A Review of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

Who knew that behind the camera Ben Affleck would be able to deliver such an audacious and wickedly depressing piece of Dickensian subversion?  Against all odds, his debut as a director is on par with Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Masterfully Crafted Descent into White Trash Hell, 29 October 2007
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In some ways, “Gone Baby Gone” plays like a horror film. It depicts a seedy world full of drug dealers, murderers, corrupt cops, pedophiles, child killers, and down-on-their-luck Bostonians trapped in an urbanized “white trash” hell where the two African-American characters, a Haitian drug lord and a noble police chief (Morgan Freeman), wield the most power from opposite sides of the law. Director Affleck showers his hometown with humanistic shots of everyday people milling about, seemingly minding their own business, while their world decays and rots around them. The socio-political subtexts of “Gone Baby Gone” tick quietly like a time-bomb underneath the surface of an otherwise rote crime flick about the race to find a missing four year-old girl. I imagine this deep, dark, and morally questionable under-pinning is what has kept mainstream audiences from connecting with the film while critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel (author of the similarly themed and depressing “Mystic River”), “Gone Baby Gone” is masterfully crafted from the opening shot to the closing scene. Ben Affleck proves to be a far better talent behind the screen than in front of it, and while the casting of his younger brother in the lead role may seem like nepotism, Casey Affleck gives a richly complex performance as the private eye who uncovers the truth behind the kidnapping of the little girl. The dialog, strung poetically with grim and vulgar Bostonian street-talk, reminded me of “Good Will Hunting.” With Ben Affleck credited as a co-screenwriter here, this film disproves the popular myth that Matt Damon (or an unnamed third party) was the primary force behind their Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”

Like the best of the actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, or “Mystic River” maestro Clint Eastwood), Ben Affleck is able to get his cast to deliver amazingly rich performances oozing with pathos. Ed Harris, who sometimes over-acts in one-note fashion, is a powerhouse as the lead officer on the case and delivers quite possibly the best performance of his career; his character’s seething rage and fractured view of justice will leave you literally shaking. Amy Ryan, as the strung-out mother of the girl, delivers the type of pitch-perfect portrayal that the Supporting Actress Oscar was tailor made for. Casey Affleck, following his great turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows that he is an actor to be reckoned with, raw and emotive, and equal or superior in many ways to contemporaries like Ryan Gosling. Older brother Ben is such an actor’s director, he even manages to deliver a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Michelle Monaghan (in the otherwise thankless role of girlfriend and partner to the male lead) displays a range you didn’t see coming.

For the acting, for the dialog, for the intricately complex and devastating crime drama that unfolds, and yes, for the directing, “Gone Baby Gone,” as depressing a piece of subversion as it is, ranks as one of the year’s very best.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0452623/usercomments-54

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Check out my reviews of past crime thrillers set in Boston:

The Departed:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0407887/usercomments-359

Mystic River:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0327056/usercomments-222

The Greatest Novels of All Time

Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula1st.jpeg

This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line.  The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful.  Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims.  The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic.  Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day.  Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come.  Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?

It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time?  Continue reading

A Review of David Slade’s “30 Days of Night”

Best Vampire Movie in Over a Decade, 23 October 2007
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

As night begins to fall for a thirty day spell over a small Alaskan outpost village, a motley crew of vampires comes waltzing in for a feast in David Slade’s adaptation of the graphic novel, “30 Days of Night.” Ever since “Interview with the Vampire” vampires have been depicted in films as something hip, cool, and sexy. Recently the idea of becoming a vampire is like making a fashion statement or becoming a Scientologist. In “30 Days of Night” the vampires are nameless, cunning, animal-like bloodsuckers and far from mindless zombies (which have been more popular of late). Finally, vampires are restored to film as monsters to be feared and not as some sympathetic and alluring subculture.

 

The film grabs you from its opening shot of a man walking through a desolate snow covered landscape away from an ominous boat docked in the ice and never lets go. Director Slade wisely avoids many of the seizure-inducing trappings of recent horror films. Sure, there are the prerequisite quick-cuts in the intimate scenes of carnage, but there are also haunting wide-angled shots and one expertly staged bird’s-eye-view crane shot when the vampires first begin dragging people out of their houses into the street. While successfully adapting some of the great imagery from the graphic novel, Slade is fully aware that this is still a film and shies away from CGI and overly-stylized lighting and effects that would detract from the sense of realism necessary in a far-fetched horror film such as this.

Slade also makes good use of his cast. Danny Huston is perfectly creepy as the vampires’ leader. Josh Hartnett, who is typically miscast and emotionless, actually fits well the role of a wooden Sheriff of a remote Alaskan town. Ben Foster, who always overacts, is used effectively here in a bit role as an over-the-top Reinfield-like character who ushers the vampires’ arrival in town. Melissa George is pretty and sympathetic as Hartnett’s estranged wife. Like many serious horror films of recent memory (“Dawn of the Dead” or “The Descent”) the film attempts some character development that is often “emo” but never overplays its hand.

Aside from being better directed and better acted than your run-of-the-mill horror flick, “30 Days of Night” is also fantastically gory. Decaptation aficionados will especially rejoice. Refreshing, too, is the way it takes its gore and action dead seriously. There are no silly one-liners or graphic sight gags. The characters are deeply affected by what they witness and what they have to do to survive. This is pure horror, and it’s relentless.

Yes, there are some missteps with the film’s pacing and some huge leaps of logic in the amount of time that passes between events. However, for the shear originality of its central conceit, the intensity of the gore, and the haunting quality of many of its signature shots, David Slade’s “30 Days of Night” is the most exhilarating horror film since Danny Boyle’s original “28 Days Later” and the best vampire film since Francis Ford Coppola delivered “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” back in 1992.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0389722/usercomments-107

A Review of Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton”

Stylish Legal Thriller Ends in Hung Jury, 16 October 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

So there’s this giant corporation that creates some super-pesticide (or something) that gets into the ground water of some rural upper Midwestern farmers, and low and behold, leads to all kinds of hellish cancer (exactly what the in-house scientists warned of) that then–Surprise!– turns into a three billion dollar class action lawsuit. Six years into the seemingly endless proceedings, the lead attorney defending the evil corporation (Tom Wilkinson, channeling Peter Finch from “Network”) turns into a raving morally conflicted lunatic. In steps the firm’s “fixer” (George Clooney, somber and serious), the film’s title character, to make sense of things and perform damage control. Meanwhile, the corporation’s in-house counsel (Tilda Swinton, perfect as an unethical lawyer in way over her head) scrambles towards a fiscally feasible settlement before the truth is leaked.

Despite the convoluted legal mumbo-jumbo, “Michael Clayton” is entertaining enough, as much of it results in some well executed scenes of wire-tapping and murder. In his directorial debut, screenwriter Tony Gilroy successfully plays with some stylistic elements. Most of this occurs in the film’s editing as time-frames and POV’s are occasionally jumbled, and dialogue frequently overlaps onto scene transitions. It keeps the viewers on their heels even when what’s going is rather dry and boring. The early scenes with Swinton’s character are especially well done, as is the elliptical focus on a car bombing.

The performances are all top-notch, with the normally smug Clooney nailing the lead role with just the right amount of nonchalant star power. Unfortunately, the attempts at character development are superficial and stretch credibility. If Clayton is such a legal genius and so good at fixing problems, why does he have gambling issues and get sucked into bad business deals with his clichéd shifty brother? Clayton is also given an obnoxiously precocious son who plays into some of the film’s more literary motifs, an ailing father, and a noble cop brother (yes, another brother) who factors too conveniently into the film’s conclusion. None of these elements or unnecessary characters explain why Clayton is the way he is, or for that matter, who he really is.

“Michael Clayton” comes to a modestly satisfying conclusion, though the internal conflict of Clayton isn’t as compelling as Gilroy so valiantly wants it to be. Thanks to some stylish attempts to invigorate what is traditionally a low energy genre and some excellent performances, the film scores slightly higher than a top-line John Grisham adaptation, but still amounts to nothing extraordinary.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0465538/usercomments-62

The Thief Maker To Be Honored by Writer’s Digest

The Thief Maker will be awarded Honorable Mention in the Genre Fiction Category in the Writer’s Digest 15th Annual International Self-Published Book Awards.

A complete list of winners will be forthcoming on the Writer’s Digest website and the books will be promoted in the March/April 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest.

The Thief Maker is on the shelves at Philadelphia and South Jersey area Barnes & Noble stores and available for purchase worldwide through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

Purchase Now from Barnes and Noble

Purchase Now from Amazon.com

A Review of Andrew Dominiks’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

The Expectation of Applause, 6 October 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a handsomely mounted, film-school like study of the last days of the infamous James’ Gang by director Andrew Dominik. Growing up in awe of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) finally gets to live out his dream of living side by side with his idol when his brother, Charles (Sam Rockwell) joins the gang. Young Robert quickly learns that the exploits of the murderous train-robbers are far from the exciting flights of fancy he grew up reading about in newspapers and dime-store novels. A series of cowardly acts in the wake of double-crossings and humiliations ultimately lead to the titular event.

The style of the film is often visually arresting and downright disturbing, especially in the acts of violence, which leave the most gruesome parts slightly off camera, but are frequently shot and framed in such a way as to maximize shock value and leave an uncomfortable feeling of tension in the theater seats. Dominik sometimes relies too heavily on voice-over narration torn straight from the book upon which the film is based leaving us to assume that aside from dreadfully beautiful photography of passing clouds and desolate Midwestern landscapes, he wasn’t always sure how he visually wanted to tell the story. This leads to a sometimes snails’ pace as the plot unfolds, though the haunting Oscar-worthy cinematography from Roger Deakins and mesmerizing music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis eventually get under your skin even as the hands of the clock seem to move slower as if stuck in a pretty photograph of a nightmare.

The acting in the film is superb from all involved. However, the performances often blur the line between caricatured scenery-chewing and emotional nuance (especially from Pitt and Rockwell). While there is some entertainment to be found in the lighter scenes of camaraderie amongst the gang members, the audience never really feels anything for the characters aside from sharing their sense of paranoia and fear knowing that around any corner someone will be betrayed and shot. The film also suffers from some scene stealing cameos from James Carville as the governor hell-bent on catching Jesse and the otherwise lovely Zooey Deschanel, who appears out of nowhere for a few moments about ten minutes after the film should have rightfully ended.

When the credits finally rolled, I wasn’t sure what to make of the film. There’s some unforgettable imagery (my personal favorite being the almost surreal depiction of the cloth-masked robbers waiting in the dark woods as the train comes roaring down the tracks), and many commendable artistic elements to be found in the film. If the idea was to leave the audience feeling the era showcased was a tension-riddled and violently lonely existence, then the film succeeded wonderfully. Those seeking a more pure entertainment will most assuredly be left stressed and stretched to their limits.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0443680/usercomments-22

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Fire in the Blood”

Fire in the Blood

 

 

A Flicker of Talent

By  David H. Schleicher  – See all my reviews

“Fire in the Blood” is the second work to be published posthumously from Irene Nemirovsky, whose masterpiece “Suite Francaise” became a well deserved international sensation in 2006 and 2007. Once again Sandra Smith composes the English translation from the original French and does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of Nemirovsky’s prose, though this work lacks some of the cunningly evocative wordplay that had some sections of “Suite Francaise” seem so poetic and fluidly verbose.

Focusing on the romantic follies and unintentionally murderous affairs of the residents of a small village in the French countryside, “Fire in the Blood” is an entertaining slice-of-life style soap opera told uniquely from the point of view of travel-worn aging bachelor who has returned reluctantly to his quiet hometown. Focusing more of the memories of love and youth than on the actual encounters, Nemirovsky avoids the typical trappings of the run-of-the-mill romance novel. There’s an often cold, bitter, outsider’s sense of detachment to the follies of the characters in the book that give it a sharp observer’s edge and turns it into more of anthropological study than a melodrama. Many nuances of rural life and the social mores of the pre-WWII French are delivered spot-on by the Ukrainian born writer. Nemirovsky seduces the reader in the end, as secrets are revealed, and we get a brief flicker of the passion and the fire that had been elusive in the rest of the novel (hidden in gossip and observations after the fact) in the closing pages and haunting final lines. For Nemirovsky, true love dances across the whitewashed walls of our memories like shadows before the flame is snuffed out and we go to sleep for the rest of our lives in utter darkness.

One can only assume that this brief work would’ve been fleshed out and revised a few more times had Nemirovsky been given the chance. It lacks the epic scope and immediacy of her other lost masterpiece. While superficially it may seem like a frivolous afterthought in the wake of “Suite Francaise”, Nemirovsky makes it clear with “Fire in the Blood” that even at their basest levels matters of the heart are no small affair.

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See below for my review of Suite Francaise:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-suite-francaise/