Cold Comfort Reading with Canada, Deep Winter and The Kept

 

It’s been a brutally cold, occasionally wet, often frozen winter here in my next of the woods, though a far cry from the polar vortexed permanently deep snow-covered winter of last year.  It’s made for a great winter for reading…and my chapped hands found their way to three novels cold as ice, though only one, The Kept, haunts the imagination.

Winter Books - Canada

Things started out with a banal, arduous thud that was the literary equivalent of traipsing 100 miles uphill in three feet of snow to the top of a mountain with a horrible view.  Richard Ford’s Canada is a long drawn out affair (it’s not until about 300 pages through the 500+ page tome that we actually get to Canada) that tells you exactly what happened in the very first sentence and then proceeds to elaborate on it ad nauseam in repetitive memoir style. Twin brother and sister, Dell and Bern, at age 15, are thrown into a maelstrom after their previously thought to be stable and clear-headed parents rob a bank in a pathetic act of desperation. Bern runs away, while Dell (our narrator) is shuffled off to the middle of nowhere Canada where he meets some unsavory characters and witnesses a murder. Getting to the bank robbery was painful and lacked even a modicum of suspense, and I don’t know how many times the narrator had to remind us of his naivety (while Bern was more wild and worldly) as he goes from one horribly boring existence to the next shaped by brief criminal acts and the occasional weirdo. I’ve never met more boring characters or read about more bloodless crimes. Continue reading

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They Were Playing My Jam Until…in The East

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Brit Marling has to be one of the strangest young “artists” to emerge from the indie movie scene in the last few years.  She has a classic natural beauty, a deep whisper of a voice and an intriguing upside down smile that make her very watchable on-screen.  She’s also a writer and ideas creator behind the scenes, cooking up thought-provoking roles for herself and her fellow actors  Yet after seeing her in four interesting films (After Earth, Arbitrage, Sound of My Voice and now The East), I’m not entirely convinced of her acting ability.  She has a vacant stare (which works to her advantage depending on the role), an aloof physical presence, and while she knows how to cry predictably emo-style in emotional breakdown scenes, she rarely shows any other emotion.  It’s like she’s wading slowly through water up to her eyes on-screen.

Well, Marling has re-teamed with co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij for the eco-terrorism indie thriller The East.  Whereas in their previous endeavor – the quasi-entrancing Sound of My Voice – Marling played a soft-spoken cult leader claiming to be a time traveler, here in The East she is the corporate operative assigned to infiltrate a clandestine vigilante terrorist co-op which targets corporate polluters and big pharmacy.  The group is lead by the soothingly charismatic Alexander Skarsgard, who we eventually learn is a former trust-fund boy turned terrorist.  Also on board for the well-rounded cast are Patricia Clarkson (excellent as always but underused) as Marling’s cold client-focused boss and Ellen Page (convincingly dedicated to the cause) as a key player in the terrorist group. Continue reading

Raising Cane and Making it Rain in Looper

Hello, me, it’s me again!

I’m 60 years-old.  I’m retired and living in Sri Lanka on a tea farm I purchased for my long-lost love with whom I recently reunited.  Don’t ask…just go with this fantasy, okay?  She’s lying in bed next to me with her back against mine.  A balmy midnight breeze blows in through the window and the white curtains scale up the walls and then billow down.  My mind is similarly rising and falling in humidified thought.  I can’t sleep.  I saw something today that reminded me of a film I once saw a long time ago but I can’t quite place the moment or the film.  She’s half-awake, too.  She turns over to face me and runs her hand through my hair.  I whisper to her, “Were you there with me?  Do you remember that movie?  It was soooo good.  You know, the one about time travel where the guy was on the run from his future self and he hid out on that farm in Kansas with that beautiful woman and her little kid who could…” 

…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Behold the litany of reasons Rian Johnson’s Looper is an instant genre classic I will fondly recall when I’m 60 years-old: Continue reading

The Red Riding Trilogy

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…all good children go to heaven.”

You wouldn’t believe it at the start of the grim trilogy of films that aired on British television in 2009 and were released in art-houses stateside in early 2010 (and new to DVD this month).  Spanning almost a decade (from 1974 to 1983) and following a labyrinthine plot involving missing children, serial killers, conspiracy theories and corrupt police officers in northern Britain’s Yorkshire area, The Red Riding Trilogy is hard-hitting, trippy, convoluted stuff…the stuff of communal M-like nightmares.

The first thing that is so striking about the films is their look – dripping in period detail and directorial chutzpah that’s like Godfather-era Francis Ford Coppola as channeled through Danish Dogme ’95.  From a critical standpoint, the consistent tone running through all of the films is even more astounding when you realize each part was directed, edited, scored and photographed by different teams.  The first two parts were directed by Julian Jarrold and James Marsh respectively, and it’s only in the superior third part (1983, directed by Anand Tucker) do we see any kind of deviation, and that’s only in a few powerfully placed auteuristic flourishes involving flashbacks and voice-overs. Continue reading

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Gemma Arterton is Alice Creed.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens with a point-by-point look at two men (a menacing Eddie Marsan and a bewildered Martin Compston) preparing for the kidnapping of our titular anti-heroine (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton).  Writer/director J. Blakeson builds the tension confidently with well shot, well scored scenes that lull the audience into believing these men are so meticulous and organized, whatever it is they are about to do, they’re going to pull it off brilliantly.  They just have to.  Oh, but when you mix in human emotions, things couldn’t go more astray.

We’ve seen these kidnap flicks before, and we know something always goes horribly awry.  Blakeson knows he’s going to have to keep us on our toes, and he does so with some gravely intimate moments while falling back on old-fashioned melodrama.  Continue reading

The Inception of Dreams

Slick marketing evokes Lang's Metropolis.

Roughly twelve years following their first feature films, these legendary directors delivered the following:  

Fritz Lang:  M   

Alfred Hitchcock:  The Lady Vanishes   

Stanley Kubrick:  2001: A Space Odyssey   

Twelve years after Following, Christopher Nolan invites us to dream along with him through Inception.  And while it’s operating on different levels than the Lang and Kubrick pieces, it shares in Hitchcock’s sense of dark fun and could easily be considered Nolan’s most ambitious and devilishly clever piece of work to date.  He’s an auteur with a full blessing from the studio and his audience, and the project he devised in this rarefied air is awe-inspiring.  Though there are some minor flaws, if you can’t find a way to overlook them and latch onto something meaningful in at least one layer of the dreams on display, then you have no business sitting in a darkened theater watching movies.   

Christopher Nolan’s decked-out and high-concept new film brings new meaning to the idea of stealing ideas.  In his futuristic universe, technology has developed where you can enter the mind of another through dream invasions and steal their ideas.  It’s espionage…it’s dangerous…but what’s even more intriguing is the idea of diving deep into dreams within dreams and implanting an idea that can then spread like a virus and alter the shape of one’s universe.  Whoever implanted this idea into Nolan’s mind, we thank you.   

Continue reading

A Review of Tom Tykwer’s “The International”

Clive Owen is here to tell us this Istanbul-sh*t is about to hit the fan in THE INTERNATIONAL.

Clive Owen is here to tell us this Istanbul-sh*t is about to hit the fan in THE INTERNATIONAL.

Classy Globe Hopping Thriller Pays its Dues, 16 February 2009
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

A world-weary but determined INTERPOL agent (Clive Owen) teams with a District Attorney from New York City (Naomi Watts) to bring down a corrupt bank funding arms deals in Tom Tykwer’s accidentally timely globe trotting conspiracy flick, The International.

My drab one-line plot synopsis in no way prepares you for this film’s smartly executed centerpiece, an outlandish and wildly entertaining shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum that is both a bullet-riddled blood-soaked multi-media homage to Hitchcock and an artistic F-you to all of the mindless “shattered glass” suspense thrillers that have come down the pike in the last twenty years.

Tom Tykwer saw this and envisioned a chase scene with bullets and blood.  Now thats art!

Tom Tykwer saw this and envisioned a chase scene with bullets and blood. Now that’s art!

Those who have been keeping tabs on director Tom Tykwer’s career, from the frenetic originality of Run Lola Run to the ungodly weird epic sumptuousness of Perfume, might mistakenly think he was doing this one just for a paycheck. However, The International is far more ambitious than its genre conventions imply. Tykwer and his crew create an engaging and twisty film that combines the thematic elements of our modern CSI-style detective shows with the visual elements of Hitchcock’s 1950’s vista-vision thrillers. Here Tykwer’s vistas are architectural landmarks from around the world that serve as picture-perfect set-pieces and back-drops for the carefully stacked plot and action.

In a modern movie world where thrillers are currently regulated to the pulse-pounding non-stop movement of the Jason Bourne films or the dumbly torturous sentimentality of something like Taken, it’s refreshing to see a film of this ilk built in such a classical way.  The International begins “in medias res” with one of those clichéd secret meetings gone wrong, then delves into a series of expository scenes that lead to a masterfully staged assassination attempt in Milan that leads to rising action (during which I overheard a viewer behind me proclaim so succinctly that the suspense was killing her) culminating in the aforementioned Guggenheim shoot-em-up that leads to falling action that ends with a roof-top chase over the lively markets of Istanbul.

Naomi Watts does her best Veronica Lake INTERNATIONAL style.

Naomi Watts does her best Veronica Lake INTERNATIONAL style.

In its attempt to keep the plot one step ahead of the viewers, and the viewers one step ahead of the characters, the sometimes convoluted screenplay loses its footing and sense of pace. The cast, however, is game to play against this jaw-dropping architectural scenery. No further proof is needed beyond this film to show Clive Owen would’ve been a superior James Bond. Naomi Watts, whose natural charms and beauty are felonies of their own, is a bit miscast, but she does her best with the role. The revolving door of supporting players is top notch as it goes through the requisite motions. All transmitted through the keen eyes of Tykwer, The International crackles with tension and arrives on the world scene as a refreshingly old-fashioned suspense thriller in a post-modern milieu.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of Brad Anderson’s “Transsiberian”

Character Driven Train Ride from Hell, 1 September 2008
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Brad Anderson is probably the best unknown director working today. He’s the independent Christopher Nolan, often making character-driven, psychologically complex flicks that transcend the trappings of their respective genres. In the past he has successfully combined elements from time-travel thrillers and romantic comedies in 2000’s Happy Accidents, delivered a taut Shining-esque thriller in 2001’s Session 9, and then provided a stirring Hitchcock homage with 2004’s The Machinist, which also featured a gonzo performance from Christian Bale.  With Transsiberian Anderson attempts to breath life back into the often forgotten train-based thriller. Like those three earlier films, Transsiberian was made on the cheap, yet still manages to feature great camera-work and well known faces headlining the cast. In terms of the logistics of the location shooting in Lithuania (doubling as Siberia), this arrives as Anderson’s most accomplished film from a technical standpoint.

The story starts off with an American couple (a goofy Woody Harrelson and a criminally underrated Emily Mortimer) returning from missionary work in China by route of the famous Transsiberian railroad. Once on board the train, they befriend a young couple (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega) who claim to be student-teachers returning from Japan but might be hiding something sinister. The screenplay does a good job of building up to “something” and developing the characters, especially Mortimer’s Jessie, delving into her past with expository dialog that makes you care about where these characters are headed and think deeply about their motives. Without giving away too much of the film, entanglements ensue as a drug smuggling operation comes to light, and in steps Ben Kingsley (excellent as a Russian bruiser) as a narcotics detective with a special interest in the case.

There is a point, however, where (pardon the pun) the screenplay derails, and despite some unexpected twists, there never seems to be that big payoff. The film keeps the viewer on their toes with a bizarre turn of events at an abandoned church and a shockingly grim torture scene, but the psychological ramifications of these events are never probed as deeply as they could’ve been. The seductively cute Mortimer gives a nervy, complex, and excellent performance as Jessie, keeping the viewer invested in her character and what could happen to her even as the screenplay goes all over the map with her development. Woody Harrelson’s performance is more of a conundrum as he seems to be playing a book-smart version of his moronic character from Cheers. He makes you laugh during some of the more ridiculous scenes as the plot holes get deeper, and whether that was intentional or not to break the tension or gloss over the leaps of logic is never clear.

Transsiberian should please those looking for something different from your run-of-the-mill Hollywood thriller. Though the screenplay initially gives us characters that feel like real people, the mechanics of the convoluted plot spoil the potential of that development. However, the film still offers up an exotic locale, solid direction, and interesting performances, which makes it easy to recommend.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800241/usercomments-24

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To check out some of Brad Anderson’s excellent earlier work, read my reviews of:

Session 9http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0261983/usercomments-334

The Machinisthttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361862/usercomments-161

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:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0949731/usercomments-437