A Review of Alan Furst’s “The Spies of Warsaw”

A Novel

3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric and Meandering
Reviewed by:   David H. Schleicher “Author of The Thief Maker”

See all my reviews

Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a military attache and French spy living in Poland, begins an affair with a lovely Polish lawyer named Anna while trying to obtain inside information on Germany’s planned invasion of France in Alan Furst’s atmospheric and meandering The Spies of Warsaw.

Meticulously researched, Furst overloads the novel with historical details, and the dizzying onslaught of backwoods locales, small town visits, city districts, street names, aristocrats, military personnel and working-class spies makes it sometimes hard to keep track of where all the characters are and what they are doing. Furst spends just as much time on the private lives and social interactions of the spies who populate this novel as he does on their clandestine wheeling and dealing. There are many entertaining and atmospheric scenes that take place at swanky parties or night clubs where characters scope out their next lover while simultaneously seducing their next contact or target.

The Spies of Warsaw is the first novel I have read by Furst. I was drawn to him by the frequent comparisons to John Le Carre and Graham Greene (my favorite writer). Furst certainly scores in the atmosphere and details department. He puts the reader firmly and comfortably in place on the streets and in the bedrooms of Warsaw while capturing the malaise that covered much of Europe during the years leading up to World War II where many people carried on with their lives and affairs while knowing that “something” was about to happen and feeling there wasn’t much that could be done to stop it. However, Furst doesn’t deliver the character development or story arcs that Le Carre so often does. Furst’s writing also lacks the deep psychological and spiritual complexities that made Graham Greene’s spy novels so richly rewarding. Though peppered with intimate and exact details, Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw never gets deep inside the minds or hearts of the people he writes about.

Though an entertaining read thanks in large part to Furst’s sometimes conversational and dryly humorous narrative voice, The Spies of Warsaw exists mostly at the surface level. The larger events surrounding the content of the novel were certainly building towards a world altering period of history, but Furst’s characters continue to meander and seem to go nowhere, while the plot builds to an anticlimactic finish. Fans of popular spy novels and historical fiction should be pleased, but those wanting something a bit more might be disappointed.

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Recommendations for further reading:

Absolute Friends by John Le Carre

Our Man in Havana and The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

A Review of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”

My Mood Ring Indicates Laughter, 17 June 2008
4/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Some mysterious “event” causes people in the Northeast to start killing themselves (loved the Philadelphia Zoo scene!) and forces an unhappy couple (Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschanel) to work on their marriage problems lest they die. The audience is put on the ground level as people react in different ways to the impending doom and the need to escape creates heightened paranoia. The half-decent set-up combined with an unintentionally funny screenplay make M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-disaster flick The Happening the most entertaining bad movie you’ll see all year.

Shyamalan has developed into a truly unique breed of director over the past decade. He’s capable of crafting a decent thriller (The Sixth Sense) but he’s also been responsible for one the worst films ever made (Signs) and some of the dumbest movies I have ever seen (Wide Awake and Lady in the Water). Whereas his tactics in Signs made me angry, I noticed something in Lady in the Water that gave me a perverse sense of hope. That film was so bad, it was almost good. With The Happening, Shyamalan has finally crossed that threshold, and he’s done it without irony or camp. He takes himself dead seriously, and he’s crafted the crap in The Happening beautifully. Special nods go to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who has become the premier photographer of trees and grass blowing in the wind) and James Newton Howard’s excellent film score.

In Shyamalan’s “Twilight Zone” universe, the scenes meant to be suspenseful or scary are instead hilarious, the moments meant to be emotional become banal, and the lines meant to be funny fall completely flat. The dialog in The Happening is so bad I think the academy should go back and take away his best screenplay nomination for The Sixth Sense. Watching poor Mark Whalberg (completely unbelievable as a science teacher who figures out what is happening) give what is possibly the worst performance of the last ten years makes you wonder how Shyamalan was ever able to direct Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment to Oscar nods. Shyamalan leaves his cast, like the plants in the film, to blow in the wind without giving them a single helpful direction.

Despite all this, I have to admit I loved every stupid piece of this movie from Zooey Deschanel’s high-as-a-kite performance to the mood ring to Mark Whalberg talking to a potted plant to the crazy old lady in the woods to the people walking backwards. Shyamalan has performed a miracle by finally crafting another film that is suspenseful, but in all the wrong ways. When I wasn’t busy laughing, I was on the edge of my seat wondering when the film would finally dive off the deep end into complete idiocy, and it did in that “rifle” scene on the porch of the boarded-up house. Unlike an Uwe Boll who never showed a lick of talent, or a Michael Bay who has some technical skills but edits his films to the point of being unwatchable, Shyamalan has become an awful director whose films are completely watchable…and dare I say it…enjoyable.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

Re-watching Carl Dreyer’s silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was the final piece of my self-taught Spring Film School that started in April with The Third Man and continued in May and June with M, Metropolis, The Big Heat, The 400 Blows, The Innocents, Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Citizen Kane and finally Dreyer’s film.  One of the most interesting facts about Dreyer’s film is that the “text” is taken verbatim from confirmed historical documents of Joan of Arc’s actual trial.  Catholics are meticulous record takers.  Fans of Dreyer should also note that the Criterion Collection will be issuing a new re-mastered edition of his other bona-fide classic, Vampyr (1932), sometime next month.

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CAPTION:  A silent picture speaks a thousand words.

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
– Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Craft”

Dreyer’s “Realized Mysticism”, 7 June 2008
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*Note: This a review of the Criterion Edition DVD with the “Voices of Light” accompaniment.

Over the decades Dreyer’s film was a victim of religious and politic censors, two fires that destroyed valuable prints, unauthorized cuts, and zealous editors working against his wishes to modernize the film. An original, uncensored cut was found miraculously in a Norwegian hospital for the mentally ill (ironic?) in 1981 and fully restored for the Criterion Collection. Famed composer Richard Einhorn created his libretto, “Voices of Light”, in response to his own experiences viewing the film and researching the history of Joan of Arc. The film can be viewed with or without the accompaniment, though I can’t imagine Dreyer would’ve objected as Einhorn with great care honored the spirit of the film and arguably of Saint Joan with his compositions.

Carl Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a shocking example of the potential of film as art. No amount of scholarly critique can account for the raw power in viewing the film. It’s one of those rare experiences that can only be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetics (the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups of the actors’ faces) are perfectly married to the gut wrenching performance of Maria Falconetti (a theater star who never acted in another film) in the lead role. I think Dreyer was most accurate in describing her performance as nothing short of “the martyr’s reincarnation.” One need not be religious to understand what is meant or to feel for Joan as portrayed so humanely and exquisitely by Falconetti. Her face is beyond the realm of haunting, and Dreyer seers it into the audience’s memory along with other stunning imagery like a window frame’s shadow turning into a cross on the floor, worms crawling through a skull unearthed from a freshly dug grave, or a bored executioner barely able to hold up his head in the company of his torture devices. And then there’s the burning at the stake and the brutal suppression of the peasant riot–unimaginable horrors rendered so beautifully and hyper realized onto a series of moving images projected onto a blank screen.

The genius of Dreyer’s visuals and Falconetti’s performance is that they create a deep psychological complexity that can engage a modern viewer on multiple levels. In their bold suggestions and through the artistic integrity of their respective crafts, Dreyer and Falconetti leave it to their audience (weather it be a French nation still celebrating and mythologizing their 15th century hero Joan a mere eight years after her canonization in 1920 or a more skeptical 21st scholar studying the history of film) to decide the veracity of Joan’s convictions. Was Joan truly a mystic, a martyr, a saint? Or was she simply mad and the unfortunate victim of the time period in which she lived and died? Either way, she is presented here as human. And in relating to her, one thing is for sure: the mysticism of film was realized by the Dane Carl Dreyer and Maria Falconetti in the year 1928 with The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor”

CAPTION:  Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira call their agents demanding better scripts.

A Political Visitor, 9 June 2008
5/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

Thomas McCarthy’s second feature film had the potential to be a poignant human drama, but instead sacrifices the story for the message.  The Visitor unfortunately turns out to be one of those political message films that, for me, is impossible to review or talk about without giving away the ending and discussing the message.

A meek economics professor (a likable but uninteresting Richard Jenkins) goes to New York City for a conference only to find an illegal immigrant couple has been living in his apartment for two months. The premise is weak and was unbelievable as I didn’t feel any one of the three would’ve reacted the way they did in this situation. They all just seemed too nice and polite, completely unlike real people. However, I was willing to forgive the premise if the film were to turn into a believable character study like writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s previous film, The Station Agent.

Sadly, The Visitor offers no such insight into human relationships. There were some mildly amusing moments where the character Tarak (Haaz Sleiman) teaches the professor to play the African drums and Zanaib (the beautiful and quietly emotive Danai Gurira) walks in on the professor practicing alone. However, these moments didn’t add up to anything as the film slowly devolved into a preachy political film where we witnessed Tarak arrested erroneously for jumping a subway turnstile, detained, the professor hired a lawyer to help him, his mother (Hiam Abbass) came to the city to his aid (and formed an unlikely friendship with the professor), and director McCarthy, in not so subtle ways, delivered his message.

The major problem with the film is the weak screenplay that doesn’t give us the details behind why Tarak, his family, or his girlfriend had to enter the country illegally. We’re given stereotypical reasons why they wanted to leave their homelands (i.e. political strife, denial of civil rights, family members dying), but no background on how they got to the U.S. and why they stayed here illegally. McCarthy depicts the agencies handling immigration, detention, and deportation as a monolithic cold-hearted corporation that doesn’t take into account the human element. I don’t doubt there is much truth in this generalization, however, McCarthy gives us no solution on how to reform that or point to any specific law that could be changed to prevent nice people like Tarak from getting deported. Strangely, the only argument he presents is that Tarak was a nice guy. The bottom line is, Tarak was here illegally, he was essentially without a job, homeless, and his mother (unbeknownst to him) deliberately circumvented the proper legal channels. In the end, the lawyer trying to defend him had no recourse. I surely sympathized with the characters on the superficial level where McCarthy presented them, but I didn’t totally disagree with the end result of Tarak being deported (though the means to that deportation seemed cold and tactless).

Though the pace seems static and the dialog stilted much of the time, McCarthy peppers the film with a nice multi-ethnic New York feel, and for the most part, the performances are solid. However, by presenting us with an overly simplistic “nice people shouldn’t be deported” message, he unfairly leaves the audience to sit along with Richard Jenkins while he takes out his frustrations on his drum in the subway. I would’ve liked to have known the characters a little more, then maybe the message would’ve carried some more weight, and we wouldn’t feel so apathetic.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Tarsem’s “The Fall”

CAPTION:  Mountains and water and trees, oh my!  And funny costumes, too!

The Stuntman, 3 June 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

The Fall opens with a disembodied symphony of black and white images done to the tune of Beethoven’s 7th where the beauty is in not fully understanding what you are watching. There’s a train, a bridge, a man in the water, a rope, and the hoisting up of a horse from the river. And there’s one quick shot of actress Karen Haacke, looking shocked and dreadfully beautiful as she (and not yet the audience) realizes what has happened that made my jaw drop.

Some movies, like the Indiana Jones films, are designed to evoke fond feelings from other movies. Then there are films like Tarsem “Don’t Say My Last Name” Singh’s The Fall, which exists to tell a tried and true story with new images we have never seen before. When we last met Tarsem, he gave us the trippy crime flick The Cell in which we were made to feel sympathy for a serial killer who literally became trapped inside Jennifer Lopez’s head–talk about HELL! With The Fall, Tarsem, wanton and reckless, creates a tenuous relationship with the audience as he weaves the tale of broken-hearted silent film era stuntman (Lee Pace) who suffers a severe injury after a foolish stunt (seen in the opening) and forms an unlikely friendship with a migrant farm girl (Catinca Untaru) who broke her arm falling from a tree while picking oranges.

The Fall shares some thematic similarities with Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the Polish Brothers’ Northfork as Pace’s character begins to construct an elaborate fantasy world for the little girl to pass the time. The images Tarsem creates are breathtaking, strange, and confounding and like nothing seen in modern cinematic myth-making. The vibrant director uses visual and textural transitions from scene to scene (witness a butterfly turn into an island, or spilled coffee turn into blood) like it’s nobody’s business. The Fall is a true independent film, shot over the course of four years in twenty-eight different countries and funded primarily by Tarsem himself (with some last minute help from contemporaries David Fincher and Spike Jonze). With no CGI alterations, part of the fun is trying to figure out how some of the scenes were shot. Sometimes distracting is trying to determine where they were shot–as I believe one of the scenes was done (is it even possible?) outside India’s Taj Mahal.

There’s sometimes an undercurrent of malevolence in the imagery, and often it is so over-the-top in its pageantry as to become incomprehensible inside the grander scheme of the simple fairy tale. Paradoxically it also reaches the level of silliness as one scene involving the overly dramatic death of a monkey named Wallace had me laughing so hard I almost cried. Meanwhile, the acting verges on amateurish. Justine Waddell in her dual roles as a nurse and princess is stunningly gorgeous but vapid. In the lead role, Pace, ranges from wooden to overly emotional, while the pint-size Untaru is so uncommonly naturalistic one wonders if she even realizes she was playing make-believe. These follies can be forgiven, though, as the movie celebrates the power of imagination and the lore of films. Where else are you going to find a man shot to death with dozens of arrows only to fall on his back and be held suspended by the very instruments of his death? Believe me, the scene is amazing.

The Fall succeeds as a movie for true film buffs. Critics like Roger Ebert, who sincerely love movies and their power to entertain, have raved about it, while others more cynical have dismissed it as a moving coffee-table book of empty modern art. Viewing it as a midweek matinée, I witnessed the only other patrons walk out, while some ushers looking to pass the time, sat in on the last ten minutes, which featured a montage of silent film era stunts that gloriously celebrated the old images that astounded their audiences just as much as Tarsem’s new images attempt to astound us. The ushers seemed to get a mad kick out of it, and so did I.

Originally Published on The Internet Movie Database:

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