+ "The Lives of Others": We’ve battled back a perverse urge to hate on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s debut more than it deserves solely because of the overwrought praise it’s being showered with ("overwrought" because we don’t agree, natch â€” otherwise it would be "well-deserved"). No less than Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, supreme ruler of the Review As Excuse For Witticisms of Varying Quality, is moved to sincere acclamation:
You might think that â€œThe Lives of Othersâ€ is aimed solely at modern Germansâ€”at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist fÃ¼r uns. Itâ€™s for us.
On the other hand, Armond White at the New York Press…well, also likes it, finding it "surprising that a new German film would teach Americans about human faith at a time when acclaimed movies like Borat lack faith."
The forces of dissent are lead by Scott Foundas at LA Weekly, who writes that the film "gave me the creeps":
Donnersmarck is the sort of director who knows a good deal more about filmmaking technique and dramatic structure than about human behavior, and his impeccably well-made debut feature is the sort of movie that often gets wildly overpraised by audiences (including film-school grads, studio executives and some critics) who believe a good movie is one where the heroes and villains are clearly demarcated, every plant has a payoff, and the moral of the story is as obvious as skywriting.
Also less enthused: Fernando F. Croce at Slant, who finds that it’s "the director who ultimately clips the picture’s wings by insisting on a trite feeling of uplift that inexcusably oversimplifies a nation’s social struggle and grappling toward unification." Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE calls the film "fairly workmanlike," well made but clunky.
J. Hoberman at the Village Voice declares the film "a compelling thriller but an unsatisfying character drama.," faulting the "increasingly squishy humanism" that builds at it goes on. At New York, David Edelstein calls it "a cunning piece of constructionâ€”a Kafkaesque tearjerker, a tragic farce." He likes the film’s moral complexity, in that "[w]e fear for the freedom of the vulnerable couple, yet on some level itâ€™s a kick to spy on them along with Wieslerâ€”to listen in on mundane conversations in a culture in which thereâ€™s no sphere of privacy"; he does take issue with some of the heavier handed moments.
Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club dislikes von Donnersmarck’s "stolid" direction, but finds that the plot and performances are enough to warrant a "B."
And the rest is exaltation: A.O. Scott at the New York Times writes that
There is a bracing, old-fashioned quality to Mr. von Donnersmarckâ€™s film, which supplies us with good guys to root for and villains to despise. But it also shows, with excruciating precision, the cruelty with which a totalitarian state can exploit the weakness and confusion of its citizens. And even as they are, to some extent, enacting a morality play, the actors also seem like real, vulnerable people forced into impossible choices.
Dana Stevens at Slate lauds "The Lives of Others" as "intricate, ambiguous and deeply satisfying movie," and concludes that "Von Donnersmarck’s film is set in a world where freedom isn’t an abstract concept to be taken for grantedâ€”it’s a distant promise that is enough to make bureaucrats in headphones weep." At Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum calls it "utterly riveting." And at Salon, Stephanie Zacharek writes that
"[t]his isn’t just a story about the oppressiveness of the GDR, but about the way even imperfect human beings can tune in to their best impulses, and make choices that will allow them to live with others, as well as themselves."
+ "The Decomposition Of The Soul": This 2002 documentary about the Stasi from Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint opened in Film Forum this week as a nicely timed counterpart to von Donnersmarck’s film. Some make the claim that it’s the better film â€” Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls it "the first essential documentary of the new year," and writes that "unlike The Lives of Others, its study of social conditioning never veers toward cuteness." At the Village Voice, J. Hoberman calls the film "[m]ore tough-minded and even poetic," and notes that "The Decomposition of the Soul is a deliberately confining movie, but unlike The Lives of Others, it offers no closure."
At New York, David Edelstein also salutes the film as "poetic," but does add that, for better or worse, "there is something about the movieâ€™s pacingâ€”the silences, the drone of the narration (‘The name of your enemy is hopeâ€‰â€¦â€‰’)â€”that wears you down." Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE compares the film to 2003’s "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine," as does Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. Rowin praises the filmmakers for their ability to "create a vivid, harrowing testimony from a bare minimum of visual evidence." Rabin points out that the film is "an intentional ordeal," and that it "bears powerful, uncompromising witness to man’s inhumanity to man, which is one of the most important things any documentary can do, though, it’s also one of the most grueling."
At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir suggests that the film "might be too slow and morbid for American viewers without an existing interest in the subject." And at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis goes further, writing that in comparison to "The Lives of Others," "The Decomposition Of The Soul" "is a tougher sell partly because it offers no palliatives, though partly because itâ€™s a bore."
+ "Hannibal Rising": Few of our go-to critics bothered to review Peter Webber‘s prequel addition to the Hannibal Lecter franchise, which is probably more telling than anything anyone could write. But a quick look: Jeannette Catsoulis at the New York Times sighs that "[a]lmost everyone involved seems deadened by the literalness of the material, especially [Gaspard] Ulliel, whose lanky, effete avenger may snack on the cheeks of his victims but never hardens into a genuine horror. Heâ€™s like Anthony Hopkinsâ€™s brain-damaged sibling." Scott Foundas at LA Weekly writes that "[b]y the end of two full hours, itâ€™s only [writer Thomas] Harrisâ€™ head you long to see on a plate." And Jeremiah Kipp at Slant concludes that "This film exists to further the cash cow legacy of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and create a nifty deluxe DVD box set containing ‘Hannibal’s Legacy of Evil.’ One hopes there are better reasons for making films than this."