Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Jason Bourne

In "Jason Bourne" our favorite amnesiac agent is back. He is square-jawed, resolute and better than ever. As we might expect, Bourne (Matt Damon) is still trying to piece together his past, as he did in previous outings but thanks to the deft direction of Paul Greengrass (United 93), this is a satisfying and outright nerve-tingling episode of the popular franchise, where the action never stops.

Here CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is seething over the hack of their computers and immediately thinks Bourne is behind it. But Bourne is on the Grecian border, doing some soul searching of sorts as a hired prizefighter. Bourne's buddy, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is responsible for the hack and wants to help  Bourne through his crisis. They agree to meet at Syntagma Square but trouble awaits.

Everyone, literally everyone, is out for him.

While fans have seen this all before, (as Bourne brings down man after man with Dewey getting steamed), it is Damon's icy calm, balanced against his torment that makes this chapter watchable. The action is first rate with car chases that turn the crunch and speed of metal into a near fetishistic intensity. Greengrass's shaky camera, a trademark, becomes a teenager's tongue, hungrily capturing every rip and rape of steel upon steel. Adrenaline rules over all.

Bourne has a Euro-foe, a shadowy man generically known as Asset (played by the inimitable Vincent Cassel). This figure is as scary as they come, because he is faceless.

Under Greengrass's direction, one sees small details that loom large in the mind. Protestors attacking police who resemble metal insects. Pedestrians running for their lives as the cypher Asset moves through the chaos, unmoved. A few scenes later, Trump Casino is visible looking like a blind and defiant finger rising from the desert.

The gray humor of Bourne's cat-and-mouse game against Dewey with his iconic wrinkles turns into an almost macabre study of revenge and all of the the work it takes to hate and stay alive for years on end. Some might see these vein-straining  tumbles as a WikiLeak's version of something previously re-Bourne and they would be right, but some tense and moody direction by Paul Greengrass keeps the anxiety at the apex. As the melancholic agent who is more authentic on screen than Jack Reacher, "Jason Bourne" still manages to  please with his punches.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Music of Strangers (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Music is an almost primal universal language and an exchange of communication. The documentary "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" by Morgan Neville is a colorful and rolling testament to this universality. Right from the start of this film, a variety of sounds hit you in great undulations: here is a tapestry made from the pulses of China, Spain, America and The Middle East.

Around 1990, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma was at a kind of standstill. Making music was becoming rote. He questioned the quest for originality, his place as a musician and yearned to do something spontaneous.  On an appearance with interviewer Charlie Rose, he said he was going to seek out the  African Bushman. He went to the Kalahari Desert and learned of their trance ritual.

It was a step towards the combinations of possibility that Ma sought. Then in 1998, an idea hit him. Why not try a collaboration? This led to the creation of a group of sonic explorers known as The Silk Road Ensemble, who use their home instruments to make music and fuse with one another to create a fluid tapestry. Depicted in the film are Yo-Yo Ma, Wu Man with a pipa -- a lute instrument, Kayan Kalhor on his kamancheh -- a type of fiddle with a long neck, Cristina Patos on her Galician bagpipes, and Kinan Azmeh on the clarinet, to name just a few members.

Many musicians have endured years of tragedy and violent revolution resulting in displacement or the loss of family members due to distance or murder. Still each person makes music and becomes inseparable from the other.

The film does a fine job of illustrating the group's journey, its wishes and its fears. Every artist has a story. Patos has green hair like The Joker and wants new fans to see bagpipes with the colors of Rock & Roll. Kalhor lost his family and always felt he had to look over his shoulder, be it in America or Iran, and Azmeh worries about war-worn Syria. No less heartfelt is the plight of Yo-Yo Ma himself, who is in an existential crisis. Will his next composition be his last, and how lasting will his output be in the ears of others.
This documentary makes a vibrant kaleidoscope of imagery that matches an exotic soundtrack. Most striking is the interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Once a cathedral, a mosque and twice burned to the ground, it is now a museum where half-erased frescoes stare out in Catholic defiance. Similarly, the ensemble of musicians are defiant in the face of violence and xenophobia that looms in the distance like a dense but half formed cloud. The musicians are uncertain of any future projects, yet they continue their rhythmic and bracing cultural exchanges, adapting along the way.

Though this film begs for more actual music, the musical passages that are featured will have you jumping from your seat. "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" delivers a holistic meditation on the process of music making and the connection between crushing obstacles and  expression.

Write Ian at

Friday, July 29, 2016

Week of July 29 - August 4 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

A Pinch of Everything on Tropic Screens
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Spies, musicians, New Zealanders, fashionistas, and funny animals -- that’s the varied selection at Tropic Cinema this week.

Matt Damon returns as our favorite spy in the eponymous “Jason Bourne,” a James Bond for today’s harsh geopolitics. Bourne is still on a mission to uncover his forgotten past -- and Julia Stiles is on hand to help him. MovieWeb says, “‘Jason Bourne’ is a swift actioner that never lets up for a second. Whatever political statement it attempts to make is negligible under the action onslaught. Matt Damon hasn’t forgotten how to beat bad guys to a pulp.” And Filmink calls it “a continuation of a truly superior action franchise.”

“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” is as much an earful as an eyeful. This documentary follows the famous cellist along a musical trail from China to the Mediterranean in a celebration that features some 50 diverse musicmakers playing native instruments. Washington Post sees it as “an inspiring look at creative people from very different walks of life who nonetheless communicate beautifully with one another.” And Film International opines, “Music and cinema are both universal languages. I can't think of another film that blends the best of these audio and visual worlds into a most enjoyable adventure about mixed cultures and disparate lives that becomes the sum of much more than its parts.”
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” gives us a delinquent Māori boy and a quarrelsome old outdoorsman (Julian Dennison and San Neill) who go on the run through the woods of New Zealand while pursued by an army of police and an overzealous social worker (Rachel House). Minneapolis Star Tribune describes it as “the kind of adorable, coming-of-age dramedy that Pixar would proudly create if it made live-action movies and not cartoons.” And Newsday tags it, “a lopsided gem full of off-kilter humor, hard truths and real emotion.”

“Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” is based on the hilarious British TV show about two over-the-top wags (again played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley). This time they’re hiding out in the South of France after accidentally offing supermodel Kate Moss at a fashion show. tells us: “Based on the popular British television comedy series, this big screen version is an overblown barrage of jokes, sight gags and fashion.” And Patriot Ledger reminds us, “It’s what ‘Ab Fab’ fans have been waiting for ....

Still bringing a smile to the faces of all pet lovers, “The Secret Life of Pets” is an animated comedy about two pooches off on a misadventure while their owner is at work. Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet join a pack of celebs in voicing these cute city animals. calls it “an incredibly simple yet irresistible idea for a movie.” And the Atlantic sums it up, “There’s something quietly therapeutic about spending 90 minutes with some nutty, heroic furballs on a hero’s journey with very low stakes.”

Yes, it’s a good week at the Tropic.

Jason Bourne (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Jason Bourne” Comes Up With New Idea for Damon
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Jason Bourne is a fictional spy, a CIA assassin suffering from memory loss. Troubled by hints of his past, he is driven to figure out exactly who he is.

Created by author Robert Ludlum, Jason Bourne appeared in three of his novels and nine more by successor Eric Van Lustbader. That has led to five action films, counting the eponymous “Jason Bourne” which is now playing at Tropic Cinema.

Matt Damon (“The Martian,” “The Departed”) starred in all but the fourth film in the series. Jeremy Renner stepped in for that one, playing a fellow spy.

After the third film Damon had stated that he would not do another Bourne film without Paul Greengrass as director. Damon had worked with him on the second and third Bourne film, as well as ”Green Zone.”

Damon said, “I think in terms of another one, the story of this guy’s search for his identity is over, because he’s got all the answers, so there’s no way we can trot out the same character, and so much of what makes him interesting is that internal struggle that was happening for him, am I a good guy, am I a bad guy, what is the secret behind my identity, what am I blocking out, why am I remembering these disturbing images? So all of that internal propulsive mechanism that drives the character is not there, so if there was to be another one then it would have to be a complete reconfiguration, you know, where do you go from there? For me I kind of feel like the story that we set out to tell is has now been told.”

But he hedged his bets. “I love the character, and if Paul Greengrass calls me in ten years and says, ‘Now we can do it, because it’s been ten years and I have a way to bring him back,’ then there’s a world in which I can go, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ We could get the band back together if there was a great idea behind it.”

You guessed it, Greengrass returned to direct “Jason Bourne.” Apparently, he and screenwriter Christopher Rouse came up with that great new idea.

In addition to Matt Damon, Julia Styles is returning to play Nicky Parsons, the character she did in the first three films. Alicia Vikander signed on as a CIA agent, with Tommy Lee Jones joining the team as the CIA Director. Vincent Cassel took the role of an assassin who is stalking Bourne.

In this one, Bourne resurfaces just as a new program has been created to hunt him down. But there are still things to learn about his past.

Jason Bourne: “I know who I am. I remember everything.”

Nicky: “Remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything.”

There you go, the new idea is the same as the old idea.

But we love seeing Damon bash heads with baddies as his signature spy, Jason Bourne.

The Music of Strangers (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Music of Strangers” Melds Diverse Musicians
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that connected China with the Mediterranean Sea. That’s why cellist Yo-Yo Ma chose that name for The Silk Road Project, a loose collective of over 50 musicians, composers, and storytellers from Eurasian cultures.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville has stitched together a feature-length documentary titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” This film is now showing at Tropic Cinema.

Neville knows music. Among his previous docs and biopics are “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” “Johnny Cash’s America,” “American Revolutions: The Highwaymen,” “Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy’s Tale,” “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll,” and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom” (a tuneful doc about backup singers). His American Masters TV offerings included “Troubadours: Carol King/James Taylor & the Rise of the Singer/Songwriter,” “Hank Williams: Honky-Tonk Blues,” and “Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied.”

Pop, rock, country, blues -- but “The Music of Strangers” conjures up a different style of music.

The Chinese cellist has been playing classical music since he was four. Now at 60, his distinguished career has produced over 90 albums, 18 of them winning Grammies.

However, along the way he has recorded Baroque pieces, bluegrass ditties, tangos, traditional Chinese music, a collaboration with jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Beatle tunes, even Hollywood soundtracks. Critics describe his repertoire as “omnivorous.”

The idea behind the Silk Road Project was to bring together diverse musicians from countries historically linked to the Silk Road. The Ensemble performed at locales along the spice route, countries that include Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, India, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.

“I’m always trying to figure out, at some level, who I am and how I fit in the world,” Yo-Yo Ma says in the film.

Ma plays a cello built in 1733 by Domenico Montagnana, an instrument valued at $2.5 million. He affectionately calls it “petunia.”

But the musicians in this documentary highlight a variety of instruments ranging from a Chinese short-necked plucked lute to an Armenian double reed woodwind, a Japanese bamboo flute to a Mongolian horse head fiddle.

Featured are such musicians as Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh player from Iran; Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria; Cristina Pato, a Spanish bagpiper; and Wu Man, a Chinese pipa player.

This melding of musicians and instruments has been called “The Manhattan Project of Music.” It’s a movie that’s beautiful to hear.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) helms "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," a lively adventure about two people on the run in the woods of New Zealand.

A supposedly troubled kid Ricky (Julian  Dennison) is picked up by the cops and brought to a foster family. Bella (Rima Te Waita) as the head of the house does as well as she can, but the boy lusts for escape. After Bella dies suddenly, Ricky strikes a friendship with her husband Hec (Sam Neill) and they hit the trail.

The main spirit of the film is given by young Dennison whose wisecracks are more potent than a 1980's comedy and will have you in stitches. He is glib, brazen and self deprecating. Ricky sees himself as a gangster against the system, yet he is far from it, having the heart of a poet: he writes haiku.

This is essentially a picaresque road picture. Hec and Ricky meet lots of vivid characters on their trip. There are suspicious vigilantes. There is Psycho Sam    (Rhys Darby) a conspiracy obsessed person who disguises himself as a tree and Paula, (Rachel House) a self important foster care agent and frustrated police officer.

Ricky has the good fortune as well as the hinderance to think outside the box, to see survival as a concept, a fun game. Yet he is also struck with seriousness, mature for his age that individuality is being squashed by the pressure to conform.

The film is vivid and charming which evolves  into nothing less than a living comic book. Waititi's New Zealand is a place where the animals share equal weight with humans and even the trees appear to have a textured skin. Blood is spilled too, both in sternness and spoofing and it has pagan power.

This story dares to highlight a friendship between a kid and a curmudgeon without hyperbole or nonsense with a plucky, irreverent poignance, both savage and sweet. There is also something existential in young Ricky. Though well used to the digital age, he can either take TV and the internet or leave it. Ricky is content to let the babbling speech of his crush, Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) drift over him.

He remains disinterested.

While "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" makes fun of everything from "Mad Max", "Rambo" "Thelma & Louise" and "Fargo" with a hint of Roald Dahl, it is unique unto itself.

The magic of this film is that we see Ricky mature in front of our eyes from a stubborn boy into a worldly person and a creator of his own existence.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Absolutely Fabulous (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

"Absolutely Fabulous" the cultish and very funny BBC series that originally ran from 1992 to 1996 with various specials in the millenium, now has a film with the same name subtitled as "The Movie".

The series detailed the quirky shenanigans of Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) as they carry on in their selfish search for recreational drugs, booze and money, usually in that order. The series worked because it lampooned social mores and proved daring, outrageous and fresh for its time in an era of staid British TV. One also had a real feeling for its motley characters with many guest stars skewering the realm of fashion and A-List parties.

In this film adaptation in the year 2016, it is more of the same as Patsy and Edina chase after fashion stories to make money so as to support their boozy habit. Edina is once again sloshing about while trying to get an advance on her book, but what was once fresh now feels rote with dialogue and reaction-shots on cue. Colorfully eccentric people fill the screen as the famous tipsy twosome chatter about and roll their eyes. The speech of every character is mumbling and rapid with hardly a quiet moment to be had. Edina's daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha) is here too, as is the dippy assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks). Saffron has an oddly passive daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness).

Edina has no money for champagne or vodka and schemes to get in good with Kate Moss. During a party, Edina knocks Moss into the Thames. What follows is a noisy goose chase from one jibber-jabbering party to the next. Characters zip to and fro like butterflies on methamphetamine interspersed with dance music. There are a few good lines and observations uttered by Joanna Lumley about aging and travel, but for the most part it is all about sloshing, wobbling, spilling and chattering with not much of it zany or fun because it feels routine. There are wonderful shots of Cannes but that's about it, aside from the fact that Patsy wears a mustache.

This outing is all pratfalls and motion having no space for the characters or the smart and cutting dialogue that made the original show so watchable. The film is too busy, replacing speech with attentively challenged sight gags galore as Edina and Patsy gargle with lobster and grapes.

There is one scene in an octagenarian dance party that may give a chuckle, but for the most part the yucks are all about the unfunny watery grave of Kate Moss.

Unless one is a die hard fan, "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie", is a vapid vapor commercially concocted from what was once a  cocktail of stronger stuff.

Write Ian at

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Week of July 22 - 28 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Two New Films Mix It Up With Five Holdovers at Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Each week new films come to Tropic, old films leave, some linger behind. This time around a British comedy and a New Zealand dramedy join a literary biopic, a wacko documentary, a surreal story about a dead guy, a magic show, and an animated comedy about dogs and cats.

Quite a mix.

The popular British TV show “Absolutely Fabulous” has come to the big screen. This time around those Ab Fab gals Edna Moonsoon and Patsy Stone (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) go on the lam to the South of France thinking they’ve killed Kate Moss.  Tribune News Service calls it “a big, bright and viciously bold celebration of funny, flawed women, and the friendship that sustains them.” While Frisno Bee observes, “It all comes down to how beautifully Lumley and Saunders bring their characters to life. They have had so many years to play the roles that they come across as more of a second skin than an acting job.”

In “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi gives us a cross-generational buddy film in which a chubby juvie and a grumpy outdoorsman (newcomer Julian Dennison and old pro Sam Neil) go on the run, chased by police and a misguided social worker  (Rachel House). Detroit News describes it as “a hoot with heart.” And Newsday finds it to be “a lopsided gem full of off-kilter humor, hard truths and real emotion.”

With “Genius,” writer Thomas Wolf spars with his editor Maxwell Perkins. Jude Law and Colin Firth bring the vociferous Wolf and taciturn Perkins to life. Boston Globe calls it “an intriguing study of the personalities and torturous process behind some of the early 20th Century’s great writing. And Philadelphia Inquirer sees it as, “well-written, gorgeously shot, and expertly edited.”

“Tickled” is a documentary that explores the absurd subject of “competitive endurance tickling.” MLive notes, “The old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction rarely feels so apt.” And PopMatters calls it “... an example of investigative journalism at its finest.”

Even more off the wall is “Swiss Army Man,” with Daniel Radcliffe as a dead body and Paul Dano as a castaway who seems to bring him to life. Spirituality and Practice offers this Cliffs Notes summary: “A lonely island recluse is given a new lease on life in this macabre buddy movie.” And Student Edge chuckles, “They say there are only six kinds of stories. Well, they finally found a seventh.”

Like its predecessor, “Now You See Me 2” is a heist film about a quartet of stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and replacement Lizzy Caplan) plus a puzzling FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo). Can they outwit a dangerous tech wizard (Daniel Radcliffe again). RTÉ says, “If you saw ‘Now You See Me’ and enjoyed it, take it from me: you’re going to love this sequel, which is pretty much more of the same and then some.” Also Digital Spy tells us it “improves significantly on the first movie, a more purely entertaining ride thanks to a couple of character shake-ups and tighter group chemistry.”

“The Secret Life of Pets” is the animated comedy that reveals what your doggie does while you’re away at work. Here two pooches (voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet) go off leash and face many misadventures … yet get home before their owner. Hindustan Times advises, “It is a wonderful answer to every pet owner’s paranoia and I recommend that you watch it, with your pets if you can. But maybe they watched it already while you were at work today.” And ABC News Radio finds it to be “solid family fun with plenty of cute and intelligent jokes, as well as a few scary moments that aren’t too scary.”

Dogs, cats, dead bodies, magicians, fashionistas -- the mixology is, well, absolutely fabulous.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Is New Zealand Gem
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Taika Waititi is a half-Maori Te-Whanau-a-Apanui from New Zealand. So who’d expect that he will be directing an upcoming Marvel movie, “Thor: Ragnaroc.” He also has a deal with Disney.

Waititi has been an actor, comedian, artist, photographer, and writer. And he’s becoming better known as a filmmaker.

He began making comical short films for New Zealand’s annual 48-hour film contest. In 2005 his short film “Two Cars, One Night” earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Subsequent films include “Eagle vs Shark” (2007) and “Boy” (2012). Last year his mockumentary about vampires (“What We Do in the Shadows”) was a hit. And now he gives us “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” an adventure dramedy starring Sam Neil.

 “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

In this cross-generation coming-of-age on-the-run buddy film we meet a troubled 12-year-old Maori boy, Ricky Baker (played by newcomer Julian Dennison). Deemed to be a “bad egg,” his juvie record includes “disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti.”

Ricky’s nemesis is an overzealous social worker named Paula (Rachel House). She sends him off to live with foster parents, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Neill). “There is no one else who wants you,” the social worker tells him.

But the chubby outsider comes to like it there under the care of Aunt Bella. Even if her curmudgeonly husband ignores him. When Bella passes away, Ricky realizes he’s at risk of being placed in juvenile detention. So he runs away into the wood, with Uncle Hec and his dog in pursuit.

Upon finding the pair missing, the social worker raises an alarm that Hec might have kidnapped the boy. With typical overreaction, she sends scores of police looking for the missing twosome, erupting into a nationwide manhunt with Paula leading the charge, spouting inane catchphrases such as “No child left behind.” Ricky and Uncle Hec haven’t always gotten along, but as fugitives, they must learn to bridge their differences in order to survive in the New Zealand bush. The city kid depending on the outdoorsman, then switching roles when Hec fractures his ankle on a root.

Sure it’s sappy and predictable, but Julian Dennison’s deadpan delivery is sure to make you break out a smile when he deals with danger or people or pop culture (e.g. “Lord of the Rings,” Tupac, and “The Terminator”).

Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park,” “Dead Calm”) is requisitely cantankerous, more like the boy than not, an outsider who doesn’t fit in with other people.

However, it is the chemistry between Dennison and Neill that bonds the film into a hold-together story.

The movie is based on the book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump. But the cinematic wizardry (camera swirling to mark the passage of time), the spectacular New Zealand scenery (the lush green landscape, pristine lakes, snowy woods), the movie’s score (by the team of Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde), the witty repartee (“Faulkner is cauc-asian -- well, they got that wrong because you’re obviously white…”) marks “Hunt for the Wildpeople” as Waititi’s success.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

BBC Fans Will Find “Absolutely Fabulous” Absolutely Fabulous
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Fans of “Ab Fab” rejoice. The much beloved ‘90s British telly series is coming to the big screen.

For those who don’t watch BBC, I’m referring to “Absolutely Fabulous,” a sitcom about Edna Moonsoon, a heavy-drinking PR agent, and her gal pal Patsy Stone, a magazine editor whose blowsy antics are equally self-destructive. The two middle-aged fashionistas are always pursuing bizarre fads designed to keep them young and “with it” in an ageist culture.

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley star as this pair of loonies. It’s based on a comedy sketch created by Saunders and Dawn French, two comedians who met at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and discovered they shared a best friend. Their French & Saunders act morphed into the TV show.

“Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” is currently making people laugh at Tropic Cinema. All Anglophiles will want to catch it.

In the movie version, Edna’s PR firm is about to go under, but when Patsy informs her that Kate Moss is looking for a new publicist, the gals go racing off to pitch the supermodel at a fashion show. Unfortunately in her haste, Edna knocks Moss over a balcony into the Thames. She is presumed to have drowned.

If that weren’t bad enough, while searching the river for the body, they supposedly kill Bubble, Edna’s personal assistant, in the process. So they flee to Cannes, taking along Eddy’s granddaughter Lola, so they can use her credit card.

Deciding they could get used to living a high life of glitz and glamour on the French Riviera, Patsy disguises herself as a man and marries the Richest Woman in the World. Next thing you know, the police are chasing them through the streets, the duo attempting to escape in a small, three-wheeled, fish-market van.

All turns out well, of course, but you might be able to laugh a little more freely if the recent tragedy of that truck rampaging through crowds along Nice’s promenade didn’t sour the comedy of a street chase in the South of France.

Nevertheless, take heart in the continuing misadventures of those fabulous Ab Fab gals. The film is populated with plenty of guest stars, ranging from Jon Hamm and Joan Collins to Dame Edna and Jerry Hall to Jean Paul Gautier and Stella McCartney. And the aforementioned Kate Moss, who manages to survive the contretemps. Plus more than 90 drag queens saucily parade through the movie.

Jennifer Saunders says she wrote the script on a £100,000 bet with her old comedy partner Dawn French. She says she couldn’t afford to lose that much money on a bet. This was before Brexit, when £100,000 was £100,000.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Swiss Army Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Swiss Army Man

The bold and unapologetic "Swiss Army Man" by the duo directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schweinert may not be to all tastes, but it is to be applauded for being gleefully outside the norm and never holding back.

The chameleon actor Paul Dano once again pushes himself into fearless territory as Hank, an unkempt loner, pre-occupied with masturbation and unrequited love who happens to be lost on a desert island.

One fateful day, Hank decides to end it. With a rope around his neck, he sees a young man (Daniel Radcliffe) ashen and  unresponsive in the sand. This cadaverous man known as Manny becomes Hank's only friend.

What commences as a series of gags regarding farts, gasses and limp extremities, evolves into a film that is daring and thoughtful all at once. Daring as subversive kind of buddy comedy and thoughtful as a meditiation on childhood, memory and what it means to have a friend.

Dano, a great actor who is a master of the outsider, does terrifically as a slothful Robinson Crusoe for the 21st century. Radcliffe, no less masterfully, imbues his Everyman role with the existential importance of a  Frankenstein creation, a person who constantly questions his existence---one part Pinocchio and Edward Scissorhands.

The visual speed of the film alone will keep you guessing: festive, joyful, dark, and gloomy, the film carries all of these tones. It is a "Day of the Dead" banquet for the eyes scrambled in the irreverance of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" with colors to match. The cinematography by Larkin Seiple bears a reverence for early MTV. One can see "Swiss Army Man" as a Peter Gabriel video on methamphetamines.

While some will no doubt object to projectile farting and the spilling of bodily fluids as a potable water source, one cannot say that the film is not free in spirit and entertaining. Above everything is the crucial ingredient: you care for these two eccentric (to say the least) characters who are very real people.

The film echoes many, "Frankenstein," "Harold and Maude," and even "Altered States" in its hallucinatory combinations, where bones, skulls and nudity become the hallmarks of a paganistic party. Here cheese puffs are revered as acid-orange cocaine.

"Swiss Army Man" may even offend a few with its horrid hijinks of flat-lining flatulence and emaciated erections. Others might be quick to call it a cult film. All have a point. But the film does more. While it begins  going for Monty Python laughs, "Swiss Army Man" teases us, blending into a hyperkinetic tale of a friendship and what it might feel like to truly 'let go'.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tickled (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


As ridiculous as it might seem tickle torture as it is known, has been reported for a long time in history.  According to online research, the torture was used in ancient Rome, where a licking goat would go at a person lightly, then to the point of pain. The Nazis tickled prisoners to the point of severe anxiety during WWII, inducing visceral panic, along with great sobbing and sweating while boxed in shackles.

Unbeknownst to me before writing, tickling is a source of BDSM domination  that has the potential to cause retching, wheezing, vomiting and involuntary urination. All the more insidious, because (as most people might think, including myself) it appears on the surface, a harmless tease.  "Tickled" is the HBO-produced documentary that examines the greasly side of such a fetish and it will quite literally have you looking over your shoulder with jolts of fear.

One day, the film's director David Farrier, a pop culture gay journalist from New Zealand and co-director Dylan Reeve are intrigued by an online solicitation for the sport of competitive endurance tickling. Indeed there is such a sport. Farrier and Reeve are entertained in the manner of watching a John Waters film, and David sends an email to the producers in the hopes of getting more information.

The two are understandably shocked when they receive a terse anti-gay email in reply from Jane O'Brien Media. When an aghast Farrier emails once more, he gets several offensive emails. Farrier's curiousity is piqued. Just who or what is Jane O'Brien Media and why did Farrier deserve such hate mail? The film details Farrier's quest which oscilates between eccentricity, curiousity and very real horror.

What at first seems something that might be used for absurdist fun, is quite far from it. There are numerous video clips of tickling that at first might be taken from a party or a bizarre YouTube clip. When one catches a glimpse of chains and wooden stocks, something sinister is aflutter. These people are in actuality, suffering in pain. And, we as the audience, experience the same disbelief in what we see along with the filmmakers.

Director David Farrier is dauntless in getting at the truth of this sordid and eerie web of people in a film that takes on the tone of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's earlier film "Catfish" about online dating deception.

Not since the early visions of David Cronenberg has there ever been something so horribly dream-like, off-putting and horrendous. The people portrayed here make the characters of  David Lynch into a Douglas Sirk romance. "Tickled" has the anxious effect that the film "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" had for singles in the 1970s.

Who is Jane O'Brien? And just what is "competitive endurance tickling" when seen online? The answers at best will astonish you. At worst, you will lose sleep and may just cancel any small parties, family-orientated or otherwise.

Write Ian at

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Week of July 15 to July 21 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Offers Up Eight Diverse Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Once again Tropic Cinema squeezes eight films onto its four screens, an amazing feat of prestidigitation that delivers twice the movies we might otherwise expect. And what variety -- animated comedy to heist film, surreal slapstick to historical drama, intellectual fare to spy story, sci-fi adventure to documentary fun!
“The Secret Life of Pets” is a big winner with audiences -- no doubt dog owners. This delightful animated comedy follows a pair of pooches (voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet) who get lost in New York while their owner is away at work. Mishaps follow. But all ends well for our doggies. The Atlantic says, “There’s something quietly therapeutic about spending 90 minutes with some nutty, heroic furballs on a hero's journey with very low stakes.” And Newark Star-Ledger tells us, “The big chase scenes and action-movie adventures are fine. But what delights here are the small details of what happens once we close the door -- the standard poodle who throws a heavy-metal party, or the dachshund who gets massages.”
“Now You See Me 2” is the sequel to that same-name heist tale, the one where a group of magicians rob a Paris bank from a stage in Vegas. This time around the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Lizzy Caplan with an assist from Mark Ruffalo)  take on a mad techie genius (Daniel Radcliffe) in a science vs. slight-of-hand thriller. Globe and Mail says it’s “just as cheerfully outlandish as the caper flick’s precursor, with the acceptance of fancy tricks and misdirection twists dependent on an audience’s love of a good hoodwink.” And The Shiznit concurs that “it’s corny and it’s predictable but there’s an underlying charm that almost blindsides you, and its embrace of its ridiculousness is a definite improvement on its predecessor.” And Reel Film Reviews calls it “...a singularly conceived and executed piece of work.”
“Swiss Army Man” also stars Daniel Radcliffe, here playing a dead guy who washes up on the beach. Paul Dano is the half-crazed castaway who finds the body that seems to come to life in this surreal romp. As NUVO Newsweekly puts it, “You can laugh, wince, and squirm at ‘Swiss Army Man.’ You can harvest the small truths, enjoy the lyrical moments... And when somebody asks you if you’ve seen any good movies lately, boy, will you have an interesting answer.”
Like a page from history, “Free State of Jones” features Matthew McConaughey as a Confederate deserter who fought to free the slaves in Jones County, Mississippi. Toronto Star sums up the 2 1/2-hour movie with the simple words, “A Civil War rebellion becomes an enervating movie by director Gary Ross.”  Sacramento News & Review adds, “It’s a true story, with political and racial ramifications well into the 20th Century, and McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw are ideally cast.”
Another biopic, “Genius” recounts the turbulent relationship between writer Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins, the famed Scribner’s editor who also shepherded the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Boston Globe calls it “An intriguing study of the personalities and torturous process behind some of the early 20th Century’s great writing.” And expounds, “Using his trademark ability to blend dour disdain with puppy-eyed sympathy, Colin Firth forms an evenly weighted narrative footing as Perkins, while Jude Law indulges every thespian fiber in his body to push out pain and inspiration as Wolfe.”
“Our Kind of Traitor” is a spy story based on the John Le Carré novel about a British couple caught between the Russian Mafia and the duplicitous MI6. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris are cast as the pair who try to help a Russian money launderer defect, only to wind up with bad people shooting at them as they hide out in the Swiss Alps. Movie Notion describes it as a “sharply played and nicely realized Carré adaptation.” And finds it to be “a handsome and often absorbing picture.”
“Independence Day: Resurgence” is also a sequel, picking up the sci-fi story twenty years later when aliens have returned to destroy the Earth. Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Judd Hirsch reprise their original roles, but Will Smith sat this one out. Reforma says, “It delivers what it promises: no plot, but great special effects and destruction.” And Digital Spy adds, “It’s silly, it's ridiculous, it’s over the top. And it’s a perfect piece of '90s nostalgia.”
And let’s not overlook the new documentary titled “Tickled,” journalist/ filmmaker David Farrier’s foray into a feather tickling competition. You can’t help but laugh. MLive proclaims, “The old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction rarely feels so apt.” Minneapolis Star Tribune adds, “Not quite answering every question it asks, ‘Tickled’ still opens a dangerous ‘can of worms’ of stranger-than-fiction journalism.” And Detroit News sums it up: “The film is an investigative thriller that unravels the deep web of lies, threats and deceit that festers in the dark corners of the Internet, and shows how online behavior can have damaging, real-world implications.”
There you have ‘em -- eight films on four screens. A magician’s act in itself.

Now You See Me 2 (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Now You See Me 2”
Pulls Slight-of-Hand

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

In the third grade I performed magic tricks for my class. The kids were charged a nickel a head, a fundraiser for the school picnic.
As a young amateur, I could perform a few neat tricks: the Floating Pencil, the Vanishing Coin, the Levitating Ball, the Sliced Rope, the Endless Handkerchiefs, the Moving Ball Under the Cup, and various card tricks. But the Chinese Linking Rings trick was my big finale. It puzzled everybody.
That’s why I love movies about magicians -- “Houdini,” “The Prestige,” “The Illusionist.”
Needless to say, I liked the 2013 movie “Now You See Me,” a heist adventure in which four magicians make all the money disappear in a Paris bank vault. Very cool.
So you can be sure I’m ready for a second act. That is to say, a sequel called “Now You See Me 2.”  It’s now pulling rabbits out of the hat at Tropic Cinema.
Both films star Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco, (with a pregnant Isla Fisher replaced in the sequel by Lizzy Caplan) as the Four Horsemen, a now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t stage act. One’s an arrogant illusionist, the second a bitter mentalist, the third a nervous slight-of-hand expert, the fourth a beautiful escape artist.
Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as an FBI agent with a few tricks of his own. Morgan Freeman returns as a retired master magician. And Michael Caine is back as the moneybags antagonist.
Add to the mix Daniel Radcliffe as a rich techie who matches wits with the Four Horsemen.
This “matching wits” pretty much sums up the plot, another big heist adventure cloaked in lots of magic tricks. And who’s-on-which-side trickery.
Will the Four Horsemen’s magic win out over technology? Well, what do you think? There’s a “Now You See Me 3” is in the works.
This new franchise is guaranteed to make money disappear from your pocketbook.

Swiss Army Man (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Swiss Army Man”
Jackknives Reality

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

So it’s come to this: Following eight Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe gives us a remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Well, not quite.
The main similarity is that throughout the movie “Swiss Army Man” – now showing at Tropic Cinema – Radcliff plays a dead character.
It starts off with Hank (Paul Dano) trying to commit suicide because he’s despondent over being stranded on a desert island. But just then a corpse washes up on the beach (yep, it’s Radcliffe). Somewhat like Robinson Crusoe with his man Friday, or Tom Hanks with his volleyball Wilson, our boy Hank adopts the corpse as his companion and dubs him Manny.
After that, we’re treated to a surreal story in which Manny seems sometimes alive, sometimes not. A flatulent corpse, Hank eventually escapes the island on Manny’s back, like riding a human jet ski, powered by the corpse’s constant farting.
And there’s more to come.
However, by the end of “Swiss Army Man” you won’t be exactly sure what you’ve witnessed. Reality and fantasy blend in a dream-like pastiche. Think of it as an art house “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Going from a boy wizard to playing a flatulent corpse is an interesting career move. But having become wealthy from all those “Harry Potter” blockbusters, Daniel Radcliffe can afford to take any darn role he chooses especially those that go far to undo any magical typecasting.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Secret Life of Pets

Who among us has not thought that our beloved pets have a separate life when we leave the house? Well, "The Secret Life of Pets" directed by the animation maestro Chris Menaud addresses this issue for all those who wonder. Although it features the same irreverence and glib humor that made "The Despicable Me" series famous, this film has a bouyancy and freshness that the earlier "Minions" did not quite achieve. The film is greatly helped by the cast, many of whom are former members of "Saturday Night Live."

The freewheeling jokes that run as fast as a mouse on methamphetamine will gleefully stop your rationale in its tracks. Max (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell terrier, gets lost along with the adopted Newfoundland Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max's new stepbrother. The two get attacked by a cabal of feral city cats and taken to the sewers to meet the adorable but militant miniature bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), who is obsessed with a revolution against human owners. This bunny, a kind of hybrid between Disney and comedian Chris Rock, steals the show.

The film is at its best when it highlights the personalities of these eccentric pets rather than their hyperkinetic hijinks of good versus evil. There are a few battles of survival, fights, and confrontations with animal control that become repetitive and glaze the eyes. Yet Pops (Dana Carvey), an elderly paralyzed basset hound on two wheels is a laugh riot as is the matter of fact Louis C.K., true to form and as unsentimental as ever.

As the narrative accelerates there is a missed opportunity to make a larger statement on animal cruelty, highllighted by Kevin Hart, ( a kind of Pet Lives Matter, with the motto "Liberate Forever, Domesticate Never"), which could have underscored the spiritual and almost interpersonal relationship with our furry family members. While this subplot is largely dropped in favor of Max and Duke reaching home with fuzzy sight gags of fat cats and kvetching canines, "Pets" remains a vivid and beastly brouhaha that is sure to charm both cat people and dog lovers alike.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Me Before You (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Me Before You

 The film "Me Before You," adapted from the novel by JoJo Moyes and helmed by theater director Thea Sharrock, is compelling in  spite of Hollywood kitsch, due to the authenticity of Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Claflin.

Here we are in the English countryside hued with all the sugary tints of Roger Michell's "Notting Hill." The quirky Louisa (Clarke) inexplicably loses her job at a bakery and tea shop. Deflated, she mopes about, mainly spending time with her boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) a self important fitness nerd.

Then at the unemployment office she finds an opening. An entrepreneur, now a quadraplegic, needs an aide. Louisa has no home health experience but that doesn't matter, especially in most mainstream cinema. The job pays well.

On the first day, Louisa meets the dashing but sarcastic Will  Traynor (Claflin), a banking whiz and adventurer. After going into a shocking impression of actor Daniel Day-Lewis as the poet Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy, things go from tense to bad with Will refusing to talk to Louisa beyond monosyllables.

Good God, what on earth will happen next?

While the romantic cues are all too easy to predict, Emilia Clarke is amusing and very believable as the colorfully garbed Louisa who tries to get a spark out of the chisel faced Will. Claflin is vibrant too, as the lost and self centered Will, who feels shit upon by fate.

The cinematography by Remi Adefarison bears an odd resemblance and tone to "Fifty Shades of Grey" in its long lingering shots of bedsheets and stark corridors. In both films there are icy businessmen who yeild control. Will, like Christian Grey, is stern and cold. 

Louisa tries her best to revive Will's cutting and cynical front. There is one blaze of a red dress that melts his isolation from the realm of adrenaline and adventure. Though the cliches are well in force, Claflin and Clarke have a rapport that is fun to watch. At a party scene when Will gets the last word against the clueless fitness nerd Patrick, it is a snarkily entertaining just desserts. Satisfying too, is the dance at a reception, with Louisa in Will's lap as she makes bawdy jokes at his ex's expense. Shmaltzy as it is, it works because of the chemistry. Will and Louisa always get the last word and while this is false in life, it is comfortably true in the cinema.

The film is revelant merely through its subject, though it begs for more kinetic intimacy, if not sex. Even with its one glaring sap moment, the film can be forgiven in favor of the letter scene with its tints of "Fifty Shades" dominance and control. Will, the man, is in command as he orders Louisa to Paris to buy his favorite perfume. 

Will Traynor remains highly torqued and selfishly exerts authority which makes "Me Before You" in its bright tones of a hopeful circus, quietly subversive.

Write Ian at

Friday, July 8, 2016

Week Of July 8 - 14 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Fun, Serious, and Patriotic -- a Good Mix at the Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

What do the film critics have to say about the movies playing this week at the Tropic Cinema? Lots! Here’s a summary:

Let’s start off with something fun. “The Secret Life of Pets” shares the adventures of two doggies when their owner is away from home. As you’d expect, they get into mischief. Comedians Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet voice the two top dogs in this delightful animated movie. New York Daily News describes it as “a hilarious account of the relationship we have with our animals, and a gentle reminder to treat them with love and respect.” And Flick Filosopher sums it up as “a cleverly constructed and amusingly rendered fantasy adventure that sings with a sweet, wistful devotion to home, family, and friendship.”

Also new to local screens is “Me Before You,” the controversial romance between a pretty caretaker (Emilia Clarke) and the rich and handsome paraplegic (Sam Claflin) in her care. En Film calls it, “A fairy-tale about the beauty of life and love,” while Konexion finds it to be “a film that will make you laugh and cry with great chemistry between the protagonists, but the ending brings the whole film down a little bit.” No, all love stories do not have a happy ending.

“Free State of Jones” tells the true story of a Confederate deserter who led a band of renegades against the South, declaring Jones, Mississippi, to be a slave-free state. Matthew McConaughey goes grim and fierce as the abolitionist captain of Knight Company. Toronto Star notes, “A Civil War rebellion becomes an enervating movie by director Gary Ross.” And ReviewExpress concludes, “McConaughey Brings History to Life.”

Nobody does spy stories better than John le Carré, and “Our Kind of Traitor” -- based one of his books -- delivers on that promise. British do-gooders Perry and Gail (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) are caught in a tug of war between MI6 and the Russian Mafia when they try to help a charming-but-chilling money-launderer (Stellan Skarsgård) defect to the West.  San Diego Reader observes, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly.” Nerdist adds, “If you’re in the mood for a smart, mellow, handsomely shot, and quietly engaging espionage story, ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ should easily fit the bill…”

And for those of us who didn’t get enough fireworks on the Fourth of July, we have “Independence Day,” the sci-fi sequel in which Earth fights back against alien invaders in this loose metaphor for our 1776 struggle for freedom from oppression. Scotsman observes, “With Will Smith having allowed his character to be killed off, it falls to Jeff Goldblum’s alien defense expert and Bill Pullman’s ex-president to provide continuity with the first outing. Meanwhile, Liam Hemsworth and Jesse T Usher – playing the son of Smith’s character – bland things up as the new young guns ready to fight the alien threat on the front line.” The Telegraph says “it shows "no signs of intelligent life...” but Sensacine sees it as “a fun and healthy self parody.”

Fun, serious, and patriotic -- these echoes of the real world tells we have much to celebrate at the movies.

The Secret Life of Pets (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Secret Life of Pets” Makes Public Why We Love Doggies
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I’ve got a rescue dog and half a cat (don’t ask), so how could I not love “The Secret Life of Pets.” Any pet owner will.

In this new 3D animated comedy, you will discover what goes on when you leave your dog or cat at home while going off to work or out to dinner. In a word: chaos.

Yet, there your pooch sits, wagging his or her tail, happy to see you when you return, tongue hanging out as if nothing whatsoever has gone on during your absence.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is delighting audiences at Tropic Cinema.

Here, a terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) finds his life turned inside out when his beloved owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home another dog, a big loutish pooch named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Duke gets Max into trouble when out with a dog walker, the pair facing off with a tribe of street cats (Steve Coogan et al.), gets picked up by Animal Control, is rescued by a white rabbit named Snowball (played by black comedian Kevin Hart), and then find themselves in the midst of human-hating critters who live in the Manhattan sewers, a ferocious pack known as “The Flushed Pets.” Meanwhile, Max’s neighborhood dog friends (Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Tara Strong) and a hawk (Albert Brooks) have set out to find him.

Sure, everything turns out swell, with everything back to normal by the time Katie gets home.

The story is diverting enough, but what will make you love the movie is its depiction of the dogs’ foibles, actions, funny movements, attitudes … well, dog-ness ... that any pet owner will recognize, a smile-worthy reminder of some beloved fur persons you have known.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movie

“Our Kind of Traitor,” John le Carré’s Modern Spy Story
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in the Cold War Years of the ‘60s, David Cornwell was a British spy. He worked for MI6 under the cover of being a diplomat to run agents and lure defectors in Germany. When he tried his hand at writing an espionage novel, MI6 would not allow him to publish it under his own name. So he adopted a pen name -- John le Carré. “God alone knows why, or where I had it from,” he says. In French it translates as “the squire,” a young nobleman apprenticing to become a knight.

He describes his work as a spy: “It was in those days most definitely a calling and for all that I’ve written about it, it was a pretty decent calling, in the sense that we were very patriotic people in ways I don’t think we are anymore.

Le Carré’s third book on the subject, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” became a worldwide bestseller. When a British newspaper revealed his identity, he was forced to leave the service. Turns out, he had been betrayed by Kim Philby, a Russian double agent who he describes as a “bad lot, a naturally bent man.” Betrayal is a constant theme in his books.

His 23 novels include “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy,” “Smiley’s People,” and “The Constant Gardener.” Written with great verisimilitude, they explore the world of espionage, money-laundering and moral ambiguities. Even the Russian KGB was required to read them to learn spy tradecraft.

Graham Green described “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” as “the best spy story I ever read.” Philip Roth called “A Perfect Spy” (le Carré’s most autobiographical work) “the best English novel since the War.”

Now in his mid 80s, le Carré displays a tall, ruddy-faced, patrician demeanor, with expressive eyebrows and floppy white hair. His view of the Cold War has faded, but he still sees the world of espionage in shades of gray.

Rather than portraying the Soviet bloc and the western allies as “two sides of the same grubby coin,” Le Carré’s writing has shifted to “the new multilateral world.”

An example is his 2010 novel “Our Kind of Traitor,” a thriller about a British couple caught in a tug of war between the Russian Mafia and MI6.

That book has now been made into a film, directed by Susanna White (TV’s “Parade’s End”). “Our Kind of Traitor” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

In it we meet a nice young British couple -- Peregrine Makepiece and Gail Perkins -- having a tennis holiday in Marrakesh. There, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his girlfriend (Naomie Harris) bump into a charismatic Russian named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) who latches onto them. Dima has a hidden agenda: He wants to defect.

A high-ranking member of the Russian Mafia, Dima is concerned for his and his family’s lives after a gangster known as The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) comes to power. Dima knows too much about the money-laundering schemes. “I know where the money comes from; I’m a threat to Moscow,” he explains.

He gives Paul a thumb drive to deliver to MI6, a list of corrupt British politicians taking money from the Russians. Next thing Paul knows, he’s involved in a complicated spy plot. As it happens, the head of British intelligence (Damian Lewis) has his own agenda concerning one of the bigwigs on Dima’s list.

Nobody is safe.

In “Our Kind of Traitor,” John le Carré returns to his old theme of betrayal. But this time he gives us younger, more up-to-date protagonists than George Smiley, his world-weary old spymaster from earlier novels.

“They are for me a kind of Bildungsroman,” he refers to his new characters, using a term from German Romanticism. It describes naive youths who survive a dangerous world, thanks to hard experience and good fortune.

Question is: In le Carré’s world is anybody really an innocent?

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Our Kind of Traitor

The latest John le Carre film "Our Kind of Traitor" starring Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård has an existential echo. This is a good thing. It is swift and dynamic where the previous "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" became bogged down, lagging with character intrigue and complex exposition.

Here McGregor is Perry, a literature professor, an everyday person on holiday with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) in Marrakesh. Perry wants to have a romantic dinner but Gail is pre-occupied with work and excuses herself. Dima (Skarsgård) sees Perry sitting alone and offers him a drink. He then invites Perry to a party. Perry reluctantly accepts.

The party is an odd libertine happening of sensual nudity and sex. Perry is offered cocaine by an alluring tall lady. He sees the lady being attacked during sex and Perry engages in a fight. He returns to his house sweaty with guilt.

The next day after a tennis game, Dima insists that Perry come to a birthday party. During the celebration, Dima tells Perry that he is a marked man. He is in fear of both his and his family's life, and he has the names of some Russian mafia and their back accounts. Would he please take a data chip back with him to London and MI-6?

A stupefied Perry agrees, emotionally reasoning that Dima is a good person, just up against it.

Stellan Skarsgård is terrific as the gruff, no nonsense and verbally profane man who feels that life has left him the bitter leftovers, but carries on in spite, while Ewan McGreggor is solid as the sensitive but oddly passive Perry.  Damian Lewis appears too as an agent that you may or may not, love to hate.

The two main performances make John le Carre into a Patricia Highsmith thriller as much as anything else. More than the political intrigue are the central questions of just what compels Perry to seek out Dima's company. Does he see Dima as a kind of alter ego? Is he envious? Does Dima live vicariously through Perry's comfortable life to experience security?

 The action is jolting with plenty of tension and no one scene feels superfluous or added for fluff. While on the surface, Dima might seem a stock character as a hired man with a burden, Skarsgård imbues his torment with a resigned angst that almost reaches the literary realms of Camus, not unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman's role in "A Most Wanted Man."

For those that like their espionage stripped bare, you won't be disappointed by "Our Kind of Traitor".  The cloak is all enveloping while the dagger is sharpened to a fine and caustic point, often dispensing with pleasantries.

Write Ian at

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Genius (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Theatre director Michael Grandage takes us to a 1920s  New York in his debut film  "Genius". There are gray skies, there is rain and soggy flannel suits. People are attempting to rush to work, even though work is increasingly hard to find. But author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is standing outside making jazz music with his stomping foot, hoping to gather courage to see Max Perkins (Colin Firth) about his rejected manuscript.

So begins the journey of Wolfe and Perkins on their unusual friendship.

Jude Law is big, frenetic and wild as the celebrated writer, and he all but disapears within this rambling man with the Carolina drawl. Law pulses with his pencil. Better still, the actor speaks with some of the rollicking flavor of Wolfe and one feels that  we get a true shade of the man who once wrote a near thousand page novel.

Colin Firth as the encouraging Perkins is a bit too reticent and shy and often winces as if swallowing a lemon. Still one does get a real aspect of this partnership. The huge rangy tree of Wolfe paired with the silent and utilitarian human arborist that is Perkins. The melodrama nonwithstanding, the two give a believable tone to friendship.

There is more melodrama also in the action of Mrs Bernstein, Wolfe's girlfriend. As played by Nicole Kidman, she rages into the office and swallows a half dozen pills. While this is based in truth, the scene rings of a soap opera. Later she returns with a silver gun.

We see other authors as well: Fitzgerald, (a  pale and nervous Guy Pearce), Hemingway in Key West (a swaggering Dominic West) and a catatonic Zelda (Vanessa Kirby). The Lost Generation is all here but Wolfe is the star of the show.

A good scene shows Perkins and Wolfe at a jazz bar. Wolfe is Dionysus and the milquetoast Perkins struggles, but he ends up tapping his feet to the music, defeating his inner Calvinism. There is haunt too as Wolfe lies stranded on a desolate beach making a real life Salvador Dali painting.

What comes across most is the striking disapearance of the actor Jude Law in playing the famed actor. He is Thomas Wolfe. This is one character who roars like an elephant in wanting to push language out from under the fedora hat and set it free. Law himself outdoes Firth, but the askew qualities and Firth's peptic anxieties show a give and take of what clearly may have been a friendship on fire.
Write Ian at