Film Reviews for 1-30-08

Life, death and existence flutter in ‘Butterfly’

(Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Anne Consigny. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Rated PG-13; 1:54. LEO Report Card: B-)

Remember “My Left Foot”? Think of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story as “My Left Eye.”
Bauby was the stylish and talented Paris editor for Elle Magazine. He was an inattentive father, habitual philanderer and renowned bon vivant. And yet despite being both a writer and a Frenchman, he spent astonishingly little time pondering the meaning of life.  

A massive stroke at the age of 43 left him paralyzed, save for the ability to move one eye. From this living death (known as “locked-in syndrome”), he learned to communicate through blinking, eventually hammering out the memoir that was made into the movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Bauby’s book was well received in France a decade ago, but it’s been director Julian Schnabel’s film that has brought his story to international attention. It’s a technically accomplished, well-acted but overall superficial film. It’s also the prohibitive favorite for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That won’t do much to counter the cliché that maudlin stories of people overcoming physical adversity are Oscar magnets.

Schnabel achieves his main technical goal of recreating Bauby’s physical and psychic landscape. Most of the film is shot in first-person, and through Bauby’s perspective we can see him adapt to his new life: early scenes are blurry and harsh while later ones are more lucid. Over the course of the film, his memories and fantasies, which are important in maintaining his sanity, become more vivid. Eventually, he finds some sort of comfort in his new body.

This virtual world is a remarkable technical feat: Eyelashes have to obscure the lens, cameras have to sway, faces need to be just barely out of focus. People have been trying to make first-person films for 100 years, and this is one of the few successes.  

A lot of people have found this film moving, but honestly I didn’t. When you strip away the cinematic acrobatics, the film is astonishingly empty. There are some interesting existential questions presented by Bauby’s situation (“When does life become not worth living?” “How important is the mind/body connection to meaningful living?”), but they’re ignored. Instead, Bauby spends much of the film pining for a life that was not very substantial: He was gifted and attractive but also superficial and inconsiderate. He seems to come to no conclusions about that life, merely accepting it for what it was.

I’m sure Bauby’s autobiography provided much greater insights into existence inside a mostly dead body, but very few of them come through in Schnabel’s film. Outside of the gimmicky cinematography, the film is mostly just clichés: life is good, death is scary, children are cute, sex is nice. —Alan Abbott

‘Rambo’ goes for blood, guts and kick-ass glory
(Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze and Matthew Marsden. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Rated R; 1:33. LEO Report Card: B+)

Like 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo” doesn’t bother with those pesky numerals or subtitles that most sequels tack on. It’s “Rambo,” and that’s that, damn it.

As its title suggests, “Rambo” boils down things to the essentials that made the ’Nam vet a hit three times over with 1980s audiences: guns, knives and all-’round American ass-kicking.

Rambo fishes with a bow and arrow. He catches cobras with his hands. He’s got a “thousand-yard stare,” says one mercenary before witnessing the true stripes of this manimal. The closest you’ll get to being this badass is through controlling a digital version of Rambo with your Xbox 360 controller.

Rambo doesn’t want to fight anymore — he just wants to sleep in a hammock and hunt. But there will be blood. Colorado church workers are abducted by militants after a failed mission of supplying medical aid to villagers in Burma. The voice in Rambo’s noggin is the call of duty, the awakening of a beast in a head band: “You didn’t kill for your country, you killed for yourself.” Let the fist-pumping commence.

“Fuck the world,” says John Rambo. But the movie is misanthropic the way a video game is: The characters are so far removed from reality that the extreme violence often works on a level of comic detachment. Stallone the director summons some of the most graphic bloodletting ever put on celluloid in mainstream movies. He also knows how to stage tremendously exciting, muscular action scenes.

Enjoyment of the film is directly proportional to your personal tastes on these sorts of things. But one point is indisputable: “Rambo” can bench press more than any other action movie in recent memory. —Jamie Peters