Films Seen (but not reviewed in TONY) 2003

The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol): 49

Like Merci pour le chocolat, Chabrol's latest elegant bourgeois nightmare is simultaneously perverse and banal -- or, more precisely, it's perverse in the most banal way imaginable, which I suppose is an accomplishment of some kind. More and more, he's come to resemble a magician who includes the preparation for his tricks -- placing the mirrors, dulling the filament, stacking the deck -- as part of the act, making the bulk of the performance an exercise in smug inevitability. Still, the narrative transparency wouldn't bother me so much if these films weren't so ludicrously plot-heavy; Chabrol has never seemed especially interested in human behavior, except insofar as it serves to demonstrate the oblivious hypocrisy of the well-to-do, and so even an actress as open and unmannered as Nathalie Baye winds up reduced here to a beaming cog. On the other hand, his style is so unemphatic that it's fairly easy to create your own movie in your head, simply by focusing on what interests you; I opted to dismiss the overwrought sins-of-the-grandmère hoo-ha (love that boom down to frame Michèle and Aunt Line through the bars of the birdcage!) and glean what I could about the procedures of local French elections. (Three officials seem to be required: one to confirm your voter registration number, one to announce your name, and, best of all, one to solemnly intone the words "has voted!" once the ballot enters the slot.) Comes together during the closing credits, as usual -- especially with that final ominous pan to the staircase, reminding us of the temporarily forgotten corpse waiting above (not a spoiler, it's the opening scene) -- but given the laborious route taken to arrive there, forgive me if I can't bring myself to applaud.

A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest): 50

Probably not a coincidence that I laughed hardest at the pointedly morbid series of album covers from Mitch's solo career -- i.e., at one of the few bits that somebody had to sit down and work out in advance. Spinal Tap seems more like a miracle with each successive stab Guest makes at recapturing its magic; even the return of Derek Smalls yields dispiritingly few dividends, with Shearer's Amish beard and peacenik knee-highs earning more yuks per minute than his poker-faced quips. Levy and O'Hara, meanwhile, aim for a disorienting amalgam of comedy and pathos, achieving little of the former (Mitch's tortured attempts at speech are too reminiscent of Christopher Reeve's duet with his respirator to be amusing) but a surprising degree of the latter, especially for those of us who've been watching these two actors perform together for more than two decades. (Plaintive side note: I would...well, maybe not kill, but commit grievous bodily harm for a complete run of SCTV's fourth season, circa 1981-82.) Their final performance of "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," a treacly hit renowned for its lip-locking caesura, is infused with genuine will-they-or-won't-they suspense, and so absurdly touching that the routines that follow (including one character's gender transformation) seem even more crass and desperate than they might have otherwise. Latest irritating comedy trend: the sublime character who inexplicably vanishes from the movie. First Barney Cheng's earnest translator in Hollywood Ending gets the heave-ho just as he's threatening to make Woody funny again; now Parker Posey's gung-ho mandolin junkie, after making a killer intro, winds up relegated to occasional group shots. Try cutting the stuff that doesn't work, fellas. You might be surprised.

Ghosts of the Abyss (James Cameron): 48

Ironically, this IMAX production will probably work better on video, where one touch of the Mute button will allow you to marvel at the magnificently eerie views of the ship without having to endure Breathless Bill Paxton jabbering about how magnificently eerie it all is. Still don't care for the grade-school diorama effect of 3-D, either -- objects and figures in the foreground become distractingly prominent, and looking anywhere other than dead center produces a sort of virtual astigmatism. And hey, KotW, as if we give a damn whether you lose one of your expensive toys, pal. It's like watching Bill Gates deploy an army of paratroopers to retrieve a $20 bill he dropped from a helicopter.

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin): 54

Odd, and a little embarrassing: I was reasonably familiar with the (misguided) controversy surrounding this film, had heard reports of aggressive mobilization efforts in the Asian-American community, and yet halfway through the first reel it abruptly dawned on me that I had never seen these characters onscreen before. I mean, ever. Not even in marginalized wacky-best-friend roles. They simply don't exist. Makes you wish the movie were strong enough to withstand the scrutiny it's receiving -- first half, exploring the repressed Dionysian urges of honor-roll ultragrinds, brims with sharp observations and vivid details (best bit: the academic decathlon practice session that doubles as a kegger), but Lin, lacking the insular confidence of a Spike Lee or Whit Stillman, keeps pushing the plot into what he seems to imagine is crossover territory, and the gangsta angle gets progressively sillier and more hyperbolic without ever making the necessary leap into outright satire. Kind of a bummer, but with luck Luck will open doors for a few of its gifted actors; Roger Fan, as Machiavellian ringleader Daric, somehow manages to appear simultaneously driven and laid-back (a mien I covet), and I still can't work out why I was consistently fascinated by John Cho, who turns in a performance so Esther-Kahn impassive that it almost seems to be mocking the rest of the ensemble. Although, given his character's fate, maybe that was supposed to be the point...

In My Skin (Marina de Van): 74

Positioned myself on the aisle in anticipation of an early exit -- studies of masochistic behavior generally aren't my bag, especially when they involve sharp implements penetrating human flesh -- but De Van's curious, unsettling debut isn't the feature-length adaptation of "Hurt" (NIN or Johnny Cash, your choice) that I'd both expected and feared. Indeed, "masochism" seems a wildly inadequate term to describe the arresting amalgam of narcissism and dislocation that prompts Esther's harrowing "peel slowly and see" episodes; she's simultaneously repelled and consumed by her own body, and the film does for self-mutilation something not unlike what Safe did for the disease-of-the-week movie, i.e. complicates it, enlarges it, makes it strange. Esther isn't allotted a reductive psychological makeup or a traumatic history to "explain" her propensity to view herself as a jack-o'-lantern on 30 Oct.; as in a Cronenberg film, the pathology arrives from without, allowing us to infer how it takes hold from within. (De Van's alarmingly feral features obviate any need for conventional psychology in any case.) Strange, too, how I found myself repelled by the well-meaning solicitude of Esther's loved ones, even though in theory those characters represent the alarmed spectator's point of view. What In My Skin doesn't have, alas, is an ending that crystallizes all of these intriguing ideas into a single overpowering image -- the film needed something on the order of Julianne whispering "I love you" to her own reflection, and instead we get opaque formal repetition. Still, I'm heading back again tomorrow night, if only to marvel once more at the business-dinner tour de force, in which a severed hand resting on the table seems less horrifying than the aggressively banal chit-chat assaulting Esther's eardrums. [Now scheduled for fall release]

Stone Reader (Mark Moskowitz): 61

Hard not to warm to Moskowitz's quest if you care about literature or identify with obsession, but was nobody else put off by how much of this film has clearly been either restaged or simply fabricated? Most blatant/ludicrous example (and it happens at least twice): Moskowitz mails The Stones of Summer to a friend, whereupon we see footage of said friend strolling to the mailbox, retrieving the package, etc. -- footage presumably shot by Moskowitz, unless he also mailed a camera the week before. How am I expected to trust a documentary filmmaker who mails a package solely because he thinks the movie could use a shot of someone opening it? And that's just the beginning -- don't get me started on the several occasions when an interview subject apparently greets Moskowitz for the first time but lo and behold the camera crew's already inside the house to capture their handshake from a better angle. Nor is this movie an Unmade Beds type deal in which such obfuscation would be thematically relevant -- all it suggests to the observant viewer is that Moskowitz would happily have written dialogue for Dow Mossman to memorize if he thought it would improve his chances for distribution. In fact, I'm not even 100% sure that Mossman's novel exists. And in fact...anyone have a certified copy of Russ Hexter's death certificate?

All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green): 73

Thoroughly terrific movie, but I don't really have much to say about it -- Green works the same mythopoetic vein of expressionistic naturalism (or is it naturalistic expressionism? it is, isn't it?) that distinguished George Washington, while Zooey Deschanel confirms my suspicion, first entertained following her too-brief fly-by in Almost Famous, that no human attribute is as arresting as tremulous self-possession. (Paul Schneider tries hard but can't quite keep up.) Veers into exasperating preciousness at times -- "...and I was so happy I invented peanut butter"? -- but that seems an acceptable price to pay for its woozy, shamelessly earnest romanticism.