A Review of Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond”

This is Africa?, 26 December 2006
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

An Edward Zwick film always reeks of quality. Think of his “Courage Under Fire,” the first big film to address the Gulf War, or the Tom Cruise starer “The Last Samurai.” Both were very good films, but didn’t quite reach the epic status they seemed to be aiming for. Zwick commonly has compelling stories with big stars and a big budget…but his films are always missing that special something–the visceral jolt or that artistic flair that separate the good movies from the great movies. “Blood Diamond” tries very hard to be a pulse-pounding and heart wrenching political thriller in the vein of last year’s “The Constant Gardner,” but in its earnest and noble attempt to bring to life the plight of Africans involved in the mining and smuggling of diamonds, it falls short.

The writers deserve credit for trying to highlight so many compelling tangents of this hot-button story that touches on price gouging, corporate “funding” of civil war, enslavement of native Africans in their own land, and the brutal indoctrination of child armies by radical rebel forces. Zwick, always competent staging a tense battle scene and realistic violence, unfortunately directs everything else in a pedestrian manner that hinders the inherent compelling nature of the plot. An uninspired music score and two false endings don’t help.

The superb cast helps keep things slightly off kilter and interesting for the audience. Leonardo DiCaprio as the suddenly conscious-stricken diamond smuggler has become one of those uber-stars who is always better than expected in spite of himself. He sports and unidentifiable accent (is it supposed to be a Zimbabwe accent, or someone from Zimbabwe doing a bad impression of a South African accent?) that isn’t as nearly distracting as it was in the previews for the film. Following his masterful turn in “The Departed”, Leo has somehow managed to wipe away his pretty-boy image and become a very reliable man’s-man actor-intense and brooding and ready for action. It’s also nice to see the stunning Jennifer Connelly in a role other than that of a tortured middle class woman with dark secrets. She’s underused here as the wily reporter looking to make a difference with her “big story,” but her always slightly subversive line readings are effortlessly enticing, and she’s become one of those rare actresses who looks even sexier as she ages. To round out the ensemble, there’s Djimon Hounsou, always riveting in his typecast role of a passionate and angry African willing to do anything for his family.

“Blood Diamond” is ultimately one of those movies that is greater to talk about than actually sit through. It has some fine performances and a compelling story that gives much food for thought, but isn’t as well executed as it should be. Like all Zwick films, it has a brain and a keen eye, but its heart seems strangely insincere.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”

In honor of the Golden Globe nominations and the race for Oscar, here is a rebroadcast of my review of The Departed from when it originally opened in October of 2006.  This is the only film from this year to receive 10/10 stars from me.  Comparatively, last year, I bestowed two 10 star reviews to The Constant Gardener and Crash (which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture).  In 2004, I bestowed only one 10 star review to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The Renaissance, 9 October 2006
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Martin Scorsese has reached a point in his career where he has free reign to do whatever he wishes as a director. It’s hallowed ground for an auteur, and as such, every actor worth his salt would kill to work for him knowing full well that whatever Scorsese chooses to do will be an uncompromising work of art. With “The Departed” he has quite possibly one of the greatest casts ever assembled. The deliciously convoluted plot based on the recent Asian flick “Infernal Affairs” showcases Jack Nicholson as an Irish mob boss; Leonardo DiCaprio as an undercover cop infiltrating the crime ring; Matt Damon as the crime ring’s inside man with the police unit assigned to bring them down; Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg as the cops working above Damon and DiCaprio; and a breakthrough role for Vera Farmiga as a police psychiatrist in a love triangle with Damon and DiCaprio. This brief but confusing rundown is merely the tip of the iceberg and reveals nothing of the plot twists and tension riddling every aspect of the film like bullet holes from a machine gun massacre.

By now, Scorsese is to crime dramas what Hitchcock was to psychological thrillers. Comparatively, he’s at the same point in his long career Hitchcock was when he gave us “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” and “Vertigo.” Scorsese could’ve directed this blindfolded and it would’ve still been first rate. What’s so thrilling about Scorsese as a filmmaker is that he’s always directing full throttle with his eyes wide open. “The Departed” is so ridiculously good it left me with chills afterward. After a brief departure to big budget Oscar pushes with “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” Scorsese returns to the familiar ground of his most revered projects like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” Goodfellas,” and “Casino.” All his hallmarks are here: fantastic use of music, brilliantly choreographed bouts of violence, heart-pounding editing, deep and meaningful camera shots and movement, religious iconography, an epic and detailed sense of place (in this case, Boston), and highly quotable dialogue that is dramatic and funny and full of pathos in all the right places.

With its rising tension and cat-and-mouse theatrics, “The Departed” is easily the most viscerally thrilling studio film to come down the pike in many moons. Scorsese doesn’t just treat us to his usual bag of tricks, he re-imagines them, and in exorcising perfectly balanced performances from an amazingly talented cast that in the hands of lesser director may have gone over-the-top, he delivers a modern day tragedy on par with greatest works of Shakespeare. For Scorsese, the big screen is his canvas, the camera his paint brush, and the blood splattered across the screen his awe-inspiring brush strokes. He’s a veteran, he’s a master, and “The Departed” is his Renaissance.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database.

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A Review of Stephen Frears’ “The Queen”

In honor of the Golden Globe nominations and the race for Oscar, here’s a rebroadcast of my review of The Queen from when it originally opened in October of 2006.

Paparazzi Kissed the Princess, 9 October 2006
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

The paparazzi kissed the princess that fateful week in 1997, but all the English people wanted was their Queen. Stephen Frears’ competent, well written, expertly cast and intimate look into the Royal Family and British government in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death is a straightforward, no-nonsense stunner.

Operating both as a comedy of manners where the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (an excellent Michael Sheen) must save the Royal Family from themselves before the Monarchy is tossed aside completely by an angry, guilt-ridden public desperately wanting a statement, a word of comfort, or at very least the presence in London of their Queen Elizabeth II (played masterfully by Helen Mirren, who is as cold and stubborn here as she was conflicted and passionate as Elizabeth I in the HBO miniseries of the same name earlier this year), and also as a surprisingly touching testament to the British people’s love affair with Princess Diana and more importantly the Monarchy, “The Queen” succeeds splendidly on multiple levels.

Frears combines archival footage of a grieving public and newscasts with intertwining splices of historical recreations and fictionalized riffs on what it must’ve been like inside the Royal Chambers. The writers get the mannerisms of the Royals down perfect, as people with stiff upper lips who declare their outrage with words like “quite” and “that’s not how it’s done!” One miscalculation is when the writers try to create a connection between Blair’s love for his deceased mother and his newfound sense of protectionism over Elizabeth. It’s only surface level, and Freudian, and seems rather out of place in an otherwise totally British film. The rest of the Royals serve as a sideshow, with Prince Charles wimpy and ineffective in the presence of his mother, Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) a rowdy lout, and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) providing equal parts comic relief and aristocratic wisdom to her daughter.

In the end, “The Queen” is a film that sneaks up on you, funnier and more touching than you imagined, and anchored by a classic turn from a consummate British actress as a Queen who desires to understand her people and do them proud while honoring the traditions of her lineage.

 Originally published on the Internet Movie Database

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The Horny Manatee Effect

As we are currently sucked into the pulsing bleeding heart of the holiday season, I wonder just how interconnected we have all become.  In this world of instant gratification and plugging in, it seems just about everyone is in constant contact with others be it through cell phones, television, computers, gaming, emailing, text messaging, social networking, or blogging. 

I look to a recent phenomenon that I call the “Horny Manatee Effect.”  The origin of www.hornymanatee.com, less than a month old, is already the stuff of pop culture legend.  It’s quite a fascinating world when a late night talk show host, Conan O’Brien, in a desperate attempt to breathe life into a lame gag involving mock college mascots, ad-libs a joke about a fake website called www.hornymanatee.com that then becomes the hottest site on the net.  The legal department at NBC informs him that next morning that the network is now obliged to purchase that domain name because Conan said it on air.  His crack team of writers and staff immediately jump on the accidentally hilarious opportunity and turn the newly purchased domain into a fully functioning mock-porn site.  What’s even more opportunistic is the response of the fans and those morbidly curious on the net: they visit the site by the millions submitting their own fan art, erotic manatee stories, comic strips, or whatever else their burgeoning creativity and perverse interest in the glorious sea cow and Conan can conjure.

For another example of this “instant connection,” look no further than last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live.  Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake do a hilarious “digital video” spoof of a really bad early 90’s lame white-boy R&B song called “Dick in a Box” and by the following Monday, it’s the most downloaded entry on YouTube.com.

All of this makes a struggling novelist like me wet-dream about the day someone like Conan O’Brien utters the words, The Thief Maker. But it also makes me wonder, what is the price we pay for all this interconnectedness and instant gratification?  What horrors will our overly stimulated curiosity reveal?  And will we one day reach a saturation point where all of this will suddenly seem so quaint and a waste of valuable time? 

We constantly feel the need to entertain or be entertained, share our thoughts, pass along the latest joke, and make sure we’re not missing out on the latest fad or funniest thing on TV last night.  The water cooler at work has been replaced by email and instant messaging and the locked diaries of teenage girls have been replaced by fully interactive blogs seething with all the once private nonsense and inner turmoil that was best left unspoiled by the public eye in generations past.  With so much out there, how does a writer like me find the right audience?  It’s possible they could be too distracted, and my voice not unique or controversial enough to break through all the white noise.  It may be another ten or twenty years from now before we can look back on this phenomenon with any kind of keen insight.  For now, I blog on, with millions of others, and hope that one day lightning can strike me the way it has the randy webcam loving sea cow, and I can bask in the glory of the “Horny Manatee Effect.” 

Written by David H. Schleicher

“William Tells”–an excerpt from The Thief Maker

The following is an excerpt from my novel, The Thief Maker.

copyright 2006 by David H. Schleicher.

The Thief Maker can be purchased from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com or anywhere fine books are sold.

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December 24, 1983
William Tells
        William Donovan was an eleven-year-old boy living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and two younger siblings in Camden, New Jersey, when his world ended. Had he been better equipped to piece the puzzle together, perhaps if he had been an adult observing all this and not the young child living through it, he would have seen the signs. Continue reading

A Review of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”

  

Mel’s Black and White World: IN COLOR!, 9 December 2006
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Mel Gibson was most definitely “off the wagon” during the making of his insanely entertaining Mayan epic “Apocalypto.” Sometimes you need a slightly crazy director to make a truly engaging action film.

Mel Gibson lives in a black and white world where the lines between good and evil are as clear as night and day. Glossing over the finer points and historical accuracies that a more conscientious director may have reveled in, Gibson presents a simple story of one brave hunter from a small village trying to survive in a big bad world of decadent, superstitious, and villainous urban dwellers who have ravaged his home and carted him off for human sacrifice. His young pregnant wife and son are left behind in hiding and waiting his return lest they starve to death. Our hero is clearly the most athletic and handsome man in his village, his wife the most beautiful and attractive woman, and his son the cutest kid. It makes them immediately endearing to the audience. It’s simplistic and manipulative, but as it was in “Braveheart” routing for the pretty people is easy to do and we the audience love to do it. Gibson also does a nice job of setting up the characters showing his usual juvenile macho sense of humor in some male bonding scenes that involve the graphic killing of a tapir. The acting, all amateurs, is surprisingly good and a big plus for the film.

Of course, what people come to see is the barbarism and violence that has become the signature of a Gibson production. The film bleeds from head to toe with a tense, white-knuckle, visceral, gritty feel and gore that would make our modern grind-house directors green with envy. Gibson taps again into his obsession with the basest of human vices and the most primordial acts of an unforgiving natural world and dwells on it here in a way that can almost be described as beautiful. In addition to the prerequisite human sacrifice scenes (full of de-heartings and be-headings), there’s an absolutely fantastic jaguar attack to the face, a skull cracking and skin ripping battle to the death, a hornet attack, a human birth underwater, and the best snake bite staging I’ve seen in years. Combine that with fantastically paced foot chase scenes and a gritty earthy feel to the set designs, costumes, and makeup and you get a top notch period piece action adventure film.

Gibson only vaguely alludes to the greatness of the actual Mayan civilization. He does show rather accurately the building of their mythic temples and sprawling and complex urban buildings, though he focuses on the fact it was slave labor that was used. When we get a brief glimpse of the Catholic Spaniards landing ashore near the end of this gut-wrenching experience, it almost comes as a relief to know that this culture is about to come to a tragic end. Sure, it spawned a heroic man with a pretty family for us to route for, but for the most part Gibson shows the majority of Mayans as insane as he his. It’s a crazy mixed up world Gibson lives in, but when he taps into that primitive desire to see things in black and white with no moral ambiguity, it’s quite a colorful event to watch in awe, even if the brightest color he shows us is blood red.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database

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My Trials and Tribulations with Self-Publishing

“…and I Offer my Soul to you Wholesale.”

Copyright 2006 by David H. Schleicher

        The year was 2001. A young upstart company working under the umbrella of Barnes & Noble called iUniverse was ushering in the new fad of print-on-demand self-publishing. I was a just a kid in the midst of my senior year of college at Elon University eagerly anticipating my graduation. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Writing had always been my passion, and I had been working on a novel that summer inspired by things I had studied in my psychology and criminal justice classes. “Publish your book for $99,” iUniverse’s on-line banner ad called to me one lonely night between composing passages. It seemed too good to be true, but I bought into it wholesale. Indeed, I published my novel for $99, and it was available for all to see by January of 2002. The result of this knee-jerk reaction to some savvy marketing was anything but a dream come true. Continue reading