Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lake of Fire (2006, Tony Kaye)

If anything can be said to be the defining domestic policy issue of our time, it's abortion. This is due in no small part to the fact that it opens so many other cans of worms- religion, science, family, women's rights, and personal freedom, among others. While most films (fiction and documentary) about the abortion debate in America limit themselves by sticking to a particular political agenda, Tony Kaye's searing film- more than a decade in the making- approaches the issue from all sides. Kaye's film is nothing if not comprehensive, covering in its 152 minutes everything from the scientific debate over when the fetus should truly be considered a living being, to the gory details that many pro-choice advocates tend to shy away from while their pro-life counterparts use to draw attention to abortion's unpleasant reality. By examining both sides of the argument, Lake of Fire is neither pro- or anti-abortion, but it's definitely anti-zealot, devoting a good deal of attention to the brutal slayings of doctors who perform abortion, which in the eyes of the film only serve to intimidate other doctors and to create martyrs for the pro-life cause. But Kaye never has an axe to grind, instead training his often pitiless yet humane camera on his subjects with a great deal of patience and curiosity. In doing so, Lake of Fire illuminates what may be the only reasonable method of trying to resolve the abortion debate- not shouting, but listening. To take time to hear the beliefs of others with an open mind rather than simply propping ourselves up with our prejudices. To learn to see the complexity of the debate, rather than operating simply in shades of black and white, like children or, yes, zealots. And to try to understand the women- the conscious centers of the abortion debate- rather than simply demonizing them. Lake of Fire- at last, the great film this issue deserves- does all these things and more, which makes it not only the year's best documentary, but its most empathetic film as well. Rating: 9 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves)

I've got to give Reeves and producer JJ Abrams credit for actually following through and making a monster movie entirely shot with a subjective camera, but it doesn't quite work as it should. It starts well enough, with a party that's shown for long enough that the initial monster attack comes as a genuine surprise, but it's the same party that reveals how much tidier Cloverfield is than it really should be. Despite trying to make the party footage feel slipshod and amateurish, the film clearly singles out half a dozen characters who are worthy of attention, and once the attacks happen, guess who we end up following? Also, the device of the "taped-over" footage is sort of lame and obvious. But the bigger problem is that the film never feels as chaotic as it ought to feel. Much of the inherent interest of a movie shot like a home video is that the camera operator generally can't help but let his mindset dictate his so-called style- if he's curious, the camera wanders; if he's interested, he zooms in on the object of his interest. And most importantly to Cloverfield- when things get chaotic, the footage becomes sort of messy and incoherent, reflecting the chaos that's around him. With a few scattered exceptions, there's very little chaos in Cloverfield. Sure, when bad stuff is happening the camera shakes and waves around, but everything feels a little too calculated, like there's a professional hand guiding things. Compare to the obvious example of Blair Witch, where it's obviously the actors holding the cameras, and you'll see how much more interesting this could have been. Cloverfield was a bold gambit, and the marketing campaign was sort of brilliant, but the film, while certainly of interest, is kind of a disappointment. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel)

Some critics I greatly respect have balked at this film's reliance (over-reliance in their eyes) of subjective camera. They say it's gratuitous, show-offy, sub-Brakhage noodling, and the like. But for me, this story doesn't work half as well without it, especially without Schnabel's bold gambit of starting out the film with over half an hour seen almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Matthieu Amalric). For one thing, we're not dealing with a familiar ailment or disability here- were he merely blind or deaf or a paraplegic, we would have had some frame of reference handy. But given the severity and rareness of "locked-in" syndrome, I think it's of paramount importance (especially for the story he's telling) that Schnabel really establish the harsh realities of Bauby's life. So for more than half an hour, we see what Jean-Do sees- occasionally we escape with him into his dreams or his imagination, but mostly we're trapped in that bed with him, one good eye darting about the room tentatively, trying to make sense of it all. And once we finally see Bauby in earnest, we truly understand the situation he's in, so he's not simply a pathetic figure on a bed, but one who we know full well has a brain firing on all cylinders even as his body has almost entirely betrayed him (how is it that Amalric's performance hasn't gotten more awards buzz? Sure, he mostly acts with his eye, but it says a ton, and his natural Amalric-ness suits the part perfectly in a way Schnabel's original intended star, Johnny Depp, wouldn't have.) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is in many ways a movie about seeing, not just the things Jean-Do sees but also the way he's seen by others. His wife's mother instinct kicks in, his mistress refuses to visit because she doesn't want to remember him that way, his father wants to see him but can't. Sometimes the different perspectives on Jean-Do are at cross-purposes, especially in a great scene involving the bedridden Bauby, his speech therapist, and two telephone installers (it's almost certainly a future Movie Moment). But even more than asking us to empathize with Bauby and his plight, Schnabel's insistence on subjectivity is very much in keeping with his directing style. All three of his fiction films to date have been based on true stories of artists or creative people, and Schnabel, for the most part, allows his subjects, and the work they did, to dictate the style of the film. In doing so, he refuses to adhere to the standard biopic story arc, especially in Diving Bell, in which we only get a handful of scattered memories. He also dispenses with a lot of the psychoanalysis we tend to see in films like this. For example, I love that we really never find out why Jean-Do wants to write a book- does he think he's got something to say? Is he just looking for something to do? Does he want a purpose, something to keep him going? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is being sold as an inspirational true-life story of triumph over adversity, but it's actually more about the difficulty of survival, and Schnabel is to be commended from not trying to sugar-coat the realities of Jean-Do's plight (for example, the last memory we share with him before his death is the stroke that put him in a coma- hardly an up note to send the audience home on). As a filmmaker, Schnabel's talent may not be especially broad, but it's deep, and that too should be treasured. Rating: 8 out of 10.