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He doesn’t like what he’s hearing: Mühe in The Lives of Others.

Endless Suspicions

By Laura Leon

The Lives of Others

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Unlike the recent Good Bye, Lenin!, which poked gentle fun at the wacky old days of Communist-ruled East Germany, The Lives of Others depicts life in a totalitarian state as something far more Orwellian. A Stasi (secret police) agent, Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulriche Mühe), is assigned the task of setting up surveillance on popular, and seemingly party-loyal, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman lives with his girlfriend and leading lady Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) in a spacious apartment frequented regularly by artsy types who toss back vodka, play jazz and engage in heartfelt arguments about what constitutes dissent and other such philosophical quandaries—each subject bound to tie party officials in knots of consternation. It is a credit to the movie, which was written and directed by newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that the viewer immediately realizes the peril in which one anti-Soviet joke could land somebody.

Wiesler methodically and efficiently sets up systems by which he can learn the inner workings of Dreyman’s life, typing up daily reports that distill Georg’s and Christa-Marie’s lives into cogent banality: “Presumably, they have intercourse,” reads one such dispatch, leaving out any of the passion or desire which we, the audience, and Wiesler, the spook, have observed. A funny thing happens, however: Wiesler begins to empathize with his prey, recognizing that Georg is essentially a good man troubled by questions of artistic freedom within a totalitarian society. This comes at the same time as the spy begins to realize that the purpose of this surveillance is really to somehow wrest Christa-Marie away from the man she truly loves in favor of the corrupt Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who has used his power to, literally, put the screws to the actress. Georg, who is loyal to the state and has always enjoyed the favor of the powers that be, wonders if his plays would be considered good by a free society; Christa-Marie lives in fear that her ability to act on the stage can very easily be taken from her.

Clearly, the surveillance system of which Wiesler is a master and, indeed, serves as the underpinning of the German Democratic Republic, is also the hidden iceberg of this society. Through it, everybody can be found to be guilty of something, and the resulting feeling of its impending doom is felt by nearly every character in the movie. When Wiesler notices that Georg’s neighbor has seen his team wiring the Dreyman apartment, he cuts the threat of her giving notice with a curt warning that one word from her will cause her daughter to lose her place at university. The enormous power wielded by the socialist government is, itself, another character in The Lives of Others, as we see it crush and bury those, like Georg’s blacklisted friend Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), who can’t bear the strain.

Survival is a key theme throughout; it is measured in a number of ways, but particularly in terms of inertia versus action. As Georg mulls taking action by writing a tract illuminating one of his country’s dark secrets, Wiesler himself whitewashes information in his reports about the writer to his commanding officer. Here is where von Donnersmarck lets some black humor into the mix, as we witness two essentially good men taking up the pen—or, rather, typewriter ribbon—to make a stand. As the plot unravels, it’s apparent that the stakes for everybody in this brilliant thriller are insanely high, and the likelihood that one or more characters will have to pay quite dearly for their actions is a wrenching realization. Von Donnersmarck is intent on depicting life, not just as it once was, in a nightmarish not-so-distant past and country, but as it may well still be.

Catholic Restraint

I Think I Love My Wife

Directed by Chris Rock

Richard Cooper (Chris Rock) has an almost perfect life. He’s a successful Wall Street banker with a beautiful family and a picture-perfect house in Connecticut. He is, however, bored.

Totally fucking bored.

He and his wife, Brenda (Gina Torres) aren’t having sex anymore, so Richard spends his rare “off” time in Manhattan “window-shopping,” that is, checking out beautiful women. He’s not nasty or overt about it, though, and has no intention of cheating on his wife. Richard is that cinematic rarity: He’s a mostly well-adjusted, neurosis-free character. He just has a nagging feeling that something’s missing.

In addition to being very entertaining, I Think I Love My Wife is heartening. There’s no more beleaguered genre than the contemporary romantic comedy, and this movie is—holy crap—a successful romantic comedy. It’s character-based, with a minimum of wacky-situation-oriented scenes. Director and cowriter Rock avoids most of the current clichés in this clever remake of Eric Rohmer’s 1970 film Chloe in the Afternoon. Rock retains (gasp!) the old French Catholic’s sense of morality, as well as Rohmer’s ability to generate sexual tension through dialogue, gesture, and having a smart, gorgeous woman in a little black dress take up a lot of screen time.

The latter is represented by Nikki (Kerry Washington, in her first showy part since She Hate Me), an old acquaintance who turns up out of the blue in Richard’s life, looking for a job reference. She’s not even an ex; she dated his college roommate. (Orlando Jones has a hilarious cameo as the old roommate.)

Even after Nikki gets a job, she keeps dropping by his office. Richard doesn’t turn her away. It’s not just her looks: Nikki is witty, funny and dangerous. She (clearly deliberately) projects an aura of trouble. They start having lunch regularly, and he slowly gets entangled in her personal affairs. It’s an emotional, not sexual, affair, but—as Richard comes to learn—these can be just as convoluted and tricky. Early on, she pegs his protestations of having a happy marriage as phony: “I hear ice cracking.”

In a too-revealing reply, Richard answers: “My marriage is frozen. You could do a triple axel on my marriage.”

The cheerfully profane script, cowritten by Rock and Louis C.K., has enough entertaining dialogue to go around. Steve Buscemi, as Richard’s “happily” married, yet perpetually cheating, coworker, explains the main benefit of pharmaceutical erection enhancers: “I may not look like Brad Pitt, but I can fuck like him.” Even the venerable Edward Herrmann, as Landis, the CEO of the banking firm, gets a killer line, telling the befuddled Richard, “You can lose a lot of money chasing women, but you’ll never lose any women chasing money.”

The story resolves itself in perfect keeping with the characters’ natures; there are no surprises. There’s a great deal of pleasure in the deft way Rock handles the ending, however: It’s funny, sexy and smart, just like the rest of the picture.

—Shawn Stone

B Movie

The Host

Directed by Joon-ho Bong

When it comes to horror movies, it’s a safe bet that South Korea isn’t going to be rivaling Japan anytime soon for exports of international box-office hits. Not if The Host, a creature feature with a conscience, is any indication. In the tradition of Godzilla, it centers on a monster made from a chemical chain reaction. The process starts when a U.S. Army chemist forces a Korean medical student to dump toxic waste into the Han River. There’s a lot of squid refuse in the river, and few years later, a suicidal man jumps to his death into the same area of water. Only half of his body is recovered. Voíla: all the ingredients for the genesis of a carnivorous, sentient monster. The squidzilla thing that results is surprisingly flexible. It has a multichambered mouth with a beak like a mollusk, can run on land like a rabbit, and swims with the sleekness of a porpoise. But a watchable monster isn’t enough to make a movie, and in The Host, director (and co-writer) Joon-ho Bong doesn’t quite pull the strands of his ambitious effort together.

The hero, Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) is a slacker-rebel type who works in his father’s squid shack near a riverside park. After squidzilla leaps out of the water and slurps up all the people within reach, it captures Gang’s young daughter by lassoing her with its tentacle-like tail. The gist of the story is Gang’s attempt to rescue his daughter, but the biggest obstacle isn’t squidzilla, it’s the bureaucracy of South Korea’s disaster-response teams. Gang and his family, including his sister, a champion archer, are detained by police, quarantined by medics, and treated like criminals. The film admirably wants to include statements about the ineptness of various government agencies, the intrusiveness of poorly supervised American soldiers, and the dangers of environmental hubris. But the filmmaking isn’t quite up to the task: shifts in tone from comedy to creepiness dilute the suspense, and the lengthy screen time spent on Kang’s family is boring when it strives to be poignant. Creature fans will probably enjoy The Host for its low-tech monster moves; everyone else should wait for the Hollywood remake.

—Ann Morrow

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