Favorite of the Month: The Lives of Others (2006)
A story of surveillance and intrigue set during the finals days of East Germany’s soul-killing embrace of Communism, this slow-burning political thriller deservedly won the Best Foreign Film Oscar over the flashy but empty Pan’s Labyrinth. Ulrich Muhe stars as a man who has given up everything for the State police, working as an expert in wiretapping and watching. But he begins to question his selfless devotion to the Party while staking out a renowned writer (the appealing Sebastian Koch) who is smuggling an anti-government manuscript to the West. The film builds scene upon scene with a quiet patience until a damning climax and then, touchingly, there is a subtle and profound coda. Muhe sadly died on July 22nd of cancer.
New Release of the Month: The Hoax (2007)
The Hoax may be the best thing Richard Gere has ever done: Better than that scene in Looking For Mr. Goodbar when he seduced the ill-fated Diane Keaton in his jockstrap; better than the sexy way he rode atop a locomotive in Days of Heaven; better than that scene in American Gigolo when he rubbed motor oil over his Ralph Lauren (or was it Calvin Klein?) shirt. Gere’s entire career seems to be composed of poses and props. But in The Hoax, Gere plays Clifford Irving—who, in 1971, pulled off the hugely entertaining feat of pretending to write the biography of Howard Hughes—as a likeable but corrupt huckster, keener on making money than honing his craft. Like so many characters spawned by the 1970s—Timothy Leary, Tiny Tim, DB Cooper—Irving’s capacity for celebrity far exceeded his talent. But unlike Leary, Tiny and (probably) DB, Irving is very much alive and still living a fine life in Aspen, Colorado.
Classic of the Month: Deliverance (1972)
I first saw this film in a drive-in theater with my mother when I was 13 years old. I’m not sure what she thought of the notorious “squeal-like-a-pig” scene, but for me it registered as one of the most shocking moments in a film that seemed to be channeling some kind of primal, undigested energy. It was raw, frightening, thrilling and beautiful and I have seen it more than a dozen times since. This 35th anniversary release features several mini-documentaries and updated commentaries, but it’s all just marketing, really, considering any version can do little to improve upon John Boorman’s fearless direction, Vilmos Zsigmond’s gorgeous ambient light cinematography and the performances of Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty. This reissue only serves to remind me why this film has remained in my personal Top 10 since that drive-in night 35 years ago.
Documentary of the Month: No End in Sight (2007)
It is now common knowledge, unless you live under a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker, that the Bush administration committed a series of grievous errors in the first few months of the Iraq War that virtually guaranteed the mess we are now in. The power of No End in Sight lies not necessarily in its recitation of these errors—although they are mind-boggling—but in the way the director of the film has managed to bring together, in one place, a veritable battering ram of experts who expose these deadly mistakes without pulling any punches. The men and women interviewed here were hired by Bush’s team because they had years of foreign policy training, and yet nearly every important decision they were paid to make was undermined or overruled by a small cadre of neo-conservative fantasists with little or no experience. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer formed a triad of incompetence so unprepared for an undertaking of this sort that they resorted to the only trait they were masters at: stubborn, willful, insulting obstinacy. What is great about No End in Sight is that the talking heads assembled here form a jury of such damning precision that the movie may as well have been called “Nowhere to Hide.”
Under-the-Radar: The Lookout (2007)
The movie has bad guys, good guys and good women gone bad. There are drugs, sex, guns and a shootout. It’s all pretty conventional…except that The Lookout has a few things going for it that transforms what could have been a routine, disposable thriller into one terrifically watchable Saturday afternoon matinee. What makes this movie good is not so hard to figure out: An excellent script, a tightly focused pace and top-notch performances. The talented and, it must be said, beautiful young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the lookout of the title, a former high school Mr. Popular who suffered brain damage in a car accident that killed two friends. As a result, he experiences short-term memory problems, writes notes to himself, always locks his keys in the car and is suited only for a job as a bank janitor. His roommate is the older, and blind, Jeff Daniels (who is excellent). One of the more surprising elements of this often surprising little film is their relationship; neither one is so debilitated that he couldn’t survive on his own, but together they keep each other laughing and dreaming of a restaurant they want to open together. The Lookout was written and directed by Scott Frank, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who wrote the entertaining Steven Soderbergh crime picture, Out of Sight. This is his first film as a director. He doesn’t do anything fancy with the camera, but he understands that the first rule of screenwriting is to show, not tell; and the second rule (although it’s a rule I made up) is to always deliver information in an interesting way. Frank does that, and he makes sure that the loose detail he introduces in the first act will play an integral part of the action in the third. The Lookout is not, nor is it intended to be, a masterpiece, but it’s a damn fine film that will make you wonder why more movies can’t be this unpretentiously good.
Give This a Miss: Away From Her (2006)
This film is a moving one, but the reason I can’t recommend it is because it’s not particularly accurate in its depiction of the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. As played by Julie Christie, Fiona, a woman who sees her future and checks into a care facility much to the dismay of her husband, is all too graceful, too well-kempt and too often given to moments of poetic clarity and icy lucidity. She is, after all, Julie Christie, who simply looks too good to be dying of a bastard of a disease that leaves people looking haggard, bewildered, ground down by anxiety, wasted and completely lost. Her makeup is just right, her hair too carefully placed. She sits up and delivers perfectly timed epithets that take her husband, and us, by surprise. Director (and actress) Sarah Polley’s film would have been better, more harrowing and thereby more illuminating if she had coached Christie to play it raw rather than refined. Viewers with an Alzheimer’s patient in their own family may weep at this movie, and then go home to see their own loved one ravaged by a despair that Away From Her shies away from.
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