Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949). Probably the apex of the onscreen collaborations between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, largely because the storyline involving married attorneys facing off against one another in a high-profile trial allowed for the sort of warm, frightfully intelligent banter that served the duo best. For most of the film, the interplay is infectiously delightful, especially as presented by the sure lens of George Cukor, who demonstrates an unerring sense of timing, including knowing when to just lean back and let his stars cut back and forth across the frame. The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin is sharp and spry, although it falters just a bit in the third act as it takes a turn for the melancholy that feels obligatory rather than earned. Still, to understand whey the Hepburn-Tracy team is still the gauge for onscreen chemistry, there’s no better place to start.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932). And here’s Spence again. This was an early role for Tracy, released just two years after his feature debut in Up the River, which was also Humphrey Bogart’s first film. The drama stars Tracy as a street thug who gets imprisoned in Sing Sing, initially meeting every challenge with the same surliness that meant survival on the outside. He eventually solidifies into a man defined by a stark, somber moral code, a quality that is tested when the warden implausibly grants him temporary release to check on his injured girlfriend. Curtiz direction is plodding but also sure-footed. Tracy is already honing his atypically naturalistic style, but the main pleasure comes from watching Bette Davis, also early in her career, burn up the screen with a few scenes as the tragic, brash, conceited girlfriend.

Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011). I’m tempted to argue that there are simply some superhero concepts that should stay in the comic books, but I never would have guessed that the mighty Thor had what it takes to become a commercially viable film franchise, so what do I know? So maybe the real problems with bringing Green Lantern to the screen lie within the execution. Start with a fleet of casting errors, beginning with the guy in the titular role. Given that his default mode is a sort of smarmy, glib self-satisfaction (even when playing a put-upon underling), it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that the sense of wonder that the performance requires is well beyond his capabilities, and he’s not so hot with the rapidly mounting maturity that comes with sudden responsibility, either. There are other basic misjudgements, such as making the costume a mass of swirling energy that only compounds the film’s degeneration into a CGI eyesore, a mass of digital mayhem that director Martin Campbell barely tries to hone into something coherent. The only element that’s entertaining at all is the performance of Peter Sarsgaard as a nerdy scientist who undergoes a gruesome transformation, mainly because he clearly decided to try out every oddball line delivery he could come up with.

Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011). Will Gluck’s Easy A is one of happier surprises of recent years, unmistakably messy but with charm to burn. It’s a terrific showcase for Emma Stone (she may never have a better one, in fact), but it also has wit and irresistible flavor all along the edges. Gluck’s premise for his follow-up may have been hackneyed enough that it was the second 2011 film to revolve around previously platonic friends who agree to enter into a sexual relationship with the promise of no emotional escalation, but there was hope he could work similar magic. Well, he almost does. Just as Stone delivered a devastating depth charge of charisma in Easy A, Mila Kunis holds the screen with uncommon firmness here. Her scenes with Patricia Clarkson (a carryover from Easy A, which just shows that Gluck has exemplary taste in assembling his stock company) show what Kunis can do with someone who can match her nicely. Unfortunately, her primary costar is Justin Timberlake, who remains a mediocre actor at best. If a film is going to be this predictable, it best sparkle in every other way. Friends with Benefits surely doesn’t manage that.

The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010). This supposedly glamorous pairing of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, both at the presumed height of their movie star potency, was such a critical and commercial bomb that’s already become a punchline representing Hollywood ignominy. It’s reputation is well deserved. This thriller about globe-trotting spies, double-crosses and mistaken identity aims for the sort of playful intrigue Alfred Hitchcock once pulled off with great aplomb, but the whole affair is inert mush. As it keeps doubling back on itself, it rapidly becomes clear that the plot has so many holes that the movie would be best projected onto a Wiffle ball. It’s astounding that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck could follow up the sublime The Lives of Others with this painful drivel.

After a customary end-of-the-year rest, the Spectrum Culture site returned with a spiffy new redesign this week. It was fairly low-content for the first week back, so my contributions were limited to pitching in on a couple of lists.

First, I wrote on the latest Black Keys albums for our collection of the “honorable mentions” when it came to the best albums of last year. Besides that, the site has an annual tradition–in keeping with the features built around assessing older albums and films with fresh eyes–of kicking off the new year by looking back to the best pop culture of five years earlier. I wrote about The Lives of Others and United 93 for the film feature and Neko Case for the music feature.

#31 — The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
Though we’re trained to believe otherwise, change usually happens incrementally. The misconception is fueled by newscasts and history textbooks that portray great social changes growing out singular events, tipping points that immediately and decisively transform everything. Movies stand as one of the greatest perpetrators of this myth, the need to pack as much conflict and drama into a relatively shorting running time leads to short cuts. Storytelling tropes trump the verisimilitude of onscreen life progressing in rough accordance with the world that stares at the screen, hoping for insight and entertainment. Thankfully, that’s not how Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others operates. The significant changes that the main character goes through happen gradually. They sneak up in such a way that we practically feel the transformation happening before we recognize it onscreen. It is so organically realized that we as viewers experience it instead of witness it.

It helps immeasurably that the main character in question is wonderfully well-drawn and beautifully acted. Played by Ulrich Muhe, he is a captain with East Germany’s secret police in the mid-eighties, just a few years before the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed. Muhe’s character is a loyalist. Even as some of his colleagues shrug off the dangers of rebellious thought and action, demonstrating a growing indifference to Cold War dogma that arguably represents early chips in that imposing structure that splits the city and the country, Muhe projects rigidity and commitment to the cause. Even in these scenes, the performance isn’t one-note. Muhe brings nuance to his character, showing how it’s intelligence and integrity that fuels his conformity. He arrives as a fully formed individual, thoughtful and intriguing.

He is called upon to conduct surveillance on a famous writer, a playwright whom government officials speculate is engaging in subversive activities. The writer’s apartment is bugged and a listening station is set up in the attic of the building, agents listening in on everything said within those rooms and typing up reports for their superiors. As the captain becomes more fascinated with his subject, particularly drawn in by his sensible, pragmatic views, he also discovers cause to doubt the motives of his bosses, and, by extension, the very morality of the government that he has given over his life to. This arrives not with a jarring epiphany, but with a slowly dawning new worldview. We see him learn, reconsider, reshape himself. Every alteration we see him go through makes complete sense. Indeed, it’s often the only logical conclusion that he, or the film, could possibly reach.

The Lives of Others is alive with ideas, and von Donnersmarck explores them all with patience and depth. He is not aggressively making a point. Instead, he is telling a story, confident that his points will emerge. The film benefits from the sense of a country struggling with its own past, building tension from the simple examination of a time that is distant enough that its easy to file it amongst other bygone trouble, but recent enough that the threats and fears still echo. There’s a hint of the cautionary in that element of the film, a warning issued firmly but without stooping to alarmist didacticism. The impositions on freedom and privacy can happen anywhere and at any time, especially in an era when governments and their citizens are shamefully prone to jettisoning personal inviolability in the name of supposed protection from uncertain and ill-defined global villainy. Inches turn into miles in the time it takes for a tape to be transcribed. Before anyone can act in defense, the very things that were being protected from outside interlopers have been stripped away with our own complicity.

The thesis resounds in the film, but dwelling on its political messages shortchanges the dramatic accomplishments. Among the many successes of the film, it is a splendid thriller. It does not brim over with car chases, explosions or other amplified markers of films designed to quicken the pulse. It achieves its excitement more quietly, and, as a result, more compellingly. The measured approach taken by von Donnersmarck calls to mind the casual expertise of Alfred Hitchcock at his least stylized. He surveys the situations he has set up with his smartly constructed script and proceeds with the certainty that the smallest moments–key discoveries, the looming promise of ill turns, clever acts of surreptitious protection–will have an impact without thrumming adornment. The understated triumphs of the film continue up the final line of dialogue, a simple declarative statement that delivers a inspired closing message: the toughest sacrifices are often the worthiest.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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