" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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Pic of the Week

Each week we pick a recommended "Pic" from our archives. Below are our most recent picks.

The Edge

***1/21997, Lee Tamahori

According to the Internet Movie Database, one of the working titles for The Edge was Bookworm. Not very exciting, but it does sum up what is most interesting about the movie, namely the character Charles Morse, played superbly by Anthony Hopkins.

In some ways, Charles is similar to Stevens, the character Hopkins played in The Remains of The Day. Both have a quiet dignity; both are reserved, almost shy, on the surface, but each has a buried pathos that gives him resounding depth.

Charles is a millionaire taking a winter holiday with his wife and friends at a remote cabin in Alaska. His trophy wife Mickey (whom he actually loves) is here for another reason, too; she is the model for their photographer friend Bob (Alec Baldwin), who has also come along on the trip.

When it comes to his wife, Charles is jealous of everybody, and Bob is on the top of the list. Hopkins shows you that his character is jealous, but also, on top of the emotion, he shows you the intellectual man’s struggle to keep the emotion hidden. It is a superb and solid performance.

Charles’s special talent is that facts stick to his mind like Post-It® Notes. The cabin’s proprietor (L.Q. Jones, who is very good in a small role) tries to stump Charles with a question about Indian lore: he asks Charles what’s on the opposite side of a paddle that shows a panther. Charles knows that the counterpart is a rabbit sitting and smoking a pipe. He even knows that the rabbit is acting casually because the rabbit knows that it is smarter than the panther, and therefore has nothing to worry about.

The next day Charles and three friends set off in search of the proprietor’s Indian friend, who has the perfect face for Bob’s camera. They take the plane to the next lake North, but a flock of birds causes the plane to crash into the ice-cold water. Three survive the crash and realize that no rescue party will be coming, at least not very soon. If they are to survive the cold (and the bears), they will need to rely on their wits and their survival knowledge (i.e., on Charles).

Much has been said of their nemesis, a bear with a taste for human flesh. The bear was a convincing character, but he is not the only conflict these men face. Panic, wounds, cold, fear, hunger, jealousy, and greed all work against the survival of the men. None of the conflicts they face, with the possible exception of the bear, feels contrived or written. Each problem feels like a genuine obstacle to survival, and each brings new panic, new fear, and in Charles’ case, a new chance to test his mind.

I think one of the more interesting scenarios in fiction asks you how you would handle it if you were really put to the test. Some examples that come to my mind are Steven King’s The Stand in which 99% of the human population is wiped out. How would you handle being the last person alive in your town? Or James Clavell’s King Rat, in which POWs live in unbearable conditions of disease and starvation. Would you retreat into insanity or would you fight to survive?

The Edge, pits man against the Alaskan winter without the tools of civilization to help him survive. Would you panic or could you think your way out?

The scenario alone would make an interesting movie, but because the hero is a smart man instead of a strong man or a lucky man, the movie is even more interesting, more tangible, more approachable. The Edge is not a disaster movie like Dante’s Peak or Twister, where only luck or superheroism can overcome the awesome forces of nature. Instead, man overcomes nature calmly, slowly, and realistically. It doesn’t take a dashing young hero, it takes a calm, quiet, 50-year old man, who tries to teach his friends “what one man can do, another can do.”

There is something of a twist at the ending. In general, I don’t mind giving away endings — there’s usually enough ironic foreshadowing that knowing about the ending actually helps you appreciate the rest of the movie. But in this one, I was glad I had to guess, and so I won’t discuss the wonderful foreshadowing Tamahori and writer David Mamet put in the movie. But thinking back, there were scenes and lines early on that take on new significance knowing the outcome of the movie.

And after the plot twist, the movie continues on for a bit longer. When the survivors return home, they talk to the press, and what they say makes one of the best endings to a film I’ve ever seen. Think about the last line of the movie and all the meanings it can have — as intended, as it could be interpreted by the audience, and as interpreted by the press.

The Edge is really a very good movie, and it may make a few “10 best” lists, including this one. But I must fault it for a clumsy setup. The movie really gets interesting after the plane crash. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to get to that point, and that first setup is essential to the story. But it is clear that the beginning is a necessary evil that clashes with the tone of the rest of the film.

Still, I can’t think of any better way to introduce the necessary traits of the characters. And the characters and portrayals are what really sets this movie apart, so the fact that there are two disjointed acts doesn’t need to be a major criticism.

And if that’s all that’s wrong with a movie, you’ve got something worth seeing.

Mean Girls

***1/22004, Mark S. Waters

The movie earns extra credit for its surprisingly humanitarian message.

A comedy that covers the terrain somewhere between Heathers and Clueless, Mean Girls is a smart, witty teen movie that, subversive tendencies aside, also has a heart for the kids at its center.

8 Mile

***2002, Curtis Hanson

a good drama, portrait of poverty, and mainstream taste of rap

8 Mile is formulaic. It’s the story of Rocky, but on the mic instead of in the ring. Or as one viewer put it, it’s a male version of Coal Miner’s Daughter. However you view it, it’s a story that’s been told before.

Force Majeure

***1/22014, Ruben Östlund

Little fights turn into big fights when couples use their emotions as weapons

In Force Majeure, as in 2011’s The Loneliest Planet, something traumatic happens that only takes an instant. But what happens in that unthinking blink of time changes everything between the people who live through it.

Morvern Callar

***2003, Lynne Ramsay

Morton conveys a person who is always alone in a crowded room and doesn’t mind

Morvern Callar is the story of a personal journey in which a young woman is able to take advantage of some unusual circumstances to leave her mundane life behind. The DVD from Palm Pictures has few extras, but is worth a look for the movie and the performance of the lead actress.


***2005, Greg Harrison

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light

November has the same structure as Run Lola Run, but instead of being energetic, it’s introspective and somber (I know: don’t all rush out to buy tickets at once). November is not for the popcorn-and-explosions crowd.

Bridge to Terabithia

***2007, Gabor Csupo

Don’t be misled by the advertising; Terabithia is firmly rooted in the real world

Don’t be misled by the advertising for Bridge to Terabithia, which would like audiences to believe that the movie is a special effects-laden fantasy adventure along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. The movie, based on the award winning book by Katherine Paterson, is about friendship and coping with life’s difficulties, and is firmly rooted in the real world.


***2000, M. Night Shyamalan

Unbreakable is the fourth movie in M. Night Shyamalan’s already-stellar career (Shyamalan wrote and directed The Sixth Sense a year ago). Unbreakable is less amazing, less well crafted, and less universal in its appeal than its predecessor. Nevertheless, Shyamalan proves he’s a solid, capable filmmaker whom we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future.

Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard whose marriage is all but over. Returning from a job interview in New York, Dunn’s train derails, killing everyone else on board. Dunn is the only survivor of the crash, and stranger still, he doesn’t have a scratch on him.

Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) was born with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, which leaves his bones weak and brittle. Throughout his life, the smallest accidents resulted in broken bones. Naturally enough, Elijah is fascinated by the news reports of this man who appears to be unbreakable, and he contacts David.

But Elijah’s fascination with David goes deeper than mere envy. Elijah has always been enamored of superhero comic books. In fact he owns an art gallery dedicated to comic book art. Elijah believes that superheroes are a Jungian echo of true human potential. Maybe someone like David, who survives a train wreck without so much as a scratch, is the literal human manifestation of the comic book superhero.

A lot of people are beginning to take comic book art seriously. Maybe the next step is to take comic book characters more seriously, perhaps as modern mythology, or even, as the film suggests, as folk tales of real human prowess.

At one point Elijah proposes to David that maybe Superman’s omnipotence is merely an exaggeration of robust health, that maybe x-ray vision is a heightened sense of empathy. Maybe superhero comic books are tapping into a subconscious reality that becomes obvious once we know what we’re looking for. Maybe superheroes are real; they are regular people like David, whose strength and constitution seem to rival Superman’s.

Like its predecessor, Unbreakable is well crafted. Eduardo Serra includes some well thought-out camera work, including a four-minute long conversation captured in a single take. The shot moves back and forth between Willis and a fellow passenger. It’s filmed as though it were footage edited from two camera angles, but it’s all done in a single take. Spike Lee did something similar with a handheld camera (see Mo’ Better Blues and Do the Right Thing), but never for four minutes straight. One could say that this camera trick is a mere flourish — that it’s Serra’s way of showing off. But it certainly does the film no harm, and it makes it more fun to watch.

Serra and Shyamalan also use another trick. The trick itself is nothing remarkable — they show an upside-down image when a character’s point of view is inverted. For example, David’s son is watching TV, hanging off the couch with his head on the floor. From his point of view, the TV is upside-down, which is how Shyamalan presents it. But Serra and Shyamalan’s genius is to repeat that simple trick to create a connection. The next time we see an upside-down image, it has two meanings: its own literal meaning, plus its relation to the previous occurrence of an upside-down image.

The acting in Unbreakable is impeccable. Bruce Willis brings sadness and vulnerability to the part of David. Having survived something so harrowing as a train wreck, and feeling the guilt of being the only survivor, he just wants to settle into a simple, plain life. Intriguing as Elijah’s ideas may be, David doesn’t want to be a hero.

Samuel L. Jackson fills the role of Elijah perfectly. He’s a bit eccentric — his silver Mercedes is lined with lots of padding. His kinky, tilted afro offsets the purple lamé lapels on his black overcoat. He is fierce and righteous when it comes to his area of expertise, driven and impatient when it comes to fools.

The two leads are good in their roles, and they seem to have a genuine respect (if not a liking) for each other. It’s not surprising that Willis and Jackson would do so well in their roles, because Shyamalan wrote the script with them specifically in mind.

Like the nation at large, I was impressed by Shyamalan’s last film, The Sixth Sense. I was eager to see if this next film would live up to my high expectations. It doesn’t quite; Unbreakable seems less universally likeable than The Sixth Sense. But Unbreakable is no sophomore slump, and Shyamalan looks like a force to be reckoned with. There is no doubt he is capable of another film as good as these last two. And hopefully many more.

Waking Life

****2001, Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater is growing in power.

He released Slacker in 1991, a wandering, shapeless film following character after character in their daily lives meandering through the streets of Austin, Texas. The inexpensive, chaotic film gained critical acclaim and remarkable box office returns, particularly for a film about basically nothing (or, maybe “a film about anything” would be more accurate).

Film, as a medium that records reality, is too literalFast forward two years. Linklater directs Dazed and Confused, a cult classic destined to be viewed through a thick haze of marijuana smoke for generations to come. Follow that with Before Sunrise – another rambler of a film, following two strangers who’ve met on a train as they spend the night talking to each other on the streets of Vienna. After a minor misstep with a screen version of the Eric Bogosian play Suburbia and a straightforward, major studio take on 20’s robbers The Newton Boys, Linklater comes out this year with two of the year’s most well executed films in Tape and Waking Life.

Following the lineage is pretty exciting.

When Slacker first hit the big screen, it served as a kind of beacon of hope for kids like me growing up in the heartland. If a guy from Austin could make a film about his hometown following the strange people from his daily life around, I reckoned, then so could I. You don’t have to be living in Hollywood or N.Y. after all, I thought. Of course, when I watch Slacker now I realize that it suffers from some occasionally woodlike dialogue and is occasionally (gasp) kind of boring. As you watch Linklater’s concepts gel in later films like Before Sunrise, you can see how the dialogue has matured as Linklater learns how to handle the delicate transition from free-form life ponderings to compelling cinematic moments.

That maturation is fully evident in Linklater’s latest work – the truly masterful Waking Life.

If there is a plot to Waking Life, it concerns the world of Wiley Wiggins. Best known for his role in Dazed and Confused, Wiggins’ character finds himself trapped in a gorgeously animated dream that he can’t get out of. He walks around a nameless city/cities, holding conversations with and listening to a cornucopia of thinkers, from beautiful sex objects to idiot savants. As in Slacker, the characters he meets represent a wide range of philosophies, backgrounds, and ambitions. The discussion is the thematic centerpiece for the film, though visually, it’s all about the animation.

Giving Richard Linklater all the credit for Waking Life would be a little like complimenting the Spice Girls and only congratulating Posh Spice. While Posh may be the one with the best clothes sense and positive poutability, how could one forget the somersaults and kicks that made Sporty Spice so damn sporty?

Seriously though, what makes Waking Life a brilliant film is the animation, the brainchild of Austin-based artist/inventor Bob Sabiston.

Sabiston put the BS and masters degrees in Computer Graphics Research he received from MIT to good use, developing custom software called Rotoshop. The software is an extension of a popular animation technique called rotoscoping, used in films as early as Disney’s Snow White. Sabiston utilized the software for a number of well-received shorts (including some infamous MTV spots) and built his company FlatBlack Films around that success.

Sabiston’s “Rotoshop” software simplifies the animation process significantly, giving artists more extensive freedom of expression and producers and directors a cheaper tool for professional quality animation. Sabiston’s standard reply to the question “how much did it cost to animate Waking Life?” is “as much as it cost to animate that little animated gingerbread man in Shrek.”

Independent animators are chomping at the bit for a chance to utilize Sabiston’s technology, and rightfully so. Where companies like Pixar spend millions on hardware to develop their animation properties, Sabiston’s software runs just fine on a top shelf Mac desktop. No to mention, of course, the amazing results.

Waking Life features some of the most complex and original visual imagery ever put to celluloid. Where films like Toy Story and Final Fantasy lose some aspect of the wonder and amazement as the film goes on, Rotoshop allows for extreme variety – and a kind of mesmerizing floaty, ethereal background. It truly and absolutely must be seen.

Besides providing awesome visuals, the film poses some challenging questions about film, art, life, and a whole slew of other issues.

Waking Life, for example, pays obvious homage to surrealism.

The Surrealists believed rationality, reality, and religion to be limiting structures that kept us from fully exploring all the possibilities for wonder and amazement with the world around us. To them, the solution was to challenge these structures by promoting and pursuing absurdity, social anarchy, and artistic disobedience.

One way to fulfill these goals was to spend more time pursuing what Andre Breton called “waking life” - opening oneself up to the possibilities of the dream world while not necessarily retreating into its confines.

Linklater’s characters consistently refer to this desire to transcend the confines of societal structures through imagination. Characters stop each other on the street, vocally acknowledging some sort of subconscious conversation they’ve already been having. Talking heads give nods to the evolution of human and “neo-human” intelligence. A man drives through the streets (as in Slacker) shouting through a megaphone for the dream city’s inhabitants to regain “control and identity” through disobedience and creativity.

At times, Linklater’s pursuits of these themes come off as a sort of intellectual and artistic call to arms. One of his characters launches into a speech about reclaiming significance as he pours gasoline on his body and lights himself on fire. In another scene, a group of young, fit men virtually march through the streets spouting anarchist ideology. The men are portrayed as strong and positive, a nod to the respect and fascination with anarchy Linklater has displayed in virtually all of his films.

As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”. In Waking Life the message, though appropriately complex and involved enough to invite several viewings, is largely to be seen in the way the film has been made. Linklater continues to delve into the type of filmmaking in which “a river refuses no streams”. As in Slacker, Suburbia, and Before Sunrise, the film is a kind of loose, frenetic, anarchic free-for-alls where truth in complexity is given far more credence than the need for continuity.

The animation behind the film fits in well with Linklater’s leanings. Rather than hiring hundreds of animators all striving to make a film look like one continuous scene, Bob Sabiston’s animation team of thirty were each assigned one character, which they painted individually. The resulting awe-inspiring visuals capture everything that is good about trusting artists to create without a muzzle. While the folks at Pixar may be putting out technically exciting work, Waking Life serves as a sort of righteously bared middle finger to the quivering mentality that turns talented artists into Disneyfied yes-men.

While the film tackles a huge range of concepts, with nods to Sartre, Kierkegaard, Yeats, and a long list of intellectual and literary figures, the theme that seemed to jump out at me the most was the self-reflexive statement on where art was going and where it should go.

While it certainly doesn’t seem like Linklater is specifically suggesting that the audience go out and start a revolution, this is the kind of exhilarating, intelligent, original film that may inspire a generation of filmmakers to do so.

Les Choristes

***1/22004, Christophe Barratier

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD

Les Choristes is the kind of movie that could only come from France. It’s a charming tale about the power of culture over brawn, and it is as sweet as marzipan.

Muscle Shoals

***2013, Greg 'Freddy' Camalier

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn’t on your iPod, you’ll like seeing where it came from

I probably don’t have any songs on my iPod that were recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But most Americans will recognize — and like — just about every song featured in the documentary from first-time-director and Boulder resident Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier.