November 30, 2006

Shorts, 11/30.

The Lives of Others "How, The Lives of Others asks, could anyone read Brecht, or hear the emotive strains of Oscar-winning film composer Gabriel Yared, and not understand the value of individual liberty over nationalistic conformity?" asks Scott Foundas. "And judging by the film's success in Germany and its enthusiastic reception at this year's Telluride and Toronto film festivals, it's a good bet that many moviegoers will feel similarly moved. Personally, it gave me the creeps." Ah, well. I'm still bullish on both the critic and the film. Meantime, you'd think it wouldn't be too difficult to come up with a decent, never mind terrific poster for this movie, but so far neither the Germans nor the Americans have.

Also in the LA Weekly: Paul Malcolm on Tribulation 99.

David Poland lays out seven "studio movies, not independent films. And all seven filmmakers are highly creative, highly respected, and responsible for movies that their studios will consider fiscal failures that will be leveraged by some to avoid making similarly challenging films in the future. In other words, they got the shot... and now, others will have to wait a while before the opportunity comes up again." It really does seem to have been that kind of year.

Alison Willmore has a big batch of up-n-coming news at the IFC Blog, but the most intriguing bit comes from MTV's Larry Carroll's conversation with Richard Linklater, who's in the fifth year of a 12-year project: "Every year, Linklater has a quasi-family reunion with aging A-listers Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette and, along with a skeleton crew of behind-the-scenes loyalists, shoots scenes that will someday be pasted together to create an exploration into adolescence."

More news of films on the way from Bilge Ebiri; remakes and sequels, too.

Nightwatching At Time Out, Chris Tilly reports that Peter Greenaway is working on a videogame to accompany his next feat-... well, multimedia extravaganza, Nightwatching.

Matt Austin is hoping John Hughes will agree to be interviewed for Don't You Forget About Me, a documentary he's shooting that's already secured chats with stars and fans of The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and so on. Shanda Deziel meets Austin for Macleans. Via Jessica Barnes at Cinematical.

Variety: "George Clooney is booked solid through 2009." Also: "Meryl Streep is joining the cast of New Line's Middle East political thriller Rendition alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon."

"Recently, I did on-camera commentaries for a Droopy DVD collection, a Ray Harryhausen DVD collection, and Ted Thomas's new doc, a work-in-progress on the 1941 Disney artists' trip to South America." Part 2 of Ward Jenkins's interview with John Canemaker, via Cartoon Brew.

Girish: "Along with Renoir's The River, Rossellini's 1958 documentary India, Matri Bhumi (India, Motherland) is the probably the best film I’ve seen about India made by a Western filmmaker."

Jason Rhode at Metaphilm: "There was something of the same memorial spirit, I think, behind Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The West and the Western had both died abruptly, too. Yet Unforgiven lives on. Fifteen years on, its power has not diminished, but increased with age. It has not mellowed, but ripened."

Reflections in a Golden Eye That Little Round-Headed Boy: "For some reason, I've never considered John Huston a painterly director, but a viewing of the newly refurbished Reflections in a Golden Eye will change your mind about that."

Acquarello reviews Time, Kim Ki-duk's "flawed, but impassioned observation of contemporary society's inherent dysfunctionality in the wake of facile, economic privilege: a lost generation foundering in a youth-oriented culture of vanity, rootlessness, excess, and disposability."

"Serge Gainsbourg is a singular presence in French pop or pop in general," writes E Steven Fried at the Siffblog. "As Beck noted, he combined an unlikely assortment of musical and personal qualities. The most typical image of him is a mondaine hedonist, coolly sucking on a Gitane while caressing a ravishing doll. A sort of French James Bond, if you will. The less typical image of him is a polite, gracious, self-deprecating, funny, shy, philosophical, nervous man. A sort of French Miles Monroe, if you will. Displaying the evolution of his persona, D'Autres Nouvelles des Etoiles presents Gainsbourg in his complexity."

Neil Morris profiles documentary filmmaker Cynthia Hill for the Independent Weekly.

The Holiday "To list all the contrivances strewn throughout The Holiday would require more words than are warranted by Nancy Meyers's latest batch of cinematic maple syrup," writes Nick Schager. Also at Slant: Ed Gonzalez on Reminiscing in Tempo.

For Slate's Dana Stevens, "The Fountain's tragic flaw - and to this untranscendent critic's eye, the movie is pretty tragically flawed - is already present in Pi, as well as in the second of Aronofsky's three movies, Requiem for a Dream." More from Eric Kohn in the New York Press.

Also in the NYP, Armond White on Bobby: "It may seem soap opera-ish (one character even name-checks the classic 1932 Hollywood movie-star melodrama Grand Hotel), but by paralleling anonymous lives with the famous slaying of a political hero, [Emilio] Estevez revives more than a genre; he resurrects a marvelous but forgotten cultural ethos." And: "[Irwin] Winkler's Home of the Brave presents both Jacksons in roles that redefine their humanity and all our citizenship."

Plus, Justin Ravitz: "With your uninhibited sense of grandeur and sweet, barely-ironic silliness, Jack Black, you're kind of timeless." Jennifer Merin talks with Catherine Hardwicke about The Nativity Story.

"This, we can recognize, is how wars begin," writes Duncan Shepherd, reviewing Shut Up and Sing for the San Diego Reader. "It is not a simple story, straightforwardly inspirational. It is a complex one, about, among other things, the difficulty of courage (especially when big money is at stake) and the possible attainment of it along a path of regret, hurt, anger, bitterness, resignation, and finally the absence of any other choice. Tortuously inspirational."

"Woody Allen's Manhattan, released in 1979, is perhaps the finest example ever of a motion picture insulated from cultural obsolescence by the shunning of contemporary music," argues Joe Queenan. But lately, "the Woodman has conclusively run out of steam, ideas, and any semblance of self-perception," sighs Andrew Pulver.

Also in the Guardian: "Wenders's youthful infatuation with the States, which lasted 50 years, has ended," writes Ronald Bergan. "As a character in Fritz Lang's Clash By Night says: 'Home is where you get when you run out of places.' We can only hope that his next film to be made in his homeland with an all-German cast will silence those who suspect that his bright future is now behind him."

And David Thomson has two lists of films for kids, ten each, the first batch "about a child's experience of the world, and of family," and the second "about adult experience but which involve children."

For the City Paper, Sam Adams recommends a handful of films now on DVD that never made it to Philadelphia.

Michael Guillém talks with "one of the brightest young talents of queer cinema," Jed Rosenthal Bell.

Time Out's Chris Tilly talks with Simon Pegg about Big Nothing.

Monte Hellman At Cinema Strikes Back, David Austin has a generous report on the Monte Hellman Q&A that took place in NYC in October.

Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has been inducted into the Legion of Honor.

Criterion goes to Paris.

Rex Sorgatz, in full, at Fimoculous: "Now that the 2006 lists of lists is growing to a respectable size, I'll mention that you should email me lists that fit in that genre: about 2006. Occasionally, people send me lists that have nothing to do with 2006, such as one of my recent favorites, Top 10 Servers In Movies. Yes, that's computer servers, not the ones who tell you to watch out for the hot plates at restaurants. Anyway, it's an excellent list."

"Apparently, we broke the story and didn't even know it." Yep. Towards the end of a "Three-Minute Interview" with Jonathan Lethem, Mark Sarvas becomes the first to hear of the Library of America's plans for the canonization of Philip K Dick. Via the New York Times, interestingly, which is also reporting that the "next novel for Philip Roth, Exit Ghost, will be the ninth and last centered on Mr Roth's protagonist Nathan Zuckerman."

TLS And: "The 10 Best Books of 2006."

The Times Literary Supplement gives us a peek at its "Books of the year" issue, with selections by Alberto Manguel, Marina Warner, Paul Muldoon, Craig Raine, AN Wilson and Elaine Showalter.

Online gazing tip. Coudal Partners, with what "might just be the best motion picture production still ever."

Online browsing tip. Christopher Benfey's slide show at Slate introducing Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, the first major retrospective in 25 years.

Online listening tip. "[T]he network hated both the special and the music." For NPR, Felix Contreras reports on Vince Guaraldi's now-classic soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Online viewing tip #1. A screen test: Paul Newman and James Dean. Via ticklebooth.

Online viewing tip #2. As if editing Filmmaker weren't enough, Scott Macaulay is also a producer. The latest film he's worked on is Off the Black, starring Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan and Timothy Hutton. And here's the trailer.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at November 30, 2006 11:01 AM


Personally, I found The Lives of Others more than a little insufferable. A better, more accurate title would have been East Germany for Idiots.

Posted by: Filmbrain at November 30, 2006 1:01 PM

How about for former dissidents?

Posted by: David Hudson at November 30, 2006 1:18 PM

Interesting article David, thanks for that.

I was convinced that this novice, this naive upper-class kid who had been graced with being born so late in the West would never, ever be capable of tackling this sort of GDR material, either politically or artistically.

I think that statement hits it on the head -- naive being the key word.

Being married to somebody who grew up in the DDR, I've naturally heard a great deal about what it was like, and I'm afraid Herr Donnersmarck failed to scrape beneath the very obvious surface level. This is a romanticized idea of the DDR, coming from the hand of someone who never suffered a day in his life.

Posted by: Filmbrain at November 30, 2006 9:51 PM

I'll respectfully disagree (though, if I thought you meant it, I'd object to being called an idiot for actually liking the film). You and I both know that you and I both know plenty of people, personally, who experienced the DDR regime firsthand, some from the vantage point of a prison cell. Perhaps each and every one of them would have more of a right - or whatever it is that you're suggesting FHvD does not have - to tell this story (a story that, Scott Foundas argues, handily, and I think rather ridiculously, reducing Ulrich Mühe's character to "hero," shouldn't be told at all).

But to follow this logic... just think of all the films that wouldn't/couldn't/shouldn't have been made. The list is mind-boggling, but the first to spring to mind is the one that addresses this very issue, that is, to what degree does one person even dare to try to comprehend another's suffering: Hiroshima mon amour. Made by some French guy.

Biermann's point is that, though it took him by surprise, he changed his mind (hey, just like Ulrich Mühe's character!), and I don't think he left the theater feeling romanticized. Nor did I.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 1, 2006 1:04 AM

History aside, what bothered me about the film was how "Hollywood" it was -- its structure, tone, and particularly its screenplay were right out of a Robert McKee seminar. The hard as nails Stasi agent who proclaims, early in the film, that people don't change -- winds up changing!

I don't begrudge FHvD the right to make the film, nor do I have a problem with his humanizing of (and generating sympathy for) the Ulrich Mühe character -- it's just the way he went about it. (The film’s final scene is painful.)

I also felt FHvD overemphasized the importance of artists, their struggles, etc. The East Germany of his film is made up of artists/intellectuals and high-ranking Stasi agents. No one else.

There was a documentary at the 2005 Berlinale (I forget the title) about three friends from the former DDR who had planned to escape together, but things went wrong. This tiny film, in my opinion, said more about the reality of life in the DDR than this slick melodrama.

Posted by: Filmbrain at December 1, 2006 8:09 AM

You're definitely making me anxious to see it a second time and to take a closer, more critical look. I see that it's just out on DVD over here, so it won't be long before I do just that. Thanks, FB. I'll drop a line after that second viewing.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 1, 2006 8:17 AM

I admire Foundas quite a bit, but this review is almost hilariously ironic. He dismisses Lives as "the sort of movie that often gets wildly overpraised by audiences [...] who believe a good movie is one where the heroes and villains are clearly demarcated." But the review itself is predicated almost entirely on Foundas' knee-jerk auto-disdain for any movie that would feature a noble Stasi agent. How anybody could think an appropriate joke title would be Remember Those Stasi? They Weren’t So Bad After All, or assert that the film evinces "dewy-eyed nostalgia" for the GDR, is beyond my comprehension.

I wrote a piece for Esquire—it won't see print for a couple of months, unfortunately, since the film's true release isn't until February—predicting that certain highbrow critics would respond to this film with the same shallow outrage that e.g. Hoberman felt toward Schindler's List: How dare you make a movie about a few thousand people who lived when six million died? But I'm still sorry to see that I was right.

(That said, I liked Lives of Others a bit less on second viewing, mostly because Weisler's transformation seemed more willed than organic.)

Posted by: md'a at December 1, 2006 8:43 AM

All I can add to that is that I agree twice: with your admiration for Foundas and with your objections to this particular review. I really had to wonder if he saw the same version I did - with an audience here in Berlin, by the way, and though there were indeed a few dewy eyes, they sure as hell weren't dewy with nostalgia.

Meantime, this is interesting: at, Boyd van Hoeij is venturing a few - well, a lot more than a few, actually - predictions for tomorrow night's European Film Awards. Notice how often, when and where The Lives of Others pops up in that list.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 1, 2006 10:27 AM

Mike --

Though hardly dewy-eyed, there's no question that the film does embrace "Ostalgie" to a degree -- think of the scene at the theater towards the end of the film between Dreyman and the former minister. The playwright who can no longer create in a free society -- if that's not a case of "see, things weren't so bad..." then I don't know what is.

Also, isn't it a bit Armond-ish to second-guess and/or attack other critics' motivations? Are you an arbiter of outrage? Is Godard's outrage at Spielberg just as "shallow" as Hoberman's?

On that note, Hoberman's response to Schindler's List ran far deeper than your comment above. He was concerned about the film's over-simplification and its problems of representation. I've always found his description of it ("A feel-good story about the ultimate feel-bad experience") to be spot on.

I'm having difficulty understanding your need to predict how certain highbrow critics will respond to the film. Does that somehow strengthen your defense of it? Even if it is slightly knee-jerk, is not Foundas' political reading of the film just as valid as your own? What about a lowbrow critic (such as myself) who hated the film for its overly simplistic and naïve approach?

Posted by: Filmbrain at December 1, 2006 10:48 AM

Hoberman's description of Schindler's List is entirely accurate, but in theory it's completely value-neutral. What I find shallow is the presumption underlying it—that it is somehow wrong to make a feel-good movie about a feel-bad experience (or vice versa, though no critic would ever carp about the inverse).

And if I thought Foundas' reading as valid as my own, I wouldn't be criticizing it. My problem with it is that he didn't even really need to see the movie to form his opinion of it. The fact that it features a noble Stasi agent automatically renders it meretricous in his eyes.

Posted by: md'a at December 2, 2006 11:07 AM

My problem with it is that he didn't even really need to see the movie to form his opinion of it. The fact that it features a noble Stasi agent automatically renders it meretricous in his eyes.

I'd really be curious to hear Foundas' reaction to that statement. If that is indeed the case, should he then have recused himself from reviewing it? I honestly don't know.

It was a bit disheartening to hear that a film so unchallenging won so many European Film Awards last night.

As for Schindler's List, I fail to see the value-neutrality of Hoberman's comment. Are you suggesting that a critic's approach to a film be devoid of context? That Schindler's List (or any other Holocaust film for that matter) be viewed strictly as film qua film? The event itself, or films that preceded it, should have no part in one's analysis?

Posted by: Filmbrain at December 2, 2006 4:17 PM

Hoberman's comment wasn't value-neutral at all, obviously. I'm saying it should be value-neutral. In other words, I do not agree with his implicit axiom that a film about a "feel-bad experience" must also be "feel-bad," i.e. that is somehow morally reprehensible to tell a story of sacrifice and nobility set during the Holocaust. But then neither do I agree with your implicit axiom that excellent films must necessarily be challenging or unconventional. Hence e.g. my 2002 top ten list, which includes Spider-Man alongside stuff like Devils on the Doorstep, Late Marriage and Turning Gate. There's room for more than one kind of movie, if one keeps an open mind and doesn't simply decide that anything "Hollywood" is automatically garbage. (Admittedly most of it is garbage.)

(Speaking of which, I laughed out loud when I saw James Quandt's Artforum list. Could his taste possibly occupy a narrower band of the cinespectrum?)

Posted by: md'a at December 2, 2006 8:26 PM

Ask and you shall receive. As I think I make fairly clear in the review, what I find objectionable is not the fact that the film gives us a noble Stasi agent, but rather the way in which it goes about it--that the character is a screenwriter's conceit, a man with no inner life, not just any Stasi but the ne plus ultra of good socialist soldiers, who cracks as soon as he cracks open that book of Brecht. Would that someone had thought to pass out the libretto of The Threepenny Opera to all party members of the DDR, no doubt the whole system would have collapsed a few decades sooner.

Posted by: Scott Foundas at December 2, 2006 11:48 PM

Scott -- Thanks for responding.

Muhe's character is little more than a conceit -- a caricature on par with the Hollywood Nazis of yore.

Mike - An excellent film need not be challenging (Inside Man will make my top ten this year), but there's nothing worse than walking out of a film feeling as if you've just been clobbered over the head.

Posted by: Filmbrain at December 3, 2006 8:01 AM

I don't remember the agent's cracking being so snappy, Scott, but like I say, I'm looking forward to a second viewing soon.

FB: "The playwright who can no longer create in a free society -- if that's not a case of "see, things weren't so bad..." then I don't know what is."

I do think other interpretations are possible. I was just now poking around with Google, looking for Philip Roth's piece contrasting pre-89 writing in eastern Europe with American fiction of the same period, but, very frustratingly, I have to give up and get back to editing. The gist - and I'm sure this'll be an oversimplification - is that oppression fired the creativity of the likes of Kundera and others. Saying so does not make for a plea for a return of oppression or even for a nostalgic tint on the memory of it.

"Muhe's character is little more than a conceit -- a caricature on par with the Hollywood Nazis of yore."

Er.... keep those knives sharpened, FB. Here's Wenders on his next film: "I know that it will be about Germany and it will take place mostly in the East, a part of the country that I have only had the chance to know for the past 15 years."

Posted by: David Hudson at December 3, 2006 9:12 AM

Hey, if Wim can do for East Germany what he did for Paris, Texas, then I'm not too worried. But then again, he hasn't been on a winning streak of late.

Posted by: Filmbrain at December 3, 2006 9:37 AM

Thanks for chiming in, Scott. That's a valid complaint, and it's the reason I downgraded my opinion on second viewing (though I still like the film quite a bit). But cheap shots like "Coming soon to a theater near you: Adolf Hitler: I Am Not an Animal!" made your stance look considerably more knee-jerk. If it's just a matter of shoddy characterization, why speculate that FHvD might dedicate his career to apologizing for evil?

Posted by: md'a at December 3, 2006 9:50 AM

What an entertaining, informed discussion. Having just seen this after hearing so much critical praise and reading about it winning one award after the other, I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped I would be. Perhaps its value for me as yet another ignorant American is to be exposed to the Stasi phenomenon period, which I knew nothing about. It's perhaps even sadder to way that why this movie might appeal to American audiences is a slumbering paranoia that we are entering our own age of surveillance and can look at this film as--not so much a historical document--but a cautionary tale.

Knowing now I could never correctly address the historicity of the piece with any kind of informed opinion, I will probably refrain from writing a review. But I will say that the calm erosion of Mühe's character, so devoid of affect, initiated by exposure to Brecht and Beethoven, made its simple point. I accepted it. Like tears wearing down hard stone.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at December 6, 2006 1:31 PM