by Ken B.
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor, suffered a sudden and crippling stroke that threw him into a coma for nearly three weeks. Upon awakening in a hospital in Breck-sur-Mar, he found that his body was nearly entirely paralyzed. His thoughts were coherent, and he could move his eyes, but he was otherwise immobile. This rare condition, called locked-in syndrome, ensured that the only way he could communicate was through blinking (soon, he was down to one eye, as the other, more affected by the incident, was unusable after the eyelid was sewn shut to keep it from going septic). By using an alphabet listed by frequency of letter, he could blink when another person reading out the letters arrived the one he wanted to use, and through this slow process, he could formulate words. This is how he wrote his memoirs – one blink at a time, until it was done. The result was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, published mere days before his death on March 9, 1997.
The film of the same name adapts this remarkable story. Bauby is played by Mathieu Amalric. Céline (Emmanuelle Seinger), his ex and mother of his three young children, is still very much a part of his life and is one of the first people he sees following his stroke that is not a hospital employee. At first, the film is presented entirely through the point of view of Jean-Do (as he is called). Soon, as his ability to communicate expands, so does our view of his life – we see the events of his past, the people in his life, and through all this, we learn of Jean-Do’s complex personal history. Soon, a few samples of Jean-Do’s imagination are brought upon the screen. Director Julian Schnabel does good work in balancing the execution of all kinds of storytelling, magnified through the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński and screenwriter Ronald Harwood.
Schnabel’s visual element is key. The first few minutes of Jean-Do’s awakening are fuzzy and disorienting, and every subsequent occasion where a POV shot is utilized, it is claustrophobic, entirely fixed to one level. People look directly in your eyes, asking yes-or-no questions. Blink once for yes and twice for no. It’s condescending, and the limitations infinitely frustrating. In these early scenes, before Jean-Do regularly uses the more advantageous method of “speaking”, you as a viewer develop an understanding for the character at hand, and through this captivating method, a lasting interest throughout the movie. In comparison, a certain odd element occupies flashbacks and especially fantasies, the feeling of not being quite there seeps through them.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is wonderful stuff. Amalric’s performance is compelling, both in past and present tense, despite spending the latter in a hospital bed or wheelchair, face drooped to one side, one eye shut, and only able to speak through an inner monologue. Seinger is not to be discredited either, convincing as Céline, determined to support Jean-Do no matter what. However, the top performance is from Max von Sydow, portraying Jean-Do’s 92 year old father, who lives on the fourth floor of an apartment building with no elevator, and unable to navigate the stairs. He knows what it is like to be locked in as well, and in a late scene, where he and his son’s only sans-mediator form of communication is this disadvantage, von Sydow’s performance is deeply emotional and unbelievably effective.
Despite a range of times and places, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a movie that takes place purely within one mind. There are memories, desires, and present experiences gathered in its 112 minutes. It is a truly fascinating film, derived from a fascinating series of events. In Jean-Dominique Bauby, the man and the character, there is the appreciation of life and the need to tell a story. He is not shown as perfect, and that necessary biopic element is what makes this film all the more interesting. This, indeed, is an unforgettable movie about an unforgettable story.
by Ken B.
Here is a movie that could have, or maybe should have, been thirty minutes shorter, yet I still recommend it. Across the Universe is a very strange movie. It is not a musical, but it needs music to exist. You see, every plot point is either initiated, expressed, or concludes with a cover of a Beatles song. There are around 30 songs spread throughout this 133 minute film. I really liked the whole idea. However, as a Beatles fan, perhaps I was more forgiving of the film’s storytelling and pacing errors than a more impartial reviewer would have.
There are a few different stories at play here, but the one that both gets the most screen time and was the most promoted is a love story. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young Liverpool based worker at a shipyard who sets off to America in the late 1960s when he believes he has located his biological father, Wes Hubert (Robert Clohessy), who is a maintenance man at Princeton University. Jude quickly becomes friends with a student named Max (Joe Anderson), and while at Joe’s house over Thanksgiving, falls for Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Max drops out of school and moves to New York City with Jude. They move to an apartment which is a counterculture hub, headed up by Joplin-esque singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also in residence are Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a high school cheerleader who ran away from her Ohio hometown (also, when she moved in, she came in through the bathroom window), and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who moved to the city following his son’s death.
There is a particular visual prerogative to Across the Universe. DP Bruno Delbonnel does a remarkable job shooting the film – everything from a wide shot on a beach that opens the film to a surreal sequence at a draft office with computer animated Uncle Sams reaching out for a drafted Max while reciting the lyrics to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to Eddie Izzard playing Mr. Kite, appearing in an LSD fueled circus, complete with blocky drawings of animals to a rooftop performance that ends the movie.
By far the largest and most notable problem with the film is the pacing. Apparently, during post-production, a version of the movie with a runtime of around 98 minutes was greeted warmly by test audiences (the theatrical release was negatively received), but director Julie Taymor objected to a recut of the film without her consent. While I can’t comment on that edit of the film, I imagine a shorter movie wouldn’t have hurt much. Most of the second act moves glacially.
The acting is solid but not very noteworthy. Sturgess is relatable enough as our romantic hero, but Wood is arguably given the most to go through as a character. She handles it well enough. But in a movie like Across the Universe, dramatic acting is secondary to singing, and the answer there is that it is neither explicitly bad nor explicitly good. Only nitpickers will have real qualms about the singing, but only the easily persuaded will consider them anything other than fulfilling what’s required.
Across the Universe is a good movie, thunderous with a highly active imagination, spilling over visuals, but also forgetting the importance of a certain degree of brevity in an adventurous endeavor like this. I am giving it three stars because I enjoy Beatles music and how it was treated, and films with an arthouse undertone. Consider a downgrade if one or both of those things make you want to throw an apple at a movie projector.
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by Ken B.
Lars and the Real Girl reminded me of those stories you hear about once in a while where a person forms a romantic relationship with an inanimate object. That happens. Sure, they’re crazy, and we see that from our side of things, but what do they see? That question is irrelevant. And aren’t we crazy? We shouldn’t criticize other people for being crazy when we’re all crazy ourselves. Or something like that.
Craig Gillespie’s 106 minute movie focuses on Lars (RYAN GOSLING), a delusional man. Well, on the outside he seems normal, if not a bit lonely. This is a worry echoed by his brother Gus (PAUL SCHNEIDER), and Gus’ wife Karin (EMILY MORTIMER). One day, Lars explains he has a girlfriend, who is a wheelchair bound missionary from Brazil. And then, it’s discovered that she’s a premium life sized anatomically correct doll ordered from a shady website. And there’s no question about it, Lars is convinced that this doll (named Bianca) is indeed a real person, communicating with her and acting as a translator of sorts for any other people that happen to be in the room. I’ve always been amused when this happens in movies. You know, someone has an imaginary friend, and they explain the individual’s thoughts to everyone else without request. I guess you call that creative liberty.
I guess from here, one might think that this movie would spiral down into the lowest common denominator jokes, as such dolls are typically reserved for individuals who wish to live in a world where it’s okay to treat women like objects. But no, Lars and the Real Girl takes the high road, and as a result, the rewardingly funny one. The script has kind of a unique feel to it, and since this is a unique movie, this helps things out a lot. The lighting is warm, and the acting is brilliant. It’s probably very hard to play a crazy person and pull it off, but Ryan Gosling does exceptionally well, creating an attractively insane nutcase that’s just so easy to root for.
Lars and the Real Girl manages to take a strange premise and make it a worthwhile movie. I’ve always thought that very few premises in movies are inherently bad – it’s the execution that kills it (ha, ha). Some premises are riskier than others. Do me a favor and read the plot outline I’ve set a couple of paragraphs up. See? See how wrong that could have gone? I thought it was literally refreshing to see how well done this kind of idea was done.
This is, indeed, a very good movie. It doesn’t seem like it could be, which I think may have had something to do with why it didn’t do very good business at the box office. Lars and the Real Girl is a rewarding, fresh, and funny.
by Ken B.
Chances are, if you’re familiar with 1980s teen movies, Charlie Bartlett may seem all too predictable to you, but there is some muted brilliance to be had. The title character, rich kid Charlie Bartlett, is very clever and appears to have a thing for causing mishaps. After being kicked out of yet another private school, he’s sent to a public high school, where he becomes some sort of a prescription drug dealer to the kids, and that being how he gains popularity. He starts dating the principal’s daughter (KAT DENNINGS), much to the ire of the alcoholic principal (a brilliant performance from ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.). The title role would be a dream for any young male actor, with a wide variety emotions to show off to potential future casting directors and thankfully, it was given to someone who can play it well. Anton Yelchin works magnificently here, not to Downey’s extent, but still commendable (a climactic scene involving Downey, Yelchin, a gun, and a swimming pool comes to mind). The main issue with the script, however, would be that in calling it a comedy-drama, which it very much is, there’s a horrifying blow to the viewer’s head between a light comedy scene and a serious drama sequence. With no transition, it’s very off-putting. Still, it’s a good film, and worth checking out.