) who goes on the lam with his son who has mystical powers. says it’s “Very likely the best sci-fi movie of the year.” And Student Edge concludes, “Next time someone asks you why there's no more magic at the movies, point them towards Midnight Special…”

Take your pick -- ordinary or extraordinary people -- their stories as told here make for extraordinary films.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” Is Bigger and Fatter and Greekier
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Maybe it’s a male thing, but I hate going to weddings. Yet I like wedding movies. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to dress up to attend.

In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” we met the Portokalos family. When spinster daughter Toula (Nia Vardalos) finally meets a man (John Corbett), it’s a bit of a disappointment that he isn’t Greek. But the family gets over that as they jump into the wedding planning.

Antonia Eugenia “Nia” Vardalos both wrote and starred in the movie based on her one-woman stage play. The size of the cast certainly grew from one to the other. An alumnae of the Chicago Second City repertory company, she’d appeared in many small television roles before coming up with the breakout hit. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay. It’s the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time.

The story continued in “My Big Fat Greek Life,” a TV sitcom also starring Nia Vardalos. It ran one season on CBS.

Now we have “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” another wedding in the making when the Portokalos family regroups for the marriage of … Toula’s mom and dad (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan). Turns out the priest forgot to sign their wedding license, so they decide to do it over again, this one guaranteed to be an even bigger, fatter, Greekier wedding.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is celebrating at Tropic Cinema.

This sequel took 14 years to be made and contains mostly all of the cast and crew from the first movie.

“Over the years, I've heard from everybody about what the sequel should be,” says Nia. “People next to me at Starbucks would say, ‘Hey, let me tell you my idea,’ and I’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m just trying to get a cup of coffee.’ I never thought much about it. But then when John Corbett and I recently sat down to do that interview for the 10th anniversary edition, we laughed so hard through the whole thing. It made me think that it’s time. He said, ‘Come on, write something, will you?’”

Nia and John Corbett have appeared in several movies together.

“We have such an easy chemistry together. And we have chemistry because we never did it. That’s the surefire way to kill chemistry in a scene. You have to make sure your actors don’t do it off-screen. If they don't do it, then they’ll have chemistry on camera.”

Why didn’t they do it? Nia Vardalos’s real-life husband, Ian Gomez, was on the set. In both movies he plays her movie husband’s best friend, Mike.

Everybody Wants Some!! (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Everybody Wants Some!!” Wants to Repeat History
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My friend Karen worked on “Dazed and Confused,” director Richard Linklater’s paean to the ‘70s. She wasn’t impressed. Linklater was enthusiastic, but a novice filmmaker.

The plot: The adventures of high school and junior high students on the last day of school in May 1976.

The film starred a bunch of unknown young actors, among them Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt, and Renée Zellweger. Karen told me she didn’t expect much for the film or its young stars. 

However, in a Sight & Sound poll Quentin Tarantino listed it as the 10th Best Film of All Time. And Entertainment Weekly ranked it as the third best high school movie ever made.

So much for Karen’s opinion.
Linklater said his intent was to create an inverse John Hughes film: “The drama is so low-key,” he noted. “I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low.”

The title came from a Led Zeppelin song of the same name. The film had a great soundtrack. It was filmed in Austin, Texas.

The previews of Linklater’s new film – “Everybody Wants Some!!” – promises to do for the ‘80s what “Dazed & Confused” did for the ‘70s.

Maybe, maybe not.

We’ll wait to see if Will Brittain, Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, or Tyler Hoechlin go on to become famous actors.

The plot: Set in the fall of 1980, the film follows the lives of college baseball players on the last weekend before school begins.

Hmm, sounds kinda familiar.

The title comes from the second track on Van Halen’s 1980 album “Women and Children First.” 

Rotten Tomatoes sees it as “Richard Linklater ambling through the past with a talented cast, a sweetly meandering story, and a killer classic rock soundtrack.” It was filmed in Austin, Texas.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” is currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

Maybe this one is the inverse of Albert Einstein, who once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In this case, Linklater is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for the same results.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Born to Be Blue (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Born to Be Blue

In Robert Budreau's film "Born to Be Blue," Chet Baker bears a resemblance to the Surrealist / Beat writer William Burroughs. The first shot features a tarantula emerging from a trumpet. Out of the abyss of night something creepy this way comes. Baker (Ethan Hawke) is swimming in an alternate world. His music and the drive to do it flawlessly was the singular thing keeping him in the world, insulated from the noise of life. The scene could be taken from Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

The film focuses on Chet Baker's struggle in the year 1966 and is punchily explicit in showing Baker's drug addiction. Yes, he was the Kerouac of the cool trumpet, but events were also murky with melancholy. The film portrays this state well and actor Ethan Hawke is terrific as the once handsome baby blue now showing an edge of the seedy side. Sumptuous clips based on Bruce Weber's documentary "Let's Get Lost" featuring a slick sharkskin version of Chet are interspersed with color vignettes of Baker lost and unhinged. This juxtaposition of black and white and color imagery makes the be-bop musician into a sort of Dorian Gray who romanticizes his black and gray past where all was smooth and porous with no need for methadone.

Baker is on the run from savage debtors who broke his melodious jaw. He takes off for Oklahoma with his fiancee (Carmen Ejogo), based on Halima Baker. Upon arriving Baker's father  (Stephen McHattie) who looks like a Grant Wood painting sarcastically belittles him. Baker has the love of a woman and his horn but he can't get work and the emptiness gnaws at him.

Baker records "My Funny Valentine" and the song is a hit because it is plain, raw and without finish. Ethan Hawke does well here, too. His off key voice has a breaking quality that shows the color brown, twined in desperation. Hawke is not so much Baker than the vibration of him.

Like the uncompromising "Leaving Las Vegas," this is an anxious and forceful look at the nature of addiction as much as it is a reflective portrait. Similar to alcohol in the aforementioned film, heroin reveals Chet Baker's reptilian urges and it turns his skin to leather. Heroin was an illusion containing the word "hero" within it---a capricious lover more fun than his Elaine, promising strength.

In the end, all Baker wanted was to crawl inside his trumpet: a silver womb. The tarry murk of the opiate known as heroin made his pursuit a slog and sadly barred his entrance.  "Born to Be Blue" may not be suited to all ears but it illustrates a man in a very real battle to describe what he observes with the element sound.

Chet Baker was stubborn and self destructive, yet through this drama, the musician yearned to go beyond his sugary standards in the hope of discovering the next cool color.

Write Ian at

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Midnight Special (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Midnight Special

Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) always illustrates his films in an offbeat dark tone. In the previous  "Take Shelter" Michael Shannon plays a character who sees supernatural activity, specifically an apocalypse and he may, or may not be insane. In "Mud," two boys happen upon a homeless person with an obscure past pointing to either protection, danger or perhaps both. It is this abiguity that makes Nichols' works so watchable.

In "Midnight Special" the director takes on the question of the supernatural once more and thankfully, he always keeps one guessing. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) a young boy in a religious cult is taken away by his parents (Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst) and ally Lucas (Joel Edgerton).  Alton is much sought after but it is unclear why. Is he a messenger or an eerie Dalai Lama? It is anyone's guess.

The cult depicted is scary in itself, watched over by Sam Shepard. Alton is hidden away and driven by night to safehouses and woods, in short any place technically off the grid. The four are also pursued by a pale and spaced out scientist played to weird perfection by the "Star Wars" villain actor that we love to hate, Adam Driver. Night after night, the four are relentlessly chased though vast stretches of dark cement.

No place is safe. There are sudden explosions and tremors. Like the best of the director's films, this one too, takes on the logic of a dream. Seemingly there is no rhyme or reason to these frightful events. In what could have been an ordinary cat and mouse pursuit film, this director gives his story a boyish haunt and energy, reminicent of Spielberg, but with enough of the shock and sudden terror that are Jeff Nichols' hallmarks.

Michael Shannon is solid once again as is his co-star Lieberher. The two accomplish so much with only the intensity of facial expression. When the two interact, the film almost makes a fine addition to the genre of silent film---so much is given with minimal looks. While at first the lack of information proves vexing, the unfullfilled questions make this story all the more riveting: who is this boy? Are we in the realm of "E.T. " or "The Village of the Damned?"

Perhaps we have both. "Midnight Special" asks more questions than it answers. It is this mystery though which makes the story. The curiousities are put in a thrilling Saturday matinee format with an angst that recalls "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Disregarding an "aha" moment, the story holds its magic. Alas, a mere suggestion is always better than a  final flourish.

Write Ian at

Friday, April 15, 2016

4 Nights 4 Justice Series: Frame by Frame (Rhoades)

Filmmaker Brings Afghan Documentary to Tropic Cinema
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach is difficult to track down because she’s always on the move. Although she maintains a small apartment in Santé Fe, she’s on the road 11 month of the year. “I live out of a suitcase,” she says.

However, she will be in Key West Tuesday night to introduce her documentary “Frame By Frame” at the Tropic Cinema. It is the second documentary in the 4 Nights 4 Justice series, sponsored by the Mike Dively Foundation for Social Justice. This is the event’s fourth year, thanks to the oversight by the Community Foundation.

“‘Frame By Frame’ is an important documentary,” notes Matthew Helmerich, executive director of the Tropic Cinema. “By examining photojournalism in Afghanistan, it helps us understand the role of the press in helping us understand the world.”

For the film, Alexandria Bombach and her crew -- “Me, my co-director/co-cinematographer Mo Scarpelli, our Afghan ‘fixer,’ and a driver, just the four of us”  -- followed four local photojournalists in their daily lives.

“Troops have all but left, news bureaus are shutting down, and the international focus is turning elsewhere” observes Alexandria Bombach.

“Photography is a powerful medium,” say Bombach. “It’s such a large part of our identity as humans.”

She started the documentary because she was curious about “I was very interested in our perception of Afghanistan,” she explains. “So often the image we see of Afghanistan is of war taken from the perspective of foreign journalists – I wanted to hear from Afghans about Afghanistan.”

Traveling to Afghanistan wasn’t difficult. “All you need is a passport and a $150 visa,” she shrugs.

Hooking up with the journalists was easy. “It’s a small journalism community.”

These photojournalists work at great risk. The Taliban had banned photography from 1996 to 2001. And traveling in-country with a camera still wasn’t safe.

One of the photojournalists, Najibullah Mussafer, was recording the genocide as the Taliban started pulling out.

After graduating with a business degree from Fort Lewis College in Colorado, during the peak of the recession, Bombach decided to pursue her passion -- filmmaking. “I got my first video camera when I was 13,” she recalls. So she formed her video production company Red Reel and started working on her own terms.

While “Frame By Frame” is her first feature-length documentary, she has made over a dozen short documentaries including “Common Ground,” “23 Feet” and a series of shorts called “Moveshake.”

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s what I was doing too. “I’d become addicted to making documentaries, telling stories.”

After seeing her film “23 Feet” about people living simply to do what they love, people would contact her, saying how it had changed their lives. “One couple sold their house, bought a van, and set out traveling around the US,” she recalls. “That’s when I realized the impact films can have."

Just turning 30, she’s “very, very happy” to be past her twenties. “Before people saw me as a young woman going places where she shouldn’t go. Now they can see this is not a young person’s choice. This is my life.”

Alexandria Bombach will be on stage at the Tropic on Tuesday to introduce her film, and to answer questions afterwards. Because of its theme -- the importance of journalism -- Tropic Cinema has invited several local newspaper editors and photographers to attend the screening as its guests.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Week of April 15 - 21 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Toots Its Horn With Five Films
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Key West Citizen Film Critic

From a biopic about jazz musician Chet Baker to a sci-fi tale about a kid with special powers, two new films add a welcome riff to three outstanding holdovers.

With “Born to Be Blue” we find a compelling portrait of Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter who made “My Funny Valentine” linger in our minds. Here we follow his rise to fame, playing with such greats as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and his downfall due to a heroin addiction. Ethan Hawke gives one of his best performances as a musician fighting his own demons. The Patriot Ledger tells us, “Hawke plays Baker the way Baker played the trumpet, always open to interpretation and unafraid to color outside the lines. It’s fabulous work, probably the best of his career.” And Boston Herald gushes, “As cliched as it sounds, sometimes an actor is born to play a role. That’s certainly the case with Ethan Hawke as iconic jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.”

“Midnight Special” takes us to rural Texas where Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run with his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a kid with otherworldly powers. Thanks to help by a friendly state trooper (Joel Edgerton), they dodge the FBI, a religious cult, and an amber alert as they try to get the boy to an undisclosed location in time for a world-changing event. The Ooh Tray says, “This is sci-fi for those who’ve put away childish things.” And Mountain Xpress adds, “Jeff Nichols' latest, Midnight Special, is the writer-director’s most complex and accomplished film to date.”

Helen Mirren tracks terrorist using an “Eye In the Sky,” drones that hover over bad guys preparing a suicide bombing at a house in Kenya. Can she convince her superiors to pull the trigger when collateral damage is involved? Cinecue calls it “An impressive demonstration of cinema’s ability to tackle complex ethical and philosophical issues without forgetting to entertain.” And Empire Magazine says, “It’s a tight thriller played out smoothly but tying the viewer in moral knots. A film to think about for days, with little hope of finding a comfortable answer.”

Davis (that’s Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a tough time in “Demolition,” His wife has just died and the vending machine won’t deliver the candy he wants. His solution? Demolish everything to do with his old life and rebuild a new one. ABC News Radio declares, “Jake Gyllenhaal should be your favorite actor.” And Time Out expounds, “Director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t seem to mind when his movies become sun-dappled insta-redemption stories so long as there’s a bravura central turn holding it all down.”

And for a happy ending, we have “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” with 60-somrething Doris (Sally Field) falling for a younger co-worker. It’s funny, it’s sad, it might just happen. Windy City Times calls this “A charming ugly duckling story with some surprising and very welcome turns.” And Movie Nation dubs it “A sleeper for senior citizens, this year’s ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’”

There you have it -- five films worth trumpeting about.

Born to Be Blue (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Born to Be Blue” Doesn’t Need to Be Blue
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Rating music goes back (at least) to Dick Clark’s “Bandstand,” that old TV dance-a-thon. High School Girl: “I’d give it an 86 because you can dance to it.”

Today, we’ve become attuned to musical performances being judged on programs like “America Idol” and “The Voice.”

So you shouldn’t find it odd when I share a rating on “Born to Be Blue.” This new biopic about legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker, Jr. earned his fame as a trumpeter, flugelhornist, and vocalist. Born in Oklahoma, he came from a musical family. His father was a professional guitar player; his mother a talented pianist. After a stint is the church choir, he took up the trumpet. At 16 he joined the Army and began playing in the 298th Army band. His career soared when he started performing with such greats as Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, and Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1950 he began using heroin, a drug habit that had him in and out of jail. After getting his teeth knocked out in a fight, he had to re-learn how to play the horn. He regained his career by performing in Europe. At 58, he died in Amsterdam from a fall while under the influence of drugs.

A pioneer of West Coast jazz, he was known for his bluesy version of “My Funny Valentine.” His compositions included “Chetty’s Lullaby,” “Freeway,” “Early Morning Mood,” “New Morning Blues,” “Blue Gilles,” and “Anticipated Blues.”

Chet Baker was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987.

Written and directed by Robert Budreau, “Born to Be Blue” is a re-imagining of Chet Baker’s rise and fall and comeback.

What drove Baker? Addiction. Heroin? Did it stunt his musical growth or fuel it. You can be the judge.

For our Bandstand-like rating, we turn to Rotten Tomatoes. The Chet Baker movie scored a healthy 86%. Other recent musical biopics have fared less well. The new Miles Davis movie (“Miles Ahead”) is coming in at 71%. And the Hank Williams movie (“I Saw the Light”) scored a paltry 19%.

No need for ol’ Chet to be blue.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“10 Cloverfield Lane” Raises Goosebumps
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When Orson Welles broadcast a 1938 radio play based on H.G. Wells’ “War of the World,” people panicked, thinking aliens were attacking.

More recently screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken and Danien Chazelle updated the idea, combining elements of “Room” and “Signs.” Then under the patronage of J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,”  “Super 8,” “Cloverfield”), first-time director Dan Trachtenberg called the film “10 Cloverfield Lane.”

Just for the record, despite its title, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not exactly a sequel to the monster-movie “Cloverfield.” But Abrams likes to call it a “a blood relative.”

In it, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has a car wreck late at night in rural Louisiana, only to wake up chained to a wall in an underground bunker. Has she been abducted?

Well, yes and no. Michelle’s captor, a fat man named Howard (John Goodman), explains that the country is under attack -- whether by the Russians or aliens from outer space, he’s not sure -- and he’s saved her, having found her near the wrecked car. Another survivor huddles with them in the bunker is a young guy named Elliot (John Gallagher, Jr.). He swears he witnessed the attack and came to Howard’s bunker for safety.

Not trusting ol’ Howard and his pal Elliot, Michelle tries to escape, only to encounter a woman with melting skin just outside the airlock. Frightened by this evidence of an outside disaster, she retreats back inside.

This doesn’t mean she trusts Howard; just that she wants to find a safer way to go into the blighted world. Maybe she can convince Elliot to help her build a biohazard suit…?

Meanwhile, you’re sitting there in the audience, unsure of what to believe. Is the alien attack an elaborate hoax? Is Howard a monster, responsible for a local schoolgirl’s disappearance? Is Elliot on Michelle’s side or Howard’s? Is Michelle risking her life by leaving the bunker? What the heck’s going on?

No spoilers here. Producer J.J. Abrams wants you to be surprised.

You will be.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is playing at Tropic Cinema. The movie’s tagline says, “Monsters Come In Many Forms.” Okay, that’s a hint.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Demolition (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Demolition” Is About Breakdown 
(and Rebuilding)
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Sometimes life blows up in your face; sometimes you have to demolish the painful structures of your past. Sometimes you do that demolition with alcohol or drugs; sometimes by talking to a shrink. Davis Mitchell did it with a bulldozer.

You see, in the movie “Demolition,” Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), lost his wife in a car accident and can’t come to terms with this tragic turn in his life. After all, he was an investment banker, made good money, lived in a nice home, had a goo
d-enough life. Didn’t he?

But Davis has to reconcile that life with the loss of his wife.

His wife’s father (Chris Cooper) pushes him to get it together. But he’s unraveling.

It starts with a complaint about a vending machine in the hospital that doesn’t deliver a pack of M&M’s. His complaint letters to the company reveal more about him than he realizes, catching the attention of a customer service rep (Naomi Watts). She decides to investigate. A single mother with her own problems, Karen comes upon Davis as he’s going about disassembling his old life -- tossing out memorabilia, removing furniture, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer, hiring a bulldozer (“You can buy almost anything on eBay…”) to demolish his house.

Only by this demolition can he start to rebuild.

“Demolition” is now playing at Tropic cinema.

Jake Gyllenhaal says, “It’s a story about a guy who begins the movie in a conventional way and ends the movie through an unconventional journey, feeling however he feels, and not how society tells him to feel.”

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”) points out that grief for these characters comes during everyday moments, and in ironical ways.

“This breakdown moment, where this guy is saying he doesn’t feel anything to this guy on the train, and he becomes emotional when he says it, I liked the contradiction,” Vallee describes a key scene.

Gyllenhaal confides that the director himself was often emotional on the set before urging Gyllenhaal to follow suit with his character.

“Jean-Marc would come up to me before a scene with tears in his eyes, before my character had tears in his eyes,” recounts Gyllenhaal. “And he’d be there right with me, deep in wherever I was, or where he wanted me to go. He’d say, now come join me.”

Making a movie is not easy. Jean-Marc Vallee personally kicked off the demolition work, knocking down walls, busting furniture, to relieve his own stress on the set: “He really looked forward to breaking some windows,” nods Jake Gyllenhaal.

Eye In The Sky (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Eye in the Sky” Is Edge-of-Seat Thriller
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Drones the size of a fly? My spy friend Jim says they’re real but can’t go very far. Drones that look like hummingbirds? Yep, the military’s got those too.

However, those bigger drones, the ones that carry missiles and take out al-Qaeda terrorists, they can fly greater distances and be operated from halfway around the world.

These provide an “Eye in the Sky.” That's the name of the new Helen Mirren thriller playing at Tropic Cinema.

Here we meet Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK military intelligence officer. She’s working with Lieutenant General Frank Benson to track a couple of terrorists in Kenya. An American drone pilot is about to send a missile into the house where the targets are plotting a bombing.

But wait.

There’s a young girl in the yard playing with a hoola hoop.

Should they give the order to fire, accept the collateral damage of the girl? Or back off. Stuffy government officials offer little help in this decision.

What would you do?

Helen Mirren gives a stern-faced turn as Colonel Powell. Alan Rickman (in his next to last film role) is the grumpy general. Aaron Paul is the moralistic long-distance drone operator.

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about modern warfare -- well, at least the moral, political, and personal implications of it.

As the movie’s tagline says, “Welcome to the new front line.”

4 Nights 4 Justice Series: Private Violence (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Private Violence” Captures Complexities of Domestic Violence
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“The man had beaten the snot out of his wife,” recalls Kit Gruelle, who has worked as a battered women’s advocate and community educator for over 25 years. “He felt it was his right, that she was his possession. ‘I got papers on her,’ he stated as justification, referring to his marriage license.

Kit describes domestic violence as a crime of entitlement.

“In some states you get longer jail time for abusing your dog than for beating your wife,” she explains the broken system.

As she likes to put it, “The abuser commits the act but the system drives the getaway car for them. We still routinely blame the victim.”

Kit Gruelle knows what she’s talking about. She herself was a victim of domestic violence.

You will meet her in “Private Violence,” the first film in this year’s 4 Nights 4 Justice series at Tropic Cinema. This year the documentaries focus on women’s issues. The presentation is made possible by a grant from the Mike Dively Foundation for Social Justice, administered by the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys.

While planning her visit to Key West to introduce next Tuesday’s showing of “Private Violence,” Kit took time out to speak of her own horrific experiences. “I grew up in Miami,” she says, “one of those Florida families that went to the mountains every year. In North Carolina I met Jack, an extremely charismatic guy. He swept me off my feet. I’d never been treated like that. But once he moved in, he established the relationship dynamics.”

She takes a deep breath, then plunges on with her story. “He used to explain that while in Viet Nam he’d been trained to hunt people down and kill them. He told me that if I tried to leave him, he'd hunt me down and kill me. I was afraid to leave. I took the boys and ran a few times, but I always went back. I was too afraid not to.”

She explains that 1,200 women a year are murdered in this country by an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. “It usually happens shortly after separation. Leaving is the most dangerous thing abused women can do."

After her experience with Jack and working in the battered women's movement for 20 years, Kit started thinking about doing a film about domestic violence. She connected with two filmmakers in California, producing a 22-minute short with the financial assistance of Cindy Waitt.

By then Kit Gruelle was involved in organizations dealing with abuse. “It’s the first cousin to the Civil Rights Movement,” she asserts.

“Cindy turned out to be our fairy godmother,” says Kit. “She introduced us to Gloria Steinem, who agreed to help executive produce a full-length documentary.

“By then the two original filmmakers had gone on to other projects, but we found Cynthia Hill, a director who showed interest in the project. She started following me around with a camera.”

Then they came across Deanna Walters, a woman whose case better illustrated the hidden issues that battered women face. “Her estranged husband had kidnapped her and her child, taking them across the country in an 18-wheeler, beating her and threatening to kill their child. A cop in Oklahoma stopped the truck and took Deanna to the hospital. In spite of her devastating injuries, Robbie was not arrested.

The local prosecutor demanded to know why Deanna didn’t run, as if it were her fault she was being battered. He said he could only go for a misdemeanor assault on a female, which would amount to about 150 days in jail for her tormentor. But then the FBI got involved and the case took a different turn altogether.

“It been amazing to witness Deeana’s transformation, going from a beaten-down woman to being a strong fearless survivor.”

You will meet Deanna in the film, and Kit on stage at the Tropic.

When asked to describe herself, Kit thinks for a moment, then chooses the word “lucky.” She says she’s lucky to work with women who have not yet figured out how capable they are, and to be able to help them see their strengths and their worth. And given her own experience with domestic abuse, lucky to be alive.

Week of April 8 - 14 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Six Lively Films on Tropic Cinema Screens
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

This week’s films at Tropic Cinema look at life: reclaiming it, enjoying it, weighing its values, laughing at it, even considering its spiritual elements. Here are the six films you’ll find gracing the Tropic screens:

First up, “Demolition” gives us Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who has just lost his wife in a tragic traffic accident, and is trying to cope by demolishing his old life -- right down to bulldozing the house -- so he can rebuild himself emotionally. Globe and Mail says, “Gyllenhaal’s performance is so engaging, so successfully constructed to make us sympathize with the man’s anti-social reactions to convention, even while we may understand everyone else’s bemusement.” And Tampa Bay Times observes, “Demolition could easily be maudlin, some urban Nicholas Sparks-type weeper in which ideas run out before tissues. But this is Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), whose dexterity with downbeat material is edgier ... daring the audience to cry at tragedy, rather than expecting it.”

“Hello, My Name Is Doris” presents Sally Field as a 60-plus woman who falls for a younger co-worker. Is this a futile crush, or an awakening of a new zest for life? Newsday calls it “a winning comedy-drama built around one of cinema’s most endearing leading ladies.” And adds, “It’s a feel-good movie you won’t feel guilty for enjoying, or even loving.”

“Eye In the Sky” offers up Helen Mirren as a British intelligence officer tracking terrorists in Kenya by the use of drones. But is she willing to have the long-distance American drone pilot pull the trigger when the collateral damage would be a young girl twirling a hula-hoop outside the house they have under surveillance? Philadelphia Inquirer tells us, “‘Eye in the Sky’ is disturbing, but it’s also balanced and ambivalent about what is right.” And Quad City Times adds, “‘Eye in the Sky’ offers no easy answers. But when have there been any easy answers to war?”

“10 Cloverfield Lane” shares a kinship with “Cloverfield,” but it’s not the same kind of monster movie. Here a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is trapped in an underground bunker with a crazy guy (John Goodman) who claims aliens have attacked earth. Can this possibly be true? Daily Star notes, “If Hitchcock had ever directed an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ it might have looked something like this.” The Atlantic says the film “alternates moods seamlessly, ratcheting tension to the breaking point and then deflating it with black humor.” And Quad City Times adds accurately, “It wouldn’t be fair to tell you too much.”

“Deadpool” is another Marvel superhero blockbuster, this time featuring Ryan Reynolds as a wisecracking anti-hero who can regenerate himself when injured. He’s out for revenge against the bad guys who turned him into a mutant. Excelsior notes, “Superhero movies have long needed a character as twisted as Deadpool.” And South China Morning Post explains, “Irreverent and incorrigible, Deadpool pricks the pomposity of your average Hollywood comic book movie with a delicious laugh-out-loud script.”

Finally, “Risen” is an Easter-based story about a Roman Tribune (Joseph Fiennes) who is searching for the missing body of an executed Jew rumored to have risen from the grave. Movie Talk calls it: “Retelling the story of the Resurrection as if it were CSI.” And Ganuyo calls it “a film that even non-believers can enjoy because of the interesting take on this tale and great production values.”

Half-a-dozen movies ranging from superheroes to octogenarians, from a grieving husband to the risen Christ. What better choices could you ask for than these six life-affirming films?

Risen (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Biblical dramas are countless and with good reason. Even if one is not religious, Jesus remains a compelling an existential figure. Many artists have said he was the first pop star. The Bible is in itself, an early epic read having something for everyone: lust, violence, struggle and resolution. No matter what one's faith is, the story of Jesus and biblical mystery has persisted even in our tech-fetishist iPhone age where the touch of a screen has mimicked the holy-handed touch of Creation.

The recent biblical mystery film is "Risen" by director Kevin Reynolds, focusing on the sentence of crucifixion and the intrigue of Jesus' body before its ascent. The film is told from the side of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) a Roman Centurion, who is summoned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to hasten Jesus' death and put a quick end to the revolt. Like an Everyman, Clavius is stuck in a rut, engaging in battle, day after day. He yearns for peace, or at least a calm day without the spilling of blood. He cares little for he Nazarene, simply wanting to finish each day alive as a soldier.

There is one grisly scene of Jesus (Chris Curtis) on The Cross, his face puffy and as stiff as plastic. Under Clavius's direction, an assistant plunges The Spear under Jesus' ribcage. His eyes are open in death and gaze in reproach.

Clavius has done his job, but if so, why can't he sleep?

The film is a shade different from most Biblical films for its lighter touch. The suffering of Jesus is not dwelled on. And Joseph Fiennes gives an appropriate and understated perfomance as the dutiful soldier who is over all of the bloodletting.

Peter Firth's Pilate gives a hint of gallows humor as well. When Clavius tells him of the grim details, Pilate dunks in the hot tub as if to say "Ho hum!" As in most films, one would be hard pressed to call him likeable. He is a hardened rule-maker, the Roman everybody loves to hate.

Fiennes has some lines of dialogue that seem taken from the tongue of Sam Harris. Clavius gives some entertaining repartee, calling the resurrection a "delusion" and practically rolling his eyes at Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and her rapturous idealism.

There is an intriguing lunch scene where the recently crucified man is alive and well and smiling joyously at Clavius, his wrists now mere innocuous wounds. Jesus seems to toy and tease with the centurion. Here he is, the literal life of the party! The apostles follow him from one location to the next and here the action goes flat. The men go out on a boat and fish and at each stop, Jesus like a compass, guides them.

For all of the sightings, one gets very little of Jesus in this story. He is kind, smiling and laughing often. Yes, but what else? What of his worries and his fears? The saviour we see is done in crayon rather than in rich oils.This sketchiness is true also with Clavius. After a suspenseful first half, the soldier goes mute, revealing little of his emotion. In the film, Jesus tells Clavius to let his heart speak.

It is a pity that he doesn't take the advice.

The cinematography is stirring and beautiful. One scene in particular features a swarm of bats wheeling overhead as the apostles move forward on their quest. Clavius wanders on and on, alone against the huge stone fields. The ground itself becoming Clavius's personal crown of ivory thorns. Such moments remain provocative, having the feel of something otherwordly or epic and paying homage to other films: "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Mad Max" or "The Man Who Fell to Earth." All of these films have one thing in common: the outcast who walks alone.

"Risen"  is two separate films: the first is done in intrigue with curiousity and a respect for mystery. The second is a colored primer held up for display like an Advent calendar, marked merely for preaching.

The power of any story, biblical or otherwise, is in its speculation and wonder. To show all so plainly is to dispel the magic .

Write Ian at

Sunday, April 10, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

10 Cloverfield Lane

Watch the skies! This is what you will whisper to yourself from the very first second of "10 Cloverfield Lane" by director Dan Trachtenberg. This matinee-flavored film is a thrill from start to finish, not for what it reveals, but for what it leaves in the dark. The film, which bears the stamp of its producer J.J. Abrahms, has an excellent escapism. The entire production is aware of its potential, the legacy of Spielberg and the impact that an adventurous film has when it is done well.

The story shares its shocks with its first cousin, "Cloverfield" in the sci-fi genre, though it is not a sequel. We don't know the cause, but as in the predecessor, something is strange regarding the mere sight of Cloverfield depicted here as a name on a mailbox.

In this chapter, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is a young woman who has a very percussive and dangerous car accident. Instead of waking in a hospital, she comes to in an underground bunker. Enter Howard (John Goodman) a round and rough survivalist who is as intimidating  as his heavy leather belt, studded with metal and large 1970s era keys.

He means business.

Michelle doesn't like being held in a small cell, but Howard tells her that America has been attacked, that the air is now toxic and most have died. The core of the film is John Goodman in his fierce and engaging role as the tumescent Howard. There are plenty of unnerving jolts and Goodman has a wonderful deadpan, and clearly relishes this role. The film teases relentlessly with verve and free wheeling joy in the spirit of Halloween. The sight of Goodman's face alone, either as puffy as a blowfish or as pleased as a preacher at a pancake breakfast, is worth the price of admission.

And because the audience is left wondering, the "what if" anxiety recalls something of Orson Welles' "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.  For much of the film, one is entertained and satisfactorily left to ponder and worry. There are some genuine creepy scares that feel as though they were taken directly from "Weird Tales" magazine.

There is Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), a passive second captive who attempts to take a stand against the stern and corpulent Howard, one part Svengali , one part General Patton.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" works wonderfully as a "Twilight Zone" film, not to mention some great camp and circumstance. At its end, it betrays its sleight of hand just a smidgen, yet the final trick is thankfully not out of the hat when the final credits appear.

Write Ian at

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Demolition (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Jean Marc-Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) attempts another psychological portrait with the self-consciously titled film "Demolition," about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who gets catharsis from ---no surprise here---demolishing big things.

Gyllenhaal plays investment banker Davis Mitchell, who is jaded and stuck in neutral. He is living comfortably in the Big Apple with his attractive wife Julia (Heather Lind) and things are moving on cruise control. One day, the couple drives along in the car and Davis is side-swiped.
Julia dies while he walks away without a scratch.His father-in-law (Chris Cooper ) hates him, but he always has. A curious sensation comes over Davis. He feels nothing about Julia or the accident. Huge skyscrapers hover him like giant metallic birds. Such a sight brings only a poker face with Davis exchanging the barest of pleasantries to his team. During a hospital vigil, he gets cheated by a vending machine and begins to write letters to the company.

His passivity remains unchanged with the exception of 70s rock music, which unleashes Davis's spontaneous and unbridled inner nature, unkempt and anarchistic. Davis starts to become obsessed with disassembling appliances and then smashing smashing them, a bit like The Hulk. This is the most provocative aspect of the film as it is fun to watch the monosylabbic businessman let loose and become almost simian in his movements, hanging from the ceiling, swinging sledgehammers. He yells, roars and gambols about chimp-like. This is De-evolution. Say what you might about the film as a whole, but Gyllenhaal wonderfully forgets himself in these segments.

Davis meets Karen, a service rep from the vending machine company (Noami Watts) and the two start a friendship. Karen has a foul-mouthed kid named Chris (Judah Lewis ) who likes to experiment with his image and an abusive boyfriend.

While the savage impulses expressed by Jake Gyllenhaal sizzle with great charge, the other sections of the film flatten out in standard drama. The kid is bullied, Karen is scared. The father-in-law is nasty. The story does not progress. One also knows precious little about the secondary characters. Who was Julia and what is Karen really like? Except for a few bare scenes, very little is expressed. The parental discontent and the melancholy by all, makes this beautifully shot film feel like a TV movie.

Sketchy melodrama is all one finds. There is a wonder and a terrific letting go in Gyllenhaal's poundings and pummellings. Such voltage is similar to Reese Witherspoon in "Wild" : a transformed and transforming woman who becomes Nature in order to achieve her goal.

"Demolition," by contrast, ultimately creates the most casual of disorders on-screen. It is a crackle rather than a boom and the story begs for refreshing potency.

Write Ian at