film review: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Screenplay adapted by Ronald Harwood
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Juliette Welfling
Original Music by Paul Cantelon
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Olatz Lopez, Marie-Josée Croze & Emmanuelle Seigner

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The life of Jean-Dominique Bauby is at once tragic and inspirational and in the very capable hands of director Julian Schnabel, with “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly”, his story comes to the screen in a most moving and artful way.  We learn through early dialogue and flashback that Bauby has suffered a major stroke and that coming out of a coma he awakens in a state referred to as locked in syndrome. Actor Mathieu Amalric (Munich) plays Bauby, editor of Elle magazine and a major player in 1990s Paris social circles. After his stroke, Bauby becomes all but incapable of communication, as he is unable to speak or move, with the exception of his left eyelid.

In the film’s first 20 minutes or so we are Bauby, the camera playing the role of his functioning eye. Seeing that Bauby’s entire world has been internalized, it’s an inspired device, executed perfectly by Schnabel and his DP Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan”, “Schindler’s List”). Initially overwhelmed by a feeling of claustrophobia – imagine wearing a neck brace and an eye patch while lying motionless in a hospital bed, unable, even, to swallow – we quickly appreciate having Bauby’s thoughts as voiceover. In what some might see as a cruel stroke, his mental acuity is left intact, but many of his early thoughts are sarcastic and witty, providing some relief from the tension. Read more


Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman
Director of photography Robert Yeoman
Edited by Andrew Weisblum
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 91 min. Rated R
With: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Amara Karan, Camilla Rutherford, Irrfan Khan & Kumar Pallana

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About halfway into Wes Anderson’s latest film, there’s a horrible accident involving three Indian children crossing a river on a makeshift raft. Ostensibly they are brothers. To make their way across, they must work together. But the raft capsizes, and they plunge into the water. Another three brothers, American and quite a bit older in years – Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) – happen to be walking along the river when the accident occurs. All three dive in to save the children but only manage to save two. Mortified, Peter stammers, “I couldn’t save mine.” This is not the only death affecting the Whitman brothers. One year earlier, they lost their father in a car accident. He was, apparently, the glue that held the family together.

The brothers reunite aboard the “Darjeeling Limited” to make the obligatory spiritual pilgrimage across India. Indeed, the journey is spiritual but not the one so neatly printed on the laminated schedules Francis hands out at the start of their trip. The brothers are literally carrying around an enormous amount of their father’s luggage, and it quickly becomes clear that they are also carrying around dad’s baggage as well. Some of the funniest moments deal with the brothers’ feelings of distrust for each other. Fights and hurt feelings are as constant as the Darjeeling’s moving wheels. No matter how much they may try to numb their pain through the constant ingesting of booze and the cheap narcotics – if you ever come across Narco-Cough, you’ll want to buy a bottle – or by visiting holy sites, it is their relationships that require healing. The train ride itself is only a portion of the trip since the brothers and their myriad luggage eventually get tossed off by an irate crew (the exception being one very lovely train stewardess, newcomer Amara Karan). Read more


Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson
Edited by Tom Swartwout
Cinematography by Ron Fortunato
Original Music by Carter Burwell
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan & Rosemary Harris

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Master filmmaker Sidney Lumet latest effort, “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead”, is the tautest melodrama I’ve seen in quite some time and at 83, Lumet has lost none of his edge. While I didn’t necessarily find this new picture, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Rosemary Harris, to be on the par with, “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Verdict” — both among my all-time favorite films — it certainly kept me in its grip from the moment go. The difference between this one and the other two is that this film is story driven while the others are character oriented. The story is as close to Greek or Shakespearean tragedy as one can get and at times the characters seem to be little more than vehicles propelling the story lines forward. But what story lines there are!

Sidney Lumet, Amy Ryan & Ethan Hawke from BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD; photo credit: Adam Schartoff © 2007

The opening sequence finds married couple Andy (Hoffman) and Gina Hanson (Tomei) in an exceptional moment of blissful passion while vacationing in Brazil and their post-coital dialog reveals a clearly unhappy marriage Andy is a real estate executive with a cushy office over looking Manhattan and an unhappy wife, Gina, who replaces feelings of emptiness with expensive meaningless objects and sex with her brother-in-law, Hank (Hawke). This is as much bliss as the picture is going to offer and over the course of the next 110 minutes there is just a sense of menace and dread. Tomei, naked through most of her scenes, might just get her career back on track with this role. Not sure if that’s a good thing or simply a sad case of what an actress has to do get herself noticed these days. Finney plays Charles, the stoic patriarch. Whoever came up with the idea to cast Albert Finney as Hoffman’s dad had a gem of an idea and the relationship between the two is a key element of this tale.


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Directed by Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern
Break-Thru Films
Former U.S. Marine, Brian Steidle, returns to Darfur as an official military observer with the African Union. With camera in hand Steidle documents the atrocities in areas of the war ravaged country that no western journalist would have access to. With that came the inherent dangers of threatening confrontations, being shot at, and having to bear witness to violence on innocent men, women and, most painfully of all, children. To say that the former marine Captain becomes a changed man, is a profound understatement. The documentary successfully conveys his sense of outrage at the complete lack of western intervention. Also interviewed in this powerful documentary are New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff, Luis Campo chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Nobel Peace Prize winning author and professor Elie Wiesel.

Directed by Sebastian Moreno
During the reign of Augusto Pinochet, many thousands of citizens, who the regime considered political extremists, were arrested and, in many cases, never seen from again. As often happens under repressive regimes, demonstrators took to the streets and protests often turned violent. Among those to bear witness were Chilean photojournalists. Using their cameras as weapons of their own, they proceeded to take an incredible trove of photos capturing the entire period. The circle of photojournalists created a very tight community in their day and could often spot a “plant” when they encountered one. And while their film might have been black and white, the stories their photos tell was anything but. Interviewed in this beautiful documentary are most of the surviving photographers who, when looking back to this dark period of Chile’s history, still seem quite heartbroken by the tragedy and the betrayal they documented.

Directed by Eva Mulvad & Anja Al-Erhayem
I dare you not to fall in love with Malalai Joya! That might seem like a shallow thing to say considering how remarkable a person she is but bear with me. In 2005, Afghanistan held its first parliamentary elections in 35 years and Ms. Joya, a progressive feminist and vocal opponent of the corrupt warlords in the Grand Council, ran for a seat. This thrilling and moving documentary starts by showing her being ousted from a parliamentary meeting after speaking her mind. The film follows her through the final days before the election meeting with many of the local constituents which is, considering the constant attempts on her life and the general extremist population, nothing short of miraculous. Her fortitude will inspire you and further shame us all when we consider our own leadership by comparison.

Directed by Shimon Dotan
With a similar backdrop of an ensuing election, “Hot House” takes place among the Palestinian population of the Israeli political prison system. What is particularly fascinating is how the Israelis perceive these prisoners as being soulless murderers while the Palestinians think of them as heroes and martyrs. Meanwhile, ironically, it is the relationship between the prisoners and the prison faculty that shows that friendships are indeed possible between the two communities when dealing with each other as human beings instead of as vehicles for ideology. The election in question is between the Fatah and the Hamas for Palestinian leadership. There is a lot at stake for the two groups and the documentary provides a focus group for each side in the jail. Since they are forced to live among each other for their entire lives in most cases, they end up having to figure out how to make their personal loyalties and their personal feelings for each other work out. If only the outside population felt similarly.


Directed by Chema Rodriguez
Another documentary about hookers kicking balls? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. This entertaining documentary could almost fall into that cliché movie category of the motley sports team that comes up from behind through sheer will (see everything from “The Bad News Bears” & “The Mighty Ducks” to “Kingpin”). In other words, it’s not the win that counts but the process of coming together as a team and fighting the good fight. In this case, the team is a small group of prostitutes from the mean streets of La Linea, an impoverished railroad town in Guatemala City. With abuse coming from all sides, these women create the soccer team in the hopes that, in doing so, attention might also be shed on their plight. And, similarly to the movies mentioned above, the women have to overcome some serious obstacles and work against all odds to do so. While the film has a fairly light tone throughout, the lives that these women lead are extremely harsh. What is so wonderful about this particular doc is that it shows that there is a lot more to these women than their suffering; and that the spirit to overcome even the harshest of obstacles is universal.





A few other worth mentioning: “Everything’s Cool” (dir: Daniel B. Gold & Judith Helfand) a somewhat whimsical focus on the conspiracy of global warming deniers, “Sari’s Mother” (dir: James Longley) is a mercifully short documentary on one Iraqi family’s struggle with AIDS. And “Lumo” (dir: Bent Jorgen Perlmutt), a documentary which follows a Congolese woman’s difficult recovery from rape.


Directed by Fred Durst
Writen by Peter Elkoff
Edited by Eric L. Beason
Cinematography by Alex Nepomniaschy
Produced by Marisa Polvino
100 min

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To be honest when I heard that Fred Durst, front man for ‘Nu Metal’ band Limp Bizkit, had won the Made in NY Award at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival for his directorial debut “The Education of Charlie Banks”, I scoffed. This is the guy whose wrote all those sophomoric songs about… well, I don’t really know what his songs are about since I never read his lyrics but I assumed they were just about getting laid and smoking blunts. What could he possibly have to say in a feature length movie? Well, you know what happens when you assume… In short, I was wrong. Charlie Banks is a solid film. Not perfect but several notches above your standard festival fare. It’s a well made movie that I found thoroughly entertaining and engaging and I’ll admit, I seriously prejudged Durst.

According to the press notes, Durst only got into music in order to direct music videos. This, he figured, would be the shortest distance between his meager beginnings and becoming a film director. If that’s true, then Durst is smarter than the persona that’s portrayed in the media. Wouldn’t be the first time. Read more

film review: THE WORKSHOP

Directed by Jamie Morgan
Produced by Peter Martin, Cyril Megret, Piers Tempest
93 min.

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Meet Paul Lowe. British, silver haired and charismatic, he’s the founder and spiritual guru of the Workshop. There’s Ryan, yoga instructor to the stars, who seems to be the serial Workshop stud. Besides appearing in the buff for most of the film, he spends a great deal of time navigating between love interests. Later we learn he also happens to be Paul Lowe’s son-in-law. Then there’s the lovely Laurel and just as lovely Maddy. Both seem to be in love with Ryan and trying to come to terms with their feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. They’re naked too. Here comes Brian, a reserved British bloke who, while usually clothed, is in love with Laurel. Or was that Maddy he was in love with? Oh, who can remember?

These are just a few of the primary players in “The Workshop”, a provocative new documentary by British photographer Jamie Morgan, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. His camera follows a group of Brits and Americans –and one memorable German– through the week long self-help retreat in Northern California. The individuals are there to find inner peace and shed the layers of falseness that one grows over time when trying to accommodate the expectations of a society built on conformity. Lowe rejects monogamy, for instance, referring to it as a social construct, a form of brain washing. By living authentically, the things you want in life will just come. Read more


Directed by Kieran Fitzgerald
Produced by Brendan Fitzgerald
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Brendan Fitzgerald
Original Music by Bobby Flores
Edited by Brendan Fitzgerald, Kieran Fitzgerald & Shane Slattery-Quintanilla

On May 4th, 1970 four students were shot dead and nine more wounded at Kent State by poorly trained Ohio National Guard soldiers who clearly over reacted to a relatively small protest against the Nixon administration’s recent bombings in Cambodia. The response to the tragedy took the nation by storm and, one could argue, that event turned the tide of American involvement in Vietnam.

It would be twenty seven years until another American citizen is shot by the U.S. military, on U.S. soil, May 20, 1997. Only this time, the nation’s reaction was far less severe. Perhaps that’s because hardly anyone heard about it. An explanation for this may be found in the new documentary, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández”, which I was fortunate enough to catch at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.  “Ballad” is the first feature-length film by director Kieran Fitzgerald and his brother, producer Brendan Fitzgerald.  Kieran was 17 years old when Esequiel, a young Mexican-American was shot by the team leader of a four-man US Marine unit that was patrolling the border in search of drug traffickers. The 18 year-old Esequiel was herding goats close to his home when he was mistakenly taken for a hostile. The director heard about the incident for the first time in the fall of 2004 from actor & director TommyLee Jones who himself was preparing to shoot “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”. Jones’s narrative film was inspired by a number of real life border tragedies including the Hernandez shooting and Jones ended up providing the voice-over for the Fitzgeralds’ documentary. Read more