Monday, October 31, 2016

Don't Breathe (Brockway)

Don't Breathe

Three spoiled friends, Money (Daniel Zavatto), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Rocky (Jane Levy) have a sure fire way to burglarize a house in desperate Detroit. A blind recluse (Stephen Lang) lives alone and is sitting on thirty thousand dollars. After all, what can go wrong?

You will find out in Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe," a horror film that plays with the audience using effective scares, magnetic suspense and the logic of dreams. One is put on edge right away. An aerial shot of a leafy green neighborhood suddenly narrows into the sinister as an old man is dragging a limp woman on the pavement. Suffice to say things are muy mal on Buena Vista Street.

The film starts with the uncomfortable premise that the house is to be feared, as the blind man is turned into a kind of superhuman monster, borrowing a bit from John Carpenter's original "Halloween." These amoral youngsters try to reason with the taciturn and seemingly weak man only to realize to their horror that he is very strong, his senses are intensified and he is not letting them go.

While one can well argue that this is another chase-in-the-attic or haunted house film, the suspense never panders and the tension is far from anemic. Locked doors, shaking keys and breath itself have never been more nerve-wracking. While some might find the "surprise" at the end a bit too Gothic and outrageous, the real mystery of "Don't Breathe" is in the character of the blind hermit himself and the film definitely teases our assumptions.

No matter what one might think, the stranger has a resolve that just won't quit. The film's deadpan "what if" ending satisfyingly brings to mind the eerie "It Follows" (also set in Detroit) and the legendary Wes Craven.

Write Ian at

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Little Men (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Little Men

"Little Men" is yet another stirring and percussive film from director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange). The film is compressed and potent, having the power of a good short story.

13 year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) has moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan. He is shy, awkward and feels a bit alien. Jake's ambitious drawings and paintings are his only island of security. By chance, he meets the glib and boastful Tony (Michael Barbieri) who recalls a bit of  Sal Mineo as a young boy. As both of the boys are creative, they quickly become friends. Tony's mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) rents shop space from Jake's father Brian (Greg Kinnear).  She was also a confidant of Brian's father, who has recently passed on. Brian's father is never seen in the film. He is a symbol of a more sincere and honest past.

The two boys grow so close that they want to go to the same school, LaGuardia High. But, all is not harmonious. Under pressure from Brian's sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam) the father agrees to raise the rent on Leonor's dress shop, which in turn puts a strain on the boys' friendship.

The film is excellent in portraying the insecurity and need for bravado at early adolescence. There is one rave music episode in particular, highlighting the overconfident swagger of Tony that is as funny and real as anything by Woody Allen.

"Little Men" also points to the grim circumstance of money, of selfish (but not monstrous) urges and the unavoidable gentrification of a quaint Brooklyn. In a brilliant turn, the film makes Jake and Tony into star-cross'd friends in the manner of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.

One late scene showing Jake spotting the uninhibited Tony with a transfixed wanting  from across a museum floor proves the  piece de resistance.

Before puberty, childhood friendship is the ultimate drive.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Deepwater Horizon (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) directs the horrid events of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. His story has all the uncomfortable tension of a horror film. Crewmember Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is a conscientious oil rig worker and family man. Though he works hard, Williams is light in spirit, easy with a joke and always does the right thing.

His daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen) pines for a fossil from the next drilling site and Williams resolves to get one for her. His character recalls Sheriff Brody from "Jaws" (1975) in his  care, compassion and modest joie de vivre.  He is about to spend 21 days at sea and he hates to leave his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson)

From the start, one has the feeling that engineer Williams is the backbone of the rig. He is called upon to back up the indignation of the supervisor, Mr. Jimmie (Kurt Russell) who is flabbergasted when he learns that the cement seals were not tested along with the drilling pressure. Continuing the "Jaws" comparison, Mr. Jimmie is akin to Quint, given his deapan saltiness.

We know immediately that BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (played by a scaly John Malkovich ) is not on the level. He is behind schedule and pressures crewmember Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee) to approve a botched test run. Sinister rumbles are heard very much like the presence of a Great White.

Pressure and temperature readings go haywire. So begins the explosion of a hungry and rabid beast. The crew is thrown about like driftwood. This is a hurricane of blood, oil and fire. Shellacked pelicans fall from the sky, paralyzed by the gook of greed.

The film is first rate for operating two-fold, both as an action suspense film and a moral lesson. The pursuit of profit and cutting corners have rarely been portrayed so bluntly. Mercenary attacks on the earth combined with aloof arrogance lead to a slaughter rivaling The Book of Revelation, toned in red and black.

Mike Williams is a very real and almost superhuman person who would make us feel safe in face of any deadly peril. But despite this hero, one is left with a sense of helplessness and outrage while watching "Deepwater Horizon."  The shaming  apocalypse of this oil rig on fire could well have been avoided given the proper care and precaution.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Week of October 28 - November 3 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Eight Films: Plenty to See at the Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Lots of new films this week on Tropic screens, eight in all. You’ll find a handful of indies surrounded by some mainstream biggies.

No, “Little Men” is not based on the classic book by Louisa May Alcott. Rather it’s a tale about two boys whose friendship is interrupted by their parents’ squabble over the rent on a dress shop. A small film, but it offers up some big names: Greg Kinnear and Alfred Molina, along with Jennifer Ehle (Rosemary Harris’s daughter) and Talia Balsam (Martin Balsam’s daughter and George Clooney’s ex-wife, now married to John Slattery). Times (UK) calls it “a deceptively intimate drama that presents itself as a quirky coming-of-age story.” And Cinencuentro declares, “‘Little Men’ has an amazing cast. It’s one of this year’s best films.

Another small but interesting film is “Queen of Katwe,” the true story of a Ugandan girl who becomes an international chess master. Along with Madina Nalwanga in the lead role as the young champion, you’ll also find excellent performances by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo. Associated Press tells us, “The colors and rhythms of life in the slums of Uganda are what set ‘Queen of Katwe’ apart from other underdog chess movies.” And Sunday Independent adds, “It’s uplifting, feel-good, nice, well shot and really well acted.”

“Denial” recounts the trial of historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), sued by holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Small). Her barrister (Tom Wilkinson) makes the case against Irving’s distasteful theories. Newsday notes, “Facts and opinions duke it out in this thought-provoking if slightly low-key drama based on true events.” And The Young Folks adds, “The entire cast gives a monumental performance that does justice to this monumental story.”

“The Girl on the Train” continues to thrill with its tale about an alcoholic ex-wife (Emily Blunt) who snoops on her former hubby and his new wife, in the process spotting what might be a clue in a murder. El Antepenúltimo Mohicano calls it “an entertaining film with interesting plot twists that will keep the audience hooked from the first minute to the last…” while BuzzFeed accuses it of “positioning itself unabashedly as a knock-off ‘Gone Girl.’”

“Sully” keeps making a miracle landing as it retells the story of the heroic American airlines pilot (played by Tom Hanks) who landed his crippled plane on the Hudson River. The Nation tells us, “This is pretty much the truth of New Yorkers’ feelings about the landing on the Hudson -- and director Clint Eastwood brings them back with a crisp, unmannered efficiency of which few other moviemakers are capable.” And calls it “a no-frills affair, almost to a fault.”

“Don’t Breathe” is a scary film about a blind man (Stephan Lang) whose home is invaded by three teenagers. But they wish they’d picked another house when the blind man turns off the lights. New Yorker says, “The suspense is built as carefully as it is in a good John Carpenter movie; director Fede Alvarez uses the camera like a stealth weapon, exploring dark corners and hidden areas of the house with devilish glee.” And Detroit News calls it “a breathless, visceral, nerve-racking thrill ride that doesn’t stop coming at you until its final gasps.”

“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of the classic John Sturgis Western, this time around starring Denzel Washington as the leader of a pack of gunmen who set out to save a town from outlaws. Deadline Hollywood Daily observes, “This Denzel Washington Western vehicle still has its moments even if there is too much gunplay and not enough character development.” And NPR adds, “If body count is what you go to Westerns for, by all means drift into this one’s corral.”

And last on the list, but not least, is “Deepwater Horizon,” based on the BP oil spill that threatened the Gulf Coast. Here Mark Wahlberg (yes, the former Marky Mark) proves his acting mettle as one of the engineers on the deep-water platform when it blew. Rolling Stone says, “The film depicts the worst oil spill in American history and director Peter Berg recreates the cataclysm of that day with unbearable tension and healing compassion.” Forbes calls it “a taut, mostly engaging, and just slightly melodramatic (in a good way) ‘you are there’ retelling of the events that took place on April 20, 2010.”

Yes, there’s plenty to choose from at the Tropic.

The Magnificent Seven (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Magnificent Seven” Remade for Third Time
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

You’ll recognize the music from all those Marlboro commercials. But older moviegoers will remember the swelling strands as being Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme for “The Magnificent Seven,” the John Sturges Western about a group of hired gunslingers who protect a Mexican village from banditos.

Turns out, director Antoine Fuqua has given us a remake. The same-named movie is currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

The Hollywood Reporter proclaims: “The big difference between the new version of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and the revered 1960 feature is the ethnic background of the main characters.”

Okay, we’ll give them that -- kinda. In Fuqua’s remake, the leader of the seven mercenaries is played by African-American actor Denzel Washington. In the John Sturges Western that role was handled by a White Russian, Yul Brynner.

Ethnic differentiation also can be used to describe the Sturges film, for it was a redo of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic, “Seven Samurai.” In it, the characters were all Japanese. A wandering ronin (Takashi Shimura) gathers six other samurai to help him defend a village from bandits.

Kurosawa based the seven major characters on historical samurai. Then he wrote a complete profile for each character, including details about what they wore, their favorite foods, their speech patterns, and scores of other details. He even created a dossier on all 101 residents of the village, including a family tree to help the extras understand their characters’ relationships to each other.

This film is often described as the greatest Japanese film ever made.

The 1960 remake by Sturgis featured then-unknown actors Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz, and Robert Vaughn. The new version offers upfront better-known stars.

Just like in the earlier version, a black-clad gunslinger (Denzel Washington) recruits a group of social misfits to help him protect a town. These miscreants include a charming cardsharp (Chris Pratt), a Confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a grizzly mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio), a Korean assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a swarthy outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).

In another ethnic shift, the new version features Peter Sarsgaard as the mining baron whose armed goons are killing off any residents of Rose Creek who refuse to sell their land to him. Unlike the ‘60s, it’s no longer political appropriate to have a Mexican villain.

But as the Hollywood Reporter observes, “The actors in the Sturges film oozed far more attitude” than this new cast.

Antoine Fuqua was obviously gambling on reuniting his Oscar-winning “Training Day” cast (Washington and Hawke) to pull off this remake. However, this is not titled “The Magnificent Two.” Chemistry between seven actors is harder to deliver.

Don't Breathe (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Don’t Breathe” In the Dark
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Are you old enough to remember that 1967 Audrey Hepburn thriller, “Wait Until Dark?” In it, she’s a blind woman being terrorized by a trio of home invaders, until she turns out the lights putting everyone on equal footing. Made shivers go up your spine.

Now we have “Don’t Breathe,” a new film starring Stephan Lang. Here he’s a blind man whose home is invaded by a group of teens hoping to pull off a simple heist. Bad idea, it turns out.

Sure, these films sound about as different as the old and new “Ghostbusters” movies. Only the sex of the protagonist has been changed. Odd that it’s the fifty-year-old Audrey Hepburn movie that empowers women.

“Don’t Breathe” is currently playing in a darkened theater near you. Tropic Cinema, for instance.

You can be sure the film’s scary because it’s produced by Ghost House Pictures.

Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man. As you’ll recall, he had the roles of Col. Miles Quaritch in “Avatar” and General Hopgood in “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” He even narrated the PBS “Medal of Honor” documentary. And he portrayed General George Pickett in “Gettysburg” and General Stonewall Jackson in “Gods and Generals.” Stephen Lang exudes a certain military bearing, despite having attended a Quaker boarding school as a youth.

The three teenage invaders are played by Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zavatto. You might have seen Levy in “Evil Dead,” Minnette in “Goosebumps,” and Zavatto in TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead” – good horror credits for each.

In this turnabout tale, they find themselves locked in a cat-and-mouse game with a man willing to kill them. A little more than they bargained for.

Director Fede Alvarez points out that Lang’s character starts off as an underdog, but soon we learn “there’s no way he can let them go. There’s not another option. He has to kill these kids.”

“Well, he’s really not a villain,” Stephen Lang defends his character. “He’s a brokenhearted man, is what he is. But, for all his heartbreak, he’s got a steel backbone, too. This all takes place in a really … kind of a bombed out section of Detroit. It’s a place that was one time a nice neighborhood that really reflected the values of the country in the ‘40s and ‘50s that was affluent and growing, and industry was booming and everything like that. And now when you see it, he’s an isolated guy in this neighborhood. People have left. Everything is falling to disrepair. It’s not only a metaphor of the nation and that city, it’s a metaphor for his own state of being….”

Victim or villain – you decide. But he’s certainly not as nice as Audrey Hepburn.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Denial (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Director Mick Jackson (L.A. Story, Chattahoochee) takes on the insidious and offensive subject of historical revisionism in "Denial," deftly but without as much gusto as the outrageous subject demands. The film covers the 1996 court case of David Irving vs. Penguin Books and Debra Lipstadt in the UK.

Irving, an infamous historian of some thirty books, ranging from Hitler to Churchill, gained poison-pen notoriety in the late 80s for asserting anew that there is no real factual evidence for the use of gas chambers during The Third Reich. He argued that there were no free-standing photographs or explicit documentation (no supposed "gas holes") and as Irving opines, only a handful of survivors' so called false accounts.

This was a "volte face" from his 1977 position when Irving clearly acknowledged the chambers' locations in the first version of his book Hitler's War.

Irving took his new stance as a licence to question history's causes and effects, to further state that Hitler had no knowlege of the Final Solution and that it was not possible for lethal gas chambers to be in use from the start, given that they were "air raid shelters"

Like one possessed, Irving hounded Ms. Lipstadt in Atlanta, Georgia and aggressively begged to debate her. In the 1990s and lasting for a good fifteen years, Irving understandably became Public Enemy Number One, only having some respite under the sun in Key West. He continued to write and give toxic Apologist lectures, typing over many a naive nose including my own. I have some guilt over Irving, as I once wrote him a colorful letter, thinking that he was a benevolent writer of fiction.

Onscreen, the always arresting Timothy Spall plays Irving, as a hell-bent mole of the Baskervilles, (more of a diminutive figure than the formidible person he is in real life) driven to uphold his case of "no holes, no Holocaust" against the threat of a resolute Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) who must bear the burden of proof in accordance to British law.

This is a somewhat pedestrian courtroom drama but that is not to say that it is not meaningful with meaning and revelance. At its core, it is of good vs. evil.

The camera is terrifically pointed, frequently giving the audience angles at knee level or from above as if we are all groundling witnessses awaiting a verdict of great import, and indeed such is the case. There are some virtuosic and telling moments: Lipstadt waits at Auschwitz as a filmed exposure of survivors scramble and cry around her like phantoms. There are shots from the back of Irving's pommaded hair as he talks of "political correctness" as if hinting of Donald Trump.

When Irving tries to avoid racist claims speaking of the wonderful largeness of his au pair's black breasts, he very much appears to be one of the men of orange.

Although you might wish for more ire and passion, the film is as accurate, true to life and spirit. Under the ridiculous but toxic threat of Trump and his ilk, "Denial" is as topical today as it was some 12 years ago at the conclusion of the case.

One of the last scenes show Lipstadt at a church under Saint George slaying a slippery serpent. The real living serpent is the notion of historical revisionism and half-formed truisms, hissed by Irving with cheers and jeers. Sensitive thinkers must guard against this lazy tease under whatever shape it assumes, be it now or in the future.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Snowden (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Edward Snowden, the whistle blower, a hero to some and a villain to others, is featured in a film directed by Oliver Stone. In many ways it is a hi-tech response to his earlier epic "Born on the Fourth of July." In place of Ron Kovic, this is Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) an idealistic young man fueled by 9-11 patriotism, just as impassioned as Kovic had been before Vietnam.

But once more, fate intervenes.

Gordon-Levitt is excellent and on key as the halting-voiced Snowden and he all but vanishes into this very real man. The film is uneven though in highlightling Snowden's time in the CIA with long flashbacks and cyberspace explanations, along with a bit of soap opera involving his longtime girlfriend Lindsay.

We find Snowden, bespeckled and struggling as an army officer. He fractures his leg while hurrying out of his bunk bed. He receives a medical discharge.

Snowden has an interview with CIA agent Corbin O' Brian (Rhys Ifans) who finds he has a knack for computer code and loves America. Snowden is hired monitoring code for the CIA. Better yet, he meets his online date Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) a spirited photographer. But when Snowden falls in with the glib Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) all is not liberty. Eyes are on the innocent as well as the guilty.

The main pull of the film is riveting, clearly showing Snowden distance himself from his peers, while still seeming an observer. Snowden suffers from seizures brought on by stress and grows fearful of the all seeing camera, our ubiquitous playmate. It is only the long CIA sequences that make  the film lag slightly with technical emphasis on codes, encryptions and clearances.

Nicolas Cage appears as a not- too-hammy professor with only his hair mussed. Melissa Leo gives an authentic delivery of filmmaker Laura Poitras while Tom Wilkinson is MacAskill, a Guardian reporter.

Ultimately, "Snowden" is all Joseph Gordon-Levitt. One does feel that Oliver Stone, the provocateur, is holding back. Yes, there are striking touches: a camera turns into a sun which transforms into the iris of an eye and Snowden's silhouette blurs into the elongated shape of an alien. (Thank God! Snowden the spaceman is here to save us) But aside from these moments, there are few flourishes.

Still, Gordon-Levitt gives Snowden life and by the time one sees the actual man, our 21st century Shelley, accompanied by a high octane song by the inimitable Peter Gabriel, it induces cheers. "Snowden" reveals a person of flesh and blood and after watching, one can well see him on the head of a Casascius Bitcoin, albeit in the future.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Week of October 21 - 27 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Deftly Mixes Fact and Fiction
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

Three films based on true stories are followed by fiction and fantasy -- an interesting mix this week at the Tropic.

“Denial” tells about the celebrated libel trial between American writer Deborah E. Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) and bombastic British holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is the barrister who tirelessly defends her. Newsday observes, “Facts and opinions duke it out in this thought-provoking if slightly low-key drama based on true events.” And ReelViews adds, “It’s strangely refreshing to watch a courtroom drama where theatricality doesn’t trump meticulous examination and cross-examination.”

Another kind of defense followed Chesley Sullenberger’s decision to set disabled US Airways Flight 1549 down on the Hudson River. “Sully” gives us Tom Hanks as the hero pilot under a spotlight. Phantom Tollbooth notes, “Tom Hanks seems comfortable in the role, moustache and all.” And Matt’s Movie Reviews tells us this is “a film that shows how the system can work when the right time comes.”

Still another legal problem is faced by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the CIA computer whiz who revealed the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Detroit News opines, “If Snowden’s story wasn’t real, Stone would have made it up.” And The Arts Desk says, “Stone has fashioned the story into a tense, fast-moving drama which will leave you pondering over what’s really justifiable for the greater good.”

Unlike the above real-life stories, “The Girl on the Train” is an edge-of-the-seat fictional thriller. An alcoholic divorcee (Emily Blunt) spots suspicious goings-on as she rides the commuter train to and from NYC. Did she see someone abduct a woman? Deadline Hollywood Daily says, “Emily Blunt’s startlingly good lead performance makes this ‘train’ trip worthwhile for fans of the book and others who like mystery psychological thrillers.” And amNewYork concludes, “It’s acted with great passion and helmed with steadfast commitment to a glossy psychologized aesthetic.”

And “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” goes further afield, entering Tim Burton’s fantasyland. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) protects her mutant wards from a very bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson). New York Daily News declares, “Tim Burton is on macabre message in his latest offering -- an adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ popular trilogy.” And Excelsior calls it “a film full of amazing visuals.”

Here are five films that will definitely entertain, inform, and bend your imagination.

Denial (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Denial” Argues Truth of Holocaust
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I’ve never understood how anyone could deny the Holocaust while there are still living survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. Surely witnesses count for something.

Yet there are people who want to sweep history under the rug, as if Hitler were merely running a humanitarian camp for Jewish refugees.

“Denial” is a movie about such a man, British author David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) who sued American writer Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) over the issue. He claimed that she had libeled him in her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”

Under English defamation law, the accused must prove the accuser wrong, so Deborah and her publishers hired libel expert Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to defend her in court. In this true-life story, it was up to Rampton to prove that the Holocaust happened.

“Denial” is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Courtroom dramas have always been interesting fare for movies and plays (think: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Verdict,” “Inherit the Wind,” etc.) but this one engages on a different level. Rather than proving guilt or innocence or a theory, here Rampton had to validate a harrowing historical event.

In her book, Deborah Lipstadt wrote: “Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain's great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”

These statements were clearly defamatory, so Lipstadt’s only defense was to prove these statements to be true.

The lawsuit -- David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt -- is often referred to as “history on trial.” Despite the old saying that “history belongs to the victors,” in most cases it’s accurate.

Snowden (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Oliver Stone Introduces Us To “Snowden”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Traitor or hero -- you decide. But you can probably guess where director Oliver Stone comes out on this: His films include the anti-Vietnam “Platoon,” the greed-condemning “Wall Street,” the pro-conspiracy “JFK,” the presidential exposés “Nixon” and “W.” -- and now “Snowden.”

Just to remind you, Edward Snowden is the government data geek who in June 2013 leaked classified information to The Guardian about the NSA’s spying on US citizens.

In Oliver Stone’s hands, “Snowden” becomes a biographical political thriller. It is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Variety calls it “the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years.”

For two hours and 14 minutes suspend your opinions -- pro or con -- about Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who took refuge in Russia. Stone’s point in telling Snowden’s story has less to do with the thirtysomething fugitive than about governmental surveillance in today’s society.

Oliver Stone has been called “the reigning king of conspiratorial left-wing political thrillers.”

In Stone’s new film, we get to know Edward Snowden (calmly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a deep thinker who has worked for the CIA’s global communications division as well as being a cybersecurity consultant for various government contractors. Snowden didn’t start out as a radical crusader. In fact, in 2009 he posted on a blog saying that he believed leakers of classified information “should be shot in the balls.”

Early on, he was a quiet, unassuming patriot who joined the US Army Reserve following 9/11 but wasn’t physically up to the challenge. Being discharged after breaking his legs, he joined the CIA where he could carry on the good fight in the safety of cyberspace. He was sent to Switzerland under diplomatic cover to maintain the CIA’s computer network security there. He was handpicked to support the president at the 2008 NATO summit in Romania.

In 2009 he moved over to Dell Computers where he managed the CIA account. Later on, Snowden was assigned to Hawaii as lead technologist for the NSA’s information-sharing office. But when he started reading Top Secret documents about how the NSA was spying on American citizens, he was shocked. He says his breaking point was seeing NSA director James Clapper “directly lie under oath to Congress.”

The result: Snowden turned over up to 200,000 documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian. And provided a video interview with filmmaker Laura Poitras (the basis for her “Citizenfour” documentary) as he went on the run, first to Hong Kong, then to Russia.

This film is not as kaleidoscopic as some of Oliver Stone’s earlier works, although it does cut back and forth between the interview and events that led up to it -- while displaying some of Stone’s outraged passion by telling this story of a mild-mannered James Bourne.

In addition to a spot-on performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he donated his salary to the American Civil Liberties Union) as Snowden, we get Shailene Woodley as the girlfriend he met on a dating site called Geek-Mate … Zachary Quinto as intrepid journalist Glenn Greenwald … Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras … Tom Wilkinson as journalist Ewen MacAskill … Nicolas Cage as a CIA bigwig who befriends Snowden … and Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Infans, Parker Sawyers, Ben Chaplin, Scott Eastwood, and Joely Richardson in supporting roles. Plus an appearance by Edward Snowden himself.

The film’s message: The intelligence community, we learn, has the ability to enter any home through its computer or phone -- using either the webcam, or the screen itself. Scary stuff.

As for Snowden, he has stated, “I am neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sully (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Here is "Sully," Clint Eastwood's latest, and once again, (as in American Sniper's Chris Kyle) he gives his audience a portrait of small town Americana and a local hero. As a character study it is a good one. USAir pilot Captain "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) strives to cope with apocalyptic nightmares given his experience with a flock of geese  that caused a twin engine failure and an emergency landing in the Hudson River on January 15th 2009.

Sully is almost supernaturally cool under pressure. In the air nothing rattles him, but once grounded, nightmares decend upon him and everything is in question, even the bliss of his marriage to Lorraine (Laura Linney). The pilot has just saved all of the 155 souls on board a flight from New York to Charlotte, but what if the NTSB finds him negligent over some missed protocol or procedure? Did he really do the best of all possible actions?

Eastwood makes his Sully into a Kafkaesque and Libertarian Everyman as the air expert confronts the snide and nit-picking agents who are obsessed with bureaucracy. Although Eastwood takes political and poetic licence with his hero, this is a solid picture of a man who makes mistakes but does right. We see Sully in the Air Force flying a comprised craft to safety. He takes both criticism and praise in stride.

Despite his usual even keel, however,  there is a touch of Scottie Ferguson, the protagonist from Hitchcock's "Vertigo" within the air pilot. He is frequently nervous on solid ground and prone to dizzying visions of a plane falling from a great height and slicing into the business district. Like Scottie, Sully is modestly shy under the gaze of female worship and eager to take to the air once again so that the disabling fugues will cease. There is one such segment in which journalist Katie Couric turns almost demonic in her belittling criticism of the captain.

Just when the imps of guilt threaten to topple the stoic Sullenberger, his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) is ready with a light joke.

If you can take Eastwood's suspicion of government authority, "Sully" is a solid portrait, deftly handled by Hanks, who all but disapears behind the pale levels of this unassuming man.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The JT Leroy Story (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The JT LeRoy Story

Director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston, The Real Rocky) has always been edgy and provocative in delivering many true stories of the art world, and in "Author: The JT LeRoy Story," he does not disappoint.

In the mid-1990s, a young teen boy from West Virginia called a suicide hotline as an abuse survivor. He was contacted by a Doctor Owens. The boy Jeremiah gave his name as "Terminator" and was encouraged to write down his experiences and feelings to help heal. Hundreds of pages followed by fax in a gutzy outspoken style and Dr. Owens was very impressed. Jeremiah was then put in touch with the neo-Beat writer Dennis Cooper and the memoirist Mary Karr encouraged Terminator to submit to anthologies.

He was offered a book deal and hailed as the next William Burroughs for his frenetic accounts of prostitutes and hustlers. When pressed about gender, Terminator said he was mostly male, yet at times he admitted to being female.  The buzz about him increased.

After his books were selling, the boy known as Terminator became JT LeRoy, an androgenous bleach-blond girl or boy, played by Savannah Knoop in public.  Michael Pitt made out with LeRoy and Asia Argento dated her. She was a confidant of Billy Corrigan of Smashing Pumpkins. Filmmakers Gus Van Zant and Asia Argento  pursued her for movie rights. Tom Waits, Bono and Courtney Love were all head over heels for JT LeRoy.

Then at the height of fame, the inexplicable happened. LeRoy's very identity was questioned in New York magazine as a possible hoax. Though "Author: The JT LeRoy Story" has more twists and turns than "The Girl on the Train," it is vivid and startling, for the very fact that it shows the  world of celebrity so hungry for a fresh and arresting voice to champion.

 Feuerzeig, whose last film highlighted the unusual songwriter Daniel Johnston, is no stranger to eccentric people and one is definitely found here. Fans of Warhol and the amoralist Patricia Highsmith will be riveted.

 The last shot itself, accompanied by a Lou Reed song, showing the female LeRoy in sunglasses red lipstick and white blond hair, sums up all of the weird and hypnotic mystery that embodies this film.

Write Ian at

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Week of October 14 - 20 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Gives Us a Lineup of Interesting People
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Film Critic, Key West Citizen

People real, fictional, historical, murderous, and odd are featured in the films playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.

Tom Hanks is an “everyman” who portrays good decent people by slipping into their skin. A recent example is “Sully,” the story of the heroic pilot who safely put his US Airways Flight 1549 down on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers. Even so, he was challenged by a review board for not diverting to an airport -- with no engines. The Nation notes, “This is pretty much the truth of New Yorkers’ feelings about the landing on the Hudson -- and Director Clint Eastwood brings them back with a crisp, unmannered efficiency of which few other moviemakers are capable.” And Japan Times surmises, “This is not blockbuster material but it’s a delight to spend time in the company of Eastwood and Hanks.”

“Author: The JT Leroy Story” goes behind the pseudonym. JodieGug2 tells us, “He wrote bestselling books, made numerous public appearances, became a Hollywood ‘it’ boy and befriended a slew of A-list celebrities, but author JT Leroy never actually existed. Laura Albert shocked the literary world and Hollywood alike when she revealed that she was the person behind the beloved and celebrated young author -- supposedly a HIV-positive transgender ex-prostitute who chronicled his troubled upbringing” And CineVue calls it “a work steeped in the ambiguity, opacity and unreliable narration of the masterful Italian auteur Jeff Feuerzeig.”

“The Birth of a Nation” takes us back to 1831 when a rebellion was led by a slave named Nat Turner. First-time filmmaker Nate Parker also takes the lead role as the man behind this momentous uprising. Cinemixtape says, “‘The Birth Of A Nation’ might well be a milestone of indie cinema; one that, on its own merits, is deserving of any awards attention that comes its way.” And calls it “a harrowing, human testament.”

Emily Blunt is “The Girl on the Train,” an ex-wife who can’t let go, at the same time spying on an idealized couple next door as the train rumbles by on her daily commute to NYC. And then the wife she’s been watching disappears. Whodunit? observes, “Emily Blunt is fabulous before the story embraces its inner 'Gone Girl’.” And tells us: “‘The Girl on the Train’ isn't going to blow your mind but there's enough in it to enjoy a tense trip with some pretty strong performances.”

Finishing off with fantasy, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children" gives us an odd collection of kids with strange powers. Rolling Stone says director Tim Burton is “repeating tricks from his greatest hits (think Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands). But stick with it just for those times when Burton flies high on his own peculiar genius.” And Globe and Mail concludes that the film is “supremely silly and filled with crater-sized plot holes, but it's a profoundly moving film, too - about trauma, about loneliness, about aging and family.”

People, people, people -- they fill the Tropic’s screen.

Sully (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Sully” Recounts Miracle on the Hudson
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 hit some birds while taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport forcing the pilot to land the plane in the Hudson River. The pilot’s calm landing on water and ushering his passengers onto the wing to await rescue resulted in him being hailed as a hero.

But Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III said he didn’t feel like a hero. He was just doing his job.

In the movie titled “Sully,” Tom Hanks takes on the role of the self-effacing pilot with customary ease. Aaron Eckhart joins him as Jeffrey Skiles, First Officer of the downed Airbus A320. And Laura Linney portrays Lorraine Sullenberger, Sully’s wife.

“Sully” is now flying high at Tropic Cinema.

As directed by Clint Eastwood, “Scully” goes beyond the plane’s miraculous landing on the frigid waters of the Hudson. “For me, the real conflict came after,” says Eastwood, “with the investigative board questioning his decisions, even though he’d saved so many lives.”

Tom Hanks, totally in character with Sully’s close-cropped white hair and mustache, sees this as a feel-good movie. “In the political atmosphere we’re in, there are an awful lot of points being made on the notion that you can’t count on people and institutions because they’re all broken -- that none of them work,” says Hanks. “Well, that’s nonsense. They’re not all broken. And you can still have faith in them. And, in that regard, I think this movie makes a really strong case.”

In recognition for saving the 155 passengers of Flight 1549, Sully Sullenberger and his crew were awarded the National Air and Space Museum’s highest honor: the 2010 Current Achievement Trophy.

“My entire life is being judged on the basis of those 3 minutes and 28 seconds,” says the real-life Sully. “We never know which flight will test us ... I had gotten to a point late in my career when I thought that test would never happen to me. I was wrong.”

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Miss Peregrine’s Home” Has Openings for Odd Students
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Call me crazy, but I want filmmaker Tim Burton to direct my nightmares. He has such a frightening yet beguiling view of the darkside.

Remember his “Corpse Bride”? Or “Sleepy Hollow” with its galloping horseman topped by a pumpkin head? Or “Alice in Wonderland” with its phantasmagorical imagery? Or “Edward Scissorhands” with his sharpened digits? Or creepy but cool “Beetlejuice”?

You get the idea. Burton’s dreamscape is filled with weird inhabitants.

Same is true for his latest film, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” It’s currently spooking audiences at Tropic Cinema.

At the Home you will encounter a girl who eats through a mouth in the back of her head (Raffiella Chapman), an invisible boy in a time loop (Cameron King), a boy who has prophetic dreams (Hayden Keeler-Stone), a pyrokinetic teen (Lauren McCrostie), a very strong child (Pixie Davies), a girl who can control the growth of plants (Georgia Pemberton), a teenager who can resurrect the dead for a short time (Finlay MacMillan), a teenager with  bees living in his stomach (Milo Parker), and masked twin brothers (Joseph and Thomas Odwell).

Heading up the Home is Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green), a mysterious headmistress who has been protecting her odd charges from Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). He’s leader of the Wights, undead human creatures that hunt and kill peculiar children.

All this is seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield), the boy introduced to the school by Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), an aerokinetic girl who can breath away the bottom of the sea with her tsunami breath. Can Jake protect Miss Peregrine’s young charges from the Wights and evil Hollowgasts (tentacle-mouthed humanoid creatures)?

 “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is based on the same-named Young Adult book by Ransom Rigs.

Tim Burton follows suit and aims this movie at kids ... threatening your youngster with troubled sleep.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Girl on the Train (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Girl on the Train

This year's best selling novel, The Girl on the Train has been brought to the screen by director Tate Taylor (The Help). The cinematography is perfectly moody and dark in keeping with the environment of the protaganist, Rachel, a middle aged embittered woman who constantly doubts herself because of alcoholism and rides a train to and from New York City. The atmosphere matches the novel to a tee and the film boasts a powerful performance by Emily Blunt in the lead role. If only that was enough to keep this film on the rails; the film lags by a slow dreary pace, generic drama and confusing flashbacks.

Aside from Blunt's excellent portrayal of Rachel Watson, this shocker has the flat feel of your run-of-the-mill suburban slasher story. Rachel is a middle aged, unemployed and divorced woman. Having nothing to occupy her days or nights, she rides a commuter train for hours on end and drinks vodka. She entertains herself by inventing stories about total strangers that pass outside her window.

Rachel fixates on a house that she passes every night, occupied by a seemingly happy couple. One particular day at the house, Rachel sees the girl kissing and embracing another man. The next day, Rachel feels depression and self pity, and incessantly calls her ex, Tom (Justin Theroux). Rachel wakes up a bloody mess and the anonymous girl, Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), is missing. Is Rachel guilty?

The main stumbling blocks to any apprehension one might feel are the endless flashbacks and vignettes (e.g., six months earlier, two months later, last Friday) that make it all a chore to keep it straight. Suspense should never be laborious. Add to that the vexation that the two secondary characters, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Bennett) are nearly identical to one another and it is quite easy to become lost on the tracks.

By the end, it all crystalizes, but there is little to hook you in your seat at the beginning and middle of this inclement commute which plays longer than it should.

The most pleasing aperitif is Blunt alone as the wandering, pensive and seething Rachel, whose moods are as volatile as her dramatic energy. Her role is the only one that is full of body and charge. The other three portrayals of Megan, Scott and Anna are insipid, and make "The Girl on the Train" turn from what started as a fine Noir into so much acetic acid.

Write Ian at

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

It is old home week yet again with the visionary Tim Burton. In "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," adapted from a young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, he has monstrously mixed results.

Jake (Asa Butterfield) is an awkward and passive young teenager in suburban Florida. Girls and social situations inhibit him. His only relief are the evenings with his grandfather, Abe (Terrence Stamp) who believes he once travelled the world, fighting supernatural beasts and was forced to take refuge in a Welsh estate for magical children in 1943.

Jake's dad, Franklin (Chris O' Dowd) thinks dear old dad is suffering from dementia and PTSD, scarred from the war. Jake, dark-haired and pale in the manner of Max from Where the Wild Things Are  and "Edward Scissorhands" looks quizzical and mystified. He is taken to a psychiatrist (Allison Janney). Seeing his grandfather's dead body sans eyes, the doctor suggests that a trip to Wales would perhaps stop the boy's nightmares and bring closure.

Once there, Jake manages to set out for the his grandfather's beloved place and finds a mansion in picturesque ruins, very like Disneyworld's Haunted Mansion. The mysterious story of Abe and his battle with creatures, set against the bland conformity of Tampa (the eerie against the commonplace) is much more vibrant and compelling than the quirky assortment of Addamsian characters featured in the home: a pair of papier-mâché twins, an Alice in Wonderland as light as air who must wear lead shoes, a boy with a hive of bees in his body, a girl that can command the plant world and an adorable little girl with an angry set of monster teeth in the back of her head.

It takes all kinds and Lady Gaga would feel right at home. The actor Eva Green does excellently as the stern but caring Miss Peregrine. The spots of tension between the jaded unimaginative father who represents the humdrum world and the frustrated Jake are the film's best moments and one wishes there were more.

Samuel L. Jackson appears in typecast form as public Meanie #1

When all is revealed in Burton's Caligari cabinet, the mind's eye turns into an over-stimulated Cyclops and it gets a little too much. The weird becomes rote and routine. Granted, the effects are fun and kids will enjoy watching marching skeletons attack and take control on amusement park grounds while the monsters are pelted with candy in the attitude of an old cartoon.

In "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" all is well in the peanut gallery. This is a Hallowtween parade and when the off-white shutters go askew, something wicked this way comes. Yet any cinema-dwelling Peculiar will tell you that it is far better to conceal than to show.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's unapologetic and earthy "The Birth of a Nation " is a visceral account of the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 which resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people and 200 black people in retalliation.

The film is bluntly told and unnerving to watch. To its impactful and vital credit (no matter if you are bothered by the director's troubled implications in a rape case or not) the film does not shy away from the unspeakable horror and gore perpetrated by slavery and white hands.

Nat Turner (played by director Nate Parker) is a slave and self taught preacher who grew up hearing that he was sent by God to make prophecy. Slave-owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) leads him around as trophy to speak on the invented virtue of courtesy to slave holders, fictionally backed by biblical verses. Nat sees horror after horror, including the wrenching out of teeth with metal pliers in an attempt to feed men while they are shackled in heavy flesh-biting irons in a dark basement.

Nat craftily learns to use the bible against the slaveholders as a weapon of freedom. A brief respite from the violence occurs with the sight of Cherry (Aja Naomi King). The young woman, no stranger to abhorrent abuse herself is remarkably spirited. The two fall in love. All the while the pair is hunted by the disgusting Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley).

The film is a Brueghel painting showing the sickening glee of hatred in its most diseased form. Men, woman and children dressed for a Sunday outing, snarl, spit and cheer, calling for black blood and it rightly gives the viewer nausea.

Turner, bound by wood and iron and draped by night, becomes Jesus. He alone  points the way for others to fight the good fight against slavery decades later in the Civil War.

No matter how one feels about the director Nate Parker himself, the provocatively titled "The Birth of a Nation" (named and reclaimed after the unabashedly racist D.W. Griffith film of 1915) deserves to be seen for its fine depiction of Nat Turner, the man.

Write Ian at ianfree1@yahoo.comT

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Week of October 7 - 13 (Rhoades)

Tropic Overview

Tropic Cinema Skips through Time
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

From past to the present to worlds of fantasy, this week’s Tropic films take you on cinematic tours.

“The Birth of a Nation” takes us back to 1831, to a rebellion led by Nat Turner, a Virginia slave. Nate Parker both directs and stars as Turner in this epic historical drama. USA Today proclaims, “A work this powerful would be impressive for any filmmaker, so the fact that this is Parker’s first directorial feature is undoubtedly amazing.” And HitFix declares it to be “a vibrant, furious piece of work.”

On the other hand, “The Girl on the Train” is an up-to-the-minute psychological thriller in which an alcoholic ex-wife (Emily Blunt) rides the train past her old neighborhood, fantasizing about a woman who lives a few houses away. One day she witnesses her being abducted ... but is it what it seems? No, nothing is. The Straits Times notes, “The extraordinary thing … is that the hype around this bestseller-turned-movie has not lessened the story's ability to deliver a punch.” And concludes, “The film boasts an all-out amazing performance from Emily Blunt …”

With “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, ” director Tim Burton again leads us down a fanciful rabbit hole, introducing Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who oversees some very strange wards. A boy (Asa Butterfield) must step forward to protect them from murderous Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Rolling Stone says, “Tim Burton (is) repeating tricks from his greatest hits (think Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands). But stick with it just for those times when Burton flies high on his own peculiar genius.” And La Nacion adds, “Another of the many adaptations by Burton that shows that every story has a dark side. It's like it was written for him.”

“Hell or High Water” is a tale of West Texas in which an old lawman (Jeff Bridges) chases a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). It may be the best movie of the year. Philadelphia Inquirer tells us, “‘Hell or High Water’ is at once a tale of desperation in hard times, and a keenly observed character study – or studies.” And Indie London says it’s “destined to become a modern classic – and deservedly so.

And rounding up the Tropic’s lineup is Ron Howard’s documentary about the Fab Four, “Beatles:  Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.” This is a musical look at Beatles’ concert years, 1962-1966. Urban Cinefile tells us, “I tapped my toes throughout Ron Howard’s fabulous documentary that gives a real sense of the time, the Beatles’ talent and the Beatle-mania that sweeps the world in the 60s ...” And Sydney Morning Herald sums it up: “For those of us who can remember, it's a deliriously evocative nostalgia trip …”

Five films skipping through time at the Tropic – quite a tour!

The Girl on the Train (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Girl on the Train” Delivers a Taut Psychological Thriller
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I used to commute to work on Metro-North. As the train rumbled through the countryside I would gaze out the window at the perfect little houses inhabited by perfect little families, from time to time catching glimpses of their lives through unshaded windows. From time to time, I would image who these people might be, what they did for a living, whether they were happy or not, how did they spend their day?

Sometimes I’d see something, movements, almost from the corner of my eye, like a snapshot that’s unfocused. Was it an act of violence, a domestic disturbance? No, these were happy people I told myself.

Yet I recalled that 1945 film “Lady on a Train” in which Deanna Durbin is a commuter who witnesses a murder from her train window. Could it be …? Naw.

Nevertheless, novelist Paula Hawkins imagined something like this in her eleven-million-copy bestseller “The Girl on the Train.”

And director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) has brought it to the screen. You can catch “The Girl on the Train” this week at Tropic Cinema.

It tells the story of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a divorcee who is having a bad time. Although she’s lost her job, she still takes the train as if going to work in order to keep up appearances.

The train passes by her old house, where her ex (Justin Theroux) lives with his new wife and child. A few houses away, she spots a happy couple (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans) that she fanaticizes about. Then one trip, she spots the woman struggling with a man. Is she being abducted?

Drinking too much following her divorce, Rachel suffers from blackouts and can’t trust her own senses. But when she hears the woman has gone missing, she knows she has to come forward with her story.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Could Rachel be responsible for the woman’s disappearance?

This psychological thriller has been described as the next “Gone Girl.”

I’m glad I don’t ride a train anymore. There’s too much temptation to insert yourself in other people’s lives. As “The Girl on the Train” shows us, that can be dangerous.

The Birth of a Nation (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Birth of a Nation” Celebrated Among Controversy
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No, this is not the controversial 1915 silent film directed by D.W. Griffith. “The Birth of a Nation” we’re talking about is an award-winning historical epic created by newbie director Nate Parker.

The original two-part film by Griffith followed two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, one of them pro-North, the other pro-South. With the help of the Ku Klux Klan, everybody (except for black voters) finds peace. Right.

However, Nate Parker places the nation’s birth at an earlier epoch. His new film tells the true-life story of Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who led a rebellion in 1831. Some 65 white people died; more than 200 slaves were killed by militias in putting down the two-day rebellion. Turner was eventually caught and hanged.

“The Birth of a Nation” is currently stirring up audiences at Tropic Cinema.

Shortly after Nat Turner’s execution, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published a pamphlet titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” based on a series of jailhouse interviews. This is the main source for knowledge about Turner. In 1967 William Styron wrote a same-named novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. Nate Parker based his film on a story by himself and his old college chum, Jean McGianni Celestin.

Parker says, “(Nat Turner) became my hero in college. I never heard about him until I went to college.” In a 2012 interview with, the then-actor prophetically said, “I’d love to play Nat Turner.”

Leap forward in time: In addition to directing, co-writing, and co-producing the epic drama, Nate Parker also stars as Nat Turner in this new film.

When “The Birth of a Nation” screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Parker received a standing ovation. The film won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.

Parker and Celestin’s success has been marred when a rape charge from their college days came up. Although both were eventually acquitted, the victim committed suicide.

Therefore, this becomes one of those films -- like those by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski -- where you have to separate the merits of the creation from the personal life of the creator(s).

Southern Circuit: Donald Cried (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Meet the Filmmaker Behind “Donald Cried”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The scenery is unfamiliar to Key West: Mounds of dirty snow on each side of the street, a taxi plowing its way through the slush. This is the homecoming for Peter Latang as he returns to Rhode Island to collect his grandmother’s ashes. Little is he expecting to hook up with a ghost-from-the-past, his old high-school friend Donald.

An unlikely twosome, at first glance. Peter looks the part of a New York banker, neatly trimmed hair, insulated from the world with a scarf and topcoat. Donald, on the other hand, clad in his baggy jeans and hooded coat, flashes a crazed gaze from behind his thick glasses, sporting wild and unruly hair, a bristly beard, and the toothy smile of a dog reunited with its old master.

Like a bad dream, Peter can’t shake Donald. Forced by circumstances to ride in his van from one old haunt to the next, Peter finds himself thrust into a past that he’s tried to put behind him.

This is the premise of an off-kilter buddy movie, “Donald Cried.” It will be showing Monday night at Tropic Cinema as second in the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.

A 6 p.m. Champagne Reception will welcome Jesse Wakeman, the co-writer and lead actor in this brilliant character study. The 37-year-old filmmaker will be here to introduce his movie and take questions afterward.

We got a jump on the questions, catching him between planes as he plies the Southern Circuit with his new film. These screenings in 21 Southern communities are funded in part by a grant from South Arts, a regional arts organization, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. The series is sponsored locally by Jean Carper.

“I had a real figure in my life like Donald,” admits Jesse Wakeman. “It’s a universal thing, that old friend from high school who somehow remembers you as his best friend.”

His two partners had similar experiences.

Co-writer Kyle Espeleta and Wakeman went to high school together in a small Northern California town. Co-writer and director Kris Avedisian grew up in Rhode Island.

In “Donald Cried,” Jesse Wakeman provides a stoic foil as Peter. Kris Avedisian gives us a manic Donald, a pathetic figure who is as desperate to hang onto the past as Peter is to put it behind him.

Donald’s vulnerability is offset by Peter’s guilt. The film is at the same time funny, poignant, and painful.

The threesome -- Jesse, Kyle, and Kris -- started out making short films. “Honestly, we were just trying to find a way to make a legitimate movie,” Wakeman tells the story. A 2012 short version of “Donald Cried” seemed to resonate with audiences, so they decided to do a feature-length version. “How can our small crew with no money do it?” was the question they asked themselves.

So they raised the funds privately, through a small group of investors in Rhode Island and New York. “That’s what allowed us to get the movie off the ground. Our producer Kyle Martin was critical to getting the film made, making the production come together. Friends and family took on roles with the movie. The van that Peter and Donald drive around in the film was Kris’s own car,” Wakeman points out the austerity of the production.

Kris Avedisian is usually found behind the camera. “But he would sometimes do a goofy character,” recalls Wakeman. “He developed it through trying out the character, talking out loud, while driving his van around Warwick. And then Kyle and I came up from New York, and we shot the short in two days. And then the feature followed.”

“Donald Cried” has the feel of real life. Its small-town verisimilitude may remind you of “Nobody’s Fool” or “Beautiful Girls.”

How much was improvised? “It actually stuck close to the script,” says Jesse Wakeman. “After all the years of planning and developing the film, we pretty much knew the lines. And being from small towns, we’d all lived it.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Anthropoid (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Anthropoid" by director Sean Ellis focuses on a largely forgotten episode in World War II history, namely the pursuit and assassination of elite SS Reinhard Heydrich, known as The Blonde Beast and The Butcher of Prague.

The production is handsome with a piercing cinematography that is appropriately sepia-toned in all the right moments. One is treated to every exchange of gunfire with not one shelling missed by distraction. The details are painstaking and flawless with every footstep shown through a dark alley of historic Prague and all hurried codes duly circled and recorded. It is a shame though that the drama moves slower than a Panzer I tank.

This is mostly due to the stiff delivery of main actors Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Cillian Murphy who portray the real life resistance fighters Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, respectively. Aside from being expert resistance, we are given no solid keys or colors as to who these people are, and they are shown generically as interchangeable soldiers rather than vivid men, which they undoubtedly were. There are endless scenes of the two men mumbling and scribbling but we know little of their person or what drives them to action. This is a missed opportunity.

Jozef Gabčík is supposed to be enthralled by young Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) but there is little exchange or chemistry. The oft-glimpsed actor Toby Jones is here as Jan Zelenka-Hajský, the man who whispers for the resistance behind the scenes.

All lethargy aside, the time does indeed come to lie in wait for the eerily impersonal Heydritch (Detlef Bothe) and it is at this point that the film succeeds with a heart-pricking tension equal to De Palma. We can all guess what comes next: the brusque march of green helmets smashing against doors with the sad and horrid punching in of faces, heedless of consequence.

There are some pulpy but unfortunately all too real torture scenes. The film benefits greatly from the action sequences, which wisely emphasize existential struggle rather than bravado ala Aldo Ray. Case in point are the stick grenades which are thrown back and forth with a regularity that almost achieves some black humor in spite of itself.

Somber is the outcome. Though portrayed with a stiff upper lip that falls short of pathos, "Anthropoid" deserves credit for its excellent detail in highlighting the fight against one of the most abhorrent men in history.

Write Ian at

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mia Madre (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Mia Madre

The introspective writer/director Nanni Moretti (Caro Dario) is back with "Mia Madre." This is a thoughtful and rhythmic film about a seasoned filmmaker striving to express her ideas while contending with various impending pressures, not least of them being mortality.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a director deep in the production of a socially conscious film about the exploitation of factory workers. She puts herself though a rigorous and often uncomfortable schedule of work with little or no rest for sleeping or eating, even though friends and associates urge her to break. Margherita's mother Ada (Guilia Lazzarini) is seriously ill in the hospital and she is constantly going to location and then back to the hospital to check in on her.

This is a slow and wistful film that tightens by degrees and then hits with impact. Nanni Moretti, (who also plays the Margherita's brother, Giovanni ) is often autobiographical and has been called "The Italian Woody Allen". While the film is confessional and existential in tone, it does have episodic touches peppered throughout.

Actor John Turturro is Barry, a self important Method actor who can't be bothered to learn his lines. His behavior off-set, combined with his manic stubbornness makes him insufferable. To complicate matters, no one takes Margherita's directions. She returns to her mother's bed, feeling indecisive about her life's path and also wracked with guilt as a caregiver and a mother herself.

While this film is less quirky than Moretti's earlier outings as it centers on the relationship between a director and her mother, fans of Nanni Moretti the auteur will find his trademarks. In recurring scenes, Margherita talks to a younger version of herself as she exits a movie theater. In another, she wakes from a dream to discover that her bedroom floor has become flooded with water, cause unknown.

"Mia Madre" is circular and sneaky. Above all it highlights the boundaries between mother and daughter, creator and parent: a universal point of emotion that stretches beyond earth and into the spaces of ghosts and memory.

Write Ian at