" Never underestimate the power of denial. "
— Wes Bentley, American Beauty

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 Skin I Live In

****2011, Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar returns to his horror roots

I generally like the films of Pedro Almodóvar, but I am not a devoted follower like some are. I may have to rethink my position after seeing my new favorite Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In.

Clerks X

***1994, Kevin Smith

The extras seem like overkill at times, but will tell fans as much as they ever wanted to know

Ten years ago, I was a clerk, slogging away at the front lines of the retail world. Oh sure, they called me a “sales associate,” but I knew where I stood. At the same time, Kevin Smith, a 23-year-old film school dropout and clerk, touched a chord when he used his crappy job as inspiration for a very funny, crude movie called Clerks.

Paradise: Hope

***2013, Ulrich Seidl

Funny, tense conclusion to Seidl’s provocative Paradise trilogy

Paradise: Hope is the third film in a trilogy by Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl. The others were Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith.

The Last Mimzy

***1/22007, Bob Shaye

The kids are complex enough that, by the end, we truly want to know how things work out for them

My in-laws just forwarded me a humor e-mail that contained this anecdote: A teacher, observing her kindergarteners while they were drawing, asked one student about her picture. “I’m drawing God,” the girl said. “But no one knows what God looks like,” the teacher replied. “They will in a minute,” the girl said.

Titan A.E.

***1/22000, Don Bluth, and Gary Goldman

A timeless story and a feast for the eyes

Titan A.E. compares favorably with Star Wars. Its plot is a solid, serious Hero’s Journey, and the visuals are elaborate and impressive. It has interesting aliens, formidable villains, and not so much comic relief that you start getting annoyed.

Training Day

***1/22001, Antoine Fuqua

Denzel’s best since Malcolm X

There have been many thrillers about “dirty cops” and police corruption. The profession is rife with extreme situations and extreme temptations, which makes for good storytelling. But the deeper struggle between what’s good for the soul and what’s good for the job aren’t usually touched upon.

Training Day is a police drama that skillfully examines the dilemma between morality and action. It’s a well made movie with enough intelligence to make one believe that the harvest has finally ended on the less challenging summer crop.

Men in Black II

***2002, Barry Sonnenfeld

Short, to the point, and broadly appealing to adolescent males

Depending on how you feel about it, giving the audience exactly what they want could be called generosity or it could be called “pandering.”

Whatever you call it Men In Black II is a movie made for summer audiences. It’s short, to the point, and broadly appealing to adolescent males. It’s a fluffy treat that doesn’t include anything substantial or wholesome, just sugar and MSG. No protein, no fiber, no plot, no morals or social commentary. Only the strangely somber ending with fireworks against a World Trade Center-less NYC skyline seems to offer anything but sweetness..

Killing Them Softly

***1/22012, Andrew Dominik

Director Andrew Dominik controls the clock

Killing Them Softly wants to be a metaphor for the economic collapse of 2008. In that light, it’s not very convincing. But as a gangster film about criminal personalities, it is pretty darn good. And as a metaphor for the culture of corporations, it almost works.

Ghidorah

***1964

The Big Guy himself and a conga line of gigantic opponents

While viewing these vintage classics, I was put in mind of the old one-line gag about “Gorgonzola! — the Cheese Monster” and I concluded that this joke is more than a pun. Let me explain. Cheese, as most of Asia will tell you, is spoiled milk and milk is itself of questionable taste and value east of India. The same criticism of “spoiled thing of no use” can be leveled at most of the Godzilla franchise of which these two films are sterling examples. Of course I’m not including the one that started it all, Godzilla (or “Gojira” to the fully informed) which is a darned good film and monster classic that can stand toe to claw with King Kong any day. No, these movies are of the later, fully ripened rubber-suit-monster type. Not just simply monster movies but a genre of questionable taste taken to all new heights... or depths depending on your point of view.

Bright Young Things

***2004, Stephen Fry

It’s fluff, but if entertainment value is all you’re looking for, you could do worse

Stephen Fry is a great British wit. As a TV actor, he was wonderfully obtuse and overbearing on Black Adder. As an author he was sly, funny, and naughty in The Hippopotamus. Now, as a director, he’s witty and gay.

The Dinner

***

The Dinner captures a a sense of hopeless, never-ending entrapment.

The Dinner is a guessing-game drama that takes its lead character through an interesting morality struggle and leaves him at an unexpected conclusion.

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.