The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2008)

When a friend visits Jean-Dominique Bauby in his hospital room, he relays the latest gossip from Paris: "Jean-Dominique is a vegetable." Bauby wonders what sort of vegetable he has become: "A carrot? A pickle?" His friend doesn't hear these floral ponderings, but from the view inside Bauby's head, it's clear that he's anything but a spud. Which is not to say he isn't in a pickle. Bauby was once the editor of French Elle magazine, but in his early forties, he suffered a massive stroke that left him with a rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." It is aptly if cruelly named -- his mind, as active as ever, is like a caged bird, trapped within an immobile, completely paralyzed body. He is able to blink his eyes, which becomes his only means of communicating with the outside world.

Specifically, he has a left eyelid. To prevent infection, his right eye is sewn shut in a gruesome scene early in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the glorious and unflinching film based on Bauby's memoir Le Scaphandre et le Papillon. The scene is especially blood-curdling because, like much of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it is seen from within, from the point of view of the owner of that unlucky eye. Director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood lock the viewer of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly into Bauby's small prison, looking out through the same small window, with only Bauby's overactive mind as companion. But what a funny, lively, imaginative companion he turns out to be. And he has lovely visitors: his patient, doting ex Celine (Emmanuelle Siegner), the mother of his three children and a woman who clearly still loves him; his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), and eventually, Claude (Anne Consigny), the assistant who takes the dictation of his left eye and helps him write his book. It is some time in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before the film escapes the perspective of that liminal eye, and gives us a full view of Bauby and the world outside his mind.

That world is greatly diminished, but it was once quite full. Bauby was (and in his mind at least remains) an unapologetic sybarite, enjoying a life of glamour, good food, fast cars, and beautiful women. The butterfly is Bauby's metaphor for his airy, flitting, high-flying mind -- a mind that is astonishingly liberated by the loss of its earthly container, and all those earthly pleasures. It would be trite to describe The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a film about the human spirit triumphing over adversity. More accurately, it is about the soul breaking free of its constraints -- constraints imposed from without and within. As Bauby comes to see, he is not the only person imprisoned by circumstance, or an unwilling body, or by self-forged shackles, nor is his current state entirely new -- it's different from his old life, but not less free.

The butterfly is an apt metaphor for Schnabel's film, with the filmmaker finding his own freedom in Bauby's imaginative flights of fancy. Even when he is at his most self-pitying, Bauby's words are comical, witty, ironic, and poignant, roaming freely across the full range of human emotion and human experience, free-associating through memory and desire, fantasy and invention. The richness of his inner life makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a film that is not, ultimately, sad or depressing, but rather wise, lyrical, moving, and joyful. In giving substance and reality to the wanderings of the mind's eye, Schnabel, working with the ingenious cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, creates a visual world rich in metaphor and spirit, looping freely through time and space, unconstrained by the fetters of plot and straightforward narrative. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is, not surprisingly, dreamlike in its logic as it weaves a tangle of neuronal threads, knots, and loose ends into a vibrant, shimmering, luminous cloth of transcendent and subtle beauty.


Cloverfield (2008)

The copy-and-paste feature of the personal computer is brilliantly useful and, unlike so many things about personal computers, an actual timesaver. It must have saved Drew Goddard, the screenwriter of Cloverfield, a whole hell of a lot of tedious typing, since the screenplay of said movie amounts to about 75 pages of people screaming "Oh my God!" over and over and over and over (movie critics can use copy-and-paste too). Goddard would have had to type those words thousands of times had he been using an actual typewriter, and he might have realized it wasn't worth the effort. Just imagine Orson Welles typing "Oh My God" 10,000 times in Citizen Kane. There would be no "Rosebud," and we would be all the poorer for it. We can perhaps count ourselves lucky that Welles didn't have a PC, and unlucky that so many screenwriters now do.

Cloverfield is a faux home movie about the destruction of New York by scary monster. You know how the perfect YouTube video is about three minutes long? Anything longer than that and the mind begins to wander from the cute frolicking kittens and the humiliating Japanese game shows, and even Jersey grrrl Chunky Pam starts to lose her lustre. Cloverfield takes that YouTube post-reality, post-verite, post-Blair Witch penchant for self-documentation/aggrandizement and turns it into a (barely) feature length monster movie in which the video camera-wielding twenty-somethings are so dull, featureless, and stupid that you'll be relieved to see that a monster is annihilating Manhattan with great efficiency, and will get to them forthwith.

Not that you'll see all that much of that monster. Uber-producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) likes to keep his scary beasts obscure. When it does finally show itself, the Thing That Ate New York is a kind of Geigeresque reptilian critter, a glossy, high-tech, depsychologized Godzilla without the big dino's rubber soul. But back up about an hour and it turns out that the thing that really kills in Cloverfield is boredom, and specifically, a lifeless going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is departing for a job in Japan. The party is hosted by Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's significant other Lily (Jessica Lucas). They are all mildly attractive in a more or less indistinguishable way. The lackwit behind the video camera is Rob's pal Hud (T.J. Miller), who is at first a reluctant videographer, but later embraces the role with such enthusiasm that he manages to keep on shooting (at eye level, no less) even while frantically running from the monster, while traversing the rooftops of crumbling skyscrapers, while... you get the picture. If only he could have stopped screaming "Oh my God!" while shooting his end of the world video for posterity, and had the presence of mind to say something intelligent by way of narration. It must be said, however, that Hud's screaming is no less interesting than anything anyone else has to say in Cloverfield.

The monster is indiscriminate in killing the no-name cast, which is a small mercy of Cloverfield. The characters are both vapid and obtuse, which is, as always, a winning combination in motion picture entertainment. While the city crumbles around them in a massive cloud of dust tackily reminiscent of 9/11, Rob and his pals decide to buck the trend, and common sense, and head uptown to rescue Rob's ex-girlfriend, who is, according to her cell phone message, grievously wounded and trapped in her high-rise apartment. Why Rob's friends and a random hanger-on from the party decide to follow their brainless leader on his quest for something like redemption and/or true love is anybody's guess, but clearly these young adults don't have the sense to know when it's time to get the hell out of Dodge. Thanks to Hud's mad documentary skilz, the rest of us get to tag along too. "People will want to see what happened," Hud says. Well, actually, maybe not.

  Aside from the vaguely realized YouTube-gen, everybody's-a-celebrity-and/or-papparazzi idea -- the movie's only laugh comes when Lady Liberty's head rolls down the street and everybody whips out a cell phone camera to capture the moment -- Cloverfield is basically a little exercise in coupling high-tech special effects with faux low-tech camera technique. Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain keep the camera moving and jiggling constantly, which is necessary to maintain the film's home movie conceit, but also rather tiresome. Cloverfield clocks in at a mere 84 minutes, which would ordinarily be quite economical, except that there's only about 20 minutes worth of plot here, and virtually no dialogue (discounting the repetitive screaming). By YouTube standards, it's about 81 minutes too long.


The Bucket List (2008)

With Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in it, *The Bucket List* has a promising cast. Too bad the movie doesn't let these two do anything novel or particularly interesting. Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a rascally, oft-married, self-absorbed billionaire CEO who runs hospitals. Ha ha, he winds up in one of his own hospitals, only to find out he can't have a private room because it's company policy. He grudgingly shares a room with Morgan Freeman's Carter Chambers, a brilliant autodidact and self-sacrificing auto mechanic who gave up his dreams of higher education to provide for his family. Carter is yet another saintly character for Freeman, who has already played God twice. (He ought to branch out a little and play a devil for a change.) Edward is cruel to everyone and an almost insufferable egomaniac, but he's more interesting than Carter, whose most pronounced quirk is that he loves to watch *Jeopardy!* and always knows all the answers. Like Edward, Carter has terminal cancer. The two men bond over their disease, apparently, since they have nothing else in common except geographical proximity. They write a "bucket list," a list of things to do before they kick the bucket, and set out to do them.

Luckily, since Edward is filthy stinkin' rich, nothing is out of reach. Too bad these two geniuses, with the world at their feet, can't come up with a list that isn't full of cliches. Drive a race car; go skydiving; get a tattoo; climb the mighty Himalayas. This is a list for a dying twelve year old. At least half of *The Bucket List* is spent in the hospital, which is perhaps the best indication of just how anemic and uninspiring the list turns out to be. They see a fair number of the seven wonders of the world, but those wonders have rarely seemed less wonderful. *The Bucket List* winds up being a kind of road trip/travelogue, with screenwriter Justin Zackham throwing in a smidge of self-help book philosophizing to give this feel good/feel bad movie a teensy bit of meaning. 

As might be expected, the wise Carter has much to teach Edward about the meaning and value of life, etc. During their spanning-the-globe adventure, Carter is the tour guide, a font of historical and geographical knowledge, as well as an expert on the sage wisdom of the ancients as regards the afterlife. It's no surprise that the movie arranges it so that Carter's got a thing or two to learn as well, although his character, who up and leaves his loving family behind for a last hurrah during his final days, is not especially believable, and the lessons he learns would fit quite nicely on a "Thinking of You" Hallmark card.

Director Rob Reiner might want to take a lesson or two from his former, brilliant self (see *This is Spinal Tap* and *The Princess Bride*) and put "make another great movie" on his own bucket list. *The Bucket List* can go on his list of movies that should have been (but probably could not have been) better.


Juno (2007)

If you can get past the first half hour or so, when the dialogue is just too mannered, too studied, and too overwritten to be believed, and then get past the way that Juno MacGuff, a cute, quirky 16 year old who finds herself in the family way, speaks with the frankness of a four year old (often about the same bodily functions that so fascinate four year olds), then you might find *Juno* a funny and original comedy, despite its borderline After School Special plot. 

You might. What *Juno* has really got going for it are a handful of terrific performances by actors who manage to transcend the sitcom-my tendencies of the movie, to muscle through the cutesy-poo hipper-than-thou stuff to actually find the tender heart buried under all the punchlines. For starters, there's Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff, a mouthy teen, named for a Roman goddess, who relishes the role of outcast, but not as much as she thinks she does, and who finds out she's not as smart as she thinks she is either. Page, more than anyone in *Juno*, has to act around the sarcastic, too-clever words that come out of her mouth to create a believably human character, and she manages it, flipping quickly from childlike naivete to juvenile hubris to semi-maturity. It's a performance that really saves the movie from itself. Juno's dad and stepmom, respectively, are played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, and you could hardly find a pair of actors who are better at playing funny-serious -- they both bring the right combination of warmth, weariness, tenderness, sass, and wisdom. 

So, Juno has impulsive sex with her dorky-but-sweet pal Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) and gets pregnant. After briefly entertaining the possibility of an abortion, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. Her parents are actively supportive, with reservations. Paulie is quietly supportive. Her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), a cheerleader, is cheerily supportive. The "desperately-seeking-spawn" adoptive couple she finds in the Penny Saver, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) are thrilled. Then Juno is thrilled to discover that Mark is not as square and uptight as his tidy suburban home suggests -- he's actually a cool musician who watches gory horror movies and swaps CDs with Juno. Eventually, despite all the support and enthusiasm, Juno's perfect plan runs into complications, and she finds out she's not as mature and capable as she thinks she is.

As coming-of-age-through-crisis stories go, *Juno* does not break much new ground, although first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody brings a new voice and a post-feminist perspective to potentially melodramatic old-school material. There's evidence of emerging maturity in the writing of *Juno* -- as the movie progresses, the dialogue gets more believable and less forced and mannered, so there's a kind of coming-of-age for the screenwriter as well as the heroine going on. Director Jason Reitman (*Thank You For Smoking*) leans too heavily on quirky alt-folk songs to set the tone at the start of the movie, and doesn't do enough to reign in the off-putting, overly jokey dialogue. As the tone and mood of the movie change, becoming warmer and more intimate -- on a meta level, the director comes of age in *Juno* too -- it also becomes more believably real, so that it can all end on a note of refreshing honesty and unexpected emotional depth.