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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.

Nancy Drew

***2007, Andrew Fleming

When she finds herself shunned by the hip chicks, Nancy falls back on her addiction: sleuthing

Quick! While Lindsay’s in rehab (again) and Paris is in the slammer (again), check out Nancy Drew and focus on what a girl with brains can do!

Scream 2

***1997, Wes Craven

Scream 2, like its predecessor, is a genre-crossing film. It is about 50% horror film and 50% murder mystery. The mix worked very well last time and it continues to entertain this time.

Scream was also known for its self-referential tone. Many inside jokes were made in reference to horror movies and Wes Craven. Again, Scream 2 follows suit with characters saying such things as “sequels suck” and “the entire horror genre was destroyed by sequels.”

Scream 2’s story is very similar to it’s predecessor’s. Sidney (Neve Campbell), having survived the killing spree in Scream, is now in college. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) has written a book about the murders and that book is now being released as a feature film, called Stab (which for all practical purposes is the real-world movie Scream). At the premiere of Stab, two students from Sidney’s college are stabbed to death, and a new story begins.

The press descends on Sidney and her college to get the scoop on this sequel killer. They want to know all about the links between Stab, Sidney, and the recent murders.

The most complex self-reference I saw (this should be an Olympic event) was the scene where Gale Weathers was asking questions at a press conference. The rest of the press was watching and videotaping Weathers. The other survivors from Scream were watching and videotaping the press. The audience was watching the whole, filmed scene. (Whew.)

The movie is packed with layers and self-references that make it a pleasure to watch. Even better would be to watch a double feature of Scream and Scream 2. That’s not to say that these references necessarily make Scream 2 a deep, or even a good movie. The just add to the fun of watching it. I recommend it for other reasons as well.

What I liked best about the horror aspect of the movie is that the monster is not supernatural. No werewolf or ghost or psycho with superhuman strength is responsible. It is a person in a mask and a robe, his only advantage the fear he strikes into his victims. No extraordinary leap of faith is needed to believe in the killer. The down side is that if you are frightened by horror movies, you have less grounds to say “it’s just a movie.”

The whodunit aspect of the movie is not that great by itself — Gale Weathers and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette, also from the original) track down a killer. They are likeable, but not outstanding. But in combination with the horror aspect, the whodunit is a perfect counterpoint.

It was exactly a year ago today that I wrote the review for Scream. The Internet Movie Database says that Scream 3 is in the works, so I wonder if I’ll be doing the same thing on January 1, 1999. If Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson are able to keep the quality high, I’ll be happy to mark my calendar.

Ballroom

***1/22003, Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard, and Xavier Brillat

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism

The problem with Ballroom (aka Dancing) is that everybody seems to want it to be a gay porno movie. OK, so it is about a gay couple, and yes, at one point they do get down to business on camera. But more time is spent in the film cooking and eating than having sex and yet you can’t call Ballroom a culinary movie. I think that Ballroom can best be described as a study in atmosphere... and the atmosphere in this case is surreal and disquieting but in a cool psychological way.

Lost in Translation

***1/22003, Sofia Coppola

Free of their usual context, the characters discover themselves anew

Lost in Translation is a rarity: a film about a purely emotional love affair.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a former movie actor in a stale marriage who finds himself in another world, where he is getting $2 million to endorse a Japanese whiskey. Adrift in Tokyo alongside him is another American, dewy Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), married for four years to a hip photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who has lots of interests that don’t include her. The two lost souls find each other at their hotel bar on one sleepless night, and soon they are spending all of their evenings together.

Thelma & Louise

****2011, Ridley Scott

The movie still packs a punch... and a gun... and lipstick.

Billed as the 20th anniversary edition, Thelma & Louise arrives on Blu-ray essentially as a repackaged copy of the 2002 DVD release, albeit with an enhanced high-def feature presentation. That anniversary labeling is a little disingenuous since there’s nothing new on the disc itself celebrating that milestone, but at least the movie still packs a punch... and a gun... and lipstick.

Beyond Rangoon

***1995, John Boorman

A political adventure with a strong female lead.

Invincible

***1/22002, Werner Herzog

The true story of a Jewish strongman who became a symbol of Aryan power and glory

The great German filmmaker Werner Herzog hasn’t made a feature film in two decades (though he has made some documentaries). He has finally returned to the big screen with Invincible, the true story of a Jewish strongman who became a symbol of Aryan power and glory.

The Tree of Life

****2011, Terrence Malick

Get lost in Malick’s memories

Terrence Malick invites you to get lost in his memories. I gratefully accept.

There isn’t much of a plot in The Tree of Life. A man, Jack (Sean Penn), reminisces about growing up in Texas. Most of the film takes place in his flashbacks. Like memories, the flashbacks are only coherent for a few moments at a time. Like memories, they are very specific and detailed, and they owe their importance to their emotional clarity and to what was learned.

Fury

***1936, Fritz Lang

An important milestone in the career of one of the great directors of silent and sound cinema

Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M) fled Germany after being asked to head film production for the Nazis. He fled so quickly that he left almost all of his possessions and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who remained in Germany and joined the Nazis as a screenwriter.

Slums of Beverly Hills

***1998, Tamara Jenkins

The Boxer

***1997, Jim Sheridan

Excellent portrait of Irish boxer who becomes a symbol of both sides of the IRA.

Unlike most movie heroes, Danny Flynn does not drive the action, but rather tries to achieve a balance. In fact, many of the lesser characters seem to have more power over the movie’s events and outcome than Danny, who nevertheless is the perfect central character for the movie.

Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a boxer, just released from prison after serving 14 years for unspecified crimes committed on behalf of the Irish Republican Army.

He comes home to a Belfast neighborhood divided between the militant wing of the IRA, represented by the angry and violent Harry (Gerard McSorley) and the political wing of the IRA, represented by the sober and earnest Joe (played with subtle depth by Brian Cox)

Danny’s unique position in the middle comes not from being a great negotiator but from becoming a symbol. As a fighter, Irish Catholic, and former political prisoner, he is the great white hope of the IRA’s more belligerent faction. As a nonsectarian and as rejuvenator of the community gym he is the symbol of peace and hope to those fed up with Northern Ireland’s 28 years of conflict.

Danny doesn’t want to be a symbol. He wants to box, rekindle an old romance, and forget his incarceration. But like it or not, he is a symbol, and acting on even these meager desires carries meaning and weight for his community.

Approaching his old flame Maggie (Emily Watson) is taken as a sign of disrespect to the IRA, since her husband is currently in jail for IRA activities. On the other hand, inviting both Catholics and Protestants to his boxing match is taken as a sign that the greater community, perhaps all of Ireland, is ready for peace.

Somewhere amidst all the interpreted meanings are the simple desires of a man trying to start over.

Day-Lewis has already proven he’s a good actor, and his portrayal of caught-in-the-middle Danny lives up to his reputation. Watson, fresh off of Breaking the Waves gives a great performance as Maggie, whose proximity to Danny puts her own life uncomfortably in the spotlight of public scrutiny.

Also turning in a grand performance is producer, writer, and director Sheridan. With only one notable exception (a boring scene in a café where Day-Lewis and Watson lost their intensity), each scene keeps the film moving, adding not just to the string of the plot but to the depth of the characters and the complexity of their relationships.

The details of the filmmaking reveal a writer/director who really has a coherent grasp of the big picture. For example, when Danny boxes his English opponent, they have the same color hair, the same color trunks, and the same complexion. Once the match gets started, it’s hard to see what’s so different about “England” and “Ireland.” One wonders why these two brothers are fighting.

Later, in Danny’s self-imposed exile to London, he boxes a bald black man in maroon trunks. Though they look more like opponents, this opponent is from Nigeria and neither man (nor the audience of condescending London millionaires) really has anything at stake. Sheridan makes the visually ironic point that fighting your brother actually makes more sense than fighting a total stranger.

Ultimately, that point is raised again in the political conclusion to the movie.

The cinematography was clever. I won’t say it was good, but there was the occasional shot that sparked my interest, like the opening shot of Danny in the prison yard, dwarfed by the bars of the gate, or the shot early on of a large ship passing behind Danny as he walks toward home. The fact that these shots stood out tells me that the cinematography was probably uneven, but it was interesting.

Finally, the soundtrack was worth mentioning. Gavin Friday has an acid jazz groove that at first seems too un-Irish to fit the film. But once the sad echoing church bells begin to punctuate the music, it seems to fit right in with the gray mood and look of the movie. The fact that the music sounds modern eventually convinces us that it’s time for a new look at the three-decade old hostilities in Northern Ireland.

The Boxer is a complex web of a movie, and at first it seems odd that the main character should be someone so close to the center. But the center is the perfect place from which to explore the ironies and similarities of the left and the right.

Scream

***1996, Wes Craven

Wes Craven has matured past his old horror film days. His last two movies, Scream and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, have been serious, mature films. They just happen to fall in the Horror genre.

This latest movie will be classified as a horror film and it does have some gore. But it bridges a gap between two genres that should have overlapped long ago: horror and murder mysteries. My mom hates “violent” movies, which includes anything from gory movies to fast-paced thrillers, depending on her mood. Yet the only books she reads are murder mysteries; in other words, she reads very few books that don’t involve murder. I always saw that as a contradiction.

Craven has finally bridged the gap with Scream, which we may call a mass murder mystery. From the very beginning we see how terrible the killer is. His (or her) first victim is presented in the classic horror-film victim scenario, but there is a twist: the killer is interested in horror movies and he puts the conventions of them to use in his own awful plan.

But this movie is not just a horror film. The self-referential tone of the movie allows us to step back from the horror. Also, the presence of detectives and inquisitive characters focuses our attention away from fear and toward curiosity. We can stop the killing if we can only unmask the killer.

For those who know horror movies, the self-referential tone provides some funny moments when characters point out the “rules” of a horror movie, mention director Wes Craven, or comment on what would be happening “if this were a movie.”

And, for those looking for a good scare, Scream is an excellent choice. The mask the killer uses (which appears to be derived from Munch’s “The Scream”) is really quite frightening. The killer is more human than in most horror films, and therefore more terrifying. He is not invisible, but he is only seen in a quick flash. His advantage is not supernatural power — victims can lash out against him and have some effect — his advantage is surprise and fear. The killer’s humanity and thus his potential vulnerability makes him all the more frightening, and makes us all the more tense for his next victim.

King Lear

***1969, Grigori Kozintsev

King Lear is easier to appreciate than to like.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear may be one of the best tragedies ever written. Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear is a powerful adaptation, but it can be difficult cinema if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Art and Craft

***1/22014, Mark Becker, Sam Cullman, and Jennifer Grausman

An object lesson in how to make a good documentary

Mark Lanids makes — forgeries? Or shall we just say “copies”? — of lesser known works of master painters. The most egregious copies begin at Kinko’s, but all of them involve a skilled copier’s hand. Mark then dresses up, prepares his story, and donates these copies to museums, galleries, universities, and churches, as though they were the real deal.