A Review of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others”

To Know Everything…, 26 February 2007
8/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” is a searing portrait of East Germany in the early 1980’s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The era of paranoia, suppression of free speech, and total state control of everything and everyone is masterfully displayed here in the intertwining stories of the Stasi police officer, his morally questionable superiors, and the actress and playwright they are spying on. Once again, the German people’s love affair with authoritarianism and meticulously detailed records is featured here as the most intimate details of these people’s lives are examined and we see the quiet tragedies of their everyday life stemming from their bizarrely married desires for freedom and attempts to rationalize their place and survive in the State and the Socialist movement. Superb acting, an excellent music score, and no-frills direction keep the film taut, sparse, and utterly transfixing in its evolving melodrama.

On an obvious surface level, “The Lives of Others” is the most psychologically astute look at voyeurism since Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” What makes the film compelling in its slow build up of tension and suspense, is that it is working on so many other levels. It can also be viewed as an allegory for the art of film making (or stage directing and writing) and the craft of acting, as we see the fractured psyche of the Stasi police officer–much like the blacklisted director character who commits suicide– who so desperately wants to intervene and direct the troubling lives of those he surveys (the writer and actress–both wrestling with their own internal demons as their lives soon become not their own). So while it serves well as a timeless psychological case study into such minds, desires, and paranoia, it also functions as a very timely discussion about how much interference a government has the right to run into the lives of ordinary citizens.

“The Lives of Others” suffers from one major flaw, which will not be discussed at length for fear of giving away some of its intricate plot twists and theatrical climaxes. In the end, the film misses the final beat as it runs about ten or fifteen minutes too long past what would’ve been two serviceable and profound endings to arrive at a series of closing scenes that are all too pat. The first two hours were so rife with dramatic irony and subtle tension, that it’s a shame the film rolls on beyond what would’ve been a sublimely ironic and stark conclusion (that arrives at a most pivotal moment in world history). Still, there was so much multi-layered and engrossing minutiae in those first two hours that the film’s ultimate brilliance can not be denied because of one false note.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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Oscar Predictions/Academy Awards Drinking Game

The 79th Annual Academy Awards aired Sunday Night, February 25, 2007.

Below were my predictions for the winners in the major categories.  The actual winners were filled in after the Oscars were announced. Continue reading

A Review of Patrick McCabe’s “Winterwood”

 A Novel

Chilly Scenes of Winter

Reviewer: David Schleicher

See all my reviews

Patrick McCabe’s haunting novel “Winterwood” begins charmingly enough with our narrator Redmond Hatch telling of his time revisiting his old mountain home in Ireland and reveling in the tall tales of the proud local drunk, Ned “Auld Pappie” Strange. There’s an almost instant undercurrent of dread to the storytelling as we quickly become aware that neither Ned nor Edmond are going to be very reliable narrators, both soon overcome with the dark secrets and the Banshee ghosts of their pasts. Ned, it seems, my not be so innocent a weaver of tales, and Redmond is crippled by a crumbling marriage to a woman he is madly in love with and a troubled childhood he can’t seem to escape.

McCabe is a master of writing dialogue in local dialect, as I often found myself reading out loud the early stories of Ned Strange and speaking in a rather effective Irish accent.

Even more so, McCabe is a master of stark, economical writing. Shocking details come quick and fast, presented nonchalantly as the story progresses so that they soon fester in the mind of both the reader and the narrator until they creep back into the narrative in horrifying ways.

There are times when the narration becomes a challenge to follow, as the book becomes rife with name-changes, locale-switching, and no apparent chronology to the order of events. Even the chapter titles and time and place headers become deceptive, as once lost inside Redmond’s head, all becomes jumbled in half-truths, lies, exaggerations, under-statements, and grotesque speculations.

Still, McCabe is able to ground things with simple passages that are both lyrical and haunting in their slim descriptive power. By the time you finish visiting “Winterwood” you are left with the singularly unnerving feeling of being chilled to the bone. Hell, it seems, is a cold, cold place where the devil can’t wait to shelter you.

Places in the Heart

The tumultuous events of The Thief Maker span four decades and speckle the landscape of the East Coast from New York to South Carolina.  The novel takes place in “my own backyard”–inspired by locations near where I have lived, visited and studied over the years.

THE REAL:

The House on 22nd and Green Streets in Philadelphia where Felice Morrison, and later Marie Gail and her son-Rex Thomas Gail-live, is an actual location in the Art Museum district of the city.  I was completely transfixed the first time my friend and I came across the building while walking down 22nd Street towards the museum and knew immediately that it had to be in the book.  Upon my next visit to the area, I was smart enough to have someone take a photo seen below:

Continue reading

A Review of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel”

*I’ve discussed this film often in my blogs, and as it is one of the Best Picture Nominees and the Golden Globe Winner for Best Drama, I feel the need to broadcast the review I posted on the IMDB when the film was originally released in November of 2006. 
 

Babel-on, Wayward Director…, 6 November 2006
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

With “Babel” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has crafted the apex to his trilogy that began with the gangbusters “Amores Perros,” and continued with the finely crafted and haunting “21 Grams.” Unfortunately, it seems that peak is crumbling. “Babel” has the same intertwining story structure as the previous two, but in hopping across continents and making the stories global (taking place in Mexico, Morrocco, and Japan), he loses some much needed focus. It also has what has now become his signature editing-with-a-hacksaw-style of chronology that worked beautifully in “21 Grams” but seems forced here. In fact there’s one set of scenes taking place at a Mexican wedding that is needlessly incoherent in its jumping back and forth. Everything in this set of scenes is taking place at one location on one night, so why the jumbled chronology? It makes one wonder if they forgot an editor all together.

“Babel” is not without its merits. The story lines are more often than not thought-provoking and challenging. The ensemble acting is top notch from the big stars (Cate Blanchett is riveting as always in all her subtle and alluring ways and makes the most of her limited screen time) down to the no-name locals (the Morrocan kids being especially effective). There’s also a commendable ambition to the whole endeavor as it attempts to explore communication and human emotion in the increasingly global and paradoxically intolerant world. Memorable, too, is some great cinematography of the Tokoyo skyline (especially that awesome closing pan-out from the high-rise balcony) and the Morrocan highlands, where the centerpiece of the intertwined tragedies takes place when an American tourist is accidentally shot by some goat-herding kids playing with a gun used to keep away jackals from their family’s livelihood.

Unfortunately “Babel,” in its uncompromising vision, plays out painfully in strained, awkward lurches that stretch believability. It’s interesting how during various moments, different story lines seem the most compelling. The early scenes in Morocco of both the American couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) and the local goat-herders are stark and intimate and represent the best at what Inarritu is capable of as a storyteller. Later, he applies a humanistic touch to the scenes of the Mexican nanny taking her American charges across the border for her son’s wedding. There’s a wide-eyed innocent nature to the culture clash he depicts that gets garbled later when Gael Garcia Bernal (as the nanny’s nephew) dives off the deep end with little reason and leads to a tragic series of events that really test the viewer’s ability to take this all as seriously as the filmmaker’s would like us to. Likewise, the Japanese tale of the deaf-mute teenage girl struggling to cope with society’s unwillingness to communicate on her level, a distant father, and the recent suicide of her mother lurches forward so melodramatically it becomes banal, and the connection it has to the other stories is the biggest stretch to swallow, and most viewers will choke on it.

Then, of course, there is the presence of the aforementioned uber-star Brad Pitt. He’s at a point in his career where his celebrity status trumps his acting talent. He’s actually quite good as Blanchett’s frantic husband, but his star-power is distracting and constantly has the viewer thinking in the back of their mind “wow, Brad Pitt can act” rather than feeling anything for the character. This is a piece of stunt-casting that doesn’t work.

There are many compelling moments and noteworthy performances in “Babel,” but it crumbles under its own weight as just about everything is reduced to the big breakdown/crying scene, and we are left wondering what Inarritu will do next as a director. He’s got talent to spare, but ran out of steam when taking his intimate look at human tragedy global with “Babel.”

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”

Sparse but Effective War Film, 3 February 2007
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

At times deathly quiet, almost completely drained of color in the cinematography, and never reaching that emotional crescendo present in most modern day war movies, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” is sparse and effectively haunting. A slow and thoughtful build-up to the fighting and leisurely flashbacks allow the viewer to connect intimately with various characters who represent a broad cross-sections of Japanese society. Using voice-overs from actual soldiers’ letters to their families and hyper-realistic interplay between the men and their commanders, the film pensively explores the psychological make-up of the Japanese people who were often painfully loyal and deferent to authority and frequently placed honor and dignity above common sense and effective battle tactics. This complex internal struggle can be seen in the many suicides vs. retreating/regrouping that sank their chances to hold ground against the Americans invading the island.

The film provides much to think about without ever stooping to preaching an overtly anti-war message. As ponderous and meandering as it seems at times, the film still leaves some lasting images: the first glimpse of the American infantry landing on the shores of Iwo Jima as seen through the eyes of a Japanese foot soldier emerging from a cave, the stark shot of a gray sky through dead branches from the vantage point of a soldier lying amongst fresh cadavers anxiously planning a suicide attack on an American tank, and a faithful captain desperately dragging his dying general down a sand dune to a secluded cove after a failed last charge.

Though not as emotionally resonant as “Saving Private Ryan,” compelling acting and top-notch production values make “Letters from Iwo Jima” stand proudly amongst the canon of classic World War II films.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Beautiful Decay, 22 January 2007
7/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” begins with a transfixing opening shot that completely transports you into a dark and mysterious world. The film has the look and tone of Del Toro’s near-masterpiece “The Devil’s Backbone.” Whereas “The Devil’s Backbone” was a ripping good yarn and old-fashioned ghost story where the haunting served as a metaphor for the fractured relationships of the people living in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, “Pan’s Labyrinth” uses the same historical context to present a simplistic and damning Passion Play.

Much like the similarly well made but questionable “Children of Men” this film presents us with an array of characters who are nothing more than archetypes pulled out of the decaying mythology of both Paganism and Christianity. Del Toro attempts some character development by assigning each person a single detail to give them depth (i.e. the Captain’s father’s watch, Mercedes’ hiding of the knife in her apron, or Ofelia’s love of books).

Despite the lack of substance in the storyline, the film is not without its suspenseful and magical moments. Ofelia’s escape from the horrifying “baby-eater” and Mercedes’ escape from the Captain provide cracker-jack thrills and are expertly staged by the director. Del Toro masterfully handles the complex special effects, elaborate make-up and set designs, creating a hauntingly beautiful mise-en-scene that gives the viewer plenty of eye-candy without being overwhelming or reeking of hollow CGI design.

Unfortunately the film, saturated in Catholic overtones, becomes rather predictable once Ofelia’s imaginary friend Pan reveals a sinister nature behind his tasks for the young girl. Ironically, this film will probably appeal to the same people who found great comfort in Mel Gibson’s odious “Passion of the Christ.” Those who believe in redemption through torture and self-sacrifice will heavily identify with the archetypes on display here. Ultimately the film presents a sadistic task-master “god” whose sole design is to trick an innocent into sacrificing themselves for the “future” and gives us a notion of “heaven” that may only exist in the mind of a wildly imaginative young girl. A film (like Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”) that presents the horrors of the real world as something for a person to survive and overcome speaks truer to the human condition than a film like “Pan’s Labyrinth” that cloaks the real horrors of life in fantasy and myth and celebrates martyrdom over the innate will to survive. Del Toro dresses his falsity in beautiful garb, but the morality lurking beneath is rotten to the core.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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