Thursday, March 31, 2016

Week of April 1 - 7 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Poses Moral Questions Via Half-Dozen Films
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Morals seem to be a common theme in the films showing at Tropic Cinema this week -- from how we conduct ourselves amid the chaos of war to behavior for older folk to sex and superheroes.

“Eye in the Sky” wrestles with the moral questions that embroil modern warfare -- drones, in this film. Helen Mirren portrays a British military intelligence officer tracking terrorists in Kenyan via an eye in the sky. The question she faces is when to pull the trigger? Toronto Star says, “This riveting drone thriller is contemporary edge-of-your seat stuff.” And Kansas City Star calls it “A taut, well-acted thriller that raises all sorts of moral questions -- Hitchcock with a conscience.”

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” looks at war from the ground, with Tina Fey as a television war correspondent in the Middle East. WTF may be the abbreviation, but it poses questions about putting people in danger for the sake of a story. Creative Loafing says, “it’s nice to see the hilarious Tina Fey playing it straight.” And Sacramento News & Review observes, “Fey’s resourceful, wry and witty performance-pulls us through time and again.”
“Remember” is about forgetting Christopher Plummer gives us a 90-year old concentration camp survivor who gets lured into a plot of revenge. Los Angeles Times says, “Plummer, half-a-century after outsmarting the Nazis in ‘The Sound of Music,’ manages to further hone his reliably persuasive presence.” And describes it as a “masterly acted and suspenseful vengeance flick.”

“Hello, My Name Is Doris” teaches us not to give up on life. Here, a 60ish woman (Sally Field) falls for her younger co-worker in the exploration of what if. Newsday calls it “a winning comedy-drama built around one of cinema’s most endearing leading ladies.” And Tulsa World says it’s “a simple, delightful little human comedy. You know, like life itself.”

“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” is a documentary about the film’s namesake, the famous art patron who loved the painters almost as much as the paintings. Washington Post says, “As this film's engrossing character study makes clear, this woman of extraordinary tastes and appetites was ahead of her time, in more ways than one.”

And topping off the lineup is “Deadpool,” that Marvel anti-hero with self-healing powers due to a scientific experiment gone awry. Ryan Reynolds has finally found his groove with the wisecracking bad-boy superhero. ABC Radio notes, “As a stand-alone superhero movie, it’s about as much fun as you could ask for.” Hot Press calls it “a deliciously subversive approach.” And Filmsinreview adds, “Ryan Reynolds becomes a certified movie star.”

Killers overhead? Self-serving TV reporters? Vengeful Nazi hunters? Aging cougars chasing younger men? Sex-driven art collectors? Not-so-nice superheroes?

Hey, sometimes it’s good to be bad!

Deadpool (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Deadpool” A Bad-Boy Superhero Movie
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Poor Ryan Reynolds has been desperately searching for a superhero franchise. This is his fifth time in a comic book movie. His turn in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was lackluster. His big gig as “Green Lantern” was downright disappointing.”

Yet he’s been proving himself as more than a rom-com star with solid performances in “Safe House,” “Mississippi Grind,” and “Woman In Gold.”

So apparently the gods who run Marvel Studios took pity on him and tossed him the lead in “Deadpool,” the latest blockbuster-in-the-making from the House That Stan Lee Build.

Actually, Reynolds first played the Deadpool character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” But this time around he gets to stand in the spotlight. This reprisal will be closer to the original comic book.

Deadpool is arguably one of Marvel’s most quirky characters, an anti-hero named Wade Wilson who was subjected to experiments that leaves him with advanced healing powers. He can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Now you may say this sounds like a bit of a mesh-up. Captain America is the result of scientific tinkering. And Wolverine can heal faster than you can pull the backing off a Band-Aid. But Cap is a flag-loving Boy Scout and Wolverine is an X-Men team player. Not really a nice guy, Deadpool is a ruthless mercenary who takes no prisoners (so to speak). Displaying a dark sense of humor, he wisecracks his way through the movie. He’s called the “Merc with a Mouth.”

This talkative nature is used to bring the audience in on the joke as he breaks the fourth wall, calls attention to movie tropes, and skewers the superhero genre.

Not surprising in that the character was created by sharp-witted writer Fabian Nicieza and bad-boy artist-writer Rob Liefeld.

When I was publisher of Marvel Comics back in the mid ‘90s I regularly arm-wrestled (so to speak) with Liefeld, one of those marquee creators who left Marvel to form Image Comics. We’d farmed out some of our superheroes to the Image guys for a stagy Big Event called Heroes Reborn. Liefeld was contracted to write twelve issues of The Avengers, but I canceled the deal after six, reassigning the project to Jim Lee. Rob was just so darned difficult to deal with, refusing to turn in his work until I personally handed a check to one of his emissaries like a Bridge-of-Spies prisoner exchange.

Self trained, Rob Leifeld’s artwork was somewhat naïve (“I’ll be the first to tell you that we -- the Image collective -- were never the best artists,” he said), but it was his clever mind and stylistic approach that made him a hit among fans. Deadpool was a prime example.

“Deadpool” is currently breaking moviemaking rules as readily as Liefeld broke social conventions. You can catch it this week at Tropic Cinema.

Directed by Tim Miller, “Deadpool” is intended to be the eighth installment in the “X-Men” franchise, but its wiseacre approach makes it more akin to “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Oddly enough, this film about a superhero with accelerated healing powers, disfigured skin, and an unstable mind is a love story. Brazilian-American actress Morena Baccarin (you’ll remember her from TV’s “Firefly” and “Gotham”) plays Ryan Reynolds’ equally twisted girlfriend.

Reynolds describes Deadpool: “He’s funny and acerbic and a little bit of a head case. But he’s also not trying to be liked, he’s intentionally trying to annoy everyone.”

Deadpool’s first appearance was in the comic book “The New Mutants #98.” As publisher, I gave him his own title in 1997.

Being the custom, Stan Lee has a cameo in the movie, that of a DJ in a strip club. Look closely and you’ll also catch a glimpse of Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld, playing a customer at a tattoo parlor. Interesting casting.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hello, My Name Is Doris

Sally Field has made a career out of earnest and accessible "girl next door" portraits. Many remember her from the "Smokey and the Bandit" films while others recall a kitschy flying nun, and still more recall Gidget on TV during the mid-sixties.  Field did excellentlyin 2012's "Lincoln" as Mary Todd, nominated for an Oscar.  Suffice to say, she is a disciplined and energetic actor and most have grown, if not to "really, really like her" to admire her.

In "Hello, My Name Is Doris" directed by Michael Showalter, Field plays the title role this heartfelt and spirited comedy that never becomes cloying or sticky sweet with an after-taste. Doris is an office worker who is now a kind of mascot. A new department head is brought in from Malibu: the handsome John (Max Greenfield).  Quirky and middle-aged Doris is instantly struck by the younger, Clark Kentish new employee, yet she relegates John to fantasy, thinking that a relationship is unrealistic.

On the surface, the film is much like "The Intern."  Here is another likable character a bit past her prime who wants to make it with another young crowd. But where that film got silly and formulaic, this story remains fresh. This is due to the fine acting by Sally Field and Max Greenfield. The two show an authenticity and have an amusing chemistry. Better yet, the couple share the screen with a generosity, allowing for a comic or dramatic beat, along with facial expressions, a rare thing in any film. What might be canned at first glance, is bubbly and bouncing here.

 It's a Walter Mitty story as much as anything else with an overwhelmed Doris carried away by a lusty fugue. While some might see Doris as a cartoon character out of step with bright clothes and a bow, she is far from it. Rebuffed, Doris takes to the streets, physically stalking the laconic John and checking his Facebook page for intimate secrets.

The film wonderfully balances the warmth of Doris being accepted during a rave party against the drear of obsession and the stab of rejection. We see Doris peering through a store window, overcome by the door of someone who is cut off and labelled as the other. Then in a flash, she is back bouncing about the office and chatting away with her friend, Roz (Tyne Daly).

Doris is a kind of Annie Hall with a sliver of darkness. Fans of romantic affection will be well served but there is also plenty of tension and quirk, given the jumpy wilderness of Doris's moods and desires coupled with John's innocence.

Thankfully though, the film entertainingly moves back and forth between jubilant energy and visceral sadness and will keep you guessing.  While the theme of middle age sprouting once more is familiar, both its wildness and its restraint at key moments is what makes this film so watchable. It manages to retain its color and mystery, when so many others lose their charm in the last half hour.

The exceptional credit to "Hello, My Name Is Doris" is that you do still wonder who this lady is, and what she is really about, after the film.

Write Ian at

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tab Hunter: Confidential (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Tab Hunter: Confidential

The actor known as Tab Hunter, whose real name is Art Galien, was a pop phenomenon in the 1950s. He had All- American blond hair, blue eyes and a winning smile to match. Girls swooned. He first rose to fame in the film "Battle Cry," starring Aldo Ray. Hunter, having a smooth matinee-idol voice, was also a singer with many popular hit singles. Yet despite his fame, a Sword of Damocles hung over his head: he was gay.

The studio molded him as Natalie Wood's Valentine and cast him in two films with the female star:  "The Girl He Left Behind" and "Burning Hills." Hunter broke ground, playing against type as a psychopath in "Gunman's Walk."

 After the klieg lights were out, however Hunter sought the company of Anthony Perkins. The two were twin opposites: one outgoing and gregarious, the other inward and shy. Both were handsome actors and gifted singers, embodying the new young wave of Hollywood, in contraast to Dean and Brando. The romance came to a bitter end when Perkins manuevered the hot film project "Fear Strikes Out" away from his friend.

This pointed and lively documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz (the director of  "I Am Divine" about the John Waters comedian and star, Divine) shows a charismatic and engaged Hunter, who nonetheless battled to keep his personal self intact, dealing with the pressures of a closeted actor. John Waters is featured here. The added bonuses are Debbie Reynolds, Star Trek's George Takei, a very tan Robert Wagner and last but not least, the actor who became a nun after kissing Elvis, Dolores Hart.

The film has a smooth and bouyant rhythm   throughout, yet it is not without poignance. Hunter's mother was institutionalized for many years, and the actor had difficulties with unemployment after his youthful successes. Luckily, the genre of camp gave Hunter a second life when John Waters cast him in his melodrama "Polyester" as Divine's husband. Hunter co-starred with Divine again in the novelty Western "Lust in the Dust."

Aficionados of 1950s cinema will enjoy "Tab Hunter: Confidential," as well as those manic for our dreamboat teen idol past. Hunter is alive and well at 84. Now retired from Hollywood, he is happily with his partner, Allan Glaser along with being the apple in many a horse's eye.

Write Ian at

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How To Be Single (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

How to Be Single

Director Christian Ditter's slick, glib and hyperactive adaptation of Liz Trucillo's book "How to Be Single," seems, at first glance to be made for a short attention span, but has some thoughtful segments. In what is essentially a "Sex in the City" film, this is a slapstick romp through the digital date scene of New York City.

Actor Dakota Johnson is Alice, a paralegal who dumps her beau Josh (Nicholas Braun.) Moving in with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann), an obstetrician, Alice strikes up a friendship with the irreverent and uncouth Robin (Rebel Wilson).  Robin encourages Alice to be hedonistic and grab single life by the horns, so to speak. Reserved Alice tries her best but is frequently embarrassed by the belly-rolling Robin. Alice runs to her sister for comfort. She, as a doctor, puts up a stoic front in not wanting a relationship, but is clearly bothered when she thinks about babies, which of course, is every single day.

There is a second story-line involving an aloof bartender Tom (Anders Holm) and a girl (Alison Brie) using several dating sites, who half-seduces the bartender to get free wifi. Tom thinks he is a hottie but he feels merely lukewarm as he spends a great deal of energy pushing ladies away from him. This is a full time job.

The best segments come from Leslie Mann as she grows restless and wants to have a baby. There is one scene when Meg is forced to talk with a baby. The adorable baby stares with wonder, returning Meg's anxiety with a big eyed openness. The scene is directed with feeling and intent that achieves a real poignance.

Also affecting is the auxillary story of the single dad (Damon Wayans Jr.) doing his best to raise his daughter, given her mother's passing. This aspect combined with Meg's baby envy, produces some of the best scenes in the film.

For the most part though the film centers on the melancholic Alice and her pining for  Josh, a damp piece of toast. Rebel Wilson has a lively presence but the film doesn't have her do much aside from push her way around and dance crazily, which she has done in other films.

That said, this is the one film where Dakota Johnson  shows seriousness and authenticity, a positive step, away from her robotic outing in the laughable "Fifty Shades of Grey." While it is a pity "How to Be Single" doesn't go all the way in its mimicking of a Judd Apatow comedy, all of the running around makes for an amusing encounter. It is indeed a spring fling that will quickly leave you when the lights come on, but this dalliance is not without some charm.

Write Ian at

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim was an odd bird and thankfully so. She didn't fit in and never wanted to. Her father, who earned riches in the mining industry, died on the Titanic. Peggy had a nervous breakdown at nineteen and did not like her mother, but she went on to become one of the most provocative and serious art collectors of the 20th century.

In "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict" by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, one gets the flavor of the eccentric powder-keg who never held her tongue and had the bravery to serve bad food at art parties.

Guggenheim first gained attention by being a muse for Man Ray in the 20s. In Paris she was swept up by Bohemian cafe society, most importantly the Dadaists. She met Andre Breton and the surrealist painter Max Ernst, not to mention Marcel Duchamp. After a violent marriage with Dadaist sculptor Laurence Vail, she dated the gifted war hero Ferrar Holms, but she also had affairs with apparently hundreds of men, many of whom were artists, Samuel Beckett and Giacometti among them.

Peggy Guggenheim had the idea for a bookstore or a gallery. She decided on a gallery---it was cheaper. Peggy was the first to have a showing of children's art in her gallery. Her daughter Peggeen, who was a very striking and original painter, was featured in the show. Her son, Sindbad wanted nothing to do with art.

Peggy was one of the first to champion and push Jackson Pollock and she is seen by many to be the connecting point between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.  What comes through most is Guggenheim's joie de vivre, and her choice of art as a very sacred belief system, stronger than any religion, which aided her through many darknesses.

Even the Gestapo couldn't stop her.  Other pitfalls came: her daughter Pegeen, died of a drug overdose. Still, modern art with all its fierce iconoclasm, luckily sustained her.

The film, though a bit wordy with art-speak, is colorful and breezy and does a thorough job in capturing this quirky but sophisticated art siren. Many give their glib opinion of Peggy, among them Picasso biographer John Richardson and the author Edmund White. Actor Robert De Niro relate the story of his attending Guggenheim's exhibitions and her museum in Venice. After all, both his mom and dad were accomplished Abstract painters.

In watching "Peggy Guggenheim"  there is no need to be an art lover. This is simply a portrait of a woman in her element. It is Pop and comic, informative and light, showing an electrically-charged woman, galvanized by sex as well as paint, who was as striking in her behavior as her seemingly infinite  Lhasa Apsos or infamous nose-job.

Write Ian at

The Embrace of the Serpent (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets  by Ian Brockway

The Embrace of the Serpent

Ciro Guerra's Oscar-nominated film "The Embrace of the Serpent" is a hypnotic and gripping analysis of two European explorers and their exchanges with indigenous people. It is as rich and satisfying as any novel by Joseph Conrad or Patrick White.

In the Amazonian jungle, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) a German botanist who has become sickened by a mysterious ailment, seeks treatment. The Amazonians are suspicious of the white man, naturally thinking that he is to blame for eradicating tribes.  Theo manages to convince a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) that he is without malice or desire for conquest and only wants to search for the sacred plant that might cure him. Karamakate takes the weak scientist on a series of misadventures, one involving an mad priest who flogs children with a whip. During each episode, Theo grows more and more mystified, while his guide grows more passive and opaque. Karamakate blows some powder into Theo's nostrils but there is no guarantee of health or well-being.

In a parallel story, Evan (Brionne Davis) an American botanist, strives to retrace Theo's path and find the yakruna plant that has hallucinogenic and divine  properties. Evan also meets the now older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and tries to persuade him that he is not a conquerer. Needless to say, history repeats itself. Evan tries to ingratiate himself but this has little success; Karamakate merely tolerates the Westerner. The two happen upon the same missionary school  depicted in the first segment, but the school has now grown severe, with a raving self-proclaimed Jesus figure and some quasi-voodoo rituals. Evan is increasingly left by himself, mute and silent with questions for company.

Gradually one realizes that Theo and Evan are very much the same person.

The cinematography by David Gallego is extraordinary, showing the carnal beauty of the jungle in a black and gray exoticism. This, combined with the enigmatic and often unsettling story, gives the film a one two punch. The hallucinatory montage alone is as startling as it is surprising leaping off the screen with a burst equal in power to the first revelation of color shown in "The Wizard of Oz."

But above all "The Embrace of the Serpent" meticulously illuminates a clash of cultures with care and feeling, while also depicting a wilderness with the strange magic of a far away and distant planet.

Write Ian at

Friday, March 18, 2016

Week of March 18 - 25 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Eight Films Vie for Screen Time at Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

This may be a record for Tropic Cinema, eight -- count ‘em, eight -- movies showing on its four screens. While this very likely amounts to a scheduling nightmare for Tropic programmers and projectionists, it offers great variety for Key West moviegoers. 

This year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner “Spotlight” continues to tell its true-story about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncover abuse within the Catholic Church. The ensemble cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. Graffiti With Punctuation calls it “an advertorial for journalistic objectivity and integrity in the face of abject perversion.” And Excelsior notes, “The effort and teamwork highlighted in this film is absorbing, intelligent and … its cinematic importance is undeniable.”

Another Oscar winner is Leonardo DiCaprio for his role in “The Revenant,” the revenge Western famous for its gruesome grizzly bear scene. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu won a golden statuette too. Konexion observes, “DiCaprio offers what is probably the most physically demanding role of his career, almost completely lacking in dialog – although no less powerful for that.” And Todays Zaman calls it “a powerhouse of a film, with an admirable cinematic brilliance achieved by creating an enthralling universe of harsh men and harsh wildlife.”

Nominated for Best Foreign Language, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a lyrical examination of uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The storyline follows two scientific expeditions led by the same shaman, although they take place some 30 years apart. Chicago Reader tells us, “This stunning historical drama, shot mainly in black and white across the Amazon region of Colombia, focuses on a shaman who’s approached at different points by white men seeking medicinal substances.” And Washington Post says, “Like Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (and the movie it inspired, ‘Apocalypse Now’), the drama examines the idea of progress and what it means to be civilized.”

A more urban setting is found in “The Lady in the Van,” with Maggie Smith portraying a wacko old woman who parks her van in a writer’s driveway … for 15 years. Mountain Xpress calls it “A charming, touching, absolutely delightful comedy-drama with a terrific Maggie Smith performance.” And The Young Folk explains, “What essentially fuels this film is an intelligent script, one that reminds us of the depressing inevitability of old age while still bolstering a genuinely comedic tone throughout its run-time.”

Another interesting lady is profiled in “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a documentary about the famous art patron. Yes, that famous New York museum is named after her family. Newcity sees it as “a brisk, neatly constructed look behind the life of the late heiress who became one of the twentieth century’s most proficient wheelers and dealers at the top end of the art market, collecting art, but also artists along the way.” And Globe and Mail naughtily adds, “By her own legendary admission, Guggenheim had thousands of lovers and pursued art and sex in equal measure.” 

A heroic Coast Guard rescue is recounted in “The Finest Hours.” This so-called suicide mission was led by Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber, played by Chris Pine. The Film Stage finds it to be “a lush disaster film that assumes audiences will undoubtedly root for love at all costs.” And Daily Express says it “packs an emotional punch.”

“Eddie the Eagle” is another true story, the inspiring tale of British skier Michael “Eddie” Edwards. Taron Egerton takes the title role, backed up by Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken. SSG Syndicate calls it “an uplifting, feel-good film that soars with sentiment” and NowToronto says, “Eddie looks like a cockeyed genius who just had to believe in himself. By the end of the movie, everyone else believes in him, too.” 

Just want to sit back and laugh? Then you’ll enjoy “How to be Single,” an instructive rom-com starring Dakota Johnson. Think of it as “Sex and the City” Lite. El Nuevo Dia summarizes it as “the ups in downs of being single from the female perspective presented in a very funny way.” And 3AW adds, “Hey, here’s an original idea for a comedy: single girls in New York trying to land men.”

Whew! Eight films, a marathon for cinephiles.

The Finest Hours (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Finest Hours” Is Sea Story About Doing Right Thing
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think of this as “The Perfect Storm” meets “The Poseidon Adventure.” Two ships break up during a storm and a dauntless Coast Guard team sets out on a rescue mission. Or as one of the Coastie’s girlfriends calls it, “A suicide mission.”

The film is titled “The Finest Hours” and that pretty well sums up this act of heroism. It’s currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

This Disney movie is based on a same-named book about a real-life situation off Cape Cod back in 1952. No spoiler alert, this being about a historic event. It’s the edge-of-the-seat telling that will enthrall you, not plot turns.

During a severe nor’easter two T2 oil tankers (SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton) broke in half. The Fort Mercer got off a call for help, but the Pendleton couldn’t. The second distressed ship was accidentally discovered by shore radar being used by the Chatham, Massachusetts, Lifeboat Station in its search for the Fort Mercer.

Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard C. Webber volunteered to take his 36-foot motor lifeboat CG-36500 on this nigh-impossible rescue mission. He and his three-man crew fought the heavy seas with 60-foot waves and hurricane-force winds, managed to pull up under the Pendleton’s broken-off stern and offloaded 33 stranded seamen.

Coast Guard vessels and aircraft rescued another 29 from the sinking Fort Mercer. Only five lives were lost among the tankers’ crews.

Webber and his men were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroism.

Chris Pine (you remember him from the new “Star Trek” blockbusters) takes on the role of Webber. Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother), Ben Foster, and Eric Bana are other recognizable faces. Holliday Grainger plays the concerned girlfriend.

Bernie Webber passed away in 2009, so Chris Pine didn’t get to meet the man he portrays. But he listened to several recorded interviews. “For him, this was his job,” Pine says. “This was what he was supposed to do and just like anyone clocking in for a job, his task was going out and saving people, and a real sense that there was no glory in it for him or any need for self-aggrandizement. It was just very simple.”

Pine adds, “This is almost like a studio film from the ‘50s, you know? There’s no cursing and people are good and right and love conquers all, it’s really very sweet. There’s a sweet earnestness to this film that people will either engage with or the cynicism of the world will win out.”

Let’s root for sweet earnestness. And doing the right thing.

Embrace of the Serpent (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Embrace of the Serpent” Observes Culture Clash
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Long before Amazon connoted an online book service, it was the name of the world’s largest rainforest. The Amazon jungle covers 2,100,000 square miles in South America, about 40% of the entire continent.

The Amazon River slithers through the jungle like a serpent, some 4,345 miles in length. There are about 100 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon. They are dwindling.

In 1909 a German scientist named Theodor Koch-Grünberg visited the Amazon in search of a sacred healing plant. There he met a young shaman known as Karamakate. He recorded this in his travel journal.

Three decades later an American biologist named Richard Evans Schultes penetrated the rainforest looking for this yakruna plant. He too recorded his meeting with Karamakate.

Columbian filmmaker Che Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” tells these parallel stories. Together they reveal the decimation of indigenous cultures by rubber barons and outside marauders. Shot mostly in black-and-white, the film is lyrical in a hallucinatory way, as if Guerra has slipped a little yakruna into the audience’s sodas.

“Embrace of the Serpent” -- currently playing at Tropic Cinema -- was one of this year’s nominees as Best Foreign Language Film. English subtitles supplement the Spanish intermixed with a number of Amazonian tribal languages.

This retelling is loosely based on the diaries.

In the first journey Theo (Jan Bijvoet) travels up the river by canoe, accompanied by a younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) and an interpreter (Yauenkü Miguee). Karamakate is hesitant to help Theo find the cure-all plant, but agrees on the condition that Theo help him locate any surviving members of his tribe, the Cohiuanos.

In the second expedition, an enfeebled Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) leads Evan (Brionne Davis) into the jungle in search of the yakruna. By now, the shaman is aware he is the last of his tribe. Angry and full of grief, he has lost his ability to commune with rocks and trees.

While new agers may applaud Karamakate’s admonition that possession are “just things” (he advises the explorers to throw their luggage overboard), and appreciate his disdain for money, that’s not the true message of “Embrace of the Serpent.” The film’s anger is focused on the white intruders who are destroying the tribal cultures and the indigenous people themselves.

In 2011, Columbia signed legal decree #4633, guaranteeing uncontacted peoples the rights to their voluntary isolation, and reparations for any violence against them by outsiders. Peru has five reserves meant to protect the lands and rights of isolated peoples. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) seeks to protect the territory of uncontacted people by posting notices warning invaders away.

But rainforest is still being cleared for cattle ranches and oil drilling and lumbering operations, forcing tribes to relocate. And in 2013 more than 20 uncontacted Taromenane Indians were killed by contacted/settled Indians. Also it’s not unusual for half of a tribe’s population to be wiped out by measles, influenza, and the common cold within a year of first contact.

Thus “Embrace of the Serpent” is not so much about the quest for a magical hallucinogenic plant, or about a shaman’s simple-life wisdom, as it is about the inevitable clash of cultures, with one slowly but surely eradicating the other.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Finest Hours (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Finest Hours

In the tradition of "The Perfect Storm" and "Titanic", Craig Gillespie's "The Finest Hours" depicts the most famous Coast Guard boat rescue in history. In 1952, oil tanker The SS Pendleton is caught in a severe winter storm.

Actor Chris Pine is crewman Bernie Webber dispatched to the tempest in the hopes of finding any sign of the Pendleton. Webber is not a born hero; he simply attempts what is right. Holliday Grainger plays Miriam, Bernie's idealistic fiancee and she is very fetching, making a kind of Lois Lane to Chris Pine's work-a-day Superman role.

Casey Affleck appears as Captain Sybert, head of the unlucky Pendleton. He is a quiet and reserved man but he knows his stuff. The film has echoes of "It's A Wonderful Life" in its idyllic depiction of a small Massachusetts town but most closely resembles James Cameron's "Titanic" with its plucky and adventurous romance pitted against a rabid and almost supernatural danger. The storm is an animalistic vortex in which a congenial shore community is almost swallowed whole. Bernie and Miriam are a Cape Cod version of Jack and Rose who try to love against the ravages of an impartial Nature.

Although the film is pure Hollywood in the tone of Spielberg, it is perfect in its creation of a time, when cars were considered boats and boats were cars, when America seemed, at least on the surface, romantic and right.

The film makes an engaging pop art fever dream of danger and euphoria, portraying a world where the act of doing good doesn't come from outside forces, but it is a systemic pulse within every being. Bernie and Meriam exist on a telepathic romantic plane; he on a boat and she in a Packard galleon, both are united in trying to aid others.

While some of the dialogue is macho and conventional along with a heap of melodrama, the allure of Meriam and Bernie pulls one into a whirl of hopeful positivity as predictable as it is. Chris Pine is perfect as a kind of nautical Captain Kirk, the underdog with charisma and screen presence. The 3D effects too are colorful and wellplaced, offering surprise without any overdone or distracting frills.

For those that like films of the underdog or Saturday Matinee category with a comforting nostalgia, "The Finest Hours" will undoubtably satisfy with tissues for emotional ballast.

Write Ian at

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Son of Saul (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Son of Saul

This year's Academy Award winner in the foriegn category "Son of Saul" by  László Nemes is a flawless and riveting story of the horror of The Holocaust. It is punchy, dynamic, sickening in detail and does not hold back.

A concentration camp worker in charge of body disposal, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) sees his son survive the gassing, only to be put to death by a Nazi doctor. Needless to say he is numb. He persuades the doctor to delay the autopsy. Saul is determined to find a rabbi to say the Kaddish, giving his boy the proper burial.

First and foremost is the stunning cinematography by Mátyás Erdély which delivers the concept of Saul as a man on the border of life, quickly darting around corners of darkness without a chance to breathe and taking nothing for granted. Saul is a full man but he is treated less so, little more than a fly. The wild, jittery and furtive camera bears this out and becomes a character in the film.

Action in the foreground is in sharp detail while a mere foot in the background, all is blurry and indistinct. The events before us are too horrible to envision beyond visceral jolts, and this makes the episodes all the more shocking.

Here and there, Saul is hassled at the most inopportune times. A few moments of satisfaction which at first seem achievable are often snatched away under a burdensome haze of dead flesh. Often he is misunderstood or ignored entirely. Seen in this way, the film has an unmistakable resemblance to the stories of Kafka. Saul is promised a future outcome when in actuality, he only travels further and further into darkness to witness a carnival of abhorrent misery.

The immaculate and shining officers are nonchalant crass and mad, fattened and stuffed by belittling and demeaning humor.

This is a minimal and uncomprising creation, completely without the stylistic overtures of the classic and potent   "Schindler's List."  It is far the most visceral and direct film of the period that I have seen. Though not for every visual palate, "Son of Saul" stands alone with an unflinching honesty, where others have pulled away into convention.

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mustang (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The Oscar nominated foreign film "Mustang" by Deniz Gamse Ergüven is a haunting spellbinder with push and pull. The story begins softly with all the warmth of a family tale but gradually shifts into a story of apprehension and mania, worthy of any crime thriller.

Five Turkish orphan girls are living with a family. It is the end of school. On a whim they decide to enjoy the afternoon by taking a respite on the beach and the five meet a group of boys. On hearsay from an old lady, the girls are beaten, one by one, by their grandmother for innapropriate conduct.  Bars are installed.  Our sense of shock increases as we realize that these young people are essentially in a prison, kept from social events and school.

Lale (Gunes Sensoy) is the most adventurous of the youngsters and yearns to escape to attend a soccer match. The girls flag a ride from a passing stranger Osman (Erol Afsin) . They manage for a brief idyll but the eyes of their uncle are always above them.

The tension of this film is first rate as is the cinematography by David Chizallat and Ersin Gok, portraying each of the girls either popping to and fro like balls in a roiling pinball machine, devoted to soccer's  bacchanalia, or marooned on a cement island right out of "Papillion."

In watching "Mustang" your senses will be tricked. The close family appearances subtly give way to the realization of servitude and forced marriages. Not since "Phoenix" has a film so gradually ensnared  us with humanity, a bit of black humor and absolute horror.

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