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Pic of the Week

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

Next Stop Wonderland

***1/21998, Brad Anderson

Next Stop Wonderland is a great romantic comedy, but you wouldn’t know it from the first scene.

Spy Game

***2001, Tony Scott

Very good tension and drama, and more brains than your average Hollywood spy thriller

John LeCarre, meet James Bond.

James Bond is a man of action, and in his movies, plot lines are secondary to the action. LeCarre’s spies are about manipulation and psychology. They’re good at setting up elaborate double operations, while questioning the morality of what they do. LeCarre brings depth, detail and deception to the spy genre.

Spy Game puts these two spirits together in a Hollywood shaker. The resulting drink is not subtle enough to become a favorite recipe, but it’s an effective mix, bold and tasty, suitable for everyday consumption.

Redford takes Pitt under his wingRobert Redford is Nathan Muir, a grizzled veteran of the CIA. It’s his last day on the job (really), and he finds out that Tom Bishop is in trouble. Bishop (Brad Pitt) was caught in China when a rescue operation went bad.

The CIA is trying to figure out what Bishop was doing, and they need his mentor Muir to brief them on Bishop. Muir, meanwhile, is trying to figure out exactly what the CIA does and doesn’t know, and why they seem so willing to let Bishop be executed. Muir is careful not to reveal too much, even to his colleagues within the CIA, which is an interesting topic unto itself.

The film is structured as a series of flashbacks. We know what has happened, but we don’t know why. The “why” gets answered throughout the movie, each scene revealing a piece of the puzzle. It’s much more satisfying than a linear telling of the same story would have been. Credit screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner (and possibly co-screenwriter David Arata) with a smart, gripping story. If only they deserved praise for their dialogue, which too often sounds like bad cop-movie banter.

Director and Jerry Bruckheimer alumnus Tony Scott works with the material well to deliver lots of tension and drama. He borrows techniques from Three Kings and his own Enemy of the State (he uses the same cinematographer, Daniel Mindel) to keep the movie visually stimulating.

If there’s a problem with the direction, it’s that the movie is too stimulating. The rock soundtrack is incessant, and scenes of simple dialogue and exposition are imbued with an energy they don’t really need. These tricks may keep the audience’s heart rate high, but it’s not really called for in serious moviemaking.

So Spy Game is too Hollywood. So what? It’s good at what it does. It has very good tension and drama, and more brains than your average Hollywood spy thriller. In fact, there is an interesting plot point I missed during the movie, which adds depth and motivation to the characters that I had already accepted, even without the plot point.

Robert Redford is still a commanding presence, although his role in Spy Game isn’t as meaty as in The Last Castle. Brad Pitt, a talented and versatile actor, is watchable as always, although he is underused as the young spy under Muir’s wing. Catherine McCormack rounds out the cast as The Girl, more a plot device than a character.

Fans of John LeCarre and Ian Fleming’s James Bond will all find something to like in Spy Game. Neither camp will be 100% satisfied, but Spy Game should quench just about any thirst.

The Last Samurai

***1/22003, Edward Zwick

Succeeds as a well-told tale of Japan and America on the cusp of a new era

Tom Cruise takes the audience on an epic tour of Japan’s era of modernization, in the 1870s. Despite of some rough spots, The Last Samurai is the best major studio release in many months.

The Horse Whisperer

***1/21998, Robert Redford

I believe the book was called Speaker for the Dead. In it, the protagonist was trying to help a mother calm an unruly child whose father had died. After the usual shushing noises failed to help, the man simply held the squirming child on his lap. When the kid saw he saw he was trapped, he resorted to wetting his pants, then trying to squirm free. The man held the child tighter, letting the sour liquid soak his own clothes, continuing to reassure the child as though nothing had happened. Gradually the child’s squirming turned into hugging, holding tight to the man whose patience, unconditional love, and permanent presence had won out.

Decasia

****2002, Bill Morrison

Still wonderful, even on home video

I got hooked on Decasia the first time I saw it several years ago. When I found out that Icarus Films was putting it out on Blu-ray, I had to see it again.

The Flower of Evil

***1/22003

What’s and so thoroughly satisfying is its merciless, merry chronicle of a nuclear family’s meltdown

Old Man Claude Chabrol just keeps rolling along.... With 50 films to his credit, this veteran from the vanguard of the French New Wave has cast ashore a real treasure: La Fleur du Mal (2003). Whereas the title evokes an intoxicating whiff of 19th century French poetry and perversity, the toxic perfume of the film itself seeps out from its deceptively simple modern setting.

Angels & Demons

***2009, Ron Howard

Rises above standard popcorn fare and serves as grist for lots of post-movie chatter

Angels & Demons is the kind of dark lark The Da Vinci Code should’ve been.

X-Men 3

***2006, Brett Ratner

Fails to reach its lofty potential but it still serves as an entertaining diversion

X-Men: The Last Stand fails to reach its lofty potential but it still serves as an entertaining diversion.

Rocky Road to Dublin

****Peter Lennon

Documentary captures the real Ireland in 1966

The poor Irish, it seems like they can never get a break, which is perhaps what makes them so interesting to everyone else.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

***2020, Giuseppe Capotondi

The final 10 minutes get to the dizzy heights of manipulation and counter-manipulation.

The Burnt Orange Heresy fills the canvas with some interesting ideas, but the picture is muddled by uneven brushstrokes and a discordant color palette.

Skyfall

****2012, Sam Mendes

In Skyfall, James Bond learns that fun never goes out of style.

In Skyfall, James Bond learns that fun never goes out of style.

The Lighthouse

***1/22019, Robert Eggers

Think about how the filmmaking and presentation choices impact the material.

The Lighthouse is a fever dream of cinema that’s worth a look despite some narrative challenges.