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Shot in stark black-and-white, Lake of Fire features talking heads from all over the spectrum, from Noam Chomsky to Randall Terry, from the former Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey), now an anti-abortion activist, to Dr. David Gunn, seen in footage from nine months before he was murdered. But at least half the film is in the present tense: demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in which the participants’ fury burns through the screen. And in the final and most notorious sequence, Kaye shows an abortion from beginning (the woman leaving for the clinic) to end (her thoughts when it’s over, in the waiting room), with everything in between. From my perspective, filming the horrific procedure tips the movie to the anti-abortion side—even though the clinic staff is exquisitely sensitive and the woman, a 28-year-old who looks 48 and had her jaw broken by the child’s father, who subsequently died in a motorcycle accident, is in no position financially or emotionally to raise a child. The sad truth is that the anti-abortionists here, even some of the fundamentalist nutbirds who’d like to see people executed for taking the Lord’s name in vain, have far more weight than the people on the pro-choice side, who seem flip in their dismissals and also have nothing comparable to giant blowups of dead fetuses. (They have murdered doctors and dead women with protruding coat hangers, but fetuses trump everything.) It’s almost better for the pro-choice case to let the anti-abortionists go on and on about Satan worshippers barbecuing babies and forcing sixth-graders to choose homosexuality. (I’m not caricaturing their position—at one point Terry shouts, “Jeffrey Dahmer believed in freedom of choice!”)

I’m glad Nat Hentoff is in the movie. I remember the civil-liberties beacon from my days at the Village Voice, where he was shunned by most of the women on staff for his views on abortion. He’s a lefty atheist who also happens to believe that life begins when the sperm meets the egg—a view I find convincing. But the answer, as the movie’s pro-choice activists maintain, isn’t banning abortion but making birth control easier to obtain—exactly what the Bible-thumpers proclaim will lead Americans further down the road to perdition, and which is why they’d like to end the divide between church and state, rewrite the Constitution, and turn the United States into a theocracy. Lake of Fire centers on abortion, but Kaye understands that while dead fetuses are the hook, the agenda covers the whole life cycle.

Jake Paltrow (father Bruce, mother Blythe Danner, sister Gwyneth) is another showbiz-royalty kid who thinks he’s a screenwriter and director, and, while I resent him for his overprivileged existence, I think he might be, too. His comedy The Good Night takes familiar (embarrassingly familiar) male-angst material and makes it go loop-de-loop, so that the jokes hit you from behind and underneath while the bleakness smacks you in the face. Painful, yes—but that’s part of the masochistic fun.

It helps that the male leads are Brits who can lighten the mood without caricaturing the emotions. Martin Freeman (of the British The Office) is Gary, an ex–rock musician stuck in a frosty live-in relationship with Dora, played by a deglamorized Gwyneth wearing long dark hair like a shroud. The title alludes to his time with his other girlfriend, a hotcha Spanish goddess (Penélope Cruz) who slinks through his lyrical dreams. To know her more intimately, Gary takes up with a manic lucid-dreams guru (Danny DeVito); the poor cluck thinks the answers to life’s questions are in his sleeping brain’s glorified perfume commercials.

Cruz shows up in the flesh, and she’s wonderfully tart and funny: Her character sizes up Gary’s neediness (and jealousy) so fast that she’s gone before you finish gasping. The other great life force is Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) as Gary’s inexhaustibly sleazy mate Paul, his lack of shame the perfect foil for his best friend’s surfeit. My lone reservation about The Good Night is that the central relationship, between Gary and Dora, is utterly and completely loveless—spent. So when Gary begins to gravitate back to her in his dreams, it’s hard to cheer him on. It’s hard to cheer Gwyneth on, too, as brave a stunt as this is. Who wants to see such a delightful actress close herself down? In Emily Nussbaum’s interview with Gwyneth (see page 104), Paltrow says she was physicalizing her “New York Jewish half.” Oh, Gwyneth, I could tell you stories about New York Jewish girls that would send your willowy blonde Wasp half to Bellevue.

The major event of this week will be the screening at the New York Film Festival of Brian De Palma’s incendiary Redacted, based on the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by American soldiers. You can read about it—and much more—on my new blog, The Projectionist.

Michael Clayton
Directed by Tony Gilroy. Warner Bros. R.

Lake of Fire
Directed by Tony Kaye. ThinkFilm. NR.

The Good Night
Directed by Jake Paltrow. Yari Film Group. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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