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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.

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.

The Good Soldier

***2009, Michael Uys, and Lexy Lovell

Soldiers tell us the cost of killing

“If you’re far enough away, it’s still not quite like shooting people.”

That’s what it was like shooting people in Vietnam, according to a helicopter pilot for the army. Perry Parks and four other soldiers go in front of the cameras of Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys and talk about life and death.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

***1967, Jacques Demy

Friends and family on my Christmas list might just see this disc in their stocking

Seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time just a few years ago reminded me why I love watching movies. Every now and then you discover one that transcends expectations and convention. Once in a while, you discover Art.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a dark and moving jazz opera — every line of dialogue is sung — about an idealistic young couple pulled apart by war.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is not quite a sequel to Umbrellas; it’s not set in the same world. But the director, realizing he’d found a successful genre, made another musical with the same star and the same composer. The Young Girls of Rochefort doesn’t match the greatness of Umbrellas, but it is a good piece of entertainment.

Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve sing and dance through Rochefort in springtimeTwo drifters come into the town of Rochefort. They travel from town to town, selling motorcycles in town squares. Two sisters live here in Rochefort, along with their mother and little brother. A sailor on his way out of the service is in town on his last leave, and an American maestro is in town to look up an old friend from conservatory.

These eight characters sing and dance their way through the streets of Rochefort, looking for love and finding each other.

Catherine Deneuve is almost wasted in her role as Delphine, one of the two sisters. She isn’t bad in the part by any means. But one usually thinks of Deneuve as a star. She has such a natural beauty as to stand out in a film. In The Young Girls of Rochefort she doesn’t get to be the center of attention. She not only has a twin sister, but she is also surrounded by a large cast of characters. Her appearance does more for the movie than it does for her career.

The same could be said of Gene Kelly, who makes an appearance as the American smitten by the music of Solange (Francois Dorleac), Delphine’s sister. Unfortunately, some of Kelly’s vocal performance is lost in dubbing. I wish his voice had been left intact, because although the match is pretty good, it’s clearly not always Kelly’s voice.

Kelly’s unique brand of formal yet athletic dance stands out when he’s on screen. Clearly he was given some freedom to choreograph his own scenes. And yet in contrast, the exuberant dancing of the other characters is less stoical than anything Kelly would do.

In particular, the two drifters, Etienne and Bill (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) dance up a storm in their scenes, stealing the show from Kelly, if not with their talent then at least from their youth and good looks.

Rochefort doesn’t have the same timeless quality as its predecessor, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Some of the numbers in Rochefort seem dated, as do many of the costumes, (even though it’s a musical). It is not a masterpiece like Umbrellas is.

Also, Rochefort is more a series of vignettes than it is a cohesive story. The plot is a series of excuses for songs and dances; it strings you along; it toys with you. Two characters who are destined to meet, miss each other by a hair. Then again. And again. It’s an effective ploy, but it’s also a transparent device.

Still, Rochefort might have a broader appeal. For one thing its tone is not nearly as heavy as Umbrellas’. Even the color scheme is noticeably brighter. In fact, the reason to see this movie is for the sheer spectacle of it — the songs and dances and the bright daylight views of Rochefort in spring.

A second viewing made the movie even better because I could enjoy this audiovisual treat without spending too much time reading the subtitles. And with the chapter access of a DVD, I can watch my favorite numbers and get a quick 10 or 15 minutes of entertainment. That’s something you wouldn’t want to do with Umbrellas.

The DVD is made from a restored print overseen by Jacques Demy’s wife Agnes Varda in 1994. The picture — both in the restored source and the DVD transfer — is excellent. The color is amazing. The pinks, whites, and pale blues of Rochefort are a vivid pastel counterpoint to the heavy fuschia and black of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Some of the songs from Umbrellas have become jazz standards. The same can’t be said for The Young Girls of Rochefort. There are three songs that won’t let go of my brain, but they don’t seem to have the staying power of “I Will Wait For You” and “Watch What Happens.”

The music in The Young Girls of Rochefort is, however, distinctively Michel Legrand, with his mobile, descending, repeating key changes. And like the great French comedies of Jacques Tati, The Young Girls of Rochefort repeats the music as themes and leitmotifs. You’re bound to hear each song more than once, and in this case, repetition makes the music stick in your head. I was humming the simple melodic lines days after seeing the movie.

And although the music and sound are very good, the disc is sort of a rip-off. The box says the DVD is in “Dolby Surround,” but the movie is actually in 2 channel stereo. Technically, it probably is encoded in some flavor of Dolby “surround,” but there is no surround-sound about it. That doesn’t make the sound bad, but it does make the packaging deceptive.

For better or worse, there are no extras on the disc except for some Miramax promos for other films. I didn’t need a scene-by-scene commentary, but I would have been interested to see some footage of the 1994 restoration. Even one or two stills of “before and after” would have made for an inexpensive, interesting bonus feature.

Even without extras, the DVD of The Young Girls of Rochefort is highly recommended, particularly for multiple viewings. It’s one you’ll want to revisit after you’ve watched over and over. Friends and family on my Christmas shopping list might just keep their eyes open for this disc.

Nicholas Nickleby

***2002, Douglas McGrath

Nicholas Nickleby is a good time at the movies in the guise of serious literature

Nicholas Nickleby is an imperfect film. Any movie that tries to cram an entire Dickens novel into just over 2 hours is destined to be imperfect. Nevertheless, writer/director Douglas McGrath makes a valiant effort that focuses on fun.

The Battle of Chile

****1975, Patricio Guzman

Not just a document of history, but a part of history itself

It seems almost quaint today to think of the stir that was caused in 1973 when the CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile. It’s not like the CIA hadn’t run a coup or two before that, but this time it was a democracy they were toppling. The problem was that president Salvador Allende’s government wasn’t the democracy Nixon and Kissinger wanted in power.

Frank

****2014, Lenny Abrahamson

There’s more to the absurd than just amusement

The first thing to know about Frank is that he never goes anywhere without his big fiberglass head. As his friend Don says, “you’re just going to have to go with this.”

Human Capital

***2013, Paolo Virzì

Italian film weaves three lives from different social strata into a complex whole

Human Capital is an Italian “network narrative” with overlapping threads in one-percenter-land and the middle class. The lowest member of society in the film, an overworked waiter catering a fancy party, is killed on his bike in the opening scene, which inconveniences the members of the other classes.

Like Father, Like Son

***1/22014, Hirokazu Koreeda

A heartfelt charmer from Director Kore-eda overcomes its contrived plot point

Of the three hundred films at Toronto, I made sure to see Like Father, Like Son because I had been charmed by a couple of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films, including I Wish, about two pre-teen brothers who dream of taking a bullet train to visit each other, and the bittersweet Nobody Knows, about four siblings who secretly raised themselves after their mother abandoned them.

The Bridge

***1/22007, Eric Steel

Documents the nature, circumstances, and motivations of suicide

The Bridge catalogs a year in the life of the Golden Gate Bridge, specifically the suicides and suicide attempts associated with the landmark.

Inside Llewyn Davis

***1/22013, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Mythic tale of artistic rejection in the 1960s folk scene

Watching Inside Llewyn Davis is enjoyable enough. The Coen brothers offer humor, music, drama and funny cat videos. But it’s not until after the movie, chewing over its characters, events, and emotions that I began to really be impressed.

The Imitation Game

2014, Morten Tyldum

Not the year’s boldest, but has perhaps one of the year’s best performances

Alan Turing never put on a uniform, but his efforts went a long way toward helping the Allies win World War II. Turing, you see, was the mathematical genius who cracked the Nazi Enigma code, thereby hastening the end of the war.