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Jun262011

"The Lives of Others", "An Unreasonable Man" and "Grindhouse" 

“The Lives of Others”

A coldly professional Stasi agent (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler) discovers his humanity when ordered to spy on a noted playwright and his girlfriend, a stage actress.   This absorbing film has a feel for East German society before the wall fell that only a native like director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck could bring.   The Stasi knew the last detail of the private lives of the citizenry, using that information to force people to betray each other as well as the best parts of themselves; our agent, however, does his spying in good faith, not to get his jollies or out of careerism.   After a blacklisted friend kills himself, the playwright anonymously composes an expose of suicide rates in the GDR, prompting an outraged search by the thought police for the piece’s author.   The agent must decide whether to turn him in, but the playwright’s piano playing, a pilfered volume of Brecht—these have awakened something within him.   This testament to the power of art to rescue a lonely man’s soul won the foreign language Oscar.  

“An Unreasonable Man"

When I used to darken doorsteps for Illinois PIRG I’d occasionally be greeted with a cry of “Hey, it’s Nader’s Raiders!”   This fascinating documentary about Ralph Nader’s legacy as scourge of corporate America—laws passed, lives saved, etc.—surveys the damage wreaked on that legacy by his presidential runs of 2000 and 2004, which scandalized longtime allies and Dems while thrilling those of us yearning for independence from the two parties.   (I attended the massive Nader arena rally in Chicago in 2000; wish I could say I stayed “unreasonable” in ‘04 but, reeling from four years of W., I threw in my lot with the Dems).   The audience listened closely as the film chronicled Nader's delving into the dark side of cultural icons such as the car and the hot dog, but as the subject turned to the controversial campaigns the crowd became adversarial, applauding loudly in solidarity with their partisans and heaping scorn upon their foes, whether they be onscreen or in the theatre.   After the screening co-director Steve Skrovan stood and solicited comments, and then Nader himself was among us!   (Not in person.   Via teleconference, his image projected onscreen.)   With a smile a young woman stepped to the mic and asked him a question that she said her dad had been wanting to ask him for some 40 years: was he responsible for killing production of the ’65 Corvair?   Without missing a beat Nader unapologetically tabulated the car’s myriad safety defects as though the battle were only yesterday.

“Grindhouse”

Complete with mock previews, missing reels and distressed film, this double feature is meant to capture the ambience of 70s “grindhouses”, dodgy theaters which screened sleazy horror pictures and the like.   I’m a few years too young to have experienced their heyday, but I know the fun of the double feature nonetheless from the late-night cable TV pizza parties and drive-ins of my teen years.   Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is a zombie picture; Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is a horror/action movie about a killer stuntman, reuniting Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms from “Rent” and culminating in an absolutely stomach-churning car chase shot and cut the old-fashioned way (no CGI!).   “Grindhouse” is not for you unless you fancy an evening of exploding heads, pustulating zombies and butt-kickin’ babes, but I had a great time with it.   In a strange way it’s a celebration of innocent pleasures, of the trash the directors loved in their youth before they learned about "quality cinema".

 

- Apr 18, 2007

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