Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

The Circle


It looks like Tom Hanks is trying to recapture his Cast Away look.

(2017) Thriller (STX) Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Beck, Nate Corddry, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Mamoudou Athie, Eve Gordon, Poorna Jagannathan, Elvy Yost, Ellen Wong, Lauren Baldwin, Nicola Bertram, Julian Von Nagel, Amie McCarthy-Winn, Regina Saldivar, Amir Tatai, Smith Cho. Directed by James Ponsoldt

 

There’s no doubt that the world is changing. Social media and the presence of cameras nearly everywhere have guaranteed that our concept of privacy will have to change radically. We must learn to live with the reality that everything we do is not only findable online but is subject to the scrutiny of trolls.

Mae (Watson) is a customer service drone in a dead end job she can’t stand. Coming to her rescue is Annie (Gillan) who works in management at The Circle, a sort of cross between Facebook, Google and Big Brother. Like all social media outlets, The Circle seems to be almost an obsession with its users who post the most mundane details of their day so that friends and strangers can pass judgment.

Mae’s dad (Paxton in his final role) has Multiple Sclerosis and her mom (Headly) has been worn ragged caring for him. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Coltrane) is suspicious of the ongoing loss of privacy and is retreating from the modern connected world, moving to a rustic artist retreat that is essentially off the grid.

Mae however has picked a grand time to join up with The Circle. Co-founder and CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks) is releasing a new product – a miniaturized camera that people can wear all day long that utilizes facial recognition software to allow them to find friends nearby and of course post everything they do – literally every moment of their day – online. Mae, after a rough start, has become a convert “Circler” and is selected to be the first person to have total transparency online.

However with total transparency comes collateral damage – not everyone wants their every moment on display and it ends up causing friction with those Mae loves the most and leads to a tragedy nobody could have predicted. This leads her to do some digging and she soon finds out that not everything at the Circle – or everyone – necessarily has benevolent intentions.

This is based on a book by Dan Eggers who gets the Silicon Valley culture nicely. In some ways, the movie pokes fun a bit at the tech culture of “play hard, work harder” with Mae getting a visit from Circlers who are concerned she’s not participating in any groups – or working on weekends. In some ways the big problem with this poorly-reviewed movie is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to be – at times it feels like a corporate espionage thriller, other times a social commentary and still others a sci-fi cautionary tale.

The graphics are nifty and nicely extrapolate what our online experience is going to look like in maybe a decade or less. The film is also blessed with a marvelous cast. You literally can’t go wrong with Hanks who doesn’t play villains often and even this villain is less villainous than Oswalt’s corporate weasel who is more of a traditional villain. Bailey is charming and folksy, a cross between Steve Jobs and Garrison Keillor. And, of course he’s Tom Hanks, the modern Jimmy Stewart.

But then there’s Watson who is a marvelous actress and perhaps one of the most beloved actresses in the world. She was simply flat here, never really gathering my sympathy or attention. I was far more drawn to Hanks’ character which is not unexpected given Hanks ability and screen charm. But as she proved in Beauty and the Beast Watson is thoroughly capable of carrying a movie and here she simply doesn’t.

I liked the social media aspect which the movie seems to be on the cusp of exploring further but it never really does. It feels like the filmmakers were anxious not to offend millennials which they figured would be a large chunk of their target audience; unfortunately what that wound up doing was diluting the message and taking away much of the film’s bite. Overall it feels a bit like cinematic pablum.

That’s not to say that this is a complete waste of time. The movie does accurately portray our society’s obsession with celebrity and the growing importance of internet celebrity; it also makes points about our obsession with connection and the growing loss of privacy. These are all valid and salient points and I would have loved to see more exploration of them. Instead we end up with something of a generic thriller that ends up disappointing more than it excites. Circles, after all, have a tendency to end up where they start out – and so does The Circle.

REASONS TO GO: Hanks is a riveting quasi-villain. The graphics are nicely utilized.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a wasted opportunity in terms of sociopolitical commentary. Nothing here really impresses.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some drug use and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Headly and Paxton who play Mae’s parents have both passed away since they filmed their roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eagle Eye
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unforgettable

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Starbuck


Here's how you'll likely feel after seeing this movie.

Here’s how you’ll likely feel after seeing this movie.

(2011) Comedy (EntertainmentOne) Patrick Huard, Julie LeBreton, Antoine Bertrand, Dominic Philie, Marc Belanger, Igor Ovadis, David Michael, Patrick Martin, David Giguere, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sebastien Beaulac, Patrick Labbe, Andre Lanthier, Patrick Caux, Catherine De Seve. Directed by Ken Scott

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Being a father is easy (and fun). It doesn’t even require a mom these days – just sperm. Being a dad however is a whole ‘nother story.

David Wozniak (Huard) is about as irresponsible as guys can get. He works for his father (Ovadis) delivering meat to various stores and restaurants around Montreal. It’s the easiest job in his dad’s business but even that David screws up. He uses the delivery van for personal business, forgets vital tasks (like picking up soccer jerseys for team picture day) and generally gets into trouble without meaning to. He’s been with his beautiful girlfriend Valerie (LeBreton) for four years and seems content to let things remain pretty much as they are.

He’s a bachelor slacker, well-liked but not respected. Then Valerie gets pregnant. HE is willing to do the right thing but SHE has taken a good hard look at David and realizes, perhaps regretfully, that he is anything but dad material. She wants to break up; he wants to prove to her that he can grow up.

But he is deeply in debt to loan sharks (who send thugs around to his apartment to laconically hold his head under water to remind him that if he doesn’t pay up soon he is going to end up floating face down in some unpleasant body of water) and nobody really takes him seriously enough to give him a chance to prove himself. To make matters worse, he is served with a summons that turns out to be quite a blast from his past.

As a younger man he had regularly donated sperm to a specific sperm bank in order to make some cash. Due to a clerical error, more than 500 of his samples have been used to impregnate different women . He is now the proud daddy of 533 kids and 152 of them are suing to get his identity revealed.

At first David is appalled and hires a friend (Bertrand) to represent him legally. That friend is also a dad, although his kids basically don’t EVER listen to him and treat him like a jungle gym more than anything else. His friend, the scruffiest barrister ever looks on this as an opportunity to argue a groundbreaking case, maybe the only one he’ll ever have.

After initial reluctance, he begins to look at the profiles of his now-adult children. He tells himself it will be just once. When that child turns out to be a superstar soccer player, David is ecstatic. It becomes like a drug, looking in on his kids and surreptitiously inserting himself into their lives as a kind of guardian angel. Gradually David grows to realize this might be the opportunity to prove himself that he can improve himself that he was looking for.

The movie has a profound charm to it and a kind of scruffy sense of humor. It is sweet at unexpected moments, sometimes tugging the heartstrings without warning. Huard is given a much more layered and complex role than at first it appears – David is certainly a slacker of epic proportions but he also has an amazing heart – his father tells him in one of the most affecting scenes in the movie “I never have to worry because everyone loves you.” In short, one of those rare dads who recognizes that there are different standard of success in life than the ones he measures himself by. It truly is one of the most difficult parts of being a parent – understanding that your definition of success may not be what your child is looking for in life.

Starbuck is one of those rare movies (although this year there seem to be more of them) that looks at what it means to be a dad – there have always seemed to be more mom movies than dad movies in Hollywood, particularly in the last 50 years. Being a dad has challenges of its own, and sometimes in our rush to exalt motherhood (and don’t get me wrong, motherhood deserves exaltation) we forget the important and vital contributions that father’s make in the nurturing of children. Parenthood isn’t a process or a science and it’s barely even an art form – it’s thinking on your feet, it’s being willing to change your own outlook before trying to force your kid to change theirs. It is frustrating, demanding, infuriating – and ultimately as rewarding an endeavor as a man can undertake.

This isn’t the ultimate fatherhood movie – there are a few too many easy-to-spot plot points for that. Still, I found myself enjoying the charm and outright manipulation the movie put me through. Huard is likable enough and the movie pulls just enough unexpected moments to drive the score as high as it winds up. If you’re looking for a case of the warm fuzzies, here’s your source.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming. Very funny at times. Huard does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit far-fetched occasionally. A tiny bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sexual content, a pretty fair amount of rough language and a teeny bit of drug material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers not only to the character from Battlestar Galactica but more specifically to a Canadian Holstein bull that during the 1980s and 1990s fathered thousands of progeny and is considered one of the most fertile creatures ever to have lived.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; not what you’d call an overwhelming critical endorsement.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Painting and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage!!!

Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)


The Lives of Others

Careful what you say - you never know who may be listening.

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert. Directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck

Knowledge is power. In a repressive state, the more knowledge that the state has of its people, the more power it has over them.

In the communist government of East Germany in 1991, the secret police – known as the Stasi – have absolute control over the people of East Berlin. With an army of informants and strategically placed listening devices, the hallmark is that the knowledge of the lives of others protects the state and makes it stronger. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe), one of the most skilled interrogators of the Stasi, believes this implicitly.

While attending a play with his ambitious superior Grubitz (Tukur), they run into Minister Hempf (Thieme). He remarks that the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch) may not be as loyal to the GDR as was first assumed and that a full-scale surveillance operation might not be frowned upon. Grubitz pounces on the opportunity and assigns the operation to the personal control of Wiesler, one of his most trusted men.

Dreyman lives with the celebrated actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck) and as such are something of the Brad and Angelina of East Germany. They have never fallen under the scrutiny of the state before and at first, it is apparent why. While most of their peers are critical of the GDR, Dreyman is not. Even when he assumes that he is in the privacy of his own home, he utters not a word against the government. However, Dreyman’s loyalty wavers when he discovers that his girlfriend has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. It is further eroded when Dreyman’s friend and mentor, Albert Jerska (Kleinert) commits suicide after having been effectively blacklisted by the GDR for seven years.

No longer content to be silent against the GDR’s repressive policies, Dreyman is determined to inform the outside world about the high rate of suicide in the GDR which its government has covered up. He authors an article in Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, about the subject. Published anonymously, the article creates an uproar in the corridors of power. The Stasi becomes determined to find out who published the offending article.

Wiesler has been observing all this. He alone knows who authored the article, and that information could be advantageous to his own career advancement, as well as that of Grubitz. However, Wiesler himself has doubts. Having seen first-hand the corruption of the government and its effect on the people, he wonders if he is working on the right side. Enchanted by the freedom – however repressed it may be – of the artistic couple, he is drawn into events that will change not only his life, but the lives of those he has been charged to spy on.

Director von Dommersmarck has created an amazing movie, all the more so because of its miniscule budget (roughly $2 million American, which on most Hollywood productions would barely cover the catering). He manages to create a great deal of tension, and in many ways this reminds me of the classic Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There, as in here, the act of surveillance changes those who are doing the listening.

Most of the actors lived in East Germany during the era portrayed here (although von Dommersmarck claimed that was unintentional) and so they bring a certain amount of personal experience into the movie. This has all the elements of a great thriller, one that would do Hitchcock proud, but it isn’t a thriller precisely. There are equal amounts of drama and character study as well.

Muhe does a magnificent job of playing the quiet, emotionless Wiesler. His face registers nothing, no anger nor joy; he is a faceless bureaucrat doing a job. And yet there is sadness in his eyes, almost as if deep down he realizes what he is doing is wrong. This contradiction is at the crux of The Lives of Others and is one of two things that make it so compelling.

The other thing is a little more esoteric and a bit more political. The question that this movie raises is not just about the communist dictatorship of the GDR, but about our own system. Given the advancements in computer tracking and listening devices, our own privacy has been severely compromised. How much of our lives does our own government keep tabs on – and is the security that it supposedly affords worth the potential for abuse? Do we have an expectation of privacy anymore? Does big business have the ethics to keep our information private? Certainly this movie provides an answer to these very important questions, although on the last one you may have to draw your own conclusions.

While the movie runs a bit on the long side, I was never bored. Because the thriller elements keep the tension level high, the viewer is left on the edge of their seat for much of the movie. This won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2008, and could easily have been the Best Picture overall. This is one of the best movies of the decade and you should see it if you have a chance.

WHY RENT THIS: This affords a look at life in the kind of environment that Americans may not have a good deal of experience with, even if we are rapidly becoming a similar environment.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a good deal of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie received more Lola nominations (the German equivalent of the Oscars) than any in history.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most DVD and Blu-Ray releases contain some sort of commentary track, this one is noteworthy in that it is all director von Dommersmarck and it is one of the most extensive and informative tracks I’ve ever heard.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Day Night Day Night