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" It’s an island, babe, if you don’t bring it here, you won’t find it here. "
— Harrison Ford, Six Days Seven Nights

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.

Fantasia 2000

***1/21999, Hunt, Butoy, Goldberg, Algar, Glebas, Brizzi, and

Fantasia was designed for sequels

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 dazzle in high-definition video. The version of Fantasia available on a new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is as close to the original theatrical version as you’re likely to see. Fantasia 2000 pays tribute to its predecessor and gives Disney’s animators a chance do something different. This set includes the long-awaited video release of Destino, a Salvador Dalí-inspired short film that was begun in 1946 and completed in 2003. The bonus features for both movies provide glimpses into the artists’ creative processes.

Jackie Brown

***1997, Quentin Tarantino

There are a lot of things right in Jackie Brown, and they all combine to form an entertaining, stimulating movie.

First, the plot is a twisty little caper which Tarantino adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel (whose Get Shorty also made the favorable jump to the big screen). It involves a flight attendant (Pam Grier) who’s a small-time smuggler on the side. When the cops catch up to her and tell her she either informs or to goes to jail, she informs. Then she tells her “employer” about the cops. We can’t tell what she’s got in mind because she’s playing both sides, which keeps us interested and involved in the story.

Second, the performances are top notch. The most surprising comes from Robert Forster, a character actor who plays Max Cherry, a bail bondsman. One is convinced that the person on the screen really is a bail bondsman and not an actor. Samuel L. Jackson as crime boss Ordell Robbie and Robert De Niro as his stoned sidekick Louis check in with their usual badass performances. Pam Grier makes a solid showing as the title character, though I don’t see how she is irreplaceably perfect for the role, as Tarantino has suggested (maybe he sees himself as the great reviver of pop culture icons of the ‘70s).

Third, whether you like the look or not, Tarantino and production designer David Wasco (who worked with Tarantino on Pulp Fiction) have created a unique style that successfully mixes elements of several decades. The cop-funk music, the orange and brown interiors, and the presence of Pam Grier all suggest the movie is set in the ‘70s. But Jackson’s millinery and long hair puts the movie in the ‘80s. The pot-smoking blond beach girl and her VW bus pins the movie in the late ‘60s, while “Chicks with Guns” on the VCR reminds us that the real setting is the ‘90s.

Finally, The cinematography and editing are fresh and interesting, but they also serve the story — they’re not just there to show off. (Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro has worked with Tarantino before.) Early on, Jackie Brown looks like a student film. Long takes with a static camera let scenes play out how they will. In fact, one of the first shots of the movie is a long take showing Ordell and Louis on a couch. After quite a while, Jackson orders his blond groupie to get some ice. She was framed out of the picture and we didn’t even know she existed until the men became thirsty. It was a clever way to show Ordell’s disdain for women.

Toward the end, a critical scene is played out from a few different perspectives, each revealing new and important details about the scene. It was a nice little Rashomon bit (or a Clue: the Movie bit for the cynical among you) that drew out the tension of the scene and gave the whole sequence some extra weight. Since it is critical to the story, the extra weight is appropriate.

One final point is well worth mentioning. I am constantly surprised (and pleasantly so) by how normal people look in British movies. Actors are chosen for how well they fit the parts and not for how many glamour magazine covers they have filled. I think it’s great that a 44-year old, nonanorexic woman is the hero in this hip, slick, American movie.

Congratulations to Tarantino for proving himself an able filmmaker who promises to change the face of Hollywood movies.

The Glass Castle

***

The Glass Castle is a solid reminder that each life in a family is an individual pursuit.

Jeannette Walls’ life story is almost too good to be true.

The Glass Castle calls to mind a lot of literary forebears and flows together so seamlessly, it seems like a work of fiction. It’s a rarity for reality to be so purposefully messy.

Margin Call

***2011, J.C. Chandor

Humanizes the cause of the current recession

The Occupy Wall Street protesters should set up a projector and have an outdoor screening of Margin Call. It’s a movie for our times — it’s about the beginning of the recession in 2008. The fictionalized account condenses events to a single day and night whereas the recession took weeks or months to unfold. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting interpretation of what went wrong.

Saturday Night Fever

***1977, John Badham

Travolta is charismatic on the screen, but is also able to disappear into the role

It is difficult to separate Saturday Night Fever from the phenomenon that surrounded it — the disco craze, the fashions, and John Travolta’s iconic pose in the white suit. The movie does capture a moment in time in the late 1970s, but it holds up well 30 years later. Look beyond the suit, and you’ll find a story with universal themes, as well as a fine performance by Travolta.

Somewhere in Europe

***1947, Géza von Radványi

1947 film shot on location features children who really were orphans of the war

Somewhere in Europe is the story of 25 orphaned and abandoned children as they struggle to survive in a war-torn landscape. The interest here is that this 1947 film was shot on location in Hungary, then still freshly scarred by World War II, and features children who really were orphans of the war. Being that close in time and space to the actual event gives Somewhere an honest face that can not be denied.

The Woman in Black

***2012

The Woman in Black is a good old-fashioned chiller.

The Woman in Black is a good old-fashioned chiller.

Something’s not right in a remote English coastal village. The mysterious suicides of three young girls have only compounded the cursed atmosphere. Indeed, it seems children have a hard time staying alive in the village ironically named Nine Lives Causeway.

Love & Mercy

***1/22015, Bill Pohland

Cusack opens up as a damaged Brian Wilson

The first thing I did after seeing Love & Mercy was to look up Pet Sounds on Spotify. Of course I was familiar with Beach Boys songs such as Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows. But it had never occurred to me Pet Sounds might be a serious work of pop-music art, or that Brian Wilson was a “genius” on a par with Paul McCartney.

Flags of Our Fathers

***1/22006, Clint Eastwood

The film has a lot on its mind, but it is always grounded by the three protagonists

Flags of Our Fathers is based on a book co-written by James Bradley, the son of one of the “Heroes of Iwo Jima” — the six soldiers who raised the flag in that unforgettable picture.

The Pledge

***1/22001, Sean Penn

Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson in an artistic blue-collar mystery

The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, the first two films Sean Penn directed, received mixed-to-favorable reviews. More importantly, they showed the promise of artistry. In The Pledge, a blue-collar murder mystery, Penn’s talent as a director comes into full bloom.

Rescue Dawn

***2007, Werner Herzog

Herzog’s POW movie doesn’t have swagger. It has bravery, cunning, and triumph, tempered by reality.

A one-sentence summary of Rescue Dawn might sound like Rambo or Top Gun, but it’s not the action-packed explosion-fest you might expect. There are, however, two words that describe the film well: Werner Herzog.

Seven Years in Tibet

***1/21997, Jean-Jacques Annaud

Seven Years in Tibet is great, in both senses of the word. Much of the movie takes place in the Himalayas; the setting and the cinematography are spectacular. Even those who dislike this movie must admit that.

But not all of Seven Years takes place on a mountain. Most of the movie follows Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) in his dealings with other people. In fact, if this epic movie has one center, it is Harrer, and on those terms, this movie is excellent.

Some critics have complained that there’s “too much Brad Pitt, not enough Dalai Lama.” Others criticize the Western condescension of Eastern culture. The latter comment is a valid complaint, and it is perhaps the reason this movie doesn’t deserve four stars. The former, though, fails to take the movie on its own terms. This movie tells the story Heinrich Harrer’s life and emotional growth. In that life, the Dalai Lama is a supporting character.

The movie opens with “Harry” leaving his pregnant wife in Austria and setting off to climb Nanga Parbet, a mountain in the Himalayas that his country has presumptuously adopted as its own. His wife begs him to stay but, annoyed, he coldly rejects her. At the station, official German well-wishers are excited for Harry’s attempt on Nanga Parbet, and they give him a Nazi flag to plant on its summit. Coldly, again, he takes their flag, and it is never seen again. His reasons for leaving Austria are purely selfish. Neither fatherhood nor fatherland matters to him.

On their first attempt on Nanga Parbet, Harry’s party is beaten by the weather and has to turn around. They get down to the camp and find themselves prisoners of war. War has broken out between Britain and Germany — and by association, India and Austria.

Harry doesn’t take to prison well, and makes several escape attempts (reminiscent of Steve “The Cooler King” McQueen’s role in The Great Escape). A bitter but resigned “Dear John” letter from his wife, and his comrades’ enthusiasm, inspire one last bold escape attempt. Most of the prisoners do escape, and most of them are recaptured, but not Harry and Peter Aufschneiter (David Thewlis).

The pair make their way out of the unfriendly territory of India and into neighboring Tibet, but they find they are no more welcome here than they were in India. They decide to stick together in spite of the friction between them, and they spend quite a while wandering through the Himalayas — long enough for them to grow long beards and dark, leathery suntans.

Since his wife gave up on him and the world is at war, Harry now has no reason to go home. In fact, his life has very little purpose at all. Wandering the beautiful land and encountering its spiritual people, he begins to fill this void in his life with the Himalayas.

The movie tells us that Tibetans walk long journeys to pray at distant altars to atone for past wrongdoings. The longer the walk, the greater the atonement. It is clear that, deliberate or not, the walking is clearing Harry’s head and his spirit. Harry is beginning to understand his flaws and internally atone for them.

But atoning for past sins is only part of Harry’s epic journey. Changing the current and future man is the other half.

Eventually, driven toward the protection of civilization by bandits, Harry and Peter find themselves in a caravan entering the forbidden city of Lhasa, Tibet, where Westerners are not allowed. Once inside, Harry is caught stealing something to eat (from a dog, no less), but the dog’s owner is kind and invites them to stay. A little influence with the local politicians, and Harry and Peter are welcomed into Tibetan society.

Harry is invited to an audience with the Dalai Lama (played by three actors, though mostly by Jamyang Wang Chuck), a young boy who has a sinful appetite for news and facts from the outside world. Harry handles the formality of speaking to a Dalai Lama awkwardly, but the boy takes to him and invites him to become a tutor, of sorts.

This is where critics complain about Western condescension of Tibetan culture. It is presumptuous to take the customs of a different culture lightly. And it’s not just Pitt’s character that presumes — Annaud himself is guilty. He includes a scene, played up for comedy, of Tibetans treating earthworms very reverently. Ha ha! Those silly Tibetans!

Harry has atoned for his past failures, but he still has room for emotional growth. For example, when his best friend gets married, he resents their happiness; he is jealous. The last third of the movie shows Harry teaching the young Dalai Lama and immersing himself in work. These responsibilities help him grow and genuinely change for the better.

I admit I am not a very good judge of acting. And because so many people talk of Brad Pitt as a filmic object, it’s hard to decide if what’s effective is his presence or his performance. Either way, I found his portrayal of Henry to be very effective; his character genuinely grew from beginning to end. The change was subtle, but it was there. (And, hey, he managed to keep his accent all the way through.)

The other performance that really stood out (for me) was that of Jamyang Wang Chuck as the 14-year-old Dalai Lama, whose innocence, curiosity, and wisdom were not marred by bad-child-actor syndrome.

But maybe the best thing about Seven Years in Tibet is the spectacular setting and cinematography. Even if that were all this movie had in its favor, it might deserve a recommendation. Luckily, there is more than just pretty pictures, and this movie is well recommended, but be prepared to forgive it its Western perspective.

Thank You for Smoking

***2006, Jason Reitman

Skewers corporate America in a cute little satire. Too bad the ending simply blows smoke.

Thank You for Smoking skewers corporate America in a cute little satire about the double-talking lobbyists who spin everything in their favor. It’s a shame the ending simply blows smoke.