" Now that we’re in Beverly Hills maybe you should change your name to Heather. "
— Susan Sarandon, Anywhere But Here

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.

Baadasssss

***2004, Mario Van Peebles

Through it all we root for Mario-as-Melvin, who makes a good, likeable hero.

The 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles launched the “blaxploitation” movement in American cinema. I was too young to know about it in 1971, but when Criterion released it on home video I watched it. I was unimpressed by the movie, and the DVD didn’t explain why it deserved such a prestigious spot in the Criterion catalogue. What was missing was a historical context in which to frame the movie.

Grin without a Cat

****1977, Chris Marker

Unless you are up on your history, it will be a jumble of marching in the streets

Although it is a documentary about the 1960s, don’t expect to see hippies and Woodstock in Grin without a Cat. Those tired American stereotypes play no part in Chris Marker’s four-hour, three-ring-circus of a film. The main attraction in Grin without a Cat is Paris in May of 1968... which was a sort of a French Woodstock in that it’s a watershed event by which all others are judged. Student demonstrators took to the streets and battled with police and a general strike almost toppled the government.

Quantum Hoops

***2007, Rick Greenwald

America loves its athletes, but the scholars are just as driven, determined, and successful

Whether I’m cool enough to be considered a nerd or not, I still have a soft spot in my heart for them. I admire brainiacs. In school, it’s pretty easy to tease and disdain the brains, but I always found them more interesting and inspiring than the more normal, more popular, and more accepted kids.

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.