Thursday, May 22, 2008

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

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No filament of art could have come into this world if it was but for a sense of perception. More so to say, a visual perception matters a lot in order to create it. For some, art is beauty, a force to reckon and admire. For the less artistically inclined, art and perception, in more ways than one, is merely a matter of occurrence. Nothing more, and god forbid nothing less.
Take the cross section of the eye for example. It might look like an ugly, dented wedding ring for some. For the academically inclined, they might see names in every single detail, the conjunctiva, the cornea, pupil, iris, the crystalline lens, ciliary processes, vitreous humor, blind-spot, optic nerve, thalamus of the brain, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, et al. An artist merely sees a ray of light. It passes through a filmy layer, a protective layer, a tiny entry in an anterior chamber controlled by an organic, circular door, glass, dark room, focal point, and finally, finally an endless hallway of radiant, starlit brilliance, covered at every square inch of every single square acre of space available with a tapestry that only a mind can evolve. And it was inside this incredible hallway, deep inside a paralytic cripple where neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel sat with a camera and filmed this humanly undeniable impossibility of art called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, known to our side of the divided world as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, thank goodness for cinema! For this world needs more people like Schnabel, to save movie lovers from the abyss of shit that cinema has become, thanks to three things: Popcorn, Remote Control and Money. Enough crying over spoilt milk, Jean-Dominique Bauby is waking up!
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, the film begins with Bauby's confused awakening in the hospital after twenty days in a coma. We see only a blur of images and claustrophobic close-ups that mirror the patient's mental state. We can make out a hospital room and doctors and nurses offering reassuring thoughts. We hear Bauby's words but the doctors do not and we know that while his body isn't functioning, his mind is as sharp as ever. He later learns that a stroke he suffered had caused a 'locked in' syndrome. Immediately, fear sets in leading to panic and terror. Screams of help go unheeded, unanswered, futile.
After a long period of recuperation, he comes to terms with his condition and then reviews his options as an author. Henriteet (lovely Marie Jozee Croze), a speech therapist, uses a unique method of communicating with Jean thru pronouncing the alphabets and Jean would form a word or sentence by blinking the eye. After getting to know her much more better, Jean found his way to survive thru the disabilities: imagination and beautiful memories. Both set his spirit free, and he feels like he is flying like a butterfly. The book he writes, and on which this film is based, is the one he is remembered for. I haven't read it. But his powers of expression, glimpsed in the film, make me want to buy it. The book he nearly wrote - a re-write of the Count of Monte Cristo - would probably be pulped. But Schnabel's visual sense undoubtedly gives the film a dimension prose could not, and there is also an artful soundtrack. Despite the downbeat ending I finished in a reasonably cheerful frame of mind – if I were a paraplegic I'd count myself as lucky. What happened to Jean-Do must be pretty well the worst that could happen, physically, to anyone. Yet he manages to survive as a person despite being incarcerated in his own body.
The monotone recitation of the alphabet and the blinking of the eye forms a mesmerizing but eventually monotonous leitmotif to a screenplay that attempts to portray the paradox of an unfettered and ever-expanding human consciousness trapped in a broken and disintegrating body. Ultimately, I felt somehow battered into submission by the sheer relentlessness of Schnabel's first person approach, at least insofar as every perspective we see is somehow skewed at an oblique angle, or viewed through a shaky, misty or watery lens, or takes us off on some utterly random tangent that may well reflect the unfettered 'butterfly' imagination that Bauby came to experience but nevertheless feels too private and too disconnected to mean much to the viewer. Schnabel is an accomplished artist first and film-maker only second, and his work here feels more like a piece of installation art than a piece of cinema. The apotheosis of his vision, or rather its nadir as far as this viewer was concerned, is found in the sequence where Bauby's still-functioning yet dangerously non-irrigating right eye has to be permanently sealed shut. In what is no doubt a remarkable piece of cinematography - and there is no finer exponent of the art than Schnabel's chosen collaborator here, Kaminski - we watch from Bauby's own perspective as the doctor's needle threads itself across the eyelid, gradually filling the screen with darkness. It's a gruesome scene that exposes the gimmickry that underlies Schnabel's entire approach.
In an heroic effort to portray the struggle, rather than the tragedy, the film casts its subject in jelly-bean colors. To some extent, it feels churlish and even mean-spirited to find fault here. But I'm judging a film rather than Bauby the man or his remarkable achievement. Bauby himself seems refreshingly honest in his unflattering portrayal of himself. He's not a man who is easy to warm to, but then the last thing he intended was to court sympathy.Apparently Jean-Do Bauby was the luckiest paralytic in France. I can barely imagine his life as editor of Elle, but after the stroke he lives by the sea, surrounded by beauties who exist only to help him. He fantasizes about taking them to dinner, and making love to them and to the Empress Eugenie. Unlike so many guy-stuck-in-bed movies (SEA INSIDE, WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY, BONE COLLECTOR), this one never gets maudlin. It celebrates life instead of demanding its end. I have nothing against suicide - if you're unhappy, get lost - but I don't want to watch another movie about somebody who just wants to die. This movie makes SEA INSIDE look like a self-pitying ballad. No, actually, SEA INSIDE did that to itself. But by comparison, this one has its protagonist pirouetting and leaping for joy. While it's impossible not to be moved by the sheer awfulness of his suffering, and, let's face it, chilled to the bone by the way he was so suddenly plunged into it, it's perhaps easier to be emotionally involved in the plight of those he 'left behind', principally his children and their mother, his ex-lover Céline, his elderly and infirm father, and his present lover Inès, who is so shaken by events that she can't bring herself to visit him even though she misses him desperately.
There’s all this talk about Mathieu Almaric replacing the great Johnny Depp in Bauby’s role, but too much of a good is bad, I guess. And Almaric really does justice to the deficit. Depp is a terrific actor, but somehow I feel that his powerful presence would have easily overshadowed the character arc of Bauby.
Schnabel describes the souvenirs and bits of one's life that one must be seeing while standing before the gates of death, but in this particular case taking just a little longer. However, Bauby has already died, and has come back to life as an eye.The film is also about what it means to be an artist. Sickness is a bit like genius, a source of misunderstanding and exclusion, and the artist, like the patient, is in constant battle against the outside world. To escape one's fate, society's cruelty and restraints, one can only rely on one's own intelligence, creativity, and heroism. By reaching deep within himself, Bauby extends his life beyond the limitations of his body by dreaming and creating a work of art. It's a face-off against himself, where the Superego, the butterfly, gains the upper hand over the Ego, the diving bell. Schnabel is a spiritual man, but not a religious one. He believes in the goodness of people, and in their capacity for being patient with their fellow humans and treating them well, just for the sake of it, the way the women in the film give freely of themselves, trying to help Jean-Do.Finally, this film is a simple but powerful lesson about life, not in the moralistic sense, but in the energy it carries. As Bauby says at the beginning of the film, the lesson is that we should experience life, living in the present, learning to recognize and appreciate the small moments of happiness as they come along, and most importantly, to love.

By Fazil

Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles)

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I've seen a couple dozen German movies over the years, but do not know German media--- TV, books, pop movies, etc. Maybe 'Atomised' is standard fare in Germany? But to me it was unusual. The story was not predictable. It was not yet another version of the same old things. Maybe it is in its homeland, but not here in the UK. So 'Atomised' was a bit exciting and engaging simply for its freshness and uniqueness. And--- it was also very well acted, and the story was compelling as well. So all that adds up to a movie that keeps your attention. Not 'nail-biting', perhaps, and maybe not 'on the edge of your seat', but keenly and raptly attentive.
The story is about two half brothers-- Brother number one a brilliant (and eventually Nobel Prize winning) scientist going through a 3-year detour in his comet-rise to genetic engineering stardom. Brother number two, played by the male lead from Tom Tykwer's 'Run Lola Run', Moritz Bleibtreu, is a charming and probably (?) good looking school teacher--- married, with a baby in the house. But he is a very disturbed sex addict, in the worst meaning of the term. He's also a writer--- maybe an essayist, maybe short stories--- the movie doesn't make that very clear. But it does show him as a neo-Nazi of sorts, producing well-written but unpublishable tracts that rail against blacks and other 'sub races' (sic).
Brother two is incapable of receiving any love or happiness or fulfilment from his wife, and he makes lewd and overtly sexual advances towards his 15 year-old female students. As a teenage boy, in a flashback, he even has a sexual encounter with his own sleeping mother. Very creepy. Worse, if that's possible, he brutally smashes a cat to death during his sexual 'assault' on his mother, simply because the cat closed its eyes when he reached sexual climax--- indicating, evidently, that the cat was judging the boy as disgusting. For that, the adult brother two recalls with a satisfied rage, the ****ing cat had to die.
Was the darkness of brother two over the top? Was it too dark? I don't know. It felt realistic, but was the portrayal intrinsic to the story? I had sympathy for brother two--- he was obviously 'lost', in the worst way. he cried a lot, and the look of despair and horror in his eyes was so intense that one had to feel compassion for the guy. But then the cat killing episode turned me off, and turned me against him, so I felt horror AT him, rather than WITH him.
The women in the movie were fantastic actresses. Brother two meets a woman who is probably 4 or 5 years older than he, and she too is a sex addict. She takes him to weird 'leather bar' kind of sex clubs, and they trade partners and engage in wild and sordid sex. But she does seem to care for him, maybe even love him. Brother two and this lady certainly seem to need each other--- and we get the feeling that they are, somehow, very good for each other. But then she has had some disease of the bones for a long while, but it had been in remission--- but she had not told brother two about it. The disease flares up, and she is left paralyzed in the legs for life--- and we suspect maybe her life is going to be short, as well. Brother two is confused, and while he eventually decides to take the woman in, and live with his love, even if she is crippled, he dithers long enough for her to get depressed and kill herself. Brother two goes permanently nuts, hallucinates his dead lover's presence (oddly, even though he is halucinating, and could therefore dream up any pleasant reality he wanted, no matter how 'rosy' or fantastic it might be, he STILL chooses to see her crippled, in her recently acquired wheelchair, rather than as a whole person), and spends the rest of his life in the loony bin.
Brother one, meanwhile, meets childhood sweetheart Annabelle, played extremely well by Franka Potente, also of 'Run Lola Run' (and small parts in 'The Bourne Identity' and 'The Bourne Supremeacy', as well as the lead in 'The Princess and the Warrior'). Potente is amazing here. This is obviously the kind of part she does best, because here she was believable, compelling, and wonderful. Her character also has some disease, and when she gets pregnant by bother one, she has to have an abortion and a hysterectomy. But it all turns out well in the end--- and she and brother one live happily ever after.
Whew! Oh wait--- the brothers' mother is shown in flashbacks as a crazy and irresponsible slut, who is probably singlehandedly responsible for the brothers' hesitations and mental problems. Interestingly, Michel Houellebecq's main intention in creating the character of the mother was to portray his own mother's hedonistic attitude during his childhood. He had been abandoned with his grandmother, while the mother pursued her hippie style of living, sex and self-pleasure being her biggest priorities.
The movie is not perfect, but it does get points for being innovative, and new. For me, anyway, it was a fresh and intriguing look into a believable world of some very intense people. Creepy in parts--- redemptive and inspirational in other parts. I wouldn't want to see this kind of movie every week--- but once in a while this dark and intense artsy look at things is probably good. Like eating fiber in your diet. I gave this an 8 out of 10.

Leon: The Professional

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I've heard it said that thrillers are among the toughest types of films to do well and one of the easiest to mess up. I don't think that this could be anymore true. Most thrillers, especially many of the recent ones, are typically formulaic and offer nothing for the audience to chew on. They certainly provide a rush, but they don't do much more. Action-oriented films are among the worst in this regard. Often-times, even the action sequences are so ordinary that they're boring. Thankfully there are many films out there that buck the trend. LEON (know in America as THE PROFESSIONAL), Luc Besson's 1994 international breakthrough is part of this illustrious group. It not only provides some superbly crafted action sequences but some very effective drama and a flavorful undercurrent of dark comedy. The result is a wholly satisfying cinematic experience.

12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) comes from a family with more baggage and dysfunction than normal. Her father (Michael Badalucco) deals drugs and her mother (Ellen Greene) doesn't do anything more substantial. Her older sister (Elizabeth Regen) delights in pounding on Mathilda. She also gets abuse from her father and mother as well. About the only person in her family that matters is her younger brother (Carl J. Matusovich). When she's not doing chores for her family, she enjoys smoking cigarettes in her New York City apartment in order to get by. One day, while she's lucky enough to be away, a dirty cop named Stan (played with gusto by Gary Oldman) breaks into Mathilda's apartment with some goons and kills everyone. This wouldn't mean anything to Mathilda except that they killed her brother...

Enter Leon, a laconic, lonely hit-man who is one of New York's finest. He likes to refer to himself as a "cleaner". He has long since repressed any emotional ties to anyone or anything except for his ever-present plant. He also happens to be Mathilda's next door neighbor. He very reluctantly takes her in when her family is slaughtered. But she simply doesn't want shelter- she wants revenge. Upon figuring out Leon's profession, she insists on learning the tricks of his trade. In exchange, she'll clean (in the traditional sense) for him and teach him to read...

The best thing about LEON is easily the interaction between its two protagonists. There is clearly chemistry between Leon and Mathilda, which makes the emotions expressed and the works spoken between the two of them seem believable, even if the relationship isn't likely to exist between them in real life. Much has been made over the years of the sexual undertones in their relationship as it is depicted. This aspect is very low-key at best. Their's is more of a father-daughter/mentor-student bond- a brilliantly realized one, no less. There is a wonderful montage of Leon and Mathilda developing in their relationship while Bjork's VENUS AS A BOY is playing in the background. It's to Besson credit that he could weave this much character development and unforced drama so seamlessly into the fabric of an action/revenge flick.

Acting is another one of LEON's strong suits. For Natalie Portman, this was her debut performance and it showed much promised for her right from the word go. By combining youthful exuberance with world-weariness, she makes Mathilda real in a way that many veteran actors can't grasp. As the title character, Jean Reno is also very impressive. His character undergoes the most change throughout the film and Reno is there with him almost every step of the way. There are times when he's a little stiff- particularly when he has to be more emotionally attached to Mathilda. Overall, however, his quirky, deadpan style of acting serves him well. He also provides some great comic relief, particularly when he tries to imitate a few legendary figures. As expected, Gary Oldman can be counted on to give a memorable performance. His villain is gleefully over-the-top and some of his mannerisms add some more dark humor to the proceedings. As Leon's mentor, Danny Aiello has a supporting role.

The action sequences in the film are quite masterful. The best ones are the opening and closing sequences. There are a few skirmishes throughout the film, but these two set pieces are the most skillful. Besson peppers everything with a wonderful European flavor, giving the film style as well as substance. Best of all, it doesn't buckle under the pressure to cheat the audience with a cop-out Hollywood ending, opting instead for one that preserves the emotional impact of the storyline. With it's combination of pathos, violence, action and humor, LEON deserves recognition not only as an excellent thriller, but as an excellent all-around film.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking is a powerful film. Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn are at their very best, and Tim Robbins' direction is great. What is perhaps most impressive is that it tackles one of the most complicated and controversial political issues of the day with startling intelligence for a Hollywood movie.

Sean Penn plays Matthew Poncelet, a man on death row for the murder of two teenagers. Susan Sarandon plays Helen Prejean, a nun committed to helping Poncelet accept his responsibility for the crime and die with dignity.

This movie stands out among "prison" movies because, as the chaplain tells Sister Helen, there's none of that "he's innocent, he just needs someone to believe him" stuff. Unlike in other prison movies, no attempt is made to absolve the wrongdoer of guilt. Helen only tries to convince people that he doesn't deserve to die. This is a refreshing approach for a movie, especially since the "friend crusading to prove wrongfully-accused man's innocence" persona is so overdone in many movies. Tim Robbins' script does an excellent job of keeping Poncelet from becoming a martyr figure; there are no excuses made for his crimes, and his own foolishness is shown by all the racist remarks he makes to the press. Poncelet is a complicated character, but Penn does an excellent job playing him and Robbins shows him in just the right light.

Now, onto the politics of the film. First of all, many people can't figure out if this movie is pro-death penalty or anti-death penalty. It's neither. Asking if the movie is for or against the death penalty is too broad a question. Instead, we should ask: does the film give the sense that Poncelet deserves to die? Does the film give the sense that justice was done? Did Poncelet deserve to be loved? Does Poncelet's death make up for his victims'.

I think the film says that Poncelet does deserve the death penalty. When I see the execution scene, I don't see a great injustice. How can you see injustice in this scene when the camera cuts several times to a flashback of Poncelet raping and killing? I should add, though, that I still found the execution abhorrent: the way they kill him, like they're putting an animal to sleep, is just unnerving. I also think that the film says Poncelet deserves to be loved: over and over Sarandon points out that Poncelet is still human, and every human deserves love. I also think the film doesn't tell us that Poncelet's death makes up for his crime, but it does say that his death makes him worthy of forgiveness.

While the movie is not very favorable towards capital punishment, I think there is no question that Poncelet's execution is treated as a just punishment (however terrible), and so it cannot be called entirely anti- capital punishment. Personally, I am vehemently against the death penalty because even though there may be some disgusting, despicable, horrible people who deserve to die, I would not trust anyone's judgment (including my own) as to _who_ deserves to dies and who doesn't. Also, courts are absurdly reluctant to stop executions (even if the prisoner is still sentenced to life without parole). The death penalty is utterly final and irrevocable -- should we trust its administration to such flawed beings as ourselves?

P.S.: Can anyone else believe "Babe" beat this out for an Oscar Best Picture nomination??!!